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Screen Writing: What You Say Is What They Get

There are no rules in screen writing; however, as in jazz, there are certain things that happen a lot. If you want to be a successful screen writer then it is beholden on you to at least be familiar with these rules even if you choose to ignore them. Apropos of nothing, I posted on Twitter recently describing how, whilst cycling around Amsterdam earlier that afternoon, I wandered into a record shop in the Jordaan district where Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno was performing a solo acoustic set. Now, Gaby is young, talented and original; she has a strong and confident voice in all senses of the word. Her music has elements of pop, soul, Latin and jazz (have a look on YouTube before purchasing an album). Clearly she has these styles under her belt however, the way that they are delivered is original and commanding, and you find yourself wanting to hear more partly because of the elegant interpretation of these styles, but more because of the original stories that are being articulated over the familiar riffs and phrases.

Why mention this in a post on screen writing? Because, dear reader, it’s not what you say but how you say it. It’s not the story, but how you articulate it. It is your voice that matters.

Give the audience what it wants, but not in the way they expect…

This is excellent advice from Robert McKee which he typically expands upon in his books and seminars on story technique. Tease the audience with your erudition, and your knowledge of the form and history of film writing, but in the end you have to tell the story. It’s not for nothing that McKee focuses on the word story. Story is what we are talking about when we talk about film writing. Other forms of cinema exist, but not in Hollywood and not on the big screen on Saturday night.

What all of the books that I have suggested in the bookstore section of Manifesto Books have in common is a recognition and indeed reverence for the concept of story. Paul Schrader talks about the vital importance of the story telling craft in the context of film writing. It is the fundamental principle that underpins all great or indeed competent screen writing. Schrader talk about camp fire story telling. If an idea is going to work you should be able to tell it as a camp fire story. You can dress it up and switch it round but the core story must be capable of retelling as an engaging, not to say, gripping tale around the burning embers in the dying light of the evening. And this is from a man who wrote about transcendental style in cinema; grasp the theory by all means but tell the story in the end.

Schrader directed The Comfort of Strangers with dispassionate meticulousness but that meticulousness was applied to a perfectly distilled story. Based on a superbly crafted novella by Ian McEwan (of the same name), transformed into a perfect blueprint of a screen play by Harold Pinter the film becomes an essay in audio visual story telling. This vision is of course enhanced by the music of Angelo Badalamenti, the clothes of Georgio Armani, the canals and architecture of Venice and the sublime acting of Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren and Christopher Walken. As you would expect of Pinter the dialogue is crisp and minimal. So we can recall Norma Desmond’s prescient line in Sunset Boulevard – “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” This is why Comfort of Strangers needs this quartet of great actors: they have to tell much of the story essentially with their faces, their body language and their silences. Incidentally, there is a brilliant story where Walken told Schrader that he didn’t need to light his face from below to look evil, he could do that on his own.

I mentioned Norma Desmond because it’s my contention that Sunset Boulevard and The Comfort of Strangers share much in common in terms of plot structure. Wilder’s classic legacy also features a strong quartet performance: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim and the young Nancy Olson. Olson’s Betty Schaefer character is a more significant component of the quartet than is immediately noticeable on first viewing. I love the resonances caused by the fact that all four are creative practitioners in the film making process but, significantly, in different ways not at all where they want to be in this creative process at this time in their lives: they are all displaced from their rightful position in the natural order in their own minds. Nevertheless, despite all this cleverness and interweaving of psychological threads it all comes down to a classic whodunit in the end. Watch the two films together and see what you think.

I recommend also watching and reading Chinatown which was written by Robert Towne, directed by the infamous Roman Polanski and stars Jack Nickolson and Faye Dunaway. It is a brilliantly evocative neo-noire masterpiece. It too captures the tawdry yet glamorous luxury and decadence of Los Angeles in all its claustrophobic glory. What is very clever and epitomises Polanski’s (and Towne’s) consummate cinematic craft is the presentation of this claustrophobia. A lesser director when given these beautiful Southern Californian vistas would have lapped them up. Instead, we are given shot after shot of glimpses through rear view mirrors, through bandages, through rippling pools and through darkened sunglasses. Everything is covered and hidden. Why? To emphasise and resonate the psychological fissures that are building up in the inter-relationships between the characters. This story too, has a resonance with the quartet format mentioned earlier, but to say how would spoil the film for those for whom this delight is still in store. And from a writer’s perspective, still, for me, the finest last line in a movie.

