Remembering Alvin Sargent: Oscar-Winning Screenwriter Shares Essential Writing Advice

Script looks back at the career of the late, great Oscar-winning screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, celebrating his life and the essential writing advice he graciously shared.
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Script looks back at the career of the late, great Oscar-winning screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, celebrating his life and the essential writing advice he graciously shared.

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Unless you’re a screenwriter, or aspire to be one, you probably wouldn’t know the name Alvin Sargent, but you certainly know his work. Late in his career, he brought wonderful humanity and pathos to the Spider-Man movies. For older movie fans, his best-known credit would be the screenplay for Robert Redford’s directing debut, Ordinary People, which won Sargent a well-deserved Oscar. (Sargent won the Academy Award for Julia as well.)

Script looks back at the career of the late, great Oscar-winning screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, celebrating his life and the essential writing advice he graciously shared.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 06: Writer Alvin Sargent arrives at the 101 Greatest Screenplays gala reception at the Writers Guild Theater on April 6, 2006 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

After he started out writing for television in the sixties, Sargent made his feature debut with the Michael Caine caper comedy Gambit, which had a clever out-of-order structure that later became popular in the age of Tarantino. Sargent would become best known for adapting novels and plays. Along with Ordinary People, which was based on the novel by Judith Guest, his best-known adaptation was the Peter Bogdanovich Depression-era comedy Paper Moon, which was a big hit for Paramount in 1973.

If you love gritty seventies crime films, Sargent wrote the screenplay Straight Time, which was adapted from the Eddie Bunker novel No Beast So Fierce (Michael Mann also contributed a lot to the script, uncredited). Sargent himself worked behind the scenes uncredited on The Way They Were and All the President’s Men (although contrary to reports, he didn’t do any script doctor work on the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born.)

Ordinary People is a movie that has struck a chord with many people who have had to suffer in dysfunctional families. It takes the viewer on a rollercoaster of emotions that are alternately wrenching, painful, heartbreaking and beautiful. It beat out Raging Bull for Best Picture, and Redford beat out Scorsese for Best Director, which brought cries of outrage from many film fans, and while Raging Bull has certainly held up better, the raw emotions at the core of Ordinary People still feel painfully authentic.

As Sargent said in the book, Filmmaking: The Collaborative Art, “You just can’t get through life happily without experiencing some degree of love and pain. That theme is something I could deal with forever.” And indeed, Sargent’s scripts are full of wonderfully, hopelessly human moments that have resonated with so many people, myself included.

Others have derided Ordinary People as a TV movie or a standard-issue tear-jerker, but it has much more subtlety and depth than that. It’s a great lesson for screenwriters in subtext, and Redford also uses silence effectively throughout the film as well. (Two of the most haunting scenes in the film have no dialog.)

“You just can’t get through life happily without experiencing some degree of love and pain. That theme is something I could deal with forever.”

~ Alvin Sargent

When Sargent was brought aboard to contribute to the Spider-Man films, it was a great outside-the-box choice that brought much needed depth and pathos to the comic book film, a path that many filmmakers have followed since in the genre. Roger Ebert called Spider-Man 2, which Sargent wrote with Michael Chabon, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar, “... the best superhero movie since the modern genre was launched with Superman (1978).”

While Sargent won two Academy Awards and had tremendous success with the Spider-Man films, he was very self-depreciating and shied away from the spotlight. Thankfully, he knew he was beloved by many in Hollywood, and since his passing in May, 2019, there has been a great outpouring of love for the man and his work all over the net. Producer David Paul Kirkpatrick called Sargent “The prince of gentle screenwriting,” and Hollywood’s modern day wunderkind J.J. Abrams said, “I used to have the Ordinary People script that I’d flip through…it would inspire me. I wanted to try and fill pages with the same kind of spirit and thought and emotion that that script did.”

As Sargent told me, “I was originally unsure I could adapt Ordinary People, only because I couldn’t find a way to get into it. True voices of the characters are always necessary to know, to hear. Sound, the rhythm, the uncertainty of the character, double negatives. It’s a thrill when you hear them. An epiphany. The character’s use of the language then is more certain.”

