With its complete disregard for screenwriters and endless, seemingly luck-based, collaborative process, it’s a wonder anybody with literary sympathies can stomach cinema culture. Despite all this, John Irving wonders if westerns aren’t actually the greatest American gift to the storytelling tradition.
Question: What don’t you like about movies?
John Irving: It's less what I don't like about movies as what I do like about the theater. It's what I like better about plays. Before I was even sophisticated enough to read those long, nineteenth century novels, before I was a teenager, I saw quite a lot of theater. My mother was a prompter in a local amateur theatrical society. I spent quite a bit of time backstage where the prompter sits and I saw some simply terrible plays, but also some pretty good ones. And I realized at a pretty young age that, you know, even a pre-teenager could see a Sophocles play or a Shakespeare play and failing to understand as much as a third or a half of the language, there was never any question about the story. You could see what was going on. Shakespeare would not be such a burden to the kids in school who are exposed to Shakespeare, to read in Shakespeare for the first time, if you could ask the kids to read a play and then see a production, they'd get it. They really get it. You know, you can miss a lot of the language and see King Lear and know right away that, you know, that two of those daughters are bad and one of them is good and Lear's got it all wrong. You know, you can pick that up when you're twelve or thirteen years old, even if you don't understand everything that they're saying.
Question: Does this not translate to movies?
John Irving: Well, it's just that there's a kind of, the first movies that excited me, I did like westerns. I liked the inevitability of violence that is a part of the western movie. Naturally I liked westerns. Oh, how many centuries from now might western movies be the most significant gift to the culture of American storytelling. Who knows? I don't know, I'm just guessing.
But I didn't really begin to like movies until I was in high school and I began to go to the nearby university town, Durham, where the University of New Hampshire was, where they had, you know, an art cinema and I got to see for the first time, all those foreign films with subtitles and realized that there were some wonderful films out there, many of them, indeed for a time, most of them, not American. And I like them, but there seems to be so much compromise in the film business that why wouldn't you like the freedom and individual license that the playwright is granted on stage and in the theater. Why wouldn't any writer like the theater better. Writers aren't important to the movie business. Or they're not valued. Whereas, you know, I think playwrights are still treated respectfully.
Question: Do you feel that movies are too collaborative?
John Irving: You just have to be lucky to get a good film made at all. You just need to have a lot of luck. I had an excellent experience with the Cider House Rules. But it took thirteen years to make that film, four different directors were involved. One died, I fired two. And finally Less Holstrum and I were put together and we clicked, we worked well together. But a lot of things have to fall in place in order to make a film come off. It was a great experience for me, that film, its success. But nobody notices, much less rewards, the screenplay for a film unless everybody else associated with the film makes the film look good. If you don't have solid, across the board acting performances from your actors, nobody notices how good the screenplay might have been. If you don't have a good director, if you don't have a good art director, if you don't have a good editor and a good director of photography, nobody will know that it was a good screenplay. So you need a lot of help, is what I'm saying, you need a lot of help.
Recorded on: October 30, 2009