Creative Screenwriting (2000) - "North by Northwest": An Interview with Ernest Lehman
- article: "North by Northwest": An Interview with Ernest Lehman
- journal: Creative Screenwriting (01/Nov/2000)
- issue: volume 7, issue 6, pages 47-53
- journal ISSN: 1084-8665
- publisher: Creative Screenwriting
- keywords: 20th Century Limited, Academy Awards, Alfred Hitchcock, American cinema, Bernard Herrmann, Careers, Cary Grant, Chicago, Illinois, Collaborations, Documentary: The Man on Lincoln's Nose, Ernest Lehman, Eva Marie Saint, Family Plot (1976), Feature films, Film (Productions), Film (USA), Film directors, Grace Kelly, Grand Central Station, New York City, New York, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Kim Novak, LaSalle Street Station, Chicago, Illinois, Madeleine Carroll, Madison Avenue, New York City, New York, Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, New York City, New York, North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946), Paramount Pictures, Paul Newman, Plaza Hotel, New York City, New York, Production Code Administration, Psycho (1960), Robert Donat, Robin Wood, Roger O. Thornhill, Saboteur (1942), Screenplays, Screenwriters, Screenwriting, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The 39 Steps (1935), The Short Night, The Wreck of the Mary Deare, Tippi Hedren, United Nations, New York City, New York, Universal Studios, Vertigo (1958), Vincent Canby
Interview with Ernest Lehman
In 1957, you were one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood, and Alfred Hitchcock decided that he'd like you to write his next picture.
That's right. MGM had bought a novel called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, and they told me that Hitch wanted me to write it.
Had you met him before?
Just once. We were introduced by Bernard Herrmann, and we had lunch together. Benny thought we'd get along well, and we did.
So why did you turn down The Wreck of the Mary Deare?
When I read the novel, I just didn't see the movie in it. It was mostly a naval inquiry into something that had happened in the past, and I felt it would be too static.
But the book began with a very intriguing scene.
Yes, the ship was found in a channel with nobody on board. But that was the only good scene in the whole novel. All the rest of it was the inquiry.
But Hitchcock still wanted you for the picture.
My agent, who was also Hitchcock's agent, let me know that Hitch was very upset that I'd turned him down. I guess he wasn't used to that. So a couple of weeks later, my agent asked me if I'd be willing to have lunch with Hitchcock at the Polo Lounge. So I said, "Why not? I'm sure we'll have a good time together." And we did have a good time, and I came away thinking, "Maybe Hitch knows how to do the picture." So even though I still had my doubts, I decided to do it.
Did you talk much about the picture at that meeting?
Not at all.
Then how did things go when you started working on the script?
Well, I went to his house every day for about three weeks, and I realized that every time I brought up the subject of Mary Deare, he would change the subject. So, I began to suspect that he didn't know any more about how to do the picture than I did. Finally, I went to his house one morning and said, "I've got bad news for you, Hitch. You'll have to get another writer. I don't know how to write this picture." And he said, "Don't be silly, Ernie. We'll do something else." And I said, "But what'll we tell MGM?" And he said, "We won't tell them a thing." And that's how it evolved.
How did you break the news to MGM?
That was later on, when we were working on North by Northwest, and Hitch said, "Don't you think it's time we told MGM that we're not doing Mary Deare?" Everybody at the studio thought we were moving along just fine with the picture. People used to salute me in the hallways and say, "Hello, Skipper, how's it going?" But Hitch wanted me to tell them, and I said, "I'm not going to tell them. You're going to have to do it." So, he did it. He went to a meeting and told them that it was taking too long to write Mary Deare, and that we were planning to do another script instead. The studio people, who apparently assumed that Hitch was now planning to do two pictures for the studio, were delighted. Then he glanced down at his wristwatch, said he had to go — because we didn't really have a story at that point — and left. And that was that.
After you'd decided to do an original script, I believe Hitchcock suggested a film on the life of Jack Sheperd, an eighteenth century English escape artist?
Yes. After the decision to drop Mary Deare was made, we spent a couple of months just talking about ideas and possibilities. And Hitch brought up a lot of subjects that I wasn't interested in, and, I guess, I brought up a few that he wasn't interested in. And one of his suggestions was a picture about an escape artist, which didn't interest me at all.
You once discussed the fact that, in those days, doing an original script was looked down on in Hollywood circles.
That's right. It wasn't as highly regarded as it is now. If you were at a party back then, and somebody said, "What are you doing these days?" and if you answered, "I'm doing an original script," it suggested that you really weren't doing anything at all — since almost all of the pictures back then were adaptations of plays or novels.
And those scripts would have the prestige of the book or the play behind them.
Was it different with this project, given that you were working with Hitchcock?
Well, for me personally, none of this mattered anyway. I never went to a party where anyone said, "Oh, you're doing an original? Too bad." That never happened.
