What Happened When the Dean of American TV Writers Collaborated With the Famous, Flamboyant English Director Who Had Been Described as the King of Pornobiography?
Sidney Aaron “Paddy” Chayefsky was riding high. Considered by many to be the dean of American TV writers for the classic stories he wrote for the small screen during the 1950s -- most particularly “Marty” -- Chayefsky was now writing for the bigger silver screen. It was 1977, and he had won Oscars for his last two original screenplays: “The Hospital” in 1971 and “Network” in 1976.
Chayefsky had loved working on “Network.” Not only had the subject matter taken him back to his TV roots, he was able to work with another veteran of TV’s Golden Age, Sidney Lumet, as the director of the film. They shared many memories from those halcyon days, and Lumet, who did not know a lot about comedy, was very willing to listen to how Chayefsky wanted many of the satirical scenes in that movie played.
And that was a good thing, since Chayefsky had achieved a very rare thing in Hollywood: Not one word of his scripts could be changed without his permission. It was in his contract, and it was much more akin to a clause a playwright gets than a Hollywood screenwriter.
After “Network,” Chayefsky delved deep into his next project. It would deal with the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in all of us, focusing on mind-bending drugs and isolation tanks. According to author Joseph Lanza, “Daniel Melznick, an executive at Columbia Pictures, thought Chayefsky should novelize the screenplay first,” to use that as a tool to convince other Columbia executives to make the film. [In the end, Warner Bros. released the movie.]
So novelize is what Chayefsky did during 1977, a time in which he suffered a heart attack, from which he soon recovered. At the same time he was novelizing his script, Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of English directors, was putting the finishing touches on “Valentino,” writes Lanza in his book “Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films.”
“Valentino” would be a box-office flop for the director movie critic Pauline Kael had dubbed “the inventor of a new genre, pornobiography.”
Like his screenplay, Chayefsky named his novel “Altered States.” As the project proceeded, it was announced that yet another major talent who had gotten his start during TV’s Golden Age in the 1950s -- Arthur Penn -- would take the helm and direct “Altered States.”
Penn tells what happened next. “I was supposed to [direct] ‘Altered States’ … which [Paddy and I] spent months working on together,” Penn says in “Arthur Penn: Interviews” by Penn, Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin. “Paddy and I have been good friends ever since we were drafted into the army together. I told him I wasn’t interested in special effects and wanted to concentrate on the human dimensions of the story. We had some disagreements about this and I pulled out 2 and ½ weeks before shooting was to start.”
Ken Russell picks up the story from there: “This film just came out of the blue,” he told Jay Scott of The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto. “I didn’t choose it from my storehouse of ideas. Chayefsky had already written the script and they had already lost a director, Arthur Penn. I was in an airport in Chicago when I heard ‘Ken Russell, ring your agent.’ I had been unable to get work in Hollywood -- the cliché that you’re only as good as your last picture is unfortunately true, and my last picture was ‘Valentino’ -- so I called my agent and he told me I had a job.”
A few days later Russell told Tom Buckley in an interview with The New York Times, “I also saw a challenge. For better or for worse, my films are not known for their dialogue scenes. In fact, I’ve been accused of not knowing how to direct dialogue, although, ironically, Paddy said that one reason I was hired after Arthur Penn left the picture was because of the way I had handled the dialogue scenes in ‘Savage Messiah.' "
Russell says the fights between himself and Chayefsky started almost immediately after Russell was hired. The Globe and Mail recounts: “ ‘It started with the paint,’ Russell sneers. '[Chayefsky] didn’t like the color of the paint on the isolation tank. Then it went on to other things. He didn’t like the lighting, then he didn’t like the machinery, then he thought I was making the actors appear drunk in a scene where they were written to be slightly tipsy in a bar. Chayefsky drinks only Sanka. To a man who drinks only Sanka, someone who has had a few must appear totally drunk.' ”
In his book about Russell, author Lanza spoke to longtime Chayefsky friend and producer Howard Gottfried, who painted Russell as a “duplicitious, manipulative ogre. ‘He would make really lousy remarks. Just anything to get Paddy upset.’ “
Lanza recounts this sarcastic exchange:
Russell: You can’t improve on perfection, Paddy. Why don’t we rehearse the scene where [one character] fucks [another character] on the kitchen floor. I’d appreciate your input on the grunts.
Chayefsky: I’m only concerned with matters of dialogue right now, Kenny. In matters of barking dogs, grunting ape-men, and moaning lovers, you have carte blanche.
By the time the movie started filming, Chayefsky and Russell weren’t talking -- though, separately, they would talk to the actors, putting them in the middle of the two men. This led to even more arguing between Russell and Chayefsky.
Saddled with a contract that forced Russell to film all of Chayefsky’s dialogue, The Globe and Mail writes, “Russell claims that with the exception of one scene (which Russell said had to do with some ‘trifling changes’ in the scenes where the main character goes to Mexico to try some mushrooms), he shot every word Chayefsky wrote. If so, he has nonetheless exacted revenge: The actors charge through their words as if being caressed by cattle prods, they mumble, they scream and they chatter with their mouths full of food. ‘Chayefsky,’ Russell smiles, ‘won’t speak to me.’ “
The interviews Russell did with The Globe and Mail and The New York Times were done about two weeks after “Altered States” was released in the U.S. on Christmas Day 1980. The film was generally well-received by the critics and performed well at the box office (For Warner Bros., only 5 other pictures made more money than 'Altered States" did that year.)
Russell was 53 when he made the picture. Chayefsky was 57. Chayefsky declined to talk publicly about his fighting with Russell. All he would tell The New York Times was, “I haven’t seen the picture and I intend to go on not seeing the picture so that when people ask me what I think about it I can tell them I haven’t seen it.”
Despite the fact that virtually every word in”Altered States” was written by Chayefsky, here’s how he insisted his credit read on movie: “Written for the screen by Sidney Aaron from the novel ‘Altered States’ by Paddy Chayefsky.”
Sidney Aaron was Chayefsky’s real first and middle names.
Seven months after the release of “Altered States” Chayefsky was dead from cancer.
Russell died this past Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011, at age 84. Of all the movies Russell made, only his version of The Who's rock musical, "Tommy,' which Russell made five years before "Altered States," made more money at the box office than "Alterted States" did.
I watched “Altered States” again the other night. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out. It’s still a terrific ride that rode the coat-tails of a generation of drug-takers and ends with a very old-fashioned Hollywood message. And it seems to me that Russell handled the sometimes tedious dialogue just right. William Hurt commands the screen in his movie debut as the lead character, and Blair Brown is smart and luminous as his co-star. Support, especially by Charles Haid, is spot-on.
How ironic that Chayefsky parted ways early on with his pal Arthur Penn, who, no doubt, would have delivered a film closer to what Chayefsky probably would have wanted. But I have a hard time believing it actually would have been a better movie.#