Masters of Screenwriting Interview: Tom Mankiewicz (Part 1 of 2)

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray’s full bio.

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Tom Mankiewicz (left) with Script contributor, Ray Morton.

Legendary screenwriter, Tom Mankiewicz comes from some good screenwriting genes. His father was the celebrated Academy Award-winning screenwriter/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve). His film screenwriting credits include: Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, Mother, Jugs and Speed, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Ladyhawke and Dragnet, among others.  

Mankiewicz, 67, recently sat down with Script contributor Ray Morton to discuss how he got started in the business, his lengthy career and some advice for screenwriters. This is the first of two parts.

ON HIS LEGENDARY FAMILY
There’s something I think about the Mankiewiczes that was genetic about writing. Mankiewiczes tend to be glib and write very good dialogue. We have problems with structure. We’re king of the flashbacks. Dad…had A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve, The Barefoot Contessa. Herman — Citizen Kane‘s a flashback. Give us a flashback, we do real well.

GETTING STARTED
I was born here in L.A. My father was a New Yorker and the son of an immigrant, a schoolteacher of languages, German, who came through Ellis Island in 1906 or something. In 1949/50, my father had won four Oscars in two years – for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, for writing and directing – and he said, “Kids, we’re moving back to New York. I want you guys to learn how to read and write. I want you to be with people from different countries, different places, different backgrounds. I want you to have a real education, and now… the work will follow me anywhere and so we should live in the East.”

I had the most proper Eastern education – I went to St. Bernard’s, Exeter and Yale, but in the meantime I just loved the theater and I fell in love with playwrights. And at the time, Broadway was so alive – I mean, you had Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and William Inge and all these wonderful playwrights and these plays that you could see and musicals like West Side Story (and) Gypsy.

When I got to Yale I majored in Drama. I kind of thought for a minute that I was going to be an actor. And I was in some plays and I remember my father came up to Williamstown to see me in a production of The Visit with E.G. Marshall and Nan Martin. I thought I was really good. And he came backstage and he said, “Take my advice – live with them, sleep with them, marry them, talk to them, divorce them, get mad at them, but for God’s sake don’t be one. Acting you probably are rejected more than any other profession. Writing you can always say, ‘Maybe it’s not their kind of script.’” So I wrote an original screenplay… about the last 90 minutes of a young actress’s life, in between the time she took the pills and the time she died. It was optioned about five times by four different studios for five different actresses, and never made. But I worked off it because it had gone to Universal and some people had read it there. And they said, “Boy is this good dialogue”

There was the last weekly anthology show was on the air. It was called The Bob Hope Chrysler Theater, and it was a different drama every week. Stuart Rosenberg, who was a young director – ended up directing Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman – said, “God, this script (“Runaway Bay,” the episode he was currently preparing) is so lame” and somebody said, “I read a script – there’s great dialogue in it.” Stuart said, “Let me read it.” He said, “Yeah – get this guy. We’re shooting in three days. Let’s get some good dialogue in here.” Ron Roth, who was the associate producer, called me up and said, “Can you come in? Stuart Rosenberg wants to see you. He loves your dialogue.” So I came in and I was hired for $500 to rewrite this Bob Hope Chrysler Theater. And I started rewriting and the first day we’re on Paradise Cove Pier and I’m rewriting scenes as they’re being shot. I’m in the back of the limousine with the typewriter – I swear to God this is true – on the jump seat and I’m handing pages out through the window for the next scene. Well, it was just wonderful. I felt, “This must be what life’s all about. This is just so good.” And the show went on it and got good ratings and Stuart was very appreciative.

And I looked at my credit on television – my father was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, his brother was Herman J. Mankiewicz and I was Thomas F. Mankiewicz. And I looked at Thomas F. Mankiewicz on the screen and I thought “This is so fucking pretentious. I’m 24 years old – I’m not Thomas F. Mankiewicz. I just rewrote this thing for 500 bucks. And I thought “If Billy Wilder can call himself Billy Wilder…” so I became Tom Mankiewicz for the rest of my life.

