David Rintels is one of the most thoughtful writers I know. There is a joke about some people that if you ask them the time, they will tell you how the watch was made. David doesn't do that. But if you ask him the time, he might ask if you'd like to discuss the meaning of time and philosophy behind it. However, he'll always give you the time, and may throw in a funny, true story about it. And then ask if you'd heard how his beloved Red Sox did that day. David's favorite sports team in the world is the Boston Red Sox -- he loves them so much that his second favorite sports team is whoever is playing their hated rival, the New York Yankees, that day. (And no, I'm not kidding. One day I was at his office, when he glanced at his computer monitor and happily called out, "Great, we're winning 3-1." I was confused, since the Red Sox weren't playing that afternoon. "Oh, no, I mean Cleveland. They're playing the Yankees." And so, to him, the Cleveland Indians at that moment were "we.")
One small side note worth mentioning: his mother-in-law made her last film appearance in a supporting role in his TV film, Gideon's Trumpet, that starred Henry Fonda. His mother-in-law, it should be added was Fay Wray.
David W. Rintels
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
David Rintels has had a long and distinguished career, notably writing for television. His many credits include Andersonville, World War II: When Lions Roared, The Member of the Wedding (1996 remake), Sakharov, Gideon's Trumpet, Fear on Trial, "Day One, and The Last Best Year. For series television, he wrote for such programs as The Defenders and The Senator segment of The Bold Ones.
In addition, David Rintels wrote Clarence Darrow, for both the Broadway stage and its later television production.
Rintels has was won three Emmy Awards and been nominated for five others. He served as president of the Writers Guild of America.
[Subsequent to this interview, David Rintels wrote the first-ever TV movie that ESPN Sports produced, A Season on the Brink, based on the book about coach Bobby Knight. Most recently, he has written the stageplay, Sophie's Choice, based on the novel by William Styron, winner of the National Book Award.]
>>> WGA: Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
DR: I think the first movie I really connected to being written, and inspiring me to want to write was "12 Angry Men" by Reggie Rose. Before that, movies just sort of happened. I remember as a kid seeing stage plays I loved -- "Oklahoma!" in its pre-Broadway tryout when I was five years old, and the traveling company of "Mr. Roberts" when I was about 14 or 15, but they only made me want to be a singing cowboy and a cargo officer in the U.S. Navy, not a writer.
I saw "12 Angry Men" enough times so I could quote it all back to you -- probably still can today. A great, great screenplay. And another great thing about it is that it was Reggie Rose who gave me my first writing job, on "The Defenders," when I was the greenest kid you ever saw, and that I later got to work with Henry Fonda, the star of the movie, and am right now in discussions with Sidney Lumet, who directed it. That's some trifecta, if it happens -- I've come pretty close with Lumet before and I pray this time is it.
>>> WGA: When you write, how do you generally work?
I work at home at an L-shaped desk overlooking the backyard. It's a big desk with a lot of space on it, which I need because I'm messy and a sprawler and frequently what I'm working on requires research or notes. I write in longhand with a ballpoint pen because I don't type very well and don't know how to use a word-processor. I like handwriting. It feels more personal than word processing. Also, it's comfortable -- I write at about the same speed that I think. I don't think I'd write better if I wrote faster.
I used to work occasionally at a studio a long time ago. I hated it. Too confining. Strange and unfamiliar. You're always aware of the product and the purpose, when what's satisfying is the process. I'll never do it again.
I write in the morning, usually from about 8:30 until lunch, and do clean-up on the morning's work for an hour or two in the afternoon.
>>> WGA: Do you have any specific kind of music playing, or just prefer silence?
DR: Noise. I like background noise (or at least have gotten used to it) while I’m working. Not a vacuum cleaner or a leaf blower or my wife wanting to talk. But anything where I have the on/off and volume buttons in my own hands. Bach, Gold Oldies, All-News Radio, Vin Scully, the business channel on TV -- something's always on, though some of the time I'm not really aware what it is.
>>> WGA: Are you a good procrastinator?
DR: About procrastination -- it depends. It sometimes takes me a long time to decide to do a project, or to find something I really like, and as a result I spend a lot of time between scripts, reading or fooling around. But once I start to write, I'm pretty straight ahead. I usually work every day including weekends, and can finish a script in six or eight weeks after I start writing. I rewrite as I go, so when I finish my first draft, it's pretty much what I want. Research time is extra, and I sometimes take a very long time on that. I love research.
When I'm writing, I'm never not doing it. In the shower, sleeping, eating. Sometimes I'll get up three or four times in a night and write something down.
>>> WGA: What sort of characters and stories interest you?
