Richard Brooks – The “Secret” Writer-Producer-Director
Richard Brooks is one of my filmmaker heroes and role models. Whenever I’m writing a film script I always imagine to myself, “How would Richard Brooks approach this.”
Brooks was a writer-producer-director, one of the “hyphenate” filmmakers who I admire. But first and foremost, Richard Brooks was a writer. He was an MGM contract writer-director in the 1950s, sometimes churning out as many as three movies a year, which he both wrote the screenplay for and directed. He was also one of the first studio directors who insisted on sitting in on the editing. At that time, most directors were hired to get the footage in the can, on-time and on-schedule, then were given their next assignment.
Then in the 1960s, as the studios were collapsing and the Old Hollywood was giving way to the youth-oriented New Hollywood (brilliantly detailed in Peter Biskind’s nonfiction masterwork Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), Richard Brooks re-invented himself as an independent producer. Only he took independence to another level. He began a policy of almost never showing his screenplays to anyone, including stars, crew and studio executives. In this day and age when a writer finishes his script, sends it off to his agent who then gives it to an assistant to run off copies, in no time it’s going all over Los Angeles, often being posted to the Internet before even studio executives have had a chance to pass on it.
Brooks greatest concern in the mid-60s was having his story ripped off from the mimeo department and being churned out as a made-for-TV movie-of-the-week. To that end he took the extreme precautions of only having an original of the script, which was never far from his hands on the set, and a single Xerox copy, which would be locked up in a safe in his office just in case. Actors would be given their lines on the day of shooting, then at the end of the day the pages would be collected and shredded. In this way, it wasn’t until the film was finally released that the actors had any real idea of how the movie they were working on was going to play out.
These were the conditions that the films of his later years were made under, the period that produced his two finest films, In Cold Blood and The Professionals, the former one of the best crime and character studies ever put on film, and the second among the best American westerns ever made. As well as Dollars, a personal favorite of mine, Looking For Mr. Goodbar, Bite The Bullet.
An outstanding biography just came out by Douglass K. Daniel called Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks. It came out earlier this year. I’ve read it twice and keep it within arm’s reach on my nightstand. I highly recommend it. It paints a much different picture of Brooks than I had imagined. Very feisty and cantankerous. I would not have wanted to make a mistake on one of his sets. I’ve since been e-mailing with Douglass and now count him as a friend. Douglass spent some time in Kansas, as did I when working for KWCH-TV in Wichita, where I loved talking to the older reporters for Truman Capote stories from when he was following and researching the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, which became the subject of his masterpiece nonfiction novel In Cold Blood.
Brooks passed away in 1991. I always felt sad for never having met him. I also have always wanted to read his “secret scripts.” For years I pursued the dream of trying to get some of Brooks’ scripts published
Brooks’ personal scripts were donated to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences library and the Writers Guild Library, where I had the chance to finally read Brooks’ pages – his own personal screenplays.
In 1995 I shot a story in Big Bear, where actor Robert Conrad (The Wild, Wild West, Bah Bah Black Sheep) used to live. He was making a new, and short-lived, series for NBC, which he was producing, writing and starring in called High Sierra Search and Rescue.
Big Bear is inside the KCRA viewing area and Conrad was a fan of our news. In fact, every year he participated in a KCRA-sponsored charity celebrity sports weekend. We were there at his invitation to shoot a behind-the-scenes story about the making of the pilot. A crew from Entertainment Tonight was also on hand to shoot an interview. However, since Conrad liked KCRA, he decided to go with us first. After our interview I thanked him and told him of my interest in Richard Brooks, who had directed Conrad in his 1980 film Wrong Is Right, and my efforts to get some of Brooks’ scripts published and asked if he would mind giving me a few minutes to talk about working with Brooks?
“Richard Brooks – best director I ever worked for. Sure, I’ve got time. Anything for Brooks.”
“I can wait. We can do this after you do Entertainment Tonight if you’d like.”
“Entertainment Tonight can wait. I’d rather talk about Richard Brooks.”
So I turned the camera back on and rolled the following interview. It has never been seen or used before this posting.
