Monday, October 4, 2010

More Thoughts On Writing From Theme

Opinions are always divided as to whether the screenwriter benefits from focusing on theme ahead of other aspects of a screenplay.

I’ve been thinking more about FilmUtopia’s recent thought-provoking article, inspired by another blog, quoting an interview with screenwriter-director, Paul Schrader. In the interview, Schrader discusses the importance of knowing your theme and finding an appropriate metaphor, before you build your story. This in contrast to many screenwriting books and seminars—at least those I’m familiar with—which discourage the aspiring screenwriter from thinking about theme before knowing what they are going to write in terms of genre, plot, characters, etc. And FilmUtopia builds on this by emphasizing the importance of writing screenplays in order to explore and express something meaningful, rather than simply to create a safe, familiar and readily marketable rehash of existing films.

As Many Screenwriting Methods as Screenwriters
My response was to applaud the validation of screenwriters whose way of working doesn’t necessarily conform to the models advocated by screenwriting gurus or to the logline-synopsis-treatment-outline-first draft step plan taught on most screenwriting degree courses. Screenwriters come from all kinds of backgrounds, and there are about as many ways to write a screenplay as there are screenwriters. Just listen to Jeff Goldsmith’s podcasts, or read books like The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters by Karl Iglesias, and Story and Character by Alistair Owen.

Theme is like Radiation
So why is the concept of theme always so contentious? Why do many screenwriting teachers treat it with such circumspection? Because theme is a bit like radiation: given in the right dosage it’s medicinal, given in the wrong dosage it’s lethal. So, assuming that you don’t want to poison your audience, but rather give them some kind of meaningful experience, what are the main pitfalls to watch out for?

People don’t go to see movies in order to find out what some more or less anonymous screenwriter thinks about, say, the ethics of marital infidelity. They don’t usually care how erudite the screenwriter is, either. And a person who wants to hear a sermon, will go to their church, mosque, etc. People generally watch films, first and foremost, in order to be swept up and away from their daily reality for a couple of hours. Emotionally, intellectually, physically. For some, a romantic comedy does the trick, for others it’s horror or art house drama, and so on. Speaking from experience, as soon as I feel like a film is trying too hard to tell me what’s right and wrong, or is pushing a particular political agenda too forcefully, I become distracted and even annoyed.

It’s not a simple thing to weave theme into action and dialogue. As a result, what can easily happen, is that a movie spends too much time repeating the same “message,” scene after scene. It’s often a symptom of the screenwriter underestimating the intelligence of the audience, being afraid the audience (or the producer) won’t “get it.” But whatever the reason, once you understand what a film is about, you don’t want to be constantly reminded of it.

We all know it’s not good to cheat, murder, steal and so on. However, it can be very tempting, especially when confronted with people in the film industry who demand everything be spelled out for them, to “dumb down” your theme. For example, instead of, say, writing about how different people deal differently with the responsibility that comes with parenthood, you choose to paint a black and white picture in which there are good and bad parents. In my opinion, a degree of moral ambiguity can turn the audience into active participants in the film, making the experience far more meaningful for them personally.

Although sometimes being up-front about theme is the right way to go, I find as a viewer, that if there are too many explicit references to what everything in the film is supposed to be about, I switch off. I like a nice bit of subtlety! Let the theme go underground, or into the background for a while. My feeling as a screenwriter is, if you know what you’re writing about, then the theme will permeate all the choices the characters make anyway. It’s in these choices that the audience can experience the questions you’re addressing, rather than consume some kind of processed, pre-packaged message.

Personally, when I’m writing, I love nothing more than to ramble on for page after page about a question that intrigues me. At some point, I inevitably find a kernel of a question which then evolves into a story. This may not be the most productive screenwriting method. It’s certainly not the most lucrative and often leads to awkward situations when someone wants to know why I wrote what I wrote. But it does ensure that the writing process itself contains its own, intrinsic reward: I am constantly learning and discovering new questions to explore. That, to me, is what writing is all about.

Well, that’s my two cents for today on theme. Thanks again to FilmUtopia for stimulating my brain on this issue once again.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

This is the best article so far this year. Your post is incredibly inspiring and you inspire and very positive. I read other blogs, some of these guys are posting for over 5 years and never post anything smart or helpful.

Dave , thanks for being a true positive force.

And one question, how come Paul Schrader is not writing new hot scripts nowadays or box office Academy Awards ones? If Paul is reading, here is a list of scripts he might consider or I would like him to write:

*adapt the video game BIO SHOCK
*write Godfather 4 with Sophia Coppola(as director)
*write the new version of Tora Tora Tora
*re-adapt Gunter Grass' THE TIN DRUM
*write a new script on the life and time of Richard Pryor
*write a better script for the tv show LOST IN SPACE
*rewrite a futuristic version A STREECAR NAMED DESIRE
*write a musical that will out-do GREASE AND SATURDAYNIGHT FEVER AND FOOTLOOSE; do a musical on Michael Jackson ,OFF THE WALL, THRILLER AND BAD,and ask John Landis to direct
*write a high concept version of CLOSE AND ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND but make it R-rated and it takes place on another planet 400 billion years away from Earth and consist of the throughline of Barberella
*write a TV show about two male friends sharing an apartment in Harlem(or Bronx); one has the personality of Columbo(Peter Falk) and the other the personality of Mozart; and the female personality would be that of Rachel Welch (in her 20s, of course)


Raving Dave Herman said...

Thanks Sal! I don't know what PS is up to at the moment, but tell me this: Why aren't YOU working on any of these wonderful ideas?!

Dave ;)

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,
I wrote one musical script.

Just finishing a high concept -alien-invasion script -- but the aliens are from the Centre of Earth...they make their way up...

And plan to write a spec epic similar to LOST IN SPACE soon.
I hated the last LOST IN SPACE movie and script.

We have to write a script that brings back the magic of being LOST IN SPACE.