Exclusive Interview: Mad As Hell Author Dave Itzkoff
Released in 1976, the movie Network took a grim and darkly comic look at the state of television and TV news. In the almost forty years since it came out, though, the movie has become less of a satire of what could be and more of sad case of art imitating life. It’s a transition explored by New York Times writer — and my pal and former editor at Spin and Maxim — Dave Itzkoff in his new book, Mad As Hell: The Making Of ‘Network’ And The Fateful Vision Of The Angriest Man In Movies (hardcover, paperback, Kindle)
So Mad As Hell is obviously about the making of the movie Network. But it’s more than that, right?
Yes, I hope so. It is about the creation of the movie, but it’s also about how that movie was essentially the result of a years-long journey by its author, Paddy Chayefsky, and how he came to reach the views he espouses in the film; why he fought like crazy to make sure the film came out exactly the way he wrote it and the cost he paid for it; and why it matters that most, if not all, of his predictions about the media came true.
When did you first realize that Network was more than just an entertaining movie?
I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when I thought of it as “just an entertaining movie.” It’s so loud and demonstrative, and its characters are so often declaring exactly what they think. You realize pretty quickly that this is a movie with many lessons it wants to teach. And in my adult lifetime, it’s always had that extra resonance as a commentary on the media. Anyone in this industry older than a certain age knows exactly who Howard Beale is. I hope.
You work at The New York Times. Why write this as a book, why not just write an article about it?
I actually did write an article about it in 2011, drawing from portions of Paddy Chayefsky’s archives that I was given access to by the New York Public Library. The Library owns his papers, and anyone can request access to them. But even in 2,000 words there is only so much you can say about him, and his career, and how the film was created. The time I spent researching that article suggested that there was quite a bit more to be uncovered in his papers, and in casting a wider net out to the people he collaborated with, and I think the additional time I spent researching the book bore that out.
Chayefsky passed away in 1981. Since this meant you couldn’t ask him about this stuff, did that make it harder to write this book, or did it make it easier because Chayefsky couldn’t pull a Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall and be all like, “You know nothing of my work”?
It cuts both ways. Certainly Chayefsky was omnipresent in his papers. This may sound obvious, but in a pre-Internet, pre-computer era, he meticulously wrote down and saved just about everything that popped into his head. So in that sense, I had access to his voice and his feelings in a way that I would not have if he were alive.
But given the fastidious and fussy reputation he cultivated in his time on this planet, I can’t imagine he’d be thrilled that I was poring over his life and work this way. He’d probably wonder why the heck I bothered.
Was there any thought to just writing a book about Chayefsky, as opposed to one about Network?
That was something we discussed when we were first pitching the book. There is already an excellent biography of Chayefsky — also called Mad As Hell, published by Shaun Considine in 1994, before Chayefsky’s papers were made public — which more fully covers parts of his career I didn’t focus on. But in telling the story of Network, you necessarily have to tell the story of Chayefsky.
The other advantage of this approach is that I was able to talk about the modern-day legacy of Network, and talk to the contemporary broadcasters and filmmakers who live in the world it anticipated.
The director of Network, Sidney Lumet, passed away in 2011. Had you started working on the book by then?
Sadly, he died just before I started work on the original Times article. But he is still very much represented in the book through the remembrances of such colleagues as his longtime production designer Philip Rosenberg, and editor Alan Heim, as well as through his own writing and correspondence with Chayefsky.
You spoke to a lot of the people who worked on the film, both in front and behind the camera. Was there anyone who surprised you, who had a lot more insight or interesting stories than you thought they would?
Across the board, every person had something, many things, that were surprising and helpful. Chayefsky’s producing partner, Howard Gottfried, worked side-by-side with him on Network — as well as on The Hospital and Altered States — and knew his thinking as intimately as anyone. I was also very grateful to have spoken with the his son, Dan Chayefsky, who knew him in a much different way that his professional colleagues. The film’s script supervisor, Kay Chapin, kept a diary of her time on Network, which she generously shared with me. Peter Finch’s daughter told me about the Academy Awards acceptance speech he used to recite to himself in the bathroom mirror every morning, in case he got nominated. The list goes on and on.
How much of your time on this book was spent doing research versus actually writing it?
I started my book work in the fall of 2011, and spent the rest of that year focusing on the Chayefsky papers and other resources at the New York Public Library. My wife was in Japan, so I had a lot of time on my hands. Then, in 2012, I started reaching out into the wider world, making calls, tracking down more documents and, that spring, began the writing. At a certain point the writing and the research just become fused together. Someone tells you a story, you look for a document that corroborates it, you get turned onto another story or a bit of information you didn’t know about, look for a person to confirm it, and so on.
While Network is a classic, it certainly doesn’t have a following the way some other movies do. Was it difficult convincing publishers that anyone would want to read this book?
I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was ever that challenging as a proposition, because of the esteem that Network still holds in the media, and because I had the Times article as a very rough road map. Or at least as proof that there was an audience for the tale. If anything, Network hasn’t had its bones picked clean the way that such movies as The Godfather have, where we’ve seen the making-of documentaries and read other books and articles about them, and know many of the behind-the-scenes tales already. The joy of a project like this is that you get to feel like a custodian of a movie’s legacy. If you don’t make the case for it, who will?
Mad As Hell is your third book. Previously, you wrote two memoirs: Cocaine’s Son, about your relationship with your dad; and Lads, about your time working at Maxim. Because of the change in subject matter, did you find yourself altering your writing style at all, or do it consciously?
I wouldn’t say I went about it consciously, but I’m sure I ended up approaching each book differently. Lads, in particular, was my first book, and I was trying to do something much more stylized. I was trying to say just about every thing I could think of, in case I never got the chance to write another one. Mad As Hell was the beneficiary of all the years I have spent writing for The Times and elsewhere, and hopefully my writing has calmed down and gotten smoother in the time since. But I think if you look at all three books, you will see they are populated by similar characters with similar impulses.
In either researching this book or trying to sell it to publishers, did anyone say, or even hint, that they thought you wouldn’t be up to the task because of your previous books or because you had worked for Maxim?
No. I left Maxim in 2002. I think the world has turned a few time since then.
By the way, did you ever see the Mad Magazine parody of Network? Because that was my first exposure to the movie.
Of course! “Nutwork.” Mort Drucker’s artwork has held up extraordinary well over the years. The jokes, less so.
How do you think Network would do if it came out today? Or is this not a movie anyone could make today?
Part of the argument I make in Mad As Hell is that a movie like Network simply would not get made today, certainly not in the way that Network was. Could you imagine a major motion-picture studio, two of those studios, spending millions of dollars on a film that not only indicts the television networks — now owned by the same conglomerates as the studios — but also the whole way of life that our media puts forward? And who today has the single-minded drive and the vitriol of a Chayefsky to get such a movie made now? Who would find the idea of a TV broadcaster who says insane things, and becomes more popular the more insane he becomes, all that shocking or funny anymore?
If Chayefsky were around now, and had not already thrown himself out a window, he’d probably be a show-runner for HBO.
So how often, while writing this book, did you stand up, throw open your window, and start to yell the “I’m mad as hell…” line, only to have your wife interrupt you with, “Yeah, we know. Now shut up, I’m watching Jeopardy”?
It’s funny, people expect that when you write a book about a movie, you end up watching that movie over and over again until the book is done. But I was so immersed in Network while I was writing that I didn’t have go back to the film excessively, unless I was looking to see exactly how a line was delivered or how a scene was edited, etc. In the course of this project, I would say I watched The Social Network way more often than I watched Network.