Once you were finally under way on the script, you decided to do "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures." What did you mean by that?
I meant something that was witty and entertaining, with lots of suspense, and all kinds of colorful locales — things like that. Everything that I'd enjoyed in Hitchcock pictures from the past.
The one I think of the most is The 39 Steps, where you have someone who from out of nowhere falls into a complicated spy web, and the action of the film moves around quite a bit, up to Scotland and then back to London.
Was there humor in it?
Yes, especially between the leads. Remember when they were handcuffed together?
It was. Now, in the process of writing the film, it seems that you began with a list of disparate ideas that Hitchcock mentioned as possible scenes for the movie. Could you discuss them?
Yes. They were all wonderful, and I took them all down, and I never used most of them. For some reason, Hitch wanted to do the longest dolly shot in cinema history. The idea was that the shot would begin with an assembly line, and then you'd gradually see the parts of the car added and assembled, and, all the while, the camera's dollying for miles along with the assembly line, and then eventually there's a completed car, all built, and it's driven off the assembly line, and there's a dead body in the backseat.
Did you try to work that one into the script?
Not really. It was intriguing, but it had no place in the picture. Then Hitch told me another one: there's a speech being made at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the speaker suddenly stops. He's irritated, and he says he's not going to continue until the delegate from Brazil wakes up. So a UN page goes over to the man, taps him on the shoulder, and the delegate falls over dead. But he'd been doodling — and that's the only clue to the murder — and his doodling is a sketch of the antlers of moose. So I said, "Well, that's intriguing — now we've got the United Nations, and Detroit, and what might seem like a reference to northern Canada." And Hitch said that he'd always wanted to do a scene at Lake Louise where a family is having a reunion — a get-together — and a twelve-year-old girl takes a gun out of a baby carriage and shoots someone. I realize that all these ideas sound very peculiar and unrelated, but I took them all down and thought about them.
Wasn't there something in Alaska?
Yes. There's a hole in the ice, and an Eskimo is fishing, and a hand suddenly comes up out of the water. As you can see, all these ideas seemed to be moving in a northwesterly direction, starting in New York. Hitch also mentioned something about wanting to do a shot where people take off in a little plane that has skis on the ice instead of wheels, and that reinforced the idea of heading northwest. So, I started calling the project In a Northwesterly Direction.
Where did Mount Rushmore come in?
That also came up in those discussions. Just like he'd said, "I always wanted to do a dolly shot in an auto factory," he said, "I always wanted to do a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore." And I thought, "Hey, I really like that idea." And that was the seed of the flower that took eleven months to grow. But I had to ask myself, "Who's chasing whom over the faces of Mount Rushmore?" and "How do they get there?" and "Why?" And that took quite a bit of doing on my part. I remember that I used to squeeze out a tiny bit of the screenplay every day, fully convinced that it would never actually become a movie. There were many nights when I would be driving home from the studio thinking that we were just kidding ourselves — and wondering how long the charade would go on. The truth is, even with all my experience, I really didn't know how to write the script. I'd never written a movie like that before, but gradually I eked it out — or, at least, the first sixty-five pages — and then Hitch went off to make Vertigo. So I'd sit there in my lonely office, and many times I'd go home at night having written less than half a page, completely discouraged. And several times I tried to quit while he was away, but my agent wouldn't let me, saying, "You've already quit The Wreck of the Mary Deare, you can't quit this one too." So I was kind of trapped into doing it.
Like Roger Thornhill.
Yes, like my own character, always wondering, "How can I get out of this?" And the only way I could get out of it was to "write" my way out of it. And I think that, despite the unpleasantness of having to work under those conditions, I wound up at the top of my form as a writer, and, later, Hitch was at the top of his form when he directed the picture. In a sense, it's unlike any picture he ever made. And it seems to have legs. They've just rereleased the film in Australia as a feature — all over again.
It's still extremely popular.
Yes, it's just incredible what endurance it has. It's kind of timeless.
It is. And one of its great pleasures is the ingeniousness of the plot. You can't watch the film without being amazed at how it keeps working itself out, how it keeps progressing. Given all its complications, it's amazing that you were actually writing the script without an overall plan without knowing where you were going, except to Mount Rushmore.
And I think that difficulty turned out to be very positive and beneficial. Since I never knew where I was going next, I was constantly painting myself into corners, and then trying to figure a way out of them. As a result, the picture has about ten acts instead of three, and if I'd tried to sit down at the beginning and conceive the whole plot, I could have never done it. Everything was written in increments: moving it a little bit forward, then a little bit more, one page at a time. Saying to myself, "Okay, you've got him out of Grand Central Station. Now he's on the train, now what? Well, there's no female character in it yet, I better put Eve on the train. But what should I do with her? And where should they meet? Well, let's see, I've ridden on the 20th Century, how about the dining car?" That's the way it went, very slowly. Always asking, "What do I do next?" So, in the end, the audience never knows what's coming next, because I didn't either.
