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By Martin Keady · May 10, 2019
Famous Screenwriters is a series by The Script Lab in which our resident cinema historian, Martin Keady, looks at the great screenwriting cities of the world – those that have produced many of the world’s greatest screenwriters. He has previously covered London, New York, Los Angeles and Boston.
For Part 5, he looks at Houston, the city at the heart of Texas and the center for space exploration.
“Houston” is synonymous with the words, “We have a problem”, famously uttered by astronaut Jack Swigert aboard the Apollo 13 expedition to the Moon in 1970. Actually, Swigert apparently said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem”, but in true cinematic style, the phrase was transformed into the present tense (for greater immediacy) in the film by Ron Howard. Nevertheless, whether it is uttered in the present tense or past, the phrase put the Texan city on the global and cinematic map.
As with every featured city, not all of the writers on this list were born in Houston or even lived there. However, they all have a strong cinematic connection with the city, having written films that were set or shot there, which helped to create the cinematic legacy of a city that seemingly has one foot stuck in the past (the Wild West and its frontier mythology) and the other set firmly in the future (as a centre for space travel and the attempt by humans to escape Planet Earth).
Here are 10 great Houston screenwriters.
Robert E. Kent is an honorary Houstonian by virtue of having conceived of the story and written the screenplay for The Houston Story (1956), a film noir about an audacious attempt to siphon off oil from one of the many oilfields that surround Houston and that are a major source of the city’s wealth. With its memorable tagline, “The Hijack Mob Moves In On The Lone Star State”, The Houston Story is a typically noirian tale of gangsters and double-crossers played out against the backdrop of Texas’s oilfields.
Robert E. Kent was a Hollywood veteran who wrote (and often also produced) more than fifty films during his long career, although the overwhelming majority of them were B-movies about cowboys, mobsters or monsters, for many of which he used the pseudonym “James B. Gordon”, presumably to try and cover his embarrassment. However, he also wrote or co-wrote two of the most important movies of the 1950s.
The first was Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950), a genuinely classic film noir about a corrupt cop who accidentally kills a war hero and then attempts to cover up his crime. The director was the great Otto Preminger and one of Kent’s co-writers on the film was none other than the great Ben Hecht. And the second was Rock Around The Clock (1956), which may not have been much of a movie but was none the less truly historic for introducing much of the world, including Britain, to rock ‘n’ roll, in the form of the title track sung by Bill Haley.
KEY HOUSTON WORK: THE HOUSTON STORY (1956)
The marvelously named Doran William Cannon (which apparently was his real name) was a screenwriter, television writer and author of Authorship: The Dynamic Principles of Writing Creatively (1993), a guide to writing, including screenwriting. He came to the fore as a screenwriter at the end of the 1960s when he wrote two very different scripts for two very great directors.
The first was Skidoo (1968), a satire of the counterculture that was suddenly becoming the mainstream culture, at least in California. It was one of the last films directed by Otto Preminger and, sadly, was a pale shadow of his early classics, such as Laura (1944) and the aforementioned Where The Sidewalk Ends. However, Cannon’s second major script was Brewster McCloud (1970), which he wrote for Robert Altman and which remains one of the key films that is both set in and about Houston.
Brewster McCloud was the first film by Altman after the era-defining MASH (also 1970) had begun his extraordinary run of early to mid-1970s masterpieces, including McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975), in which Altman almost singlehandedly reanimated such classic American genres as the Western, the noir and the musical respectively, through such extraordinarily inventive techniques as the use of overlapping dialogue and a concentration on characters who would have been at best marginal in earlier examples of those genres.
Brewster McCloud is not quite in the class of those Altman epics, but it is nevertheless a fascinating and fascinatingly odd film. The title character, played by Bud Cort (who would famously play Harold in Hal Ashby’s dark masterpiece, Harold and Maude, a year later) is a student who secretly lives in the recently constructed Houston Astrodome and builds a set of wings so that he can realize his dream of taking flight. With its echoes of the myth of Icarus, and its foreshadowing of Birdy (1984), Alan Parker’s superb story of another would-be birdman, Brewster McCloud is, if nothing else, one of the finest films about the age-old human desire to literally take to the air.
