“Money has no moral opinions.” – Abraham Polonsky


INT. Palm Beach Club – Day

The lovely dining room of a lovely club in Palm Beach, Florida. The men wear blue blazers. Except for the wealthy men, who wear pink blazers, lime-green slacks, as if money impaired the color sense.

We see a young-ish couple at a small table in the ‘Siberia’ of the dining room. She’s Tamra, he’s Brian.

Brian: Please—I won’t fuck it up.

Tamra: I wasn’t saying you would.

Brian: Well I won’t.

They stand and  we follow them across the dining room, from the far corner… across the main floor…

…to the prime tables. To the corner table by the window where, at this moment, Leonard and Rachel Wertheimer are enjoying their Cobb salads.

Brian: Mr. Wertheimer?

Leonard looks up. Says nothing.

Brian: I’m Brian Fischer. I’m chief of neurology at Beth Israel. And I just wanted to say that if I could be of any assistance to your mother—

Leonard considers. Then:

Leonard: Please sit down. This is my wife Rachel.

Brian: This is my wife Tamra.

Then:

Leonard: How are things at Beth Israel?

Brian: Doing well. And of course, thanks to your generosity—

Leonard bows his head. Waves his hand.

Brian: So if there’s anything I can do. Anything.

Leonard: If there were, I’d ask. But there isn’t. We’ve faced the facts on this one.

A long silence. Then:

Brian: There is something else.

Leonard looks at him.

Brian: I’m a surgeon. A good one. But still—A physician. With a physician’s salary.

Leonard: So you’re comfortable.

Brian: Comfortable plus.

Another silence. Then:

Tamra: We were wondering if you were taking on new clients. I mean we’re not—

Leonard: Mrs. Fischer? Mrs. Fischer please. I’m honored and I’m flattered. But the longer I do this, the more I run into people who think, only Lenny can do this. Only Lenny can do this for me. And while it does my ego good to hear, it’s simply not true. There are many good investment advisors. I’m sure you already know some of them—

Tamra: It’s not about that.

Leonard shrugs:

Leonard: Money is money. I’m not the only fund manager in town. (looking around) I’m not the only fund manager in this room.

Brian looks deeply embarrassed. And not happy that his wife is speaking. Even as he puts a hand on her forearm:

Tamra: It’s important to us—

Brian: Tamra.

Tamra: --to be able to say, you know, when someone asks—

Brian: Tamra, please.

Tamra: To say that we’re with Lenny.

No one moves. Finally:

Rachel: My husband wishes so much he could help you.

She lifts her salad fork. It’s a tiny gesture, but its meaning is unmistakable: their time at the fine corner table is—Over.

A Continued Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: I just thought we’d open with a snippet of your television pilot entitled “Confidence,” about a Madoff-like fund manager, showing the world, once again, that Howard Rodman understands the ephemeral enticements that eventually lead to a greedy downfall.

In any case, as mentioned last week, you had just returned from Sundance prior to talking to me. How was it?

Howard: Sundance was great. This was not the Sundance Festival, which started when I left; this is the Lab. I’ve had the great fortune to be an advisor to the Lab for a little over 10 years now. So I get to go this very beautiful part of the world pretty much every January and every June. I’ve gotten to go to other amazing parts of the world as part of this Lab also, including the Lab in Parati, Brazil and being the director of the Lab at Wadi Feynan in Jordan. Basically at this Sundance lab, myself and 15 other advisors got to meet with the people who wrote 12 extraordinary projects. It’s very intimate; it’s a lot of very very hard work and very very good work. The sense of community is palpable. The fellows leave with a far better confusion than when they arrived; and the advisors leave with a sense of what is possible with the form that I think is really rejuvenating for us.

Neely: Are most of the Fellows who were invited to participate already famous? I have heard the complaint that it is very slanted toward the already powerful; that there might be some entitlement as to who gets in?

Howard: That’s not what I’ve found. What I have found is that typically, and I may be making wild generalizations, there is occasionally somebody who comes from some other art form who is doing a film. We’ve had people like Carrie Mae Weems, and Shirin Neshat, and Moises Kaufman, who did “Laramie Project.” They are people who are extraordinarily accomplished in some other medium who are now trying to bring what they have in that medium into film.

