(image by courtesy of Robert Avrech)
My guest today is Hollywood screenwriter and producer, Robert Avrech. Welcome to OpEdNews, Robert. You've been in the business for a long time. How did you get your start?
I got started in Hollywood as a child -- by going to the movies every chance I got.
Growing up as an Orthodox Jew and attending yeshiva, I discovered, much to the chagrin of my parents and teachers, that I was far more interested in the movies than in school.
As I grew older, I started writing stories, and then screenplays. By the time I finished high school I had written at least a dozen screenplays. Each one a bit better than the last.
I was in Israel in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, and I wrote a pretty powerful script about three women whose husbands were on the front lines. The script cut back and forth between fairly brutal scenes of war, and the more mundane, but tortured lives of the waiting wives. The structure was complex, but it read effortlessly, and the characters were quite vivid. I knew that this script was special. It was just a gut feeling that finally I had written something that was professional and entertaining.
After I returned to America, I sent the script to every agent in NY, Naturally, my queries were completely ignored. But then, a year later, I got a call from director Brian De Palma, who had read my script--his agent thought it was really good and dropped it on Brian's desk. Brian told me he greatly admired my script. He asked me to come to his office for a meeting. He had no interest in making my script into a movie, but he had an idea for a thriller and wanted me to write it. He thought I had the right sensibility to author the movie he had in mind. Both Brian and I greatly admire Alfred Hitchcock so we were pretty much on the same page aesthetically. That's how I came to write Body Double, a superb thriller that immediately thrust me into the Hollywood limelight.
I'd like to know more about the art of screenwriting. Isn't it hard to craft a screenplay based on someone else's idea, to climb into his mind? Also, Brian DePalma was and still is a big name, while you were just a young pup. Weren't you intimidated?
I have written original scripts (A Stranger Among Us), scripts based on novels (The Devil's Arithmetic), scripts based on non-fiction best sellers (Into Thin Air).
Writing a screenplay based on an idea by someone else, if the idea is solid, is just another corridor in the (futile) search to craft a flawless, air-tight narrative. What happens with me, and I suspect, all professional screenwriters, is a process of of internalization: The story becomes you.
Brian De Palma came to me with a very general idea for Body Double. I immediately responded to its Hitchcockian theme of an innocent man drawn into a murder by a beautiful woman (Deborah Shelton), who then sets out to solve the mystery with the aid of a beautiful blonde (Melanie Griffith). Both Brian and I were, and are, huge fans of Alfred Hitchcock's movies. Together we screened Rear Window and Vertigo, and discussed the narrative strategies Hitch used in both films. So in a sense, I was working off of De Palma's ideas of Hitchcock's ideas.
I actually do!
One must also keep in mind that movies are a collaborative endeavor. The Hollywood screenwriter works alone only when he's at the keyboard. In truth, a professional screenwriter is always working with a studio/network, a line of producers, a director, and of course, when the film goes into production, his words then become the property of the actors. Obviously, the army of technicians who go into the making a multi-million dollar Hollywood production are vital: the cinematographer, the set designer, the costume designer, the prop people, etc.
Another issue when working from someone else's idea is there are only 36 plots in the universe of narratives. Thus, every story is a reworking of an old myth or legend that we have seen and heard countless times. The trick is to reinvent these 36 stories in a manner that makes them feel new and original. So, in a very real sense, a screenwriter is always working from a classic idea. And in the end, it's really just one idea: because all great stories are... love stories.
I was hugely intimidated by Brian De Palma... for about ten minutes. And then, as with all Hollywood celebrities with whom I have worked, he became just another homo sapiens, with all the virtues and flaws one finds in our species.