Everyone thinks it’s easy.
Some years ago, a Canadian screenwriter wagishly suggested that the typical Canadian film was the story of a woman living in a remote rural setting, enduring a life of poverty and hardship. One day, early in the film, as she’s doing the dishes, she looks out the window, sees an owl and it ruins her life. And that’s pretty much it. Not what you’d call a compelling story.
A film or movie requires a strong narrative line. The memorable movies you’ve seen (e.g. “The Third Man”, “Citizen Kane”, “The Godfather”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “On the Waterfront”, “The Bicycle Thief” etc.) all contain an imperative story; and although character, dialogue and setting might appear to be the most viable elements visible in a compelling screenplay, narrative lies just beneath the surface, tightly binding the other elements. A successful movie depends on strong performances from imaginative actors and a well-executed concept from an imaginative director; but if the screenplay lacks a taut narrative it’s unlikely the actors and director will be able to salvage the movie.
Theme and voice support narrative (even sometimes carrying it—e.g. ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘The Third Man’) and any writer utilizing all three elements should be able to create a motivated and believable screenplay.
If it’s that easy, why then does the industry continually regurgitate the American Movie Narrative (as in the archetypal cut line: ‘What they did will shock you! What he did will make you stand up and cheer!”)? Does every movie need a car chase? How many times must we watch a car flip up into the air, land on its roof and explode? In ‘commercial’ movies, there’s a constant insistence on playing to the lowest common denominator; and the screenwriter in this instance is only a hired gun, aimlessly firing blank clichés.
In the picture business, there is (what might be termed) a “chaos of purpose”, a struggle between the two groups that dominate the movie industry—the ones who know how to make pictures; and the ones who know how to get pictures made. For the most part, those who know how to make pictures (i.e. screenwriters and directors) lack the money-thugness of mind required to get one made; while those who know how to get pictures made (i.e. producers)—those with moxie enough to assemble the necessary financial elements (close the deal)—will almost invariably not have the creative understanding of how to make one (i.e. few of those who know how to get pictures made comprehend the difference between ‘laughing at the characters’ and ‘laughing with the characters’). Each movie group needs the other; and when both parties understand that, wonderful pictures can be created.
Into this constant scuffle steps the screenwriter; the wary ones able to slip substance into the work; while the eager, unaware ones are continually batted about by the perpetual input of unoriginal ideas, from those who know how to get pictures made.
The old joke about the naive starlet sleeping, not with the director, but with the screenwriter—shows the screenwriter as a creative eunuch. But without the screenwriter—without words on paper—what would they shoot? A story (probably apocryphal) from the Hollywood of the 1930’s, a period during which émigré German director Ernst Lubitsch successfully created a series of sophisticated comedies commonly referred to as having the “Lubitsch Touch”, illustrates the irony. At an awards ceremony for Lubitsch, or so the tale goes, a disillusioned screenwriter, making a presentation, arrived at the dais, held up a screenplay consisting of nothing but blank pages, stared down at Lubitsch in the audience and said, “put the ‘Lubitsch Touch’ on this!”
The screenwriter who wants to work regularly should avoid ‘creative’ confrontations; but to treat all manner of creative input from those who know how to get pictures made with extreme caution. Producers and producing associates unknowingly place a terrible burden on their project when they insist on being ‘creatively involved’, especially in the early stages of script gestation, a period during which the writer needs to approach the work with his or her imagination unfettered. The astute screenwriter will play the ‘attentive listener’, open to all suggestions—many of which will be exceeding feckless. All who work on a picture have their own idea of what the movie should look like, what should occur, and what the characters should say and do; and the seasoned screenwriter will watch and listen for any story fragments that could flesh out the screenplay—bearing in mind that they alone are responsible for creating a tight, imaginative and coherent story.
Those who know how to get pictures made will want to fill a movie with ‘events’, large actions to excite even the most simple-minded viewer (e.g. a car flipping up into the air, landing on its roof and exploding; horses running over a cliff, or the sudden occurrence of an avalanche or earthquake); but plot-driven ‘events’ cannot replace the connection that grows between a screen character and the audience when the emotion being portrayed is real and palpable. This comes from incident which comes from character—a series of incidents creating the conflict between the characters, and thereby forming the narrative. For a short time, in the early and mid 1970’s, it appeared as though character and story had infected commercial moviemaking. With the success of pictures like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” in the late 1960’s, and particularly of “Easy Rider”, a low-budget, independent, contemporary film, producers became aware that movies with strong subject matter—even those with a ‘down’ ending and three-dimensional characters—could do well at the box office.
