I grew up in so many neighborhoods and went to so many
schools that each place created a kind of temporal slice of life for me, like
the striations in rock formations. East School in Long Beach, Long Island, PS
109 and PS 78 in Jamaica, Queens, and many junior high schools in both Los
Angeles and Long Island. I went to Long Beach High School, Jamaica High School,
New York Military Academy, and finally graduated from Great Neck High School.
All this change has enabled me to remember the past very well, the houses I
lived in and the people I knew at different ages.
I remember I was always telling stories and building
things. Kindergarten was probably the high point in my life. There were huge
building blocks out of which I could make structures or shelters or hideaways,
a whole world, which my friends could pass into. I remember I made the best
structures, and the other kids all wanted to come into them. And I was one of
the best storytellers. I could read at five (due to comic books), and I knew
all the fairy tales from beginning to end: Hans Christian Andersen and the
Grimm tales. I knew “Rose Red” and “Snow White.” I loved “The Tinder Box,” the
story of a young soldier who is given a tinderbox and when he lights it a
magical dog appears and grants him any wish.
My favorite story was “The Little Mermaid,” probably
because I didn’t quite understand the ending and had great difficulty in
telling it. I see now that’s because the story is tragic. Back then, I was
overwhelmed that the Mermaid had to go through so much for the love of the
prince, and even danced for him, though it felt like dancing on broken glass
and knives, until she became only a voice and foam on the sea.
One thing motivated my desire to build structures and tell
stories: to be near the little girls. I wanted to please them and talk to them
and braid their hair and have them find me interesting. I wanted a princess and
to be the prince. I’m not sure which came first, telling the stories to please
the girls, or loving the stories and wanting to share them with the girls I
admired. Nonetheless, that is what I remember.
The first piece of fiction I read that really moved me was
a paperback my family had of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
I thought the play was an incredible combination of the magical and the tragic.
It was so lyrical and poetic and human and heartbreaking and memorable and
funny. Because of this experience I began to prefer reading plays; they swept
me up in their flow and carried me along in an exciting continuum, ending
usually in an emotional conclusion. Williams’s play made me want to become a
playwright. The one commodity held most precious in my family was “talent,” and
so I wanted it more than anything. I tried and tried at playwriting—longer
plays and one-act plays and musicals, and some of them were all right, I guess.
But basically I failed, and I can remember one night at age sixteen at New York
Military Academy when I wept myself to sleep because I had no talent.
Then a surprising thing happened. I became a director. I
started as the one who hung the lights and set the stage, and I would watch the
actors from a ladder. And one of the results of my failure as a playwright was
that I became a successful director in junior terms, directing the plays in
high school and college. Later I went to UCLA’s graduate film school and I
found that the other students hadn’t even tried to write. At least I had tried
repeatedly for years, even if it was to no avail. I had put in my time. And
suddenly I found a new facility for writing that had never been there before,
and I wrote a few things that were well received. And then I won UCLA’s main
writing prize, the Samuel Goldwyn Award, normally given to novelists or
playwrights. I won the award for an original screenplay, the first time that
Storytelling for film, or screenwriting, came to me not
because I was a genius with magical narrative gifts, but because I was willing
to try things out, rewrite continually, steal ideas, veer in strange
directions, and make use of accidents and my own intuition. I would try any
means of working: pencil, typewriter, dictation machine. In fact, in the case
of the script for The Conversation, I dictated the entire script to an
airline hostess I didn’t know who did clerical work (transcription) on the
side. She looked like Dominique Sanda, so mysterious and enchanting. I really
worked on the script in such a diligent manner because I didn’t want her to
think I was a slouch. When I named the main character, I meant “Harry Call,”
but she transcribed him as “Harry Caul,” and I left it that way. It sort of
made sense because he was an extremely secretive man who always wore a
see-through plastic raincoat. The mistranscription was an accident and a
discovery that gave me insight into my new character.
The same sort of accident kept happening when I was
filming Apocalypse Now. I had John Milius’s imaginative script with the
great Wagner helicopter attack and lines like “I love the smell of napalm in
the morning” and “Charlie don’t surf!” but I basically made much of the film
from a notated copy of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that fit into my back
pocket. Another accident happened when I cast Dennis Hopper. Originally, he was
meant to play a different part, but when I saw him and picked up his personality,
he reminded me of the character of “the Russian” in Heart of Darkness
and of the stories of Sean Flynn, the drugged-out photojournalist who covered Vietnam.
So I put a native shirt on Dennis, hung a lot of cameras around his neck, and
out came the character—one that hadn’t existed in the script.
To me, a director is sort of a ringleader, a master of
ceremonies who calls upon all his resources and talented collaborators to join
in to make a film: his writer, or his skills at writing, his actors, his
cameraman, his set and costume designers, his editor. He collaborates,
orchestrates, and serves as the final arbiter. A fiction writer does something
different. He throws something out and depends on his readers to collaborate,
to use their powers of visualization, their emotions, sense of location, and
mood to fill in all the elements of the story. It’s the same collaborative
process forced in a different direction.
I think of my own storytelling as tapestry making. A good
story, a moving story, needs to have colors and textures. It needs to be woven
in a way that includes the juices of life. The process of weaving that
tapestry, at least my way of doing it, is like watching a Polaroid photo
emerge. It’s always there entirely, but only gradually does it take focus and
shape. When you’re filming a story or writing one, you need to constantly
reshape, refocus, and respin the material according to one central belief,
until something remarkable and true becomes apparent. The process is always
more an investigation of something than an execution of it. You’re on an
adventurous journey, really, trying to figure out what it is to be a human
So that little five-year-old boy in East School’s fabulous
kindergarten founded Zoetrope: All-Story magazine to cultivate
storytelling. When a short story is good, it fills in ideas, characters, and
plot, which can be made into a play, a novel, or a film. This issue of stories
by filmmakers is, for the most part, an inversion of my original idea for Zoetrope.
It features the work of writers who have already been cultivated and who have
already gone out and made films, as well as written scripts and novels. But it
shows they still have the desire to tell a story solely with words, so as to
allow the readers to supply the pictures in their minds.
I hope you enjoy this all-cinema issue. And if you desire
to write yourself, I can suggest a basic exercise that will help, if you do it
every morning: Apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.
To read other stories from the Winter 2003 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.