The Guardian (UK) Piece:  “Hollywood and Me” (1997)
Posted: 28 June 2008 11:57 PM   [ Ignore ]
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“Hollywood and Me” by Elmore Leonard
The Guardian (UK newspaper) - April 18, 1997
COPYRIGHT 1997 Guardian Newspapers Limited
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Movies were always a part of my life. We moved to Detroit when I was 10 and we’d go a few times a week, always on Saturdays. We didn’t just go to one film, we’d go to double-bills, sometimes serials, which meant we’d be in the movie house for at least four hours at a go. In those days, it didn’t matter what time you got there. You just stayed till the film came around again to where you had walked in. It wasn’t till after the war that people became bothered about seeing movies from the beginning.

I’m not saying I loved every movie. Sometimes they were boring as hell - or boring as hell to a 10-year-old, anyway. I still remember sticking through the first hour of Camille thinking to myself what the hell did my parents bring me to this garbage for, before waltzing off to the foyer to play with the other kids.I suppose I was a typical boy, and went for Errol Flynn movies like Captain Blood and Lives Of A Bengal Lancer and The Charge Of The Light Brigade. Action, swordfights, the military. Once I’d seen the movies, I’d gather my friends round and tell them the story. They’d say Elmore, tell me Captain Blood, and it would just pour out.

I was a pretty good story-teller. I remember All Quiet On The Western Front had just come out and had been serialised in the New York Times. I wrote a play based on it, called At The Front, using my class desks as No Man’s Land. It was a Catholic school and only the Mother Superior could come to see the play, because the class was blocked off by the desks. I made the one black kid in the class a German. We’d just moved from Memphis and I’d never met black people before. So even then my imagination was largely fired by Hollywood.

It wasn’t until I was 17 that I actually went there. I had been a voracious reader of movie magazines - Silver Screen informed my schooldays - so I had a clear concept of what my Hollywood would be like. It was 1943, I had just graduated from school and earned enough money working for a construction company to support a trip out. My father knew this woman who had enough coupons to make the trip - very few people had enough coupons. She was going to California for some sun and health and drove us out, dropping us off in North Hollywood, on the Ventura Boulevard. We got a room in the El Royal hotel for Dollars 6 a night. It was a good room - I got a shock years later when I saw the movie of my book 52 Pick-Up and spotted exactly the same room. I recognised it immediately, but it’s seedy now.

So there we were, 17 years old in Hollywood, taking a bus out to Hollywood and Vine, which in those days was rather salubrious, although today it’s for whores and Skid Row types. We stood on the corner hunting the stars: there goes Tyrone Power in marine officer’s uniform. We’d pop off for dinner at the Owl Drug Store - a Salisbury steak cost 60 cents. It all seemed terribly glamorous.

My dad had a friend from New Orleans who was a drummer in the 20th Century Fox band. So we went along to the studio and revelled in the untouchable glitz. They were firing ships in a little lagoon and we watched Betty Grable looping a song. She seemed so far away. We were looking down on this tiny figure on the sound stage - just singing a song tiny.

I chose westerns to learn how to write when I started in 1951, because I liked western movies - not western fiction, I’d barely read any. I wanted to make money and this seemed the obvious way. You could submit work to a dozen magazines in those days. I started with the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s and later there were men’s magazines, like The Blue Book and Adventure, and pulp magazines like Dime Western - it originally cost 10 cents. By the time I started out, the price had risen to 25 cents and the popularity of pulp mags was on the wane.

All these would offer their readers four or five short stories and the serial was often a western. The better ones paid 2 cents a word, so for a 5,000 word short story you’d get Dollars 100, which wasn’t bad at all, especially as I already had a job at an advertising agency. I never had great aspirations, and thought if I was to learn to write, I should aim at the commercial market, rather than concentrating on ‘literary efforts’.

(continued)

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Posted: 28 June 2008 11:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I wanted to write books that could be turned into movies. One of my role models was the writer James Warner Bellah, who wrote regular series for the Saturday Evening Post. Some of his stories became John Ford movies - She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache. The Searchers was also originally a Saturday Post serial.

So I began researching the south-west in the 1880s, concentrating on Arizona. To be honest, I cribbed most of my research. I subscribed to Arizona Highways, a pictorial magazine with stunning shots of the landscape. Each picture would be captioned with terrific detail, telling me everything I needed to know about the rock and the bushes. The magazines were also full of articles about the old west. Everything was laid out - what guns they used, what horses, even the coffee cowboys drank, Arbuckle. Once I’d done my research, I began to sound as if I knew what I was talking about and my stories began to sell.

It wasn’t until 1969 that I eventually went out to work in Hollywood. I went out to do rewrites on The Moonshine War. And then more rewrites. My lasting memory is of highways and corporate indecision. Ideas, ideas, ideas. And most of them contradicted each other. The producer said he couldn’t get a director until he had a screenplay, then the director would invariably want to rewrite the screenplay. And that was just the start of it.