But I would say most of the participants are young and emerging filmmakers, many of them relatively recently out of a good film school, who have made short films or written a screenplay-- just finding their voice and sea-legs, who have written a screenplay for what will be their first or perhaps second small feature. There’s often a Native American project and those are wild and fascinating. Over the past five years, each Lab typically has at least a couple of projects from other countries. We just had a project from Malaysia and we’ve had projects from Palestine. It was good for those projects and good for us because they broaden our perspective on what a movie is and can be. Quite frankly, I haven’t seen entitlement or Rolodex movies.

Neely: What are the processes for getting into the workshop in Sundance?

Howard: I am not part of the selection process. I’m an advisor and sometimes an artistic director, so I get called in when the Lab gets called in and presented with projects.

Neely: Have you seen any to fruition?

Howard: Oh yeah! One of the kinds of almost unbelievable things about the Sundance Lab is that roughly 50% of the scripts that go through the Lab become films - some are micro-budget films, but they become films. It’s such a joy to see things that were projects, that we all talked about in the Lab, and then go to the movies and see them! Just to name a few, there was “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” “Half Nelson,” and a project that I really adore that premiered at the Sundance Festival on Jan. 21 called “Here” by Braden King about an American cartographer in Armenia. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there’s a lot of them.

This year the Sundance Festival has 6 films in dramatic competition that came out of the Lab. Last year there were 7 in the Festival. You do get that real thrill, a vicarious thrill, because it’s really lovely to see a script that either you’ve worked on or participated in as part of the larger work of the Lab. And then it’s a movie! It’s great!

Neely: So Independent film is not dead.

Howard: Umm, no. Independent film is in a very paradoxical place right now. I can make a movie with my telephone, and in fact, I could download an app that would enable me to edit it on my telephone. Given the internet, the barriers to the physical image capture and production of a film have never been lower in the 100 odd years of cinema, nor have the technological barriers to distribution ever been lower. You don’t need this big heavy film can that you basically have to physically carry. You can stream, you can download. Those two barriers used to be almost onerously high, and now you can now leapfrog over them with a telephone and a laptop.

But the barriers to traditional distribution in an effective way have, in some ways, never been higher – in terms of what it takes to cut through the noise of the larger culture; what it takes to find that small audience and make them aware of what you’ve done. I’m not just talking about theatrical distribution. There’s this weird paradox where I think Independent film is more available for more people than it ever has been; but the difficulty of making Independent film has multiplied in certain other ways.

Neely: The platforms seem to be shrinking, but the numbers seem to be growing.

Howard: Right. And if you’re intent on theatrical distribution as the spearhead of your distribution program, that’s never been harder. The amount of money it takes to market a film doesn’t change whether the movie was made for $5 or $50 or $500 or $5,000. As Karl Marx once said, “Despite fluctuations in the price of beef, the sacrifice remains constant for the ox.”

Neely: Certainly there are two famous examples of grassroots distribution – “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” shown at church halls and Greek brotherhood clubs and the like; and then of course, Mel Gibson and “The Passion of Christ” showing at churches giving it its grassroots buzz. In both cases they were able to use those platforms and seemingly self distribute.

Howard: Right. Although I think that kind of self distribution is on a scale that most of us can’t really afford. But I think on every level it’s going on. There’s a really lovely film about a typeface called Helvetica and the guy who made the film was really smart about screening it at places like designer graphics conferences or selling it via design magazines. He was actually able to self distribute a film to a niche market by knowing that niche market really well and by being very canny about the different platforms that would reach that market in terms of screening, the DVD, and event marketing. So there are ways. I also think there are more and more ways of crowd-funding and making movies by gathering together a community through social media.

Neely: One thing that briefly came to mind in your use of the term niche markets is the case of cable TV vs. broadcast TV. In terms of the branding for the various cable networks, each is targeting a smaller segment of the market and then trying to platform from there – “USA, characters welcome,” or “F/X’s edge,” or “HBO, it’s not television,” or “Spike is for guys.” They are targeting a niche market (regardless of the kind of crap and movies they use to fill in the dead spaces) as opposed to broadcast (with a comparison to Commercial Film) which is targeting a mass audience.

