Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why You Shouldn’t Always Try To Be Clever

Sometimes screenwriters try too hard and end up making their own work more difficult. It’s a bit like when there’s a word on the tip of your tongue: Making more effort to remember it often renders the word more elusive.

Here’s a small anecdote on a similar topic from Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who has been a writer for almost fifty years, and has worked with some of the most talented actors and directors both in theatre and cinema. A man who knows how to write, in other words.

When he agreed to write the screenplay for The Pianist (directed by Roman Polanski), he found he didn’t know how to start. Polanski called a number of times to ask how the work was progressing, and Harwood bluffed. He told the famous director that he was making headway, when in truth he hadn’t written a word because he couldn’t find a way of getting started.

He considered giving up, and when Polanski called again to ask how the screenplay was coming along, Harwood confessed he hadn’t written a word because he didn’t know how to start. Polanski barked down the phone: “The film’s called The Pianist, right? Show him playing the piano!!!”

This astonishingly straightforward and simple suggestion was all Harwood needed to get going, and the resulting film won masses of awards, including Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

As Sigmund Freud once said: Sometimes a cigar is a cigar. In screenwriting terms, it’s tempting to search too zealously for overt symbolism and meaning in every single detail of a script, whereas sometimes the obvious and purely visual is precisely what you need.

There’s a time for cleverness and there’s a time for straightforwardness. And sometimes, the obvious and purely visual can even turn out to be the cleverest, most meaningful image of the entire film.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,
Fine article.

Sometimes cleverness equals gimicky.

Some action movie are too clever and ends up being too gimicky.

Look at Leathal Weapon. It's not clever. Just an honest action movie.


Raving Dave Herman said...

I quite agree. The same goes for excessive special effects, over-use of jump cuts and anything else that doesn't genuinely add depth or emotion to a scene.

Lethal Weapon works, precisely because everything is about the characters and their shortcomings.

I don't imagine for one moment that Ronald Harwood was trying to be clever or gimmicky, but his anecdote shows that in some cases a simple solution is the best one.

Take care,