Subsequently, pictures with weighty themes, creatively controlled by those who knew how to make pictures, were successfully completed and marketed: “Shampoo”, “Chinatown”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “Mean Streets”, “One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest”, “Paper Moon”, “The Last Picture Show”, “Annie Hall”, “Taxi Driver”, “Five Easy Pieces”, “Clockwork Orange”, “M.A.S.H’, and others. For moviegoers hungry for substance, it was a bonanza, and it looked as though Hollywood might be competing with the theatre in terms of substance.
In the late 1970’s, two events signalled the end of this renaissance. The first was the unimaginable financial success of “Star Wars” (1977) a movie by George Lucas that demonstrated to producers that simplistic story elements (i.e. two-dimensional characterizations) presented in exotic locales (i.e. outer space), reminiscent of earlier action movies (i.e. spaceship combat scenes modelled on combat scenes from Hollywood WWII war movies) could fill the box office. The second was the publication of Screenplay (1979) by Syd Field, a textbook set of mechanical rules for writing screenplays, which focused on technique—the emphasis on plot points and pages of character history—rather than process.
Field’s book promotes a left-brain, pedantic approach to screenwriting, ignoring the turbulent possibilities that hover on the edge of the writer’s imagination—the wild, plot-less, glimmers of the right brain. He stresses the need to outline all story elements (i.e. with plot points), and synopsise the plot before beginning writing. Field even disagrees with Kurt Vonnegut’s view of art and life as “a series of random moments”, asking the reader to believe that life is a continuum of beginnings, middles and ends—just like in the movies (reinforcing Gore Vidal’s wry observation that all Hollywood movies end with a wedding). Screenplay represents the kind of simplistic approach that has great appeal to those who know how to get movies made, and the book has, apparently, sold a zillion copies. Yikes! Ironically, the book’s writing is repetitive, lacks vigour, and is a slog of a read. Much more informative—and modest—is Stephen King’s On Writing, a personal, thoughtful and useful explanation of how to write a story—the essence of the well-made screenplay (as verified by the number of Stephen King books made into movies).
Although the Lucas / Field ‘events’ led the way to the current creative stasis in Hollywood (within the context of the dumbing-down of late 20th Century America), we can’t indict either gentleman for the mediocrity or mendacity of contemporary Hollywood movie-making. Those who know how to get movies made (regardless of what they say) continue to focus on the widest possible demographic. Lacking the creative understanding of their movie mogul predecessors (i.e. Thalberg, Goldwyn, etc.), a young movie executive with an MBA is less likely to understand how to make good pictures than one with a degree in the humanities; and, with the money side making creative decisions, it’s difficult to find a Hollywood movie that doesn’t offer up endless, worn movie clichés. Mr. Lucas’ movies and Mr. Field’s book are not pernicious, but their success heralded the epoch of the bloated, expensive, mundane Hollywood movie.
One interpretation of Hollywood history might suggest that those innovative early ‘70’s films were but a blip on the screen, and that the movie industry has always been—and always will be—a Carney show (i.e. the Academy Awards). Hollywood always leans to the money, and the filmmaker who wants to put their vision of ‘real life’ on the screen usually needs to leave Hollywood.
So where does that put the erstwhile screenwriter? Still trying, we hope, to write potent subject matter in supple, uncluttered prose, like those who have gone before. Novelist Graham Greene who crafted film scripts first in story form (e.g. The Third Man)—or simply got on with writing the novel before attempting the screenplay—tells us, “To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script [italics ours]… one must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on.”
Stirling Stiliphant, a prolific writer of TV series and movies, in the original edition of The Screenwriter Talks to the Screenwriter, suggested foregoing the scene directions that facilitate the production manager’s breakdown of the script, freeing the screenwriter to focus on narrative. Instead of scene headers such as EXT – NIGHT – RIVER, he thought it more effective to use a line of prose (i.e. “the blue moonlight threw her shadow across the river”). From that description (and by reading the scene) the production manager would be expected to know the location, time of day, props, actors, etc. needed—and the actors and director would now be enveloped in the story’s atmosphere. To Mr. Stiliphant, being part of the production manager’s breakdown process represented creative restraint, and which might occasionally cause screenwriters to wonder why they’re thought of as mechanics and not magicians.
Take hope, screenwriter. There are still a few—of those who know how to get pictures made—intelligent producers left who understand how essential a well-made screenplay, composed of strong subject matter, is to the completion of an arresting motion picture. Given the vagaries of the movie business, the odds are long against your wonderfully ‘meaty’ screenplay being produced; but it will be read, and possibly optioned; and the screenwriter might even be offered other work, enabling him or her to continue making a living.