I became involved in the movie business because of Alvin Sargent, “the prince of gentle writing”: but more importantly for transmedia, so did JJ Abrams, the ultimate fanboy , famous for LOST, a brilliant addictive mess and the reboots of Star Trek and Mission Impossible
In his wonderfully presented TED presentation on dramatic subtext, JJ Abrahams, talks about being tremulous, yes tremulous, upon reading Ordinary People, a screenplay by Alvin Sargent, , based on the book by then first-time novelist and housewife, Judy Guest, from Minneapolis; a kind and witty woman. The screenplay was about despair, guilt, suicide, a loveless marriage, and the hope found in familial love. Not exactly fanboy material.
Ordinary People won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. JJ explains that when he read Ordinary People, it contained so much beauty that it compelled him to want to write and conceive motion pictures. While I was at Paramount, we bought Regarding Henry, an original screenplay written by JJ Abrams, then only 23 years old. It was a beautiful, weird story about a loveless marriage, a selfish man shot in the head and the hope found in familial love. The script was great; the movie did not live up to the promise of the screenplay for some reason even with gifted people in every department.
I remember the star of the movie, Harrison Ford, leaning into me, on the Paramount Jet and saying, “JJ Abrams is so sensitive, he is like a …a human crystal.” I knew what Harrison Ford meant. It was a very postmodern expression, and we were and are in the significant postmodern era. He meant that the Hollywood wunderkind had tapped into the very godhead. JJ had that boyish charisma that comes from exuberance and someone so in love with that you just want to be near him, to rub against his skin because he washed with ivory soap which at the time was 99 and 44/100% pure. JJ knew about suffering and transformation; why, he might just be able to lead the people out of Egypt with a staff that could turn water into blood.
I too got involved in the movie business, in large part because of Alvin Sargent and his screenplay, Sterile Cuckoo I remember seeing it as a teenager and being tremulous, largely due to a “peel the tomato” scene that lasted for ten minutes between the two romantic leads, one of them being a young Liza Minnelli, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance. The story was about a college romance in New England. It was filled with sexual tension which finally burst in this funny, sad secular humanist scene of a first love-making experience. After a kinetic series of cuts in the first half of the movie, the scene, almost ten minutes , plays in one (almost) continuous master:
I was a young screenwriter who had sold original screenplays and written on a for-hire basis for Paramount, Fox and Warner Brothers before I was 27. I was standing in Ray Wagner’s office who was then Production Chief at MGM. For us old timers, I was there because the MGM story editor, Sherry Lansing, wanted my co-writing partner and director, Michael Pressman, and I to write Laundromat, a not-so-veiled “homage” to Car Wash which had been an enormous hit. I had written an original screenplay entitled Dynamite Women which Michael directed for pulp king, Roger Corman , about two girls who rob banks in hot pants with dynamite sticks. Yep. This was the time of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, to coin Peter Biskind, and anything was possible.
Oh to be young in Hollywood in the 70s and 80s! We were immortal! Ha, Ha….forgetting, I must admit, our Judeo Christian roots, at least for a while. You could make anything, dream up anything. But I will never forget Ray Wagner talking about the beauty of an original screenplay Bobby Deerfield he had just read by Alvin Sargent, Bobby Deerfield, that the studio was considering. He called Alvin Sargent “The prince of gentle writing”.
“It is just incredible moving, “he said.
“Do you think I could read it?” I asked.
Ray Wagner said he didn’t see why not and in the office with the high ceilings that had once housed the arbiter of all good taste in the earthly world, Irving Thalberg, I was given a three holed punched, baby blue covered screenplay of Bobby Deerfield. It was given to me by a crisp, efficiently dressed secretary who seemed to have come, fully minted, with the office itself. Oh, I thought she must come from the golden cities that men built.
I remember returning to my apartment that afternoon and reading in one sitting Bobby Deerfield as if it was the Holy Grail. I recall a scene in which Bobby, later played by Al Pacino, takes a picture of a family on vacation. It was such a simple gesture but I was left bawling my eyes out. It was the concluding moment in a long subtextual story about how Bobby learns to love again. And it was done with such…grace. Yes, Alvin knew how to reach foundational truths in very subtle ways. Most of his filmed legacy reflect the ineffable including other movies such as Paper Moon, Julia for which we won another Oscar), and Love and Pain and The Whole Damn Thing. His work reflects the need for sophisticated craftsmanship in writing. In all of his work that there is a true discipline to it that stretches to a “work of art” status. John Lasseter, the creative brilliance behind PIXAR said it succinctly, “True earned emotion is something that you really have to craft.”
I cannot help but believe that the success of the Spiderman series has much to do with the gentleness that exudes from Alvin Sargent’s keyboard. Of all the things that Alvin Sargent has done; he may best be known one day for his work on the Spiderman series. It was a major brushstroke of genius on the part of producer Laura Ziskin, the devoted producer of the series to get Alvin Sargent involved with it. Peter Parker and his relationships are all the better for it. It was unusual that a talent of Sargent’s sensitive gifting would participate in a fanboy project such as Spiderman: it may have helped that Laura Ziskin, the producer, was his wife. But the collaboration was just right because he brought meaning and subtlety to the mythic Spiderman story. Laura once mused that when you read a child a story before bedtime, it is a story, not a CGI effect. Laura, 20 years Alvin’s junior, recently passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. At 84, Alvin Sargeant continues to fight the good fight in the war of subtlety and meaning in the fast culture and is the credited writer on the latest reboot of Spidey.
As I look as these stories at a different time, I see an excitement about people and a systems that treasured subtlety, and nuance: JJ Abrams so tremulous about subtlety in Ordinary People that he would read it again and again; or a Hollywood studio chief proclaiming tenderness as a virtue and a prize. At facebook studios, I wonder how a new generation amidst the growing empires of Google and facebook will deal with storytelling that will predominantly takes place across the web. And who will be the new prince of gentle writing?