One of the names that came up at the recent London Sundance Film Festival screenwriting lab was WALDO SALT. The Sundance Film Festival has an annual screenwriting prize in his name. And his is a remarkable story – worthy of a feature film in itself.
I’ve written \ compiled a brief account of his fascinating life and career, cobbled together from several sketchy internet sources .
WALDO SALT was an American screenwriter, born 1914 in Chicago, Illinois.
His childhood was apparently ‘unstable’. His mother suffered from mental illness, and his father was an alcoholic and right-wing extremist. Salt said, “We are all born with human needs. The conflict between those needs and what we do to meet those needs is the drama of life.” Salt grew up to believe that everything had a cause and all bad things could be made better.
Waldo Salt graduated from Stanford University at age eighteen. By the age of 22 he was a Hollywood up-and-comer. The first of the nineteen films he wrote or in which he participated in the writing, was released in 1937 with the title “The Bride Wore Red.”
Nineteen thirty-eight was a fateful year for Waldo Salt. It was the year the young screenwriter saw his screenplay, “THE SHOPWORN ANGEL” produced by Joe Mankiewicz, with a cast featuring James Stewart, Margaret Sullivan, and Walter Pidgeon.
It was also the year he joined the American Communist Party.
He was a civilian consultant to the U.S. Office of War Information during World War II and in the immediate post-war years, his screenwriting career continued to thrive, with a number of feature film credits in the late 40’s and 1950.
‘In 1950, as his script THE FLAME AND THE ARROW was showing throughout the country’s theaters, Waldo Salt seemed on his way to being one of Hollywood’s major screenwriters. But, for Salt as for many others, the 1950’s meant the stifling of their creative talents by a paranoid and restrictive government.’
In April of 1951 Salt was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee – Senator Joseph McCarthy’s brainchild for the investigation of Communist infiltration of America.
In a memorial speech after his death, screenwriter\producer Paul Jarrico remembered his friend –
‘It wasn’t money motivating Waldo when he lost himself in a subject. It was an exhilarating curiosity, the sheer pleasure of learning. It was the challenge of expanding the envelope of the movie medium…he faced, all his working life, that most ancient of conundrums: how to buck the system and still make a buck…as it happened, Waldo and I appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on the same day, April 13, 1951. We both told the committee our politics were none of its business, and we both took the Fifth. Like Reagan’s Heroes…we left Washington on a train to New York, where we were both due to speak at a rally. I was telling Waldo about the company I was forming with Adrian Scott and Herbert Biberman. We were going to make truly independent films, with real content. Waldo was telling me about the musical he was going to write about the workers who tunnel under rivers, “Sandhog.” We were both pretty excited….And he suddenly stopped short, startled by a thought. “My God!” he exclaimed. “What if they blacklist us!“
Though never held in contempt of Congress, like a number of his colleagues, Salt was clearly identified as a card-carrying Communist and blacklisted for many years.
Of that time, Salt said, “I wish we had done something to deserve being blacklisted. I wish we’d had that much influence on film or on politics at that time. I think the world might have been different. But we didn’t.”
During that period, Salt, along with such writers as Ring Lardner Jr and Ian Hunter, moved to New York and began writing for television under an assumed name. Lardner and Hunter were writing scripts for the popular TV series “Robin Hood” when they brought Salt on board because the producers “needed a lot more scripts than we could provide,” Lardner said. “We each had a permanent name for receiving checks and had bank accounts under those names. You would register those names for Social Security.”
But the producers, Lardner said, “decided to put all sorts of different names on the scripts because if one name appeared too frequently” the networks might get wind of what the producers were doing. “The networks might want to see the writer. (The producers) didn’t want that to happen.“
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Salt wrote primarily for television and commercials. Using a pseudonym, he worked on a number of films, keeping somewhat in touch with the industry, but no longer at the centre of it.
Salt’s name was finally removed from the blacklist in 1962. But by then much of his life had fallen into ruin. He struggled to get working again.
