How to be Ernest Lehman


Ernest Lehman was one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived, the man behind such classics as Sabrina, The Sweet Smell of Success and North By Northwest, as well as the film adaptations of West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Here, in his own words, are five rules for great screen writing.

  1. I try to maintain an awareness of whether the audience understands what the character is thinking and intending. I always ask myself: are characters in character? Would they do what they’re doing?
  2. I know how to manipulate words. When it works it’s skill and craft and some unconscious ability. To me, that’s not the essence of art. Art creates an effect, but it’s less obvious in what it’s doing.
  3. Writing is solving problems. That’s what it is: how do you do it so you think it’s right?
  4. The better the heavy, the better the picture. The implacable foe. Sometime the foe is just a situation. In West Side Story it was society. You have to make it difficult for your character.
  5. Hitchcock’s way of putting it, when he didn’t like something, was, “Ernie, that’s the way they do it in the movies.” That was the worst he could ever say.

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