Talking up the deal, you were excited and the producer was excited and the young studio exec was fucking beside himself with excitement….Just go away and write it, the exec would tell them…this was a can’t-miss idea. After two years, a new producer and fifteen drafts (only three paid for) based on fifteen conflicting sets of notes, what you had, if you were lucky and the whole thing hadn’t been put in turnaround, was yet another standard-issue piece of shit…
From Richard Russo’s novel,
That Old Cape Magic
It was obvious not all of my fellow Creative Writing faculty members were comfortable with my positioning of screenwriting as more a mercenary than artistic endeavor.
I’d been hired on a one-year contract by a small New England university to teach screenwriting in their Creative Writing program. Afterward, when the slot was posted as a tenure-track position for the following year, I’d put in for it, and, as part of the candidacy process, was required to do a presentation on screenwriting. As I had been with my classes, I was frank and honest about the abuse heaped on and the disposability of both screenwriters and their work.
When the question arose during the presentation as to whether such an attitude from an instructor might scare students away from the profession, I said something like:
“Good! I don’t ever want to hear any student of mine went out to Hollywood and wound up hanging him- or herself from their showerhead. Any student who still wants to give screenwriting a shot after a class of mine will know what they’re in for. Whatever happens to them after that, my conscience will be clear because I’ll know I did what I could to prepare them.”
I was not offered the job. I probably shouldn’t have said the thing about the showerhead.
From their point of view, I get it; this was a creative writing program; consequently, screenwriting was being taught as another form of creative writing. That’s how my predecessor had taught it, that’s how the students I’d inherited from him saw it.
I had been hired, presumably, because of my professional background: two dozen screenwriting gigs over a period of about 35 years. That experience had taught me – and I grant that here I’m speaking in broad strokes — screenwriters are generally not asked to be personally expressive.
What they’re asked to do above all other things is serve. Says Billy Ray, Oscar-nominated for his screenplay for Captain Phillips (2013), “95 percent of what we do is problem-solving” (Rubin). Screenwriter William Goldman goes a few steps further, having once described writing movies as “…shitwork…a rather soulless endeavor” — and this from the man who won Oscars for his screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976) (Goldman, 78).
After I didn’t get the job, I began to wonder how one should teach screenwriting. The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if, in any credible, practical, honest way, that was even possible.
In a 2014 The New Yorker article all-too-accurately titled, “Screenwriting Isn’t Writing,” Richard Brody contrasted the experiences of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner in Hollywood. Fitzgerald’s time in the Dream Factory was, according to Brody, “…a period of illusion, of delusion over all.” Brody quotes from Budd Schulberg’s introduction to Fitzgerald’s unproduced screenplay adaptation of his own short story, “Babylon Revisited”: “Instead of rejecting screenwriting as a necessary evil, Fitzgerald went the other way and embraced it as a new art form…” But while Fitzgerald’s literary reputation “…got him in the door,” writes Brody, “…it didn’t get him assignments.” So, at the same time former journalist and future Citizen Kane co-writer Herman Mankiewicz was advising his old reporter colleagues to jump into the lucrative screenwriting game, telegraphing one of them, “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots” (Kael, 11), one of America’s great novelists of the 20th Century was scratching around Hollywood for sporadic, often uncredited rewrite work (Brody).
Faulkner, on the other hand, “…had no such illusion about screenwriting…”. He amassed a fairly substantial filmography over a 25-year period, and while much of his work is also uncredited, he developed a particularly fruitful and friendly relationship with director Howard Hawks, a collaboration producing two true cinema classics: To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). Writes Brody, “…one of the reasons (Hawks and Faulkner) meshed well is that Faulkner got the idea: namely, that he wasn’t exactly writing; he was providing material that Hawks could make use of in his own way” (Brody).
And that’s the nub of it; the screenwriter does not write for him/herself. In an address Bonnie and Clyde (1967) co-writer David Newman gave to graduating film students some years ago at New York’s School of Visual Arts, he described the lack of proprietorship the screenwriter has even over original material:
“…the only pure vision of the movie is the one that exists in your mind when you write your first draft. For that golden time, it’s yours, and you see this movie that no one has seen and nobody knows about. Unfortunately, that is not the draft that is going to be filmed…you will then be gifted with a lot of collaborators…studio executives and producers who think they have creative input, and you’re going to listen to them, because they sign the checks…directors who have visions of how to reshape your work…actors who certainly don’t have any compunction about telling you…“my character would never say this” – and you will listen because the actor is being paid more than you are.” (Newman)
Read a published screenplay of a classic like Citizen Kane (1941), or any movie you particularly like, after having seen the movie, and you’re bound to be disappointed by what’s not on the page. There’s nothing on the pages by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles capturing the noir feel of Gregg Toland’s cinematography in Kane. Or consider the shriek of an el-train’s brakes bringing the tension in The Godfather’s (1972) restaurant assassination scene to a nerve-jangling pitch; this came not from the screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, but from sound designer Walter Murch in post-production. And the gleaming chrome-striated sets of the early James Bond films came not from their directors or writers, who changed from film to film, or even from the Ian Fleming source novels, but from production designer Ken Adam who was on most of the Sean Connery/Roger Moore Bonds giving them a consistent visual look no matter what director was at the helm.
