Ernest Thompson: The Book of Maps - Part Two
Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Loudon, and Ernest Thompson in rehearsal on Thompson’s play THE WEST SIDE WALTZ, in 1981. Photo courtesy of Ernest Thompson.
LAKES REGION, NH: In my conversation with Ernest Thompson about his novel, The Book of Maps, I had to talk about On Golden Pond, his Oscar-winning movie based on his play of the same name. Henry Fonda played Norman Thayer and won the Oscar for best actor. Katharine Hepburn played his wife , Ethel, and she won for best actress. And Thompson won the Oscar for best screenplay based on material from another medium.
He has worked with some of the greatest and well-known actors and directors, including Shirley MacLaine, Bob Fosse, Liza Minnelli, Julie Andrews, Jane Fonda, Robert Downey, Jr, and Kiefer Sutherland.
Before I dove into his directing and writing career, I had more questions about the new novel and his writing process.
You had me at road trip with The Book of Maps.
“They’re pretty classic. One of the questions I started with [for potential book clubs] was not knowing what people’s knowledge was of probably the first quintessential road trip, The Odyssey. I asked my potential book club members Ulysses or Odysseus was faced with various challenges along the way, including the sirens. Who are the sirens in The Book of Maps? There are a few women of temptation along the way, and he has to learn to do what Odysseus did, which is have his crew bind him to the mast, and they all put wax in their ears so they couldn’t hear the call of the sirens. I love road trips, and this one was inspired by and based on a trip I took with my son twenty years ago.”
What process do you use?
“People, and this may be interesting to other writers; people often ask if I work from an outline. I always do to some capacity. In screenwriting, one starts with an outline, and then it sort of becomes a treatment. Then there’s a new evolution called a scriptment, and a dialogue starts coming in. The outline or treatment will start in a classic outline way, Roman numeral I, A, B, C. It’s very truncated at the beginning, and then it sprawls, and sometimes my scriptments last thirty pages because by then, I’ve written half the screenplay in my head anyway. In this case, I have a travel journal that my son [August] and I kept twenty years ago. We weren’t very diligent about it. I can read The Book of Maps and not see any sign of myself or my son because the characters became themselves. Every stop that Brendan and Brenlyn make, we made twenty years ago.”
Did you take your picture as you crossed the state line? Did you throw the football?
“I had to do what Brendan did, talk him into taking the trip. He did get caught in the rapids in Yosemite. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as I made it. We were visited by a bear but not quite as dangerously. Not to sound as if I had no imagination, it was great to have the journal as I could turn each page, and we had photos of ourselves at each state line.”
Was he ten?
“Yes. It was a great basis to have as a starting point. My son hasn’t read the book. He also is a writer. He’s looking forward to reading it, and I’m looking forward to his reading it with some trepidation because maybe there’s stuff that’s revealed he didn’t feel needed revealing. At the very beginning of the book, my publisher keeps reminding me that it says all characters are fictitious and any resemblance would be wild. He told me the novel he’s working on that he never lets me read; the first third of it takes place in New Hampshire.”
Ernest Thompson and Diana Ross on Oscar Night, 1982. Photo courtesy Ernest Thompson.
Your first credit in the IMDB database was in 1982. It’s the 54th Annual Oscars where you won. Do you remember who the host was?
There was an amazing amount of movie stars there.
“Parenthetically, Jon Voight was very upset with me because I wore a white scarf, and he thought he had a corner on that market.”
Reading your bio, you wrote the play On Golden Pond, and you got the Oscar for adapted screenplay. Frances Sternhagen appeared on Broadway. She was Ethel Thayer to start with. Do you have memories of her?
“I ran into Franny before On Golden Pond because a friend of mine was a dresser for Equus. There was a film version with Richard Burton. On Broadway, there were seats on the stage as if you were in the stable or courtroom looking down. My friend [asked if I’d] like to come see it. I saw it with Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Perkins, and Richard Burton. Franny played different roles and kept switching roles and stayed with it the entire run. I kept crossing paths with her.”
“[W]e were both in a movie for PBS called The Rimers of Eldritch, based on a Lanford Wilson play in 1972. Ten years earlier, it’s very episodic. Franny and I never had scenes together, but by the time we were casting On Golden Pond off-off-Broadway when a director suggested Franny, I said I know Franny. Franny was 49 when we started rehearsal for the play. The character is 69. I had just done a television anthology called Take Me Home Again. It was for Mary Tyler Moore’s company. Teresa Wright, Academy Award winner for The Best Years of Our Lives, she was delicious, and I really enjoyed working with her, and she was age appropriate. I asked Teresa if she would do the play, and I think she was afraid at that age to take on a big part.”
