“She wrote that [The Big Sleep] like a man. She writes good.”– Howard Hawks, quoted in “Hawks on Hawks”
The “she” to whom Hawks was referring was screenwriter Leigh Brackett. Brackett, whose career spanned four decades, demonstrated incredible breadth in terms of genres with writing credits on movies as diverse as The Big Sleep (1946), Rio Bravo (1959), Hatari! (1962), Rio Lobo (1970), The Long Goodbye (1973), and ending with a posthumous co-writer credit on Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), shared with Larry Kasdan.
Here are some notable excerpts from the book “Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s”, edited by Patrick McGilligan:
ON HOW SHE GOT HER START AS A SCREENWRITER
My agent, Hugh King, had been with Myron Selznick, my agency at that time, and he had gone over to Republic as story editor and had sort of managed to shoehorn me in because they were doing this horror film . They decided to cash in on the Universal monster school, and I had been doing science fiction, and to them it all looked the same—”bug-eyed monsters.” It made no difference. I did The Vampire’s Ghost there, and just out of the clear blue sky this other thing happened, purely on the strength of a hard-boiled mystery novel I had published. Howard Hawks read the book and liked it. He didn’t buy the book, for which I can’t blame him, but he liked the dialogue and I was put under contract to him.
ON HER ‘COLLABORATION’ WITH WILLIAM FAULKNER ON “THE BIG SLEEP”
I went to the studio the first day absolutely appalled. I had been writing pulp stories for about three years, and here is William Faulkner, who was one of the great literary lights of the day, and how am I going to work with him? What have I got to offer, as it were? This was quickly resolved, because when I walked into the office, Faulkner came out of his office with the book The Big Sleep and he put it down and said: “I have worked out what we’re going to do. We will do alternate sections. I will do these chapters and you will do those chapters.” And that was the way it was done. He went back into his office and I didn’t see him again, so the collaboration was quite simple. I never saw what he did and he never saw what I did. We just turned our stuff in to Hawks.
I think everybody got very confused. It’s a confusing book if you sit down and tear it apart. When you read it from page to page, it moves so beautifully that you don’t care, but if you start tearing it apart to see what makes it tick, it comes unglued. Owen Taylor, I believe, was the name of the chauffeur. I was down on the set one day and Bogart came up and said, “Who killed Owen Taylor?” I said, “I don’t know.” We got hold of Faulkner and he said he didn’t know, so they sent a wire to Chandler. He sent another wire back and said: “I don’t know.” In the book it is never explained who killed Owen Taylor, so there we were.
ON WORKING WITH HOWARD HAWKS
It’s a collaboration. The whole thing is a team effort. A writer can not possibly, when he’s writing a film, do exactly what he wants to do as when he’s writing a novel. If I sit down to write a novel, I am God at my own typewriter, and there’s nobody in between. But if I’m doing a screenplay, it has to be a compromise because there are so many things outside a writer’s province. Hawks was also a producer, and he had so many things to think about that had nothing to do with the creative effort—with the story—like cost and budget and technical details that you must learn to integrate. You cannot possibly just go and say: “Well, I want to do it thus and such and so,” because presently they say: “Thanks very much and goodbye.” it just has to be that way.
“Tuning in to the same channel”: Leigh Brackett and director Howard Hawks at work on Rio Bravo (Photo: Museum of Modern Art)
I don’t like to say this, because it sounds presumptuous, but Hawks and I kind of tuned in on the same channel with regard to the characters, and I think this is probably one reason that I worked with him so long. He was able to get out of me what he wanted because I had somewhat the same attitude towards the characters as he did.
ON HER WORK WITH “THE LONG GOODBYE”
Elliott Kastner, who was the executive producer, used to be my agent at MCA a long time ago and we’re good friends. He remembered The Big Sleep and he wanted me to work on The Long Goodbye . He set the deal with United Artists, and they had a commitment for a film with Elliott Gould, so either you take Elliott Gould or you don’t make the film. Elliott Gould was not exactly my idea of Philip Marlowe, but anyway there we were. Also, as far as the story was concerned, time had gone by—it was twenty-odd years since the novel was written, and the private eye had become a cliché. It had become funny. You had to watch out what you were doing. If you had Humphrey Bogart at the same age that he was when he did The Big Sleep, he wouldn’t do it the same way. Also, we were faced with a technical problem of this enormous book, which was the longest one Chandler ever wrote. It’s tremendously involuted and convoluted. If you did it the way he wrote it, you would have a five-hour film.
I worked with another director who was on it before, Brian G. Hutton. He had a brilliant idea which just didn’t work, and we wrote ourselves into a blind alley on that. It was a technical problem of plotting—the heavy had planned this whole thing from the start. So what you had was a prearranged thing where everybody sort of got up out of several boxes and did and said exactly what they had to do and say in order to get you where you had to be. It was very contrived and didn’t work. Brian had to leave because he had another commitment, so when Altman came onto it I went over to London for a week. He was cutting Images , which was a magnificent film—beautiful, powerful. We conferred about ten o’clock in the morning and yakked all day, and I went back to the hotel and typed all the notes and went back the next day. In a week we had it all worked out. He was a joy to work with. He had a very keen story mind.
ON WHAT SHE THINKS OF WESTERNS AS A MOVIE GENRE
Every once in a while I go back and read a little Western history, which is a marvelous corrective. Hollywood has created a totally mythic West, which never existed on land or sea. The whole concept of the hero, I think, began with Owen Wister’s The Virginian, more or less. Ever since, there’s been a too great feeding on oneself. When you utilize the same elements over and over, you finally begin to turn out excrement. The trouble is we’ve gotten away from what actually happened in the West. I wish that somebody would just read a little history. The pioneers were hardworking people who worked like mad to scratch to stay in one place. It was a hard, cruel country out there. These were heroes in a different sense, because they fought however they could to hold onto what they had. They didn’t worry about who drew first. They just went up from behind with a shotgun. The idea was: “Don’t get killed yourself—kill him.”
Of course, I like the Hollywood Western because it’s fun, but I think that some people are taking it far too seriously, because they’re not dissecting anything real to begin with.
ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SCREENWRITING AND FICTION WRITING
I sort of went off into corners and wept a few times at things that made me very unhappy. I think the hardest thing about adapting to working with other people was that. Because I was a fiction writer primarily, and I was used to writing in a little room with the door shut, just myself and the type-writer—all of a sudden I’m sitting in this room with film people and I’ve got to talk ideas. God I froze. Everything I was about to say sounded so dreadful. It took me quite a few years to adapt and also to learn my craft, because I don’t think there’s anything better than screenwriting to teach you the construction of a story.
I was very poor on construction when I first began. If I could hit it right from the first word and go straight through, then it was great. If I didn’t, I ended up with half-finished stories in which I had written myself into a box canyon and couldn’t fight my way out. In film writing you get on overall conception of a story and then you go through these endless story conferences. Hawks used to walk in and he’d say: “I’ve been thinking . . .” My heart would go right down into my boots. Here we go: Start at the top of page one and go right through it again. But you still have to keep that concept. It’s like building a wall. You’ve got the blocks, and you’ve got the wall all planned, and then somebody says: “I think we’ll take this stone out of here and we’ll put it over there. And we’ll make this one a red one and that one a green one.” You’re still trying to keep the overall shape of the story, but you’re changing the details. It took me a long time, but I finally learned how to do it.
[Originally posted February 18, 2010]