Skip to main content

Stephen Schiff Discusses His Latest Adventures in Hollywood.

Screenwriter Stephen Schiff talks about writing the scripts for "True Crime" and "Deep End of the Ocean."He first established his reputation as a film critic for Vanity Fair and Fresh Air. He also wrote film essays and profiles for The New Yorker. He served an unprecedented three terms as chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. His first screenplay was for the most recent film adaptation of Lolita.

30:29

Other segments from the episode on March 24, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 24, 1999: Interview with Stephen Schiff; Interview with Natalie Angier; Review of Built to Spill's album "Keep it Like a Secret."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 24, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032401np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Stephen Schiff
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My local multi-plex is showing two new movies written by FRESH AIR's former film critic Stephen Schiff. So we figured it's time to hear about his latest adventures in Hollywood. Both of his new movies, "True Crime" and "The Deep End of the Ocean," were adapted from novels.

"True Crime" was directed by Clint Eastwood, who also stars in the film as a washed up reporter assigned to write about a man who is sentenced to be executed at midnight for the murder of a young convenience store clerk. The reporter is quickly convinced of the man's innocence and tries to prove it in the remaining few hours before the execution.

"The Deep End of the Ocean" stars Michelle Pfeiffer as a woman whose son disappears when she turns her back for a few moments. Her unshakeable sense of guilt and terror emotionally cripples her and her family. The book became a huge best-seller after Oprah chose it for her book club.

Stephen's first screenplay was the controversial adaptation of "Lolita." Before becoming a screenwriter he was a staff writer at "The New Yorker."

Stephen, you have two new movies out now, and in a way one is, you know, what would be considered a woman's movie. You know, the story of a mother who loses a child.

And the other would be considered a quintessential man's movie, you know, with Clint Eastwood playing a reporter who cheats on his wife and sleeps with his bosses wife. But has a nose for the truth.

Do you feel like you've been working on two separate extremes at the same time?

STEPHEN SCHIFF, SCREENWRITER, "TRUE CRIME," "THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN": I'm a man whose found his inner woman.

LAUGHTER

Is essentially what you see before you. No, you know, it's interesting when we were previewing "Deep End of the Ocean" they asked all these focus groups, "is it a chick flick?" Which I think is the term of art there. And they said no.

And that interested me because I had the same sort of attitude that you did, that it might be a woman's picture. In a way -- what it is a domestic drama, "The Deep End of the Ocean." And it's interesting because if you look back and you look at its forbearers it's been a long time since there has been a big hit domestic drama at the movies.

And I've kind of wondered are the movies the place for domestic drama now? "Ordinary People," "Kramer Vs. Kramer," "Terms of Endearment" -- but it's been a longtime since those. And I think people have the inclination that TV is where domestic dramas occur now.

So that interested me. And yet I really thought you could make a domestic drama now that has a lot of richness and feeling. I'm a family man and I have a daughter and I have feelings for my family. I don't think of those too feminine a thing.

But at the same time, of course, the Clint Eastwood world is a guy's world and I do understand that. But, you know, there are women in this film and there's even a kind of -- Clint plays a very insensitive person, a very insensitive male. But there's a search for sensitivity in the character that might have an appeal that crosses genders.

GROSS: What's it been like to watch how each of these two films is getting advertised and what the release was like for each of them?

SCHIFF: To me, who has been someone from the other side of all this, it's been so weird. I can't tell you. I mean, when you were on the outside -- when I was on the outside -- you sort of said well, when you see a bad campaign or a good campaign or whatever you say I would do it this way.

But of course when you're in the middle of it, you know, I'm a screenwriter. I don't have the power to change their ad campaign. I can go in and say this and that and the other thing. For "Deep End of the Ocean," in the trailer, I thought they were giving too much information -- way too much. Because I hate those trailers were you tell the whole story.

GROSS: So do I. They really drive me -- because you feel like why should I go? You've told me everything.

SCHIFF: Yeah, exactly. And we had a wonderful trailer for the movie that was playing at Show West that was really -- it was the most highly rated trailer out of these dozens that they showed. Then they took it to a focus group of course -- that term keeps cropping up -- and the focus groups said "well, we want to know more."

And of course they want to know more that's why you go to the movies.

GROSS: Exactly. Exactly.

SCHIFF: So they gave them more information and I protested. I said, "now why would anyone go?" And in fact, there had been a rash of articles recently in various newspapers about how trailers are giving away too much information.

