Interviews

Terry Southern, The Art of Screenwriting No. 3

Interviewed by Maggie Paley

Terry Southern was born in 1924 in Alvarado, Texas, the son of a pharmacist and a dressmaker. He was drafted into the army during World War II and studied at the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill. In Paris he became friends with George Plimpton, H. L. Humes, and Peter Matthiessen, who published his story “The Accident” in the first issue of The Paris Review. Back in the United States, Southern was often a­ssociated with Beat writers like Burroughs, Corso, and Ginsberg, some of whose attitudes he may have shared, yet the elegant clarity of his prose—which Norman Mailer characterized as “mean, coolly deliberate and murderous”—­situated him, aesthetically, as a player in the “Quality Lit Game” he liked to mock.

At the time of this interview (1967), Southern was famous as the ­coauthor of Candy, the best-selling sex novel, and as the screenwriter ­behind Stanley Kubrick’s dark antiwar, antinuke comedy, Dr. Strangelove. Both ­appeared in the U.S. in 1964 (a headline in Life magazine read “Terry Southern vs. Smugness”). By 1967 he could be spotted on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, standing between Dylan Thomas and Dion. Gore Vidal called him “the most profoundly witty writer of our generation.” Lenny Bruce blurbed his books.

Candy (written with Mason Hoffenberg) is loosely based on Candide. Its heroine is a delicious, perky, generous young woman; the joke is that she remains impregnably innocent in the face of one grotesque sexual adventure after another. The book attacks prudery, a particularly Anglo-Saxon vice, and yet, like Candy herself, its tone is appealingly sweet. The novel was first published in Paris by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press in 1958 (even ­after the 1960 Lady Chatterley case redefined obscenity, publishers here were ­unsure of the novel’s “redeeming social value”).

For Dr. Strangelove, Southern was hired by Kubrick to make a satire out of a screenplay originally based on the serious novel Red Alert. The movie takes us into the war room of a certain President Merkin Muffley, there to reveal a military culture gone berserk, as its leaders cheerfully prepare for death, destruction, and the imminent end of the world.

Even before these blockbusters made him a household name, Southern had attracted a passionate following. His first novel, Flash and Filigree (1958), the tale of a persecuted dermatologist, is replete with mad inventions (among them a TV game show called What’s My Disease?). In The Magic Christian (1959), his most brilliant sustained narrative, a billionaire prankster spends a fortune “making it hot for people,” unearthing hypocrisy as he goes. Southern’s essays and journalism were esteemed—and imitated—by other writers. “Twirling at Ole Miss,” a piece of personal reportage published in Esquire in 1962, is especially trenchant and funny. Its nominal subject is baton twirling; it’s really—or equally—about the mindlessness of racism in the South. Tom Wolfe called it the founding work of the New Journalism.

By the time this interview was conducted, Southern had also worked on Tony Richardson’s film The Loved One (1965), based on the Evelyn Waugh novel, and The Cincinnati Kid (1966), a drama about high-stakes poker, starring Steve McQueen, and had published Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes (1967), a collection of short fiction, journalism, and occasional ­pieces. He would go on to write or contribute to the screenplays of Barbarella (1968), Easy Rider (1969), End of the Road (1969), and The Magic Christian (1969). His only other credited script to make it to the screen, The Telephone (1988), starring Whoopi Goldberg, was a disaster. By the seventies, alcohol and drug abuse had slowed Southern’s productivity. He published two more ­novels, Blue Movie (1970) and Texas Summer (1992), and had a short stint in the eighties as a writer for Saturday Night Live. Later, he became a devoted and much-loved teacher of screenwriting at Columbia University. In 1995, he collapsed on his way to teach a class, and four days afterward died of respiratory failure.

On the day of our interview—meant to be the first in a series on the art of screenwriting—we met for lunch at the Russian Tea Room. The decor, then as now, was Christmas all year round, with red banquettes, green walls, chandeliers festooned with red Christmas-tree balls, and so on. Our waitress, a tiny Russian with a coronet of braids and a name tag that read “Nadia,” took a motherly interest in Southern—a rumpled man, with a long, beaky nose and a generous mouth—as he squirmed in his seat, answering questions. Nadia is what I remember best about the lunch, in particular the way Southern gently put her on (“Do you really think I should have the borscht, Nadia? If that is your name”), thus deflecting the spotlight from himself.

After the interview was transcribed, a copy was given to Southern (­according to Paris Review custom) for him to revise as he saw fit. He never gave it back. Every so often I would ask him, on my own or at the prompting of George Plimpton, when the interview would be ready. “I’m working on it,” he would say. “It’s got to be tight and bright.” After a year or two, Plimpton stopped asking; I continued to question Southern about it but less and less frequently. When Southern died in 1995, his long-time companion, Gail Gerber, said to me, as a consolation of sorts, “Well, at least now that ­interview can come out.” But the interview—complete with Southern’s clarifications and emendations—got lost in a pile of papers. It emerged without its title page and fell into the hands of a Ph.D. student, who mistakenly ­attributed it to the biographer Albert Goldman. Since then, short excerpts have ­appeared, always under Goldman’s name. Thanks to the steadfast and remedial efforts of Southern’s son, Nile, the finished text is available here for the first time.

