The writer who cares more about words than about story – characters, action, setting, atmosphere – is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream; he gets in his own way too much; in his poetic drunkenness, he can’t tell the cart – and its cargo – from the horse.
For others, however, making a living by putting words together becomes an unbearable burden, but these are rarely seen. It was the case of Frederica Sagor Maas,who died a few weeks ago at the amazing age of 111. Hollywood scripwriter since before the dawn of sound, her texts helped launch the career of several contemporary stars. Her memories, however, focus on the chauvinism, misoginy and discrimination that, as a woman, she had to suffer in that industry in the 20s.
Her filmography in IMDB lists many of her works as “uncredited”:
I would work so hard on some of the scripts and the minute I’d turn it in, someone else would take credit for it. You’d be ticketed as a troublemaker. Unless you wanted to quit the business, you just kept your mouth shut.
She finally did quit the business and took a job as a policy typist with an insurance agency in 1950, quickly working her way up to insurance broker. she never regretted her decision and in one of her last interviews she claimed that if she had the chance again, she would still quit writing and would rather clean floors.
Not sure if that’s some consolation for those of us who don’t make a living with our writing. Or as they say in Disney films, be careful what you wish.
It was going to be a long-drawn-out business to compose this document. The woman was so fastidious in her choice of words that she made me cross it all out as fast as I wrote it down.
“We’ll tear up this awful rubbish,” she would say. And the few lines we had been struggling to compose for most of the day were consigned to oblivion. We went on like that for days on end. We never succeeded in expressing meticulously enough the kind of slops the calf was to be fed. By nightfall we were so exhausted that we were almost in a coma; and then we tore up the whole day’s output. This woman must surely have been descended from Snorri Sturluson. One thing is certain, that she never deviated from the most stringent standards of Icelandic prose style. Often when I myself am writing something, this woman comes to my mind again. Unfortunately, she failed to realize that one can set one’s literary standards so high that it becomes impossible to utter a single word or groan except at the very most to say A-a-a. Often these letter-writing sessions would end with the woman taking a fit. I would leave the cubicle, defeated, with the pen and stationary, and close the door.
from “The Fish Can Sing“, by Icelandic Nobel Prize winner Hálldor Laxness
This man has just earned a lot of points in my admiration scale thanks to this interview.
On art: You try to go to a producer today and say you want to make a film that hasn’t been made before; they will throw you out because they want the same film that works, that makes money. An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?
On screenwriting: A screenplay has to be like a haiku. It has to be very concise and very clear, minimal. When you go to make it as a film, you’re going to listen to the actors and the photographer because they have great ideas, and then you make the decision that you feel is best. Cinema is collaboration.
On money: I have another job. I make films, but I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script. 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you’d be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. This idea of some rock n’ roll singer being rich, that’s not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I’m going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money? So I would say, “Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.”
On this last topic, Neil Gaiman has something important to say:
The times they are a-changin’. The debate goes on.
I don’t think I’ve ever -except perhaps when I was twelve or thirteen- written so much about a single story, not to mention with such regularity. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m really doing this, simply because I decided myself uncapable a long time ago. My pride beats fast within my chest and it seems strange that some people are not feeling it – that they are not creating a story right now and still live in peace, like they’re not missing a thing – or that they don’t feel so proud of me that they have the urge to talk about it and boast. This is so important for me, it’s always been so important for me, that it seems strange that people wouldn’t congratulate me like it’s my birthday or one of those events when it’s nice to cheer up and celebrate.
Beautiful, huh? Congratulations, Cos!