Screenwriting Addressed Undressed

If you're like me, you love reading about what goes on behind the curtain, especially when it comes to writing, and there's no better place to get a peek at the process than the Paris Review, currently one of my top ten favorite internet time-sucks.

For those of you that don't scrounge around online for articles about writing, the Paris Review has been interviewing writers for almost a hundred years, and most of those interviews are available for free online. Not a single one is boring – sometimes because of how the interviewee will gleefully antagonize the interviewer. (See Updike: "There is something terribly wrong about committing myself to this machine and to your version of what you get out of the machine—you may be deaf for all I know, and the machine may be faulty.") The older interviews also include details of the interviewee's dress and surroundings, which, while fascinating, of course, always strike me as a bit voyeurish. (You have to wonder about those interviewers. Who are they? How do they remain so clinical? A story I'd like to write one day would focus on the interviewer who drops by the garret of a famous author. What happens? I don't know yet. Maybe murder.)

Anyway, I'd just like to point out that the Paris Review has interviewed hundreds of essayists and fiction writers, and so far has interviewed only five screenwriters. Lately, TPR has expanded their horizons by creating specific interview categories for memoirists and comic book writers, so it would make sense for them to only have five screenwriting interviews if they'd only recently gotten around to talking to screenwriters. But these five writers aren't up-and-coming. Take a look at who they've picked:

No. 1 - Billy Wilder
No. 2 - John Gregory Dunne
No. 3 - Terry Southern
No. 4 - Matthew Weiner
No. 5 - Michael Haneke

Of all the hundreds and hundreds of screenwriters throughout the decades, why these five? Are they emblematic of great screenwriting? (To my embarrassment, I'd never heard of two of them till now.) Billy Wilder is by far the most prolific of them, maybe more prolific than the other four put together, so sheer output isn't the common denominator. So what contribution have these five made to the world of writing that makes them the fit subject of an interview?

I was going to read the interviews and try to figure out what common depths of brilliance I could unearth, but instead, I looked these guys up on Wikipedia. Turns out, there are some prosaic explanations. John Gregory Dunne was a novelist and was married to Joan Didion, which pretty much accounts for TPR wanting to interview him. Terry Southern wrote for TPR as well as for the movies, so it would be odd if they didn't turn the microphone around at some point. The Weiner interview was conducted by Semi Chellas, who wrote for Mad Men, and is an author in her own right, which isn't a complete explanation, but kind of makes sense. Wilder? Haneke? No idea. Not that it matters, of course. I haven't read Haneke's, but Wilder's interview is gold. Read it if only for the anecdote about the time John Huston almost suffocated because Akira Kurosawa was too clumsy to open an envelope.