One of the most beloved American movies – and also one of my personal favorites — is To Kill a Mockingbird, the cinematic version of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. The writer who adapted the novel into a screenplay is Horton Foote. A noted playwright as well as screenwriter, Foote’s movie credits include Tender Mercies (1983), The Trip to Bountiful (1985), and Of Mice and Men (1992). In a writing career that spanned 5 decades, Foote penned the original screenplay for Main Street while in his 90s. That movie was produced this year, the same year that Foote died at the age of 93.
Here are excerpts from “Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s”, edited by Patrick McGilligan.
ON WHAT HE LEARNED ABOUT WRITING FROM HIS TRAINING AS AN ACTOR
…for me there was a whole period of unlearning the bad habits I had picked up in my conventional training as an actor, which was to be very vocal and to work things out vocally rather than to find my inner life. They gave us a whole series of exercises for actors… The whole sense of the through-line, the sense of actions, what people want on stage.
It applied to me wonderfully as a writer, because in my work as an actor, I would break a play down so that, without really knowing it, I was studying its structure in the sense of what it was the characters wanted. That’s really much more important than the result of the character: what do they want, what causes the conflict between them, what is the structure of the scene, what is the overall through-line of the play, what is the spine, what does everything kind of hold on to. That was one way in which I could instinctually, as an actor, work on trying to understand the play.
ON WRITING “THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL”
I had an idea based on a certain situation in my family that haunted me. Originally, I had tried to start the story of The Trip to Bountiful on the day that Mrs. Watts was forced by her father to marry her husband—emotionally, if not physically, forced—and the story just wasn’t working. By that time, I knew enough to know that you can’t use your well if it’s not working. So I just put the work aside, and I don’t know how or why—what the mechanics were—but a couple of days later, I realized I had started the story all wrong. I decided I had to start at the end of her life. When I did that, I wrote the script very quickly.
I could never tell one of my stories until after it was written, because it would ruin it for me. After I wrote it, I went down to see Fred [Coe – producer] and told him the story. He used to say that all I told him was something about this old lady who wanted to get back home. I don’t believe that; maybe it’s true. Then, he used to say—he always laughed about this—”Two days later, you sent me a full script.” Of course, the script was already written.
Well, we did the play on television, and of course, it was ‘live’. None of us realized the power and phenomenon of the play, but that night we began to sense it, because after the show the phones in the studio started to ring, and they rang and rang. People were calling and talking about Lillian Gish [who played the leading role of Mrs. Carrie Watts]. They had seen her performance and were excited because they had not seen her for years. The response was so emotional.
For the film, I added things, of course. You had to. It was the first time I could actually take the trip, because in the days of live television, the restrictions of television were much like theater. Peter said, “Who do you want in the part, then?” I said, “I want Geraldine Page.” He said, “I absolutely agree.”
ON WRITING “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD”
Well, I don’t like to adapt, to begin with. It’s a very painful process—a big responsibility—particularly if you like something, which I usually have to do. In the case of Mockingbird, it was sent to me, and I said, “I’m not going to read it because I don’t want to do it.” My wife read it—she’s passed on now—but she had enormous influence on me. She said to me, “You’d better stop and read this book.” So I read it and felt I could really do something with it. [The producer] Alan [Pakula] and [the director] Bob [Mulligan] had offered it to Harper [Lee, the book’s author] to adapt, and she didn’t want to do it. They felt she and I should meet, so they brought Harper out to Nyack, and we had an evening together and kind of fell in love. That script was a very happy experience.
I have to find ways to get into things. I had read R. P. Blackmur, a critic I admired, and he wrote a review-essay about it called “A Scout in the Wilderness,” comparing the novel to Huck Finn. That meant a lot to me because Huck Finn was something I always wanted to do and still would like to do as a film—if you could, although you would have to wait until the era of being politically correct about it has passed. The comparison to Huck Finn made my imagination go.
Harper also told me that [the character of] Deal was based on Truman Capote, and that was very helpful to me. The contribution Alan made was to say, “Now look, just stop worrying about the time frame of the novel and try to bring it into focus in one year of seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer.” Architecturally, that was a big help. Then I felt I could compress and take away and add from that point of view.
ON WRITING “OF MICE AND MEN”
Of Mice and Men, again I resisted. But I had great respect for [the actor-director] Gary Sinise. My great resistance there was it had been done so much—what in the world could anybody ever say that was different? I had spent my young manhood pretending I was Lenny. Everybody was doing Lenny in those days. But then I reread the novella, and I was struck by how fresh it seemed, particularly how it related to today, with the rootlessness and the hopelessness and the migratory conditions. I felt quite taken with it. Then—I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this, because it’s considered a classic—I happened to run off the [Lewis] Milestone film [Of Mice and Men, 1940], which I decided was terrible. I thought it was full of clich?s and everything I didn’t want to do. Gary agreed with me. He said, “Don’t pay any attention to that silly thing.” He had a great passion about the male-bonding idea. He sent me a film, which I’d never seen, called Scarecrow, with Al Pacino, who I think is a remarkable actor, and Gene Hackman, also a wonderful actor. It is a tale of two guys on the road—very different from Steinbeck—but suddenly, I found myself interested in doing Of Mice and Men and exploring it.
