11 February 2011
“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” – Philip K. Dick
A Continued Conversation with the Writer:
Neely: Our conversations have led us down many different paths. One thing we haven’t talked about is literary and film influences – books and/or films that had an impact on your life or career. I don’t have to ask if you have any, just ask what they were and are?
Howard: The only problem is that we’d be sitting here til August if we talk about that.
I think the book that has influenced me probably more than any other is called Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, an Argentine writer who lived in Paris as an ex-patriot. It’s a kind of formally inventive and emotionally rich book about Argentinean ex-patriots living bohemian lives in Paris. I loved living in that world for the duration of the time that I was reading the book and I just go back and read it over and over so I can live in that world again.
Certainly, in a more genre vein, the canon of Noir writers has become my mother’s milk; whether it’s Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, David Goodis, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson – those are household gods for me. I’ve read, I believe, every novel that each of those gentlemen and lady has ever written and I go back and reread them again and always discover new stuff.
Neely: I remember my pleasure when I had finished all the works of Chandler and Hammett and then guiltily told my mother. I was waiting for her disdain as she always said that until you had read all of the classics you shouldn’t waste your time on other things (sort of a stifling attitude). So I told her and she remarked, “Oh how wonderful. They’re classics.” You probably already have the recently published Big Book of Pulp Fiction.
Neely: There was some great stuff in there that I wasn’t aware of.
Howard: And then I go to the sort of lesser lights, the Wade Millers and Peter Rabes of this world. Faucett Gold Medal Paperback originals.
Neely: What are you reading now?
Howard: Right now I am going back to my two grand touchstones – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Moby-Dick. I go back to those again and again and again and again and again. My son gave me a kindle for my birthday, so now I carry those books around with me on airplanes and in hotel rooms. And then there are other writers who I read when I first came to Los Angeles and was blinking in the sunlight and had no sense of what Southern California might mean – I read Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 and that’s a book that has lingered with me. But on any given day I would give you a different list although I suspect, weirdly, that the noir writers and Jules Verne and Herman Melville would always be on any list. In other genres, I grew up reading pulp science fiction so J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs, who I think of as a science fiction writer, and Alfred Bester are never far from my bookshelf.
Neely: Watching? Big screen and small screen.
Howard: I’m watching a lot of films, but part of that was because I was on the foreign film jury of the Spirit Awards. I watched a lot of foreign films, but I do that anyway. I watched a lot of short films and first features for my Sundance Lab fellows. To me going to the movies now is… well it involves parking and dinner and theater.
Neely: I know what you mean. If anything is keeping adults from the theaters it’s the enormous cost (just tickets and popcorn are more than $30 per couple and if you factor in dinner…) What about television.
Howard: I watch very little television.
Neely: I suspected that.
Howard: I don’t say that proudly.
Neely: Well your schedule is rather full. Television is my life (well that’s a slight exaggeration) and I just don’t have enough time.
Howard: I would say that in our household that television tends to be a kind of quiet bonding time so I let my son take the lead in what to watch and I sit on the couch next to him and enjoy it through his enjoyment.
Neely: What does he watch?
Howard: He was a fanatical watcher of “Lost” and then some lighter things. We both loved “Flight of the Conchords,” that was our series. He watches “Entourage” and … the Jonathan Ames TV series…
Neely: …“Bored to Death.”
Howard: “Bored to Death.” So I think the Sunday night HBO thing is something that we share together. And we actually now have the entire run of “The Wire” and we have pledged that this summer we are just going to live in that world.
Neely: I’m TiVoing all of them from Direct TV because I’ve promised my son that I will religiously watch the whole thing. I just didn’t have time at the beginning, but everyone talks about “The Wire” and its groundbreaking quality.
Howard: And one of the things I love is that, in the same way that screenplays don’t get lost anymore (although I have a screenplay that was “lost” because it’s written on a 10” floppy disc in the UCSD “P” system and you can’t read it), the 150 year old “Harper’s Magazine” issue that had the first American appearance of a chunk from Moby-Dick is as readable now as the day that it was on the newsstand.
