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The apprenticeship of Mordecai Richler

In 1961, Mordecai Richler wrote this narrative chronicling his journey as a scriptwriter from Paris ‘fleabags’ to his London flat


 

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I had, like any other young novelist, started out by believing the difficult thing was to get published and that, once you managed that, well, your financial problems were over. I discovered, like any other serious novelist, that actually they had only just begun. A novel may take anywhere from two to five years to write and, in the end, you might manage a couple of thousand dollars on it, no more. In London, where I met many established novelists, I found that almost all of them, even the most celebrated, had something going for them on the side. Some were at the universities, others were reviewers or worked as advisers to publishing houses, and still more functioned as radio, television, or film script writers.

I can say, truthfully, that I started out at the bottom in the film business. Several times, when I was broke in the south of France, I worked as an extra. Broke again, this time in London, I got work as a reader for a studio script department.

For two pounds — about $5.50 — a reader is expected to write a ten-page synopsis of a book followed by a shrewd evaluation of the book as a film. It’s hard work. Underpaid, too. But in every reader’s mind there is the legendary tale of the man who recommended a book that was actually purchased by the studio for five thousand pounds. The grateful author, the story goes, sought out the reader and tipped him ten pounds. So, even in this lowly job, there was hope. And experts, I discovered, could manage to skim through and report on as many as four books a day. I never got to be an expert. My career was too short-lived. One day a script editor handed me a book for which, she said, I would be paid a double fee. It was Bertolt Brecht’s play, Mother Courage. “The play’s only sixty pages,” I said. “Why can’t the producer read it himself?”

I did not yet know that it was no more expected of most producers to read a book than it was, say, of Ted Williams to dust off home plate. And so, embarrassed but needy, I took the play home, wrote a synopsis, and mailed it off. The next morning the script editor phoned me, horrified. "But you haven’t said whether or not it would make a good film,” she said.

The late Bertolt Brecht, as you know, is considered to be one of the outstanding playwrights of our time. I felt foolish, but all the same, I wrote a report on the play’s film possibilities. “Very visual stuff,” I said. “Goodish battle scenes. Strong suspense-wise. Calls for a big budget, I think, but potentially boffo.” And that, I’m afraid, ended my career as a reader. I was, at the time, living in a room in Hampstead. Rent was a problem. Once a week my landlord, an elderly Austrian, would knock on the door and say, “Sorry to derange you, but today is Friday.” The Acrobats, my first novel, came out in German, and the publisher thoughtfully sent me six free copies. I tried to sell them to a German bookstore, but the lady wouldn’t have them. “This book has already appeared in English,” she said. “It isn’t very good.”

Some Even Made Money

I began to review books for the literary magazines. The pay was slight. But, like all reviewers, I sold my free review copies for half price to a bookstore on Fleet Street. The most envied of reviewers was the man who got to do the art, that is, the most expensively priced, books, but I never rose that high in the game.

Meanwhile, the Canadians had started to come over. Writers, directors, and actors. These writers, unlike any I had known before, actually made money. I was dazzled. I also got to write my first television script. I worked with a Canadian who had written many scripts and knew the medium well. The script, our collaboration, was to be what he called a piece of cheese, that is, a commercial job. We were writing it under a pseudonym. I sat at the typewriter and he paced up and down, dictating, gesticulating, thinking aloud, and acting out all the parts. Finally, after many hours of work, he turned to me, exhausted, and said, “Help me. Give me a line.”

DOWNFALL OF A HOTSHOT

So I gave him a line of dialogue.

“Are you crazy?” he said. “That’s real. This is television.”

The next job I got was to write a pilot script for a half-hour television series. I was introduced to the producer as a vastly experienced script writer —a hotshot. He gave me a two-page character analysis of the lead character for the series—tough, fearless, handsome—and I went to work. The script I wrote was about smuggling in Spain. A few days after I had handed it in I was summoned to the producer’s office. “You call this a script?” he said. “What’s this here? Two guys talking. Talking! Yak-yak-yak for two whole pages. And look here, three pages. Two guys talking. Where’s the action? They told me you were a good action writer.”

I took the script back, bought a book with three screenplays in it, and set to work again. I made absolutely no plot or dialogue changes, but, whereas a piece of my first draft script was likely to read:

CARLOS: Things are very quiet out here tonight. I do not like it, Nick.

NICK: I was just wondering . . .

CARLOS: Si, she is very beautiful. Like a Grecian statue. But she is dangerous, Nick.

NICK: I like ’em dangerous.

I copied a number of film terms out of the book I had bought, and the “new” script read:

CARLOS: Things are very quiet here tonight.

SOUND: IT IS VERY QUIET.

CARLOS: I do not like it, Nick.