And I started citing the movies that they named. And the person who was the head of advertising, or the subhead or something, at Columbia pictures said, "yes, and have you noticed that all those pictures made over $100 million?"

So that stopped me. I don't have a counter argument, except an esthetic one which of course never counts.

GROSS: You know something you just said that's beginning to reverberate loudly in my head which is, they even show trailers to focus groups now? Has it gotten to that?

SCHIFF: They even -- oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Everything is focus grouped. Not that the focus group is always listened to, but it sure is a factor. And I think -- to my way of thinking, usually a pernicious factor.

GROSS: Do you go to the focus groups screenings? Are you sitting behind one way mirrors or two way mirrors?

SCHIFF: On "The Deep End of the Ocean" and on "Lolita" I did.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

SCHIFF: And no, what happens is it's a regular preview called a "recruited screening," because they're trying for certain demographic groups. And they fill the theater and they show the movie. And then they give them cards and probably a lot of listeners have had those cards.

And you fill out -- "would you highly recommend it? Would you kind of highly recommend it? Would you sort of kind of highly recommend it?"

And then a group of 14 to 20 of them are selected out for focus groups afterwards. And then we, who have all been sitting in the back -- because what we're really doing is watching whether their heads move during the screening. This is really true.

If they are moving around a lot in their seats something is wrong. And if they're very still or if they're laughing at the jokes, you know, you kind of get a sense of the room. Oh, and I want to say something else about that.

It's -- I was talking to Whit Stillman once after his movie "Barcelona" opened, and a friend of mine -- a film critic -- had really violently disliked it. I rather liked the film. But he had violently disliked it. And my friend, Whit, said he must have seen a bad performance. And I thought, how interesting.

Because a film is always a film, and it's always stable and we think of it as being the same all the time. But there, I'm discovering, bad and good performances of a movie depending on the room.

If you're watching in a small screening room and someone near the beginning of the movie -- and let's say it's something like "The Deep End of the Ocean" where getting inside the movie and feeling all the emotion and tensions inside is absolutely essential.

Otherwise, if you're outside the movie you're going to sit there getting pretty angry probably. If someone, near the beginning of the film, says, "oh yeah, right." That's it. The screening is over. You may as well all get up and go out now.

And if someone, at the beginning of the film when there's a horrifying scene or something, goes "oh my God." That's great for the rest of the screening. So there really are performances and they do vary. That's a very interesting thing. And of course some great director said the only autuer is the protectionist.

Because, you know, it really matters how a film -- whether the sound is good and whether it's in focus and all that kind of stuff.

GROSS: Both of your new movies were optioned by the stars. Michelle Pfeiffer, I believe, is the person who got "The Deep End of the Ocean" made, and Clint Eastwood got "True Crime" made.

SCHIFF: No, it's not correct.

GROSS: Not correct. OK.

SCHIFF: Not correct. True in the case of "Deep End of the Ocean." I wrote "True Crime," actually, at a different studio. I wrote it at 20th Century Fox's unit Fox 2000. And I really wrote it without Clint Eastwood in mind, not even as a pipe dream. I was really writing it for a younger actor.

And the person who was hovering in my mind was George Clooney. They wouldn't make it at Fox 2000. It happened to be in the summer of '96 when a bunch of death row movies were coming out and they were all kind of failing at the box office.

And it went into turnaround, meaning that it was taken away from 20th Century Fox with 20th Century Fox's consent, and sent directly to Clint actually. Because the producers, Richard and Lili Zanuck, had the idea that he would like it. And he said, I do like it, it will be my next movie.

And I got a call from Richard Zanuck saying, "could this be played by an older guy?" I said, "well, Richard I don't know." "Somebody like Clint?" I said, "yeah, that would be fine. Yeah."

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Right. Well, what changes did you make in the script when you found out it was going to be Clint Eastwood, who is what -- pushing 70 now?

SCHIFF: I think he would be pleased to answer it as 68, which is what I think he is. Here's what happened: working with -- a lot of people have asked me what it's like to work with Clint Eastwood. And my only answer is it's like not working with Clint Eastwood.

Because Clinton is so private and keeps things so close to his vest, and is so extremely experienced and confident that he just is a one-man show. So he and I had a long conversation about the movie, and I saw that he got everything I wanted him to get. And I was very happy and excited.