It pays off consistently, and most thrillers don't.
Not at all. As a matter of fact, I'd forgotten all about The 39 Steps, and I was a little chagrined when somebody reminded me about it. I was a kid when that picture came out, and I'd mostly forgotten it. Then somebody reminded me that there was a helicopter chase in the film.
Well, it's not really a chase. Robert Donat is being pursued over the Scottish moors by the police, and there's a single, cut away shot of a surveillance hover craft. On the other hand, there is an extended train scene in the film as well as the other similarities I mentioned earlier.
Well, I guess if you write long enough, all kinds of parallelisms will pop up. And if you've gone to the movies all your life, you're bound to absorb certain things, and then reuse them without realizing that you're doing it. I'm sure that it happens, but when I was writing North by Northwest, I had no other films in my mind. I was struggling too much with the one I was working on.
Is it true that the idea of the nonexistent spy, Kaplan, was suggested to Hitchcock by a New York newspaperman?
Yes. That was back when Hitch and I were bouncing around ideas, and he said, "You know, I was at a cocktail party in New York, and Otis Gurnsey told me that the CIA had once used a nonexistent decoy." Gurnsey, who was a drama writer for the New York Sun, was wondering if Hitch could use it in one of his films sometime — and we did.
I didn't know that the CIA actually did it?
As far as I know, they did.
This may be a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if you were influenced by the 1956 British film The Man Who Never Was, which told the true story of the extraordinary World War II deception in which the British Secret Service took a corpse, dressed it up, gave it phony papers, and dropped it in the ocean off the coast of Spain? The deception was so effective that Hitler significantly altered his defenses for the Allied invasion of Italy.
I'm sure I didn't have it in mind, but, now that you mention it, I do remember that film. I guess you can never be sure where the hell your ideas come from. It's very hard to describe how one "writes," the actual process — unless you're writing an essay or an article, then you've got something specific to focus on. But when you're writing an original screenplay, you can't help but wonder where some of your ideas come from. Often, they just pop into your head in response to the questions you ask yourself. "How do I get out of this?" or "How do I get them to say that?" I decided to make Thornhill an advertising executive so he could talk in a kind of clever repartee, rather than speaking in a straightforward manner. I felt that would be more amusing, and that it sounded like something Cary Grant could do very well. That's one thing about that script that I'm very proud of — the dialogue, the repartee. Nobody ever says anything straight. Yet even though it's rather oblique, it's still perfectly understandable.
It's one of the cleverest scripts ever written, both for its plot and its dialogue. Now, I also wanted to ask you about your on site research trip for the film.
Well, I pretty much followed Thornhill's movements, beginning in New York where I spent five days at the United Nations. I was looking for a place where a murder could take place, and when they found out what I was up to, they banned Hitchcock from shooting there. So, he had to build his own sets in Culver City.
They're very convincing.
Yes, they are. I think Hitch managed to steal one shot at the UN — Cary walking up the steps and into the building — but that was it. Then, I went to a judge in Glen Cove, Long Island, and had him put me through the business of being arrested for drunk driving. I had no idea how to write that scene, and going through the process was a lot of fun.
Didn't you also check out the home of the Soviet ambassador while you were out on Long Island?
Yes, in Glen Cove. That's where the Russian delegation lived during the Cold War. They rented a mansion out there for the United Nations sessions.
Then, you headed "northwest."
Well, even though I'd traveled on the 20th Century when I was a New Yorker — and I certainly knew Grand Central Station and all that — I decided to take a trip on the 20th Century Limited just in case something useful stuck in my mind. So, I got off at the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, went to the Ambassador East Hotel, and checked things out. Then, I took the bullet train to Rapid City, South Dakota, hired a forest ranger on his day off, and started climbing Mount Rushmore. I wanted to climb to the top and see what was up there. But it was an absolutely idiotic thing to do. Halfway up, I looked down and thought, "God, I'm just a screenwriter. What the hell am I doing up here? One slip and I'm dead!" So, I gave the Polaroid camera to the forest ranger, and I told him to go up to the top and take photos of everything.
Did you wait where you were until he came back, or did you climb down by yourself?
I came back down by myself. Very, very carefully. It might be more accurate to say that I crawled back down. It was an absolutely idiotic idea.
Were the Polaroids any good?