“I loved Franny. She’s still with us. It was really two years we worked together. The play was off-off-Broadway at a theatre called the Hudson Guild Theater. It opened during a newspaper strike which meant the New York Times had no opportunity to express its true feelings about the play. It became a hit. Producers came to see it. One wanted to take it to Broadway, which we did, and we went first in Wilmington, Delaware, and to The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Katharine Hepburn went to see On Golden Pond in Wilmington, Delaware and fell madly in love with it. I wasn’t there, but she said to the director, ‘I would like to do this play.’ The director said, ‘maybe someday.’ And she said, ‘I would like to do the play now.’ She said, ‘get rid of Franny Sternhagen, and I’ll do the play.’ That didn’t happen. She was sort of in the wings always, and then the movie comes. The play went to Broadway the [newspaper] strike was over, the play did not get great reviews from New York Times. It sort of limped along for four months, and in the last week of its run in 1979, two producers came to see it who had worked with Franny on something else. They went backstage and said what a beautiful play. She said it’s closing Saturday. They couldn’t believe it. They spent the summer raising money to reproduce the play the following fall. I’m sure that’s never happened. The play had two different runs on Broadway, in two different theaters and casts. Then it ran for a year. I credit Franny for being a part of that. She knew it was a great role for her.”
Ernest Thompson, Julie Andrews, and Christopher Plummer. Photo courtesy of Ernest Thompson.
Julie Andrews played the part of Ethel, with Christopher Plummer as Norman Thayer.
“I loved working with both of them. I directed it. I heard he was really difficult. I usually have no problem working with actors as an actor/director/writer. The first night we had dinner at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. He said, ‘what are you drinking?’ I said a light beer. He said ‘light beer?’ He drank nineteen shots of everything they had. I think he thought I was a wuss. I made my one light beer last the entire meal. We started rehearsal; he began to realize what he’d gotten into. On Golden Pond, it’s a gigantic role and also bumps up against dementia. There’re a lot of props, there’s a lot of stuff going on. When I first started blocking it, I said, so, Chris, this scene, I need you to unroll the rugs and help with the furniture. He said, ‘is that necessary?’ I said, yes, it is because they are opening up the house. He would resist at first. And I would say, why don’t you just try it, and if it doesn’t work, that’s fine. I knew it would work. So, he would try something that I had suggested, and then we had a little code. If he liked it, he almost always did, he would go [Thompson makes a positive hand gesture] out of sight from everybody else. He let me know that he was accepting my direction. Then we became pretty close, and it was really wonderful working with him.”
Norman is a cranky character. He’s playing the part.
“I would say until Ernest Thompson played Norman Thayer which he did three years ago at this theater up here called Winnipesaukee Playhouse, Chris Plummer came the closest to any actor in getting the character I had originally envisioned. People have always asked me who was your favorite Norman. I was because I understood that character. I understood the courage it would take for an actor not to be afraid to go into the scary woods. Actors resisted it. The other aspect of it that was elusive and has been for actors for forty years is Norman Thayer was a professor in an Ivy League college. He taught English for forty years or more. That meant that he stood in front of his audience, his class in the classroom or the lecture hall, and regaled them with great stories of literature and challenged them, inspired them. There’s a certain panache associated with that, as far as I’m concerned.”
Ernest Thompson, Linda Powell, and General Colin Powell. Photo courtesy Ernest Thompson.
“You may have had that one great professor or teacher in your educational history. I did. He stayed with me in my head forever. That’s what [I] always wanted Norman to have. That slightly larger-than-life charm and aplomb. Henry Fonda is great in On Golden Pond. But I don’t believe he was a professor from the University of Pennsylvania. Chris Plummer, I could believe it because he was larger than life. He didn’t have to struggle to get there. James Earl Jones did the third production on Broadway. It was an all-Black production. He played Norman. Leslie Uggams was Ethel, and Linda Powell played Chelsea. She is the daughter of Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State. James Earl Jones had the anger for sure. He had the strength of that guy.”
What do you remember of Bob Fosse and Star 80?
