Billy the screenwriter
The life of an artist is fraught with troubles. These troubles include, in no particular order, self doubt, mental masturbation, the terrors of creative impotence, peer envy, bouts of depression, forays into self medication via substance abuse, and finally, being constantly broke. Art itself is a vice and a goddamn expensive one at that– at the expense of life. To be an artist, one shirks the temptation of detachment. To be an artist, one embraces human flaw and emotionality: the beautiful and the hideous in one fell swoop. The artist acts as the scythe for this swoop. He or she develops a repertoire of tricks for making precise and revealing cuts.
Lets talk about the kind of artist who is a writer. To sidestep a conversation about the young writer who hasn’t “made it” (yet), let’s assume we’re talking about the kind of writers who are published and publishable and ostensibly successful. Over the ages these fools have met their ends and made ends meet in such ways ranging from respectable to unmentionable.
Bar tenders, garden tenders, busboys, attorneys, doctors, teachers, professors, book touring virtuosos, muckrakers, revolutionaries, con men, hustlers, jokers and thieves. These are all writers or could be writers if they wanted to be. In the words of Bob Dylan, “the man who pumps your gas is a poet.”
Perhaps most controversially, sometimes writers become Hollywood screenwriters.
Sell outs. Ghost composers of Los Angeles swill. Granted, swill can be elevated to art. But rarely. Most often, a film’s screenwriting is the first component compromised at the expense of clashing egos, deadlines, and profit obsessed producers.
If you are a hard William Faulkner fan or film trivia buff, you may know Nobel Prize winning Billy F succumbed to the monetary draw of screenwriting.
It started like this:
Hollywood agent, William Hawks, bought the rights to Faulkner’s WWI short story, Turn About. Faulkner was then contracted to rewrite his short story into a screenplay. The rewrite included the addition of a new character. This character was written for Hollywood actress, Joan Crawford. The change was instigated to boost box office potential. The film was released in 1933 as “Today We Live“. Faulkner continued to work as a contract screenwriter for Hawks from 1933 until 1966. He spent good chunks of his life in a drunken haze, languishing alternately in the LA sunshine and the bright lights of Hollywood. Faulkner’s screenwriting credits include The Road to Glory, Slave Ship, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Air Force, The Southerner, The Land of the Pharoahs, The Brooch, Shall Not Perish, The Tall Men and The Graduation Dress.
These credits include an assortment of westerns and puff piece films, and, most notably, an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, To Have and Have Not. While it is imaginable that Hemingway sold the rights to his novel because of financial crisis, the situation was acutely sticky because he and Faulkner were famed rivals (in actuality or solely by reputation, the dynamics of the rivalry are up for debate).
In a blanket statement, lets just say Faulkner detested his screenwriting works. Interview transcriptions reveal frequent sounding off about their shoddy quality. Faulkner carried the embarrassment to an early (liquor induced) grave. William Faulkner’s deserved reputation as a writer rests in the crux of successfully writing about the human heart, laying bare the shadows, the pulsing flesh, and tenderness. In screenwriting, Faulkner’s mistake was this: his work for Hollywood was produced for an audience. Not about it. His Hollywood scripts were composed of words which produced an immediacy of pleasure instead of a resonation in thinking.
If it is the ultimate aim of an artist to be a quality screenwriter, this is no dishonorable concession. This is a crusade for quality in an industry fueled by trash. See Barton Fink.
Ultimately, Faulkner’s most pervasive presence in Hollywood is Joel Coen’s 1991 Barton Fink. Barton Fink is about a New York playwright called Barton Fink, lured to Hollywood for a contract screenwriting gig. Fink meets fellow contracted screenwriter (and famed novelist), WP Mayhew. WP Mayhew is, of course, a representation of Faulkner: listless, drunken, poetry reciting, and philandering ne’er do well seen to be wasting away his genius. If you want to be a screenwriter, be a screenwriter. Be conscious of the traps and pitfalls. Don’t drown yourself in liquor like the WP Mayhews, but do drink a little. You’ll need to.
How does an aspiring screenwriter navigate artistic compromise? With a project like a film or a play, compromise is vital to accomplishing a team vision. Creative collaboration often yields spectacular results, results that could not possibly be achieved by an individual, renaissance man or no. However, when does the writer (or any artist) involved in collaboration draw the line? Each artist must develop for himself an ethics.
experiment, fail, and fail, and fail, build a palate for discerning good from bad, consciously reconnect to what is your ultimate communicative goal as creator. To develop an ethics for your art, you must stay in touch with its ethos. the raw. the ragged. arr!