Why screenwriters should grow spines

Harry Longabaugh aka Sundance Kid by De Young Photography Studio three quarter body shot
The Sundance Kid doesn’t think much of spineless screenwriters

William Goldman shares two important lessons in Adventures of the Screen Trade.  First, he claims that Nobody Knows Anything.  Then, he contradicts himself with his strongest piece of advice : Protect Your Story’s Spine To The Death.

Yes, Goldman whines and whinges melodramatically about how screenwriters are on the bottom of the power ladder, how you have to collaborate to the bosses, how stars have too much power, and about how if all you do is write screenplays your life will be unfulfilling.

But, just when he appears to give up all hope of influencing anyone else, Goldman shows how he actually fights to defend the integrity of his films.  We see how a certain number of projects were sunk by the writer, and most importantly, how having the courage to protect the integrity of his screenplay produced the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  (yes, the film with Robert Redford which inspired the famous film festival).

Before Sundance, Goldman’s films were basically adaptations of his own novels, or were rewrites of other people’s stuff.  When William Goldman was adapting his own novels, the spine of the story was pretty much protected, because that’s what people were paying him for.  When it came to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, however, some powerful people wanted to make changes that would have turned it into an absolutely stupid movie.

Lesser writers quickly cower to power and make every change that’s asked of them, without question.  Occasionally, with the right stars, a script that has lost it’s spine might even make a profit, if it finds another spine to hang itself on.  But, most likely, the film will be soon forgotten, as boneless limbs hang loosely in the wind.

What’s a spine?

The essential opening labor a screenwriter must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing.  And to do that, you have to know what is absolutely crucial in the telling of your story —

— what is its spine?

Whatever it is, you must protect it to the death. — William Goldman

William Goldman had a few challenges:  One, his film didn’t seem to fit into any genres.

Mug shot facing forward of Butch Cassidy aka Robert Leroy Parker in Wyoming State Penitentiary
Butch Cassidy didn’t run away, he’s just an expat seeking to broaden his horizons.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wasn’t considered a “real” western.  One producer looked at the scene where Butch Cassidy and Sundance go to South America to escape from a superposse, and objected “All I know is one thing, John Wayne don’t run away.”  People like that producer didn’t want to hear about the “real” story of Sundance and Butch going to South America (although I have heard some historians later claim they never did, William Goldman was sure they did, and he built his screenplay’s spine around that trip.)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was not an action film nor was it a comedy.  The author of The Princess Bride modestly claims that he’s not that funny.  And Goldman points out that there is about 2 minutes of intense action in the movie (the rest is just “fun and games”).  So, he had the challenge of having a script whose spine would not let it fit into a standard genre.

Now, many lesser writers would either give up, or have given in to the pleas of collaborators to change the film.  But Goldman didn’t give in.  Even during rehearsal, after the film was greenlighted, there were calls to make his heroes more “heroic.” There was pressure to mold the story more to the expectations of the audience, or the wants of his collaborators, than with the story in the script.  But Goldman stood by his vision.

They wanted something — a wink maybe, some indication from one hero to the other, anything that would make it clear:  “I won’t let you get hurt.” (page 205)

But, Goldman would not give in.  Not only was the storyline part of the spine, so were the characters.  These cowboys didn’t fight each other’s battles.  Their friendship was special, something you couldn’t just articulate without examples.

Well, Goldman’s perseverance paid off.  The director took his side, and the film became a hit and a classic.  “I can’t articulate even know why I felt so strongly” he wrote years later.  But, as the writer, Goldman knew it had to stay the way it was.

Sure, you ask, but what does this have to do with today’s films?  You might tell me that things have changed, that today’s writers need to do whatever the bean counters ask, because of the economy, or technology, or the way the industry is set up, or because of some astrological nonsense.  Well, I don’t know much about astrology, but I’ll say “no way.”  Even if the moon somehow travels to the center of Venus, the spine of a story will still be important.

I’ve discovered that with my own films.  There can be a great scene that a producer comes up with, a great idea, but if it doesn’t attach itself as a limb to the spine, it’s out.  An actor could come up with a great line of dialogue, and we may shoot it for fun, but if it doesn’t fit the story, it’s out.

Sure, some alterations, minor changes, have had to be made because of what is physically possible on a micro-budget.  But the spine, the core of the story, has not changed.  There can’t be a television in the film.  There can’t be any obscene talk, it wouldn’t fit the characters or the resolution.  Some things just don’t fit.

The story has a spine, which must be protected.  And to protect that spine, against collaborators who might not see the spine, the writer has to develop a spine of his own.