“If you were to ask me, ‘What would you change if you had your movie life to live over?’ I’d tell you that I’d have written exactly all the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near ‘All The President’s Men'” — William Goldman, “Adventures In The Screen Trade: A Personal View Of Hollywood And Screenwriting”
It’s goes without saying that screenwriter William Goldman is a legend. His scripts are practically textbooks for any aspiring writer and his filmography boasts stuff like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Marathon Man,” “The Princess Bride,” “Misery” and countless others. But his crowning achievement is arguably “All the President’s Men,” the thrilling account of Woodward and Bernstein‘s investigation into the Watergate break in. The film earned him his second Oscar, a Writer’s Guild Award and other honors, but it also became one of the benchmark films about the intersection of journalism and politics. However, according to Robert Redford‘s forthcoming biography excerpted by Vanity Fair, the actor claims that most of Goldman’s script was tossed out and that he and director Alan J. Pakula largely rewrote the film. Huh?
“Redford booked rooms at the Madison Hotel, across from the Post offices, for one month, and he and Pakula repaired there to re-draft the screenplay. About one-tenth of Goldman’s draft remained in the end,” the biography says with Woodward claiming, “Bill gave the start point and the ending and those never changed.” However, a blistering, brave and fascinating piece by Richard Stayton in the latest issue of Written By gets to the bottom of Redford’s claims, revealing the actor’s recollections to be…severely misinformed at best.
Stayton’s first stop was to Goldman himself to see if he would comment on Redford’s account of what happened, and while he appreciated the gesture, he’s since put the film behind him saying via email, “Thanks for thinking of me. It was not a happy experience, and I don’t want to write about it anymore.” So, in a feat of investigation that would’ve made Woodward and Bernstein proud, Stayton rifled through old newspaper accounts, various versions of the script and even DVD special features to piece together the history of the film’s development. In short: it was messy, but all Goldman.
Essentially, Goldman was getting it from all sides. Woodward and Bernstein, Redford, Pakula and the staff at the Washington Post who were privy to early drafts of the script (Goldman had full access to their offices for research purposes) all opined on the script from day one, with contradictory notes flying back to Goldman on how he could “improve” the script. Early on Nora Ephron and Bernstein attempted a rewrite of Goldman’s first draft which was promptly tossed out. Goldman came back on and endured multiple “pre-rehearsal” drafts and page revisions as he tried to get it to a place that would please the filmmakers. But here’s the key — these drafts have Goldman’s name on it and have his notes on scenes inside for why or why not they should be included (a March 1975 draft has an extensive late stage deconstruction of a scene which Goldman would prefer to leave out but says he will include if pressed).
Indeed even in his own book, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” Goldman recounts the endless drafting process saying, “I’ve never written so many versions for any movie as ‘President’s Men.’ There was, in addition to all the standard names, the ‘revised second’ version and the ‘prehearsal’ [sic] version. God knows how many.” But the smoking gun comes in what Stayton believes is the final draft that he dug up at Hollywood bookshop specializing in plays and screenplays. Untitled, undated and lacking a proper cover page, this version not only matches the film but also features Goldman’s signature on each page.
In Vanity Fair’s piece, Redford speaks of “spending long hours driving around with Woodward and Bernstein as they continued their investigation of Charles Colson, an indicted Watergate conspirator who was in the process of plea-bargaining for his role in attempting to smear Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame.” This is an assertion Stayton believes to be a total fabrication.
Indeed, Goldman did eventually leave the project but it appears that Redford and Pakula more or less re-assembled his work but did little, if any, actual writing. So is Redford misremembering or revising history? That’s the question that remains, but have no doubt William Goldman worked absurdly hard on “All the President’s Men,” a process that found him battling nearly everybody to finish the job delivering a screenplay, that is now a classic film. And do yourself a favor and read Stayton’s full account of his research — it’s exhaustive and compelling and puts to bed any doubts about who wrote “All the President’s Men.”