The Business of Writing

Simon Whaley's Resource For Writers

Trumbo

Last weekend I watched Trumbo. So this is a film review … sort of.

Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters, but in 1947, he, along with several other writers, were imprisoned for their political beliefs. (They faced court hearings where they were asked if they were members of the Communist Party.) Refusing to answer, they went to jail, where Trumbo served 11 months for contempt of Congress. When he was released, he found he and his other imprisoned writer-friends had been blacklisted by Hollywood Studios.

But, that didn’t stop Trumbo. He was a writer. All he knew was how to make a living from writing. So he approached a B-movie studio and offered to write movies for them under a pseudonym. In the early 1940s, Trumbo was earning about $80,000 a year (a lot of money in those days!), but for these B-movie Studios he was earning less than $2,000 a film.

He did it because he was a writer.

Even one of his B-movie scripts earned him (or his pseudonym) an Academy Award, which he wasn’t able to collect because he couldn’t reveal his true identity. And as the writer behind Roman Holiday, he had to watch a friend who’d agreed to front as the writer collect the Academy Award that the film had been awarded.

As time passed, the blacklist weakened and some high profile people were prepared to take risks, including a young Kirk Douglas who asked Trumbo to write a remake of the original 1950 version of Spartacus. Kirk Douglas seemed to do okay out of that movie.

In 1993, Trumbo was posthumously awarded his Academy Award for Roman Holiday.

As I watched the film, it struck me that here was a man who, not only was he determined to stand up for his own beliefs, but he was also determined to be a writer. When one door he closed he looked for other doors to push against, even if those were doors he wouldn’t even have considered in the past. He still wrote award-winning material, even though he couldn’t bask in the glory of his success.

He wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote. He turned his hand to write for different markets, when he needed the money. Admittedly, as I watched the film, I did think perhaps he took this a little too far at times (writing in the bath – yes, with a typewriter) and he saw nothing wrong in missing his daughter’s 16th birthday, because he was writing. So I’m not suggesting that you go quite that far.

Yet despite everything that was thrown at him, Dalton Trumbo always wrote. It turned him into an award-winning writer more than once.

So if you fancy watching a film that not only looks back in history at a time when blacklists really were part of everyday life for writers, but also explores the life of a writer who was so focussed on his desire to write he’d prostitute himself writing B-movies, I can thoroughly recommend Trumbo. There’s a lot about his work ethic that those of us in this writing business could learn from.

Good luck.

2 Comments

  1. This was really interesting. Talk about the American Dream – locked up for political beliefs. Writing on a typewriter in the bath must have taken some doing.

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