Writing Pictures- The Classic Screenwriters: Richard Maibaum
by Robin Bailes
There are two reasons why now is an opportune time to look at the remarkable writing career of Richard Maibaum; firstly, because James Bond celebrates his 50th cinematic anniversary this year, and from Dr. No to Licence to Kill, Maibaum wrote or co-wrote an astonishing 13 of them, missing out on only three (all the more remarkable since his career began in 1936, he was 80 when Licence to Kill came out). The second reason is related; with superhero movies the flavour of the month there are worse things for an aspiring writer to do than look at how mass entertainment can also be intelligent- this is what separates Spiderman from Fantastic Four, Batman from The Incredible Hulk, or X-Men from X-Men The Last Stand.
Believe it or not, the man who crafted Bond’s innuendos and killer one liners was an experimental playwright heavily influenced by German Expressionism and known for his socially conscious drama. But Maibaum never felt that he had sold out; another great influence on him were the novels of Alexandre Dumas and it was to these swashbuckling tales that Maibaum turned for inspiration when he began writing Bond. His biggest screenwriting influence meanwhile was Cyril Hume, with whom he was paired at MGM. Hume was a successful and serious novelist who also wrote the Tarzan films. His secret was the same one Maibaum would apply to the Bond films; you can know that the story is silly, but you can never let the audience know; treat the situation as serious and the audience will do the same. In an interview with Patrick McGilligan Maibaum described this as a ‘pretense of seriousness’ and what it amounts to is- the audience is willing to believe a single man in a tuxedo is saving the world as long as you, the writer, take it seriously, you can make jokes but if you make one about that then the illusion is shattered and the film is dead.
This obviously applies equally to superhero films, which require an even greater suspension of disbelief. If anyone in X-Men made a joke about the fact that genetic mutation seems oddly pre-disposed to really convenient (and really cool) mutations, then the whole film suffers. These films exist within their own world, treat that world as real and the audience will follow. And it’s not just a joke that can blow it; Maibaum was one of the many, many writers who worked on Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondant and the director gave him some more advice that would be useful for Bond; ‘I’m not interested in logic. I’m interested in effect. If the audience thinks about logic it’s on their way home after the show…’. If the film is good, if it’s carrying the audience with it, not everything has to make sense. Nobody who watched The Phantom Menace was any the happier for having the Force explained to them; by trying to make it seem scientifically plausible, George Lucas broke the suspension of disbelief and made it seem ludicrous. Fatal. That said, your film has to be absolutely compelling to begin with, or the audience may start to think for themselves.
Maibaum’s may seem like an odd career, taking in The Great Gatsby, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and everything in between (there can’t be many men who’ve written for both Wallace Beery and Timothy Dalton), but he used all his years of experience to make his Bond movies more than straight action films. He tried to make sure that Bond spoke with an elegance appropriate to the character. He detailed changes of scene in far more detail than most writers meaning that something like Octopussy had over a thousand scenes. He tailored his work to his star, a technique he had learnt during his MGM apprenticeship. He structured the films so well that his template is still being followed today. More than anything else, he managed to make the ridiculous believable and compelling, and for that reason he should be required reading for any aspiring blockbuster writer.
Robin Bailes is a freelance writer with various credits on stage, page, screen and radio. He has 4 published stage shows, has written for 6 BBC radio shows, was a winner in the BBC’s Last Laugh sitcom writing competition and has a feature film in development with Andris Films. He is writer and presenter of the web-series ‘Dark Corners (of this sick world)’ and has written short stories for various publications both print and online. Robin is a passionate devotee of silent cinema has written a book on the subject called ‘Just As Good But Quieter’, for which he is currently seeking a publisher. Robin is currently available for paid writing work.