Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck's Best Defense Against Critics Is Their Screenwriting Track Record
When screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz first moved in together in 1967 they got separate phones so her parents wouldn’t know what was going on. Their relationship and technology have both made progress. Two years of cohabitation and 15 years of marriage later, Huyck and Katz now have separate screens on their word processor. But only one keyboard. “Gloria comes from a generation of women who never learned to type because they were afraid they’d be stuck being secretaries,” explains Willard, 39. “So I feed the information in, we each see it immediately and start to play with it.”
Their playing has clearly paid off. As collaborators the pair have shared credit on 12 screenplays, six of which have been filmed, including American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and their most recent release, Best Defense. In Hollywood batting .500 is a Hall of Fame average. “We have lots of friends who make perfectly comfortable livings writing scripts that never see the light of day,” says Gloria, 40.
In the Hollywood of old, writers sweated in cubicles on studio lots and rarely received screen credit. But Huyck (as in “take a…”) and Katz belong to the generation of writers whose ambition is to promote their own artistic vision from start to finish, although their latest release is surely the feeblest of arguments for total control. While its box office opening was respectable—$15 million in 10 days—the reviews were not. Generally panned (PEOPLE called it “constantly offensive”), Best Defense stars Dudley Moore as an engineer (he blows the whistle on his company’s defective tank-guidance system) and Eddie Murphy as a soldier (he rides a malfunctioning tank into battle). The film was produced by Gloria and directed by Willard, who teamed the same way on French Postcards, a 1979 release based on the couple’s student adventures in Europe. Predictably their best defense against critics is a good offense. Says Gloria, “It’s very easy to be a critic and very hard to make a film.” But the movie that haunts them is their 1973 horror film, Messiah of Evil. “It was a real bowwow,” Gloria admits, though Willard adds proudly that “it appeared on a marquee in a Woody Allen film, and Film Comment called it ‘one of the top 10 classic, overlooked horror films of all time.’ ”
Obviously Huyck and Katz see more of each other than the average couple. In fact, Willard notes wryly, “We spend so much time together that the only time I could have an affair would be when Gloria is showering.” He contends that one reason he stays married is that “nothing in the world could be worse than having to date again.”
The same chemistry that has made Huyck and Katz a successful screen-writing team carries over into their marriage. “I’ve never really seen them fight,” says director and close friend Howard Zieff. “Gloria is a Jewish Cinderella from Beverly Hills, and Willard is the ultimate WASP. It’s one of those lucky breaks that they met.”
They were introduced while both were in film school. An L.A. native, Willard was at USC because he’d known he wanted to make movies ever since he was a kid sneaking over the fences of studio backlots. In high school he borrowed $200 from relatives to shoot a 90-minute fantasy about a delivery boy for a hospital supply house (like his own father’s).
Katz grew up in Beverly Hills, the daughter of a wealthy L.A. truck-stop owner. She quit UCLA’s Russian-studies program to pursue movie criticism because “the people across the hall in the film school were having more fun and looked like they were working less.” Huyck came into her life at a screening of a low-budget classic, The Wild Angels. Willard’s memory of the moment is vivid: “My friend introduced me to this girl in a miniskirt. I had just come back from Europe, and I’d never seen a miniskirt before.” Gloria’s is more prosaic: “I was going out with his then-best friend. I thought he was very nice, bright and shy. When I stopped seeing the best friend, Willard began looking better and better.” Huyck, who uses movies as memory signposts in his relationship with Katz, remembers that they saw Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls on their first date and Rio Bravo on their second.
At about the same time Huyck made an important friend, George Lucas. “Another friend of mine and I had made a student film, and we didn’t have enough money to get the film out of the lab,” says Willard. “George had a part-time job, and out of the blue he gave us the $85 we needed.” That was the first of several friendly gestures by Lucas that set Huyck and Katz on the path to a luxurious Brentwood home, complete with gardeners, nanny, maid and Willard’s collection of Hindu art.
But before they collaborated with Lucas on American Graffiti there was a long dry spell for all three. Lucas was commuting to Los Angeles from Mill Valley, Calif. to work on his first Hollywood feature, THX-1138. “He’d fly down on weekends carrying a briefcase with deodorant and a change of underwear in it,” Willard recalls. Lucas was kicking around the idea for Graffiti (a “rock ‘n’ roll movie,” he called it), and he wanted Huyck and Katz to write it. Francis Ford Coppola, who’d just made The Godfather, was willing to produce, but he could pay them only $5,200, a percentage of any profits and a chance to write a TV movie-of-the-week. That sounded fine to Willard and Gloria. He had been writing Westerns, most of which weren’t being made, and reworking soft-porn scripts (euphemistically known as “Swedish medical films”) that were. She had fibbed her way into a job editing educational films by exaggerating her experience.
Universal reluctantly agreed to back Graffiti. The movie was shot in 28 days for $750,000, and everyone but Lucas thought the writing on the wall said FLOP. Lucas was proved right, and the writing team’s reputation was made. They got more than $100,000 for their next script, Lucky Lady (a Liza Minnelli vehicle that did flop); the stamp of approval on Postcards from Paramount; and a cut of the Star Wars profits for polishing that script. A six-picture deal with Coppola, however, went nowhere.
In May 1982 Steven Spielberg asked them to write Indiana Jones, and they moved into Lucas’ home at his Marin County ranch for a four-day story conference. At this point the plot consisted of two notions of Lucas’: that Indy would recover something stolen from a village and decide whether to give it back, and that the picture would start in China and work its way to India. The rest was marathon rambling. George was very single-minded about getting through meetings, says Willard, while “Steve would always stop and think about visual stuff.”
The four brainstormers were temporarily stumped trying to devise a scene that would keep the audience awake while a human-sacrifice cult was explained. Huyck and Katz proposed a tiger hunt. “There’s no way I’m going to stay in India long enough to shoot a tiger hunt,” Spielberg said. They finally settled on a dinner scene. “Steve and George both still react like children, so their idea was to make it as gross as possible,” says Gloria. Thus the banquet of beetles, monkey brains and baby snakes was cooked up. When Willard and Gloria got back to L.A. they discovered how seriously Lucas had taken the talks: A 500-page transcript of their taped conversations arrived. Gloria and Willard began writing at once, and finished the first draft in six weeks.
“Discipline is the single most important thing in writing,” says Katz. When they are preparing a script she and Huyck settle down to work at their art nouveau partners desk at 9 a.m. daily and bravely resist all distractions. “There are lots of them lurking about,” admits Willard. “The mail is a giant one. I used to wait by the mailbox.” Recently they decided it would be best to get dressed before writing. “It’s more dignified than sitting around in your pajamas if people pop in,” explains Willard. In addition to trading off domestic chores, they also trade top billing. In one movie Gloria’s name is listed first; in the next, Willard’s.
The only real interruption they’ve allowed in their work is their daughter, Rebecca, born 18 months ago. “She’s a little miracle,” her mother says. But even for miracles there’s a time and a place. Willard was printing out the last draft of Indiana Jones on the computer when Gloria went into labor. Not a man to confuse his priorities, Willard finished the printout. Then they drove to the hospital.