He wrote 3 films, -“Taras Bulba” (1962), “Wild and Wonderful” (1964) and “Flight from Ashiya” (1964) – which were complete disasters, then moved to New York but he couldn’t get work. Divorced, and sick with pneumonia and despair, Salt was living in a cheap hotel trying to write television scripts.”I was 50, unemployed and unable to write successfully.”
His friend, Oscar winning producer Jerome Hillman –
“At best these are second-rate cult classics,” Hillmann said. “But they did Waldo as much harm as the decade he spent being blacklisted as an artist. The blacklist stripped him of his reputation and effectively banned him from Hollywood, but the kitsch he wrote in the early ’60s cost him his self-respect.” In New York Waldo plummeted into what Hillmann described as an “emotional and financial abyss.“
What’s fascinating, for writers or anyone with creative ideals, are these post-blacklist years, in which he threw himself back into screenwriting–bad writing, turning out admittedly awful script after script. Eventually he forced himself to a decision to slow down his work pace, buckle up his artistry and not be a hack – his daughter (actress Jennifer Salt) insisted that he found something that he really wanted to do and focus on that. So for the next 3 years he wrote Don Quixote, a quality script that was never produced, but it was the tool that honed his skills again.
“Those were terrible times for all of us,” Salt’s daughter actress Jennifer Salt recalled. “When you have a parent who goes through (losing his self-respect), it reverberates. The family was disintegrating. I was going off to college and it just felt the bottom was falling through everything.“
It was only when family members confronted him about what he was doing to himself, Hillman said, that Salt “rose from the dead and vowed he would never embark on a project again he didn’t feel he could execute–that wouldn’t have the high standards he set for himself.“
“I ended up at fifty, over-the-hill, thinking I had no future,” Salt explained. “Finally, I realized that I had allowed myself to write less than I could.” According to fellow writer Ian Hunter, “From then on, Waldo approached screenwriting as an artist.”
Hillman, who worked with Salt on “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Day of the Locust” and “Coming Home,” for which Salt received his second Oscar, said Salt’s life experiences turned him into a great writer.
“There isn’t any question about it,” Hellman said. “It is a truism that we only learn from the tragedies, the errors and the losses in our lives. Some people are destroyed by experiences like that. Waldo took the full force of life’s blows. He grew and rose above them.“
Jennifer Salt disagreed. “I don’t believe he became a good writer because he suffered,” she said. “I think he was a person, who despite the blacklist or if there had never been a blacklist, would have found his stride. He was a real artist.”
Working from 1964-1968 to re-find his voice as a writer, Salt was poised for a comeback when, in 1968, he got the chance to write the screen version of MIDNIGHT COWBOY. Winner of Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, the film also earned Salt the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It had taken nearly twenty years, but Waldo Salt returned to Hollywood the way he had left it — with dignity.
Beginning with MIDNIGHT COWBOY, Salt’s lifetime of experience culminated in a series of brilliantly written, critically-acclaimed screenplays, including: SERPICO (1972), a film about an honest cop who must choose between loyalty to friends and his moral convictions; THE DAY OF THE LOCUST (1975), Salt’s adaptation of Nathaniel West’s novella; and COMING HOME (1978), the story of a marine wife who falls in love with a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, for which Salt won his second Academy Award.
Salt ended his career teaching young screenwriters at the Sundance Institute in Utah. He always talked about “writing in images.”
Less than six months before his death in March of 1987, Salt received the Laurel Award for Screen Achievement, the highest accolade the Writers Guild can bestow. His acceptance speech proved to be a fitting epitaph: “As writers true to ourselves, it will always be hard, and if we’re good, we’ll always be in trouble. Let’s be sure we deserve it…This could not have come at a more appropriate time. I’m months behind on a deadline. I’ve reduced the producers to being polite. I lie awake in the middle of the night wondering why I ever thought I could write in the first place.”
(In his later years of great success, Salt had a reputation for intensive research, for immersing himself in a story – and for very late delivery!)