Even some of the most memorable “writerly” moments in filmdom don’t belong to the credited writer.
In a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), Nicholas Pileggi, who was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay he co-wrote with Scorsese, talks about one of the best-remembered scenes from the movie:
“That scene in, um, ‘I make you laugh’; I didn’t write that. I get credit for that all the time…(actor) Joe (Pesci) made it up. Joe had actually seen that happen, because Joe has been around…he saw some wise guy do that to another wise guy.” (Ratner)
Ray Liotta, who plays the lead character in the movie, improvised the scene with Pesci in rehearsal until it reached a point where they felt they could “lock it down,” and that’s the scene which appears in the finished film (Ratner).
Pileggi tells of another signature moment in the movie which, even though it came up in the writing stage, was pure Scorsese-as-director: the Robert De Niro character silently decides he’s going to kill the man who brought the Lufthansa heist to him. As Pileggi typed the scene of De Niro’s Jimmy Conway standing at the bar having this moment —
“…(Scorsese) says, ‘Put in Cream! Put in Cream!’ I said, ‘What cream?’ He says, ‘Just write that! Write down Cream!’ I said, ‘What’s, what cream? Who’re you talking about?’ ‘Just put it, put it down, do me a favor, just put it.’”
According to Pileggi, Scorsese, at the moment they were writing the scene, had already envisioned the shot; a slow move in to De Niro, the camera slightly overcranked to give the image a dreamy quality, the camera’s movement synched to the intro of the rock classic, “Sunshine of Your Love,” by the band Cream (Ratner).
One of my own personal favorite movie moments takes place in the lead-up to the gun-blazing finale of Sam Peckinpah’s landmark Western, The Wild Bunch (1969): a long walk for four aging outlaws from the brothel where they’ve been holed up to their suicidal face-off in a courtyard with the corrupt Mexican general torturing one of their comrades. In a behind-the-scenes documentary, Walon Green, co-writer of the original story and collaborator with Peckinpah on the screenplay, says that in the script, the Bunch leave the whore house, go to their horses for their guns, and then appear in the courtyard to face the general. It was only while actually shooting the sequence that an inspired Peckinpah told his assistant, “I wanna do a walk thing,” and, on the spot, composed the sequence; one of the emotional high points of the film (Seydor).
And then there’s one of cinema’s all-time great romances: Casablanca (1942), which went through the hands of six writers, was being rewritten day-to-day during shooting with no one sure how it would end, and whose wonderful “button” of a closing line — “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” – came not from any of the writers but from producer Hal Wallis and was dubbed over the closing shot three weeks after filming ended (Dirks, 1).
A poet writes a poem, and that is the poem the reading audience sees. A prose writer pens an essay, a short story, a novel, and the words the writer sets on the page are the words the audience will read. But a screenwriter?
The audience sees an end product of which the screenwriter’s work is probably the least apparent. What they see is the combined effort of dozens — maybe hundreds — of craftspeople working under the guidance of their various department heads who, in turn, work to serve and/or enhance and/or collaborate on the master vision of a given film’s director.
Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap, noted academic who has extensively taught and written about film, looking back at his experience as both writer and producer of the triptych Tales of the Unknown South (1984), captures all of the positives and negatives of the inherently collaborative moviemaking process:
“…as writers, we inevitably visualize as we work on a script and, with a few exceptions, what the director gets on film is often less satisfying (sometimes for very good reasons, frequently involving the producers’ demands) than what we’d imagined. On the other hand, I was always immensely grateful for what other subordinates had added that I’d never thought of – the cinematographers, art directors, and actors who, more often in my experience than the directors, showed me things about the script that enriched and extended what I’d been trying to do…It was probably part of the almost unavoidable conflict of writer and director that led me to see everyone but the director as collaborators in shaping a vision as opposed to someone (the director) who sees what you’ve produced as nothing but raw material.” (Dunlap)
The work of the screenwriter is, by its nature, invisible. It’s like the girder skeleton inside a high rise. What the audience sees is the finished building; after the exterior is thrown up, the wiring and plumbing done, the interior finished, the rooms furnished and decorated, the grounds landscaped, the music selected to be piped into the lobby. A screenplay is not a movie. It is, at best, a blueprint, maybe only a sketch of a movie, and maybe not even that.