KEY HOUSTON WORK: BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970)
William Harrison did not grow up in Houston, but in Dallas, Houston’s great economic and sporting rival in Texas. However, he wrote Rollerball (1975), one of the seminal Houston-set films, which is about a future sport that is even more dangerous than the great Texan obsession of gridiron, or American football.
Rollerball was based on Harrison’s own short story, Roller Ball Murder, about a made-up sport that was probably the most famous made-up sport in movies until the arrival of Quidditch a quarter of a century later. Rollerball is an ultraviolent sport played out on motorcycles in a league made up of teams from the great cities of the world (including Houston). It examines, among many other things, the nature of sporting obsession, and precisely what sporting teams, and more importantly their owners, will do to achieve success, namely anything.
The original Rollerball was remade in 2002 and a comparison of the two films is hugely enlightening about how Hollywood changed in the final quarter of the 20th century. The 1975 original, directed by the great Norman Jewison, is a worthy addition to the great early to mid-1970s tradition of fascinating Hollywood sci-fi movies, such as Soylent Green (1973) and Westworld (also 1973), and although it is flawed it absolutely overflows with ideas about sport, life and the relationship between the two. The 2002 remake, directed by John McTiernan (of Die Hard fame), is awful and has virtually no ideas at all. Instead, it simply delights in moronic action and bloodshed.
KEY HOUSTON WORK: ROLLERBALL (1975)
James L. Brooks is a great writer-director-producer, responsible for such wonderful films as Broadcast News (1987), which he wrote, directed and produced, and Big (1988), which he produced. Normally, I eschew writer-directors in any consideration of screenwriters, as I prefer to concentrate on screenwriters who are writers first and foremost, and who, as a result, are more likely to be writer-producers, or screenwriter-playwrights or novelist-screenwriters. However, any examination of Houston screenwriters must include a mention of James L. Brooks, whose debut movie as a writer-director-producer was one of the most memorable films about Houston, Terms of Endearment (1983).
Terms of Endearment was based on the novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, who is the greatest writer about modern-day Texas. His phenomenal achievements in several different mediums include the novel, The Last Picture Show (1966), which five years later was made into a beautiful and almost unbearably poignant film by Peter Bogdanovich; the novel, Lonesome Dove (1985), which was adapted into an Emmy-winning TV series; and the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain (2005), for which he and his co-writer, Diana Ossana, deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. And of course, McMurtry also wrote the novel Terms of Endearment (1975), which James L. Brooks turned into one of the most commercially and critically successful films of the 1980s.
Terms of Endearment begins in Houston and then moves around America, following Emma (played by Debra Winger) and the fantastically named Flap Horton (whose name, as we will see, is surely an homage to another great Houston writer) as they fall in and out of love with each other, and other people. Eventually, Emma develops terminal cancer, which brings her back into the orbit of her previously overbearing mother (memorably played by Shirley MacLaine), who has her own on-off relationship with a former astronaut (equally memorably played by Jack Nicholson). With its unusual but undeniably moving combination of comedy and drama, Terms of Endearment cleaned up at the Oscars and showed that both its original creator, McMurtry, and the man who adapted it for the screen, James L. Brooks, were truly great writers.
KEY HOUSTON FILM: TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)
Bill Forsyth is, of course, a Scottish writer, rather than an American (let alone Houston) writer. And yet arguably his greatest film, Local Hero (1983), is all about the culture clash that arises between Houston oilmen and Scottish fishermen when a whole new oilfield is discovered off the coast of a Scottish village.