Yes, but I was surprised that there's nothing much up there. Then the Department of Parks found out that we were planning to have people fall off the face of their famous monument, and they banned Hitchcock from shooting up there. He was furious. So the whole thing had to be constructed in Culver City. It was a marvelous job of set design. There was only one long shot that Hitch got at Rushmore. It was taken from the cafeteria, and they couldn't stop him from doing that. Looking back on it all, it was a very memorable project. But there was a lot of drama behind the drama — especially trying to get the script finished. There were constant, endless, seemingly insurmountable crises of script, but, somehow, I finished the first sixty-five pages, and I sent them off to Hitch. He was on vacation in the Bahamas at the time, and he sent me back a very enthusiastic, four page, handwritten letter. He loved the first sixty-five pages — which was high praise from Hitch — and it was very encouraging. So I kept pressing forward, and Hitch, confident that I now knew what the hell I was doing, moved over to MGM from his home base at Universal, and started storyboarding the script with his art director, and casting the roles. And all the time, I'm sitting there in my office sweating the fact that I have no idea whatsoever why the hell they're all going to Mount Rushmore! Why were these people heading to South Dakota? I had no idea! So, the last act of the script was blank. Actual blank pages! Then Cary Grant came on the picture with some astronomical salary, and I was still sitting there in my office with nothing but a partially-completed script. So I called up Hitch, and I told him we were in big trouble. He came rushing over to my office, sat across from me, and the two of us stared at each other. Finally, he suggested that we call in some mystery novelist to help us kick around ideas, but I didn't like the idea. After all, I was getting paid by MGM to write the thing, and I felt that it would make me look pretty foolish. I kept saying, "God, what'll they say about me upstairs?" and Hitch would say, "Don't worry, I'll tell them it's all my fault. I'll tell them I should've been able to help you, but I couldn't — or something like that."
Then we went to his office — it was about six o'clock in the evening — and we kept talking about his idea, even discussing which mystery writer we should get, and, all the time, the right side of my brain was working, and suddenly, as I was listening to him — not really ignoring him — I said, "She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him." So where the hell did that come from? It just popped into my head. That's the way it works sometimes: you've got a problem and, no matter what else is going on around you, the right side of your brain keeps working on it and then, suddenly, it pops out of nowhere. And Hitch took it right in stride. Even though I'd completely changed the subject and suddenly blurted out, "She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him," he didn't miss a beat and responded, "Yes, the Polish Underground sometimes killed their own members, just to prove they weren't in the Underground." And I said, "Yes, but these are fake bullets. That'll convince Van Damm that he has to take her away with him. Now that she's a fugitive, he'll decide to take her on the plane." And, instantly, I had the whole last act.
It must've been quite a relief.
It sure was. For both of us.
And it's still a very effective scene when she pulls out that gun in the Rush more cafeteria.
It's crazy, but it worked.
You've already mentioned Cary Grant a couple of times, but I read some where that Jimmy Stewart also wanted the lead, but you were convinced that Grant was right for the role.
Definitely. Both of them kept calling up Hitch and saying, "When's my picture going to be ready?" So very different from today! Nowadays, they'd be paying Cary Grant twenty million dollars a picture! If not more. And yes, I always felt Cary was right for Thornhill — the Madison Avenue type. Besides, if it was Jimmy Stewart, the picture would've been five hours long.
Because of all the dialogue?
That's right. All that repartee.
Is there any truth to the old story that the studio wanted Gregory Peck?
No, not at all.
It's currently listed on the back of the video box under "Facts From the Vault." Another one of the three listed "facts" is the old Hamlet error which we'll get to later.
Where do they get this crap from?
From the "vault" whatever that means. How about the female lead? Was Cyd Charisse ever considered for the role?
Not that I ever knew of. There might have been some talk about Princess Grace, but we were both delighted with Eva Marie Saint.
She was excellent just a few years after her extraordinary, Oscar winning performance in On the Waterfront. There are very few performers in cinema history who've starred in two classic films in their whole careers and she did it in less than five years.
That's right. And in such different roles, too. For North by Northwest, Hitch made her over into the image of his "cool blonde" type — like Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, or Tippi Hedren — and she was perfect.
Okay, now that the script's finally done, you have this long history of warring with directors and actors who try to alter your dialogue. So it must have been quite a relief to work with Hitchcock, who didn't allow that kind of thing.
That's definitely true. He never allowed a word to be changed. Just like Billy Wilder. Absolutely. I could be pretty awful about people messing with my lines; I guess I'm a very passive-aggressive person. I remember one time on From The Terrace, when they were rehearsing downstairs in New York, and I was up in my apartment at the Plaza Hotel, and the director called me and said, "Paul Newman's struggling. He says he can't read one of his speeches. He doesn't know how to do it." So, I said, "I'll be right down there." I immediately went downstairs, walked over to Paul, took the script, read the speech, handed him back the script, and said, "There, I read it. Now, you do it." It was very rude. But I was always very protective of my scripts, and Hitch respected that. But Cary Grant would get annoyed with me sometimes. Once on location in Bakersfield, when we were doing the crop duster sequence, we were sitting in the backseat of an air-conditioned limousine while they were setting things up, and Cary started complaining to me that he had to carry the whole story on his back. And I said, "Well, that's the way it's written." And he said, "You think you're making a Cary Grant picture? This is a David Niven picture!"
What did he mean by that?
Well, I guess he considered David Niven more "road company." Not as "suave." On a lower level.