In what I consider possibly one of the best college texts for film appreciation courses, Louis Gianetti’s Understanding Movies, Gianetti says in his chapter on “Writing”:
…generalizing about the writer’s contribution in the movie-making process is an exercise in futility because the writer’s role varies immensely from film to film and from director to director…some filmmakers have hardly bothered with scripts. (358)
I illustrated this point in my Introductory Screenwriting class by showing three behind-the-scenes shorts available on YouTube concerning the making of the broad, bawdy Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles (1974), the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest (1959), and Stanley Kubrick’s mind-tripping horror exercise, The Shining (1980).
Blazing Saddles began with a solo draft by Andrew Bergman, but once Warner Bros. took the project into development and signed Mel Brooks to direct, the writing process was, according to Brooks, more comparable to the collaborative process of writing TV comedy (which is how Brooks began his career). Brooks brought in other writers to work with Bergman and the process became five writers in a room spitballing ideas back and forth. Says Bergman:
“…it would be like a game of Telephone…Nobody could really remember whose joke was what anymore because it would start one way and go around and come back in another form.” (Back…)
In contrast, Ernest Lehman was the sole writer on North by Northwest but went into the project without a plan, without even a vague idea of what the plot of the movie would be. Hitchcock had in mind the germ of a story about a traveling salesman being mistaken for a spy which had been sent to him by journalist Otis Guernsey. Hitchcock turned the idea over to Lehman with whom he’d been working on another then-stalled project. Hitchcock discussed with Lehman some ideas for visuals he’d like to try to incorporate (such as the climactic chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore), and part of Lehman’s job was to figure out how to get one or more of them into the movie, regardless of what the final plot might be. In those discussions, Lehman began to develop a general idea of the direction of the story, but by and large —
“…I never knew where I was going next, I was constantly painting myself into corners, and trying to figure a way out of them. As a result, the movie has about 10 acts instead of three, and if I tried to sit down at the beginning and conceive of the whole plot I could never have done it. Everything was written in increments…one page at a time, saying to myself, Ok, you’ve got him out of Grand Central Station, now he’s on the train, now what?…the audience never knows what’s coming next because I didn’t either.” (Knudsen, “The Bizarre…”)
Which produced a screenplay even those having to execute it didn’t always understand. Well into shooting, North by Northwest star Cary Grant publicly moaned to Hitchcock that “…I still can’t make head or tail of (the story)” (Humphries, 144).
But, the execution of North by Northwest is so well done – witty dialogue, a charismatic cast, a story always on the move, Hitchcock’s typically brilliant visual flair – that it only occurs on reflection the plot doesn’t always make much sense (even the title is nonsense; there is no such compass direction).
(This brings to mind stories about Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep which is as confusing as the Raymond Chandler novel on which it’s based. When star Humphrey Bogart pointed out during filming that one of the plot’s murders was unaccounted for, it turned out none of the film’s three screenwriters – which included William Faulkner — nor Chandler himself knew which character was responsible [Ebert]. Yet the film is considered one of the all-time great noirs and part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry much for the same reason North by Northwest is considered among Hitchcock’s best: it’s done so damned well.)
And then there’s Kubrick’s The Shining. Kubrick worked with novelist Diane Johnson deconstructing the source novel by Stephen King and then rebuilding the plot integrating concepts about fantasy and the unreal developed by psychologists Bruno Bettelheim and Sigmund Freud which fascinated the director. After a month of discussion and working out different treatments, Kubrick and Johnson spent eleven weeks writing several drafts of the screenplay. But once the screenplay was finished, well, it wasn’t. Kubrick continued to rework the material through shooting, and even through the editing stage. As with most Kubrick films, the screenplay for The Shining was simply a starting point for Kubrick’s own directorial exploration of the material (Knudsen, “How Kubrick…”).
While a maestro like a Kubrick or a Hitchcock may be able to use a screenplay as a springboard to cinematic iconicism, many a traumatized screenwriter will tell you the reverse is equally possible. Every major studio has a bureaucracy of so-called Creative Executives (Biskind, 402). While none of these CEs has the authority to move a project along (or kill it), they do have the prerogative to give input and put screenplays through what can seem like an endless series of rewrites (McCurrie).