And then there was silence. Months of silence. And months of silence in the life of a screenwriter means something terrible has happened. Then they sent me the shooting script, and everywhere I had written "St. Louis" it now said "Oakland." And everywhere I had written "Osage Prison" it now said "San Quentin." But everything else was word for word exactly what I had written.

GROSS: So he didn't change it -- you said you had written it for a younger man.

SCHIFF: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you feel any of that needed to be changed when you knew it was Clint Eastwood playing the part?

SCHIFF: We looked at it and we sort of said does it? And it just didn't -- it seemed a tight little package as it was. And I guess all of our feeling was that Clint's age added layers of pathos in a way.

GROSS: Made the reporter seem even more washed up.

SCHIFF: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Farther down on the long ladder and more in need of a last chance that was really a last chance.

GROSS: Now with Michelle Pfeiffer, she had optioned "Deep End of the Ocean" and then you were asked to write it. Did you feel that you had to really keep her in mind in the writing of it since she was the controlling factor there? And did she ask you for anything in particular?

SCHIFF: Oh, yeah. I mean, she was very active in the process. Not when I wrote the first draft, but finally when it came time to do all the revisions she was an extraordinary active influence.

And usually that's a bad thing in a way when a movie star because -- someone once told me, if you want to handle a movie star during the script process here's what you say to them. You say, "but this is really you're scene. Don't you see? This is your scene. It's about you. And that's generally a good rule. That generally kind of works.

But with Michelle -- Michelle is way too smart for that, and lacks vanity. You know, Michelle may be the most beautiful actress alive. You notice her always taking these roles that emphasize anything but her beauty because she really has no vanity.

And when you see her tearing herself apart and being horribly -- harrowingly depressed and screaming and everything in this movie, that's what she is about. She is really about getting down inside the character no matter what it looks like.

And that was always her approach. And she could talk very intelligently about any of the characters and about any of the scenes. And very often it really wasn't about, "let's put more Beth here. More Beth."

It was really sometimes, "the children need to feel this way." And a lot of it was coming out of her own subjectivity and out of her live and out of her vision of the movie. But it wasn't movie star stuff. It was producer stuff.

GROSS: And did you feel that you could disagree with her and still be on firm ground since she was the star and the person who got the movie made?

SCHIFF: Yes, just because that's the only way I can work. Not that I had the final say obviously, but certainly if I thought she had a bad idea I had to argue with it. And, you know, there was also a director involved. So that was also part of it. Ulu Grosbard was part of the equation.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's former film critic Stephen Schiff. He wrote the screenplays for two new movies, "True Crime" and "The Deep End of the Ocean." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's former film critic Stephen Schiff. He wrote the screenplays for two new movies, "True Crime" and "The Deep End of the Ocean."

I want to play a short scene from "The Deep End of the Ocean" and see if you have anything to say about writing this dialogue or adapting the dialogue from the novel.

In this scene Beth, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, is dealing with the guilt about her son's disappearance at her school re-union.

And in spite of the police investigation and lots of press coverage, there has been absolutely no sign of her son that's turned up. She has been walking through life ever since.

It's been taking a toll on her, her two other children and her husband. So here is Beth, played by Michelle Pfeiffer and her husband Pat played by Treat Williams.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM THE FILM "THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN")

MICHELLE PFEIFFER, ACTRESS, PORTRAYING BETH: It's like I'm standing under this giant snow bank and if I move one inch in any direction it's going to come crashing down and bury me.

Do you know I don't dare to think of him for a full minute? One inch and the whole thing is going to come down. And you are going to have to raise these kids by yourself.

TREAT WILLIAMS, ACTOR, PORTRAYING PAT: Bethy, I'm doing that now.

PFEIFFER: Oh. Oh, that's right. Pat's always been the rock. Isn't that what it said in "People" magazine? There was Pat holding together that poor crazy woman and those sweet little kids. Oh you're such a hero, Pat.

WILLIAMS: All right, lets stop this.

PFEIFFER: You would never have let Ben get lost.

WILLIAMS: I mean it. Stop it, Beth.

PFEIFFER: You would never have been such a bad parent who can't remember the sandwiches. You self-righteous son of a bitch!

WILLIAMS: I'm not self-righteous! I'm right! Kids don't just vanish up in smoke? Kids don't just get lost! People lose them!

GROSS: Stephen Schiff, tell me about writing that particular scene.

SCHIFF: The material for it was in the book and needed some reshaping and some paring down and some kind of -- it had -- you're reading a book and the dialogue feels as though someone might have said it until perhaps you say it out loud. And you realize the speeches are much longer and more convoluted than the speeches people really make.