Could you discuss the metamorphosis of the title?
As I mentioned earlier, all of Hitch's original ideas — even the ones I didn't use — seemed to be unconsciously moving in a northwesterly direction. So, that's what I called the project for quite a few months, In a Northwesterly Direction. Finally, after Hitchcock told them that I was writing an original screenplay instead of The Wreck of the Mary Deare, the head of the story department, Kenneth McKenna, heard the title, and he said, "Why don't you use North By Northwest as a working title?" So we did. And Hitchcock and I were always certain that it was only a working title and that we'd change it later when we came up with something better, but we never did.
What about The Man on Lincoln's Nose?
That's right, for about a week or so, we used that title. And, one day, Sammy Cahn, the great songwriter, came into my office and said, "I've got the title song." And he stood there in my office and sang "The Man on Lincoln's Nose." It was just like Broadway in the thirties. It was a love song, but it sounded like something from a Kaufman and Hart farce.
Some critics have incorrectly claimed that the title is a reference to Hamlet's remark, "I am but mad north northwest," and other critics have made much of the supposed "existential" significance of the fact that there's no such actual direction as "north by northwest."
It's those damned French critics, the auteurs. They're always coming up with all kinds of pretentious crap that has no basis in reality. They were always trying to attach deep, serious interpretations to everything that Hitchcock did, and he definitely liked all the attention. But the truth is, it wasn't until after the picture was done, that somebody wrote in and pointed out the quotation from Shakespeare where Hamlet says, "I am but mad north-northwest." And the same thing's true with the direction. When we were making the picture, we had no idea that "north by northwest" wasn't an actual direction. For some reason, it sounded right to us.
One of the most famous and most discussed sequences in American film is the crop duster attack on Thornhill. How did it transform from a cyclone to a crop duster?
One day, Hitch said to me, "I've always wanted to do a scene in the middle of nowhere — where there's absolutely nothing. You're out in the open, and there's nothing all around you. The camera can turn around 360 degrees, and there's nothing there but this one man standing all alone — because the villains, who are out to kill him, have lured him out to this lonely spot." Then Hitch continued, "Suddenly, a tornado comes along and..." "But Hitch," I interrupted, "how do the villains create a tornado?" and he had no idea. So I wondered, "What if a plane comes out of the sky?" And he liked it immediately, and he said, "Yes, it's a crop duster. We can plant some crops nearby." So we planted a fake cornfield in Bakersfield and did the scene that way. And, like you said, it became a very famous sequence. As a matter of fact, that's how I knew that Cary Grant had died. Every channel on TV was showing that shot of Cary running away from the plane. It's strange, isn't it, that such a distinguished career should be remembered mostly for that one shot?
But it's an unforgettable image.
Yes, it is.
I wonder if you were surprised at all by the way Hitchcock did the crop duster sequence. I know that you and Hitchcock discussed every shot in the film, but still, not many directors would've had the nerve or the confidence to shoot a seven minute sequence with only a few lines of dialogue.
Well, that's the way I wrote it, almost shot by shot. I pictured it that way, and I even acted it out for Hitch. But you're right, only Hitchcock would've had the guts to let all those cars go by with nothing else happening. But taking risks was one of Hitch's trademarks, and, since the audience knew it was a Hitchcock picture, they were willing to be patient.
And the scene grows more and more ominous. You know that "something" is coming.
Yes, like when the truck is approaching, and you start to wonder if it'll run him down, but, instead, there's just lots of dust. It's very surprising, and very effective. Hitch felt that the longer you can keep the audience waiting, the better.
Over the course of your career, you had a habit of suggesting camera shots to the directors you worked with. How did Hitchcock react to that?
The only time he ever really got angry at me — though I'm sure he got mad at me at other times — was about that very thing. Fed up, he suddenly burst out, "Why do you insist on telling me how to direct this picture?" And I said, "Why do you insist on telling me how to write it?" But that's the way I was. I'd get a picture in my head, and if I had a good idea about how it should be shot, I'd put it on paper. Why not? Some directors, like Robert Wise, who did four of my pictures, appreciated my suggestions. I remember that sometimes I'd go down to the set, and I'd be astounded. I'd see Bob building this huge set, and I think to myself, "God, just because I put those words on the paper, look at what's happening here! Be careful! Be sure it's a good idea!" But Bob always listened, unless it was something really terrible. So on North by Northwest, I tried to develop a Hitchcock frame of mind. I became like Hitchcock, and I tried to think like him. And whenever Hitch didn't like something I suggested, he'd simply say, "Oh, Ernie, that's the way they do it in the movies." And then I'd know better, and I'd try to write the scene over again.
When the picture was finished, it was Hitchcock's longest film at 136 minutes, and an anxious MGM wanted to cut out the forest scene at Mount Rushmore when Thornhill and Eve are finally able to talk to each other without the previous lies and deceptions. It's clearly one of the best and most important scenes in the movie. Did you get involved in the arguments over this?