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Sargent spent thirteen months working with director Robert Redford on the screenplay. “Redford said let’s stick as much as we can to the book, and I settled down and adapted the book with some of my own structure and additions, many of Redford’s as well. I had my own deep understanding of all of those troubled people. I knew them well, had people in my life who fit their personalities. Maybe that’s the fuel, when one character is any one of us. I could comfortably adapt the characters, and as with most scripts, the contribution and collaboration with writer and director is ongoing and unquestioned.”

Sargent was pleased with the end result. “Ordinary People came to be just what Redford wanted from it. Gracefully directed, he knew where the power was, and he cast it boldly and perfectly. It’s a bunch of hearts and minds, some bigger and wiser than others, that make a movie work or fail.”

It should also be mentioned that Sargent had a wonderfully quirky sense of humor as well. One screenwriter shared a picture of where Sargent kept his Oscars, in a plastic storage bin labeled ALVIN’S AWARDS, which he kept up on a shelf in his garage. Sargent was also famous for saying that his tombstone would one day read, “Finally, a plot.” Thankfully his epitaph is so much more than that.

Alvin Sargent on Writing

I was fortunate to interview Alvin Sargent several times for Creative Screenwriting and Script magazine. I learned some valuable writing advice that I still carry with me, and for aspiring writers everywhere, I hope his advice and reflections will inspire you as well.

When I first got in contact with Sargent, I always wanted to know how he wrote the powerful emotional scenes he was best known for. He recommended writing them out like you’re writing a letter to someone, then put it into a screenplay format. And indeed, with some of the strongest emotional scenes in Ordinary People and Spider-Man, you can imagine the characters writing their feelings out in letters, like the painful monolog Donald Sutherland gives before Mary Tyler Moore leaves the marriage. (“Because I don’t know if I love you anymore, and I don’t know what I’m going to do about that.”)

Another important lesson that I’ve learned is the best screenwriters make it look so easy, but make no mistake, great writing is tough for them too. As Sargent once told me, “When I think about writing, I do not enjoy writing. I enjoy writing when I’m at it. It’s not unlike exercising. I don’t like it until I am exercising, then I am pleased. When it’s over, I’m a writer and entitled to a stiff drink.”

Sargent broke through as a writer in the sixties, and he first broke through working in television. (A lot of screenwriters who flourished in the seventies got their first big break in TV because it was a new medium that needed writers.) Like a lot of crucial first breaks, he got very lucky.

“Something came my way,’ Sargent recalled. “One Christmas holiday made the difference. The writer of a TV show was skiing. They needed a rewrite on a medical show. My agent Sam Adams recommended me and gave me a big build up. I had never written for a TV show. I got the job and had to hurry. Some people believed in me and needed me. I needed work. I really owe my career to Sam, who was my first agent. He gave me confidence and got me more work. He fought for me until I could believe in myself.”

While many will lament that the kinds of wonderful, smaller, quirkier movies that Sargent specialized in have been bulldozed in favor for big blockbusters, Sargent wasn’t pessimistic about the future of storytelling. “The culture changes,” he said. “New bold storytellers will always arrive. Take Charlie Kaufman or Mike White, who give young writers a freedom to dare.”

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You may have had the phrase “write while no one is looking,” and Sargent highly recommended this as well. Write, go for it, make a great mess, then clean it up later.

“Be the fool for a few pages,” he said. “Write in the dark. Free associate with your clothes off. Be free, no one is watching. It’s you. Don’t be embarrassed. After half an hour, stop and put the light on, and read this goop you just wrote. The meaningless phrases, the unattached words, all without thinking what’s there, but there will be something there, gold nuggets in the shaken sandy soil. Something will show up. I do that to get started. Unclear always leads to something that clarity misses because it’s stable, ordered, assembled. I am one of the unassembled believers, like how snowflakes arrive unassembled before they can become snowmen.”

As Sargent continues, “It’s so much about innuendo. Go fight for innuendo. Like capturing a net full of fog or the sunset. A sweet innuendo can bring everything to light.”

Looking back on his career, Sargent told me, “It’s the strangest thing I can imagine. My psychiatrist once looked at me and said, ‘I can’t understand how you got this far.’ He meant it and I agreed.”

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