For his final assignment at Paramount Pictures, story analyst John Boswell was asked to synopsize and evaluate an action-thriller called "Axel's Castle," about a cache of stolen diamonds hidden in a labyrinthine stone mansion. Boswell strongly recommended that Paramount purchase the script (the studio declined), writing: "Sanford (writer Robin Sanford) is a nearly impeccable writer whose wildly bizarre plots are risky but I think worth taking." He signed off his analysis directly and efficiently: "Roger and out."
The so-called "coverage" (industry jargon for such analysis) was tossed in with the dozens of other scripts dissected at the studio that week, but for Boswell it represented much more. For the last 25 years, Boswell--who always drove a motor scooter to work--plied his craft as one of the industry's 173 story analysts.
He read an average of five scripts a week--Paramount's six other analysts average about seven each--for 50 weeks a year, and "Axel's Castle" was about the 6,250th script he had commented on for the studio. It was his last piece. In March he retired.
In a business where a career spanning 36 months at one studio is considered a model of stability, Boswell's longevity is the movie-industry equivalent of the long-running musical "The Fantasticks." An acerbic cross between John Gielgud and Ray Walston ("My Favorite Martian"), Boswell, 66, survived the inevitable shakeups and turnovers in the production ranks while remaining steadfastly devoted to his craft.
Story analysts are an anonymous and yet critical part of the studio bureaucracy. Their coverage is passed on to production executives who then determine which properties the studio will buy. When their judgment is trusted--as Boswell's clearly was--they can give a writer momentum on the green-light track. They are carefully chosen and, as a group, carry some of the the most intellectual credentials in the business.
Unlike most story analysts, who often use the job as a springboard to higher stations, Boswell chose to stay the course. "As a group, story editors are a lot like teachers," he said in an interview on the lot. "There are some movers and shakers among them, but as a group they lack the jugular. I lacked the jugular."
Except, of course, when he encountered a bad script. Boswell recommended scripts from some of the biggest industry names while they were still unknowns--Robert Towne and Francis Coppola among them. Boswell also read scripts from dozens of talentless hacks, whose prose made him cringe. At his retirement party some weeks ago, a sampling of some of his critical gems were read:
--"Having a man-eating beast remain invisible until the end is a great way to cut the budget, but a poor one to create suspense."
--"An excruciatingly inept and unfunny screenplay neatly summed up by a character on p. 27: 'This is amateur night in Dixie.' To say more would make me an accessory to a crime."
Boswell, who didn't enter the movie business until he was 35, got a master's degree in English from Columbia University and taught English in Europe before coming to California in the mid-1950s. His first job was as an associate reader at MGM. In those days, he recalled, story analysts were asked to do one page of synopsis per 10 pages of novel or screenplay. (Nowadays the coverage is much shorter, often just a page or two of synopsis followed by a briefer evaluation.)
He believes that story analysts as a whole are misunderstood. "They don't get the respect they deserve," he said. "Naturally, we often think they (studio production executives) are wrong in the choices they make." (Boswell, for example, recommended that Paramount buy Peter Benchley's novel "Jaws," but higher-ups passed on it, thinking the mechanical shark would be too expensive to build. Universal wound up with the blockbuster.)
Never afraid to state his opinion and stick with it, Boswell has risked jeopardizing relationships with studio brass. In the early '60s he was one of the few at Paramount strongly opposed to the making of a script called "Pepe," the story of a Cuban father who sets his two sons off on a raft in the hope that they will make it to America. The picture was supposed to be a comedy, of all things, but Boswell just didn't see it and said so in his coverage. "Joyce Selznick was then in charge of the story department and she called and she was upset. She said, 'What is this--everyone else seems to like this except you.' Well, they made the film, and it bombed at the box office. That was one of the few times my judgment was questioned."
His eyes were among the first to read Truman Capote's screenplay adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." Paramount had paid the celebrated writer an enormous fee and the results were less than warmly received. "I read it and thought it was awful. He was not a well man at the time and someone at the studio suggested he shouldn't be paid." (Capote was paid off and Coppola did a rewrite in just one month. Still, the picture, the third attempt at bringing the Fitzgerald classic to the big screen, bombed.)
Throughout the years, Boswell trained himself to adapt to changing movie trends. He was able to separate the good trash from the trash (he heartily endorsed the screenplay for Sydney Sheldon's "Bloodline," for example, as good trash, but says the movie failed because of miserable casting) and his own intellectual biases didn't alter his judgment. It was Boswell who raved to Paramount about James Cameron's script for "The Terminator," which Orion ended up producing. "I thought it was the most exciting action script I had ever read. Everything in that script left you with your tongue hanging out."
Of course the exceptional read was always a rare surprise. After having read thousands of bad scripts, he has his own list of cliches and instant word turnoffs that regularly showed up in many a script. Some examples:
-- You got it: "This catch phrase drove me nuts. I never heard this on the streets but it showed up in every script."
-- He visibly paled: "This is a visual medium, so if the character pales, the audience will see it and yet you constantly see this; another example is 'he audibly sighed.' "
-- The Ice Cream Scene: "Whenever lovers are to be made cute, they are invariably shown eating ice cream cones. The other ploy is to put them in a children's zoo. This is in every script!"
Now that he has finally retired, he plans on putting together a collection of his remembrances and a more complete list of script don'ts in a book tentatively titled "The Unlowly Reader."
It should bring to light the valuable contribution story analysts can make in the collaborative process of making movies. Within the status ranks at the studio, the analyst still has far to go, and Boswell knows that. Just a couple of weeks before his retirement, he got a call from an administrative type on the lot informing him that after 25 years of service he had finally been given his own parking space on the lot.
In his own inimitable style, Boswell told them they could keep it.