Howard: …and for those of us who write zero-quadrant films…

Neely: On the other hand, maybe it’s the expectation when making film, especially a very personal, independent film… perhaps the expectations on that distribution need to be reevaluated.

Howard: I think that’s true and I also think there’s another thing that filmmakers fall prey to, I know I have. You’re making a difficult film and as you’re writing it and trying to get the production funding, as you’re making it – you know, you know, you know that this is not a film for everybody. You know it deeply in your heart - it’s what attracted you to it in the first place, it’s what you know every day of shooting. Then you’re finished and it gets distribution and it does okay, and you say, “Why didn’t everybody see it?” There is a certain amount of self-delusion that is, I think, just unavoidable. It’s where you know absolutely, and have known for years, that you are making a film for a specific audience and then you feel injured because the entire world doesn’t immediately come to your doorstep.

Neely: (laughs) Exactly how I feel about this blog. It’s personal vanity. In reality you make it because you want to make or you do it because you want to do it, and if somebody likes it or reads it, well that is icing on the cake because your original goal was something personal. It wasn’t designed for the whole world to see, so, if you got somebody to see it, well, then you’re ahead of the game.

Howard: Yeah. I’ve found that I’ve been very fortunate in that when I have little pet obsessions, I’ve been able to sort of hook up with two or three other people who share that pet obsession and we can manifest things in the world.

I’ve actually been spending this season doing that. For 30 years I’ve been wildly enamored of a hundred year old French fictional archfiend named Fantômas who was the subject of pulp novels starting in 1911, and of a haunting silent French film series beginning in 1913. Through the internet, email and some social networking over the past several years, we few people who are rabid fans of this moldy villain have found each other. There’s an immigration lawyer in Viet Nam, a scholar in Alaska, a film critic in Los Angeles, a novelist in New York… Just armed with a few fans and a certain amount of shamelessness, I started calling people up and saying, “Hey! It’s the centennial! We should do something.” And last week we had a lovely evening at the Hammer Museum where we screened an episode of the silent serial with James Fearnley’s live accompaniment followed by a panel discussion and hundredth birthday party. Next month I’m going to a conference I co-initiated at Yale where serious scholars will spend two days talking about French pulp fiction at the turn of the last century. In March we’re doing three nights at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco; in April there’s a very serious panel at the New School with Robert Polito, the head of their creative writing program, and Luc Sante and Geoffrey O’Brien and more.

So all you really need to have is a little bit of enthusiasm. You would be amazed at the reach that will get you if you ask people politely and can infuse them with your passion.

Neely: What else have you been working on?

Howard: At the moment, I just finished up an assignment and I’m back to working on another screenplay that no one asked me to write and that nobody’s waiting to read

Neely: I am.

Howard: I like both those rigors. The former, for me, is about somebody placing as great deal of faith and a small amount of money in my hands and they’re saying come through for me and I want to do that. I want to give somebody what they need to make a motion picture. They have a vision, they have an idea, they have a very specific sense of what the movie could be and I want to give them that document which will enable them to do that.

And, in much the same way as I wrote “August” for myself, I wrote a television pilot early last year called “Confidence.” When I’m doing those, I don’t feel a sense of responsibility to a benefactor. I just want to do a version of the thing that is truest to what made it impossible for me not to write it in the first place.

Neely: You received an Independent Spirit nomination last year for your screenplay “Savage Grace.” I’m betting that was a better experience than “August.”

Howard: It was a very different kind of experience. That was an assignment, that was not something I brought to them but was something that was brought to me. I’d had several conversations with the New York independent film producer Christine Vachon who produced all the Todd Haynes films, as well as” Boys Don’t Cry.” Half to three quarters of what is called the New Queer Cinema comes out of her shop, Killer Films. She’s now produced what should be a really exciting reimagination of “Mildred Pierce” coming out on HBO.

Neely: Oh! The mini-series with Kate Winslett.

