It's a myth that a serious writer can't write for television.
Unless you're doing serials.
Fay Kanin, who wrote the screenplay for the searing three-hour special, "Friendly Fire," was in town for the Student Film Awards extravaganza. This consisted of a dinner and screening last night, sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which also does the Academy Awards), and Fay Kanin is president of the Academy.
There were three winners in this seventh year of the awards, cosponsored by the Bell System and intended to encourage young filmmakers.
"You might even say that a TV film gives you more freedom than a regular film," remarked Kanin, whose husband, Michael, is the older brother of Garson Kanin. All three are playwrights and screenwriters. "You can do wonderful work, work of importance, and on tough subjects. There was a time when TV was taking on much tougher stuff than Hollywood."
It's true that Fay Kanin is not your everyday writer. She's collaborated with her husband on over a dozen movies and Broadway plays, from "Teacher's Pet," with Doris Day, to the beautiful stage production of "Rashomon," the Japanese study of truth in its four versions of how a crime occurred.
"I'm at a time in life when I've earned a place for myself where I won't work on something unless I can stay with it all the way through, with some artistic control."
As Fay Mitchell, she was doing screenplays and scripts long before television was every around. Joining forces with Michael Kanin soon after they married in 1940, she wrote some films during the war ("Sunday Punch") and after ("My Pal Gus," "Rhapsody," "The Opposite Sex," "The Right Approach"). There were also the Broadway productions of "His and Hers" and "The Gay Life," a 1931 musical.
They have a son, Josh, making his living as a free-lance editor in Los Angeles.
Both Kanins have been active in the real world of the movie industry, the professional associations such as the Academy. They appreciate professionalism.
"Working with Carol Burnett [in "Friendly Fire"] and Lee Remick [in "Hustling," another TV drama Kanin wrote] was a pleasure. They came ready to work, knew their lines, didn't fool around or show any temperament."
For "Friendly Fire," her favorite work at the moment ("you always like the latest one"), she labored two years, from the first conversations with author C.D.B. Bryan to the awards ceremony. It was agony.
"He gave me all his tapes, a year's worth of tapes" -- covering his talks with the Iowa parents of a youth killed in Vietnam by our own artillery fire, and the story of how Gene and Peg Mullen were gradually turned into anti-Vietnam activists by all the lies and deceit and official brushoffs they were given when they tried to find out how their son died.
What Kanin had to do was turn an (WORD ILLEGIBLE) personal narrative, written for The New Yorker and later built into a book, from prose to drama.
"Of course, it's much harder than fiction," she said. "I'd done lots of fiction screenplays. But here, you couldn't change anything. You had to go with reality."
(Bryan himself, reached at home in Connecticut, said he was astonished at what Kanin had been able to do with his book. "There were things that she could do with a single small scene," he said, "that would have taken hundreds of words to write. For instance, one time the parents come into the son's bedroom when he's home on leave, and he's lying there with his eyes closed. They tiptoe out, and Michael opens his eyes. There's just no better, more succinct way to show the tension in the family at the time.")
Kanin said there were places where she had to add dialogue, but by then she had heard so many hours of tape on the Mullens that the lines came naturally. She also had to make Bryan himself into a character, and this was a major difference from the book, where the author's presence and feelings are sensed indirectly.
"Bryan wasn't used to being interviewed himself," she chuckled. "He didn't exactly like being the tape. But he came through and gave me what I needed. We simplified somewhat, carved away the less important things and got to the central thrust of the book. Still, we would have used six hours instead of three."
She goes to extraordinary lengths to get close to her subjects. For "Rashomon," which she and her husband took from a film script -- consisting of just a few pages because so much was told filmically -- she had to go back to the original story. She read all she could find of the author's work. Then she sat down and wrote a play so perfectly in the spirit of the original that numerous Japanese visitors complimented her.
She and her husband still get royalties from all over the world on that one, by the way, some 20 years later.
The two writers worked together for about 15 years after they were married. Both were already established in their field, but they found it was good both for their marriage and their craft to collaborate.
"His background was in art, and mine was in hearing how people sound, and we could each bring something special to our work. Of course, there are the compromises: You're each hearing it differently, so you have to meet somewhere in the middle. We finally decided it was time for us to put things down as we heard them ourselves. After all, you compromise so much anyway in marriage and in getting along in the world."
They have been married 39 years.
She has her own production company now, and two or three projects are already underway, written by others. She's still searching for her next script. It has to be something good -- maybe not another "Friendly Fire," there aren't too many of those going around -- but something with scope and breadth and meaning. Something big enough, in a word, for her to sink another couple years of her life into.