And that they don't really quite sound like speech. So you're doing kind that kind of thing, and you're trying to preserve the essence of the emotion there. You're trying to find out what the important emotions are. And you're trying to escalate it at the right rhythm.

What's also happening in that scene is that the little boy is listening and he's getting more and more horrified by the argument, and he's about to do something very drastic to stop the argument. So that has to be timed into it.

And I guess to a certain degree, I was trying to also think of Michelle and how she would look and how she would say something.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Stephen Schiff. And he is, among other things, former FRESH AIR film critic, a former writer for "The New Yorker." He is a screenwriter now and we're talking about his two new movies; adaptations of "The Deep End of the Ocean" and "True Crime."

Now in "True Crime," the Clint Eastwood movie, there are three screenwriters listed in the credits. And each name is separated by an "and." And I figured that "and" probably, very cryptically, signifies something important in Hollywood-speak.

SCHIFF: Have you noticed -- I'm not actually supposed to talk about this, but I'm going to because I'm an angry guy.

LAUGHTER

Terry you don't think of me as an angry guy, I know.

GROSS: No, but I will come to think of you that away soon.

SCHIFF: On most subjects I'm not an angry guy, but on the subject of credits for screenwriters I am. You notice that more intelligent film critics these days are now saying, you know, the direction is by this person. The music is by this person. And the screenplay is credited to these people.

And that's because the credits you see are absolutely meaningless. And they're meaningless because of the credit arbitration rules of the Writers Guild which determines who gets the writers credit. Larry Gross is the first named person on the movie.

I didn't know that he had written a screenplay, and Clint didn't know that he had written a screenplay until after the movie was made. But because of the credit arbitration rules if there was someone who previously adapted a screenplay, and if he used anything from the book that you also used, he will get credit for it.

The way the system now works, and I'm trying to actually get it changed -- I've come up with some variations on the rules and I'm now on the credit arbitration committee. I'm that angry.

LAUGHTER

Let's say you were doing the Book of Exodus. Let's say there were six writers doing the Book of Exodus and they were going to make a movie called "The Ten Commandments." Well probably, the parting of the Red Sea would be in all versions, but the first writer would get credit for it. And that's the way the system not works.

I mean, that's why credits are quite erroneous. And there have been a lot of notorious incidents. And I don't know what the inside story on them is, but for instance David Mamet was very angry about Hilary Henkin getting the first position credit on "Wag the Dog."

And for a period of some months on "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Terry Gilliam and his co-writer were denied any credit at all for the screenplay they had written for their film because Alex Cox and a co-writer had written a previous screenplay. Even though it was not used for the movie.

So this kind of stuff happens all the time and I'm hoping it's going to change.

GROSS: What about the middle name on the three names who are credited for "True Crime?"

SCHIFF: Paul Brickman's script I did read. And I actually took something from it, which was this moment in the middle that is very wonderful and that is not my invention. It's his. It's called "Speed Zoo." And you might recall it, it's when Clint is running through.

"Speed Zoo" was Paul's idea, and I'm not sure he deserves an entire screen credit for it. But he sure deserves credit for "Speed Zoo" which may be -- maybe it's the best moment in the movie, I don't know. Anyway, he did that.

GROSS: Now what do you do when you're reading a book that you're adapting into a screenplay when you feel that a part of the book doesn't ring true? Whether it's something somebody says or a subplot in a story or just a particular incident. Do you think, this is phony. This is just a kind of author contrivance. Do you still have to think stick with it?

SCHIFF: No, I change it.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

SCHIFF: No, never. Never. Never. No, if it rings false I'm going to change it. And maybe someone will argue -- if someone bought the book and that was the one thing that they bought the book for, maybe we'll have an argument. But usually that's not what happens. Usually what rings false is kind of clear.

I mean, for instance, in the novel of "True Crime" the guy on death row is white and the real killer -- maybe I'm giving away too much -- is black. And that made no sense to me. We don't live in a country where white guys get framed for the crimes of black guys. And that was one of the first things I had to change.

And that was a house of cards, because when you change that a whole lot of other things have to change and be adjusted. And the crime itself at the center of "True Crime" didn't make sense to me. It didn't ring true and I had to change it. I had to sort of invent a new crime that still had some of the aspects of the old.

So that kind of thing -- the relationships, the dialogue -- everything else if it doesn't work I change it.