DR: The best definition of drama I know is, take characters you care about and put them in a situation they can't handle. The caring part is very important -- I like to like my characters, at least my heroes. I want them to solve their problems. The harder the problem and the more you care about the character -- that's the beginning.
I've written a lot of stories about real events and people, so many that I've been accused of really being a historian first and a dramatist second. There's some truth to that, but the thing that I think interests me most about history is the people you meet there.
I think I'm changing in that regard. I want to write more fiction. Now I will always choose people first, given the chance. Issues, history, law, politics -- sure, if I like a story well enough, but only if it's about somebody, not just an event. I'd rather write from the inside of a character out than from the outside of the facts in, if that's clear. People are the most interesting thing in the world, whether they're real or fictional.
>>> WGA: How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story?
DR: I talk to somebody. My wife first -- she was a psychologist in private practice for more than 15 years before she became a writer and producer herself, and she has a lot of insight into character.
If she's not around, we always have an assistant at the house (we had one from 1979-1995, and another since 1995), both very good to talk to. Sometimes, they come up with good ideas, sometimes they help me clarify my own thinking.
There are some writers I like to talk to -- Frank Pierson, the late Carol Sobieski.
If no one's around, I talk to myself.
>>> WGA: What is your best or most memorable experience as a writer?
DR: If I had to give you just one, it would be the first day of rehearsal on "Clarence Darrow" with John Houseman directing and Fonda acting, in a cold dark theatre; that was even better than opening night on Broadway...
...and if I could give you another, working with Houseman from 1974 until his death in 1988 on my play "World War II," which we wanted to do on stage but couldn't get on. Finally I did a television version on NBC in 1994, after he died. Working with John was always a joy, a challenge, stimulating every moment. What a mind he had, and how generous he was. I really felt alive around John.
The thing about "Darrow" was, it was the first one-man play where had other characters on stage, only you couldn't see them. Before that, it was Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain directly to an audience, or James Whitmore impersonating Will Rogers or Harry Truman, but there were no scenes, no plot, no chronology, no dialogue, not even one-sided dialogue. Seeing that idea come alive, seeing Fonda speak to an empty chair and not look foolish -- the audience filling in the idea, the picture of his wife or a juror or a witness themselves -- I had been sure it would work but to see it actually happen, that was thrilling.
Some other memorable experiences:
The first, and absolutely unexpected, by-line I got on the Boston Herald, when I was 17 or 18. I was a copyboy covering a Saturday high-school football game and they gave me $5, I think, and that by-line. That was really something.
Working with Henry Fonda five times, Joe Sargent four, Jason Robards three.
Writing "Fade Out" -- I've always gotten more satisfaction out of finishing a script I like than seeing the finished production.
Some favorites of my own things:
My favorite program -- "Day One." Wonderfully directed by Joe Sargent.
My favorite script -- "Andersonville" (the published version).
My favorite scene -- watching Anna Paquin as Frankie Addams at Sunday dinner in "The Member of the Wedding," the scene where she falls in teen-age love with her brother's fiancée. She doesn't speak a word, but every emotion, every gesture, every moment in the scene was written, and it played just as I dreamed it.
Some movies I really wish I'd written -- "His Girl Friday," my all-time favorite; "Lawrence of Arabia," "Bridge on the River Kwai."
>>> WGA: Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
DR: In 1962, I was hired as a researcher on a 26-part documentary series on FDR. I worked for the producers and met some of the writers, the first writers I'd ever met. Allan Sloane was my favorite; he took a personal interest in me -- we talked a lot, and I spent weekends with him and his family in Connecticut. Allan was very passionate, a great old leftie, full of energy and opinions and life. He talked to me about the art and craft of writing, but what I remember most was his passion for his stories. He really used to care about his scripts and would defend them like a tiger. He was always taking his name off great scripts because some director or executive had changed something.
Also, Allan was very dramatic in his own life. He made everything into a story, just by the way he told it. Very vivid.
I remember once he got a review from Jack Gould of The New York Times that began, "Honor came last night to the American Broadcasting Company..." Can you imagine getting a review like that? I think that one sentence helped me decide to try to become a writer, the thought that one day somebody might write something like that about something I'd written.
I've already talked about Houseman. What I learned from John was (1) you can always make it better, and (2) "It's the work, dear boy, it's the work" -- meaning don't worry about the size of the audience, it's better to write for twelve people sitting in a church basement on a rainy night in Mississippi if you love what you're doing than to do something you hate for 50,000,000 people on network TV. Those are two of the many things he taught me.
>>> WGA: Why do you write?
DR: I love the self-reliance of it. Writing has the perfect blend of aloneness and involvement -- the only thing that does.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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