CARLOS SCRATCHES HIS NECK.

NICK: (WITH A FAR-OFF, WONDERING LOOK) I was just wondering . . .

CARLOS: Si, she is very beautiful. Like a Grecian statue, (A MEANINGFUL LOOK) But she is dangerous, Nick.

CUT TO A CLOSE-SHOT OF NICK. HE LIGHTS A CIGARETTE. HE INHALES. HE SMILES ONE OF HIS CHARACTERISTICALLY SLOW, TOUGH SMILES.

NICK: I like ’em dangerous.

“Now that’s what I call a script,” the producer said.

Vesuvius Had To Blow Up Twice

I had arrived. I began to go to the sort of parties where show-business people met and, at one of them, a script writer came up to me, and said, “How would you like to collaborate on a musical? I’ve got a producer and an advance. We have an absolutely free hand—except for one thing. Vesuvius has to blow up twice.” “The volcano, you mean?”

“It’s set in Italy, see. A big production.”

I told him no, but a couple of friends of mine took him up on it. They wrote a script, the producer was delighted, and he told the writers that he had booked one of the biggest theatres in London for the production. Opening night was only five weeks off.

“But what about the music?” one of the writers asked. “There’s still no music.” “Not to worry. I own fourteen songs,” the producer said. “Lovely songs.” They were left over from other musicals. “You boys will fit them in nicely.” Then, seeing that the writers looked a little disheartened, he pulled a telegram out of his pocket. “From Magnani,” he said, his voice brimming with assurance.

Actually, the telegram was from Anna Magnani’s agent. It said something like, IMPOSSIBLE STOP NO INTEREST LONDON PRODUCTION STOP.

“But she doesn’t want to do it,” one of the writers said.

“Yes, that’s possible. But look who I’m dealing with!”

The musical was never produced, but I did get to collaborate with the original author on another project. We were hired to write two half-hour comedies, pilots for a projected series again, but this time for Peter Sellers. Sellers, at the time, had made only one feature-length film. The Ladykillers.

My first collaborator had taken me on as an act of kindness. He knew I needed the money. This one, an Englishman, wanted company. He was a would-be actor. He executed all the routines meant for Sellers. I learned to say, “Why, that’s swell. A great gag,” or, helping him off the floor, “Yes, I can see what you’re getting at, but it really doesn’t cut any mustard, does it?” I did the typing and brewed the tea. I also whistled with amazement when I was told inside stories about the private lives of the stars. But I never really satisfied my partner. The truth is he had wanted Reuben Ship to work with him. Ship, author of The Investigator, was an experienced Hollywood comedy writer. I wasn’t. But at least I knew Ship. After a week’s work my partner — nervous, upset — said to me, “Why don’t you get your friend Reuben to read this script? See what he thinks.”

I already knew what Ship thought. “He’s very busy these days,” I said.

My partner, not usually very quick with his liquor, poured me a drink. “Well, you know, he just might have a couple of ideas. He is your friend, isn’t he?” Finally, we were called to a script conference. Present were Sellers, the director, the producer, two assistants, and my partner and I. We sat solemnly round an enormous table in a boardroom overlooking Hyde Park. Before each of us there was a pad, a pencil, and a glass of water. The producer, a shrunken little man with extremely thick glasses, told us, “Gentlemen, we are here to exchange ideas. To my right is our director. Need I say, a great talent.”

Ten years ago, the director had made a costume film that showed more bosom than any other had before. This, in the trade, is known as a trendmaker. Anyway, the film earned lots of money, but the director had not made another one since.

“A talent that I have engaged, I might say, for a pretty penny.”

“I consider this series a challenge,” the director said. “A very great challenge.” His hands were shaking badly. He twitched.

The rest of us were fulsomely introduced. “Now, about the script.” The producer, squinting, held the script no more than two inches from his face. “Page twenty-nine, boys. I think we’ve slowed down here. We need a gimmick. Well, if you saw Love Happy with the Marx Brothers you will recall there was a great scene in that picture. Harpo is leaning against a wall. Groucho comes by and says, ‘What are you doing, holding up the building?’ Harpo nods. He moves away and the building collapses.” Sellers was silent.

“Now, boys, ours is a small-budget film. What I think we could do on page twenty-nine is this. Instead of a building Mr. Sellers could be leaning against a lamp-post. When he moves away,” the producer said, already beginning to break up with laughter, “the lamp-post falls down.”

Sellers lit one cigarette off another.