Neely: You know, I have run into you several times at the City of Lights City of Angels Film Festival (COLCOA – the French Film Festival) where you acted as the representative of the WGA, one of the sponsors. Where did you pick up your fluent French?
Howard: My French isn’t that fluent. I took it in high school, I took it in college and I’ve had the good fortune to spend some time over there. I would say that when I’ve been there for more than a week and I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine, it’s somewhat fluent. But I think my accent is better than my real French is, so it fools people into thinking that I speak it and I don’t disabuse them.
Neely: You acquit yourself well. I’m a fanatic about French films and love how it’s almost always about character.
Howard: And, in fact, one of my screenwriting niches is adapting foreign films for American audiences. I did an adaptation of a wonderful Claude Sautet film called “Max et les Ferrailleurs” or “Max and the Junkmen” which I did for John Woo and Studio Canal. And, just last year, I got to do a Danish noir called “Terribly Happy” or “Frygtelig Lykklig.” (Neely laughs) So I think one of the things that I’ve been doing is thinking about the extraordinary inventiveness that you sometimes see in foreign cinema and trying to figure out how to make it work for an American audience in an American context without losing what’s deeply lovely about the film in the first place. Hard to do, but fun to do.
Neely: It is hard to do. I think the difficulty you run into is usually with producers not with writers. American audiences are far more intelligent than many producers think they are.
Howard: I think that’s true. I also think that, in the same way that every actor I’ve known makes more interesting decisions about material than the people who are paid to make those decisions on their behalf, I think audiences make just smarter and more interesting decisions than those who live in fear of audiences. And I think part of what is really sad, and I’ve seen it happen in my lifetime, is that the studios are no longer in the movie business. They’re in the return-on- investment business, and the sequel business and the fear-of-exposure-from-litigation business. In William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch there’s somebody talking about the narcotics trade and one of his characters says “The first lesson is don’t improve the product. Degrade the buyer.” And I think sometimes that that’s what the movie studios are doing. And it’s to their own detriment and the patrimony, the heritage which is their obligation to nurture.
Neely: Any favorite French films, both past and present, that you would recommend; films that were influential?
Howard: That’s easy. I think if “Force of Evil” is my favorite American film, my favorite French film is a movie called “L’Atalante” by Jean Vigo. It’s a love story, mostly silent. Boy marries girl, boy and girl go on a trip on a barge, girl leaves barge and wanders into city, then they reunite. That’s the whole story. It is as lovely a film and as lovely a love story as I know; and despite the fact that it is largely dialogueless, I learned so much about how to reach an audience’s heart from that film. Another film that is a touchstone for me is “Alphaville,” Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 science fiction movie where by shooting Paris differently, he made it look like the future. There’s a large format poster of that film that has been in the living room of every house I’ve ever lived since 1983. There’s that line that William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” But Godard found some of the future there and the science fiction nerd in me loves that film. I would say his film “Contempt” is emotionally richer and reaches me on more levels because it’s one of the few films in which the protagonist is a screenwriter.
My favorite documentary ever is a thing called “Sans Soleil” by Chris Marker, which I revisit all the time and I’m waiting til it’s the right moment for my son and I to watch it together.
Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore” is just raw and minimal – just three people in one room and it proves that you don’t need more than that to make a movie, it can actually just sear you and scar you and uhhhhhhhhhg. So, all those and certainly all of the canonical films of the French New Wave are things that live in my head – “The 400 Blows” and “Jules and Jim” and certainly “Breathless.” It’s just part of my emotional and practical vocabulary.
Neely: Right now I’m very much a “romantic.” I know the films you mentioned and love the films of the New Wave, but my current favorite is “The Earrings of Madame de” by Max Ophuls.
Howard: I love “The Earrings of Madame de.”
Neely: It’s the most sweepingly, searingly, sadly romantic movie.
Howard: So if you like that, take a look at “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” (note: also by Ophuls)
Neely: I love that film.
Howard: That movie has a scene in it… here’s Joan Fontaine, she’s a young girl looking at Louis Jourdan bringing back all of these lovers up the staircase and wonders how can she be one of them. And then one day she is one and you see that same staircase but from the point of view of someone going up it rather than a little girl observing. It’s heartbreaking.
