Twenty years ago, I had the extraordinary privilege of meeting the screenwriter William Goldman, who passed away today. His death reminded me of the generosity and respect he afforded a completely green writer and left me with that sense of loss from what could have been.
I don’t even remember what prompted me to write to him. During my studies at Oberlin College, I’d written a screenplay which sparked a desire to pursue filmmaking as a career. I’d been using the Alumni database at the Career Services Center my senior year because I needed to find a place to stay in Los Angeles during my final Winter Term when I would be interning at Mandalay Pictures on the Paramount Lot. I don’t remember how I learned Mr. Goldman was an Alum, but his address was in the database. I was a fan of his work – especially All the President’s Men.
This was back in the days of letters that you wrote on paper, put into an envelope, stamped, and mailed. I was at home in Washington, DC – about 4 hours (give or take 2 hours) from New York City where he lived – and when I received his letter back offering to chat any time I was in NYC, I jumped at the chance.
Mr. Goldman lived on the Upper East Side. I remember walking there, not knowing what to expect. His building had a receptionist (basically) who told me to take the special elevator to the penthouse. The elevator opened directly into his apartment. I had never in my life been in anything like it. My memory tells me he was in what I can only describe as some kind of satiny robe. It wasn’t lewd, he was dressed underneath, maybe you would call it a smoking jacket, but it was long. Thinking back on this in our post-Weinstein reality, it sounds awful, but I didn’t get any kind of weird vibe from him at all. He conveyed an accomplished while slightly eccentric writer vibe. His penthouse was packed with all kinds of interesting decorations and had a terrace garden, something I never knew existed in the upper levels of existence in New York City. We talked for at least an hour about screenwriting and the industry.
He hated LA but thought that everyone who wanted to make it in the industry would have to serve their time there for a while. He confessed that Butch Cassidy was probably the best thing he ever wrote and he mused on what it meant to have a success so early in his career that would never be matched. He credited the GI Bill with helping him fund his writing habit and remarked that it was no wonder why artists came out of wealthy families because you needed money to finance your life so you could focus on your art. He told me to write every day for 3 hours. I think he called it the cave or the hole that all writers had to go into in order to produce and told me that most of what I would write in that time would be crap. A universal truth.
I gave him my first (and only) script I’d ever written, Momentum, about a young woman whose boyfriend dies tragically right around the time she finds out she’s pregnant. A couple of weeks after I met with Mr. Goldman, I received a call back at my parents’ house in DC – he had notes. He told me it was difficult to hang the entire plot around the pregnancy, that there needed to be more going on. I don’t remember the other notes, but I remember feeling like he was both complimentary of my writing ability and encouraging of my pursuits while also offering constructive criticism.
I’ve often thought about him over the last 2 decades and this time he gave to me – a nobody, an aspirant. He had no reason to be so generous and so I think it speaks profoundly of the man he was. With 20 years of filmmaking and now as a film instructor, I cringe at what I offered to this master, but take the lesson that no matter who you meet you treat everyone with respect and offer your time generously.
I was looking forward to having a success under my belt and sending him another letter, maybe in email form this time, thanking him again.