Paul Jarrico: ‘The wonder of it is that he accomplished so much. And in an industry so intrinsically frustrating. The fate of your work, if you’re a screenwriter, is almost always in the hands of others. And rare is the time when these others share your vision. But it does happen. And that’s the lure. That and the money, of course; though it wasn’t money motivating Waldo when he lost himself in a subject. It was an exhilarating curiosity, the sheer pleasure of learning. It was the challenge of expanding the envelope of the movie medium–that fantastic synthesis of the visual arts and the performing arts. Yes, we know, it’s also a business. And he faced, all his working life, that most ancient of conundrums: how to buck the system and still make a buck.’
When I was reminded of Waldo Salt’s name at the London Sundance festival it struck a chord with me – because COMING HOME, MIDNIGHT COWBOY and SERPICO were formative, inspirational movies for me. And although I haven’t seen any of them for years (decades?) I still remember moments from each of them vividly – they are all wonderful scripts and films – and the story of Waldo Salt’s career is, I think, hugely inspiring in the way he finally hit the artistic jackpot after so many years of struggle.
A quick reminder about my and Phil Gladwin’s next London screenwriting course, ‘The Authoritative Guide to Writing and Selling A Great Screenplay‘ course on July 13-14 with special guest Pathe UK creative executive BRADLEY QUIRK, whose highly impressive CV also includes work on many feature films at the BFI and UKFC, as well as writing (as a BBC Academy-trained screenwriter) on Holby City, Doctors and Eastenders.
Here is a brief taster of what you can expect from Bradley, from his answers to a few questions I asked him this week:-
Please can you tell us a little about your working background and the projects you’ve worked on.
‘I joined the UK Film Council in 2008 after time spent working as a script editor and writer in TV. At the UKFC, I was Story Editor and Talent Tracker working with emerging talent who had yet to have their first film theatrically distributed. The projects I worked on during this period included Zam Salim’s UP THERE and Clio Barnard’s THE ARBOR. I also worked as Story Editor on MONSOON SHOOTOUT which premieres out of competition at Cannes 2013.
In 2010, the UKFC funding structure was rationalised and many of us in the Development Fund moved into the Film Fund (which now exists within the BFI) overseeing development and production funding for UK Film. I tracked talent, liaising with producers, directors and writers and worked on a number of films that received UKFC/BFI funding. These films included SHADOW DANCER, GRABBERS, LAST DAYS ON MARS and WELCOME TO THE PUNCH.
In 2012, I joined Pathe as Creative Executive. To date, I’ve worked across all Pathe’s development titles and two productions: MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM and PHILOMENA. Both films will be released in late 2012 and early 2013.’
What are your favourite movies and why?
‘A tough question – As a film buff and former writer, I really respond to the body of work produced by the Dardennes Brothers. Their stories are simple in their construction but are ferocious tests of their protagonists and I think they reveal fundamental human truths. I also love the work of Jacques Audiard – particularly READ MY LIPS which, for me, isn’t his best film but I have an irrational love of it. He directs with great flair and consistently draws brilliant performances. Most of all though I tend to like directors and their body of work over individual films.‘
Do you have any tips for new screenwriters looking to get a feature film made (or at least into development!)?
‘My advice for writers who are specifically focused on film is to concentrate on what gets made in the medium and by whom. Observe and participate in the ecology of the industry before writing a $70m screenplay that will never get financed (occasionally one of these films will get optioned and rewritten) then focus your creativity on writing something fresh that can be made. Producers are always on the lookout for talented writers who can deliver story, character and structure within packages that appeal to audiences and which can be financed so make it your mission to write scripts that do that. Then get those scripts into the hands of the producers who understand the market and get films made.‘
When you’re reading scripts, what makes a script stand out from the crowd?
‘Characters I care for, stories that are compelling tests for those characters, a sense of cinema (without lazily reverting to the spectacular). If it’s a comedy, make me laugh in the first couple of pages. If it’s a horror, make me scared. If it’s a drama, make me ask what would I do in that situation?‘
Until next week,
All the best
May 17th 2013