Maggie Paley

 

INTERVIEWER

When and how did you decide to be a writer?

SOUTHERN

I never “decided” to be a writer. I used to write a lot, then show it to my friends—one or two of them anyway—with the idea, more or less, of ­astonishing or confounding them with the content of the pages. I knew they had never seen anything like this before—I mean, the weirdest thing they could possibly have read before was Poe or one of those little cartoon fuck-books, as they were called, whereas my stuff was much weirder and more immediate. I used the names of teachers, classmates, et cetera. These productions were well received by the two or three people—no girls—who read them, but finally I went too far and alienated one of the readers, my best friend, by using his sister in a ­really imaginative piece, perhaps the best of this period. That slowed me down for a while, in daring, but finally I learned not to care too much and would write wholly for an imaginary reader whose tastes were similar to my own.

And this is, of course, is the only way to work well.

INTERVIEWER

Life magazine claims that you once lived on a barge hauling rocks from Poughkeepsie to Jones Beach. Is that true?

SOUTHERN

Yes, I lived on a barge. I was captain of the barge. This is the lowest form of organized labor in the country—except possibly circus roustabouts—and it comprises winos and layabouts, persons of such low account they have been kicked out of the longshoreman’s union, and it pays one dollar per hour. Alex Trocchi got me the post. There was a period when these positions came into favor with young drug addicts, also persons of creative bent who needed ­robot-type jobs—like those people in fire towers, lighthouses, et cetera—which would not take much time from the real work in hand. There were few or no duties—just catch the line, actually a big rope, thrown from the tugboat and put it around the capstan, a stumpy post, and off you go. Later, release the rope, called “letting go the mainsail” or similar, and secure to moorings.

George Plimpton can explain barge life to you, since he used to take young girls out on Trok’s barge and try, as he said, “to get them.” Suffice it to say that this is a pleasant enough way to spend a summer, though I wouldn’t really want to be in the position of recommending it.

INTERVIEWER

Was writing movies something you always wanted to do?

SOUTHERN

Yes, but there was never any possibility of it. They just weren’t making ­movies I could have worked on. I did get a letter one time from Jerry Wald, saying, “I have read your story in Harper’s Bazaar, and I think you have a very good cinematic quality, would you be interested in writing for the screen,” and blah blah blah. And then it went on to say, “Too many serious writers ­dismiss the potential of the screen as commercial, however may I point out to you that only recently such outstanding literary personages as Mr. William Faulkner,” and so on.

I showed this letter to a friend of mine, Harold Meeske, who said, “Don’t even answer the letter. The thing to do is to write a screenplay and send it back, like, ‘Am I interested? Dig this!’ ” I said, “Okay, what’s the story?” and he said, “I’ve got it. This friend of mine is just coming out of Sing Sing. America’s number-one jewel thief. He’s getting out Friday, and we’ll write a script based on his adventures. His name”—well, we’d better leave out his name. He’s making it in Hollywood now, as a screenwriter.

Anyway, he comes to Harold and Marilyn Meeske’s. So there was this guy, America’s number-one jewel thief, and he moved in with them, and I moved in with them, and the four of us worked on this screenplay, and then we sent it in to Jerry Wald. No response. Nothing. Later I found out that this letter I’d gotten, although it wasn’t mimeographed, was in fact a form letter he had sent, you know, to Herbert Gold and Philip Roth—everybody got one of these letters. That was my first brush with the Film Capital.

INTERVIEWER

And your next was working in London with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove. What was that like?

SOUTHERN

It was the first time in my life that I’d gone anywhere with a sense of purpose. I mean, I’d always traveled, I’d made about ten trips back and forth, but just aimless, with no justification except having the G.I. Bill and using it as a means to be there. It was the first time I’d gone anywhere and been paid for it. It was very satisfying, very interesting, and almost unbelievable to be moving about like that.

Stanley himself is a strange kind of genius. I’d always had a notion that people in power positions in movies must be hacks and fools, and it was very impressive to meet someone who wasn’t. He thinks of himself as a “filmmaker”—his idol is Chaplin—and so he’s down on the idea of “director.” He would like, and it’s understandable, to have his films just say, “A Film by Stanley Kubrick.” He tries to cover the whole thing from beginning to end. Including the designing of the ads. He’s probably the only American director who works on big-budget pictures who has complete control of his movies.

INTERVIEWER

Strangelove was originally conceived as a melodrama, not a comedy. Did you work with Kubrick to restructure the whole thing, or were you able to just insert the jokes?

SOUTHERN

I knew what he wanted. It was a question of working together, rewriting each line, and changing the tone.

INTERVIEWER

When you started the project, you’d never written movie dialogue. You presumably didn’t know anything about how to write a screenplay.

SOUTHERN

Yes, I knew, because I like movies. And writing dialogue has always been easy for me.

INTERVIEWER

How much directorial description does a writer usually put into a screenplay?

SOUTHERN

It depends. If you have a natural inclination for visualizing, you see it in the way you hope it will be, and you put that in the script. The petty directors resent that—they think it’s usurping their prerogative—but the better directors are more open-minded. The only way I can write is to write it as fully as possible, in as much detail, as though I were directing it myself and wanted to tell the actor how to do it.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about a movie you’ve written but somebody else has ­directed? Do you feel that it’s yours?