The meddling doesn’t stop even when a project begins the production process. Here’s director Sidney Lumet in one of his last interviews in 2012:
“I went to a production meeting with twenty-six people sitting around a table. Now of those twenty-six people, twenty of them were heads of departments who had never had anything to do with my picture. They were never going to be on location, they wouldn’t come along, they’d never leave Hollywood, and they would have an awful lot to say about it…” (Burski)
I had the chance to interview novelist Mark Poirier on his screenwriting experiences, including adapting several of his own works for the screen. The film version of his acclaimed novel Goats, for which he wrote the screenplay, was so mishandled by its novice director and producers (25 people carry some sort of producing credit on the film), that even though the production stayed close to his script, Poirier admits the finished product is a disaster (an abysmal 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) (Poirier).
Perhaps there is no better example of the powerlessness of a screenwriter once a project is in a director’s hands than what happened to Paddy Chayefsky’s Altered States (1980) when director Ken Russell took the helm. To maintain better control over his scripts, Chayefsky, one of the most respected screenwriters in Hollywood during his day with three Oscar wins to his credit, had set up his own production entity (Brady, 37). He adapted Altered States from his own novel, and even though Russell was contractually obligated to keep Chayefsky’s dialogue intact, his characteristically flamboyant execution of the material was so off-putting to Chayefsky that the writer took his name off the finished film (Dwyer).
Five-time Emmy-winner Bill Persky, who, over the course of his decades-long career in TV and film, advanced from writer to writer/producer to writer/producer/director, says, “I know I became a director to make sure my stuff was as I intended it to be” (Persky).
In practice, then, the idea of the screenwriter as some sort of “author” borders on absurdism. Producers and directors routinely use and dispose of writers until they get the results they want. Screenwriting is the only form of creative writing I know of in which the originator of material, once he/she has accepted money for their work, not only loses any say over their material, but can be dismissed and replaced at will. It would be like a publisher acquiring a manuscript only to replace its author with another author for a major, maybe even unrecognizable revision. That doesn’t happen in publishing, but in the movie business, that kind of writer’s heartbreak is just another day in Hollywood. Wrote Mark Harris in a 2017 New York piece on screenwriting:
…writing remains the most disrespected of filmmaking contributions. I often hear execs admiringly describe writers as “specialists”: This one can give you a page-one dialogue polish in a week, that one can “bring the heart”; this one is a carpenter who can hammer the framework of a plot into place, that one can “add depth”….you can stare at the title card for eternity and you’ll never know who contributed what. (Harris, 80)
One-time studio exec and Variety editor Peter Bart, in his book The Gross: The Hits, The Flops – The Summer that Ate Hollywood, tells about director Michael Bay going through a parade of screenwriters on Armageddon (1998), sometimes only to develop a particular scene or strengthen dialogue for a specific actor (88-89). Impressed with that monologue Robert Shaw gives in Jaws (1975) about surviving the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis during WW II? The credit goes to neither of the billed screenwriters – Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb — but, according to Jaws director Steven Spielberg, it was originally conceived by Howard Sackler, rewritten by John Milius, and edited down by Shaw himself (Stecker). And then there’s The Flintstones, the 1994 live-action movie adaptation of the 1960s TV cartoon series which, according to various sources, passed through the hands of anywhere from 32 to over 50 screenwriters in the years the project was in development.
Then there are the practical issues screenwriters must contend with. Says Robert Towne, who won his screenwriting Oscar for classic neo-noir Chinatown (1974):
Movies are not done under laboratory conditions. They are done over a period of time, under the gun of a budget…and there are all sorts of problems: weather problems, people problems, lots of surprises. People may not know each other, and there may not be enough time to rehearse. You can lose locations. You can lose light. You can lose your fucking mind. (Brady, 407-408)
I landed a job adapting a post-apocalyptic novel which took place in New England during late autumn. The protagonists suffer through the season’s first snowfall, and the climax consists of a helicopter chasing the hero in a car zipping around on a frozen lake, ending with him downing the chopper which crashes through the ice.
But the movie was slated to be shot in New Zealand where the financing was being set up. That meant no autumn, no snow, no frozen lake. I was told not to feel bad about losing the frozen lake: “On our budget, we couldn’t do it anyway.”
I was instructed to do away with as many night scenes as possible as they’re more expensive to shoot. And also for budgetary reasons, lose a major character: the part of a great-grandfather. But keep his dialogue, which the studio execs liked; maybe give it to the great-granddaughter.
And then: tamp down the violence. I objected, saying the movie easily met the standards for a PG-13 rating. Apparently, there was an individual who disagreed.
“Who the hell is he?”
“He represents the bank putting up the money.”
So the action scenes were tempered.
