Johnny Cash cited FRANKENSTEIN (1931) as one of his favorite films. Speaking of his empathy for the title character, he claimed to be fascinated by a man/monster “made up of bad parts but trying to do good.” Not coincidentally, tales of men and women “made up of bad parts but trying to do good” run completely rampant through the lyrics and musical leitmotifs of roots and country music. From Johnny Cash to present-day artists like Kacey Musgraves or Chris Stapleton, the genre is filled to the brim with self-loathing average joes, small town loneliness and alienation, the idea of disappointing one’s mama, trying to burn out personal demons and pain through vices like whiskey and beer, then the quiet desire found in a tank of gas and speeding along down the road to move on.
Right now you might be thinking: I’m a screenwriter. This is a blog dedicated to film and TV writing. What on earth does this post have to do with me?
A quote often attributed to Hank Williams is that country music is simply “Three chords and the truth.” Could it be that film, TV or any other form of dramatic storytelling isn’t all that different? Just substitute the word “chords” for “acts.” It’s on this note, that I’d like to put forth a contention that hopefully doesn’t seem too outrageous.
If Johnny Cash can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in the movies, then screenwriters can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in country and roots music. Of course, this can be achieved by pulling out Waylon Jennings, Staple Singers or Emmylou Harris records, listening to the lyrics, aching pedal steel solos and cyclical banjo breaks that conjure images of dirt roads and juke joints, but it can also be achieved by studying one of country music’s greatest screenwriters.
His name is Horton Foote. You might know of him as the two-time Oscar-winning writer of TENDER MERCIES (1983) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), but in this blogger’s mind, he’s actually a country musician who deals in sluglines instead of baselines.
Well, actually, he considered himself more of a playwright who occasionally wrote for TV and film.
Indeed, he was prolific in his work for the stage, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (1995). Perhaps it was in the theater, with its emphasis on cycles and revisiting certain themes again and again where Horton Foote developed the ideas and flourishes that would come to make his particular kind of storytelling so recognizable on screens big and small.
When one sees certain impressionistic paintings, one probably associates them with Monet… When I see certain quiet movies that put across the same pain and authenticity as a good country song, I think of Horton Foote.
Born in Wharton, Texas in 1916, Foote eventually settled in New York City, where he became a dramatist after studying method acting. Even though he wrote plays, TV and movies, like any great country/roots musician, he never shook his small-town, southern home and it became something he tried to explore and stay connected to through his writing. Home is a repeated theme throughout his work. Like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor or John Steinbeck, he tended to write about the same place in his stories, eliciting in his audience a sense of longing for the heart of Texas or Alabama – even in people who never visited those places. It’s a feeling similar to that which comes from hearing Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton.
“Foote weaves his melodrama into the plain cloth of everyday events,”
wrote New York Times Theatre Critic Ben Brantley in a review in 2010. His stories often follow damaged, rejected people looking to flee or redeem themselves from some misdoing, demon or detriment, then finding makeshift families and a sense of community to get through that dull sense of alienation that often goes hand-in-hand with small-town existence.
Fascinated by what he called the “dailiness” of everyday life, his characters are gas station clerks, farmers or store owners – people who are meager of word, but overflowing with feeling and unspoken dreams and wants. He focuses on the scar and how the character tries to heal it rather than over-saturating us with the event that left it there. It’s not difficult to view his plays and films as the living, blood-fueled embodiment of the characters put forth in a Johnny Cash song – sutured together from bad parts and trying to be good.
His plain cloth, personal but rural style of playwriting proved to be a natural fit for a new, burgeoning medium called "television" in the 1950s and 60s. Because of television’s smaller budgets and need to shoot quickly on sound stages, it was predicted that writers with scaled-back, character-based proclivities would meet with success – and that’s just what happened for Foote and his contemporaries like Paddy Chayefsky and Tad Mosel.
It’s compelling to think that the same seeds that influenced the storytelling in American roots music might – by way of writers like Horton Foote – have sailed their way into the genesis of American television and, later, American film… then later still into the gelatinous hybrid of forms that’s found on streaming platforms today. I think that, in some roundabout way, country music helped solidify what we view as tenets of any kind of great American writing.
See these tenets in action with UCLA Film & Television Archive’s screening series “Golden Age Television Writers on the Big Screen.” The little-seen, Foote-penned TOMORROW (1972) is showing Sunday, August 6th at 7pm at the Billy Wilder Theater. The series is co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation. WGA members get free admission.
Until there exists a book or Screenwriting course based entirely in country and roots music, watching Robert Duvall as a soft-spoken farmer who takes in a young pregnant woman in Mississippi (based on a William Faulkner short story and Foote’s play of the same name) is the best place to experience exactly what I’m talking about.
Oh, and as always, stop by the WGF Library to read the newest additions to our catalog. This week we've added the script for summer's most wonderful superhero flick WONDER WOMAN and the Netflix Original Series GLOW, unofficially making us the coolest non-circulating library in town!