Howard: Christine had said for awhile, “We should find something to work on together.” But that’s like “We must have lunch.” And then she and Tom Kalin optioned this book for Tom to direct, so I auditioned to be the writer and I prevailed in the audition. On the one hand, as opposed to something that originated in my own basement, this originated elsewhere, both in real life and in a non-fiction book and in a pre-existing project for Killer Films. But in a funny way, because it didn’t start with me, the collaboration with the producer and the director was much more intimate.

Neely: That’s very counterintuitive.

Howard: It is counterintuitive but I found it to be true. It was a very different process and with “Savage Grace,” I was in Barcelona for the shooting even though by the time we shot, the script was already locked and I wasn’t doing any writing on set. Certainly there was a lot of writing in the run up to production when we realized we didn’t have the money we thought we had and didn’t have that location and had to lose another 12-15 pages. I love that stuff.

Neely: And yet you also had Julianne Moore as the star.

Howard: Julie is great! She’s so brave. Julie was great in many ways but let me just talk about two of them. One of them is that I like my own writing and I think Tom’s a great director and  Christine is a great producer, but the reason that movie was financed and made was because of Julie’s commitment. Every time it looked like the financing was going to fall apart or we were in the doldrums or wandering in the tundra of financing, Julianne would cheerfully give an interview to something like “W” magazine. And they would ask her about “this dress” or they would ask her about her kids and then they would ask her what she was doing next and she’d say, “Oh my next movie is ‘Savage Grace.’” And it was sort of as if every time our movie was flat lining in the back of the paramedic van, she would pump its chest and breath new life into it. So, in every conceivable sense, the movie wouldn’t have been made without her. But, in addition to that, when we were filming, she didn’t do that thing that I think a lot of lesser actors do, which is wink at you to let you know that they’re nowhere near as evil as the character they’re portraying. She just went for it in a very brave way. And she does that, she continues to do that. I’m in awe of her craft and I feel very honored to have worked with her.

Neely: I’m a huge fan of hers. She’s one of those rare actresses who is so beautiful and is willing to be ugly physically and ugly psychologically if that’s what the part calls for, without the fanfare trumpeted by so many beautiful actresses (usually just once) so that they are Oscar-nominated. With her it’s always about the acting.

Howard: No, I don’t think it’s one of those “everybody thinks I’m glamorous but I won’t wash my hair for a week so I can win an Emmy.”

Neely: Exactly.  Going back to the script you just mentioned, I did read “Confidence” that you intended as a television pilot. As a teaser to this Part II, I opened with a particularly delectable passage from your pilot script that I think illustrates the sophisticated Con Artist’s ability to reel in the Mark by using the Mark’s inherent greed and need for acceptance within a snobbish subculture. You don’t need a whole lot of road markers to know what’s going to happen to Brian and Tamra. In keeping with the script of “August,” you seemed prescient once again describing something slightly ahead of the curve. It seemed like an attempt to serialize the Madoff scandal, but it seemed to have been written before it occurred.

Howard: No. That was me just using that particular Ponzi scheme. There were a couple of impulses behind it. One was that I thought about the family part of it – you know, the wife, the kids – and I also thought about the kind of thing that I’ve been bemoaning for a while. For instance, if you’re an Italo-American writer or film maker, you’re allowed to glorify or at least look at Italo-American people who behave badly, whether it’s “Godfather I & II” or “Goodfellas” or “The Sopranos.” Some of America’s richest filmmaking has been made by people taking a kind of nostalgic and critical look at the badly behaving folks of their own ethnicity. In a funny way, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” does that in a lighter vein. And I didn’t understand why you could have Italian American filmmakers making a movie about Italian American gangsters and I couldn’t, as a Jewish American writer, write a movie about a Jewish American con artist/crook and bad actor.

Neely: And why do you think that is?