GROSS: Stephen Schiff is FRESH AIR's former film critic. He wrote the screenplays for the new movies "True Crime" and "The Deep End of the Ocean." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Stephen Schiff. He is FRESH AIR's former film critic and a former staff writer for "The New Yorker." He left the magazine and our show to write screenplays.

His first, the controversial adaptation of "Lolita," was released in the U.S. last year. Now he has two new movies, both adapted from novels, "The Deep End of the Ocean" and "True Crime." When we left off we were talking about "True Crime."

Let me play a scene from "True Crime," the screenplay that you wrote that stars Clint Eastwood who also directed it. And Clint Eastwood plays an over the hill reporter who is a recovering alcoholic who hasn't been sober for very long. He has been bounced out of jobs for sleeping with the bosses wife and for bad judgment on a story.

And he has just been assigned to write a human interest sidebar on an execution that's set for midnight. And as soon as he studies up on this case he's convinced that man who is about to be executed is innocent of the murder that he's been convicted for.

So Clint Eastwood wants to investigate the story in the remaining hours, and there's just a few hours left before the execution. So he goes into the office of his editor, played by James Woods and here's what happens.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM THE FILM "TRUE CRIME")

JAMES WOODS, ACTOR, PORTRAYING NEWSPAPER EDITOR: All right, what do you got on Frank Beachum? Oh, Ev. Ev. No, Ev. Ev.

CLINT EASTWOOD, ACTOR, PORTRAYING REPORTER STEVE EVERETT: I'm telling you. Allen, listen to me.

WOODS: I don't have to listen to you. I'm looking at you. I'm looking, and I can see a reporter who's about to tell me has a hunch!

EASTWOOD: I've been checking on some things.

WOODS: Do you know my opinion of reporters who have hunches?

EASTWOOD: I interviewed this witness who said he saw a gun. I don't think he saw a gun.

WOODS: I can't fart loud enough to express my opinion.

EASTWOOD: Even Michelle thought the whole thing stunk. She thought there were discrepancies.

WOODS: Discrepancies?

EASTWOOD: Yeah.

WOODS: After a police investigation. A trial. What? Six years of appeals? And you found discrepancies? How long did it take you, Ev? What, all of half an hour? Huh?

EASTWOOD: You know how the court system goes. His first attorney was probably some 12-year-old legal aid guy. He couldn't object enough for the appellate court to even make an intelligent decision. That's if they could make one.

WOODS: Ev, come on. I got your appeal. Come on.

EASTWOOD: Allen, they're going to kill the guy tonight.

WOODS: All right. I must be on acid. So you're trying to tell me that you want to turn a routine execution piece into some big fight for justice story, and what? That will give me an excuse to stand up for you when Bob asks me to transfer you to the toilet. Is that it? Huh?

GROSS: Stephen Schiff, tell us about writing that scene and how much of it came from the novel -- what you had to do to adapt it for the screen.

SCHIFF: Well, a certain amount was in the novel, and there was a kind of (unintelligible) and getting the tone right and getting the jokes in order and paring down and all that. But the scene was laid out very very well in the novel.

And of course then there is James Woods who wasn't cast, of course, when I wrote the movie, but who brings his own enormous panache to the role. I wanted these -- what I really wanted for "True Crime" was this whole air of chaos -- of constant chaos going on.

Here's a guy who is trying to, in a very traditional genre movie style, save a guy's life as the clock ticks away. Which, you know, maybe a hokey premise but that's what you have. And great movies have been made on hokey premise since time and memorial.

The thing that I think makes it distinctive is that everything is working against this guy, including himself. Everything he does is a screw up. He can't -- I mean, he can't sit in there with his own editor and talk in a way that's convincing.

His editor is saying to him -- just by the look on his face the editor is saying, oh, Ev. I'm talking to a reporter who has a hunch. As though "hunch" is that there used word in the world.

And of course Everett is someone who bases his entire hope for the future on the fact that his hunches have sometimes turned out OK, although recently not.

So that's where the conflict is and that's what I was going through. And I wanted it to be funny. I mean, this was a chance for the movie to be funny. And I think -- I mean, the exchanges between Jimmy Woods and Denis Leary and Clint Eastwood are the movie's kind of comic high points.

And they're a little over the top and James Woods takes things even farther over the top. But in the context of the movie the jolt of energy he brings I think is welcome.

GROSS: It strikes me that this is a kind of a verbose screenplay for Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood is often a man of few words in movies.