ON WRITING “TENDER MERCIES”
I was working on my Orphans’ Home Cycle, as a matter of fact working on Night Seasons and a number of other things. I was living in New Hampshire, and I needed some money. My agent, Lucy Kroll, told me, “They like you out in Hollywood. You’re so peculiar—you won’t pitch—but if you would just give me a few lines about something, I could get you some money to write it and to finish these other projects.”
I thought about it. I was very interested in my nephew who was part of a group that had been playing around for gigs, as they call them, and the life of musicians reminded me much of what I had gone through as an actor. Most of the group had jobs on the side, and they would sometimes go to play at places where somebody—maybe the manager—had hired two orchestras for the same night, but the first one that showed up got the job. I began to think about a country-western band, paralleling it to my experiences as an actor—that kind of rejection. I told this idea to someone at 20th Century-Fox and she rather liked it and she told me that her boss was coming in from Hollywood. His name was Gareth Wigan, a partner with Alan Ladd, and would I tell it to him?
I thought that was easy enough, so I told it to him. He liked it but said, “There’s only one thing. I think somewhere in there there should be an older character.” I said, “Okay—I’ll think about it.” He said, “But I want to make a deal with you. When your agent comes out [to Hollywood], have her come round, and we’ll work out a contract.”
Out Lucy [Kroll] went. She got off the plane, bought the Reporter or Variety, and the first thing she read was that Wigan and Ladd had left Fox. In the meantime, I had been thinking about the idea, as is my wont. I got intrigued, and because I really don’t like to accept money before things are written, I thought I’d just pull in my belt and write it. I did and felt it was a wonderful part for Duvall; so I called him up, and we met in New York at a place I was subletting. I read it to him, and he said he’d do it.
It wasn’t all that easy to get it done. It took us almost two years. A man named Philip S. Hobel and his wife, Mary-Ann Hobel, were very helpful as producers; then of course [the director] Bruce Beresford was a great gift to us. I had seen Breaker Morant —which I loved and still love as a film—but I didn’t think he would be interested in this at all. In the meantime, we’d been turned down by many directors. Bruce was sent the script in Australia. He told me he usually waits a month before reading a script, but something told him to go to this one right away, so he read it. Halfway through it, he called up and said he’d do it. He said, “I just have to know one thing—if I can get along with the writer.” And we got along very well.
ON THE RECURRING THEME OF HOME IN HIS STORIES
I think themes do reappear constantly in one’s work. I thought what Ben Brantley said about Night Seasons was very perceptive, and I’m going to write him a little note and thank him for it. He spoke about the theme of home reappearing in my works, and how it surfaces and was worked out in Night Seasons, and that’s true. I know it does reappear all the time. It’s almost an irony in the sense that [the character of] Josie lives in this apartment and can’t even remember names anymore; Laura Lee, all she has are pictures of houses that she pastes into a scrapbook; and Thurman and Delia, who get a house, it’s hell for them—because they fight all the time—home has no meaning for them at all. In that sense, it’s a very ironical use of the desire for home.
ON HOW HE COMES UP WITH STORY IDEAS
I also keep notebooks, and sometimes just a phrase in a notebook will start me off. I never know. I’ve also learned that you can’t really predict the time for the consolidation of the idea. You can use your will, and you can say, “I know this is wonderful—I’m going to make it work,” and it just won’t do it. Something is larger there, and you have to say, “Okay, you win.” Katherine Anne Porter has that theory about the drawer: you put something in a drawer, and when you go back to it, something has happened to it. Sometimes something bad happens to it.
ON WRITING AND ‘GRACE’
It’s a very mysterious thing—writing. It’s like acting: You can study techniques until you drop over on your face. Then there’s the x factor. It’s not fair, because I know the most wonderful, the hardest-working people in the world that are actors. They know all the technical things, but nothing much happens. The same with many writers that I know. But with certain writers, their talent is the essence of the person. It’s something that’s uniquely theirs. It’s—Grace, maybe. It’s like the palm of your hand. It’s your voice. You can pick up certain stories and know immediately who wrote that story after three or four paragraphs. I don’t think that can be taught, and I don’t know where that comes from. It’s one of the great mysteries, as far as I’m concerned.
For more on Horton Foote: Go here for an anecdote Foote and Robert Duvall share about Tender Mercies. And here for the GITS post in memory of Foote upon the announcement of his death March 4, 2009.
[Originally posted December 2, 2009]