Neely: And I think Louis Jourdan is very underrated.
Howard: He’s wonderful in that film and Joan Fontaine is great in that film. Everybody is great in that film. That scene where they take that imitation carriage ride or the scene on the train – I love that movie!
Neely: It’s also a sweepingly, searingly sadly romantic movie much in the same way as “Madame de.”
Howard: I don’t like most contemporary romantic comedies. They feel artificial…
Howard: They feel like “he’s got to run to the airport to catch her at the end of act 3, so what fight can we have at the end of act 2?” They don’t seem real to me; the people feel just…
Neely: The problem, and this is often a problem with commercial American film, is that it doesn’t come from the character. And the French films always come from the character.
Howard: You’re absolutely right about that. And I think American films used to. For instance, if I look at a romantic comedy, and to my mind this was one of the most perfect screenplays ever written in that I don’t think you could change a word of it, and that is “Trouble in Paradise” written by Samson Raphaelson, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The comedy is elegant, there are lines that are funny and quotable, but the comedy in it comes out of who they are. It’s the Billy Wilder question. Somebody told Billy Wilder once that he was writing a romance and Wilder’s first question was “what keeps them apart?” I think the American movies of the 30s and 40s knew how to answer that question. And the answers that people come up with today just seem really forced and artificial and cliché.
Neely: My brother will be very pleased about your opinion of “Trouble in Paradise,” especially since he gave me a copy of the film for Christmas. But for me, my touchstone 30s movie isn’t a Lubitsch but was directed by Leo McCarey and written by Viña Delmar – “The Awful Truth.” I wouldn’t change anything about it and much like “Trouble in Paradise” the comedy also comes out of who they are and how they are kept apart.
Howard: “The Awful Truth” is fantastic. Then there’s “History is Made at Night”… all of those Wilder/Bracket movies.
Neely: I love that film, and also “Midnight.”
Howard: The Mitchell Leisner movie with a Bracket/Wilder screenplay.
Neely: And Preston Sturges!
Howard: I was about to say “The Lady Eve” which is as great a romantic comedy as ever made.
Neely: Preston Sturges predicated his films on poor taste before Billy Wilder did.
Howard: (laughs) Yes!
Neely: It’s all character. It all flows from character. The lesson the French knew and still know.
I’m hoping to get back on the list for COLCOA this year because the films are always so stimulating. I saw “A Prophet” there and…
Howard: …wasn’t that amazing?
Neely: It was. And also “Mesrine.” Did you see it?
Howard: I did not see “Mesrine.”
Neely: Oh my god! Vincent Cassel in part I of “Mesrine” gave a transformative performance equal or better than anything in “Godfather I” or “Godfather II.” He’s going to be ignored at Oscar time because of the limited audience and exposure, as well as the language, but it’s an incredible, charismatic and frightening performance.
Howard: I’ll go see it.
Neely: Just to round out your very busy schedule, you are also a professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the writing division.
Howard: I am and proudly so.
Neely: What led you to take a full time faculty position?
Howard: I was not an academic by trade, although I was certainly comfortable in that world. My uncle was an itinerant professor of English. Every two or three years he would get a better job at a lesser university. So he started out at Michigan State and Tulane and University of Rhode Island and ended up a full professor and chair at places like Transylvania College and Mansfield State (Neely chuckles). I think what happened was, I moved out here in 1985 because of my girlfriend, who then became my wife. She was a film and media scholar who had gotten her PhD at NYU and was teaching adjunct courses – one course at Rutgers, one course at CW Post, one course at SUNY Purchase, one course at NYU - and was offered a real tenure track job at UC Irvine. We could have broken up, which we didn’t want to do, or have a long distance romance which neither of us had much faith in, orrrr I could move out here. So I did, as the kind of trailing spouse equivalent and as a faculty spouse. And of all the different roles we’ve talked about that I’ve played, that’s the one that I was the most comfortable with. I understand how to do that, which is .. you are bright enough and interesting enough to make the person you’re with seem as if they had chosen wisely, but not so much that you detract from their light. It’s a great job and I loved that job.
Neely: I love that job too.