Actually, they just wanted to cut the scene down, not to cut it out entirely. Because you have to have that scene in the film — which, by the way, was very difficult to write. All the deception is gone, and they're very serious, but they're still being clever — because that's the way they are. Anyway, we kept the whole scene. Sol Siegel asked us down to the screening room, and we watched the scene, and he pleaded with Hitch to cut it down. But Hitch said no. He said that "it would spoil the picture," and he was adamant. He knew that he had the final word — given his contract. Besides, the studio people were pretty much in awe of Hitchcock, and they were very afraid of offending him. The scene actually is a bit long, but I didn't know how to write it any shorter. And the transition is absolutely necessary. Another scene that was extremely difficult to write was the one in Eve's hotel room after she's just tried to have him killed by the plane. How do you play it? You can't have him get too angry, because then you won't have a relationship. So, I tried having him be angry with her in a slightly affectionate way: "How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?"
What also helps is his deception in the bathroom. When we realize what Thornhill is up to, we can accept what came before, thinking, "So that's why he contained his anger" because he's planning to follow her.
Yes, I'm glad that works.
North by Northwest is a classic in the thriller genre, but it also has serious underlying themes, and I'd like to ask you about two. The first is Thornhill's "remaking" himself from a smug, slick, self absorbed Madison Avenue liar into a man who becomes extremely heroic and compassionate at the end. First, his identity is stripped away, and then all the comforts and protections of his easy, shallow life are similarly removed before he can remake himself.
Well, this may sound strange, but I wasn't consciously trying to remake him or redeem him. It happened unconsciously.
But he's so glib in the beginning...
I know. He even steals a cab.
That's what I mean. Would he do that at the end?
I don't think he would.
So he's matured. He's changed himself.
Yes, as a result of his wild escapade.
But you're the one who wrote it the one who made him mature.
I know, but it wasn't conscious. I think I have little computers in my head that work unconsciously. And I'm glad they do. Who knows where this stuff comes from?
Well, maybe you'll say the same thing about the next question which relates to the "marriage" theme in the movie. British critic Robin Wood and others have written quite perceptively about this aspect of the film which portrays two shallow people, afraid of commitment, who eventually find love and, at the very end of the picture, marriage.
Well, you know, we were forced to put in that very last line on the train, "Come along, Mrs. Thornhill." It's actually dubbed over. If you watch it carefully, you won't see Cary's lips moving. That was the old production code. What a difference from today!
Yes, but it's still a logical progression from the previous scene when Thornhill proposes to Eve on Mount Rushmore. And that scene follows naturally from their discussion in the woods when Eve explains how sad and pathetic her life has been, and Thornhill asks, "How come?" and she responds, "Men like you." But Thornhill, confused, asks, "What's wrong with men like me?" and Eve replies, "They don't believe in marriage." Then the always clever, twice divorced Thornhill says, "I've been married twice," and Eve responds, "See what I mean?"
Yes, you're right. And that scene in the forest definitely makes it better — it leads naturally to the ending. But I still can't honestly say that I would've put that final line in the picture. But who knows? That was forty years ago. All I can say is that the marriage theme rose naturally out of my struggles with the plot, and I didn't dwell on it very much when I was writing the script.
When North by Northwest was released, it was a tremendous success, both with the critics and at the box office. Then, sometime later, you and Hitchcock began planning another film one set at Disneyland which had a very intriguing premise.
Yes, and Hitch liked the idea very much. It was going to be called Malice in Wonderland, and it was going to be shot — most of it — at Disneyland. Then Walt Disney saw Psycho, and that was the end of that.
Could you discuss it a bit?
Well, the project's still alive. Miramax has been considering it lately. My good friend Mel Shavelson and I tortured out a screenplay called Dancing in the Dark, based on the same basic idea, but having nothing to do with Disneyland. We set it on a cruise ship. It's about a very popular jazz pianist who's been sightless from birth, and he has this double-eye transplant and begins to get hallucinations in which he sees someone holding a gun that's just been fired. In his subsequent attempts to find out whose eyes he's been given, he ends up on the Queen Elizabeth just as it's sailing on a cruise. It's a very good premise, and you can pitch it quite easily even though it's got a very intricate plot. Back when Hitch and I first started working on it, I felt that I didn't know how to write it properly, and since there were no offices at Paramount at the time, I stopped going to the studio, and I managed to get off the picture. Hitch was very upset that I quit. But I'd quit many other projects over the years — or said "no" to them from the beginning — and, in my opinion, I made very few mistakes.
Eventually, you and Hitchcock collaborated on his last film, Family Plot, and then, as his health declined, you worked together on another film called The Short Night. I've never heard you discuss that film.
There's not much I care to remember about it. It was based on a novel called The Short Night, which was set in England, although we changed it, and it never got made. We were kidding ourselves that Hitch could make it. He was in no condition to go on location and shoot a film in the middle of a lake in Denmark. And maybe it was a lousy script, too.