So I had met socially Jack Haley Jr. – who was the son of the Tin Man and a wonderful guy and a terrific director – and we got together an idea that really was kind of like MTV before MTV. We did this musical special called Movin’ with Nancy with Nancy Sinatra, and Frank was in it and Dean and Sammy. And so we shot it on 16mm and it was on NBC and it was just a huge hit and Jack won the Emmy. And it was written by “Tom Mankiewicz” – all the concepts for all the numbers in the thing. And Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass said “Let’s get those guys for our special.” In the meantime, Fox had read my original and they thought “He’s a young guy and we have this surfing movie here and maybe this guy would be good.” And so I wrote this little surfing movie called The Sweet Ride. Introducing Jacquelyn Bisset. And Tony Franciosa was in it and Bob Denver from Gilligan’s Island. Now, it was hardly fulfilling but at the time I thought it was Gone with the Wind.

And here’s how it all came about for me: Because of the musical specials and the fact that I was really young, Fred Coe, a Broadway producer, was looking for somebody to do the book for a Broadway musical of Georgy Girl, which had been a big hit as a movie. And I went on to Georgy GirlGeorgy!, it was called – and we were nominated for four Tonys and closed in three nights and it took a year out of my life. And you don’t get paid anything in advance. And I came back to this little place at the beach that I had and I really started thinking “Maybe I should try to play a card with my last name and see if I can be Lew Wasserman’s assistant or something. This isn’t working out.” The phone rings – it was my agent – a fellow named Malcolm Stuart at IFA. And he said, “How’d you like to write the next James Bond movie?” Bond movies then were huge events – there was no Star Wars yet, no Superman, no Raiders of the Lost Ark. And I said, “Malcolm, don’t fuck with me.”

Completely unbeknownst to me, David Picker, who was the head of production at United Artists – who I’d never met – was having a meeting with Cubby Broccoli, producer of the Bond movies – who I’d never met – and there was a movie called Diamonds Are Forever. They were desperately trying to get Sean Connery back and he had turned down the script. And Cubby had said, “It needs a massive rewrite.” And he said, “But here’s what I’d like – I need a young writer, because I think Bond should get younger now. He’s got to be American, because so much of it takes place in Vegas and the Brits write such terrible Americans. And yet, I’d love him to be able to write in the British idiom because we have Bond and Moneypenny and M and all these people.” And David Picker said, “There’s somebody – I’ll check, I think it’s Tom Mankiewicz – he’s a Mankiewicz. But since I don’t know him, that means he’s young, that means he’s American. And I saw a play the other night – Georgy! – and all the characters are British and I thought the book was terrific. He’s writing British people and he’s clearly American and he’s young. Add him to your list.” So I get called up to Cubby Broccoli’s house and I have a nice meeting with him and with Guy Hamilton, the director, and I’m signed on a two week guarantee for $1,500 a week. They said “Turn in the first 30 pages in two weeks.” I turned it in and I’m in my little beach house. The phone rings. “One moment for Mr. Broccoli.” And Cubby said two words. That’s all. And I’ll never forget ’em for my life. He said: “Keep going.” And he hung up.

So – and I stayed on the picture forty-five weeks, went all over the world with it, then wrote Live and Let Die, Man with the Golden Gun. But I always wondered – I have great belief in the fact that I’m a talented man, (but) what would have happened if David Picker wasn’t in one of only four audiences to see Georgy!? Clearly, I never would have gotten Diamonds Are Forever because he wouldn’t have even been there. And why would David Picker – the movie (Georgy Girl) was a Columbia movie – why was he in that audience? And I asked him later in life, when I was doing lots of films for UA – “Why the hell were you even there?” He said “I forget – I really do. I forget.” He said, “But I saw it — I remember seeing it.” How these things happen…

BOND
There’s something idiosyncratic about Bond and that’s the humor or an outrageous scene where people laugh. In The Spy Who Loved Me, he gets into this Lotus with Barbara Bach and they go into the ocean and they’re under the ocean – the car’s under the ocean. That’s fine, that’s Bond. But what makes that – what I’m proudest of – is the car turns, but he puts his blinker on under water. That’s what Bond is to me – it’s putting the blinker on and the audience roars. That’s what made it different than others, y’know.