Howard: But I’d never given any thought to being an academic. So in our household, the balance was that Ann was the academic and brought the interesting people to the dinner table and I was like, you know, plying my trade in a kind of interesting way, I’d like to think.
Then in about 2001, John Furia, who had been chair of the division of screenwriting in what was then the School of Cinema/Television at USC, stepped down from being chair, and the Dean, rather than promote from within, instituted a search for the new chair. I got a call from Michelle Satter of the Sundance Institute saying that USC was looking for a chair and she thought I’d be really good for it. I said thanks and that I was flattered; she told me to call Barbara Corday who was running the search committee. And I didn’t. Then I got another call from Midge Sanford, who’s a producer I’d worked with, saying the same thing. And I ignored that. Then I got a third call; and the fourth call was from Barbara Corday saying, “Midge and Sarah and Michelle and all these people are telling you to call me. Why are you avoiding me?” And I said that I wasn’t avoiding her. I just thought it was much better for me to pass. I didn’t have any advanced degrees. And she said, “Would you send me your CV?” “Well I don’t have a CV, but I’ll get one up. I suspect that once you read it, it will disabuse you of this lovely notion you have.” So she read my résumé and asked me to have lunch. I agreed and met some of the existing faculty and the rest of the search committee. And then I got another call saying that I was one of three candidates and would I come and make a presentation. At that point I started to get scared. I made a presentation and the Dean then called me a couple of days later and said that they were offering me the job and told me what it paid. I tried to do some negotiating because I wanted a parking spot in a good lot (laughs).
Neely: (laughs) Did you get one?
Howard: Eventually, but not contractually because she could not guarantee that. I got “best efforts.” (laughs) And all of a sudden I was faculty and my wife was faculty and I think that what was more embarrassing was that I was a full professor before she was. She was a real scholar and she did real work and she was still, at that point, an associate professor. It just seemed weird, but very very fulfilling. I loved my colleagues and the students were really bright. The one thing that I did negotiate when I came in was that I would do the job for 5 years, at the end of which I would keep my full professorship and my tenure, keep my salary but not do the administrative stuff. I could be a plain vanilla professor with patches on my elbows. So that’s what I do now. I did that job for 5 years and learned many bureaucratic and administrative skills which benefit me to this day. My ability to organize in terms of time has increased ten-fold; my ability to navigate bureaucracies is much improved. My ability to build teams and get people to work with me on things has greatly increased. All of my management and time-management skills are much much more sharply honed. I’d become a writer because I didn’t want to deal with any of those things, so I’m grateful to Dean Daley at USC for letting me learn on the job and for letting me become a bureaucrat in front of their eyes. Now I’m really liking teaching these young students.
Neely: What courses do you teach?
Howard: The courses I do are pretty intimate. My mainstay is a thesis course where there are six kids, one professor, one year to write a screenplay. It’s pretty fine grain and I love doing it.
Neely: You know, I profiled one of your former thesis students, Ben Murray, early on in the Blog.
Howard: No, I didn’t know that.
Neely: I did an article on his thesis script "Bullsh*t". It’s one of my favorites.
Howard: It’s a lovely script. I was so fortunate to have him in the class because…
Neely: …he’s a very surprising young man…
Howard: …yeah, because you don’t connect that young man with that material. But boy did he write that.
Neely: In one of the two years I was fortunate enough to teach, he was in my class. The script surprised me enormously. I had heard from his classmates that in his private life he was quite profane, but no one could possibly have been more respectful and quiet in class than Ben.
Howard: Absolutely. He’s a gentleman in class.
Neely: Completely. It’s just his brain goes to amazing, inventive and whacked out places. He’s truly truly a film writer.
Howard: Oh yeah, he really is. I tried to hook him up with some people I knew in the industry and I don’t know whether it resulted in work but it certainly resulted in some meetings. He deserved it; he earned it.
Neely: What advice do you give your students as they graduate?
Howard: (smiles) I don’t; I try to avoid them (laughs).
Neely: (laughs) You know, some of them read this.