SOUTHERN

Oh no, it’s the director’s. As the writer, you have no power except persuasion. Even a good director resents your suggestions after a while. He begins to take them too personally. He thinks he’s being influenced by someone in a lower echelon. Codirecting is good, because some other guy can carry the ball—in terms of saying, “All right, action”—and you can still be in there without embarrassing him.

INTERVIEWER

Even as codirector, wouldn’t you need experience working with actors?

SOUTHERN

I get along very well with actors. They’re like children. They need to be ­encouraged and reprimanded enough to know that you’re interested. You’d think that great actors, like George C. Scott or Laurence Olivier, would ­resent direction, but they all depend on it. They’ve got to have the attention—it’s like dope—but at the same time the attention has to be convincing, it has to be something that they can acknowledge as real attention, and they get pretty discriminating, because they get lots of broadside, blind ­attention. That’s the thing. If you give them that, you can enchant them into anything.

INTERVIEWER

What about other things, like camera? Can you just rely on a cameraman to take care of that?

SOUTHERN

You have to persuade them, too. You say, What would be interesting from your point of view as a craftsman, an artist? What would you like to do that you’ve never done, that you haven’t been allowed to do? Then they set up the shot, and you can look at the thing and actually see the way it’s going to be, in terms of composition and in terms of movement, and then you can look ahead and see where the cut will be possible.

I wouldn’t rely on an editor to cut a movie. He might be a great editor, but still you’ve got to think of it in terms of your own cuts, just as in writing you would have an abrupt juxtaposition, an abrupt transition, or an otherwise engaging one or a smooth one. You have to think of the flow of it.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever considered writing plays?

SOUTHERN

I’ve had to curtail my interest in the theater, because the limitations are so appalling. I find it too difficult to rationalize the existence of the whole thing—the unnaturally loud voice to carry to the gallery, the broad gestures, the clomp-clomp-clomp exits and entrances, the pretense of the fourth wall. I think if a thing is so weird, so new, so original that it can’t be done cine­matically at the time, like Krapp’s Last Tape, The Connection, or Marat/Sade, then it’s justified. I can’t imagine any other reason for not doing it as a movie, unless you’re going to take advantage of the one thing that doesn’t exist in a movie, which is a live audience.

You can’t have close-ups in theater, you can’t have dissolves. A play gets out of the control of the director because it gets very much into the hands of the actor, and the actor is grooving out there and can’t be edited. I mean, I dig great moments on the stage, but I think it should be like that, like Gielgud’s Ages of Man, where he picks out the cream. Or if you could just have Olivier’s soliloquies. But to sit through a whole play is like sitting through an entire opera just to hear one aria.

There’s another aspect of it, which is the historical moment—like seeing Nureyev doing his grandest grand jeté, or Bird blowing his ass off—but I think the whole mystique of the theatergoer is really sick. These first-­nighters, they go—to everything. It’s just too romantic.

INTERVIEWER

Some critics seemed to think the movie of The Loved One, which you wrote for Tony Richardson, strayed too far from the book. How important is fidelity to the book in a screen adaptation?

SOUTHERN

In the old sense of watering down and making more palatable by leaving things out—well, of course, that’s terrible. That should be against the law. But in the case of The Loved One, or in similar cases, where the intent is to extend, expand, and deepen and bring up to date, that isn’t a valid criticism.

The Loved One used to be everybody’s favorite book in high school, but if you read it now, you’ll see that it’s relatively limited. I’m sure that Evelyn Waugh, if he were a young man writing it now, would write it very differently. For example, that whole English colony, to which he devotes about one-third of the book, doesn’t exist any more. You used to have a real group of people who felt they’d sold out, that Hollywood was an awful place, and they stuck together, but now the scene itself has become diversified. It’s no longer the intellectuals versus the old guard. And the English colony has been assimilated.

INTERVIEWER

What did you think of The Loved One?

SOUTHERN

I thought it had great moments. By great moments I mean moments that hadn’t been done cinematically before. As a totality, it seemed pretty shaky and uneven and eccentric.

INTERVIEWER

Have you any idea why?

SOUTHERN

Well, whatever’s good or bad in a movie is finally the responsibility of the ­director, and Richardson wants to depart completely from whatever he thinks of as the Establishment at any given moment. He has this antislick notion, for example. At the rushes, he would have three takes, and he would choose the take where the camera might shake a little, or light was coming through from the sun or a leak in the camera, because then it makes it look like something other than a slick Hollywood job. And then he feels that a movie shouldn’t be advertised or publicized at all, that the viewers are bound to be disappointed because they’ve been led to expect something, whereas if they’re led to expect nothing, then they think, Well, this is a pleasant surprise!

INTERVIEWER

How were the previews of The Loved One in Hollywood?

SOUTHERN

Everybody blasted it—I mean on those cards that they fill out. But these days they don’t judge so much from what a card says as from how many people fill out the cards. It’s like The Sandpiper—everybody filled out the cards, and said things like, “Liz ought to be horsewhipped!” or “Burton is a fag!” and so on, but they were all filled out.