Forsyth enjoyed one of the greatest runs ever by a writer-director in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as he effectively became a one-man equivalent of the great Ealing Comedies of the 1950s. Just as Ealing’s Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Ladykillers (1955) and its other works of genius demonstrated that an anarchic spirit lurked beneath the supposedly stiff English upper lip, so Forsyth’s small but mighty masterpieces, from That Sinking Feeling (1979) to Comfort and Joy (1984), showed that there was infinitely more to modern Scotland than the heritage nonsense of kilts and cabers. And when Forsyth trained his forensically funny eye on the oil industry, which had become Scotland’s great late 20th century industry after the discovery of oil in the North Sea, his cinematic journey inevitably took him to Texas.
Local Hero opens in Houston, with “Mac” MacIntyre (played by Peter Riegert), being sent to Scotland by the eccentric owner of his oil firm, Felix Happer (played by Burt Lancaster in probably his last great screen role), solely on the basis of his having a Scottish-sounding name (although it soon emerges that he has no Scottish ancestry). What follows is a great salmon-out-of-water story as “Mac” tries to acquire the rights to the newly discovered oil from the army of eccentrics who inhabit the village, only to discover that the beach required to bring the oil ashore is actually owned by an aged beachcomber who is reluctant to sell off his own piece of paradise. An absolute masterpiece (which, it is rumored, will soon be turned into a musical), Local Hero is a great Scottish film, a great Houston film and a great film full stop.
KEY HOUSTON WORK: LOCAL HERO (1983)
If a Scotsman, Bill Forsyth, can be regarded as an honorary Houstonian for Local Hero, then so can those most famous sons of Minnesota, the Coen Brothers, for Blood Simple (1984). Their still-astonishing debut feature, which is set in and around Houston, effectively established the template for so many of their later masterpieces, which somehow manage the remarkable trick of being simultaneously violent and hilarious.
Blood Simple opens with one of the great opening voiceovers of any film, with M. Emmet Walsh’s private investigator, Visser, opining (at the height of the Cold War): “Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else – that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas. And down here, you’re on your own.” It is significant that he refers not to “America” but to “Texas”, which is probably the most American of all the US states in its adherence to the old Western credo of self-reliance and mistrust of everyone else.
The film that follows that opening monologue proves the veracity of Visser’s words, as he is hired by a cuckolded husband first to spy on his wife and her lover and then to kill them. Ironically, of course, the only evidence of actual, meaningful human collaboration in the film, as all the characters are reduced to the status of rats trying to stay alive in a world of cats, is in the actual writing, directing and producing, as the Coen Brothers share the credits for all three. And even now, nearly four decades on, Blood Simple might just be their greatest film (and script) of all.
KEY HOUSTON WORK: BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)
Horton Foote (after whom Flap Horton in Terms of Endearment is surely named) was actually “Horton from Wharton”, rather than “Horton from Houston”, Wharton being a city about sixty miles to the south of Houston. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this list, Wharton can be considered almost as a suburb of Houston and Foote a Houston writer. And whatever the merits (or otherwise) of that approach, there is absolutely no doubt that Horton Foote is one of the greatest ever Texan screenwriters, having written two masterpieces of cinema more than 20 years apart.
First, Foote adapted Harper Lee’s classic southern-set 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, into the 1962 movie of the same name, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird has been back in the news recently, with all the furore over Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation, which brought him into conflict (at least initially) with Harper Lee’s estate. However, Foote was the first man to adapt the novel for another medium and he did a spectacular job in doing so.
Somewhat surprisingly, after his Oscar success, Foote did not exactly “cash in” on his newfound cache as a screenwriter. Instead, he preferred to write for the stage, including The Young Man From Atlanta (1995), for which he won he Pulitzer Prize for Drama. However, he did write one other incredibly successful screenplay, which was also about his deep knowledge of the Deep South. That was Tender Mercies (1983), the story of a seemingly washed-up country music singer who tries to rebuild his life with a young widow in rural Texas, which contrasted the great expanses of Texan farmland with the often cramped, if not crippled, emotional states of its inhabitants.
