After a while, it becomes instinctive. You hold a good story in your hand and feel it like a well-made pot. You know where all the bits go. You have an unspoken sense of shape. It feels right. But how to acquire that instinct? Maybe just step back and look at the whole.
Since 2008, whenever requested by funds to provide an example scene with dialogues from a movie that only exists at the stage of treatment, I provide them with the same eight pages of five people exchanging nonsense among themselves. Eight, because funds usually ask for at least eight; five, because it’s odd and feels asymmetric; and nonsense, because this is how we sound when we talk without a context. I do change the names of the characters and make sure, in the description , that they are set up differently, but I don’t put much effort into that either and I have basically three options that I keep rotating: five characters sit around a dinner table; five characters wait at the oncologist’s; or five characters take a hike in the woods. If I feel like putting them in a recruitment center rather than at the doctor’s, I do that. This had proved, throughout the years, a very successful practice. There have been no complaints at least. Which proves, in return, that there is no such thing as objectively good dialogue. There is only bad dialogue and it happens usually when too much meaning is intended. Unless, of course, a lot of meaning is required by the context, and then it’s fine.
The Financial Times is a global newspaper for bankers and businessmen. There’s an interesting piece in Monday’s edition, dated January 9th, 2023. The title is “Hyper Efficiency is Bad for Business”. The same is true of screenwriting. As 19th-century British writer John Ruskin wrote, it’s imperfections that make a work of art. My grandfather used to say the same thing. “Never trust a system,” was how he put it. And he was born in 1890, before cinema had even happened. But hey. When you’ve got a story to tell, line up your wants and needs, your protagonists and antagonists, your turning-points, your beats, your acts. Then blow the whole thing apart. Find the vulnerabilities. That’s what we care about: the inexplicable wobble.
Or page twenty, or somewhere around that place, where a script is expected to become really interesting and something must happen. Syd Field, more old fasHioned, wouldn’t read anything after page 15 if a „plot point” were not to be found on that page. Snyder, more indulgent, expects something major to happen on page 25, like an „inciting incident”. Anthing later than that and it becomes too late. To me, this expectation is perplexing in more than one way. First, because it assumes that interest can only be achieved by things „happening”. Second, because it concedes that everything before page 15 or 25 can be listless and drab. Third, because it forces the „interesting” point to belong to the same epistemic family as the introduction. That makes everything predictable, including the unpredictable. I think time (and pages) should not be wasted with establishing scenes, world building and character introductions, just to have something to shake after twenty pages. The world of a movie defines itself as it advances. If there is enough clarity on the part of the writer, plus a certain sense of where we are headed, context will take care of itself. Focusing on page fifteen or page twenty-five is spurious science. Things may be made interesting earlier, preferably on page one.
People often rewrite the beginning a hundred times. The ending falls weirdly by the wayside. But what makes an ending work? Some questions are unanswerable. There are just too many answers. Here’s one: a good ending is when a character makes the right choice. Thelma and Louise (suicide) is hideous. Chinatown (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”) is, well, forgettable. Oslo 31 st August (another suicide) is, hmm, predictable. But Casablanca remains the gold standard. When Bogart and Bergman wish each other farewell, it brings tears to our eyes. How? By setting up a character who you just know will never do the right thing. Then he does. So that’s a second thought: a good ending doesn’t just tie up all the loose ends. It needs a powerful twist that brings up meaning from the bottom of the ocean. In spades.
In Jerzy Skolimovski’s Eo the star is a donkey. Would it have got funded if its director hadn’t been a world famous 84-year-old whose first hit, Walkover was made in 1965 and first big international hit, Deep End was released in 1970? Would it have got made if it had been a first film, in the age of Netflix and “Creative” Europe? Let’s make the answer to that question, a definite “Yes”. What other animals do we want to see up there? How about remaking Eo with an old lady in the donkey part?
People scream. They scramble for the exits. A railway engine steams straight at them. The Lumière Brothers’ first ever shot may have offered an accurate and animated representation of the real: what mattered more was that it startled the living daylights out of those attending. Cinema is a fairground attraction. Unlike theatre or dance, it doesn’t work if the audience remains just dutifully mesmerized. Films want to holler and laugh. They roar with anger and stutter with fear. Surprise is the name of the game. The late great Jean-Claude Carrière describes a screenwriter’s task, as she or he ploughs through a storyline scene by scene as returning again and again to a single question: what would be fun now?