Speaking of which, we had a good idea about how to improve The Sandpiper, John Calley and I. You open on a penthouse apartment at the Plaza, about eleven in the morning. Liz is sitting there getting her nails, her hair done, and you hear a telephone ring in the background and Burton comes out, in pajamas, robe, shades, terribly hung over—“Listen, Kurt wants to know what we’re going to do about this picture.”

And she says, “What picture?”

And he takes a big drink and says, “You know, the one about the bird.”

And she says, “How much money is involved?”

“A million and a half,” he says.

And she says, “Oh yeah?” and thinks about it for a minute. “Is that the one set in Big Sur?”

“Yes,” he says.

“And then in Paris?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, I do have to go to Paris soon, to get some clothes . . . Why don’t we do it?”

So the movie starts. And you keep cutting back to this principal scene with Liz and Burton talking about it. “For God’s sake,” he’s saying, “why did you get me into this? Don’t you realize I’ve got a reputation as a serious actor?” Et cetera. And then at the very end you have a scene where they’re getting on a plane, and they’ve got the money in a suitcase, and the suitcase opens, and it all blows away. Sort of Sierra Madre style.

INTERVIEWER

You were very lucky to have started in movies with Kubrick and Richardson.

SOUTHERN

It couldn’t have happened any other way. Most directors won’t hire you ­unless you’ve already done something. Faulkner and Irwin Shaw and Truman Capote could collaborate on a script, and if they submitted it cold, the producers would say, Great, there’s a great idea here. We’ll buy the script. But they wouldn’t think of using those guys to do the second draft. They think of writers in two categories—there are idea men and plot men. They think they need a professional screenwriter who knows the format. They don’t ­realize that the format is nothing any child couldn’t do, any child with a visual sense, a visual attitude, and a basic familiarity with movies.

Most screenwriters I’ve met are the people least suited to their work, because they have no ear, no notion of human relationships, no notion of psychology at all. They’re just scuffling in the dark, they’re searching. They think it’s a good racket to be in, like shingle salesmen or something—they’ve heard about the pay, and they fast-talk their way into a job by working in talent agencies, submitting scripts, getting personal relationships with producers, directors, actors. Finally somebody carries them in, some actor says, Let’s give Joe here a credit. And then they’re set, they’ve got a credit and are recognized as writers, but it’s like pulling teeth each time they put down a word. It’s a laborious, tedious process for them, because they can’t write. And they’ll work on anything, with absolutely no regard for material. All they ask is, How much money do I get? They never work for less than they worked for on the last one. If they do, they’re finished, it’s downhill all the way.

But these are movies you never hear about unless you happen to look at the newspaper on the one particular day they open. They’re potboilers, like The Cincinnati Kid, for example. There’s one big ad or a small ad, and people are aware of it for about a week, and then it doesn’t exist anymore, except as a credit. That’s why the most prominent writers in Hollywood are people you’ve never heard of. People who write, say, the Doris Day movies. Stanley Shapiro is supposed to be the highest-paid writer. At last report he was getting $350,000 a whack. He writes the Doris Day/Rock Hudson/Cary Grant movies, and he gets a producer’s piece of it, too. They figure he doesn’t miss. All of these pictures are made for one and gross ten—something like that. He’s got a formula, a very simple formula. You have this girl, a career girl, swinging, you know. Really a ball-breaker. She likes the idea of guys wanting to make it with her, but she’s not interested, and then she meets this one guy who doesn’t seem to want to make it with her, he’s amused by her, and so she’s going to get him. Finally she does get him, but instead of becoming a housewife, she continues with her career.

It’s a twist on the old thing where the guy says, I won’t have my wife working, and puts her in the home and dominates her, and she’s ready to be dominated. With this formula, the girl is not dominated—she gets the guy, and she goes on with her career. It’s that simple.

INTERVIEWER

How much does good writing actually matter in a good screenplay? Lillian Hellman, in an interview, suggested that it might be practical to try doing screenplays that were nothing more than outlines. You’d have an outline of where the movie was going, with an ending, but no dialogue, and it would be improvised as it went along.

SOUTHERN

I’m all for improvisation, but you can take off from a better base than just an outline. Have the dialogue as good as you can, and then improvise.

INTERVIEWER

Do actors often add a lot?

SOUTHERN

No. Peter Sellers, for example, is good at improvisations, but by improvisation I mean making lines believable. Improving lines, no. When you have a scene, the scene has to go in a certain direction, because you’ve got all the setups, the locations, and everything. You can’t change the story. You already know where the scene’s going to go.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you work when you’re in Hollywood? Do you write in a ­writers’ building?

SOUTHERN

You get an office. They put your name on the door, and you get assigned a secretary, even though you have no use for her. You don’t have to show up.

INTERVIEWER

How much of a studio is there nowadays?

SOUTHERN

The old guard has really been falling apart since television came in. Picture-making used to be a science, a formula. Their aim—they tried to get it ­really neat—was to produce fifty-one pictures a year, one a week, skipping Christmas week. That was it. They had it figured out and they knew ­exactly how much they were going to get on each picture. Now everything is changed, and they’re no longer sure of what they’re doing. They seem very much out of place.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any sort of fraternity of writers now?

