Sunday, March 6, 2011

Last Tango in Los Angeles: The Screenplay.

Last Tango in Los Angeles: The Screenplay.: "There's a part of me, a larger part than I'd care to admit, that was born about about 75 years too late. I'm speakng professionally, here. ..."

The Screenplay.

There's a part of me, a larger part than I'd care to admit, that was born about about 75 years too late. I'm speakng professionally, here. And I'll tell you why. I'm deep into my first original screenplay. Which for me, really, is rather surprising. For quite some time now I've thought screenplays were not my medium. Mostly because the writing of screenplays bored me. And I'm not good with bored.

For years I've been the 'horse and carriage' in an industry that only monitors the Indy 500. That is to say, I've always felt writing a play was far more interesting than writing a screenplay. Some years back I had a long conversation with a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who has now devoted nearly all his time to writing for the screen. He said something to me that depressed me no end. He said, "For a brief, very brief, time it was possible to make a living, a good living, only writing plays. Neil Simon, George Kauffman, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, a few others, maybe, are nearly the only ones who've done it. It's not possible today." This from a guy (I won't drop names) who has won every major award the stage can possibly give to someone who writes for that venue. He went on to say (we were having a long lunch in Chicago) it is, of course, the most satisfying forum in which to write, but it is insane to think one will ever make a few bucks from it. Prestige, yes. Money, no.

In the 1930's film was not taken seriously by 'real' actors and directors and writers. At first, it was nothing more than a lark. And then, as time progressed, it became a way to make some serious cash, but was still considered sort of cheap. In the late thirties a few films came along to challenge that, most notably 'Citizen Kane.' But still, the majority of stage people, that is to say, London and New York artists, didn't give it much credence. And anyway, most serious efforts from Hollywood were still adapted stage plays at that point. And sadly, most looked like it.

But that was nearly eight decades ago and things have changed a mite.

One of the myriad differences between writing for the stage and screen is that the screenwriter has very little influence over what finally appears on the screen. In the theatre, the playwright is king, the source of all that is good, the worshipped; he is the one recieving the genuflects. On the screen, it is the director. And being an acknowledged control freak, this doesn't bode well for me.

And in addition, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, in LA is writing, has written, or is about to write the next great screenplay. Ninety year old Armenian women have screenplays ready to go at the drop of a hat. It's a shame. And one only has to do a little research to find that the screenplay written sometimes has little to no resemblance to what actually appears in the final product, after all the 'director's additions,' actor improvs and dreaded editing room chopping and slicing.

There is much truth to the old line, "Did you hear about the starlet that was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter?"

Having said all that, I've nearly completed my first original screenplay.

The effort has its genesis from two things. One, the idea can't be done on the stage and two, this very same playwright, the one with more awards than Edith Head and Walt Disney combined, told me to swallow my pride and write something that more than a thousand people would see. As we sat there having lunch and drinking coffee late into the day, he said, "You're singing in the shower, Clif. And it's beautiful singing but nobody gives a fuck." From under the table in my fetal position I replied shamefully, "Okay."

So I toddled off to the library. The public library is, all by itself, the greatest untapped education on the planet. I picked up dozens of screenplays, dozens of 'how to' books, 'Screenwriting for Dummies,' that sort of thing. I drank them in. I devoured them. And I still know about the same as when I started. I should've known better, I guess. Writing for the screen, it turns out, is the same as anything else; everyone has an opinion and 99 percent of those opinions are bullhockey.

So, after all the research, I just did what I thought was best.

I'll finish it soon, or I should say, I'll get to a point that I'm tired of writing it. The aforementioned George Kauffman has a wonderful quote on playwriting and it applies to writing for the screen, too. "A play is never finished, only abandoned." True dat.

When I first sat down and started shaping the piece, the new screenplay, that is, I was concerned about the film lingo, the WAY to say something between dialogue, i.e. all the pans and long shots and medium shots and over the shoulder shots and close ups and dolly shots, etc. But I had a telling chat a while back with a fairly successful screenwriter out here and he told me, "It used to be important to use all the right words and phrases, but now it's not really that big of a deal. The important thing is to accurately describe the action that occurs in the prose BETWEEN the written dialogue." In other words, see exactly what the camera would see and describe it in precise detail. "Most screenplays are read by idiots," he said, "And you have to make them see EVERYTHING."

Makes sense. Besides, as I looked at a lot of on-the-paper movies, things like 'Casablanca' and 'Magnolia,' I kept forgetting what the various initials and buzz words meant and had to keep going back to my other library book with the screenplay 'glossary' in it.

So I'm writing a screenplay. I've become the enemy. I've given in to peer pressure. I'm discarding my eighty year old writing ethics and venturing into something new. I've decided, like the actors, directors, writers and producers from the 1930s that maybe, just maybe, this whole 'moving picture' thing is here to stay. Might as well jump on board.

See you tomorrow.