KEY HOUSTON (OR AT LEAST TEXAS) FILM: TENDER MERCIES (1983)
Lest anyone complain about the relative scarcity of Houston-born writers on this list, rest assured that the last three are all native Houstonians, who not only hail from the city but have often written about it. The first of them is William D. Broyles Junior (which, like Horton Foote and Flap Horton, is surely another name that could only have been given in Texas), who wrote arguably the ultimate “Houston movie”, Apollo 13 (1995).
Bill Broyles (as he is often called for short) was born and educated in Houston. After enlisting in the Army at the end of the 1960s, he served in Vietnam with medal-winning distinction, and later wrote an acclaimed television series, China Beach, based on his experiences. Then, on the back of that televisual success, he began writing screenplays for movies, including Cast Away (2000) and The Polar Express (2004), both of which were directed by Robert Zemeckis. However, it is his very first screenplay, for Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, that remains his best.
Apollo 13 is a fascinating film and in particular, it has a fascinating screenplay. The famous phrase that was uttered during it and that became the movie’s tagline was already universally known before the film was made, but Broyles told the story behind it, brilliantly depicting how a lunar expedition nearly ended in tragedy before, in true Hollywood style, it was rescued at the last minute by the ingenuity of its crew and, crucially, those back on terra firma in Houston.
KEY HOUSTON WORK: APOLLO 13 (1995)
Drew Goddard is another Houston native who has become one of the most successful screenwriters of the last 20 years, both in television and film. He was born in Houston, in 1975, before his parents relocated to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he was raised. He began his writing career on such late 90s/noughties TV staples as Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Lost (2004-2010), before making the transition to the big screen with his original screenplay for Cloverfield (2008), an utterly modern “found footage” film that also used the age-old trick, as shown in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), of barely showing the monster that was terrifying the film’s characters.
Since Cloverfield, Goddard has become one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood, following it up by writing or co-writing other commercially successful horror movies such as The Cabin In The Woods (2012), which he also directed, and World War Z (also 2012). More intriguingly, however, he also successfully adapted Andy Weir’s The Martian, a novel that had begun life as a series of blogs, into the film of the same name, which finally enabled Ridley Scott to achieve his artistic hat-trick of making three great sci-fi films, after directing Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) more than three decades earlier.
KEY HOUSTON WORK: THE MARTIAN (2015) (AS GODDARD DID MUCH OF THE RESEARCH FOR THE FILM AT THE LYNDON B. JOHNSON SPACE CENTER IN HOUSTON)
In so many ways, Wes Anderson is an anti-Texan, or at least a Texan who does not come close to conforming to any of the stereotypical images of Texans. He is avowedly intellectual and urbane, and the films that he has written and directed, including Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), have created such a unique world-view that he is often regarded as one of the most influential film-makers of the early 21st century. And yet he hails from Houston (where he was born in 1969) and so he is deservedly the last name on this list.
It really all began for Anderson with his second, or sophomore, film, Rushmore (1998), which he co-wrote with Owen Wilson (who, of course, has subsequently become a hugely successful actor). Rushmore, which takes its name from the private school (Rushmore Academy) in which it is set, tells the story of one of the strangest love triangles ever. The three points of the triangle are Max, a precocious but emotionally immature student; Rosemary, the object of his adolescent affection, who is a beautiful but widowed teacher (as is also the case with Tender Mercies and Terms of Endearment, widows are something of a staple of Texas-set dramas); and Herman, the wealthy but unhappily married father of two other boys at the school, who also falls in love with Rosemary. As the teenager and the industrialist fight it out for Rosemary’s affection, Rushmore becomes one of the great modern coming-of-age stories.
Anderson has made several fine films since Rushmore, in particular, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is often regarded alongside David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) as one of the finest films of the 21st century so far. However, with its utterly beguiling combination of cinematic invention and genuinely universal story-telling, it is arguable that he has never equaled, let alone surpassed, Rushmore.
KEY HOUSTON FILM: RUSHMORE (1998)
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/
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