SOUTHERN

No. Studios don’t have contracts with writers anymore, there aren’t any studio writers, so there’s no way they would know each other. Writers out there are hit-and-run people, very transient, one studio one day, another studio the next. There’s no occasion for anything to develop between them.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve lived in Paris, London, New York—how does Hollywood compare?

SOUTHERN

Those three cities seem to me equally different, and I wouldn’t be inclined to compare them, with each other or with Hollywood. Hollywood, that is to say, Los Angeles, is not, of course, a city, and its sinister forces are very oblique. There’s no public transportation system whatever, so the people drive around as though they were living in Des Moines, and it has all the rest of the disadvantages of a small town, only filled with displaced persons. On the other hand, life there has an engaging surrealist quality, an almost exciting grotesqueness.

The cultural scene there in general is sped up, sort of concentrated. Southern California is a mecca for all manner of freakishness, beginning on the most middle-class level—hot-dog stands in the shape of a hot dog. If you go there, you’ll immediately see a carnival, Disneyland aspect that is different from any other place in America.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a noticeably large proportion of beautiful girls there?

SOUTHERN

There are a lot of beautiful girls there because, well, girls who want to be ­writers come to the Village and girls who want to be actresses go to Hollywood. And not necessarily to be writers or to be actresses, but to be identified with that scene, that action. So you see unusually attractive waitresses, and girls sort of spilled over from the casting office.

INTERVIEWER

How does the casting office function?

SOUTHERN

The casting office is interesting. Each of the studios has a big door saying casting. Girls arrive from Des Moines and go to one of the studios and ask, Where’s the casting office?

“Over there, go in that door.”

They go in, and they think it’s like a personnel department in a department store. They think they’re applying for something, and they fill out a form and they give in their photographs, and these things are put in a file cabinet, and that’s it. In the history of cinema there’s never been a case of anyone being hired to work in pictures through the casting office. The ­people who work in the casting office have no connection with the industry. Quite Kafkaesque.

INTERVIEWER

You mean the casting office is just there to satisfy the girls?

SOUTHERN

Mainly it’s something they can point out on the bus tour. All the studios now are aiming at these tours. They charge two fifty, and they sell things. They sell film clips, Technicolor, 35mm, about four pieces of film—they’re transparencies, and they’re perforated, and it looks as though they’re cut out of a negative, which is what they’re trying to simulate, but actually there are, say, four frames from different parts of different reels, put together and printed again. They sell these for two dollars or so, and various other souvenirs. At Universal, they claim now that their income from the tours pays the overhead of the studio.

In the beginning, they were authentic. They would take the tourists around to a set and say, “Quiet now, everyone, they’re shooting,” but people would talk and ruin the shot, so the directors and producers were flipping. Finally, Universal set up a thing, up on top of a hill—a corral, with barns and horses and about six guys, a director and an assistant director, and a camera with no film in it. The bus pulls up, and when it’s at a distance of twenty-five yards or so, the guide says, “Say, we’re really in luck! I think they’re about to shoot a scene.” And sure enough, that’s what they do—but it’s all fake.

The interesting thing is that these people on the fake set, since they’re not working in movies, are not even in the union. They’re paid something like two dollars an hour. Except for two guys who are stunt men. The tours happen every forty-five minutes, and it’s the same thing each time. First they stage a fistfight, one of them knocks the other down and gets on a horse, then the other recovers and shoots the first one as he’s riding away, and he falls off the horse. And of course they have this guy acting as the director, for two dollars an hour, not even connected in any way with the movies, and everybody else is just standing around, a fake makeup girl and a fake script girl—the whole thing.

INTERVIEWER

What happens to those girls, those aspiring starlets? Do they sit around in Schwab’s drugstore, or the Brown Derby, or whatever?

SOUTHERN

In the beginning, they come to Hollywood, presumably, with the idea of the action. Then they find out that you can’t even get into any of these buildings without an agent, that there’s no possibility of getting in, that even a lot of the agents can’t get in. Meanwhile a substitute life begins, and they get into the social scene, you know. They’re working as parking attendants, waitresses, doing arbitrary jobs . . .

INTERVIEWER

Hoping that somebody will see them?

SOUTHERN

Finally they forget about that, but they’re still making the scene. They continue to have some vague peripheral identification with films—like they go to a lot of movies, and they talk about movies and about people they’ve seen on the street, and they read the gossip columns and the movie magazines, but you get the feeling it’s without any real aspiration any longer. It’s the sort of vicariousness a polio person might feel for rodeo.

INTERVIEWER

Was there ever any attempt to put you through the publicity-department mill?

SOUTHERN

Well, they sort of gave up on me. It’s very difficult for me to say no, but it’s not too difficult not to show. They couldn’t understand that. They’d make an appointment with one of the trade papers that they consider really important, hot stuff—and then somebody not even showing up? Shocking! That happened a few times, and then I guess they gave up.

INTERVIEWER

Is working on a screenplay different from writing a book?

SOUTHERN

Well, to begin with, you’re usually working against a deadline—the standard thing for a screenplay job is ten weeks. And first they want to see an outline.

INTERVIEWER

Do they require you to stick to it once you do it?

SOUTHERN

No, no. It’s just a practice that exists. I suppose it has advantages from a producer’s point of view, because a producer can read a ten-page outline and get some kind of feeling for the beginning, middle, and end. It used to be that writers would submit outlines, cold, on speculation, and then, on the basis of an outline, would get a commission to do a fifty-page treatment, and if the treatment was accepted, a commission to do a first draft, and so on. Now the treatment is generally bypassed, although you do see them lying around offices.

