Reliving the Golden Age of Hollywood

Novelist, screenwriter and movie producer Burt Weissbourd spent over a decade in Hollywood, writing and producing iconic movies like “Raggedy Man” and working with iconic stars like Sissy Spacek, Fred Astaire and Robert Redford. Weissbourd is now a successful author of character-driven thrillers. How did he go from feature films to mystery novels? He explains the process in a guest post for Readers+Writers Journal.

I came to Hollywood in 1975 to produce feature films. I was 26 years old, I didn’t know anyone in the movie business, but I’d stumbled onto a timely idea — I was going to work with, and most importantly, back screenwriters. That is to say, stand behind their work — and I say this with hindsight — protect them from being rewritten, include them in the process of choosing a director, casting the picture, all of the decisions that go into making a feature film.

At that time, Writers Guild minimum for a high budget screenplay was $9,600. No, I’m not leaving out any zeros. You could hire the most accomplished screenwriter, if he or she agreed to work for the minimum, for $9,600. Also, screenwriters were at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain. Their screenplays were often rewritten at the whim of a star or a director or a studio executive, they weren’t often consulted about most of the important choices that go into making a movie.

Finally, it was a golden age in Hollywood — filmmakers were taking risks and studios were giving directors free reign to make daring movies. In this creative context, writers were eager to work on exciting projects, especially if they could stay with the project as it moved toward becoming a film.

In Chicago, I’d learned film making working on educational films. I was the first one on and the last one off—doing everything from writing, to cinematography, to directing actors, editing, etc. But it was a big jump to producing feature films in Hollywood, so I went to business school and raised a small amount of money (less than $100,000) to go to Hollywood to finance screenplays.

I was young, optimistic, and emboldened by the films being made. I approached writers that I loved and made unconventional deals. I was successful enough developing screenplays, and attracting actors, that early on, studios were financing the screenplays I wanted to develop.

"As a producer developing a screenplay, you look for stories with strong, complex characters and a rich stew — that is to say a situation with conflict, emotional intensity, and the potential to evolve in unexpected ways. That is exactly how I approach the books that I write" – Burt Weissbourd

I worked with writers of some of the best screenplays of their time, including Andy Lewis (“Klute”), Frederick Raphael (“Two for the Road”), Alvin Sargent (“Ordinary People”, “Julia”), Joe Esterhas (”Basic Instinct”), Ron Bass (“Rain Man”), Jeanne Rosenberg (“Black Stallion”) playwrights Thom Babe and Murray Mednick, Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause”). William Wittliff (“Lonesome Dove,” Raggedy Man”), and Larry D. Cohen (“Carrie,” “Ghost Story”). (Film credits are for writer identification purposes only.)

As I had some success, I began developing screenplays working directly with actors including: Robert Redford, Lily Tomlin, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Sally Field, Jill Clayburg, and Al Pacino.

Some Highlights:
Early in my producing career, I had the privilege of working with author Ross MacDonald, a legend in crime fiction, on his only screenplay.

I went to London on the way to the Cannes film festival with Marty Scorsese, This was the year he won for TAXI DRIVER. We went to meet screenwriters for a project based on the book, HAUNTED SUMMER. I still remember our first meeting—in the lobby of the Dorchester Hotel—with Freddie Raphael who went on to write the screenplay.

Selling an Andy Lewis screenplay I’d financed with a partner for approximately $25,000 to Warner Brothers for $300,000.

I had a memorable trip to NYC to read a Frederic Raphael screenplay I had worked on — A NEW WIFE — with Diane Keaton and Al Pacino. It was just after THE GODFATHER, and we met in Mr. Pacino’s office to read the entire screenplay (I read a secondary character).

Being called on the carpet at 2 different studios by prominent executives who scolded me for making unconventional deals with writers that gave them too much control—like guaranteeing them the right to do the first rewrite of their own screenplays. These executives felt I was setting precedents that would be negative for the industry.

Dinners on location for GHOST STORY with Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and Melvyn Douglas. They were all marvelous raconteurs and told amazing stories of the old days in Hollywood.

I left Hollywood in 1987 – the golden age was over and I wanted to write. With hindsight, the best screenplays I’d worked on never got made. Nevertheless, it was a great experience. As a producer developing a screenplay, you look for stories with strong, complex characters and a “rich stew”—that is to say a situation with conflict, emotional intensity, and the potential to evolve in unexpected ways. That is exactly how I approach the books that I write. I learned how to do that as a producer working on screenplays.