By then Hollywood had changed. Most of the stars, the writers and the directors had left, because you no longer needed to live there to work in the industry. All that went out in the early 1950s when the studio system broke down, the players were no longer contracted to them. And the businessmen had taken over. You didn’t even need to have written a book to sell its film rights. I sold The Moonshine War on the strength of nine pages.

It’s easier to adapt someone else’s book or to write an original screenplay than adapt your own book. I adapted my Cat Chaser, but then you’ve already used up your enthusiasm for the book. So now what are you doing? You’re just doing tailoring. You’re taking in. You’re doing alterations.

The writer John Gregory Dunne says screenwriting is like making a chair out of a sofa. You know what’s happening, but when you are writing the book you don’t have a clue. For 15 years I went along with whatever anybody told me because it supported my book writing. But I don’t know why anyone would want to be a screenwriter. Now I have reached a point where I don’t have to write movies, so I don’t because it is just work. Work. And I don’t regard book-writing as work because that is so exciting and so much fun. With the book you think you know the purpose of a scene, but it takes you in a different direction.

I was known for a while as a writer whose books made bad movies, and then along came Get Shorty. Barry Sonnenfeld found the book and called Danny DeVito and said ‘I’ve got one for you’ and it was a great success. Suddenly I found virtually all my books were optioned, sometimes many times over. Until then Hollywood could never cope with the fact that it couldn’t pigeon-hole me.

My novels are not comedies, but I like to think they are funny. They’d call my agent and say ‘Well, what is it? Funny or straight?’ He used to say it is what it is, and they’d go away baffled. Eventually, they hit on the fact that I was funny, so they sold Get Shorty as a comedy. And it seemed to do the trick. Now all my books have probably been labelled comic by the Hollywood labellers.

(continued)

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Posted: 29 June 2008 12:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Some of the early westerns, like Hombre, made good pictures, but then there was a spell when the films of my thrillers could have been an awful lot better - Cat Chaser and Stick especially. Stick really was a bad movie. I thought Burt Reynolds would be OK, but we needed a good, strong director, and he was the director. He just walked through it. He’d been injured on City Heat, the film he did just before, and he was having trouble with his inner ear.

But I’m not alone - Carl Hiaasen’s a good friend and look what happened to his book, Striptease. Nobody told Demi Moore that it was a comedy. She probably doesn’t have a sense of humour.

In Hollywood now, it’s all down to the pitch. Robert Altman was not exaggerating in The Player when he suggested that you have a sentence, or two short ones, to sell an idea to the executives. Maybe two out of my 34 stories I could tell in a sentence, but certainly no more.

The executives increasingly want the idea of certainty, they hate ambivalence. They’ll ask what’s the thesis: is it revenge, restitution, is it a comedy or a straight drama? I had to do a pitch once. It was terrible. A screenwriter and I were going to adapt Unknown Man Number Eighty-Nine as a series - Universal had already bought it, but they didn’t get the TV rights. We were going to do it as a TV series, so we went into ABC and I was sitting in the lobby with the writer (he’s my age) and his agent and I said: ‘Do you realise that you and I are 100 years older than any of the writers they’re using today?’ I started to pitch the book and found that I couldn’t. I ended up telling the whole story. It never got made.

These days my books usually get optioned before I write them. Swag, for example, came out in 1977 and it’s been optioned every year since then. Then there is Touch, which was first optioned by David Soul (from Starsky And Hutch). He had it for a while and then Norman Lear had it, and then Bruce Willis had it for a couple of years. I couldn’t imagine that! When I started out, the options were about Dollars 10,000. They’re Dollars 100,000 now. Writers are making an awful lot more money than they did once. (At least some of them are.) The movies that make money don’t rely so much on the screenplay these days.

Get Shorty is not typical of my Hollywood experience. It’s not really unkind to anyone, even the studio executuve is decent enough. If I’d wanted to write an autobiographical book about me and Hollwood, I would have been crueller.

Perhaps what best sums up Hollywood is a story about my old, legendary agent, H N Swanson. Swanny lived in one of the grandest houses in Beverly Hills. The first manuscript of mine he read was the book Big Bounce. He looked at me and said: ‘Kiddo, I’m going to make you rich.’ (He tried his best, but got 84 rejections.) He was old-style Hollywood, right down to the sconces on his wall. His house was as awesome as the man himself. At least 10,000 square feet, with orange trees, and protected by a fortress-like wall. I never got to see it for years.

In 1969 he was driving me home and we passed the house - he pointed it out and said it’s the only Beverly Hills home without a mortgage. Never invited me in. Fifteen years later he finally invited me into the house. He was so proud of it, pointing out where F Scott and Zelda had danced, the house down the road where Dean Martin lived, next door where Kenny Rogers was renting for Dollars 50,000 a month.

‘D’you realise, Swanny,’ I said, ‘you’ve been my agent for 30 years and you have never invited me into your house until now.’ ‘Well, kiddo,’ he said, straight as you like, ‘you’ve not been making any money to talk of until now.’

Elmore Leonard is the Guardian Interview tomorrow after a showing Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Touch as part of the National Film Theatre’s 10-week Murder Ink series. Box-office: 0171-928 3232.

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