Who Was Leigh Brackett? A Screenwriter’s Life

Not everyone would think of Leigh Brackett as a household name. She was an American author and screenwriter, particularly of science fiction from the 1940’s through the 1970’s. Brackett became a screenwriter early and then returned to film later in life. Known for her work on such films as The Big Sleep (1945), Rio Bravo (1959), and later The Long Goodbye (1973) and Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). She worked with many industry luminaries including Ray Bradbury, Howard Hawks, Robert Altman, William Faulkner and George Lucas.

Brackett-Big-Sleep

Brackett broke into writing science fiction with the science fiction story Martian Quest, which was published in her mid-twenties in 1940. Some of her stories had social themes, such as The Citadel of Lost Ships (1943), which explores the effects on the native cultures of alien worlds when Earth’s trade empire expands.

No Good From a Corpse, her first published novel in 1944, led to her first big screenwriting opportunity with Howard Hawks writing The Big Sleep and marks the influence of the 1940’s detective characterizations and film noir on her writing. The film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and written by Brackett, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman, is considered one of the best noir films ever made in the genre.

In her interview with Steve Swires in 1974 for Films in Review magazine, she recounted working with Howard Hawks writing The Big Sleep with William Faulkner:

I went to the studio the first day absolutely appalled. I had been writing pulp stories for about three years, and here is William Faulkner, who was one of the great literary lights of the day, and how am I going to work with him? What have I got to offer, as it were? This was quickly resolved, because when I walked into the office, Faulkner came out of his office with the book The Big Sleep and he put it down and said: “I have worked out what we’re going to do. We will do alternate sections. I will do these chapters and you will do those chapters.”

And that was the way it was done. He went back into his office and I didn’t see him again, so the collaboration was quite simple. I never saw what he did and he never saw what I did. We just turned our stuff in to Hawks.

Jules Furthman came into it considerably later, because Hawks had a great habit of shooting off the cuff. He had a fairly long script to begin with and he had no final script. He went into production with a “temporary.” He liked to get a scene going and let it run. He eventually wound up with far too much story left than he had time to do on film. Jules came in and I think he was on it for about three weeks, and he rewrote it, shortening the latter part of the script.”

 

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