Henry Blanke (1901–81) was the producer of The Fountainhead movie. He began his film career in Germany, working for Ernst Lubitsch, and produced numerous films for Warner Bros., including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
December 6, 1945
This is in the nature of a postscript to the script of “The Fountainhead.” I think I can do better by putting it on paper than by attempting it in conversation.
I can say in all sincerity that while I was working with you on the script, you did not say one thing nor make one suggestion that were out of the style and spirit of “The Fountainhead.” So I know that you understand the book and I feel complete confidence in your judgment—so long as it remains your own judgment. But now that I have been in Hollywood for two years, I know what happens when a picture is being prepared for production. The pressure put upon the producer is truly inhuman—an awful landslide of contradictory opinions from everywhere and everybody. It is not a reproach to you nor lack of faith in you when I say that I know you will be subjected to that pressure and you will have a hard time trying to keep your own way clear. This letter is my attempt to stand by you in spirit in a battle which is mine, too, but which I will not be present to share. This letter is in the nature of ammunition that I’d like to give you. I’d like you to refer to it when you find yourself in doubt and under fire.
As a picture, “The Fountainhead” must be treated on its own particular terms and in its own particular style. If treated so—it will be a tremendous success. If not—it will be a terrible flop.
“The Fountainhead” is a thing that belongs in a class of its own. I don’t say this boastfully, I don’t mean that it’s better or worse than the works of other authors. I mean only that it’s different—different from beginning to end, in theme, conception, style, form and method. Therefore, the rules or approach used for the production of other stories will not work with it. Only its own style and method will.
“The Fountainhead” is constructed like a very delicate and complex mechanism: a cruder engine can withstand an awful lot of pounding; but one careless snap of an inept finger at this one will make it collapse into junk.
Specifically, “The Fountainhead” represents a form that has always been extremely successful in novels, on the stage and on the screen, but which has become very rare because it’s the most difficult of all forms: Romantic Realism. The method of romantic realism is to make life more beautiful and interesting than it actually is, yet give it all the reality, and even a more convincing reality than that of our everyday existence. Life, not as it is, but as it could be and should be. That is what the public likes, wants and is starved for.
But this cannot be achieved without a very clear understanding of what it is, how it’s done—and a very conscious policy in doing it. The general school of writing and movies nowadays aims at cheap journalistic realism—trying to represent life “just like the folks next door.” Any touch of that approach would destroy “The Fountainhead”.
The characters of “The Fountainhead” are not average people. They are unusual people who do unusual things. To make them convincing one must keep them strictly consistent with their own peculiar natures. Then the audience will accept them. If they are weakened and diluted, they will become unreal, false—and silly. For example, people accept and admire Roark because he is presented consistently as a hard, ruthless idealist with a single passion for his work. People can understand his actions, because he is shown as that kind of a man. But let someone come along with an attempt to make Roark more “human”, let him add some such scene as Roark kidding about architecture—and the whole of Roark’s character will be blasted out of existence. Nobody will believe anything he does. Nobody will understand his other actions. He will have become unreal and ridiculous.
The whole of “The Fountainhead” is stylized to a heroic scale. It must be kept on that scale. One single “humanizing” touch will cost us the whole picture. Here is the best illustration of what I mean: if we had a homey little painting, say a still from Disney’s “Snow-White”, and if we painted in a handkerchief tied around Snow-White’s cheek, because she had a toothache—it would not destroy the picture, but only give it a cute touch of humor. Now if we painted such a handkerchief around the cheek of a Raphael Madonna—would there be anything left of the canvass? Could we wonder why people snickered and refused to accept the painting as sacred, important or uplifting?
The surest way to kill “The Fountainhead” would be any attempt at any so-called “human” touch—by people who mean “vulgar and commonplace” when they say “human”. Heroes don’t have toothaches, don’t act like the folks next door and don’t use dialogue such as: “Gee, it’s swell.” If we want the audience to respond to a hero, we must give them a hero to respond to. And keep him a hero.
I stress this because I know that you will be subjected to a deluge of advice, suggestions, interference and criticism, all of it to the effect that “The characters aren’t human—their dialogue is too literary—the whole thing is too intellectual—it won’t play well—it’s not a regular movie—etc.” I know it, because I have gone through all of that before. That was precisely the kind of opposition I found when I submitted my book to publishers. Twelve publishers rejected it. They rejected it because they said it was too intellectual to be popular. I’ve heard everything you’re going to hear now: too intellectual—too literary—not human—people don’t talk that way—etc. Specifically, the publishing house of Little, Brown—which is considered the expert house of book sales-
manship—rejected “The Fountainhead” telling me that it was “almost a work of genius”, but their sales experts had decided unanimously that such a book could not and would not sell.