SCHIFF: You're so correct. It's a really verbose screenplay. And it's really interesting that Clint Eastwood, of all people, would be doing it. Because his -- all his rhythms -- I imagine this as a Ben Hecht movie, you know, like "His Girl Friday" or something where the dialogue was whipping by like leaves in a hurricane basically. And it was sort of a newspaper classic -- silly over the top exaggerated, but still it was going to be funny and fast and furious.

And to have Clint Eastwood in there is, you know, sort of a new wrinkle that I never would have thought of because he is getting these lines out at a very different pace from everyone else in the movie. And that's very interesting.

It becomes a character note. And because you can't look at Clint Eastwood's career without looking at the whole thing, without looking at -- you know, every performance becomes yet another extension of this larger thing that he is building. It's very interesting to put him in this context.

You know, this whole thing that he's been doing lately, and really since the movie "Tightrope," of kind of the crumbling of the macho facade. The -- almost the corruption -- the internal corruption. How it eats away and what happens to the hero and what's left of heroism in a person like that. This is a step forward in that.

And even his kind of slowness compared with James Woods seems now, to me, to be part of that. Even though it was not what I intended when I wrote it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us. And good luck.

SCHIFF: My great pleasure.

GROSS: Stephen Schiff is FRESH AIR's former film critic. He wrote the screenplays for the new movies, "True Crime" and "The Deep End of the Ocean." By the way, although he is writing movies he still lives in New York.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Stephen Schiff
High: Screenwriter Stephen Schiff talks about writing the scripts for "True Crime" and "The Deep End of the Ocean." He first established his reputation as a film critic for "Vanity Fair" and Fresh Air. He also wrote film essays and profiles for "The New Yorker." He served an unprecedented three terms as chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. His first screenplay was for the most recent film adaptation of "Lolita."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Stephen Schiff

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Stephen Schiff

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 24, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032402NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Natalie Angier
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: A recent "Time" magazine cover story called, "The Truth About the Female Body" was about the latest controversies over whether behavioral differences between men and women have been determined by biology and evolution. Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of the article, described a new book titled "Woman" as a provocative treatise on women's bodies.

My guest is the author of that book, Natalie Angier who writes about biology for "The New York Times." She describes her book as an attempt to find a way to think about the biology of being female without falling into the sludge of biological determinism.

She says she's tired of reading the latest books on evolutionary psychology or neo-Darwinism or gender biology that try to use science to prove that women are really like all the old canards: that women have a weaker sex drive than men; a relatively greater thirst for monogamy; a comparative lack of interest in achievement and renown; and a quiet self-contained nature.

She thinks these recent studies are reviving a lot of old gender stereotypes.

NATALIE ANGIER, AUTHOR, "WOMAN: AN INTIMATE GEOGRAPHY": I think, for example, the idea that the only thing that men care about in a woman is her appearance, and that the thing that a woman looks for in a man is signs of high status, industriousness, the ability to take care of her and her offspring.

Some of these ideas don't even make particular sense to me. The idea that men only care about a woman's appearance and not about her skillfulness as a mother, her intelligence, all the other things that a stone age man might have seen as useful in somebody who's going to be raising children.

So it's just gotten to the point where even though the evolutionary psychologist may say we're not so -- I mean, don't put up this straw man and don't make it sound so simplistic. In fact, the way it gets spoon fed to the public it is often is really simplistic.

GROSS: What are some of the research evolutionary psychologists are using to back up claims about men caring more about women's appearance and women caring more about men's status?

ANGIER: Well, the most famous bit of data that's relied on for a lot of these claims in mate choice are these very famous mate choice surveys by David Boss (ph) and collaborators of his. Supposedly done across a wide diversity of cultures -- 37 different countries, all six populated continents.

And they all show the same thing, you know, men place emphasis on a woman's appearance, and a woman places higher emphasis on a man's earning power and ambitiousness. And so supposedly these are these cross cultural surveys that are unerring in the conclusions that they reach.

However, there are several things to be pointed out about these. There have been a lot of criticisms of these surveys. One of them being that even though they're claiming to be cross-cultural they're really, in all 37 countries, dealing with a very similar population of people. That is people in universities and colleges.

Most of these surveys are given out to college students. So even if it's a college student in India versus a college student at UCLA, it's still a college student. So a lot of incredibly sweeping claims are made.

The other thing that I think is a problem is that when you look at the results from a lot of these mate choice surveys you see amazing similarities between what men and women think are important. They think, for example, kindness, intelligence and a good sense of humor. And they place those all above these other qualities that we are emphasizing in evolutionary psychology.