Some years later, I was working on a low-budget thriller, and, again, the writing had to take into account the logistical limits of the physical production. As it was originally written, Road Ends (1997) was set far down in the Florida Keys. The main character, Maceda, who’d come to the U.S. years earlier as a Cuban refugee, is now on the run from a drug lord. To lead the bad guys away from his family, he heads down into the Keys to hole up for a face-off with the villain in a small town near the now-closed Coast Guard station through which he’d been brought as a child picked up on a raft. I thought there was a nice texture to Maceda going back to the place where his American sojourn had begun, staring out at the ocean where his homeland lay not far beyond the horizon.
But the company making the movie couldn’t afford a Florida location shoot. Instead, the film was shot in the hills outside of L.A., the Straits of Florida were replaced by a lake, the shuttered Coast Guard station became a shuttered orange-packing plant. Not quite the same thing.
Easily the most uncomfortable rewrite request on the project was to write in a completely gratuitous sex scene, and when I explained the plot allowed no credible way to carry that out, I was asked if there was any way to at least get the female lead naked: “Maybe coming out of the shower or something like that?”
When I balked, it was explained to me, “Our marketing guy says if you get the girl naked, it’ll add fifteen percent to the overseas sales.”
So, to go back to the question we began with, only more emphatically: how in hell does one teach this?
True, there are countless books, seminars, and online instructionals for the aspiring screenwriter, and while one could endlessly debate their relative merits (or lack thereof), the sheer mass of them can easily give the impression there are infinite ways to teach screenwriting. However, what’s clear, at least to me, is that as a general rule these how-to vehicles are designed to help the novice, writing on his/her own not accountable to anyone but their own self, turn out a completed draft of original material – a “spec” script – that is good and/or marketable (no, they’re not always the same thing). Says Robert Towne, “I know there are places where they teach screenwriting, but there are no rules” (Brady, 425).
Learning how to write a good script is not learning screenwriting, and that’s not just me indulging in a bit of semantic gamesmanship.
For one thing, in terms of sheer tonnage, most paid movie writing work is either gun-for-hire assignments where a producer and/or director have hired a writer for a specific project, or it’s rewrite and script “doctoring” chores. Says Bill Persky, “…most of what I have written was filling in the next episode of people someone else had created, and except for originals, that is what most film writers are doing. There is a limited amount that’s original…” (Persky). From Robert Towne: “All scripts are rewritten…the only question is whether it is rewritten well or badly” (Brady, 406). In other words, most working screenwriters earn a lot if not most of their money writing what someone else wants them to write. Mari Okada, who worked her way up from writing direct-to-video schlock to acclaimed anime features, puts it nicely in her autobiography: “…screenwriting is the kind of job where you receive a brief: ‘I want a script for X with Y kinds of features’” (Okada).
Screenwriting is sitting with a producer wearing an expensive track suit and orange-tinted sunglasses asking you to write a thriller resembling a best-selling novel but changing it enough so he doesn’t have to buy the rights to the novel, and it has to open in the lobby of the Dorchester Hotel in London. Why? “Because I love that hotel!” (True story.)
Screenwriting is an agent offering to peddle your sci fi screenplay if you can work in a scene where the creature is in the face of the female hero. When you point out that not only is there no place in the plot offering that opportunity, but it’s a painfully obvious steal from Alien (1979), the agent enthusiastically gushes, “I know! I love that shot!” (Another true story.)
Screenwriting is ghosting on a cable movie for an ill writer whose name is part of the reason the project is getting made, and having to deal with often conflicting input from the network, the production company’s New York office, the production company’s L.A. office, and the writer, none of whom are communicating or coordinating with each other. (Yes, this really happened, too.)
That is screenwriting. “Each project is different,” says Robert Towne, “there’s not very much carry-over from film to film” (Brady, 423). Compounding these sundry insanities is that they often take place within pressure cooker time frames. Veteran screenwriter Mark Sanderson advises novices to set strict deadlines for themselves while working on their spec scripts to accustom themselves to the demands they’ll find in the professional environment:
If you’re working under a WGA union contract, the minimum time for a first draft is usually twelve weeks. You can guarantee the producer or executive will start calling your agent or manager in about four weeks, sniffing around to see how you are progressing…If you want to work professionally…you will need to work efficiently under a deadline and at the best of your ability… (Sanderson)
On non-WGA projects, the time frames become outrageously accelerated. This is the experience of screenwriter Travis Rink on his non-union low-budget thriller Caroline at Midnight (1994) for Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures:
(Concorde production chief Mike) Elliott reached into his desk and held up a check. “We want to do this movie,” he told Rink… “I am prepared to pay — ” and he gave Rink a number. “This is a check for 80% of it. You’ll get the rest when the rewrite is done.” They sealed the deal then and there and Elliott handed over the check. “What do we need to get started?” Elliott asked.
