Thursday, April 28, 2011

How Well Do You Know Your Screenplay?

One of the keys to getting a screenplay written, is to discover what the screenplay wants to be, instead of trying to force it to be what you want it to be.

Sounds a bit like being in a relationship, doesn’t it? The more you acknowledge who your partner is, the more authentic and genuine your relationship with them can become. Or the more disastrous, of course, if your expectations or demands turn out to be unrealistic. The same with a screenplay. Is it Movie Of The Week rather than Oscar material? Is it art house rather than high concept? Is your short really a one-hour TV drama? Or is it even a stage play rather than a film? Acknowledging what kind of animal your material is, can be tough. Especially when it’s not what you expected. However, I think it’s essential to the process of getting the script written as well as possible.

Recognizing What You’re Writing
According to a recent episode of WNYC’s RadioLab, called Help!, Tom Waits apparently has very specific relationships with his songs while he’s writing them, as if they are entities outside himself with whom he has to deal. Sometimes the relationships are stormy and argumentative, other times he will negotiate with a song in order to get it down on paper. To me, this makes perfect sense. It’s the same as with children. Despite certain general similarities between all children, each individual child is unique. Even the same child can change dramatically without warning. The same applies to screenplays. Regardless of genre conventions, formatting rules and other limitations, each screenplay is a unique thing. Some stories seem to arrive more or less pre-packaged, complete with great visuals, intriguing character and neat little act breaks. Others need coaxing and kneading, like they’re unwilling to expose themselves to the harsh light of day. It’s only once you recognize with whom (or what) you’re dealing, that the writing really starts flowing.

What Happens When You Push Too Hard?
Unfortunately, it’s often impractical to spend the necessary time wooing a screenplay, letting your relationship with it gestate and mature sufficiently. Especially when you’re writing on assignment, and other people are waiting for your pages. But the alternative, pushing, is not necessarily the best thing for the script. Pushing can take on many forms, depending on the drive to push. You might be so enthusiastic about a draft, or conversely, so fed up with a story, that you send off a draft before it’s really ready to read. You might make do with second best because someone is breathing down your neck, or because a competition deadline is approaching. You might not know your screenplay well enough and be trying to squeeze a comedy out of a not so funny premise. You might not want to go through another round of feedback from script readers because you can’t face even more notes. However the pushing manifests, the end result is always the same: The script isn’t as good as it could have been, and there’s only one person to blame: the screenwriter.

Knowing Which Tactic To Choose
If a screenplay refuses to cooperate, it probably means you’re not listening to it. The screenplay feels offended and sulks. It’s a stalemate. Now you have a choice of tactics: Start shouting and screaming, issuing threats and throwing heavy objects around the room. Alternatively, you could offer the screenplay chocolates, sweet talk it into collaborating like a good screenplay should. Failing that, you can always walk away. Go and do something else, something which will take your mind off the humiliation of being held hostage by your own fantasy. Walk around the block, do the shopping, clean the kitchen… whatever it takes for your emotions to cool down, so you can go back to the screenplay, apologize, and ask in your nicest possible voice what it was trying to tell you when you were so rudely not listening.

When All Else Fails, Use Force Anyway
Another option, perhaps the most dangerous of all, is the Ulysses tactic. Ulysses, hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, had his crew members stuff their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast of his ship and ordered them not to untie him no matter how much he pleaded, so that he would be able to hear the song of the sirens without following them to his death. (BTW, this is portrayed beautifully in Ben Stiller’s Tropic of Thunder, where Jack Black goes cold turkey tied to a tree.) Needless to say, you don’t need to be a Greek king to do this, you could achieve the same effect simply by agreeing a deadline and making sure there a whole lot at stake if you don’t finish by the deadline. The problem with this approach is, of course, that for some writers, this kind of pressure paralyzes the creative mind rather than liberating it.

Just as no two screenplays are the same, every screenwriter has to find the right way to relate to each script they write. The trick is, I think, to recognize and respect each script on its own terms, and allow it to show you how to treat it.

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