A&M’s resident movie critic, Peter Wix, shines a light on the sometimes opaque world of the film script and attempts to sort the inspired literary gem from the hollywood producer- ravaged schlock. “Who is going to break through with brilliant writing if even celebrated screenwriters feel like taking a producer or two out to a eld to dispose of them, Fargo-style, in a wood chipper?”, he asks…
The great screenplay is far more the goal of today’s young writers than is the great novel, and books, courses, and websites on the tempting art of screenwriting are legion.
Yet by all accounts, the movie industry has always been a lonely, hostile and generally unrewarding place for creative writers, one that should greet the newbies with a sober warning, and let’s keep it light – think of Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski telling a bowling opponent who oversteps the line: “…my friend, you are entering a world of pain.”
The nature of this pain was hinted at by David Mamet when he summed up the position of the screenwriter in the industry thus: “Film is a collaborative business: bend over.”
A far more tragic and eloquent metaphor for this humiliation process came from one of the gods of screenwriting, Billy Wilder, in one of the greatest ever movies, Sunset Boulevard (1950). He wrote us a writer, Joe Gillis, who symbolises creative writing in the industry; a down-at-heel screenwriter who prostitutes himself to a crazed former screen goddess bent on a comeback (Norma Desmond), a figure who represents all the decadent power and confused ambition of the industry. Gillis writes in the daytime for this sad but egocentric sponsor, but has to go moonlighting to write what he really thinks is good (teaming up with a cute studio script editor who he falls in love with). He ends up floating dead in Norma Desmond’s pool after she shoots him in a fit of jealousy. The superiority of directors over writers in the industry pecking order was magnificently illuminated by Wilder, who had Cecil B. DeMille (playing a director called Cecil B. DeMille) appear as a busy but not unfriendly figure, just another servant of movie production, but one in a far better place than the writer, Gillis.
In the noir beauty of this majestically written and executed film, we can find the pieces of the industry as it then was for writers – and as it has remained. Wilder confessed that he became a director in order to protect his writing, and if, in Sunset Boulevard, we are taken to a place of hope in Gillis’ romance with the young script assistant, it is because this is where and how Wilder wanted the writer to be in the industry – that is freed from a form of prostitution to the power and money elements who, like Norma Desmond, believe themselves to be indestructible. rough Gillis, Wilder complains to us: “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture, they think the actors make it up as they go along.”
“Ibust porio. To enis reptis denectotat. Tur Itatetur as ellest aut endam excestrunt eatia quia que con reicia parum dollaccae”
Films, however, are written by someone, and films get written in conventional and unconventional ways: by one writer, by writer-directors, by teams and even, in the notable cases of filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, through rehearsals in which the malleability of actors is the source for characters and dialogue. Their special brand of realism results from their relying on actors for delivery of words and character development, on choosing and arranging words and phrases to achieve a rhythmical effect, on building tension around something that characters react to and which makes them interesting to us, and plotting a situation to reach cathartic heights: all the stuff of the dramatic art of theatre, the origin of both as writer-creators. Their films are packed with detail, mostly about how people behave, though other elements that can make films so magical – music, clever photography, set design, costume – are kept sparse. We could find this detail in a good novel, couldn’t we? All the expression we read into great actors’ control of their facial muscles, the meaning in their pauses, the definition in their stares, and the emphasis of their speech – all this and more could be there on the pages of a novel and understood in a very similar way. But turn it round, and imagine that it is there on the page and you want to write it down as an instruction for a director and actors in the form of a screenplay and, of course, sell it to a movie producer type like Jack Warner, who once boasted: “I would rather take a 50-mile hike than crawl through a book.” The sheer amount of carefully nuanced information which novelists use to tell us about something has no easy translation to a set of instructions, with or without dialogue, for the making of a film.