That is that men rate looks higher, women financial power higher. You really have to go down to like four or five tiers before you see that difference. And so it's why are we emphasizing this fourth or fifth tier over the similarities. So, I mean, there's a lot of reasons to call it into question.

GROSS: What evidence are evolutionary psychologists and other biologists using from research in the animal world to describe gender differences in humans?

ANGIER: Well, for example, a lot of times we look to close relatives like the chimpanzee -- the common chimpanzees -- where you do see a lot of similarities and behaviors between humans and chimpanzees. And, you know, the males do try to control the females and the females do seem to be somewhat more sedate in their behaviors except during times when they're in estris (ph), in which case they actually go wild.

And so, a lot of the theorizing that's done about primitive human nature is based on analogies with common chimpanzees.

Another thing that some of the critics of the simple minded evolutionary psychology raise is, well we could as easily look at the bonobos, the pygmy chimpanzees, for -- if we want to draw comparisons because the bonobos are as closely related to us genetically as the common chimpanzees are.

In the case of the bonobos you see very different kinds of behaviors. In that case you see sexuality being much more overt, particularly among females. And the females banding together to protect each other. And it's a whole different kind of society that they have.

So you could as easily say, well, why use the common chimpanzees as some kind of template rather than the bonobos? Probably, there is a little of both of them in us. So that's one of the problems.

The other thing is there has been some very interesting research coming out even from chimpanzee data where it was always assumed that the female chimpanzees, although they were known to mate promiscuously, would mate with the males within their troop. Because after all, those males tend to be the ones they spend the most time with.

The males are very aggressive in trying to control female movements. And so it was assumed that those males, particularly the alpha males in those groups, would be the ones fathering the most offspring in the group.

Well, very recent DNA studies have shown that in fact there's very little of that going on. And most of the females are going out of the troop to mate with males elsewhere. And they're taking considerable risks to do that.

They're taking risks to themselves because if the males caught them they'd really try to beat them up seriously. They take risks to their offspring because there's evidence that if the males think that the offspring are not their own they will kill them.

And yet the females are going outside of the troop for secret matings with other males, taking the initiative and doing that. We do not yet know why, but what we can say is that the old idea that males are ardent and seek out sex and females sit around and wait around and wait for sex to come to them is obviously not true even in our closest relatives, the chimpanzees.

GROSS: So you think that some evolutionary biologists are very selective in the research that they use from the animal world?

ANGIER: Yeah. I mean, the problem is that, you know, there's so much data out there and we don't, you know, every species seems to have it's own particular assortment of behaviors. So it's hard to make an exact kind of comparison.

But the accruing evidence seems to be that there is benefits for promiscuity for both males and females, and that they are going to be opportunistic about it. You know, to say well males have more of an incentive to have multiple matings because they can impregnate infinite numbers of females -- well, females may have other reasons for promiscuity.

And so why emphasize the males promiscuity over the females? It just doesn't make sense. The question is, under what circumstances are you likely to see any of this behavior arising? Not is it male specific or female specific.

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Natalie Angier. She covers biology for "The New York Times." Her new book is called "Woman: An Intimate Geography."

I think women would like to think that biology isn't destiny. In other words, that the fact that you're a woman and you have a woman's body and woman's hormones doesn't mean that you are necessarily passive and weak. Which is what the assumption, I think, often was.

You know, that if you were a woman this is what -- this is what your makeup was. On the other hand, you've come to the conclusion that we have to recognize that hormones really do shape a lot of behavior. And you want to understand more about hormones and how they work.

So let's talk about hormones a little bit. First of all, just give us a sense of how your thinking has changed about hormones.

ANGIER: I think I used to be less interested in hormones, thinking that they were relatively unimportant. And my own experience with a disease that I had when I was in my 20s and I had thyroid disease, and all of a sudden I was very conscious of how overwhelming the effects of hormones can be on the body. So that got me thinking about them.

And then I started studying estrogen and testosterone, the classic female versus male hormones. And I begin to realize that it wasn't that interesting going on, although probably not in any kind of simple model that we may have formulated before.

GROSS: We tend to think of estrogen as the woman's hormone and testosterone as the male hormone. But it turns out men and women have some of each, I imagine, in different proportions.