Did you complete it?
Yes, but it has bad memories for me. It's something I prefer to forget. We had a number of arguments about it. He wanted the hero to rape a woman at the beginning of the picture.
Yes, and I just refused to do it. I've always wondered why he insisted on that.
That's astonishing. Was it in the novel?
No. The novel started with an escape from prison. Anyway, as you can see, I have no affectionate memories about that project.
Years ago, before you came to Hollywood, you were a very successful fiction writer in New York, appearing in Esquire, Collier's, and other prestigious magazines. Eventually, you returned to fiction, publishing your best selling novel, The French Atlantic Affair in 1977. Apparently, you greatly enjoyed the freedom of fiction.
Oh, yes! It's like taking off a straitjacket. When you're a screenwriter, you're always constrained and restrained by the demands of the craft. Scenes mustn't be too long, the script mustn't be too long, and so on. It requires a great deal of craft, whereas a novelist is free to go wherever he wants.
But can't those restraints be beneficial as well as frustrating? Many writers feel that formal restraints say a sonnet or a play force them to be even more creative to find new and interesting ways to meet the demands of the form. Think of North by Northwest. It tortured you for months, but, in the end, all the restraints and requirements of the form forced you to create such an ingenious story.
That's true. I was forced into making it a better picture than it would have been if I had more freedom. I was also very fortunate to be working with Hitchcock. He once said to me, "If a director can get eighty-five percent of a writer's intentions onto the screen, the writer should consider himself very fortunate." Well, he got a hundred percent of North by Northwest up on the screen! And, of course, everything was enhanced by the way Hitch did it.
You've always been an eloquent proponent of the screenwriter's contribution to film creation. Do you think the status of the screenwriter has changed very much over the years?
It's gone down. It's worse. We haven't gained one inch. I was the president of the Writers Guild in the eighties, and I've had a lot to say about the lack of recognition given to screenwriters. Just a few weeks ago, for example, someone sent me The New York Observer, which is running an essay on a classic film each week. And here's this glowing piece on North By Northwest. Absolutely glowing! And the author mentioned everybody connected with that picture, except for me — except for the screenwriter. So I wrote him a rather nasty note and told him I was disgusted. Fortunately, the note came back unopened. The post office couldn't find him. The note had been forwarded from the newspaper to his home address, but he'd moved recently and it came back to me. So, I tore it up and threw it away.
You've done it before.
Yes, most recently, about a review of Out of Sight in People magazine a few issues ago. It was a rave review, but there was no goddamn mention of the screenwriter, Scott Frank. At least, they published my letter. I've got a long history of trying to rectify these oversights by the media. For my very first movie, Executive Suite, Newsweek did a cover review of the picture — the movie was on the cover of the magazine, which is very rare. There was a five-page takeout inside the magazine, and everybody was mentioned, but there wasn't one word about the screenwriter or the screenplay. Well, I was fresh from having bylines in well-known magazines, and I fired off a blistering telegram. Then Newsweek published the telegram, and, two weeks later, they published an apology. How times have changed! I've called critics at their homes. I reduced one woman to tears over North by Northwest, and, back when I was president of the Guild, I had a terrific exchange with Vincent Canby. He used to do those terrific Sunday pieces for The New York Sunday Times, and he did a piece about the longest-running film series ever, namely the James Bond pictures, and he mentioned every producer, every director, every star who'd ever played James Bond, and on and on and on, but no writers. So I wrote him a fanciful letter complaining that I was trying to watch the weekend football games on TV but my phone kept interrupting me — with writers demanding to know what I was going to do about his article. And I'd tell them, "Well, you can't change Vincent Canby! Just forget about it." So Canby printed most of my letter, and then he ran a piece the next week about all the writers who worked on the series.
Is the neglect intentional? Or, is it just the natural consequence of the focus on stars and directors?
I think they know better. They know how things work out here. I don't know what their problem is, and I've never been able to figure it out. Maybe it's just writers being jealous of other writers. Underpaid writers not wanting to praise writers who can make a lot of money, or something like that. And, of course, there's always been a very snobbish attitude on the part of the East Coast literary circles toward screenwriting.
Sure. They'll act like they don't know who wrote the film. Well, can you imagine writing a review of a play and not mentioning the playwright? It's never happened.
That's a very good analogy. Now, how about your audiences? You've always maintained the highest respect for your audiences, and they've loved your work. What have you figured out about them?
