Saturday, August 6, 2011

Writing Screenplays.

I don't pretend to really know anything about writing screenplays other than the fact that I know what I like when I watch a movie. On the other hand, that's how I felt many years ago when I first started writing stage plays.

I've taken no 'screenwriting classes' (although it probably wouldn't hurt). I've had no formal 'training' when it comes to this sort of thing. I don't really even know a lot of the language and abbreviations and insider code words for the writing of a screenplay. I've not sat at the feet of screenwriting masters. I've not poured over Billy Wilder films or Sergio Eisnenstein or Hitchcock (although I did take a class on Hitchcock in undergrad school which I found utterly fascinating), studying the beats and arcs with a magnifying glass. I haven't done any of that. Well, not really done it, I mean.

What I have done, however, is watch a lot of film. I've seen a lot of movies. And I've studied, passively, perhaps, just how and why they're good. Or, to be more accurate, why I thought they were good. One man's trash is another man's treasure when it comes to cinema.

I've made it a point to watch the old masterpieces...the films that turned out great despite the fact that there was no blueprint for making them.

There are films I return to, films I find as interesting and exciting today as when I first ran across them thirty years ago on a Saturday afternoon in the basement of my house in small-town Missouri on what was called 'Bowling for Dollars.' Films like On The Waterfront, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Dr. Stangelove, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001, It Happened One Night, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Olivier's Hamlet, The Apartment, Annie Hall, From Here to Eternity, Cool Hand Luke, In the Heat of the Night, Streetcar Named Desire, Sparticus, Singin' in the Rain, North by Northwest, Stagecoach, and so many more. I've seen them over and over. I've tucked away in my mind the moments of brilliance in them, the unexpected plot turns, the odd camera shot, the crystal clear dialogue. That has been my training, my film school.

And, like all of us, I've seen a hundred bad films for every great film. I've slogged through the failures to find the extraordinary.

And now I find myself in the odd position of writing a screenplay with a multi-million dollar budget, a screenplay that's already been 'greenlighted,' a film that's simply waiting to be made, waiting until my untrained fingers can put it on paper. I find myself in the unsolicited position of writing pages and pages everyday, zipping them off to a far-away producer, waiting for notes and thoughts and suggestions, and then diving back in, shaping, rewriting, changing, re-inventing. It's quite heady, really. And all of this completely unpremeditated. It worked like this: the producer saw a play I had written a year or so ago and decided then and there he would like me to write a screenplay for him. Some fourteen months later, out of the blue, he contacted and commissioned me. And suddenly I found myself leaping over hundreds, thousands perhaps, of other aspiring screenwriters and writing with an actual production date set in stone. Good Heavens.

Another thing I've done, which, oddly, has proven to be almost more of a hindrance than anything, is gathered up dozens of 'how to' books on screenwriting. I've always contended, my entire adult life, that the greatest education in the world is not at any school, regardless of its prestige, but in the nearest public library. So off I trundled to the local library, picking out volumes of screenwriting tomes.

There is one in particular I read (it came highly recommended) called 'Save the Cat.' When I first started reading it I was absolutely enthralled. I couldn't put it down. Here was a 'how to' book that quite literally, page by page, gave the reader a tried and true 'formula' for writing a successful screenplay. It came with dozens and dozens of examples of successful screenplays that used the exact 'formula' for movies that this book encouraged. Actually, 'encouraged' is not the right word...demanded. The book, quite a cheeky book, remarkably, claims this is the ONLY way to write a screenplay. It tells you exactly what needs to be on page 25, page 55, page 70, page 110 and finally on the end page of 120. It has pithy names for different stages of the screenplay ('Save the Cat' refers to the early scene in which the protagonist of the story does something unexpectedly 'nice' or 'noble' in order to subliminally get the audience to root for him or her). And to be sure, there are lots of things to learn from this book. The problem is, the more I read, the more I began to wonder where the passion for writing was, the inspiration, the creativity, the originality, the sheer REASON for writing. In the final analysis, this is a 'how to' book about making money, not writing. And there's certainly nothing wrong with making money. But I began to wonder if that was the reason to write a screenplay. That is to say, should that be the professed GOAL at the outset. Yes, it would be nice to write a script, have it filmed by wonderful actors and a brilliant director and a professional crew and then find an audience that is willing to shell out twelve bucks to sit in a dark room and watch it, but is that all there is (to borrow a phrase from Peggy Lee)? Is that the light at the end of the tunnel? Is that what the writer, at the expense of all else, should strive for?

Well, in a way, yes. But to write with that in mind is lunacy, I think. And I found the more I read 'Save the Cat' the angrier I got with it. To defend why the book works, the writer continually refers back to other screenplays that have followed his advice and he then tells the reader how much money each script was sold for and how much money it made at the box office. Again, nothing wrong with that. IF that is the ultimate goal. I read this book very, very carefully, to be sure. And yes, the top two moneymakers of all time, AVATAR and TITANIC, follow this formula for writing screenplays like clockwork. It's as if the scripts for these two (and many others, by the way) blockbusters actually came as a direct result of reading this book. And let's face it, it's hard to argue with success.

But finally, I decided my cinematic education should come from whence it originally came...the films themselves. So instead of peering endlessly at screenwriting 'how to' books, I decided to simply go to the source and read the screenplays themselves. So I went back to the greatest university on the planet, my local public library, and picked up All Quiet on the Western Front, Meet John Doe, Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without a Cause, The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sounder, On Golden Pond, Arthur (the first one, the brilliant one, not the icky new one with that Russell Brand guy that always makes me want to take a shower and get clean after I watch him be profoundly unfunny), The Candidate and The Magnificent Ambersons and All About Eve. And finally, quite possibly my favorite screenplay ever, Magnolia.

And when I had finished, I began writing MY screenplay.

This time next year we'll see how that worked out. I have a long and uninterrupted history of not playing by the rules, so I may just get my ass handed to me in a handbag. It wouldn't be the first time.

See you tomorrow.