I still have hopes, although not high hopes, of some day having a copy of The Secret Screenplays of Richard Brooks: The Scripts His Actors Never Saw. And if you would also like to have a copy of the book on your desk or bookshelf then please e-mail me, perhaps we can start a petition.
What I always suspected about Richard Brooks’ secret scripts was that since he no longer had to write to satisfy a producer or a director, or even a studio head, that he no longer had to work within the confines of the screenplay format or style of writing – that he was free to write a movie in any style that he wanted as long as he had the goods on the screen in the end. When I finally had the opportunity to hold Richard Brooks’ copy of In Cold Blood in my hands my ideas were confirmed. His dialogue was spare. He seemed at times to almost be writing in lists. And most of what is in the finished films is all that there was on the pages. Very lean, even down to the terse, spare sentence structure.
Out of respect and admiration for Richard Brooks’ writing, I’m going to provide a few brief examples here. The libraries do not allow you to photocopy pages, but you can bring a tape recorder and dictate the pages, or bring a laptop and type-copy what’s on the pages. It would be truly wonderful if someday we all had the opportunity to be able to purchase a published copy of this amazing screenplay.
As an example, here is how Richard Brooks wrote the opening of In Cold Blood in his script. Note: The script examples here have never been seen by the films’ cast or crew. Brooks wrote them for himself and his own point-of-reference. On rare exception he would allow an actor to read a section in advance, but almost never was anyone allowed to read the entire script.
NIGHT OPEN COUNTRYSIDE (TOTAL DARKNESS)
The sound of wind — icy, high-pitched.
Darkness pierced by two white-hot eyes. They move
swiftly toward us.
Another sound: bus motor at high speed; whining
tires. The “eyes” turn into bus headlights.
The highway — becomes visible in the glare of
headlights. The “forehead” of the bus carries
its destination: KANSAS CITY.
INT. BUS – (MOVING) – NIGHT
Driver’s cafe reflected in windshield. He looks up
at rear-view mirror.
Rear-view mirror: passenger area in semi-darkness.
Passengers — sleep, slump wearily, stare hypnotically
at black void beyond windows. Someone plays a guitar,
picking softly at strings.
A 9-year-old girl leaves her mother, is drawn to sound
Man with guitar — at window seat. In silhouette. Girl
stops at empty aisle seat. The man’s boots come out of
darkness and prop themselves on arm-rest, blocking seat.
She traces the markings on the boot-soles. The heels
have an imprint of a cat and the words: Cat’s Paw.
Man stops playing guitar.
She returns to her mother. Camera moves past boots,
over the blue jeans, toward man’s face. A match is
struck. Camera stops. Cigarette is lit. Man’s eyes
seen briefly: the eyes of Perry Smith. Match blown
INT. SHED — HICKOCK FARM — DAWN
Darkness except for slivers of grey light outlining
shed door. A man in overcoat.
Click. Flashlight beam. Man’s eyes: Dick Hickock.
Flashlight finds an old trunk. Dick rummages inside.
He brings out a .12 gauge shotgun.
Creaking door of outhouse is heard and then a man’s
hacking cough. Dick removes overcoat, conceals shotgun
with it. Flashlight off. Dick starts out.
EXT. SHED AND OUTHOUSE — DAWN
Mr. Hickock, trousers, long underwear, army blanket
around shoulders is outside the outhouse. He is bent
Dick comes out of shed. Mr. Hickock starts toward the
Pa? Y’alright, Pa?
Mr. Hickock nods. He is not the complaining sort.
You’re up early.
Got a long day ahead.
I wish yuh didn’t hafta go.
I promised to help this friend.
(Mr. Hickock starts
Goddam outhouse. One o’ these days soon
I’m gonna change all that. Damn soon.
MR. HICKOCK (nods)
Drive careful, now.
Dick returns to shed. He looks back. Mr. Hickock
enters house. Dick removes the overcoat (shotgun
inside it) and carries it to this car. Three baby
shoes dangle at the windshield. Dick places the gun
and flashlight on the back seat, beside a hunting
jacket (gleaming with cartridges), hunting knife and
a pair of gloves. He covers shotgun and accessories with
the overcoat. He looks off toward the horizon.