INTERVIEWER

Would you rather do adaptations or originals?

SOUTHERN

You can’t set out to do something really original in films. People who say, Let’s do something original, and mean it, have no money to do it with. The ones who have the money say, Let’s do this, with this beginning and this end and these characters. That means you’re working within a framework. If you tried to do an “original” you wouldn’t accept those limitations—it would be like a novel.

When you write a novel or a story, you don’t know where it’s going, and you don’t do it for money, and you don’t do it because someone says, We’ll print it if you do it, and we’ll pay for it. You may do it out of some weird principle, or when you get a surge of some inexplicable feeling, or the way certain people just fall into a habit of getting up, having breakfast, and then starting to write. But you do it because it’s a kick, and so there’s no telling where it will go.

INTERVIEWER

Then you don’t see movies as a substitute for writing fiction?

SOUTHERN

You want to make a comparison between writing a novel and writing a screenplay, but I don’t think there is any at all. As a medium, movies are obviously superior, in the sense that the strongest perceptions are sight and sound, but unless you’re the producer or director you have no control over the final product. In a novel, you do. An editor or publisher can try to persuade you, but you can always say, I won’t make those changes. So on the one hand you have control when you’re writing prose, and on the other hand the cinema is really the greater medium, if only you could use it the way you wanted to.

INTERVIEWER

Even if you were the producer-director, if you were making a so-called commercial film, I wonder whether you could match what you do in writing.

SOUTHERN

The only excuse for writing a novel these days is if it can’t be done as a ­movie. And there are limitations in movies—not just inherent limitations, but limitations in practice. It’s very difficult to do interior monologues and first-person narratives, for instance. In a book you can have italics, or you can say, “ ‘Au revoir,’ he said, comma, thinking, ‘Forget it,’ ” whereas in a movie, what are you going to do? Put it through an echo chamber, or have a close-up to show that, even though his lips aren’t moving, there’s dialogue, so “forget it” must be what he’s thinking? Audiences are simply so unfamiliar with that, the very fact of it would put them off.

It’s like using four-letter words—in a novel they don’t distract the reader, but if you have a four-letter word in a movie, suddenly everyone thinks, Did you hear that? and they lose the thread of what’s happening. Longshoremen don’t talk the way they talked in On the Waterfront, but if you had a realistic conversation, the audience—not to mention the police—would be upset and distracted.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever feel hampered by the pressure of deadlines on a script, or by having a plot already established before you start?

SOUTHERN

With a screenplay, you’ve got to deliver, because at some point the producers make other arrangements. They’ve rented a sound stage, and they’ve hired actors, and so they’ve got to begin on a certain date and finish on a certain date because these actors have other commitments. So they’re going to start shooting, whether it’s your script or not. With a novel, you never have pressure. I mean, who cares? There’s no money involved. What if they’ve given you two thousand dollars? They’re not panicked about that—you can put it off, and put it off, and put it off. They put some weird pressure on you, they try to make you feel bad, saying, Well, it’s a shame you’re not going to make the spring list, ha-ha. With a movie it’s, Man, you’re hanging us up! Everybody’s standing around, waiting for the script.

So you feel a fantastic motivation, and it’s not commercial, even though you may have taken the thing on for commercial reasons. Because finally there’s this moment when all these people are just waiting.

INTERVIEWER

So the pressure is good for you?

SOUTHERN

Yes, assuming that it’s a good situation, where you dig the people and have some kind of a rapport.

INTERVIEWER

When you write a movie, do you write with particular actors in mind, and does that help or hinder you?

SOUTHERN

That helps a great deal. You’re given Marlon Brando, and you can already think of him saying a certain line. In a book you have to create the character. Sometimes a character is more inflexible than an actor, because an actor has a range. You can imagine Marlon Brando saying almost anything. Whereas if you create a character, there he is, and you think of him in a certain way—there are things he cannot say, things he might say, things he’ll probably say—it’s different.

INTERVIEWER

Your really serious writing—in the sense that it’s noncomic—is in your short stories. Is that by design?

SOUTHERN

That’s just the way it’s worked out. I have a lot of longer noncomic things, too. I have this novel called The Hipsters, of which I’ve written about three hundred pages, which is a full-on Jean-Christophe. The idea was to take the development of a man—I mean, beginning in childhood. It’s introspective, in a completely different tone. Very conventional, very simple. I don’t know whether I’ll get back to that. It doesn’t really interest me much any more.

INTERVIEWER

You used to be identified with the Village hipster scene. How do you feel about that now? Are you still attached to it?

SOUTHERN

No. Those scenes change—like in Paris, the way it kept switching, from ­St. Germain to Montmartre to Montparnasse. As soon as they’re invaded by tourists, the prices go up, it’s impossible to get cheap places to live, and the people who know what’s happening all move out. Then what you have left is a kind of deliberate bohemianism. It seems to me that’s happened in the Village. You’ve got to have cheap rents, places that are completely undeveloped, like lofts, before a real scene can emerge. Artists have to have a place to live, cheaply. Now it’s the Lower East Side.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your favorite piece of work that you’ve ever done?