[Re: the recent Bond films] They have to get some humor back in those films and I think they know it. Some critic said – and I agree with him totally – they just have to change the opening lines for him now and just say “My name is Bourne. Jason Bourne.” They just look like The Bourne Identity. There used to be such style. And the wit. And outrageous puns. I remember I wrote a pun in Diamonds Are Forever where Sean arrives in Vegas. He’s smuggling diamonds by pretending to be somebody and he’s picking up his dead brother in a coffin at the Vegas airport. Felix Leiter is there and he looks in the coffin and he says “I give up. The diamonds have to be in here somewhere, but where?” And Sean says “Alimentary, my dear Leiter.” And so Cubby Broccoli read this and he said, “What is this?” I said, “Cubby, it’s the alimentary canal. It’s his ass and the diamonds are stuck up his ass.” And Cubby said, “Well, nobody’s going to know this.” And so Guy said, “No, no, Cubby, it’s wonderful. We’ve got to keep it in.” Anyway, we shoot it and we go down to the opening night here at the Grauman’s Chinese and it’s packed. And they’re clearly enjoying the movie. And Sean says, “Alimentary, my dear Leiter.” And four people out of eight hundred laughed. And I looked over at Cubby – we were standing in the back – and he said “Big deal, four doctors.”

But you wouldn’t want to keep those things out. In that same film I had Blofeld – at the end, he’s captured Bond on the oil rig or something. And Bond says, “Well, it looks like you’ve won.” And Blofeld said, “As La Rochefoucauld once observed, Mr. Bond, ‘Humility is the worst form of conceit.’ I do hold the winning hand.” And Cubby said, “La-what?” He said, “This one is out.” And I said, “No, no. Cubby – he’s a French writer of maxims.” And (Cubby) said, “Out! Get it out.” So, every draft came and this thing was still in there. And I don’t know why it became Micklemas to him, but he said, “Get Micklemas out of the script.” He couldn’t say La Rochefoucauld. So it comes time to shoot it and Guy shot it in such a way that you couldn’t cut it out. And Cubby was just steaming. So, we’re starting Live and Let Die and Guy said to him, “By the way, Cubby, I saw Diamonds Are Forever in Paris and La Rochefoucauld… got a big laugh.” And Cubby said, “France was the only place we didn’t make any fucking money.”

MOTHER, JUGS, AND SPEED
I had been on the Bonds for a few years… and I was hot. So William Morris, who were my agents at the time, gave me this list of wonderful things that people were interested in and among them, I remember – I turned it down just by the concept and I could kick myself in the ass for forty years – was Three Days of the Condor. I thought “CIA – it’s the same thing as Bond.”

But there was this thing – Joe Barbera of Hanna-Barbera cartoons had a project that didn’t work out, but he still wanted to do it, about ambulance drivers. And I called and said, “Can I drive in an ambulance for a couple of weeks and just see?” And I did and it was just amazing. I mean, the people and the calls and the things and it was comedic and it was horrifying. There’s now an argument about the health care bill in this country – almost every issue is in that movie and it hasn’t changed – the people who don’t have insurance and who you can treat and who you can’t and an emergency room saying, “We don’t take obstetrics here, move on down,” and so on – nothing is different. And so it was astounding to me at the time.

I wrote this script called Mother, Jugs, and Speed – there’s a lot of terrific stuff in it and it was very original for its time. And quite by accident, Peter Yates – a British director who had just done Bullit with Steve McQueen – and I met at a party at Natalie Wood’s house. I knew who he was and I said, “What are you gonna do next?” – not for any other reason than I wanted to know what his next picture was. He said, “I don’t know. I’d like to do a comedy. I’d like to do one with bite.” And I said, “Well, I’ve got a script in the back of my car.” I’d just finished it – Fox hadn’t even read it yet. And he said, “Well, I’m taking the red-eye to New York tonight at 10:30. So, if you don’t mind, give it to me.” I said, “I don’t mind, but you have to understand I can’t offer it to you.” And he said, “That’s all right – just give it to me.” So I gave it to him. And he called me the next morning and he said, “Let’s do it!”