ANGIER: Yes, in very different proportions. Particularly testosterone, men have perhaps 10 times the concentration of testosterone in their blood as women do. Whereas women have a cycling level of estrogen so they peak in midcycle during ovulation and fall.

And when they're peaking they're about 10 times greater than what you see in a man. So it's this tenfold difference seems to be the case in either direction.

GROSS: Do the hormones perform differently in male and female bodies?

ANGIER: Well, that's a good question because it's quite possible that in fact they end up doing very similar things, but they are using sort of different routes to get there.

I mean, one of the interesting things to realize about estrogen and testosterone is they're very closely related, and that testosterone is often converted into estrogen in men's bodies and exerts many of its effects as estrogen.

So it's hard to say well testosterone does this, estrogen does that because there's these enzymatic conversions that go on. But it is also possible that you can take many different routes to the same effect. And so it's hard to say well, men need 10 times more of this testosterone to get the effects. Why is that? We don't know. But they have it, so they probably do need it.

GROSS: Now there is a couple of hormones that I think are really unfamiliar to most of us who don't follow science closely. That you say appear to be essential to family and other social relationships among mammals. And I'm thinking of vasopressin and oxytocin.

Let's start with oxytocin. What is it?

ANGIER: This is a small peptide hormone. It's a little piece of protein that acts in the brain specifically, and it also is released in the body during times of maternal behaviors. It's part of what allows you to give birth. It causes the uterus to contract. And it also causes the breast cells to contract and expel milk.

So it's performing these very sort of functional and pragmatic jobs. And the question is, is it also having an effect in the brain that goes along with those functions that may increase Opheliative, maternal, loving behaviors.

And some of the early evidence suggests that it is a kind of an emotional emulsifier. And I talk about some of the research that's been done with women who are breast feeding and how they can actually see the pulsing of oxytocin during breast feeding.

And when they talk to the women later about their feelings and their personalities and how it's changed during breast feeding, it seems that a stronger oxytocin surge is associated with a greater feeling of mellowness and of relaxation and bonding.

GROSS: What about vasopressin?

ANGIER: Vasopressin, which is a close -- it's kind of like -- you know, testosterone and estrogen are related. And vasopressin and oxytocin are related. And vasopressin is released particularly -- it's released in females after intercourse, but it seems to play a particularly strong role in males after intercourse. And in species where they form into little pair bonds and really sort of cuddle up and seem to fall in love.

Vasopressin seems to perform the role of Opheliative hormone in the males. Whereas oxytocin is somewhat more important in the females.

GROSS: What's some of the most exciting research on the horizon now that would help us understand male and female bodies and behavior?

ANGIER: I think that perhaps the more we understand about the brain the better off we are. The more we understand about the areas of the brain that sort of are involved in different emotions or behaviors, then I think what we'll start to see is, again, it usually seems to be a case of phenomenal overlap between men and women.

So, you know, the more we understand about that perhaps the less likely we are to emphasize differences. I also believe that the more things are changing and the more we see that people can change -- I mean, when you think about it's spectacular that since the 1960s the number of women who have entered the professions like law and medicine has just skyrocketed. It's such a short amount of change.

One generation -- much too short a time for any genetic changes to have occurred. So it suggests inherent flexibility and plasticity in our sort of behavioral palettes.

GROSS: Natalie Angier, I want to think you very much for talking with us.

ANGIER: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Natalie Angier writes about science for "The New York Times." Her new book is called "Woman: An Intimate Geography."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Natalie Angier
High: "New York Times" science writer Natalie Angier talks about her new book "Woman: An Intimate Geography." She is also a Pulitzer Prize recipient for her writing in "The Times."
Spec: Women; Science; Sexuality; Lifestyle; Culture; Natalie Angier

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Natalie Angier
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:54

Chef David Chang On Depression, Being A Dad And The Burden Of 'Authenticity'

David Chang has won James Beard awards as a chef and restaurateur. His first and best known restaurant Momofuku started as very modest noodle bar in Manhattan’s east village. The food was influenced by the food he grew up with--food that used to embarrass him when he was growing up. His parents are from North Korea. He now has restaurant in NY, LA, Vegas, Toronto and Australia. He’s had bipolar disorder for many years and credits cooking and his restaurants with saving his life. He has a new memoir.

52:30

Vaccine Expert: Once A COVID Vaccine Is Available, 'Don't Overthink It. Don't Wait'

Dr. Peter Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital, and says that a vaccine release could begin for selected populations by the middle of December — and that a broader vaccination effort could soon follow.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue