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Conversations with Leigh Brackett

Leigh Brackett has often been an enigma to Star Wars fans. She is the only person other than Lawrence Kasdan to have written an entire Star Wars script on her own, and the only person ever hired to write said script from scratch, rather than revising Lucas' early drafts. She is also the first and only person that Lucas hired in full collaboration to create the film's plot, rather than enhancing the base already in place as Kasdan, Hales, Marquand or Kershner did. Her only completed Star Wars screenplay is much different than George Lucas thought it would be, and contains some unique elements such as Luke meeting the ghost of his slain Jedi father. But she is an enigma in a more profound way because of her untimely death in 1978--directly after completing her handwritten first draft of The Empire Strikes Back .

Because of this, she has never discussed her role on the film, or her thoughts on working on the franchise. Even beyond that, interviews with her are incredibly hard to come by, no matter the subject discussed. That is why it is with great fortune that I stumbled across what must be one of her last interviews ever conducted, and which occured just before she was hired to script the sequel to Star Wars . In it, she discusses her memories of writing for Howard Hawks, still vivid as ever, and the challenges of writing for the screen, as she was a novelist firstly. This may also give some clue as to the attitude she brought to the collaboration with Lucas a short time later. Since words from the mouth of Brackett are so rare, I felt compelled to quote a few choice excerpts from this interview, which is taken from Films in Review , published in 1976 but conducted in 1974:

[on writing Big Sleep ]

LB: 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 alternating 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 into Hawks. Jules Furthman came into it considerably later, because Hawks had a great habit of shooting off the cuff. He had a fairly long script to begin with and he had no final script. He went into production with a temporary. He liked to get a scene going and let it run. He eventually wound up with far too much story left than he had time to do on film. Jules came in, and I think he was on it for about three weeks, and he rewrote it, shortening the latter part of the script.

[on characterisation]

LB: 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.

[on the creative tension between writer and director]

LB: It's a collaboration. The whole thing is a team effort. A writer can not possibly, when he's writing a film, do exactly as 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 are nothing to do with the collaborative effort--with the story--like cost and budget and technical details, that you must learn to integrate. You can not 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.

[on repeated scenes in Hawks' films]

LB: That was Hawks. I have been at swords' points with him many a time because I don't like doing a thing over again, and he does. I remember one day he and John Wayne and I were sitting in the office, and he said we'll do such and such a thing. I said: "But Howard, you did it in Rio Bravo. You don't want to do this over again." He said: "Why not?" And John Wayne, all six feet four of him, looked down and said: "If it was good once it'll be just as good again." I know when I'm outgunned, so I did it. But I just don't like repeating myself. However, I'm wrong about half the time.

[on having less control in Hollywood than with the pulps]

LB: 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 typewriter--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 learn my craft, because I don't think there's anything better than screenwriting to teach you construction of a story. I was very poor on construction when I first began...In film writing you get an over-all conception of a story and then you go throigh 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, but 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 over-all shape of the story, but you're changing the details. It took me a long time, but I finally learned how to do it. It was exhausting.

[on versatile working methods]

LB: I didn't do the original script [for Rio Lobo]. Hawks asked me to work on it in the beginning, but I said: "I'm sorry. We're leaving for a trip around the world tommorrow, so I can't." Instead he got Burton Wohl. I came in on it, actually, as a rewrite. Not being used to working with Hawks, Mr. Wohl had some difficulty adjusting. Howard drives writers right up the wall. He will throw you a whole bunch of stuff and say: "This is what I want." And then he goes away and you don't see him again for weeks. He leaves it to you to fit it all together and make a story out of it. He doesn't go into all the ramifications of motivation--that's what he's paying you for...On Hatari they went to Africa for a couple of months and came back with magnificent animal footage, but there was no people story. Of course I had written five scripts, but none of them were the script, as it were. That was the year Howard was not buying any story. He didn't want plot, he just wanted scenes. So I wrote ahead of the camera. Normally once a picture starts shooting a writer's job is finished. He doesn't have anything to do with the people. But I was on the set with Duke, and to a certain extent, for a short while, on El Dorado .

[on upcoming projects]

LB: There's nothing definite at the moment. I have an original western screenplay out and around, and I'm hopeful. It's a comedy. There are a number of things on the fire with television. As you know, the whole picture has changed out there very greatly in recent years. You grab what you can get. I wrote a script for The Rockford Files which was telecast last season. But I greatly enjoy the work. It's a challenge. It's more technical than creative. What you have to be is a very good journeyman plumber and put the parts together. And then, if you can still inject a little bit of something worthwhile, you've done as much as can be expected.

Interview by Steve Swires. "Grab What You Can Get: The Screenwriter as Journeyman Plumber." Films in Review. Aug/Sept. 1976.

07/05/09

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