screenwriting evolved as films grew longer and it made sense to figure out, ahead of time, not only what was going to happen to the characters but also how best to show the action through a specific series of shots. by the thirties however, with the microphones and the rest of the recording machinery in use for the first time, writers could no longer anticipate what was technically possible for directors to do. from that point forth, suggestions regarding camera directions, shot scale, length of shots, etc., were left out of the scripts. this arrangement, which is still ongoing, thus remains oddly indifferent to the future transformation of the screenplay into a film. put more forcefully, one could say that screenplays remain formulated as if the movies have yet to be invented. they urgently need to interface with the pictures.
as we know only too well, the formatting that is associated with screenwriting is mandatory. it is supposed to simplify the assessment of the material by readers, actors, producers, etc. yet, because what is evaluated is embryonic at best, that judgment is inevitably flawed. no wonder that so many screenplays turn out to be duds once they are converted into the finished product.
this insistence on a single model also signals from the get go that heterodoxy will not be welcome. the layout is by design as impersonal as legal documents and police reports. it is unnatural, forbidding, and standoffish. to write a script this way is not unlike joining the army and having to put on a uniform. the latter alone now defines you. you have left behind your personality, what made you “you”. a stereotypical script is likely to ensue.
although it is still imperative nowadays to submit a screenplay in the expected format, it doesn’t mean the work has to be engendered that way.
chances are you will start thinking about your topic long before there is a need to coalesce your cogitations in writing. use your cell phone to record your ideas whenever and wherever they come to you. when you begin shaping the material, it doesn’t matter whether you use a pencil or a fountain pen, scratch paper or standard letter-size. if a typewriter is your thing, use it. if you prefer a computer, think of using different fonts or colors to distinguish the protagonists so you don’t have to write their names time and time again.
insofar as the content is concerned, follow the lead of marinetti and think of the page as a creative furnace that welcomes whatever material you decide to throw in. dialogue doesn’t have to be your first concern. you could start by jotting down visual information if it helps you access the mood or the tension in a scene. describe what the camera sees or the movement it performs. don’t forget about the rest of the audio either. what are the sounds connected to the locales occupied by the characters? what do we hear outside? jot down the lines of a song that you think would work well with the scene. finally, add whatever material is helping you catch a feel for a character or a place: a eucalyptus bark, an old photograph, a colorful piece of cloth, a dash of cologne…
my point is that it is important to separate the creative process from the ultimate presentation that goes to an agent. create the work your way, then and only then “translate” it into the required format.
in a screenplay the indented lines are meant to provide all the information needed for a reader (as opposed to a spectator) to understand the story as it moves forward. this concentration on dialogue is nonsensical for two reasons. first, didn’t harold pinter once remind us that silence is often a lot more revealing than words? for silence doesn’t mean that nothing is going on. to the contrary, it can intimate an internal state of being so agitated or confused that, for a moment, language fails the protagonist. second, as already suggested, the words we come up with reflect imperfectly the thinking and emotions that give birth to them. or they too may be but symptoms pointing to something more problematic going on inside the person. they should thus be taken with a grain of salt. use dialogue therefore only when you have exhausted the breadth of information we access by looking at images: the faces of the actors, what they look at, how they stand, what they do, the furniture around them, the posters on the wall, the light in the room, the rain falling outside, etc. there are thousands of ways to exteriorize what is going on in a tale. screenwriters are thus in a mire. what they produce is a necessarily truncated version of the film’s final presentation. adopted in a different historical epoch, dialogue is counted on, but fails, to provide the future film with a solid foundation.
reading involves more than mechanically translating black dots on paper into words. the process requires that we articulate each one “aloud” inside our head as we fly over the chain that links them. on top of that, when reading a dramatic piece like a screenplay, one cannot do so indifferently. one seeks to own the words, to dance with the text. reading therefore is not a flat, objective operation, it involves a performance on our part. the choice of words thus matters a great deal, as does the rhythm of the sentence and the incisiveness of the style. being restricted to dialogue, screenwriters are naturally impelled to come up with material that reads well, a verbal exchange more fit for the theater than film.
our assumption reading a screenplay is that it tells the truth. whereas we take for granted that history is open to updates and revisions, we normally surmise that the events described in a fictional tale actually happen exactly that way and that what the characters say to each other is factual. but that doesn’t have to be the case. if we construe for instance the lines on the page as a transcript from a hidden microphone, it is possible to direct the scene with the participants, aware they are being recorded, amending what they say as a result. suddenly we would no longer trust what is being said. facial expressions and actions would become a lot more relevant. alternatively, we can imagine that the person in charge of the transcript turns out to be a dishonest fellow, hired by one of the protagonists to doctor the original document. if the case, one could stage a scene in a way that makes possible a revised version of the event later in the film (à la the conversation).