Howard: What I tell them at the end is really what I tell them at the beginning. The advice doesn’t change. The only thing that you really have to sell is your voice. If you write a screenplay that no one else could have written or that shows a part of the world that no one else really knows or has shown before; or has a tone and register and sensibility that is just different, that’s the way you get noticed, it’s the way that doors open. And if you try to write something like the movie that made $80M last weekend but cruddier, they’ve already got people who can do that. They don’t need you for that. The work that you get initially may not be as inventive or unique as the work that gets you the work, but that’s how careers get built. And when I think of almost every screenwriter I know, their careers started out not by writing some canny market-driven spec, but by writing a screenplay that was uniquely theirs. I think of David Koepp’s first screenplay called “Fat City Upside Down” which was a kind of weird, surreal retelling of Tale of Two Cities set in Beverly Hills. Or I think of Lem Dobbs’s first screenplays or I think of almost writer I know who has either an independent career or a commercial career and started by writing something that was identifiable and that made folks sit up and take notice. So I try to encourage them not to try to second guess the market place, but to be really smart and canny about the market place. If there are characters who will only speak through them, for god’s sake, let them speak through them.
The other thing I tell them is about their obligation to the wonderful heritage that they and we have inherited. It’s the same kind of conversation that I have with those folks at the studios, which is that there is this glorious hundred year old heritage of cinema and we are the current custodians of it. We have an obligation to it. And by obligation I don’t simply mean keeping old negatives from decaying, although god bless the film restorationists and god bless Martin Scorsese who made that his life’s calling, but I mean in terms of the obligation to the movies that made us want to make movies. There’s a quote that I keep going back to that I included in a commencement address. I keep coming back to it again and again, and it’s a quote that I often read to students who are about to go into the world. Let me find it for you (referring to his I-phone). It’s a quote from Sergio Leone, the guy who made all those Spaghetti Westerns. He said:
“In my childhood, America was like a religion. Then, real-life Americans abruptly entered my life - in jeeps - and upset all my dreams. I admired the Americans on the screen a lot – their style, their way of speaking, their way of wearing hats. But after a while I began to realize that America is really the property of the world. America was something dreamed by philosophers, vagabonds and the wretched of the earth long before it was discovered by Spanish ships and populated by colonies of the world. The Americans have only rented it, temporarily, and if their movies don’t work, if the mythical level is lower, if they don’t behave well, then the contract can always be withheld. We can evict them or discover another America.”
And that’s a large part of how I feel about my country, but it’s also the central part of what I think about our responsibilities as screenwriters to the world we’ve inherited. All of the movies you were talking about, our job is to try to make sure that that level of astonishment and satisfaction continues to be part of what it means to make movies. If we can’t do that then we have done something almost as bad as being bad parents to our own children.
Neely: That is truly wonderful.
But getting back to you, weren’t you on Sabbatical last semester?
Howard: And this semester too, ha ha!
Neely: This semester too? How did you manage that?
Howard: The last semester I did on “academic flyer miles” (note: paid) and this semester is an unpaid leave.
Neely: (laughs) How are you using your sabbatical?
Howard: I do a lot of writing; I did that Danish adaptation. I did this film I just finished for Anonymous Content.
Neely: What’s it called?
Howard: It’s called “Untitled Anonymous Content Project.” (laughs)
Neely: (laughs) Good. Okay.
Howard: I’m 2/3 of the way through a melancholy spy story that I’m writing for myself. A spy story that’s a bit Le Carré-esque but set in the world of WikiLeaks. I’m working on a treatment for Ben Stiller’s company and 20th Century Fox right now. It’s a real live studio assignment! I’ve got those things, so that’s a pretty full dance card for this Spring. But mostly what I’m doing on my sabbatical is…
My son is 17 years old and going to the East Coast for college next year. It’s the last time we have for a while to just live with each other and enjoy the kind of “Bert and Ernie” stuff. I didn’t want to miss it. I didn’t want to be so busy teaching and writing and doing all the kind of non-profit and bureaucratic stuff I do, that at the end of that year I’d say, “Oh. You’re going off to college? Bye. Who are you?” So it’s been a lovely opportunity for us to get to know each other while he finishes up high school and gets ready to grow up a little. He’s off next year to Brown University in Providence, RI.