These instructions, the movie blueprint known as a script or screenplay, require a brutal kind of finesse even in the most elegant of scenarios, and trying to adapt to the job proved painfully unsuccessful, however lucrative, for many a literary giant. Though Graham Greene triumphed in the late forties with The Third Man, for which he wrote a novella to steady his screenplay, later publishing the prose version, over a decade earlier F. Scott Fitzgerald made a serious effort to please Hollywood and got nowhere. Around his equally serious attempts to kick drinking, he wrote a mountain of material over two-and-a-half years, achieving only one screenwriting credit ( Three Comrades (1938)). Billy Wilder, a close friend during this period, summed up Fitzgerald’s failure by comparing him to “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job.” The novelist fought hard, and against legal bad luck and censorship, but his failure has been attributed to his having a complex psyche which produced purposeless story lines and mischievous dialogue. He was too serious for the movies and balked at one of the great differences between writing books and films, the unfinished nature of the script. A writer finishes a novel, and bar some editing by the publisher, which is usually politely debated with the author, that’s the end product. The finished film script, however, is only at the beginning of a process. It is ready to be thrown back to be rewritten, worked on by other writers, by the director, perhaps by the producer, perhaps by the producer’s niece… and even then the actors may get their say before or during filming. And then there remains the editing process, perhaps even later versions of a film. In the movies, writers sign away their rights to their work or their work just isn’t bought.
Ironically, Fitzgerald’s prose writing, adapted by other writers to the screen, has been turned comfortably into debatably ‘good’ movies, The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon among them. Another writer whose novels made him large amounts of money from successful film adaptations was Fitzgerald’s friend Ernest Hemingway, someone whose prose style suggests that he might have been successful as a screenwriter. He wrote in short sentences, used simple but vigorous language, pruned down description to a minimum, and avoided being negative. But his style was deceptive and the depths of his novels ingeniously hidden from view. However, had he tried to write screenplays, his sophisticated ‘iceberg theory’ of prose – keeping the real meaning hidden below the surface by not mentioning it – may have converted well. It is, after all, what movies do. We read underneath the images. We don’t have an author’s voice telling us what to think. Perhaps Hemingway would also have been too sophisticated a writer, too proud even, for the movies. He kept clear of Hollywood, only once visiting the place. He hated what was done to his books on film, once saying: “Hollywood only made the kind of pictures people wanted to see, and the public had bad taste.”
It was a Hemingway novel, To Have and Have Not, which proved a big success for another novelist, William Faulkner, in a testing screenwriting career. He also adapted Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Chandler who, like Faulkner, worked long and hard for screen success, made his mark on movies by co-writing with Billy Wilder for the latter’s Double Indemnity. In those days, there was no prestige to be gained by novelists who went for the nice money offered by big studios, and many were tempted despite the dim views generally expressed at their involvement – among them Dorothy Parker, Anthony Powell, and Aldous Huxley.
One of the most celebrated successes of screen literature was the playwright Harold Pinter, whose scripts for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971) and Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), both from books by other authors, are what make them such joys to watch. Pinter’s relative ease adapting works to the screen again illustrates how experience writing for the stage can make for a smoother move to screenwriting. It does not mean a good script will be turned into a film, however, and Pinter’s The Proust Screenplay, an acknowledged literary masterpiece in the screenwriting format, is one of the most renowned scripts never to be made into a movie.
Skill with words spoken is certainly not all that is required of film writers, as we saw last February when the American Academy Awards were scooped by Michel Hazanavicius’ silent work The Artist, a triumph of visual logic and movie poetry which also won its author a Best Screenplay BAFTA. It was a vindication of David Mamet’s famous claim that “a good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue”. And let’s make it clear that the vast majority of films that are made are not about some director or writer showing you some images and trying to tell you something about them. Most films, loosely bracketed as part of the ‘entertainment business’ are about someone showing you things happen in a way that will not make you think about them. They follow a formula, a blow-by-blow recipe for narrative with illustrations which we learnt to thrill to as children and which the majority of adults find sufficiently satisfying. For this reason, the money people in movies have a point when they ask for more of the same. Fortunately, we film lovers have the work of artists, of auteurs to enjoy, movies by Buñuel, Godard, Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky, directors who write… or writers who direct.
Having good writing for films was not a consideration for the technical pioneers of film. The Lumière brothers astounded people with their quotidian moving photographs, including film of workers leaving a factory, and then declared: “the cinema is an invention without any future.” In the audience at that first public film screening in Paris, in 1895, was George Méliès, a former conjurer who immediately begun making movies with simple plots. The use of narrative by Méliès and other early filmmakers allowed writers into an increasingly sophisticated art form, but as the capitalists in these expensive ventures established themselves as authorities, directors got the jump on writers by becoming the only people who could challenge producers over the content of films.