SOUTHERN

I’ve never thought of it like that. I love to reread stuff, and occasionally I read something and think, My God, did I write that? Some of my favorites appeared in The Realist. Then there’s some stuff in Candy that I like. Or maybe letters, some letters, never published, and unpublishable, I suppose.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you sometimes sign your letters with girls’ names?

SOUTHERN

Because the letters are chatty. And obscene. Signing “Cynthia” or “Paula” after a lot of obscenity makes a curious juxtaposition. Letter writing is the best writing of all, because it’s the purest. It’s like writing to yourself, but you’ve got an excuse to do it because this other person will dig it. And you can transmit information in a strange way, you can sort of mix things up, so they wonder, Well, is this true? You say something outlandish, and then you throw in, “John and Mary just ran away to Hawaii,” and they think ha-ha-ha, but in fact it’s true.

I don’t know why, but I always feel a kind of necessity to write things that are beyond acceptance, that are too offensive or something. For people to read them and say, Ha-ha-ha, very funny. No, we can’t print that. I mean, even The Realist has turned down stuff of mine. I’ve got a piece there now that they turned down a couple years ago. It’s about Frank O’Hara, and it’s very weird—not obscene, but it violates a lot of taboos. That’s the whole history of writing, really, trying to emancipate images and language. It’s not just a question of four-letter words—you can get away with that—but of attitude. Great writers like Céline and Henry Miller, they affect attitudes, weird attitudes. Like Miller, dancing with a girl, and moving her up against a doorknob. He isn’t really like that, of course. I mean he doesn’t do that—he simply felt compelled to have a first-person narrator who could say, Yeah, got that doorknob up her cunt, because you couldn’t print it, and he felt you’ve got to be able to print it, even though it’s disgusting.

He’s really quite finicky. He’s no Greg Corso.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe he was thirty years ago.

SOUTHERN

I don’t think so. The beauty of it is, he created a first-person narrator and made it very believable. What J. D. Salinger did, taking a thirteen-year-old, pre-sex kid and making him believable as a first-person narrator is relatively easy. But when you’ve got a Lucky Jim-age person, or Henry Miller, then it begins to get dicey, because you’ve got this sexual thing to deal with. The whole trick is frankness, candor, directness—and when grown men start being candid and frank and direct about sex, how far are you going to take it? Well, Miller tried to take it as far as he could. But this wasn’t self-­expression—he had an obsessive interest in the development of literature, in the idea of being able to go farther than D. H. Lawrence.

In Candy, I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done, to go a little farther, but on a different level—to make it funny rather than disgusting. It’s like a painter looking at a canvas, and he sees there’s something missing in a certain area, and so he tries to put it in. No one’s ever written a novel about the relationship between a girl and her father, for example. I mean, from the girl’s point of view. Someone like Susan Sontag should devote herself to that.

INTERVIEWER

What about pornography on the screen, which is in one way the theme of your novel, Blue Movie? Would that be a next step?

SOUTHERN

Of the things that thrive unjustifiably, very salient among them are the ­clandestine—things that are taboo thrive, almost by definition. These dirty movies are so bad, and so expensive, because they’re taboo. If you allowed them to be played freely, it would be much easier to make better ones than exist now, because the bad ones simply couldn’t survive. And then, when they got better, they wouldn’t be called pornographic—they’d just ­either be good or bad. And then you might say, Well, this is stimulating, or, This is erotic, but there’s no law against eroticism. It’s stock-in-trade for all filmmakers.

INTERVIEWER

If filmmakers had that freedom, do you think a movie would have to include eroticism to be considered good?

SOUTHERN

I’ve never seen a good erotic movie, so I really don’t know. That’s the exploration of Blue Movie. The idea is to find out at what point the erotic would become too much, aesthetically—in the view of the creator, not in the view of the audience.

For instance, in Les Amants, the Louis Malle film, there’s that scene where the lovers are in bed—what we call a “tight two-shot”—nude, from the waist up. He’s on top of her, and his head goes down, between her breasts, and horizontally out of the frame. It’s supposed to be very erotic, but I just felt a kind of mischievousness on the part of the director. On the other hand, I was wondering what would happen if, instead of letting his head go out of the frame, the camera followed his head. How far would that go before it was, I don’t know, embarrassing?

There may be something so personal or intimate about lovemaking that it’s impossible to do that successfully. In a novel you can leave just enough to the mind’s eye that the reader will construct a very personal image. In a movie, I don’t know. If you do it merely “suggestively,” it’s a cop-out.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about the sudden popularity of black humor as a genre, something you were doing a long time ago?

SOUTHERN

It’s a sign of the times, isn’t it? Old values are crumbling.

INTERVIEWER

How does it feel, after years of being a so-called underground figure, to have “made it?” Are you afraid at all that money and fame will change your outlook? In other words, will success spoil Terry Southern?

SOUTHERN

Any feelings of success I may have experienced came much earlier—in the form of whatever readership I have had in The Realist, in certain literary magazines, and among friends whose reactions I valued. These few readers, and not the general public, are what give meaning to a work. In fact, it is almost axiomatic—the wider the acceptance of a work, the weaker its quality is bound to be.