Neely: He already has early admission there??!!
Howard: Yeah. He’s a good kid. It feels very fortunate because, from the moment he set foot on the Brown campus, he said, “This one feels like me.” And, of course, because of my own psychology and centuries of Eastern European fatalism in the blood, I thought “Okay, don’t tell anyone. Don’t ever say that sentence and don’t even say it to yourself because if you really really want something, it won’t happen.” So, of course, I felt like saying “Squelch that thought.” And instead, he just really owned it in a way that I never could. He just said, “No. I really like this school and I’m going to work and see if I can apply here and get it.” And so he studied for his tests, took them well, and wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote his essay and just did all the things he knew how to do. And knock on wood, fortunately it worked. But I am so proud of him for owning that desire because I would have felt so anxious-making about it.
Neely: (laughs) I think those feelings are genetic to those of us with Eastern European blood. I am a “glass half empty” kind of person and would bet that you are too.
Howard: If our family had a coat of arms with an escutcheon and a slogan on it, it would be something like: “If I were a candle maker the sun would never set.” I mean I come from generations and generations of Eastern European fatalists. But when I got married, my wife was even more profoundly fatalistic in some ways than I was, so the only position that was viable for me was “glass half full guy.” So I had to transform myself and I did. I think I’ve either transformed myself or done a really convincing imitation of the “glass half full guy.” And one of the things I’m really curious about, is that now that my wife is no longer with us, whether I am going to revert to form and just become that Eastern European fatalist again, or whether, after 25 years of marriage, having learned a certain kind of optimism, whether now it’s actually become part of who I am. We’ll see. I’m curious to see how that plays out. Certainly, I think that when my wife was ill, that optimism, whether learned or innate, certainly was useful and necessary.
Neely: I think that even if you had not already transformed yourself into that, during that time when she really needed it, you would have transformed yourself then,
Howard: Probably. When you’re navigating the bureaucracies of hospitals and trying to figure out doctors and diagnoses and prognoses, and of course the treatment, you have to step up to that. I think the Italian Communist Gramsci famously said, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” And I think that’s kind of what you learn.
Neely: In any long-lived marriage, you adjust to each other and that it changes you in many ways…
Howard: …you hope it changes you. Because if you’re the same person after 25 years of marriage that you were when you went into it, then I think there’s something wrong.
Neely: I hold on tightly to my “glass half empty” when in reality I know that I’m really a “glass half full.” (Howard laughs) It’s just that my husband has always (annoyingly) been a “glass half full” so it was easy to proclaim myself the other, especially since I, too, am mired in Eastern European fatalism. But there is something absolutely infectious about this “glass half full” business. So, I suspect you’re inexorably stuck in that mode.
Howard: And you know, whether or not I’m stuck in that mode, whether or not Ann and I inherited it genetically, our son has the ability to be what he needs to be.
So what does this optimistic husband of yours do?
Neely: He’s a professor in the biology department at USC; he’s a neuroanatomist…
Howard: How cool is that?!
Neely: …very cool. But I would say that there was a seminal moment that defined him for me that occurred at the very beginning of our marriage… I remember anonymously trailing behind a couple of guys when we were leading drunken partygoers from one apartment over to our apartment and the one turned to the other and said, “See that guy up there (Larry)? You’re not going to believe it, but that guy is supposed to be smart.” That said it all, because it was his sense of humor, his lightness of touch, his sensitivity and sympathy that affected me enormously. His greatest qualities have nothing to do with his intelligence or the success of his career. His greatest qualities are his sense of fun, his sense of humor and his approachability. The fact that he was smart was just icing on the cake.
Howard: That sounds like a good guy and good marriage.
Neely: He’s a lot better than I deserve.
Howard: I’ve never met anyone I liked or respected who didn’t feel that way about their spouse. I felt every day of my marriage that I was fortunate in that respect. But it’s amazing how many people I know who all feel that we married up.
Neely: I hear you. His mother definitely felt that way. And this is probably as good a point as any for me to say thank you so much for spending the time and sharing your insights. I always enjoy talking to you and am so glad you were willing to share your experiences.