HIGHWAY — HIGH ANGLE — BUS — DAWN
LAP DISSOLVE TO:
RR TRACKS — SANTA FE STREAMLINER — DAWN
In the dissolve, bus replaced by approaching train.
In f.g. a mailbag is suspended for “pickup.” The
mailbag is silhouetted, looks like a hanging man.
Train horn heard. Train speeds by, snatches mailbag
on the fly.
Quick reverse angle — Train passes RR Crossing and
shed. On the shed is printed: HOLCOMB.
TREE-LINED DIRT ROAD LEADING TO FARM — DAWN
A sign reads: River Valley Farm
Sound of train horn recedes.
End of road — Mailboxes, Hired Man’s house, Barns,
a dog (house pet), trots past. Pan with dog to reveal
And alarm clock is hear. Zoom in toward house. A
light comes on in one of the windows. (UPSTAIRS)
BUS HEADLIGHTS — SNAP OFF AS BUS STOPS
Bus in Kansas City, Mo., terminal. Passengers debark.
Perry steps thru doorway of bus. He carries a cardboard
suitcase, a heavy carton and a Gibson guitar slung across
his back. He appears a large muscular man until he steps
down. The other passengers are taller. Perry’s legs
INT. BUS TERMINAL — PERRY ENTERS
Clatter of pinball machines, loud speaker, etc. Perry
crosses to phone booth. One is occupied. Perry
searches for coins
Two Nuns appear. One of them enters the empty booth,
lifts receiver. Then, she realizes that Perry was
there first. She graciously offers him the phone.
Perry is hostile. He turns away, heads for another
phone attached to a pillar. Someone else beats Perry
to this phone also — a soldier.
Perry goes to sandwich counter, sets down suitcase
and guitar. He takes out a letter
Anything to go with it?
He takes a much-handled letter from envelope. As he
“Friend P., Came out in August, and after
you left I met Someone, you do not know
him, but he put me on to Something we
could bring off beautiful. A cinch,
the Perfect score.”
DICK’S CAR DRIVES THRU EDGERTON
Inside car — Dick’s voice continues uninterrupted.
“It’s a Sure Thing. Am depending on you.
Love, Dick. P.S. — Will meet your Bus,
November 14th, M-Day, M-for-money, honey.”
By this time Dick has stopped at a gas station. The
quick stop makes the overcoat slide partially off the
back seat, revealing the shotgun and hunting vest.
Dick is unaware of this.
Dick’s car drives thru Edgerton. Attendent glances
past Dick, to the back seat.
You sure got a perfect day for it.
DICK (goes to pump)
Dead-eye Dick Hickock.
DICK (laughs pleasantly)
Them birds don’t know it, but this is their
last day on earth.
Part of Brooks’ success in continuing to make films without interference as an aging man in a youth-oriented movie business was his ability to make high-profile films on moderate to low-budgets. He might get paid at guild scale minimums, or write a script for free, shoot in L.A. to keep location travel costs down – and make up for it by taking a larger cut of the profits. in the case of Looking For Mr. Goodbar, that proved to be a handsome sum.
I’m concluding with the opening page for Richard Brooks’ screenplay for Looking For Mr. Goodbar.
METROPOLITAN CITY — The World of Bars —
Swank bars. Dingy bars. White Collar and Blue
Bars for looking. Bars for eating, dancing, meeting,
talking escaping, seeking, finding, losing — even
bars for just plain hard drinking
Bars for singles.
Bars for Marrieds.
Bars for the lonely.
Bars for transvestites and for the Up-tights.
Bars for Blacks, bars for Whites, Salt-and-
A world of bars and those who people them. Summer
and winter. Day and Night. Interiors and Exteriors.
During which, the tittles appear, featuring THERESA DUNN.
She is seen entering bars, inside bars, leaving bars.
Seen on barroom TV sets: Programs of news, movies and
advertisements consisten with the period.
Most of the bar-scenes, used as background for titles,
will be culled from portions of actual scenes that
take place during the course of the movie.