I have also mentioned the British TV series Edge of Darkness which was first broadcast in 1985. The series captured the cold war anxieties, fear of nuclear conflict, the bitter and unforgiving political schism between the unions and Thatcher’s government. We also have the emergence of green politics; the Gaia philosophy proposed by James Lovelock that the Earth is fundamentally one perfectly balanced interacting ecosystem which we mess with at our peril. An early version of the script had the protagonist Craven turn into a tree. However, what we did end up with is a brilliant and still resonant political thriller that has everything even down to an Eric Clapton theme tune.

The script, if you can get hold of it, is fascinating as it has numerous footnotes explaining the huge number of diverse ideas and concepts that went into the story. But, you don’t need to know any of this to get the story. Why it’s worth reading all of this is that it gives you a different perspective on story telling. The structure of a 317 minute drama is necessarily different from a 100-120 minute movie. You need to present multiple sub-story lines that arc across different time spans in the narrative to pull everything together. A single linear series of episodic adventures would not draw the audience in to the emotive belly of the family torn apart and inescapably thrust into the quest for the truth. The power and success of this process is demonstrated by the fact that for me, and I suspect many others, the character of Emma Craven as played by Joanne Whalley is as engrained into our psyche as any character since.

I have mentioned a number of classic books by extremely competent and respected authors on the business and technique of presenting and constructing screenplays. These are all good, solid and definitely worth reading. But they are not bibles, they will not shine a light on your life and lead you to the road of salvation that is the awards ceremonies. Only life itself will do that together with your ability, as a writer, to make sense of it. Tom Stoppard started writing because he could see all of the flaws in the plays he was reviewing. The point is that he saw the plays, he thought about them and he wrote about them. He acted; he did some thing about the mediocrity that he was witnessing.

Most good writing is about making sense of the world that you see around you and experience in person. Whether it is love or politics or the end of the world as we know it, the writer sees the different perspectives perfectly and articulates these conflicting views and positions in a way that mere humans can only express as rage or poetry or ideology or war. What I like about Professional Foul is the witty interplay between the ruthlessly politics of academia and the noble and disciplined competition of football. Stoppard’s love of linguistic juggling and political philosophy is perfectly executed. It’s no surprise that the playwright was a prime suspect as the secret submitter of sketches to the top TV comedy show in the UK at the time, The Two Ronnies.

I recommend F. Scott Fitzgerald for beautiful, elegant and composed writing that tells a story. I also like that he wrote about the industry when it was grand and complex and dying but mattered. His short stories set in the movie business are fun to read too.

The independent sector is important, and still capable of many films that move across to the mainstream because they capture audiences. I have included a number of books relating to independent cinema from the Coen Brothers to Tarantino. Furthermore, Chris Jones’ Guerilla Film Makers’ Pocketbook tells it like it is in this world of blagging, dealing and begging. You don’t necessarily need to fully understand the film making process to succeed as a writer. But knowing how much that beautifully written escape sequence from the top of Big Ben is going to cost a fledgling indie producer might spell out your odds to a clinching the deal as a writer. Tarantino watched a lot of low-budget masterpieces before he wrote Reservoir Dogs (with pen and paper incidentally).

In the UK, the decade of the 1980s was an invigorating time for cinema and film writing because Channel Four started up with a film wing which triggered a new wave of talent before transforming itself into the Film Four channel that we know today. A key pioneer in this movement was the Irish writer and film director, Neil Jordan. All of his films are worth watching and many of the screenplays are published. The Mona Lisa screenplay is harder to get hold of but is a fine example of an original take on a number of classic themes. Jordan’s first book of stories, Night in Tunisia is excellent but his latest novel Mistaken continues this tradition of poetic precision and vivid evocation of time and place.

Film writing is a brutal process, whichever way you look at it. You are never going to be the star of the show, even if you write yourself into that role; in fact you are more likely to end up dead than in bed with the young and beautiful star of the picture. As one Hollywood producer famously said: you can write anything you like, as long as the girl gets rescued from the volcano in the final reel. So, keep it simple, stupid; tell the story and don’t broadcast a message. Oh yes, and hook the reader by the end of the first page.

But as the dust-encrusted priest whispered to the weeping school girl… that’s another story.

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