Power games

Turning a thriller into a blockbuster film should be effortless for an old pro like William Goldman. Except, that is, if the star is Clint Eastwood and he wants the villain to be the hero. By Minty Clinch
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William Goldman, the novelist, playwright and screenwriter has been working for Tinseltown for over 30 years and, right now, he's sick to the back teeth of it. "This is the worst period in studio history. The studio heads are making shit and they know it," he says when we meet on the closing night of the Cannes Film Festival. He can go on record with only minor trepidation about this because he has two Oscar-winning scripts, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men, under his belt. In fact, he has gone on record: two books, Adventures in the Screen Trade and Hype and Glory, have laid bare what he sees as the compromise, mediocrity and greed at the heart of the studio system. But his current pronouncements perhaps seem a little harder to swallow given that his latest screenplay, Absolute Power, is a testament to Hollywood compromise.

It's an adaptation of a bestselling first novel by David Baldacci, who first sent out his manuscript to seven agents in New York with the covering note: "Read the first chapter and I guarantee you'll be hooked." His barefaced cheek had the desired effect: all seven begged to represent him, and three weeks later the chosen one, Aaron Priest had sold the book for $5m. Castle Rock coughed up $1m for the film rights. When Goldman first read the Washington- based thriller with a view to reworking it for the screen, he picked out three "fabulous" set pieces: an opening in which master thief, Luther Whitney, watches the President of the United States triggering a murder; a pivotal scene in which a double-assassination attempt fails and a crucial one in which the inconvenient witness is terminated. There was just the matter of how to accommodate Clint Eastwood, who wanted in on the project.

"Luther Whitney was always the best character and the moral centre of the novel, but he died half-way through," Goldman explains "and that just doesn't happen to Clint Eastwood. When I wrote the first draft, the homicide detective was the key role but Eastwood said, 'I've done that before. I want to play the old thief and I want him to win.' It's always been a dream of mine to work with him but equally I've always treated the source material with respect and I couldn't figure out a convincing way to keep him alive."

To watch Absolute Power is to know that he never did but, with the help of a younger scriptwriting friend, Tony Gilroy, he found a resolution that satisfied the star. Gilroy is best-known for the screenplay of Extreme Measures, a lurid thriller that provided Hugh Grant with his least convincing role to date, so he had no problem replacing the second half of Baldacci's hard-nosed narrative with family candyfloss for the Nineties. "Forget the fucking novel," he screamed at Goldman. "The fucking novel is killing you. My strength is that I never read it."

Once it was agreed that Luther should save the day and reap his just reward in the form of a loving old age with his long estranged daughter, Kate (Laura Linney), Eastwood offered to direct the movie. "Although he doesn't think or act it, Eastwood is 66," Goldman comments, "so he doesn't want to get the girl any more. On the other hand, he liked having a daughter. Luther's troubled relationship with Kate struck chords with him because of his difficulties with his own daughters."

David Baldacci, in London to promote his second book, Total Control, found the novel harder to forget when he was invited to the Los Angeles premiere of Absolute Power. As he watched the film at the LA National Theater with 1,000 invited guests, he kept thinking that a lot of people in the audience wouldn't have read the book so they'd imagine that it was filmed just as he'd written it. "That was disturbing but there was no way for me to stand up and say, 'Look, I didn't write that bit.' My wife Michelle was with me and I squeezed her hand so hard I was in danger of breaking her fingers. When the Washington premiere came round, I told myself, 'Forget the book, buy your popcorn, sit in your seat and watch the movie.' " He was relieved at least that the movie stays faithful to his opening conceit, in which everything is seen through the criminal's eyes.

Although Goldman involved Baldacci from the outset, he never asked him to solve the problem of Luther Whitney's elevation to heroic status, something for which the novelist is, with hindsight, profoundly grateful. He consoles himself somewhat ruefully with the thought of money he made from the film rights. "When I think about what the movie could have been, I unlock the drawer and take out the copy of that cheque. That never lets me down." In Hollywood, forgiveness is all. "I appreciated William's problem," he says. "His job was to write a script that would get the movie made which meant that he had no choice but to follow Clint's brief. You don't kill Clint Eastwood. It's as simple as that" n

'Absolute Power' opens on Fri. 'Absolute Power' publ by Pocket Books (pounds 5.99) on 2 June