Howard: I think part of the reason is that anti-Semitism is a more living issue than the sort of signs that used to say “No Irish need apply.” I think that’s part of the reason. I think that the Jewish American community tends to draw the wagons in a circle and tends to say that any depiction of the concerns as well as the joys of being a Jewish American just gives fuel to your enemies. So I do think there are those sensitivities and I kind of understand them; one of my great uncles was a loan shark; one of my great uncles was somebody who beat the crap out of people when you didn’t pay the other great uncle back. This is part of who I am and it’s part of my heritage and I grew up with stories of the elegant gambler Arnold Rothstein. I grew up with stories of the legendary mob accountant Abba Dabba Berman; all the people Rich Cohen talks about in his book Tough Jews. That’s part of my cultural heritage and part of my patrimony. I don’t feel like I should whitewash the folks I came from just because I want to write about my own people.

Neely: At present “Confidence” reads more like a mini-series.

Howard: It was written for cable. I had written a pilot for HBO two years before, and that was a pilot I really enjoyed writing. It’s about a Mexican detective working in downtown Los Angeles and east of there. It was called “213” and the kind of rule of it was that although it was set in Los Angeles it would never go west of Alvarado. I’d fallen in love with these novels by a wonderful Spanish writer named Paco Ignacio Taibo II and I loved his detective hero – Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. I thought, let’s lift him out of Mexico City and put him in downtown L.A. I found some really great producers – Grant Heslov, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. And because I am not Mexican American, I had the great good fortune to find a director to work with who is -Rodrigo Garcia.

Neely: His father is Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Howard: …and that’s a whole other story. One of the things I liked about that process was that I didn’t get any notes for awhile, until I was told that HBO wanted to talk to me.

There was this conference call where I was in La Rochelle, France doing a workshop. I think Soderbergh and Clooney were in Edinburgh doing one of the “Oceans” movies, and Grant was in LA. So there was this enormously complex transatlantic conference call and when we all got on the line, the folks at HBO said two things. One was “If this is to work for us, it has to work for us over a span of years, so don’t start anyone so operatic that they have no place to go from there.”

Neely: That’s a great note.

Howard: I thought that was a great note. And the second one was, “Make sure that at every moment we know why this is HBO and not television.” Those were the only two notes. So I think I so loved both of those notes that on “Confidence” I just thought what can I write that doesn’t seem like television and gives the character some depth.

Neely: What happened to “213?”

Howard: The executive who commissioned it moved on and did other stuff. It languished for a while and it had its moment but then its moment went away.

Neely: As in television, and not like in features. I would love to read it because it’s a spectacular idea. Maybe there’s a way of regenerating interest.

Howard: I think one of the lovely things about screenplays is…

Neely: …they never die.

Howard: …they never die. I look at a lot of movies that are in theaters now that took 3 years, 6 years, 20 years. How long did “The King’s Speech” take?

Neely: One of the things in television, and this is what I rail against, is the tremendous amount of waste. Oftentimes, it’s just because the indecisive executive of today is more concerned that someone else will be able to make something out of the pilot script than they were. So not only was it not entirely to their taste or they didn’t get it, but they won’t let anyone else have it either.

Howard: I’ve run into that.

Neely: Well how do Clooney and Heslov feel about “213”?

Howard: I have no idea.

Neely: You should find out because they are the proverbial 800 LB canary that can sing wherever it wants. I would imagine that when this was done it was done under Section 8 with Clooney, Heslov and Soderbergh, and now Soderbergh is on his own and Heslov and Clooney have a new banner…

Howard: …Smokehouse. We might revisit it, but there are complicated rights issues with the novel… we could see. But to be honest with you, as fond as I am about that project, there are times in my life where I think, “Let me look at my inventory and see what’s under exploited and what I can bring back.” And there are other times in my life, like now, where I have so many things I want to write, that I’m less interested in what out of my preexisting stock can I sell, when I’m more interested in what can I write today?

Neely: I do understand that and I think it’s the healthiest thing to do, but what I’m looking at, and of course I haven’t read the script, is that you were looking at an area of culture that is unexplored – not under explored, but unexplored, which in itself makes it very interesting, which in itself is a reason to see if somebody will resurrect it.