I first figured out that I'm an audience, and that's helped me a lot. First of all, never confuse them. The minute the viewers get confused, they start trying to figure out what they've missed. "What was that?" "What did she say?" And the movie's going by, and they're trying to play catch-up. You can be indirect in a film — as in parts of North by Northwest — but you have to be sure that you're getting across what you need to get across. Since characters can't always be explaining what they're thinking, you have to make sure that the audience knows what's going on. Maybe it isn't art, but at least the audience is with it. I also feel that audiences have to have a strong desire to know what's coming next. "What's going to happen?" If it's too amorphous and without suspense of any kind — and I'm not talking about Hitchcock suspense — you'll lose your audience. Don't let them get up and buy popcorn in the middle of your picture. They don't want to leave, so keep them there. Always keep them wanting to know what's happening next. That's very important to me. And it's also very important to convey exposition in such a way that it doesn't seem to be "exposition." For example, have characters say things that are forced out of them in the heat of a scene — so that it won't seem like the primary intent of the scene is just to get some information to the audience. Sometimes that's done very well, and sometimes it isn't. I've seen movies in the past year where I didn't know a goddamned thing about what I was seeing. It makes you feel stupid, and no one in the audience wants that.
In many contemporary films, there's no real development of character and virtually no backstory. It often seems like a movie actor has suddenly been dropped into a story. You have no idea who the character is or where he came from.
That's right. And it's such a problem because exposition's so hard to do. It's very difficult. So either the writers don't know how to do it, or else they just say "to hell with it" since they can usually get away with it. Occasionally, I'll see a noticeably well-written picture, but most of them are poorly done.
At the Oscars in 1960, North by Northwest lost out to Pillow Talk for best original screenplay which seems quite preposterous now.
But it only seems so in retrospect. At the time, I actually won a bet about that Oscar, and I bet on Pillow Talk before it was even made! While the film was still in production, the columnist Sidney Skolsky came up to me one day and said, "Ernie, you're going to win the Oscar this year." And I said, "No, I'm not," and he said, "I'll bet you fifty bucks." And I said, "Fine, and I'll even tell you what's going to win: Pillow Talk." I just had a gut feeling about it, and I was right.
Even though you've never won an Oscar which seems quite amazing you've always been very generous in your comments about the Academy.
I guess so. Given all the troubles I've seen in my life, it doesn't seem that important. Of course, it's great to be nominated, and I've won more Writers Guild screenplay awards than anyone else in town. The truth is, most people don't even know that I've never won an Oscar. They just assume that I have.
Over the years, you've turned down countless pictures and you've wanted to quit all the films you worked on. You've had wars with directors, actors, producers, and film critics, yet you once said, "I had a charmed life for most of my career."
Well, I'm not really sure what I meant by that, because it's not exactly accurate. I didn't have a "charmed" life.
Then you're arguing with yourself.
I know. I'm always arguing with myself. Probably because underneath everything I do is the fundamental fact that I've always feared and abhorred failure. Failure is so terribly painful to me that I've worked furiously and desperately my whole life to avoid it. As a result, I've been able to accomplish many things that I wouldn't have achieved otherwise. So for me, everything was always hard, hard work — endlessly tearing up things and redoing them — doing countless versions of the same scene, over and over again. And at the same time, I was always turning down projects that I suspected didn't have much of a chance for success. I felt like I was a studio head or something — like a producer, writer, and director all rolled into one — constantly making decisions based on my overall estimate of a picture's worth — its final possibilities. I remember imploring MGM not to buy a certain novel — much less having me do it — but they bought it anyway, and made it, and it was a big flop. And, of course, The Wreck of the Mary Deare was another big flop when they finally made it. I'm not trying to say that I knew more than anyone else, but I did have a kind of "sense" about things. And there was also in me quite a bit of the show-off. I liked to do projects that people would be talking about while I was in the process of doing them. That's nothing to be proud of, but it's true. Like when I was doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and everyone was wondering, "How the hell's he going to do that?" And I'd be thinking, "You'll see, you'll see." And people would ask, "Who's in it?" and I'd say, "Elizabeth Taylor," and they'd say, "You're crazy! You're out of your mind! It'll never work!" So, I always liked that kind of challenge — especially when people in the business were waiting to see how the hell you were going to do something.
But it was the fear that really motivated you?
Yes, I was a person who always felt like he was running scared, and I took on a lot of projects that I was afraid of. I think the fear of failure was the primary motivating force in my life. I absolutely can't fail. Failure is terrible, awful. You can't get out from under it. The fear never goes away.
Well, the hard work paid off.
And that's what counts. But what came along with it was not very pleasant. Often, I couldn't sleep at night. I'd pace back and forth in the kitchen trying to solve the next day's scene. I was a Depression kid, and I watched my father, who'd been very successful, go out of business. But he didn't give up. He got back into business, worked hard, and persisted for fifty-five years on Madison Avenue. So, I knew the benefits of hard work, but, still, the fear of failure motivated everything I've done in my life, and it came with a price — an awful lot of anxiety. So I don't know if I can agree with myself that I've had a "charmed" life, but I've certainly been very fortunate to have worked on so many good pictures and with so many talented people — like Hitch and North by Northwest.
(c) Creative Screenwriting Journal