A Few Quick Questions

Jeffrey Cohen

When July 1, 2006 rolled around, I had officially (and even privately) been a freelance writer for exactly 21 years, which is a mind-blowing number, considering that I’d originally intended to stay off a company payroll for six months or a year, waiting for “the next job” to come along.

I’m not waiting anymore. I gave up waiting sometime in the late 1980s. They’ll have to pry me away from this job with a crowbar. Put on a shirt and tie every day and go work in some office for a specified number of hours, writing on the topics that are given to me, rather than the ones I pursue because I find them interesting? No, thanks–luckily, my wife has a steady job, so I can be picky.

Of all the assignments I’ve had in this job, though, there is one–other than writing mystery novels, which I don’t consider an assignment, since I chose it for myself–that has been the most satisfying and the most fun for me. I was very sorry to give it up when the time came.

That was as the designated interviewer for a monthly publication called Hollywood Scriptwriter, which at the time was owned and edited by my pal Lou Grantt, who now is a novelist in her own write. Lou is an amazing person and no, she is not really Ed Asner. She had the name first.

With some background as a screenwriter (admittedly, an unproduced one), I was thrilled to talk to some of my idols through relatively long, hopefully in-depth telephone interviews. I don’t live in Los Angeles–in fact, I’m as far away as you can get and still be on the same continent–and strikingly, many of the Hollywood scriptwriters I interviewed did. Go figure.

It was always a challenge to get the interview; some of the subjects weren’t familiar with the publication. But with a little hard-headed determination on my part and some serendipitous timing in other cases (if the subject had a project about to be released, it would be easier to get an interview arranged), I talked to almost all the people I’d hoped to.

And they were, without exception, very gracious. From true legends in the field (Budd Schulberg, who wrote the novel What Makes Sammy Run?) to those better known as performers (Carrie Fisher, who has become a novelist, playwright and script doctor of choice), no one objected to the length of the interview, no one ever refused to answer a question, and not one hung up on me.

It was a blast. Among the highlights:

* William Goldman was the first screenwriter I interviewed, and a personal hero of mine. Besides being a brilliant screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), he is also a brilliant novelist and has adapted many of his books (Magic, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man) into films. He spent over an hour with me on the phone, then apologized (!) because he had to go and visit with a grandchild, and suggested we pick the interview up the next day, which we did for another 45 minutes or so. A true gentleman, and a nice man, as well.

* It took a while to schedule Carrie Fisher’s interview, through no fault on anybody’s part. When we finally began, we talked for about 10 minutes, then she responded to someone on her end of the conversation and asked if she could call me back: “My mother’s asking me about something.” She called back, as promised, and we finished the interview, marking the only time someone has cut me off to talk to Debbie Reynolds.

* Talking to Garry Marshall is exactly what you’d expect it to be. His unique inflection and perfect timing can make a simple sentence (“I’m supposed to go to lunch.”) a comic gem. He talked about settings, how comedy is the last thing he worries about, and why Fonzie couldn’t wear a sweater. It was an entertaining, terrific time, and I’m glad I have it on tape.

* Spike Lee, at roughly my height (which isn’t much) is an intimidating presence. One of the few face-to-face interviews I did for the magazine–he works in New York City, a 45-minute train ride from my home), Lee was open and honest, happy to talk about previous projects and the one he was beginning (with Schulberg, of all people), and ate breakfast while we spoke. He also sent a cassette of his latest–at the time–film, which I watched and promptly lost. It was the interview for which I was most nervous, and it worked out fine, mostly because of Lee.

* Mike Medavoy is a producer and former studio executive with great taste and a strong sense of story. He had a memoir about to be published, and we talked extensively about how he chooses projects. But he still didn’t buy any of my scripts. That “great taste” thing gets in the way sometimes.

* Carl Reiner, at 80, was working on the script for a Dick Van Dyke Show reunion special (“I’m on page 13 right now!”) that eventually aired on Nick at Nite, when we talked. The man knows all there is to know about comedy, about making a story work, and about making characters three-dimensional. And yet, he’s still not an arrogant swine. Sorta makes you lose faith in the Hollywood system.

* Stephen Bochco pretty much reinvented television when he co-created Hill Street Blues, and when he was talking about the network system and how he’s been typecast as the “cop guy,” and I asked if he wished he could break free with a goofy sitcom about twin sisters and a talking hamster. Bochco didn’t miss a beat, and said, “you son of a bitch; you stole my idea.” Took a while for the laughter to die down and the interview to continue from there.

Unfortunately, after a while, Lou sold the magazine, and while the new owner would have let me continue the interviews, it was clearly time to move on (for one thing, I was taking a part-time teaching job that was going to monopolize some of my time). But I do miss it every once in a while, and I’m sorry about some of the interviews I tried to get but couldn’t (Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Cameron Crowe, Roger Corman).

And I do confess, every once in a while I’ll take out a cassette and listen to it. I’m partial, but I think they were pretty good interviews. And most of that wasn’t my doing at all.

5 thoughts on “A Few Quick Questions

  1. Jeff Cohen

    Alas, B.G., since the magazine owns the rights to the interviews, and I don’t, and since I haven’t got a clue how to make a CD from a cassette, it seems unlikely. But if you feel like coming over and having a listen one day, feel free.

    Reply
  2. Mark Terry

    I’ve been in the same boat. I was reviewing novels for The Oakland Press here in Michigan, and my editor fairly early on asked me if I would like to do interview/profiles of some of the authors, say once a month. Sure, said I. So I got to interview people like Harlan Coben, Sue Grafton, John Sandford, Michael Connelly, Ted Bell and the list goes on.

    That gig ended this summer when a new executive editor came in, fired my editor and shifted her editor, more or less killed the book page and for what was left, cut everybody’s freelance fees down the middle. To which I said, “Life’s too short.”

    It sure was fun while it lasted and I still do occasional interviews for the ITW Report.

    To a one, they were all gracious and helpful. Some are a little too “on message,” which is to say, they have so much experience doing interviews that you sometimes feel like they’ve answered the same question a thousand times before, but some were a trip where we just get to chatting and pretty soon the time’s up. Randy Wayne White was definitely like that, where I got off the phone, thought, “That was a helluva great interview,” then looked at my notes and thought, “But I was having so much fun I didn’t get any good quotes.”

    Came out all right, though. What a wonderful experience.

    Best,Mark Terrywww.markterrybooks.com

    Reply
  3. pari noskin taichert

    What an incredible experience it must have been to interview these folks, Jeff. I’ll try not to envy you too much.

    To me, one of the most enjoyable parts of writing nonfiction is just that — the interviews. I guess it’s also reflective of the fact I simply enjoy learning from true experts (and personalities).

    Reply
  4. Deni Dietz

    Oh, Jeff, what a dream job. And William Goldman is my hero! It was after I read his book ‘Boys & Girls Together’ that I decided I’d become a novelist. I wish I could have a couple of minutes on the phone to tell him that.

    If I met him face-to-face, I’d be too tongue-tied.

    It was my newspaper “interview” with John Travolta that led to my career as a film extra, but I’ll save that experience for a Quibbles & BITS blog.

    Reply

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