So we gave it to Alan Ladd, Jr. who had just taken over at Fox – and he read it and he said, “This is the most offensive screenplay I have ever read. I don’t think there’s any group – blacks, women, politicians – that you’re not offending in this script.” And he said to me and Peter, “Can you guys make this for $3 million bucks?” “Yes,” we lied. He said, “Great – go make it.” And Peter was so generous. He said to me, “You know, you’re writing this – you gave it to me. I can’t produce and direct. Why don’t we make this a Yates/Mankiewicz production and we’ll produce it together?”

And here’s how films accidentally come together. We offered (the starring role of lead ambulance driver “Mother”) to Gene Hackman…and he said, “I wanna do it.” And he said to me, “But here’s the deal… I’ve done seven movies in the last two years. My kid has been arrested for drugs, my wife is leaving me. If you guys can wait four months, I’ll play this part.” Peter said no and then said to me in that wonderful British accent, “I saw the most delightful black comedian last night on television last night named Bill Cosby.” And I said, “No, it must be Cosby.” “Oh, is it Cosby? He’s so full of life.” I said, “What a good idea.” And we sent him a script. He was so sharp, so bright and he said to me, “I understand this script was offered to Gene Hackman.” I said, “That’s right.” He said, “Well, Gene Hackman and I are not usually offered the same kind of thing. How would you change the part for me? If I played Mother?” And I said, “I wasn’t planning to change anything.” And he said, “In that case, I want to do it.” I didn’t change a line. And off we went.

And we shot that fucker all practical – there’s only one two-minute sequence where they’re carrying a heavy lady down a staircase and she falls through – that was shot on a stage because you can’t do that practical. Outside of that, every single thing was a practical set. We shot in Venice, California and we just went up and down the streets and shot all day. And we shot out of a thing called a Cinemobile – all the equipment was in those things. Charlie Maguire – who I had known – who was Elia Kazan’s assistant director on On the Waterfront and Splendor in the Grass and whatever – was our associate producer. Charlie taught me a lot. But it was a wonderful experience. It was so liberating as a writer And I was there obviously every day because I was actually producing the movie, but it was also my script and there were not – maybe six lines were changed, not because I insisted, but because people were obviously happy with them.

Peter and I go to St. Louis with Laddie for the first preview of Mother, Jugs, and Speed and everything’s rolling along – people are laughing, the fat lady’s gone through the staircase and out in the street and everything. And all of a sudden there’s Bruce Davison and he gets his head blown off by little Toni Basil with a shotgun. And about twenty people got up and walked out. They thought they were coming to see a rollicking comedy. And after it was over the cards were very mixed. And Peter and Laddie and I went to dinner and Laddie said, “Do you guys feel strongly about keeping that scene in with Bruce Davison? Because he could just disappear from the cast and we could just put in a line ‘Leroy’s gone on vacation’ or something.” And we said, “Yeah, we do.” And he said, “Fine. Let’s leave it in.” This would never happen today. Today a studio head would say, “It’s gonna cost us 25 million dollars in gross. Sorry guys, that scene’s going.” And I always loved Laddie for saying, “Okay, if you guys feel strongly, leave it in.”

About, oh, four or five years ago – the Directors Guild had a screening of Live and Let Die. And I’m standing in the reception before it starts and film critic Elvis Mitchell said to me, “You know a film you did that never really got what it deserved?” And I said, “Mother, Jugs, and Speed.” He said, “That’s right!” Then two nights later, I am down at the Music Center, where a dramatization of All About Eve is being put on with wonderful actors for the Actors Fund. And Leonard Maltin – we’re talking before, he said, “You know a movie of yours that never…” and I said, “Mother, Jugs, and Speed.” He said, “I didn’t give it a good review,” but he said, “I just saw it again the other night. God, you guys did a really terrific movie. I’m gonna change my review.” And he did change his review – yeah. He said, “A hilarious black comedy.” John Huston used to say, “I don’t have favorite films, they’re all my children,” but Mother, Jugs, and Speed was always my favorite – it meant so much to me in my life as a writer because even though I wasn’t directing it, I was really controlling the material.

Click here for Part 2.

quick-guide
Get tips in writing great scripts in Ray’s book
Getting Past the Hollywood Gatekeeper

COMMENT