15 October 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: What I learned

 I met my challenge of reading 20 scripts in 30 days. It was more difficult to complete the reading than I expected. The trick of stating a goal in public worked for me. Mid-way through I got tired of reading screenplays exclusively, but shame is an incredibly powerful motivator so I finished, mainly because I'd made a public declaration.

In general, I couldn't believe how good the work was -- not just good for a movie, or good for pop culture, but as good as anything that has come from any art form. Sometimes, you read screenwriters complain about how they don't get enough recognition for their contribution. This is true. Carole Eastman ought to enjoy the same level of fame as an accomplished short story writer does, at the very least. 

I'd say the biggest lesson I learned was this: Form should follow story. Each story wants to be told in its own way, and the form of the tale should follow that imperative.

Most screenwriting books are prescriptive. They assume you want to sell your script to Hollywood, then break dramaturgy down for you and provide a template. Often, they'll claim there are no rules, but then give you a list of them to follow. Once you've read a few of these manuals, you can definitely see the structure at work in a standard Hollywood film, as well, so the how-to books have a certain fidelity to the way mainstream movies are made.

Yet, as I read through actual scripts of produced movies -- many of which are acknowledged masterpieces -- what struck me most was the variety of approaches to storytelling. They all used a broad range of techniques -- flashbacks, narration, changes in point of view, disrupting genre conventions, and so on. But none of the scripts qualifies as non-narrative or avant garde. Each of the writers clearly knows dramaturgy and narrative conventions. They wield a variety of tricks -- in Bergman's case, everything from medieval mystery plays to French bedroom farce. But they put technique to the service of the story. No cookie cutter scripts. (Yes, I realize there are a few book's worth of issues to discuss here, but I'm trying to be brief and bloggy).

Some principles that struck me were how the scripts:
  • Exploit the physical setting for meaning (the So-Cal desert in Five Easy Pieces, the pool table in Eyes Wide Shut, the boots in All Quiet on the Western Front, the swing in Ikiru)
  • Use the principle of contrast
  • Rely on importance of physical objects
  • Offer comic relief.
  • Illustrate necessity of following the author's personal obsessions (Bergman, Huston)
As for the exercise of reading a pile of scripts in a short time, it was mostly helpful. It's good to know as much as you can about a subject, and reading the established works within it can only be useful. I hope that at least some traces were left that will help me as I do my own work.

If I were to do it again, I'd want to use some questionnaire to help me think about the various aspects of the script in a structured way. Overall, a better approach would be to choose one script, break it down to see how all the parts work and then watch the movie afterward. 

Many web sites offer free .pdf versions of scripts; I used many of them as I did my reading. (Finding knowledge is cheap. It's mindless entertainment that costs.)

Any, try:

And, the library was as always a great resource.

Postscript: On the Paltriness of Movies Today

Even though it's a lazy kind of rant, I still can't escape the feeling that movies really have gone downhill. Now, a lot of good movies came out in the 2000s -- Babel, Children of Men, Sexy Beast, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Irreversible to name a few just off the top of my head. And, granted, I read a fair amount of Euro-art house material.


Take a film like Five Easy Pieces, which supposedly fathered the indie film. That movie has more guts, more heart, takes more risks than nearly any recent film I can remember. To move away from the script, the cinematography was brilliant and accomplished, the acting absolutely real and moving. the cinematography, for example, was beautiful and rich and, more importantly, meaningful in a way that some crappy-assed mumblecore video just isn't.

The scale of ambition seems so limited now -- I don't know if that's a function of money or fear or simple lack of ability. But when you look at Huston or Welles, they were clearly aiming for the ages as well as entertaining. Bergman and Kurosawa clearly saw themselves as part of heritage of great drama and literature that they themselves wanted to extend, struggle with and develop farther.

The artistic aim is high -- examining the meaning of life, the nature of heroism, the question of identity, what romantic love amounts to, what makes up a happy life. And they do this using the means of drama and comedy, meaning: they're entertaining in the best sense. Funny, moving, and absorbing, they rip you out of your daily life and suck you into dream time.

Now the aims themselves seem limited. Take a film such as Inception, by Christopher Nolan. His intention as he's said, was to make the ultimate heist film. I guess that's cool.He succeeded in what's really a big engineering feat. But it's impossible to take seriously as any kind of meditation on The Nature of Reality when the insights it offers are about as profound as those of a freshman who's just smoked his first joint. Or when the aesthetics of the movie are about as dreamlike as a trip to a upscale hotel in Santa Monica. So he made a cool heist movie? So what?

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