“I can be ready to start in one hour,” Rink told him, then took the check to his bank, made sure it was good, deposited it, and headed back to the office…
“It was 6:30 (in the evening),” Rink remembers. “I had a portable word processor with the script on it. They asked me what I needed. I said, ‘I need Chinese food, a six-pack of beer, two packs of cigarettes.’…I wrote from about seven that night to five the next morning. And that was it.” (Mesce, Reel…, 149).
Rink at least had the luxury of doing his spec first draft on his own time. I’ve done non-union jobs where I’ve had to turn in a complete first draft in less than a week.
So, even if you think Robert McKee’s “Story” seminars are the biggest gift to aspiring screenwriters since laptops, there’s nothing in them to prepare you for these kinds of working conditions. The question I’m wrestling with is: is there anything that can?
“Movies are like wars,” says Robert Towne, “The guy who becomes an expert is the guy who doesn’t get killed” (Brady, 423).
So, how does one make the screenwriting student an expert? At least enough of one to survive his/her initial professional foray?
Dedicated film programs have a focus and architecture to them expressly designed to cultivate some level of a starter’s expertise. But what about where screenwriting is offered as an English or Creative Writing course (my experiences) without a lot of the cinema-related foundation courses required in a film program? If the aim of the course is to provide at least some level of professional grounding, then it has to be understood that of all creative writing forms, arguably none of them are so bound up with non-creative issues as writing for the movies. Trying to teach screenwriting to students lacking at least a minimal understanding of film history and of the motion picture business is like teaching someone to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a pool while they’ve got a cinderblock in each arm. By the end of the day, the skimmer is clogged with bodies.
When I say film history, I’m not talking about classical cinema chronology i.e. knowing the importance of Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery” (1904), Edison, D.W. Griffith, Citizen Kane, etc. I’m talking about a filmic data bank which essentially acts as a lingua franca in the development of material; common reference points.
Those reference points may change from generation to generation, but when I was first coming up, if a producer or director discussing the flavor and tone he/she wanted a project to have tossed around descriptives like “Felliniesque,” “Kubrickian,” “Bergmanesque,” or said they wanted a “Hitchcock villain,” or a “noiry feel, not Chinatown neo-noir, but classic Bob Mitchum noir,” I would know what they were after.
Several years ago I was hired to do a screen adaptation of Jean Craighead George’s classic Y/A novel, Julie of the Wolves. The novel concerns a young Inuk girl on a grueling odyssey across the Alaskan tundra in search of her long-lost father. The bulk of the story has Julie bonding with a family of wolves as she tries to survive the harsh Arctic environment. In discussion with the producer who’d hired me, we came to agree this would be a minimalist, visually-driven piece with little dialogue or exposition, and where the environment would be an integral character in the story. If that sounds a bit amorphous and you’re wondering what that would look like, that’s because it is amorphous. That’s why our conversations went like –
“Yeah! Something between Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf (1983) and Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972)!”
These references are a way of articulating that which defies verbal articulation. Naturally, the smaller the data bank of references, the more difficult that discussion. The data bank of most of my screenwriting students tends to be limited to the widely popular and/or cultish, and almost exclusively to film releases within their own life spans.
Taking the point one step further, most of my screenwriting students have little understanding of the film medium itself; how it works, why it works the way it does, what its strengths and limitations are. In most cases, having never taken a film appreciation course, they show little awareness of the purely visual possibilities of the medium, and in their overwritten descriptions – including what’s going on inside a character – one senses them trying to shoehorn a sensibility more literary than cinematic onto the screen.
Conversely – and for the same reason – they also don’t understand what film can’t do.
Film has no “interior”; as a general rule, it can only work with what we are able to see and hear. If Goodfellas had been a novel, a good writer could have gone on for a nice, meaty paragraph, maybe even a page, about what’s going through Jimmy Conway’s head as he stands at a bar deciding to murder the annoying blabbermouth who brought him the Lufthansa caper. Indeed, many of my students have done something similar on the script page.
But that’s writing for a reader, not for the camera. Film can’t give us that kind of interior mental process. Martin Scorsese can only suggest it with that camera move into De Niro, juicing the malevolent tone of the shot with his off-speed camera and the dark, opening chords of “Sunshine of Your Love.”
