Film "Nobody knows anything." Hello William Goldman. If there's an co-architect of my film appreciation, its William Goldman and his books, notably and especially Adventures in the Screentrade of which "Nobody knows anything" is the key and most often repeated quote. As the wikipedia notes in a rare example of bit of editorialising surviving the editor's knife, it's often used in film articles to suggest film executives are stupid, which is why such and such a film has been a failure, but what Goldman actually means is that executives, however much planning they do, can't really know how a film will be received until the opening weekend. In other words, Waterworld was going to be an expensive, expensive failure until it wasn't.
For the uninitiated (and what is wrong with you), Adventures in the Screentrade is part biography, part screenwriting manual and filled with extraordinary anecdotes about filmmaking during the 1960s and 70s. As well as the above quote, it's also the source of the Marathon Man story about Dustin Hoffman killing himself physically as part of his method process until Larry Olivier tells him to "just act". But that's just the start. If Kevin Smith's anecdote about working with Jon Peters on Superman Lives sounds extraordinary, he's essentially following the Goldman pattern of expurgating the irrational twists and turns many screenwriters have to cope with thanks to indecisive producers and directors. If his name's on a script, it doesn't necessarily mean he wrote any of it.
Goldman's book introduced to me to All The President's Men, a rare example of having read around a film thoroughly before having a chance to see it. In writing the script, as I explain in this ancient article about film adaptation, Goldman bravely garoted Woodstein's original account of their investigation into the Watergate break-in, ending his story half way through removing their self adulatory and triumphant conclusion, which in the film is relegated to the newsroom wire machines. Realising that the lesser known material will be of most interest to an audience which has seen how they story ends, he chooses to close on a downbeat moment in which his characters are on the brink of failure. Imagine trying to sell that story beat in 2015 without a second film having been greenlit.
The reasons why it's a favourite, if you've been keeping an eye on this list will be pretty obvious. As with so many of them, it's about city folk dwarfed by their surroundings, architecture as antagonist (see this essay about the Library of Congress sequence for an in-depth analysis). It's beautifully shot by Gordon Willis in a style which has been cribbed by David Fincher and his DPs in most of his work, especially in the presentation of night contrasting with the blary light of the newsroom (made all the more present by the use of dual focus lenses which keep both a foreground and background object in focus) (discussion of a key shot here). But mostly it's because Dustford is so damn witty as Woodstein, making Goldman's script feel improvised and natural even though they're following it to the letter (or part of the Bernstein/Ephron draft).
What makes Goldman's book timeless is that in mixing anecdote and methodology he manages to make each of the films under consideration deeper experiences without entirely removing the veil, even those films, like The Stepford Wives, in which his contribution is almost gone. Knowing his approach to structuring A Bridge Too Far we now can see the difficulty he had in bringing the characters in and out of focus and servicing its miriad stars (a work the Russos would do well to have a glance at before embarking on the Avengers 3 circus). Arguably the final third of the book in which he writes a script for others to poke holes in is less readable or useful for people who aren't considering a job in actual screenwriting but we forgive him because the other two chunks are so compelling. Expect me to return to some of its themes again over the coming year.