we also often take for granted that writing and directing are distinct activities. in fact, the events occurring in the story, the settings that are suggested, the dialogue for sure, all this constitutes a preamble, a first staging, a mise en place of the future film. the term is used (among other realms) in the restaurant business. it speaks of the work of the kitchen staff to make sure that all the ingredients needed for the menu as well as tonight’s specials are available. put another way, the chef will work out her magic only out of what is there: no chilean sea bass with a caper sauce tonight if the fish was unavailable.
the same situation applies to movies. an example: if the first scenes in a screenplay involve going back and forth between a man’s drive to the airport and a woman in a plane landing at jfk, well, regardless of who the director is, we are going to see basically the same images on the screen. ryan gosling, manhattan, and the traffic on one side, jennifer lawrence, the flight attendants, and the final preparations for landing on the other. idem in the terminal: it makes no difference whether a steadicam follows him as he barrels his way around passengers or we see him rushing forward through her pov. regardless of the inventiveness of the staging, we are stuck with components we have seen too many times in films. would moving the encounter from jfk to grand central terminal help? not likely. what about skipping the preamble all together and start the film with a close-up of the two kissing?
the problem therefore is that all too often the mise en place embedded in the screenplay finds its way in the film’s mise en scene. as truffaut once put it, the director then ends up merely illustrating the story. when this is taking place, the essential process of recreating the story from the film’s perspective is forfeited.
if you bunch up together all the letters that make up the text in a screenplay page, you end up covering only a small portion of it. what is left—the blank in the page—is a signifier in its own right. it provides room for reveries. it also speaks of all that is left for the director to do.
so, instead of remaining indifferent to the future of the script, the writing should invite the director to touch base. it should tempt him/her to shake it up, deform it, re-create it in such a way as to release its full potentiality. in other words, it must call for what is not yet in it. how can this be done? in sunrise carl mayer used question marks throughout his script. by so doing, he drew murnau into a discussion on how best to proceed. it may very well be then that the best screenplay would be the one where little or nothing of it is left once the film is complete. the film devouring the screenplay?
“the character wants something”. in the mechanics of screenwriting, these four words are supposed to be the sesame leading to a successful project. at times the goal is psychological in nature, for instance to do something that will redeem the character in his/her own eyes (on the waterfront). other times, it is to successfully execute an assignment of some sort (the mission: impossible series). last but not least, our protagonist can also embark on a journey to acquire some physical object (raiders of the lost ark). what it is doesn’t really matter: it is just a macguffin in hitchcock’s terms. not so coincidentally, to want something is the expected behavior of consumers in a market economy. as for the obstacles encountered during the narrative journey, they tend to be other human beings. it is therefore enough to eliminate them for everything in the world to be fine and dandy again (the end of schindler’s list).
somehow through it all, we are made to believe that anyone can achieve anything as long as he or she keeps at it. how realistic is that? in fact, most of the decisions we make in life are routine. they follow a personal pattern we are comfortable with. events that demand more of us are truly exceptional. beyond that, the “character wants something” model conceals what actually circumscribes even our everyday choices. indeed, each society, at any given time in history, offers its members a range of options to pursue and goods to purchase. what someone can realistically covet though is governed by one’s station in life: social status, wealth, education, connections, class, gender, race, etc. whereas in our films the world is presented as a cornucopia available to all, what i am likely to covet is what anyone in my social status would also be expected to fancy. we may all want a car, but some of us are thinking of a tesla while others can’t afford anything more than a used corolla. protagonists in hollywood movies however never have such problems. they can pursue their goal through thick or thin. they can take a break from a job and fly to europe on a whim. and they certainly never have to wait for a bus.
in hollywood movies, the goal remains steadfast till the end of the tale. independent and foreign films tend to be more adventurous in this area. in l’avventura , having first embarked on a search for a missing friend, a couple ends up having an affair neither of them anticipated early on. in friday night, whatever the main character had in mind before she got stuck in a massive traffic jam no longer matters. the bulk of the film deals with what happens to her after she gives up any hope of getting to her destination. in such films then, unanticipated events force the characters to abandon their plan and go along instead with what life is throwing at them.
if goals and obstacles are so important, wouldn’t they also impact the very writing of the script? what does the screenwriter want out of it? is it money? recognition? a career? the need for a commercial success after a number of disappointments? doesn’t knowing what sells and what doesn’t pressure writers to develop only a certain kind of material? who are the villains that keep them from producing better work? why aren’t they gotten rid of? unlike the fictional mysteries that are cleared up at the end of the film, these very real interferences remain under wraps. yet they greatly circumscribe the range of films that end up on our screens.