Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What’s “Primal” About Your Screenplay?

In a recent post entitled High Concept Rules, screenwriter and screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder discusses some aspects of what makes a film “high concept.” The term that struck me most was “primal.”

Primal — Bruce Snyder, Distribution President at Fox, used this very word in a recent interview to help explain why Taken was a hit: Someone took my daughter. I have to get her back.

That makes absolute sense, doesn’t it? It’s not completely abstract, but it’s also not very specific and yet it conveys a visceral sense of what the film is about. To my mind this works precisely because there’s no mention of characters or location or any other concrete clue as to the specific content of the story. It’s just the raw emotion at the heart of the story, expressed from the point of view of the main character.

Of course we’re talking high-concept here. These are scripts you need to be able to pitch in a few sentences at the drop of a hat. Once produced, these are movies that are marketed to a mass audience using exactly this kind of pithy, gut-level copywriting. But isn’t this also an excellent way of examining for yourself what’s at the emotional heart of a screenplay you’re still working on, even if you’re never going to say as much to another human being?

Sometimes explicitly identifying a central emotional motive in a story can help to focus the action, create unity and direction. If the main subject is, say, revenge (as in Taken), then everything about the characters, the narrative, the locations and so on becomes focused on one or other aspect of this drive. Everyone who is anyone in the movie has an opinion and a feeling about revenge and acts accordingly.

It’s a similar mechanism to articulating the theme, or the premise, or the designing principle, or the central moral question, depending on whose screenwriting jargon you prefer. And it’s similar also in that not all writers like to know what they’re writing about while they’re writing. In other words it's entirely up to you to determine when, if at all, in the writing process you want to clarify what is “primal” about your story.

Just as visualizing your trailer is a great way of exploring the essence of your story, it seems to me that formulating what is “primal” about your story is yet another useful implement to put in your writer’s toolbox, to be taken out and used at your own discretion.

Thanks to Blake Snyder for pointing that out!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Screenwriting's Only Rule: Find Your Voice

I often see advice to screenwriters couched in very normative language. Screenwriters are admonished by authors of how-to books, by professional script-readers, know-it-all bulletin posters anyone else with an opinion on the matter, NEVER to break certain cast-iron rules that will absolutely, definitely ensure that your material is never read.

Um … maybe. Maybe not. Let’s take a look at some of these so-called sacred interdictions and their rationalizations.

  • Never use “We see …” It’s old-fashioned, today’s film execs don’t like it and it shows you’re not up to speed about current screenwriting conventions.

  • Never use the phrase “he realizes.” You can’t see what someone is thinking, it has to be a description of something they do, which demonstrates what they’ve realized.

  • Never use camera angles, it takes the reader out of the story and displays arrogance, as if you’re trying to do the director’s work.

  • If anything can be shown rather than said, always go with the non-verbal alternative. Dialogue is for theatre plays, whereas film is all about telling a story by juxtaposing images.

  • Never describe what someone is thinking, or anything else you can’t see or hear. Similar to the previous rule, but with the patronizing qualification: Save that for your novel.

  • Never use flowery, literary language. Be concise, businesslike and to-the-point. Any other style will be perceived as you showing off your literacy, rather than your storytelling skills.

There are others, I’m sure you’ve heard and read them too. But what strikes me every time I study any great screenplay (i.e., a screenplay that became the foundation for a beautiful movie), is that really good screenwriters don’t care about these rules.

It’s a bit like saying that Arthur Rubenstein wasn’t really a good pianist because he played with flat fingers, which is not how you’re “supposed” to do it.

I recently finished writing an article for TwelvePoint.com on Knocked Up by Judd Apatow. Now there’s a script that could easily be a stage play. It’s almost all dialogue! But it’s a fabulous film script, too. Witty, moving, and visual (yes). Do you think any producer in his right mind would have rejected the script on the basis of some abstract rule concerning how much dialogue is allowed in a film script?

Or what about The Departed, by William Monahan? Now there’s a nail-biting screenplay, full of double-crossing twists and reveals, action-packed and thrilling to the last page. That script contains plenty of no-nos, such as “we see,” “he realizes,” as well as specific descriptions of what someone is thinking. Somehow I think Martin Scorsese was OK with that.

How about No Country For Old Men, by the Coen brothers? A wild and gripping read, whisking the reader along from one unlikely encounter to the next. But it almost reads like a director’s shot list in places, it’s so full of explicit camera instructions.

I could go on. But the point I’m making is that sticking to a set of arbitrary style guidelines is not going to make a screenplay more likely to be picked up and produced. The thing that jumps off the page in the scripts I mentioned above is precisely the vividness and originality of the writing. Above all, what these screenplays have in common is a unity and consistency of style.

They each have a distinct voice.

The inner cogitations of The Departed would seem out of place in Knocked Up. The deeply ironic and self-ridiculing dialogue in Knocked Up wouldn’t fit in No Country For Old Men. The camera-centred style of No Country For Old Men would feel clumsy in The Departed. And so on.

In other words, the only thing that really counts, is making the script a really entertaining and intriguing read by finding your own voice.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How Much Do You Leave Up To The Director?

One way of making a distinction between the screenwriter’s job and the director’s job is this: The writer’s job is to determine what to film, the director’s job is to determine how to shoot it. So when it comes to deciding what to include and what to cut from the script, it’s often a matter of choosing the level of detail.

Finding the right balance between too little and too much detail, is a large part of the art of screenwriting. Use too little detail, and you run the risk of not adequately getting your intention across. Too much detail, on the other hand, can feel restrictive and rigid. So the trick is to use just the appropriate amount of detail for the given beat, making clear what the beat is about while leaving enough room for the director to visualize the beat in his or her own way.

Take for example the famous scene from American Beauty, where Ricky (played by Wes Bentley) shows Jane (Thora Birch) his video recording of a plastic bag being blown about by the wind. Here’s how screenwriter Alan Ball describes Jane’s initial reaction to the video:

Jane sits on the bed. She watches Ricky’s WIDE-SCREEN TV, her brow furrowed, trying to figure out why this is beautiful.

Which is a lot of information for two short sentences. You know Jane is sitting on the bed, you know she’s watching the TV screen and it’s clear she’s feeling confused because she likes Ricky and is trying hard to understand him, so she can decide whether she really wants to get any closer to him.

This little description does a great job of pointing everyone on the set in the same direction. However, none of the information tries to force a particular way of shooting the beat. Which means that as the screenwriter, you hand the director (and the actors) all the necessary ingredients, but you leave it up to them to do the cooking.

A little further along in the same scene, while Ricky expresses the wonderment he felt when he first witnessed the flying bag, all Alan Ball says about Jane’s reaction is:

Now Jane is watching him.

Which is about as brief a description as you can imagine. It doesn’t give any concrete (visual) information other than: Jane has switched her attention from the video to Ricky. However concise though, this little snippet does have a clear function: it shows that Jane is more fascinated by Ricky than by the video. She’s not so much sharing his experience of the video, as feeling something similar while watching him. But again, it leaves the director and the actors free to portray this information in whatever way they find most appropriate.

Some directors will storyboard extensively before venturing onto the set, others like to “let it happen” and then compose the scene during editing. That’s all about execution—the how— rather than inventing the scene in the first place—the what— which is the screenwriter’s job.

As far as I’m concerned, the answer to my initial question is: Leave as much as possible up to the director, while making absolutely sure not to lose the essence of the beat.