Monday, 31 October 2011

Script Doctor XVIII: Remember, You are a God

The above piece of advice is not intended to persuade you to become egomaniacs (well, not just for that reason - can't hurt a writer, surely?) but to remind you that when writing your screenplay you should remember than an audience expects to be taken wherever they want and need to go. 

In this sense Cinema is more akin to a novel than TV. Inherent in TV is the boundaries of whatever the programme’s format (though this has changed a lot with HBO) but essentially Cinemagoers expect to be shown anything they want to see – and the more cinematic/filmic/spectacular the better.

Even if an audience are aware of the size of a film’s budget it doesn’t affect their enjoyment of a narrative as it's impossible to think in those terms unless a film forces you to (usually by looking cheap). Therefore, in the same way that a film with a massive budget can show everything and sometimes the wrong decisions are made about what to show (e.g. too much), films with a tiny budget sometimes avoid showing a key scene because of cost issues and leave the audience feeling cheated.

For a screenwriter, especially a British screenwriter, this is can be a problem as British productions usually require the writer to have at least half an eye on budget. The trick is to divert attention away from this by making the audience feel as if the decision to show or not show an event is key to their enjoyment and seeing (or not seeing) it would be detrimental to their understanding of character or plot.

I was reminded of this when watching Lynne Ramsay’s gripping adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin (warning: spoiler alert!)


To begin with, it's an incredibly effective adaptation because Ramsay transposes the characters and atmosphere of Shriver's novel (that gut-wrenching feeling which escalates as you read) whilst reconfiguring the story so that the film is its own thing – and resolutely in her voice as a film-maker. But she also very cleverly directs your attention away from a scene you expect to see without feeling cheated.

The scene in question is the genocidal denoument in which Kevin peppers his school mates with high velocity arrows. The novel doesn’t use this event for plot purposes but still Shriver knows that we need to see it, and we are eventually left in no doubt as to what happened in that gymnasium.

Ramsay, however, chooses not to show the event. I'm not suggesting that she would definitely have shown the massacre if the budget had been higher but it surely must have been a consideration.The point is that it doesn't matter either way because we are convinced (ot at least I was) that we don't need to see it. By not showing it and just suggesting its consequences (a student pleading at the glass, a hand slipping out from beneath a body bag), the moment in which Swinton's Eva finds her husband and daughter dead in the garden in the glare of their security lights is even more brutal and affecting – and has a greater impact on how we feel about both our protagonist and antagonist - where as the gym genocide would have effectively stolen this moment for characters we neither know nor care about (the high school students).

By not showing the event its also somewhat of a relief; such is the psychological torment we’re subjected to throughout the film!

So, remember you’re a God, and the audience knows this. As with Kevin Katchadourian, you have absolute dominion over who lives and dies, but unlike him, you can control what the audience sees - so you better convince them they're seeing exactly what they need to see.

INDUSTRIAL SCRIPTS is a London-based script consultancy operating in the film and TV industries, founded by some of the UK's leading script editor. The company delivers a wide range of script report, script analysis and script doctoring services, as well as screenwriting, script reading and filmmaking courses to screenwriters and filmmakers from around the world. For more information on our script editing, writer training and project specific services please visit: http://www.industrialscripts.co.uk

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Script Doctor: XVII: Explaining The Fourth Wall

Yesterday I saw Carnage, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play, The God of Carnage. I was a big fan of the play and yet the film left me feeling more than a little frustrated – mainly because I felt as if I was watching the play again. It didn't feel to me as if Polanski had tried to adapt the play to fit the big screen. Instead, and like so many play adaptations before, we are treated to a very watchable filmic version of the play. Polanski does use the space of the apartment in which the entire narrative is set very engagingly, and bookends the action with brief moments that aren’t in the play, but I would argue that the film doesn’t find a visual and filmic way of reconfiguring the narrative and themes of the play.


This not only makes it feel static, it also makes some of the performances seem affected and the character turns implausible as it retains the moments of impact exactly as they appeared on stage – without giving too much away, the main ones are: a character vomiting, a mobile phone being broken, a vase of flowers being upended. Whereas on stage these actions felt violent and unexpected, on screen they feel small and a little inconsequential.

The main stumbling block in most play adaptations is the inherent boundaries of theatre. Foremost, the single location. Whereas, on stage, the construct is accepted as it is central to the very nature of the art form, film demands the opposite – it requires movement, action, fluidity, it tries to get characters out of one room/scene and into another as quickly as possible. In fact, I’d even say that films set in one location are very different from films based on plays set in one location. Original films set in one room can still use filmic and visual ways to tell a story; (e.g. Rear Window, Cube, Buried, 12 Angry Men) and can still have that feeling of movement. 