Howard: No, no, it’s worth seeing. And I think the other thing is that for HBO, which is subscriber-driven rather than advertiser-driven, anything that brings in a new demographic layer helps them; and they don’t have to worry, as other places do, that in bringing in that new demographic layer they are losing on the other side. For instance, in this particular script, the first 15 minutes of it are largely in Spanish and largely without subtitles. Our feeling was that for those people who were Spanish speaking, that would give them a real sense that this was theirs, and for people who weren’t Spanish speaking it would give them a real sense that this wasn’t TV anymore, this is…

Neely: …HBO!  I recently wrote an article for Studio System “If you cast them will watch.”

Howard: Great title.

Neely: Thanks. It was all about the fact that one of the demographic erosions that broadcast and cable are decrying may very well be because they are not expanding into an ethnically demographic mix. In other words, if you don’t have minorities cast in significant roles, if there is nothing on screen for the minority groups to identify with, if you don’t show that part of the population or give them something to watch, you’re missing out entirely. And keep in mind that although whites make up 65% of the overall population, over 35% of the population is being underserved.

Howard: I think that’s true. But I became a writer, not because I’d gotten an MBA from the Wharton School and knew how to write a business plan. I became a writer because I enjoyed long days of solitude and hearing voices in my head (Neely laughs). So whenever I’m talking about what would be sound business practices for the industry, I’m talking through a very large hat.

Neely: This is a great segue because I wanted to know if you always wanted to write.

Howard: I can’t say that I always wanted to write, I can say that I always wrote and I can say honestly, with neither pride nor shame, but I’ve never considered doing anything else. And some of that was because I spent my childhood with my nose buried in books and the transition from burying your nose in books that other people have written to burying your nose in blank paper that you were writing, that was not a large leap. To me that was just a slow steady slide. One was about somebody building a world that you can climb into and live in and pull the hatch down over your head and inhabit. And the other one was that you could create a world that you can live in and pull the hatch down over your head and inhabit. And those two things still are confusingly and gloriously similar to me. And I think the other reason is kind of an appalling one. My father was a writer, my mother was a script supervisor who wrote a couple of novels, and my uncle was a playwright. I think that for some people to become a writer requires a really large and brave act of self invention; and for me, I think, it was much more like going into the family trade. My fear is that where other people became writers because excessive imagination, I became a writer because of a kind of terminal lack of imagination. I just did what the folks around me did. If they had been in the garment business we might be having a lovely discussion today about cutting seams on pockets. But I don’t know. My earliest memories of my dad is that he would be lounging around on the couch reading “Popular Mechanics.” I’d go over to him and he would say, “I’m working.” I wanted that job. Wouldn’t you? My mom was a script supervisor and my stepmother was an actor. But it was particularly my dad, who was a television and screenwriter and I have almost the exact same name as him. On a good day I look in the mirror and I see Martin Amis and on a bad day I see Frank Sinatra Jr.

Neely: (laughs) Where did you go to school?

Howard: I went to P.S. 196 and J.H.S. 157 and Sands Point Academy and Country Day School and Cornell University.

Neely: (laughs) I probably should have been slightly more specific.

Howard: …and I forgot Brooklyn Community Woodward School at the beginning.

Neely: (laughs) How did you get started and land your first writing job?

Howard: That took decades. As I said, I always wrote. I edited my college paper, The Cornell Daily Sun, and I’m probably prouder of that than almost anything I’ve ever done. It was the only morning newspaper in Ithaca, New York and I had to write a 750 word editorial five days a week that 14,000 people would read. It was great. It was heady and lovely.

Neely: But decades??

Howard: I had had some early successes as a journalist because of The Cornell Daily Sun and I wrote something that ended up on The New York Times op/ed page at a very tender age. But I knew I didn’t want to be a journalist even though that seemed to be what was beckoning. And I also think there was some garden variety Oedipal stuff. If my dad was going to write things that hundreds of thousands of people would see, then I was going to write novels that nobody would read. So I spent my 20s writing what you could call literary fiction. They were not written backwards from the consideration of an audience, they were written forwards from the stuff that was in me.

Neely: Were they published?