In 1922, though he carried little clout as the head of adapting literary works at Denmark’s Nordisk Film, Carl Dreyer claimed that “the manuscript is the fundamental condition for a good film.” The future director of early masterpieces such as The Passion of Joan of Arc asserted that “ film’s task, like theatre’s, is to interpret the poet’s thoughts”, believing adaptations were just a step along the route to poets writing original scripts for films. Of course, some of the great screenwriters did have the brutal finesse of the hardiest kind of poet: Robert Towne in the 1970s, for example, (Chinatown, The Last Detail, The Godfather, the latter jointly with Francis Ford Coppola), or Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave) a little earlier.
Given the difficulties of the work involved and the hostility of the working environment, who is going to break through with brilliant writing if even celebrated and successful screenwriters feel like taking a producer or two out to a field to dispose of them, Fargo-style, in a wood chipper? Underdogs have it tough as they try to join the long line of what Jack Warner once referred to as “schmucks with Underwoods.”
Swedish writer Henning Koch, who has recently published a book of short stories, Love Doesn’t Work, and will see his first novel, The Maggot People, published this autumn, has also spent years writing in and around the film industry and has clear preferences about these two different writing experiences.
“Film people are terrified of investing massive sums of money in a bad script, and they will do almost anything to ‘improve’ on something they liked when they first saw it. They hire people to give them professional opinions. Usually they make it worse,” he says.
“They are quite difficult to deal with, keen to press down the writer and often view writers as tricky people trying to ruin their pay day. With books, one is completely in control as a writer. Publishers like to think that they appreciate literature, even if they are publishing Nordic noirs for a living. They are getting their hands dirty with things that must be done, but, really, they aim to find masterpieces.”
Another writer who fully understands the uphill struggle of working in the screen trade is writer Iain McLean, whose agent raised “£3m through an African lm group and a multi-millionaire Nigerian donor” for his 2002 script Cameron.
“I was ready. I wrote the next draft and it was brilliant,” he maintains. “My agent then told me that the donor wanted to change the main character to be more like himself, which I refused to do as it would ruin what I’d worked so hard to achieve. He then withdrew his money even though we had an experienced London production company ready to take it to a Hollywood studio.”
McLean’s determination to carry on writing for the screen despite the knocks is obviously what it takes. He insists: “To do this you have to be as tough as old boots. You must love life in all its aspects including death, disease and decay. In 2005, I was commissioned to write a blockbuster for good money. I signed the contract which gave the rights to the executive producer but protected my payments, film royalties and credits. After the first draft was accepted, we flew to L.A. and I spent three weeks writing at The Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. It felt great, drinking whisky sours with the executive producer. Later, he decided he wanted his daughter to write one of the characters in the film. I’m not against co-writing or the introduction of better stuff into the story, but the third draft was ten times worse than the first draft and the project collapsed… the blame was laid firmly at my feet.”
“Ibust porio. To enis reptis denectotat. Tur Itatetur as ellest aut endam excestrunt eatia quia que con reicia parum dollaccae”
Henning Koch berates the way the industry devalues good writing. “An astonishing number of films have highly formulaic story structures. In part, this has something to do with the whole notion of film, how it works… an evening at the cinema… tends to be about people ‘going out’, possibly with dinner and a drink with friends. What expectations do people have of stories in these settings? However, when you go to [ film] festivals you realise just how much good filmmaking there is, everywhere.”
Opportunities for screenwriters show no signs of growing. Increasingly, smarter and cheaper movie-making technology provides possibilities for future auteur-directors who want to write their own stuff. The ability to play around inexpensively with endless footage also opens up more possibilities in experimental film, allowing future independent filmmakers to depend less on writing and to develop their talents in editing techniques.
The animation genre and the boom in highly sophisticated, narrative- based video games are opening doors for imaginative new talent and for projects that can be developed by small, independent teams, and on relatively tight budgets. Growth in the popularity of well-scripted television series ( The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men…) has attracted writers back to the small screen and this may become one of the first doors to knock on for today’s aspiring screenwriter, for the schmuck with the Mac who is prepared to bend over and take it up the denouement.
“Everyone wants to rise into the top five percent who get to do what they want, where they can join the confederacy of the big-shots,” says Henning Koch. “These writers ask 200,000 euros for a project. They still have to put up with all the interference. But they get paid. That is the only difference. They get paid.”