Making Curriculum Pop

William Goldman at Teach, Think, Play – April 5, 2009

Interesting visit, interesting difference in the degree of reverence accorded to this guest vs. other guests – but yes, we wanted to make him comfortable speaking to a crowd of us considering he does not like public speaking in front of groups of strangers. Can’t say I blame him.

Some things I thought about while he was speaking:

First of all, he made some comments when speaking to us that if we were thinking of becoming screen writers, there were things we needed to understand. It is possible that some among us will somehow write a film of our own, but the majority were teachers.

Goldman’s main themes were to tell us:
No one knows why a picture succeeds or does not, it’s basically a crap shoot. The screenwriter doesn’t know, the studio head doesn’t know, the director doesn’t know, and the actors don’t know. That is illustrated by the fact that many studio heads have turned down scripts that turned out to be huge moneymakers, as did actors who turned down the opportunity to play a part in those films.

Because of this, studio heads, who know that it is only a matter of time before they are let go from their position at the top of the heap, err on the side of caution and opt to do sequels with the same stars rather than find a new script or use an unknown in a major role. The tried and true formulas that bring in the bucks are their preference because they want to keep their jobs as long as they can.

Actors are basically insecure and they also know that it is more likely they will fade from the spotlight than become an evergreen star. For that reason, they want the roles that they play to make them appear as invincible, superior or special, and not weak or boring, or vulnerable.

The success of a movie can turn an unknown actor/actress into a star by virtue of his or her supporting role in the film, and subsequently turn them from a hard-working, willing participant in the process to an insecure, insensitive, difficult personality – like Al Pacino who, while filming, left an entire crew standing outside in below freezing temperatures for an hour while he delayed things, and then decided he was not happy with the light. They do that because they can, as long as they are the geese that lay the golden eggs.

A hot script does not have to take long to write – Goldman talked about at least a couple of scripts that took him mere days to write and they became hits. However, even with his popularity and expertise as a scriptwriter, actors, directors, producers all ask for “safe” changes that will make them happy – like not having Butch and Sundance run away, even though the key to the story was that they had. (A new film that is out now … is about an unknown screenwriter who sells his script to a studio and is so excited about the changes it has brought to his life – specifically hot cars and hot women – that no matter how unreasonable the change they want to make to his script, he agrees).

What I wonder about Goldman’s presentation is what the teachers present there will be able to take away from that discussion as part of the lessons to their students. Rather than insights into the media process, I found it more insight into life in general—that no one knows what will work; that you never can be sure you will or won’t succeed (when he said he received all kinds of rejections for his writing, but published a novel, and then by chance was asked to doctor a screenplay—it was totally unexpected. He was the accidental screenwriter extraordinaire).

And the insecurities of actors and movie studio heads is an insight into personalities and the idea that the bigger they come, the harder they fall. It makes them seem human—and they are. But once they are in a hit film, all that goes out the window as far as the public is concerned. They are commodities that are the thing to consume…until the next irresistible commodity comes along. And then these stars will have to return to the world of the humans – and it is even harder to be human once you’ve been out of this world as we know it.

Oh, and on a different note, I will be posting to the wiki some web sites that I think will fill in a missing genre. I will add a blog post that directs y'all there, and explains a bit about the thinking behind them.

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Comment by Cheza Al-Kudmani on April 26, 2009 at 9:45pm
Hey Diane, I think that your blog was very insightful and thoughtful! As a classroom teacher I must admit that I struggle to firgure out what to take-away as an educator from Goldman's discussion, but as an person I did see the talk more about the lessons in life that this experienced legend had learned throughout his many years in this very unusual business. The most powerful lesson that I took away is that we can feel comfortable expecting the unexpected in life, and that it is important to go with what is thrown at us because we never know what we might discover about ourselves. I thought that some parts of the lecture were so compelling and surprising, for example the way that the Princess Bride was written for his daughters was so touching, how such an amazing and historic movie came from such a simple beginning is remarkable to me! So even though I did not take away a deep insight on how to integrate pop culture into my classroom, I did take away a deeper insight on some important life lessons that can both benefit me and my students.
Comment by Alex Jones on April 25, 2009 at 5:52pm
Hi Diane,

Yes, you are correct! I do believe Mr. Goldman was under the impression that he was speaking to a class of screen writers. There must have been a misunderstanding somewhere along the lines. Nevertheless he touched on many real-life problems and expressed his opinion vividly. I did enjoy the fact that many of our questions were answered. I have read some of his books and such and it was very cool to finally meet him in person. He mentioned luck, with regards to being successful and I agree to a point. People determine their own success I believe, though luck certainly does play a role. Excellent post thanks!
Comment by John Broughton on April 25, 2009 at 6:55am
Thanks Diane!
I found his tacking between scripts and novels to be potentially encouraging for teachers who want to get their students to write fiction, not just read it, and to show the connections between film and literature.
A day by day account of screenwriting I found extremely engaging was Steven Soderberg's "Getting Away With It," not coincidentally also involving Goldman's friend Richard Lester. I found there some implications for teens and adults in media classes writing their first scripts, but also a general way of raising awareness about the nitty gritty of how visual culture gets produced -- so it doesn't get reified and deified too easily.
Comment by Julia Kim on April 24, 2009 at 9:56pm
Yea... I absolutely agree with you that actors are commodities and they will be easily forgotten when a fresher actor is discovered. No wonder actors WANT a better role and better lines- they want to be remembered and be wanted! He really enjoys what he does obviously and I think because enjoyment was added to his work I wonder if this is why Goldman has many successful creations. And I think for us educators too when we put in our enjoyment into our teaching we could find even more successful moments and days.


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