Howard: At that point? No! By the time I was in my early 30s, I had 4 unpublishable novels. I’d gotten some real encouragement and some really good agents, but I was still working as a typist, working as a proofreader, working as a mailroom clerk, working on writing strange trade journalism or editing obscure civil liberties journals. I was not able to make my living with my chosen calling. And then when I was in my mid 30s, my then girlfriend, who became my wife, got a job in California and I moved out with her. I think what had happened was that all the time that I’d been writing these works of fiction, I’d been in love with the movies. I haunted the Thalia and the Bleecker Street in New York before you could see a movie by streaming it or renting it, you…

Neely: …you went to the revival houses, like the Vista used to be.

Howard: And I spent months in Paris seeing 4 or 5 movies a day, which you can do in Paris. There is no other city in the world where you can see more American movies than in this non-American city. So I had this great and abiding love for the movies and a habit of writing that I couldn’t kick. I think when I came out to Los Angeles it seemed that I no longer needed to keep those two things apart. And then one of those unpublishable novels got published, first in France in French and then in the United States in English, and…

Neely: …the name?

Howard: It’s called Destiny Express; it’s a historical romance set in the pre-war German film making community – a very very dark and humorless novel. But I got an advance for the novel and I think that enabled me to transition from writing unpublishable novels to writing unproducible screenplays. So by the time I started making money as a screenwriter, I was in my mid to late 30s. At an age where many careers are ending, mine was just beginning. I think I was also fortunate that I came along during the kind of golden age of development where you could actually make a living writing screenplays even if they only occasionally got made. And I also think I was very fortunate to come up in an era where the Venn diagram of what my sensibility was and what the studios considered movies, even though there wasn’t a huge overlap, there was a kind of sweet spot that I could live in. And I think the studio-sense of what a studio movie is has never been narrower or more constricted than it is now, and not, by the way, for the good of the movies and even for the good of the studios. So I don’t know if I were coming up now whether I would be able to do what I’ve spent all those years doing. I think I would either end up just writing more novels or I might have ended up starting out in television because I think, in many ways, there’s more interesting writing done for television than for tentpole movies by and large.

Neely: There is a lot of great writing in television now. It’s something that I hear from almost every writer that I talk to.

Howard: I’m part of something called the Committee for the Professional Status of Writers. We meet with the CEOs of studios and then we go around studio by studio and meet with the creative executives to talk about issues of concern to both of us outside the context of labor/management negotiations. And one of the things that we say to them is “Do you really want to create a world where if Steve Zaillian were coming up today he wouldn’t be writing movies? You’re killing your future.” Some of the folks at the studios understand that and are working passionately to do something about it and some of the folks just have different concerns.

Neely: And some of the folks probably don’t know who Steve Zaillian is.

Howard: I don’t know.

Neely: What about mentors along the way? Did you have any mentors?

Howard: I’ve had many folks who I’ve worked for who were far more canny and experienced than I was and were generous in helping me understand things. I almost hesitate to name some because there will be others I’m leaving out. But I would certainly include Steven Soderbergh who, despite the fact that he’s younger than me, is far more accomplished than I am and I’ve learned from him whenever I’ve had the good fortune to work with him. I would include the producer Lindsay Doran who, I think, if you walked into any roomful of writers and said “Who’s the producer you most want to work for?” you will her name more often than not. She just asks better and tougher questions of a script than anyone else around and makes you write more honestly and more deeply. I think of Stuart Cornfeld who’s a producer who gave me my first studio job and who I’m working with now. He just sees the world differently and in riding in his slipstream I’ve come to see the world a little differently too. I think of writers of an older generation who I’ve had the good fortune to get to know – Abe Polonsky and Walter Bernstein and they have been tremendous influences on me. Sam Fuller, a great writer and a great filmmaker, offered me great encouragement over the years to do my own best and strongest work. I learned much about writing from conversations I had with the late Dede Allen about editing. And then there are people I’ve never met but whose writing emboldens me. There’s a writer who, if he were sitting at the next table I wouldn’t know he were sitting there, named Alan Sharp. But some of the things he’s written, “Ulzana’s Raid” and “Night Moves,” I look at again and again and again and I’m always learning from them.

Neely: This really leads us into influences – personal and literary – as well as choices you’ve made and your “canon.” Let’s continue this further next week.  To be continued.

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"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision."

- Salvador Dali

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