Look at the results.
“The Fountainhead” is now considered a phenomenon in publishing history. No other book has ever sold in quite this manner—by a steady, growing, voluntary word-of-mouth campaign. It has been made precisely by popular appeal. The success of other books was always due in large measure to big-scale publicity, organized pushing, book-club-wholesaling. My book is the only one that rose, unhelped, through sheer, genuine popular response.
What is the practical moral in this? The following: “The Fountainhead” represents something totally new; what it represents is wanted and liked by the public; but since it is so new, it frightens and bewilders all the so-called experts. They don’t know what to make of it nor what it’s all about. This is natural—since they became experts by dealing in books of quite a different kind, by acting on precedents and according to standards of quite a different kind. Whatever they learned, it was correct in regard to other books. It was totally wrong in regard to “The Fountainhead”.
Had I followed their advice, had I tried to compromise, to soften my book or conventionalize it a little—it wouldn’t have sold two copies and it wouldn’t have been worth two cents.
It is the unity of the book—the unity of theme, style, conception and execution—the unity and the complete, ruthless consistency that made the book successful. People are starved for something strong and definite. They’re so sick of half-hearted evasions, generalities, compromises, standard patterns and feeble attempts to please everybody—which is all they get nowadays.
You do not have to wonder whether the public will like something as radically new as “The Fountainhead”. The history of the book is the answer in practical demonstration.
Book publishing is not different from pictures, in essential procedure. Both professions want to capture popular appeal—and both professions are full of timid, stale-minded people who don’t know how to gauge popular appeal, except by referring to some trite precedent. My book was considered too literary by men who deal in literature. Now it will be considered too literary for the movies. It wasn’t so in the first instance—and it isn’t so in the second.
The truth of the matter is that in the present state of the entire literary and entertainment world, there is a wide gap between two camps which should be one, but aren’t: the experts and the public. The experts—most of the writers, editors, publishers, producers, directors and critics—go by such worn, dated, and deplorable standards that they’ve lost all touch with the public. That is why we see constant occasions when books and
movies are praised to the sky, then flop miserably—and books and movies which are panned or ignored, yet become sensationally successful and popular.
You have to admit to yourself the fact that you are faced with a choice in regard to “The Fountainhead”: either you attempt to please the usual taste of Hollywood experts—or you please the public. You can’t do both at once. The first course means certain failure. The second—a success that will stun you, as the success of the novel has stunned Bobbs-Merrill. In the same way and for the same reasons.
You have to make this choice, fully and consciously. There can be no compromise on “The Fountainhead”. There is no possible way in which it could preserve its power and appeal—yet also please those who hate it precisely for its kind of power and appeal. There is no possible way to make it successful—while destroying the very elements responsible for its success.
Do not attempt to devise a different plot or a different climax. It can’t be done. It took me seven years to work out this one—and I know. Don’t waste your time and money. This story—to be what it is—has to be told in these particular events. If you change them—you won’t get “something like ‘The Fountainhead’.” You’ll get nothing like “The Fountainhead”. You know that people receive a sense of exaltation from this book. And you know that from the sublime to the ridiculous is just one step.
Be careful of those who advise you to take that step. A story about spiritual and artistic integrity is a difficult, dangerous, delicate subject. Think of the endless pile of tripe that’s been attempted on this theme—it’s the favorite attempt of all the arty phonies; and no other subject ever comes out in quite such a dreadful, dripping, maudlin, embarrassing way. That theme is like a tight wire. I am one of the very few writers who have ever walked it successfully. I know the steps which were necessary to walk it—and for this particular wire, there are no others. If you try some substitute steps—well, you know what can happen on tight wires. This one hangs pretty high.
Do not attempt to “humanize” the characters—to make them more conventional or nearer to the average. Conventional people would not do the things nor go through the events of this story. If you make the people average—you’ll make the events preposterous. None of it then could or would be believed.
Do not attempt to “humanize” the dialogue. When people suggest that to you they do not really mean “human”—they mean the phony, cheap, grotesque Hollywood version of what is supposed to be “human”—the would-be truck-driver manner of self-consciously illiterate talking (which no real truck-driver ever uses)—the shoulder-slapping he-manishness—the pseudo-slang—the artificially inarticulate—the coyly bad grammar. The public has never accepted that as human. People everywhere refer to that sort of thing as “Aw, that’s just Hollywood”. And they mean the worst of Hollywood.
Do not allow one touch of that in the picture. You’ll lose your audience’s respect.
It is not “inhuman” to talk with precision and to express a clear thought clearly. A serious theme cannot be presented in sloppy, illiterate dialogue. Characters presented as intelligent must talk intelligently. Characters presented as unusual must not talk in bromides. Heroes do not say “Gee wiz”—nor any equivalent of it.
