Arts and Entertainment

Hooray for Hollywood! KerbyFest celebrates the work of a Langley resident

Bill Kerby had a 30-year career as a screenwriter before he settled down to his current life of retirement in Langley. The Clyde will show two of his films at two Sunday matinees.  - Patricia Duff / The Record
Bill Kerby had a 30-year career as a screenwriter before he settled down to his current life of retirement in Langley. The Clyde will show two of his films at two Sunday matinees.
— image credit: Patricia Duff / The Record

FREELAND — Langley resident Bill Kerby’s writing days are over, and he is madly in love with retirement.

“I should have done this sooner,” the former screenwriter said.

But the man who wrote the script that won Bette Midler a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for her performance in “The Rose” admits that his 30-year career as a Hollywood writer had its advantages.

“Imagination was the star of my life,” Kerby said on a recent morning over coffee at the Lighthouse Cafe in Freeland.

The Clyde Theatre in Langley will offer a glimpse into the screenwriter’s imagination with “KerbyFest,” a mini-film festival that celebrates his work.

“Billy’s one of our favorite patrons,” said Clyde co-owner Lynn Willeford.

“We love to talk movies with him because his depth of knowledge and experience is so great — he knows all the behind-the-scenes stuff.”

KerbyFest will show two Sunday matinees of his best films, each followed by commentary from Kerby. “The Rose,” in which Midler portrays a Janis Joplin-esque singer, will play at

1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16 and “Lakota Woman,” a gripping account of American Indian Mary Crow Dog’s experiences during the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee, which won Kerby several awards and nominations, will play at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 23.

During his Hollywood days, Kerby said he was in love with the sound of his IBM Selectric-2, the typewriter that would help him lend his talents to such diverse projects as “The Last American Hero,” with Jeff Bridges (though he was not credited), “Dead Men Can’t Dance” and “Dadah is Death,” which garnered a best screenplay nomination from the Australian Film Institute.

“When that thing was on, I was just hooked,” Kerby said of his beloved typewriter.

“A writing routine was easy. When it rained, I was inside and didn’t get wet like the roofers,” he said.

Getting a job was another story.

As is true today, Kerby said that during his career through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, most Hollywood screenplay writers made their money writing scripts that were in development, and many of those movies were never made. He was thankful that he worked fairly constantly, but there were plenty of lean periods, and much of the time, he said, it was like pulling teeth getting the studios to pay what they owed.

“It was the ‘Golden Rule.’ He who has all the gold makes the rules,” Kerby said with a laugh.

But his fondest memories are of the work itself and the process of writing.

You’ve seen the whole movie, he said, once you type that last “fade out” and roll that final page out of the typewriter.

It all started in New York, where Kerby said he tried his hand at acting, but realized it wasn’t his thing.

The former Marine found himself working as a welfare investigator in New York City when he saw some student films that turned him on to making movies.

After receiving an MFA from the University of California at Los Angeles film school, he was hired by cult-filmmaker Roger Corman and was hoping to be invited into his studio, where such future luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and Robert DeNiro were starting to make their marks. But that wasn't to be. Corman gave Kerby a camera and a plane ticket and sent him around the country to film exchanges in order to cut Dennis Hopper — at whom he was furious — out of the release prints of "The Trip," one of Corman's famous cult classics.

He was eventually hired by Warner Brothers, where he sat at the former desk of William Faulkner and rewrote dialogue for Jeff Bridges in “The Last American Hero,” wrote development-deal scripts and went to lots of California parties in his dented sports car — like any other self-respecting Hollywood writer.

During his long career, Kerby wrote every kind of script for theater and television: action, comedy, romance, biography, thriller, film noir and musicals. Other projects he penned include the film “Hooper,” and the long-form television scripts “On the Beach,” “Little Richard” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” An extensive roster of actors and actresses speaking his words have been nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmys.

One of Kerby’s proudest moments was hearing that legendary scriptwriter Frank Pierson, who was given the script for “The Rose” for rewrite, sent it back unchanged with a note that said it didn’t need any rewriting.

“A script is everything,” Kerby said. “It’s more than just a blueprint, more than 3D photos — it’s everything.”

Kerby respects filmmakers who recognize the importance of the writer, such as Woody Allen, who never credits his movies with the words, “A Woody Allen Film” but instead credits them as “Written and Directed by Woody Allen.” Kerby calls him the last true American auteur. It is a respect for the writing of the script that Kerby admires about such an approach, as well as his respect for the importance of theme and story.

The really great films, he said, have a clear theme. The tag line for “The Rose” explains the theme of that movie well, he said: “She gave and gave, until she had nothing left to give.”

It’s a formula that works in screenwriting, he said.

“You figure out how to take a chunk of life, find the conflict and drive toward the light, the salvation, the love,” Kerby said.

The people who never give up are those Kerby liked to write about.

Speaking of “The Rose,” Kerby was proud to mention that a Broadway musical version of the movie was in the works, and he had high hopes for it. He has had a hand in some of the rewrites for act one of the play, but he said he no longer has a desire to write. He enjoys his simple life on the island with his wife, “the love of his life,” and such pleasures as The Clyde, the bookshops, his small cabin in the woods and the friendly people here provide him. Hollywood seems very far away from him now.

“That was a different part of my life. It seems like a different person than me — but somebody I liked,” he said.

For more information on KerbyFest, click here or check out the events listing on The Clyde’s Facebook page.

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