“Page thirty-two, boys. Have you ever had the good fortune to see Mr. Danny Kaye, a great comedian, in Up in Arms?” To my astonishment, the two films were made and distributed. I never went to see them. I did, however, continue to attend show-business parties, and gradually I picked up the jargon peculiar to the trade. I learned, for instance, that a “property” is a script or material for a script, that is, a book or a play. Some properties are hot, others tend to need a little goosing. When a producer asks you to give one of his properties a little goosing it means he is not willing to pay much to have a bad script rewritten. The most desirable properties are those that are in the public domain—scripts that can be based on the works of writers long since dead, and therefore requiring no payment.

One producer once took me aside and said, “Goddam it, I’ve just been to a library. Have you ever been to a library? What a fantastic place! Hundreds and hundreds of books—thousands! Most of them in the public domain, and I don’t know which one to pick up. It’s a goddam gold mine, I tell you. Listen, you’ve got an education. Go to the goddam library and find me a property.”

If somebody said, “Say, what about Michael Wilding for the lead in . . . ?”, I knew enough, by this time, to reply, “Are you crazy? Why that guy couldn’t even sell popcorn.” Whenever a leading lady’s name was mentioned—any leading lady’s name — I came right back with, “But do you know how she got the part? I mean, do you realize what she had to do to get it?” Nobody, I found, ever took you up on it.

I began to get more television work and my standard of living improved accordingly. I did not open an account at Harrods—and still haven’t, for that matter—but I no longer ate Walls Sausages nightly, and I moved out of a rented room into a flat. My landlord was an abstract painter. One day he stopped me abruptly in the hall and said, “Do you know where yesterday is?”

“No. I’m afraid not.”

“Do you know where tomorrow is?” “Well, no.”

“The old masters knew,” he said. “Yesterday was over there,” he said, turning his head sharply to the right, “and tomorrow is over here,” he said, turning leftward. “You shouldn’t write for the flicks. It’s corrupting.”

I began to think I was doing very well indeed. I was proud of my little flat at Swiss Cottage. By Canadian standards, it was a slum. I wasn’t really aware of this until friends from home began to visit me there. One said, “Well, it’s a struggle, isn’t it?” Another, “Won’t it be nice when you can afford carpets?” A third sent me a food parcel shortly after he returned home.

At first, I worked hard on my scripts. I took enormous pains to delineate characters clearly. Once, in fact, I took a full page to describe one major character’s physical appearance, gestures, and habits, so that he was, I hoped, made individual beyond confusion. The producer read and reread the description. He chewed on his pencil. “Oh, I get it,” he said. “You mean the Bogart type, don’t you? Why didn’t you just say so?”

Luckily, I put pseudonyms on all these scripts. When I got round to using my own name on television I had already formed a partnership, fortunate for me, with Ted Kotcheff, director, and Tim O’Brien, designer. We did three plays together for Armchair Theatre. Kotcheff and I also shared a flat. He instructed me further in the rules of the game. “Never hand in a script early,” he said, “or the director will have you rewriting day and night, even if it’s first rate. They’re that nervous.”

I had just begun to work on my second feature film, a rewrite job, and I soon found out what he meant. It was to be the director’s first big film. He wasn’t nervous. He was panic-stricken. I was originally hired because, as the director said, “The plot’s OK, but everybody in the story is wooden. You’ve been recommended to us as a very good character man. We want you to put flesh and blood on these lumps.” So I began to report every morning at nine-thirty with my portable typewriter. The director and I would work a two-page scene over and over again.

“Mn,” he’d say, reading, nibbling on his nails. “Jolly good. Well, not bad .... but would he say that? Is it really in character for him at that moment? Do you get my point?”

All the man had said, usually, was, “Thank you, I’ll have two lumps.”

I’d look pensive. I never answered immediately. “I think you’re on to something, you know. It is out of character. I think he’d say, ‘Thanks,’ not ‘Thank you’.” “But isn’t that too Americany?” “Exactly. But that’s the point. He’s American-orientated."

“Really? How interesting you should say that. Is that how you see him?” “Indeed I do.”

“Mn. Maybe. But I think he's the sort who'd only take one lump with his tea.” “Well, I’m not sure. Maybe. I’ll yield on that.”

“No, you mustn’t. I don’t want you to give in because I’m the director. Fight me. You’re the writer. If you see the character differently you must always insist on it.”

Finally, after many hours of work, he'd say, “This scene is perfect now. Absolutely first class. Nobody could improve on it.” '

But the next morning the director would be pale. “My wife’s sister-in-law was reading the scene in the bath last night and she hated it.” We’d sit down and rewrite it again. “Superb,” he’d say. The next day he’d look out of sorts again. "You share a flat with Kotcheff, don’t you? Why don’t you show it to him and see what he thinks?”

Resentful, but a loyal employee, I gave the script to Kotcheff. He read it; “All I can say." he said, "is I hope you’re getting paid plenty for this. Wow!”