Let me warn you that my kind of dialogue requires expert acting and superlative direction. But can you hope to make anything of “The Fountainhead” at all—unless you have expert acting and superlative direction? No, the usual Hollywood ham or glamor-girl could not possibly deliver my lines. But what is the alternative? To rewrite the dialogue to the level where the ham is at home—scale the whole thing down to him—and then expect the result to be “The Fountainhead”?
Do not attempt to make the story “less intellectual”. If you remove the intellectual element—there is nothing left. The events as such—without the deeper significance and motivations—simply do not make sense and contain no drama at all. Only the most inept kind of Hollywoodians believe that a serious theme is bad entertainment. It is the best of all entertainment. People like to feel uplifted when they leave a theater.
Do not attempt to make this story more “movie”. It is a movie—in the real and best sense of the word. Jazzing it up or “Hollywoodizing” it will not improve it, but simply wreck it. There’s not enough of the conventional in the story to base a conventional movie on. The story is so completely unconventional that it will play holy hell with any attempt to straight-jacket it down to the standard and the usual. The story itself will defeat the attempt—and the result will be laughed at.
You have a Stoddard Temple on your hands. Unless everyone whom you select to work with you and whom you allow a voice in the production shares the spirit of Roark—what you’ll get will be a Home for Subnormal Children.
There is a simple, specific rule to follow in any issue that arises in the production of “The Fountainhead”. Whenever anything is suggested, just ask yourself: is this the way it’s usually done in pictures? If it is, you can be certain that it’s the wrong thing for “The Fountainhead”. Whenever anything is criticized because it hasn’t been done that way before, you can be certain that it’s the right thing.
Above all else, I want to warn you against the most pernicious kind of menace—the people who will give you advice such as: “‘The Fountainhead’ has its own admirers—but there are also those who don’t like it. Now if we just compromise with them a little, give them some touches they like—we’ll please everybody. We don’t have to worry about the book’s admirers—we’ve got them anyway. Now let’s appease the dissenters and we’ll get everybody.”
May God save you from this—if ever the pressure becomes too hard and you feel tempted to give in! This is the worst of all possible courses to take—the most surely fatal. It never works that way. It works exactly the other way around. You don’t please everybody—you lose everybody. It’s what’s known as “sitting between two chairs”.
Those who don’t like “The Fountainhead” will never like it—no matter what you do. But those who like it will get so sick at any touch of the trite, the “human” and the “Hollywood”—that you’ll make enemies of them. You’ll find yourself without any audience at all.
Do not underestimate the admirers of “The Fountainhead”. They’re not just readers who liked a book. It’s much more than that. It is becoming something like a cult. There are now 260,000 copies of the book in print. By publishers’ estimates, each copy sold represents five readers who’ve read the book. This means that “The Fountainhead” has, at present, a personal following of 1,300,000 people. It will be much, much larger by the time the picture is made and released.
And this is the choice you have to make: if you produce a picture of “The Fountainhead” which is really “The Fountainhead”—these readers will constitute an audience you can count on in advance, an audience ready for you and violently enthusiastic; they will become 1,300,000 voluntary press agents for the picture, just as they did for the book. If you produce a Hollywood compromise—these same people will become 1,300,000 enemies who will stay away from the picture and keep others away; the same spontaneous combustion that burst out in favor of the book, will turn into indignant fury against the picture. And whom would you please in this last case? To what audience would you appeal? Those who did not like the book will not like the movie, no matter what you do.
Do not give in to “Hollywood”. Do not give in to the director. Do not give in to the stars. The greatest box-office name will not save this picture if, in order to get that name, you had to compromise and destroy the story. Do not accept anyone for any job on this picture, if his ideas are not your own and a compromise is required to find “a middle road”.
You must believe the thesis of “The Fountainhead” in regard to its production. That thesis is not just fiction and it does not apply just to architects: man must act on his own judgment. You must produce “The Fountainhead” on your own independent, original, uninfluenced judgment. There is no other way to do anything well in any sphere of life—and certainly not in this case. If you compromise and then hope to make a success of “The Fountainhead” by acting in a way exactly opposed to the way it teaches—it is “The Fountainhead” itself that will defeat you. And that would be ironic and tragic.
You had the integrity and the courage to be first to discover “The Fountainhead” in Hollywood. Do not let others rob you now of that courage and of your own vision. Make the picture as you
think it should be made. Preserve your own judgment—as strictly and honestly as you can.
I know this is not easy to do when hundreds of people start pulling at you from all directions. One is apt to lose sight of where one’s own judgment ends and somebody else’s influence begins. You have to fight as hard a battle as Roark did. And as I did. He won. I won. You will.
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