“I worked with him for an entire day. There was a producer and actor named Tony Bill. He produced The Sting and other big-deal movies and [was a] fellow Academy Award winner. People would hire him to do cameos in movies. I knew him because he had a restaurant in Venice which I would go to sometimes. They’d cast him in that role to be a movie producer in Star 80 for some reason, he dropped out. Then a casting person called and asked if I wanted to play it. I said sure. He said would you just mind going by the set and meeting Fosse. I said it would be an honor, and so I did. He liked me, but he said why would you want to do this. I said so I could work with you. That was it. Typical of those situations, Fosse was a very particular director, and he had an unlimited budget. I sat in my trailer for five days for my one scene. But I would hang out. Cliff Robertson was in the movie. Mariel Hemingway. Julia Roberts’s brother, Eric, was in the movie. That’s how I look at most of what I do in the movie business because it’s all kind of silly. I was working with one of the legends.”
You are a songwriter as well. What type of music do you write?
“I am a songwriter. I’m all over the map. I wrote a song with Carly Simon. It was a song I wrote for a production of On Golden Pond that I directed called, The Father Daughter Dance. It’s a beautiful Carly Simon kind of song. I got a little blurb from her [for the new book]. I feel so lucky to have been able to work with someone like that. That’s sort of in the ballad world. I like writing country. I’ve written lots of rock and roll. Soul. I’m working with a young singer now out of Derry, New Hampshire, who just graduated from high school. She’s got one of the great voices of all time. Bana Berhane. I had read about her in New Hampshire Magazine. There’s a band called Godsmack, and they had gone into Derry High School and worked with about 400 kids. They had like thirty drummers and forty guitar players, and twenty-seven bass players. All in a gymnasium playing. [Sully Erna], the lead singer of Godsmack, took them all to New York to a recording studio, and Bana was the star. I called up the teacher at Derry High School and said you don’t know me, but I would like to know about this singer because I was working on a project she would have been perfect for. She had some complications at that time, but now she’s graduated, and I’ve met her mom, and I’ve written this song called Black Girl. Bana is going to record it. I’m very excited about it. Bana is from Eretria.”
Are you having a sequel called Home on Golden Pond? When is it coming out?
“When it gets made. I resisted doing a sequel even though many people have asked me to do one because I didn’t know what the story was. Forty years later, I know what the story is. There’s only one actor I’ll bring back from the original, and that’s the kid—very nice guy, [Doug McKeon]. We may go down to North Carolina, that’s where he lives, and do a screening of On Golden Pond and do a Q and A with him.”
How can you be fearless in rewriting?
“You have to not be afraid to accept that there’s always a better way or another way of saying something. [In the back of the book] I acknowledge my English teacher, [Mr. Eaton] long since deceased. He was the first person to recognize I had anything resembling talent. There were times after he retired, and [I] had begun my career as an actor and then as a writer, and he became my research guy. Part of it was to give him something to do. His mind was so advanced otherwise he was drinking coffee with his buddies. I’d call him up and say I need a quote from the Old Testament, and he’d say give me a few days, and I’ll get back to you. He always did. Sometimes I’d call him and have a grammatical question, and he’d say that’s a tough one. He said, well, don’t forget there’s always another way of saying something. That’s what I play in my brain all the time, and that’s part of why I acknowledged him. If you write something and step away from it and go back and go back and look at it, and you love it, there’s probably something wrong because it’s probably not as good as it’s going to be.”
“The Book of Maps was sold on the strength of the first draft. When I first spoke to the publisher, wonderful guy out of Philadelphia, a company called Global Collective Publishers, I said I was thrilled you liked my book, but do you like the book I’ve written or the book you’d like it to be? He said no, I love the book you’ve written. He’s been just incredible in kind of getting out of my way and letting me do the grunt work of seeing if there is a better way. People will say what does that really mean? What kind of changes have you made? I’ve made changes that are semi-colons, and I made changes that are chapters. I learned early on as a filmmaker that you can’t have any sort of trepidation going into the editing room. You’ve got to be just cold-hearted about your own stuff. That’s how I approach prose writing. This is my first published novel. I’ve written a few others that I hope will eventually start to rise to the surface. I probably made 7,000 changes to the manuscript from when I first sent it to him. I so embrace the creative process. I think that’s part of what makes me fearless. I just love it and indulge in the luxury of being able to play with words. One thing that is true from the book is that I was a writer from seven as soon as I could hold a pencil. I just started writing stories and never stopped. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t.”
“I was telling a publicist that in 1984 I was traveling in Europe and hanging out with a woman who [knew] Gore Vidal, and we went down to his place in Ravello, Italy. It was the summer that his historical novel, Lincoln, was out. It was number two on the best sellers. I read it too. I started off by saying did you know that on page 273, there was a typo? He didn’t enjoy that. He was indignant. But I had the greatest times with him and learned so much just by hanging with him for a while. Rewriting is a constant process.”