I was getting paid plenty, on a week-to-week basis, but the director often kept me a whole day without doing any writing. He’d take out a copy of Spotlight, a book with photographs of almost every actor and actress in the country, and ask my opinion on casting. My opinion, when you figured it at a day’s pay, was very expensive.

“What would you think of John Mills?”

“He's all right.”

“What do you mean ‘all right'? Are you holding something back? Do you know something?”

I swore I didn’t.

“What about . . . Jack Hawkins?”

“Sure.”

“If you don’t like him, tell me. This is very important."

I had to begin with, considered the film business to be characterized by lavish spending, but once a star was cast for the film I learned differently. One afternoon, when the director and I should have been putting final touches to the script, the star turned up. It was John Gregson. He was carrying eight, maybe nine, suits over his arm, and he stayed for hours. One of the major problems was that in one scene in the film Gregson flings himself from a speeding car as it passes over a bridge. He gets soaked, naturally, and therefore he would need to ruin one otherwise good suit. He preferred—and so did the director, budgetwise—to ruin an old one. Gregson began to try on suits while the director watched, absorbed, and I, realizing we were not going to get any work done again, reached for the gin.

“Don’t you think.” Gregson asked, “this one would suit me fine for the scene where she faints?”

“Mn.” The director pulled at his lower lip. “Isn’t it a little youngish for the scene?” He turned to me. “What do you think?”

“I think he looks very sweet.”

Gregson told me how much he liked the script. “I consider this picture a challenge,” he said.

I poured myself another gin and offered to lend Gregson my one prized Jacques Fath tie. The director, I sensed, felt we were a happy unit.

Though I was still without a screen credit, the last time out of choice. I had now worked on rewrites for two feature films, and then one day as. I suppose, it comes to pass in the life of any clean living relief pitcher, I was offered a starting assignment. Sydney Box phoned my agent and asked if I would read No Love for Johnnie. Wilfred Fienburgh considered to be one of the more promising Labor MPs, had written the novel, his first, and was killed shortly afterward in a car accident. The book was a loosely motivated but realistic piece about an opportunist, a Labor MP in parliament. Sydney Box and I met, I was passed on to the producer who would be directly responsible for the picture, David Deutsch, and I was hired to write the screenplay. At the time there was a possibility that Jack Clayton, who had just made Room at the Top, would direct this film as well. But, as things turned out, I had been working on the script for only two weeks when everything changed. Sydney Box had a heart attack and went into temporary retirement, David Deutsch moved to another studio, and Jack Clayton signed to direct a different film. The project was taken over by Betty Box, producer, and Ralph Thomas, director.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working on No Love for Johnnie was that it gave me an entrée to British politics. All sorts of things were laid on for me. I was taken to lunch by a man from Rank who was the fixer. A former parliamentary private secretary himself, he could, I was told, arrange interviews for me with anybody. Anyway, the fixer got me a pass to the distinguished strangers’ gallery and for several days running I attended sessions at the House. At private question time an ancient lady rose anxiously, the hand that held the notes trembling, and asked if a Ministry of Food pamphlet about the uses of bacon could not have been issued with a hard cover rather than a soft as a greater convenience to the hard-working housewives of Great Britain. This, I was told, was the first time she had been heard from in years. And so it went until the late Nye Bevan walked into the chamber; both front benches filled, and all private conversations stopped. Bevan had only a mild query to put to the minister, but there was no doubt that we were in the presence of political greatness. When he was done, once the threat of eloquence had passed, the benches thinned again.

I turned in my script for No Love for Johnnie, bought a small car, and prepared to drive down to Rome for the winter. A week before I left I found out, through another writer, that the first film script I had ever written, the one about smuggling in Spain, had never been produced. On the contrary, it was being used as a model for writers on how not to write for the series. A day before I was to leave a producer phoned me. “I’ve heard so much about you,” he said. “You must come to my office this minute. I have a property here that is a property. It only needs a little work.”

I explained that I had just completed a film and that I was going away to work on a novel.

“It’s an anti-war script,” he said. “I’m sure you’d want to see it done.”

“There’s somebody at the door,” I said. “I have to go.”

“If you don’t want to do it,” he said, “it’s only because you’re a warmonger.”

A few days later in Paris I went to some of the four-star restaurants I hadn't been able to afford when I had lived there before. At that time, my problem — the primary concern, in fact, of most of the writers I knew — had been money and a place to sleep. Now I paid income tax, just like a regular citizen. I sought out the cafés where I used to meet my friends, but I did not see a familiar face in any of them. It was good not to be broke, very good, but I also felt a little sad. I could recognize the new arrivals, the young writers and painters I didn't know, by the dufflecoats, the beards, and the blue jeans. They looked at me a little dubiously. Like I was a tourist.

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