I once interviewed film critic Stephen Whitty on the fallacy of the Show, Don’t Tell concept, in the process of which he gave a fairly good explanation of one of the limits of a medium which deals much better with the concrete than with the abstract which lends itself much more easily and even naturally to literature:
The reason that novelists like Faulkner and Joyce are so tough to film is that nobody ever read those writers for their plotting; you read them for the words, for the ideas, and if you only concentrate on the storytelling, as movies tend to do, you lose a great deal of what makes them work. The eternal power of The Great Gatsby comes from the words on that last page, as Fitzgerald talks about America and hope, and romanticism and dreams; he uses the green light at the end of Daisy’s pier as a symbol but for a filmmaker to just show us that light without the words accompanying it is to strip the image of its meaning. (Mesce, “What Do You Mean…,” 38)
The missteps my students make often come out of a lack of basic knowledge of how movies are made and, consequently, what the role of the screenwriter is. Their scripts tend to be overwritten, with dense, prosy descriptions – novel-like – including their physical descriptions of characters. They tell directors where to put the camera, actors how to say their lines, work out specific blocking in scenes. I’ve even seen a few student pieces which tell the music composer what the music should be like under certain scenes.
They also don’t understand – and sometimes actively reject – the need to understand the motion picture business, seeing that end as irrelevant to their creative endeavors.
The professional reality, though, is the business not only dictates what movies get made, but how much/little support they’ll get if they do get made, and what compromises in the material will be asked (I say “asked” even though I’m referring to what’s really a camouflaged demand).
Understanding the business is about more than keeping an eye on box office scores, although that’s a useful gauge as to what’s working for audiences (and to what degree), and what’s not, while a canvass of reviewers can provide some insight as to why something is working (or failing). But one also needs to parse the numbers, and get past the idea that just because you and your friends loved a movie doesn’t mean it’s either a qualitative of quantitative success.
Show students hard numbers and my anime aficionados are surprised to see just how narrow a niche the genre has here in the U.S. (which is why if you want to write anime, consider moving to Japan), or that some big budget theater-filler was actually a flop because of its exorbitant cost, while a small art house title they never heard of was a success because of its return on its small budget.
What does this have to do with screenwriting? It teaches you to write your straight dramas (i.e. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri ) to be shot economically because straight dramas tend not to be huge earners (Three Billboards was shot for $12 million in contrast to, say, Justice League released the same year with a price tag of $300 million; Billboards was hugely profitable with a domestic take of $54.5 million while Justice League stiffed despite finishing in among the top ten earners of the year with a take of $229 million); it teaches you there is little market for intellectual science fiction (2018’s Annihilation with an impressive 87% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes but was a dud with a $32.7 million domestic gross against a $40 million budget); that silly (2017’s A Bad Moms Christmas; $72.1 million) out-earns warm and witty (also from 2017, The Big Sick; $42.8 million), no matter the reviews (29% positive on Rotten Tomatoes for Bad Moms; 98% for Big Sick).
Study the business and you also learn that marketability is as much a part of the discussion (sometimes the deciding vote) on whether or not a movie gets made as the quality of the work (I once included a gratuitous car explosion in a script because I knew it would help the production company decide the project “would cut a good trailer” – and, indeed, when the film was shot, the exploding car was in the trailer).
The business also tells students how to (providing the industry gods smile on them and they land professional work) navigate the shoals of the profession and build a career. Students looking at writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan, for example, know about his Batman films and big-budget hits like Inception (2010), and consequently think that kind of material is their gateway into the business. But that’s looking at the caboose of a train going by and saying, “I want to ride that car!” not realizing there’s nine cars and a huffing-and-puffing engine pulling it along.
What my students don’t know is that Nolan made his first movie – Following – in 1998 for about $6,000. It was the success of Following that got him the $9 million Memento in 2000, the success of which brought him his first gig with a major studio – Warners – with the $46 million Insomnia, the success of which persuaded Warners that Nolan was the guy to revitalize their Batman franchise. Batman Begins (2005) is Nolan’s breakout film, and thereafter he bounces between turning out Batman sequels for Warners and doing more personally idiosyncratic work like The Prestige (2006), Inception, and Interstellar (2014). It’s this ascending, unbroken string of critical and commercial successes that buys Nolan the license to go to Warners with a skimpy 76 page script with a challenging fractured narrative chronology, little in the way of dialogue or conventional characterization, set against a WW II battle most movie-goers have never heard of and in which the Good Guys lose, with a production price tag of $150 million. In effect, Dunkirk (2017) was a project 19 years and 9 films in the making.
I saw this professional myopia at work in one of the best-written pieces in my Advanced class from an inherited student. It was to be the first entry in a multi-film fantasy epic, sort of in the vein of the Lord of the Rings films. My student was genius at world-building with blocks of the most detailed descriptions of fantastic environs and equally fantastic inhabitants, including the main character: a humanoid reptilian samurai-like warrior. He had great command of dialogue and character.