In Carnage the story revolves around an apartment in which two couples argue about their children - the argument descends into recriminations and social carnage - on stage we accept that the couple that don't live in the apartment stay despite the descent into chaos - in fact we want them to stay, if they left the room they'd leave the stage and we wouldn't follow the action - on film, we want them to leave, to get them moving, to get them out of there - to act in a way we find plausible. But they don't and thus half the film is spent finding ways to justify them staying in the apartment.

Carnage doesn't make the mistake of most lazy play adaptations, which usually find cynical ways to ‘open a play out’ i.e. move the dialogue to different locations, more exotic back-drops etc. but this isn’t the same as finding a filmic way to tell the story. Keeping the essential structure and dialogue from the play but dropping in much more interesting locations or occasionally seeing a scene/event a character refers to within the play isn't to my mind an adaptation, but rather a re-staging.

Carnage isn’t a bad film, or even a lazy adaptation, as it makes no real attempt to adapt - it just feels like a decent version of the play, though as it’s giving the same experience it can never compete as the immediacy of the play means that the larger intellectual ideas inhabited by the characters has room to flourish where as in the film we just keep asking ourselves, ‘why don’t they just leave the apartment?’

INDUSTRIAL SCRIPTS is a London-based script consultancy operating in the film and TV industries, founded by some of the UK's leading script editor. The company delivers a wide range of script report, script analysis and script doctoring services, as well as screenwriting, script reading and filmmaking courses to screenwriters and filmmakers from around the world. For more information on our script editing, writer training and project specific services please visit: http://www.industrialscripts.co.uk

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Script Doctor XVI: Don't be scared of your Voice!

The Script Doctor's going back to the basics today, the nuts-and-bolts, the big picture - but sometimes that's necessary for us all. Reading the below article about the inimitable Charlie Kaufman (has ever the term 'inimitable' been so apt??) got me thinking about the writer's 'voice' within screenwriting.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/oct/03/charlie-kaufman-how-to-write



It's always felt to me that most books on screenwriting seem designed to filter out the writer's voice by prescribing a set of sacrosanct structural rules. Yes, these books are hugely helpful in structuring your narrative and formatting your screenplay, but should only be used after a first draft. If you start with them as a template you won't allow your voice to appear and therefore your script will feel empty, technically perfect perhaps but it's voice as much as story that draws people in. This is rarely mentioned because often the people reading the scripts don't even realize this is what they're responding to, but it usually is.

As always Kurt Vonnegut put it best when he said:

“It is very simple: There are two kinds of artists, and one is not superior to the other. But one kind responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.”

You can be the first kind and respond to the films you’ve seen but I’d argue there are too many of these sorts of screenwriters already, and there are too few of the latter.  So read as much as you can, go to plays, listen to music, watch a great TV series – it’s all nourishment. And of course, life itself! This sounds like a very basic piece of advice but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget. Surrounding yourself just with movies can actually be detrimental to your craft, just in the way that I found having to read a pile of scripts every day made me overly critical of my own writing before I even put pen to paper (hand to pad?).

It makes logical sense too - the only unique thing you have in a crowded marketplace is you! Not only will it help sell your screenplay but it will also mean that no-one can really rip it off as there's no fool-proof way to copyright a screenplay unless you're rich enough to have a team of lawyers on retainer, but the more idiosyncratic your voice, the less possible it is for any other writer to claim your screenplay as their own. I mean, could anyone else have written Being John Malkovich?? Except Donald Kaufman of course.

Also, if you take inspiration from many other sources no-one will ever connect up the dots to work out what you've done. 'Borrowing' a scene, line of dialogue or character from another film will always be detected by the cunning cineast (is there any other kind?), but from a song, play, novel, TV series or poem?! Never!

The old adage goes: 'If you're going to steal, steal big', but I'd alter this slightly to: 'If you're going to steal, steal sideways!'.

INDUSTRIAL SCRIPTS is a London-based script consultancy operating in the film and TV industries, founded by some of the UK's leading script editor. The company delivers a wide range of script report, script analysis and script doctoring services, as well as screenwriting, script reading and filmmaking courses to screenwriters and filmmakers from around the world. For more information on our script editing, writer training and project specific services please visit: http://www.industrialscripts.co.uk