I’m sitting in my air-conditioned dustbin (aka converted garage) in the back of my house in LA getting ready to write my new screenplay. This is a fearsome prospect for some reason. As a young man, I thought nothing of sitting down, banging out a few scenes, seeing if there were characters and a story in there that I liked and proceeding onward, finishing up a draft over the next four to six weeks. Some of the scripts were good. A few have gotten made. Most were mere practice– in Norman Mailer’s classic phrase, “running existential errands”. A few were lousy.
But the older I get–and I technically entered middle-age last week as I turned forty-five–the more selective I get about what I think I’m getting into when I sit down to write. Actually that’s crap. It’s not just that I’m selective–I’m also less confident, less able to brush off failure. Although that’s not exactly correct either–having experienced real failure, I no longer fear it as a fact. Rather, notional failure–the future failures– can stop me in my tracks…enough said I think. This is one of those mind-bending processes that itself threatens to derail one from any road that remains open. Should I even be writing this blog? What if this entry sucks?
And so we come to Richard Brooks. What, say you? How dare you this non-transition? Simple. In getting up the gumption to get to work, I need to channel filmmakers I admire (preferably dead ones) and think about their accomplishments, who they were and how they handled the difficult task of sitting down and starting, from scratch, yet another mind-twisting experience-to-be involving the greatest puzzle ever invented by mankind–the motion picture. When I was growing up, the men who made me want to make movies were mostly from the past. And with a couple of exceptions–Hawks, Capra–they were writers who became directors. Wilder, Sturges, Huston–all were early heroes of mine because I sensed somehow that the films they made belonged more to them due to their having written every word. Even the not so good films of these directors were better than the not so good films of non-writing directors.
Early on I began to seek out films made by other writer-producer-directors and soon landed on the work of Richard Brooks. I believe it was a two-night presentation on the KTLA 8:00PM movie of “Elmer Gantry” (for which Brooks won an Oscar for Best Screenplay) that initially impressed me. Later I saw “Blackboard Jungle”, “In Cold Blood” and the marvelous “The Professionals”. But more than any of Brooks’ films, what I most admired were his interviews. At the time (the mid to late seventies) he was still working–indeed he made two of his best films that late in his career, the unjustly neglected western “Bite The Bullet” and the still difficult to watch and immensely powerful “Looking For Mr. Goodbar”. So he was much in the press and not at all shy about racountering his long experience in Hollywood.
Brooks’ work has fallen into critical disfavor and has not really been rehabilitated–yet. But beyond the attitude toward the work, what I fail to understand is how cinema historians have overlooked his real place in the historical landscape of filmmaking: he was truly the first auteur who functioned within the studio system. In his 1970’s press, he made much of the unusual, not to say maverick, ways in which he got his movies made. Some of these are now no longer so odd–Brooks bragged that he never took any money up front in salary, preferring to be “left alone” by the studio to make the movie he wanted and to share in the profits. This is now called independent filmmaking–or “the filmmaker getting screwed as usual.” But in Brooks’ Hollywood, it was the sign of an anarchist.
Brooks also frequently went into production without a finished script–something that nobody, NOBODY, would be able to pull off today, when scripts are around for years to be studied, teased apart, rewritten to death, resuscitated and finally either made or, more likely, put out of their misery once and for all. Brooks claimed that he wrote detailed enough outlines to budget and schedule a movie–and that he preferred to write the pages of dialogue the day before they were shot so as to keep the actors fresh. Could this really have been the case? Did Burt Lancaster put up with this blarney? There is no, so far as I know, official Brooks biography on the shelves so I can’t say. But the stress of working this way strikes me as far worse than the alternative–writing a script before a massive production is underway and having to go home from a long shoot day to sit up and write tomorrow’s damn dialogue. Then again Brooks directed 10 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Lee J. Cobb, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster, Shirley Jones, Ed Begley, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Jean Simmons and Tuesday Weld. Lancaster, Jones, and Begley won Oscars for their performances in one of Brooks’ movies. So maybe there’s something to that whole “don’t show the actors the script” bit. If, in fact, that was what was really going on…
These strikingly individual methods, combined with Brooks’ colorful anecdotes, made me anxious to meet the man in person. This was a guy who had survived the studio system as a writer only to bend it to his will as a writer/producer/director. His films were his responsibility alone and he seemed, to me, to exemplify the best of a forgotten breed: the maverick filmmaker/showmen of the early silent era–the Fairbanks/Chaplin/Rex Ingram/Von Stroheim clan–who made what they damned pleased in the time and fashion that suited them.
This weekend I’ll post on my one experience meeting Dick Brooks in the early 1980’s. Below is part one of an interview with Brooks shot in 1985 when he was promoting his last film, the unfortunate “Fever Pitch”. And below that, dig the trailer of the still terrific “Elmer Gantry.”