October 20, 2005

The Two Hollywoods

(And yet another entry with words from William Goldman. Sorry, just couldn't resist. In case this isn't clear, all the quotes are taken from Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures In The Screen Trade.)

There are really two kinds of flicks – what we now call generic Hollywood movies, and what we now call Independent films.

Hollywood films – and this is crucial to screenwriters – all have in common this: they want to tell us truths we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in.

Hollywood films reinforce, reassure.

Independent films, which used to be called "art" films, have a different agenda. They want to tell us things we don't want to know.

Independent films unsettle.

Understand, we are not talking here of art and commerce. Hollywood films can be, and often are, art. Independent films, most of them, for me anyway, are pretentious and boring.

And yes, I know my definitions are simplistic. Hollywood films can unsettle, Independent films can reassure. But in general, for this discussion, let's go with them.

One quick example to be mentioned here – Shakespeare In Love, art flick or Hollywood?

I might be tempted to say, my God, it's Shakespeare, how can it not be an art film? Plus those costumes, Dame Judi, all the other British accents. If ever there was an art film, doesn't it have to be this baby?

Not even close. Because what Shakespeare In Love tells us is that the love of a good woman makes everything wonderful. Well, I don't know about you, but I want to believe that. I want to have a shot at Gwyneth's sweet boobies, because I just know they can change the world.

… We want to believe. Life would be just so much happier a place if only that were so. But alas, it's Hollywood horseshit. (Although I sure wanted to believe it when I was in the theater.)

Does the fact of the two Hollywoods affect screenwriters? … It does and it doesn't.

It does not remotely affect how we tell our stories. It totally affects which stories we choose to tell.

Famous cartoon from fifty years back. A couple are at the original run of Death Of A Salesman. The man turns to the woman, here's what he says: "I'll get you for this!"

The point is that most of us work all day, often at something we don't much love anymore but we do it till we drop. At the end of our average days, we want peace, we want relaxation, maybe a bite of food, a few kind words. We do not want to watch Willy Loman's suicide.

What we are really dealing with when we talk of the two Hollywoods is audience size.

Most people want to be told nice things. That we really are decent human beings, that God will smile on us, that there is true love and it is waiting for you, just around the next corner. That the meek really will inherit the earth.

Most people want to be told nice things. I cannot repeat that too often to anyone who wants to screenwrite for a living. You can be Bergman if you have the talent, you can tell sad human stories – but do not expect Mr. Time Warner to give you $100 million to make your movie.

The studios are in business for only one great and proper reason – to stay in business. If you want to tell a reassuring story, no reason not to shoot for a studio flick with all the, yes, good things that entails. If you want to tell a different story, write it wonderfully but write it small. Avoid car chases and star parts and special effects.

Great careers are possible in Independent film. The Coens and John Sayles are as good as anybody operating anywhere.

Join them. God knows we can use you.

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