As for my outlook, I would certainly welcome a change there, because it is basically one of discomfort. I’m afraid, however, that God would have to show his hand, in some way more dramatic than fame and fortune, before that could happen.

INTERVIEWER

But now you are selling a lot of books, Life magazine writes about you . . .

SOUTHERN

The important thing is to keep in touch with the youth of whatever culture you’re in. When you lose them, you can forget it. When they’re no longer surprised or astonished or engaged by what you say, the ball game is over. If they find it repulsive, or outlandish and disgusting, that’s all right, or if they love it, that’s all right, but if they just shrug it off, it’s time to retire. Or rather, you can still write for a living if you want to, but it’s suicidal if you have any relationship to the work other than that.

INTERVIEWER

People seem to like the idea of putting you down, now that you’ve “made it.” It probably happens to everybody, but you hear them say, Terry Southern, isn’t he a junkie? or, Isn’t he a faggot? or a God knows what, but I wonder if it’s . . .

SOUTHERN

If it’s true? A junkie fag! A spade junkie commie fag!

New York writers are very suspicious of people who spend any time in Los Angeles. Most of them don’t get invited, and they’re sort of hurt and confused by it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find it more difficult to attack now? If, after all, attacking comes from feeling angry?

SOUTHERN

I’m not interested in attacking, I’m interested in astonishing. Lenny Bruce was one of the great astonishers, and he was a very gentle, mild person. He didn’t lead any protest marches or anything—what was funny to him was the irony of the smugness and so on, and he deflated it, because it’s funny to see it deflated. Of course he was very conscious of injustices and absurdities, like any sensitive person, and that came out as an attack, but it wasn’t his motivation.

It’s different in Europe, where there is, or used to be, a very definite notion of class conflict. You can set about illustrating a theme in a more conscious way. Sartre writes that way. He’ll pick out a subject, like religious hypocrisy, and he’ll write a play to flesh it out. I think Mailer writes like that. I have never approached writing that way.

Say I were to witness a scene, some sort of fracas between a headwaiter and a Negro. There would be something grotesque, something ironic about it, and the engaging thing in writing about it would be the grotesqueness, the irony. It wouldn’t be because I thought, This is a terrible social injustice that should be dramatized and brought to the attention of the public.

INTERVIEWER

What movie would you make if you could make any movie?

SOUTHERN

Naked Lunch and A Clockwork Orange.

INTERVIEWER

What about underground movies, do you think they’re doing something good? If you had the opportunity, would you make them?

SOUTHERN

There are any number of things that are inherently cinematic and dramatic and that haven’t yet been fully realized or exploited. Rather than go to the underground, or the so-called expanded cinema, I think these things can be done under existing conditions. It’s no good if the audience just thinks, Oh yeah, this is very curious, very interesting. I’d be more inclined to work ­under the prevailing mechanics of moviemaking, using other people’s money.

INTERVIEWER

You talk about exploring and experimenting under prevailing conditions. If the studios are in control, will they let that happen?

SOUTHERN

They’re relenting all the time, because they’re losing ground. Television is the thing, you see—its existence puts movies in a position of having to do something different. In five years television screens will be half the size of a movie screen, they’ll occupy a whole wall. And people will just sit there. They’re not going to leave the house except to see something groovy, something that they can’t see at home.

The great future, not for creative writers, but for professional writers, is in television, because pay television is going to come in, and that will take the place of the art movies that exist now, and ordinary television will take the place of what now exists in movies. In twenty years, the movies that compete with TV and pay TV will have to be pretty far out. Otherwise people will simply hang with the tube.

INTERVIEWER

If you weren’t a writer and could choose any job, profession, or career, what would you do and why?

SOUTHERN

If I were not a writer I would prefer being a psychiatrist-gynecologist. I’m not sure this exists—like eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist—but I personally think it is a winning combo and would like to give it a whirl.

INTERVIEWER

If you were given enough money so that you didn’t have to work or make any commitments and could do whatever you wanted, where would you live and what would you do?

SOUTHERN

First I would engage a huge but clever and snakelike “Blowing Machine,” and I would have it loaded with one ton of dog hair each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It would be brought up East Seventy-second Street to the very end, where it would poise itself outside George Plimpton’s house like a great dragon. Then, exactly when Katherine the Char had finished one room, the powerful, darting snout of the machine would rise up to the third floor windows and send a terrific blast of dog hair into the room—a quarter ton per room. I would observe her reaction—I have friends opposite—with a spyglass, room by room. The entire place would be foot-deep in dog hair, most of which however has not yet settled and has the effect of an Arctic blizzard. Then I would drop in—casually, not really noticing her hysteria, or that anything at all was wrong, just sort of complaining in a vague way, occasionally brushing at my sleeve, et cetera, speaking with a kind of weary petulance: “Really, Katherine, I do think you might be more . . . uh, well, I mean to say . . .” voice trailing away, attention caught by something else, a picture on the wall: “I say, that is an amusing print—is it new?” fixing her with a deeply searching look, so there could be no doubt at all as to my interest in the print. If this didn’t snap her mind I would give her several hundred thousand dollars—all in pennies. “Mr. Plimpton asked me to give you this, Katherine—each coin represents the dark seed of his desire for you.”