Adventures In Screenwriting: The Amazing
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Pop quiz: What do The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, The Long Goodbye, and The Empire Strikes Back have in common?
Answer: They were all written or co-written by the same woman, the amazingLeigh Brackett.
How does one person knock down both the ultimate private eye movie andthe ultimate deconstruction of the private eye movie? And how does that same person write what is considered by some fans to be the best western of all time and a remake of that same movie? And how does the person who pulled off those two neat tricks write, in her sixties no less, the ultimate pop sci-fi flick of all time? Well, the answer to all these questions is that Leigh Brackett was awesome.
Brackett was born in 1915 and raised in Los Angeles. She started writing early, publishing her first story in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940 when she was still in her mid-twenties. After compiling an impressive body of work in the science fiction market, Brackett published a mystery novel, No Good From A Corpse. The novel caught the eye of director Howard Hawks, who was preparing his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’sThe Big Sleep. The story of her hiring, oft repeated by both Hawks and Brackett, is that the director told his secretary to “get me this Leigh Brackett fella on the phone.” The Brackett fella turned out to be a young woman, not yet thirty, who had just written her first film, the cheapie horror flick The Vampire’s Ghost. In Brackett’s recollection, Hawks “rallied bravely and signed me anyway.”
On that project, Brackett was paired with William Faulkner. Together they pounded out a script that ranks among the best of its period, though perhaps “together” is a misleading way to put it. Brackett recalled it this way:
He greeted me courteously. He put the book down and said, “We will do alternate sections. You will do these chapters and I will do these chapters,” and so on. But that's the way he wanted it done. He turned around and walked into his office and I never saw him again, except to say good morning.
Of course, the most famous story about The Big Sleep is how damn confusing the plot was for everyone involved. Bogart asked Brackett who killed Owen Taylor, the chauffeur, and she told him she didn’t know. They asked Hawks, who said he didn’t know either. So they sent Chandler a wire, and the author wrote back and said he was as lost as everyone else. Brackett explained with a sly dismissal “The forward momentum is so tremendous and the characters are so interesting that you really don't care.” Which, it must be said, is true.