It was also, to my eye, going to be hugely expensive, easily – based on similar fantasy epics – in the $150-200 million range (Hollywood rule of thumb is a movie has to gross 2-3 times its cost to break even; the American movie industry has averaged 715 releases per year over the last 5 years, with an average of only 6 per year earning $300 million or better – this script’s minimum break-even).
I ran it by a veteran writer/producer acquaintance to see if his opinion jibed with mine. He did the calculation: a big-budget, effects-heavy fantasy from a new writer with no produced or published credits, an original spec fantasy not building on a brand name franchise (like, say, the Marvel universe characters) or connected to a well-known literary work (like the Lord of the Rings movies). Verdict: “Veteran writers can’t sell that stuff.”
All of this naturally has to be integrated into working on traditional story-telling tools like character, dialogue, setting, etc., although sometimes mightily tweaked for the specific demands of the medium.
I did concoct one exercise that did more or less capture the craziness and arbitrariness of professional screenwriting and that also seemed, thankfully, fun for most students.
Each student wrote a 10-15-page original piece. The originals were turned in without anything identifying the writer. Then each member of the class randomly selected one of those pieces and was tasked with a rewrite. The rewrite commands were a set of completely arbitrary (but industry-typical) instructions drawn from a hat: make the main characters younger; add an older character; write in a product placement; eliminate most exteriors; add a teen romance; add a cameo for Ryan Reynolds, etc. They’d had a week to do their originals, but only a few days to execute the rewrite.
The results of this exercise are always interesting. Some can’t pull it off, some offer a definite improvement, but the most eyebrow-raising pieces are those which are neither better nor worse but refreshingly different. Frankly, this isn’t any different than what happens at the professional level.
The most beneficial exercise I could’ve brought into these classes but was never able to pull off would’ve been to work across departmental boundaries to collaborate with theater and film/video classes to film at least some select scenes from some student scripts. Even if all that was recorded were actors at a table read, the experience of seeing material interpreted by actors not envisioned by the writer, under the guidance of a director with his/her own view of how the material should be rendered, would’ve been, I believe, an eye-opener for all concerned. That would’ve been close to Robert Towne’s proposition that, “The only way you can effectively learn about screenwriting is to write something and then see it done as you’ve written it. Then you can see where you went right, and where you went wrong” (Brady, 425).
Had I been able to pull together the components from different parts of the school, it might’ve answered a complaint some of my inherited Advanced students had: that unlike other writing classes and my predecessor, I didn’t have students workshop their pieces in class. Why? Bluntly, if you want to workshop screenplays, you don’t workshop them for other screenwriters; you workshop them in front of a class of directors. Why?
Because that’s how movies work.
I remember hearing, some years ago, that the goal of military training wasn’t to teach soldiers how to be good soldiers since any combat veteran could tell you that nothing in training could prepare you for actual combat. The goal of all those weeks of training was to give the new soldier enough skills to maybe survive in the field long enough to learn from the combat experience itself.
Similarly, it’s hard for me to picture any kind of screenwriting program that can truly prepare a twenty-something aspirant for the head-spinning variety of crazinesses and absurdities and psychic pains which constitute professional movie-making. To the dismay of some of my colleagues, I never advocate screenwriting as a goal for any of my students because I know first-hand how crazy, absurd, and painful it can be, and that most screenwriting careers also tend to be, well, not really careers.
I’ve often compared a screenwriting career to one in professional football: if you make it to the pros, you’re going to have some hot years, then a couple of not-so-hot years, and then in all probability wish you’d minored in accounting because your years in the game are over. And, unlike pro football, the length of that tenure will have had little to do with the quality of your work, but more about good and bad breaks: a move that gets made is miscast, or misdirected, or mismarketed, or there’s a change in studio management while your project is in development and everything pre-dating the new management – including your project — is killed, or — … It goes on and on and on. “(If) you must make a choice between luck and talent,” said director Robert Aldrich, whose many films included The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), “you have to opt for luck. It’s nice to have some of both…but if you can’t, luck is the answer” (Silver, 16). Why?
Because that’s how movies work.
I had a student – one of my older, Advanced students – ask me, “Then why do it?” If you were always compromising your material even on gun-for-hire jobs, and the odds of anything you sold or were hired to write actually making it to the screen were a hundred to one, and your chances of a long career about equally as bad, why do it?
I smiled. “Man, because you get to write a movie!”
To anybody for whom that’s not answer enough, I say do something else.
- Bill Mesce, Jr.
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