Meaning is a disaster. Platform algorithms have decided we only care about thematic content. Well, we Script Savages want to yell, “Film is not just a didactic medium!” We watch a movie, firstly to enjoy a collective experience (as long as theatres survive); secondly, to dive into a highly sensory universe that triggers nearly all of our senses. Finally, we also want to be teleported into a filmmaker’s personal view on the world. Watching a movie is more like listening to music than anything else: good filmmaking is founded upon creating a range of rhythmical and emotional and aesthetic movements.
Facts are two a penny. Opinions come cheap. How a story is told matters more than what the story says. Credibility is not necessarily realistic. Experiments with form offer ironic pleasure. Laughing dinosaurs. Video art. Flashback. First person narrative. Musicals. Scratched negatives. All forms are interesting. The crime is not to play with form at all.
This is not about that dramatic observation, made usually about artists who were morally bankrupt, yet made great art. I am thinking more about the banal and unavoidable condition of all film makers: sooner or later, these persons who play power games to achieve their goals, who dictate the rules of the film set, manipulate to achieve their goals and adapt by perpetually compromising, are going to be perceived as bad people. Many end up having this opinion about themselves. It comes with the fact that making cinema is a collective endeavor. Painters paint, musicians play or sing, poets create in solitude. Only film makers are performing their creative act in front of a live audience, exposed to systematic judgement. The only part of the process where a film maker is alone happens when the story is imagined. It is the only time when no role-play and no social skills are needed. It gives the film-maker the chance to be honest and, to the future film, a chance to be good.
“I’m working!” screenwriters shout down the stairs as they pummel the keys, hitting deadline after deadline. Solitary writing can be a reassuringly time-consuming, yet deceptive consolation. The connection between page and screen so often gets lost. Character, scene, dialogue are just words. Workshops are intrinsically collective, and so a neat place to remember, well, future realities beyond the words: the curve of an actor’s belly; the texture of light on children playing; a scream off-screen; the thudding tension of a post-produced bass line… The words a writer makes need to become the amphetamine that will drive cinematographers and actors, production designers and costume people, picture editors and sound mixers to surpass themselves in the building of a world that cannot be real except in our dreams. So forget the page, remember the screen. Screenplays dissolve in the movie once it’s made. Their rhythms are oral and visual.
Screenwriting books offer a lot of rules to provide a safe environment for beginners – “recipes” on how to structure a movie. These create confusion in screenwriters minds. They block creativity and generate an obsessively mathematical way of dealing with plot points distributed across a predetermined number of acts (acts belong in the theater). Better focus on how the passing of time (hours, days, seasons) can be used simply as a means of dividing a story. Better deconstruct space into a handful of specific locations, to which characters, plot or emotions may be assigned to. Better, finally, devise the story as series of emotional movements.
Writing is bliss. Making the movie – not so much. Sure, actors do a good job, the production team is responsive, locations are appropriate and the cinematographer captures well the scene. It’s almost how you imagined it, you feel like saying. Is it, though? When you wrote those dialogue lines, were those the characters you really had in mind? Was that their voice, or the pace of delivery? Was there any team fidgeting outside the camera frame, waiting for you to say „action” or „stop”? Was there a camera at all? Was that the true distance between the objects? I think reality is the compromise of our imagination. The things you make happen are unique, in the sense that they are nothing more than how they are. Meanwhile, Inside your head, each scene, each face, each view – they all exist simultaneously in all their versions, like in some sort of quantum state. In a way, when compared to the endless potential of a script that is being developed, the resulting film is as melancholically disappointing as a frozen image of the past.
Movie characters need to be larger than life. That much we know. Good stories are about extraordinary events. And when writer/directors believe their job is to reproduce the familiar, rather than exacerbate the unfamiliar, effective entertainment and great art rarely occur. But why? Because yarns need to strike the imagination, marshalling mermaids and monsters, cigar-smoking bosses and cowboys to break our hearts like Johnny Guitar. Making people larger than life is generous: it’s funny, it’s scary, it offers a worldview. Well, wait a minute. Characters that are smaller than life are just as good. It’s not that the ordinary doesn’t make good cinema. It’s that for the ordinary to be good, it needs to be seen real close. The magic is in making the familiar suddenly unfamiliar by enlarging perceptive detail. Seeing what we know in a new light is just as amusing as discovering what we don’t. Think Kelly Reichardt.
Lev Kuleshov’s famous experiment established the complexity of picture juxtaposition. New meaning is offered. Feelings and emotions may arise in the the audience that no actor has expressed. A screenwriter’s job, it follows, is not just to design her or his main characters’ emotional journey, but to deal with it scene by scene, moment by moment: bridging emotional continuity or breaking it while introducing time lapses, changing locations or inserting new action… This is the exciting game we play with the audience’s own feelings.