Spider-man scribe and double Oscar-winner Alvin Sargent on how he’s lasted 45 years in the business.
Written by Denis Faye
When I first approached Alvin Sargent for an interview in The Masters, he hesitated. My suggestion that he has a few lessons to impart regarding the craft of screenwriting was met with surprising humility “Must say, I have never put my finger on the craft of screenwriting,” he wrote. “Never taught a class.”
I was taken aback a little, given his resume. It starts in 1950s television with The Chevron Hall of Stars, and continues through the 1960s with shows like Bus Stop, Ben Casey, and Route 66. His feature work for the subsequent five decades includes Paper Moon, Bobby Deerfield, Julia (his first Oscar), Ordinary People (his second Oscar), Dominick and Eugene, and Unfaithful [with William Broyles, Jr.]. Currently, he’s the go-to scribe for the Spiderman franchise, having penned Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3 [with Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi], and the new reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man [with Steve Kloves and James Vanderbilt].
With a little more persuading, he agreed to an interview, but he was busy at the time. He asked my patience. He was helping his wife, producer Laura Ziskin, who was being treated for breast cancer. I knew of Ziskin’s battle, but I had no idea how grave it was. Sargent seemed optimistic and embracing, so we continued corresponding until he finally answered my questions via email – on a Final Draft document, of all things – on the week of June 6.
One week later, Ziskin passed away.
Sargent took a moment amidst of one of the most challenging times of his life to honor a commitment, a testament to the man’s professionalism, patience, and generosity. The Writers Guild of America, West Web site would like to thank him and extend our deepest condolences to this legendary writer.
Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Alvin Sargent with wife Laura Ziskin at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival.
(Ziskin was the co-founder of the non-profit Stand-up To Cancer. If you’d like to learn more about it or leave a donation, go to http://lauraziskin.standup2cancer.org/.)
Your career has had incredible longevity in a notoriously fickle industry. How'd you do that?
I survive because I am mostly somewhere between [the ages of] 8 and 19. Those are the years of needs and behavior I call on. And I have no particular philosophy. In other words I am not quotable. I have adapted stories and books and plagiarized whenever I can get away with it. Also I have had the best directors and actors and artists to work with. And I had an agent, Sam Adams, years ago, who worked hard at finding me work. He sold me to others and sold me to myself. I said to him, “You’re a great agent, Sam.” He said, “If I were a great agent, would I be an agent?” And also, I haven’t died yet. Probably I’ll die at around 16.
What's your daily creative process?
I have no daily process. I have trouble calling myself a writer. It was never a plan of mine. I learned to type in the Navy’s communication corps, learned Morse code and how to type at 100 words a minute (I never went to war). Typing was a skill I took advantage of. I like dialogue, exploring behavior. Behavior takes you everywhere – beyond imagination for a character. It runs you into other people’s behavior and so the battleground is set.
How does your process work in the spaces between writing?
Between writing is just sittin’ with my dog, watching what he’s glued to. Waiting with him to see what he sees in that bush across the yard. Waiting is not difficult for me. Waiting. Important activity. It’s flying, waiting to land.
How much of your work has been spec work and how much has been assignments? Is there a balance you try to strike?
I have been given most everything I have in life. It has come my way. I do not pursue. I sold advertising at Daily Variety for 9 years. At 35 I began being a writer when my agent got me a job as a story editor on a TV series called Bus Stop. I knew nothing about writing... I was canned after 8 weeks. No job anywhere, 2 babies, and a new used house (previously lived in). Then it came my way. Christmas. Everybody away. A TV show called Ben Casey needed a quick rewrite. My agent offered me up. I worked from then on. We are all outsiders to some extent. I am, too. Waiting. I have adapted books and done a few originals and now am writing more original stuff.
Original can be so unoriginal sometimes. Yikes. It is hard to believe I wrote on subjects I knew nothing about. Also, being a collaborative thing, it is often difficult to take credit for a screenplay, as if I sat down and began from nothing and saw it through to the end. Every now and again one hits a bull’s eye. “I got it all by myself. Look ma, no hands.”
Despite the variety of projects you've worked on, is there a genre or topic you'd still like to conquer?
I suppose so. I would like to write something that keeps an audience crying for weeks, looking at their own friends or family and seeing that movie. I like writing Southern or writing with an English accent...when I leave myself, I am freer. Characters have other roots and style and they speak without me. I have a screenplay I like, can’t get made. A friend of mine read it. He said I liked your writing in the first half, but the second half was much better because he said I wasn’t there. The characters wrote it… all by themselves.
How do you feel about being the official scribe of Spider-man?
Piece of cake! I married the producer.
What other kinds of writing do you do?
I e-mail my daughters. Step, original and grand.