INTERVIEW: Howard Rodman's Secret; "Gould's" Screenwriter Relates Travails from Script to Screen
by Kevin Dreyfuss
(indieWIRE/4.10.2000) -- "Joe Gould's Secret," Stanley Tucci's directorial follow-up to "The Impostors," is the end game after a long, long haul for screenwriter Howard Rodman. Based on several famous 1950s articles by seminal New Yorker magazine writer Joseph Mitchell, the film chronicles the rise and fall (and enduring mysteries) of Joe Gould, an avant-garde artist, intellectual and writer fallen on hard times in '50s bohemian Manhattan. Essentially a tramp by the time Mitchell meets him, living off the largesse of the New York art scene, Gould is in the seemingly never-ending process of writing what might be the longest book ever written -- a massive oral history of the United States that's been growing and growing for decades.
Rodman, a self-described, "accomplished journalist, promising novelist, journeyman screenwriter, and hack director," has worked with heavyweights like Steven Soderbergh (episodes of "Fallen Angels" and some work on "Kafka"), Tony Scott and Arnold Kopelson. The trials and travails of the journey of this particular screenplay from book to script to screen is a case study in understanding the role of a writer in today's Hollywood and Indiewood structures.
But even with the difficulties that clearly arose between Tucci and Rodman during production, differences that boiled to the surface at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Rodman's vision for the story comes through. It's a subtly powerful tale about the nature of truth, fiction and storytelling, as well as a meditation on the lost egalitarian world of bohemian Manhattan, and a testament to, as he puts it, "the extraordinary power of what is not said, what is not spoken, what is not expressed." It also happens to be, along with "Barton Fink" and "Naked Lunch," one of the most frightening accounts of epic writer's block put on celluloid in recent memory.
Rodman had Mitchell's collected work on his shelf for years, but it wasn't until Cruise-Wagner Productions and producer Mike Lieber came to him in 1995 with the formal idea of adapting the stories that he ever really considered creating a script from them. After some gyrations and permutations, Rodman and the still-evolving script ended up at Castle Rock with producer Chuck Weinstock.
"I wrote draft after draft after draft with Castle Rock," Rodman recalls. "Working with Mike [Lieber] and Chuck [Weinstock], it was the most thorough development I've ever done with anything. We all had a different points of view, but we all thought that we had an extraordinary piece of material here, and our job was not to fuck it up."
Castle Rock ultimately couldn't figure out what to do with this strange, ruminative script, but let Weinstock, Lieber and Rodman take the project elsewhere. They ended up at October Films with Bingham Ray, who sparked to it immediately.
"We made director's lists, we got a lot of passes, we got some nibbles," says Rodman. "We eventually submitted it to Stanley Tucci. And I can't speak for him, but I can tell you what he told us -- he said that when he picked it up he was angry, because he thought 'I've had Joseph Mitchell on my bedside table for years, and why didn't I think of doing this, and they probably fucked it up.' And then he read some of it and said, 'Well, this isn't so bad.' And then he finished it and said, 'Okay, let's do it.'"
October was high on Tucci anyway coming off of "Big Night," so they were all off to the races. But working with flourishing writer-directors who are used to only shooting their own scripts is an unenviable task for a hired gun screenwriter. "Stanley had never directed anything that he hadn't written, and he needed to make it his own, to take his pass," explains Rodman. "Although I'm very, very proud of my work, my feeling there was that to fight stupidly for 'No, I wrote that word, don't change it,' wouldn't help the script. And Stanley directing a scene that seemed foreign to him is far less helpful to the movie than Stanley directing a scene that he adores and is in love with and knows how to act and knows how to shoot."
As production went on, Rodman found himself in a not-uncommon position for writers, that of third wheel on the set. But Rodman knew the drill, "I know how to disappear on a set, how to not sit around tripping over cables."
So far, so good. But following production, Rodman was surprised to learn that Tucci had put in for writing credit with the Writers Guild of America, and after the actor-director lost the arbitration bid, appealed, and lost again, Rodman assumed it was just par for the course in filmmaking politics, and nothing more.
So the surprise was palpable for Rodman when he arrived at Sundance and read an article in the LA Times quoting Tucci railing against the Guild and against Rodman, for refusing to support him and subjecting him to a "Salem witch trial" that denied him his rightful credit. But following a well-received screening of the film, and some gracious words from Rodman at the panel afterwards thanking Tucci for his amazing work, both men made up.
Still, much of the long lead press was done for the film before that reconciliation, so Rodman still winces at some of what he reads these days. But it doesn't stop him from being able to genuinely appreciate the finished product.
"There are things in the film that are better than I could have possibly imagined, particularly in Ian Holm's performance, which I think is astonishing. In fact, my favorite scene in the movie is one I didn't write," an improv scene from Holm, notes Rodman.
The writer continues, "Of course, you have to understand that everyone else in the theater is looking at a film, while I'm looking at the ghosts of the 10,000 films that weren't made. It's an occupational hazard."
"But in the end," he continues, "the function of a film is not to transcribe a screenplay, anymore than the function of a screenplay is to transcribe the source material it's based on. It's not like putting up a building, where if you deviate from the blueprints it's a code violation. If you're lucky, and I think we were in this case, what made you fall in love with the material in the first place carries through all of those very necessary transitions, between source material and screenplay and movie. The extent that each version differs from each other is the extent to which the movie lives in the people who are truly being creative."
Rodman is currently working on another adaptation, of a 1940s pulp psychological thriller, "The Deadly Percheron." And he's working hard to get his original screenplay "F" onto the big screen. Given the dubious honor of being named one of the Ten Best Unproduced Scripts in Hollywood by Premiere magazine, the script seems to be making some progress finally, with Rodman set to make his directing debut, and Terence Stamp recently attached to star.
"I'm used to many varieties of what a screenwriter's job is, and I think realistically if you're to preserve your sanity, you have to realize that it varies from job to job," Rodman sums up. "You know, there's a quote from Karl Marx somewhere, which is, 'It is not our task to criticize reality for refusing to conform to our conception of it.'"
A telling comment for the strange journey of Rodman's characters Joe Gould and Joseph Mitchell, not to mention the odyssey of Howard Rodman himself.
[Kevin Dreyfuss is the co-editor of EB Insider and a screenwriter moving to Los Angeles.]