Week 41 07-13/11/2016 # The Screenwriter: The First, But Not The Only Painter Of The Picture

– 8 min –

Nobody is an island, making a movie is a team effort. A bold statement perhaps, especially in the light of the movie I am ‘reverse screenwriting’, made by the Coen Brothers, who not only write and direct their own films, but also edit most of their own films, under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. And this phenomenon isn’t uncommon in the film industry. Not only that many filmmakers take upon themselves a lot of the making roles, but also working under a pseudonym. This last thing to avoid problems with the rules several Guilds have. And also to avoid having your name up on the screen too many times. I think people like seeing that a product is a team effort. It makes a filmmaker more likable. Less cocky feeling. Less ‘they think they can do it all by themselves, they don’t need anyone else’ feeling.

I already mentioned before in at least one previous post, that I believe in team efforts with a creative product like a movie. So many different disciplines come together, are needed for this creative product. No one can do it all and no one is going to be at their upmost top level at all of these disciplines, despite some thinking so and attempting to be (I want to use the word stubborn somewhere, but I’ll be nice). But, in their defense, there is actually a trend going on now, expecting filmmakers to be allrounders. Especially the so-called ‘camera-journalists’ are expected to excel at being all in one: writer, producer, director, cinematographer, and editor. Granted, these projects are usually not feature films, but still, that’s a lot of hats to wear and mindsets to join together. And when you are the only one wearing those hats, your view can be clouded or distorted, where a fresh look on things might actually be very helpful and enhancing the eventual product. Because as the lone ranger, you don’t see things so objectively anymore, having no one to bounce your ideas off, and it’s easy to overlook things. The same reason why you, as a writer should never proofread your own work. Your brain knows it too well and will actually fill in what it knows it should say, not what it actually says. This is a scientific fact (filling in the gaps in our visual perception). Since I don’t let others read my blog posts before I post them, I have gotten into the habit of letting them rest overnight, so the next day I have a fresher look on them and also read them out loud and slowly. This usually helps for the most parts. It’s not like they are articles for some website or magazine or something, this is more of a journal, but I still would like them to be at least ‘typo-free’ and what I write makes sense what I want to say. But I digress a little now.

Why this topic has come to the surface during this phase actually has to do with a different part of the team effort. And that is: how much the screenwriter describes how the story is meant to be brought on screen. And this is a tricky one. Because naturally as the writer, if you have come up with the story by yourself especially, you too have a vision of what the story looks like and sounds like. Meaning, you probably will have envisioned the houses your characters live in, what the characters look like, sound like and also how certain lines of dialogue are meant to be said, if not all. Although you are the painter of the picture, you’re not the only painter. And I know for sure you would want to let the next person, who is taking over your baton, as in a relay race, know how you have envisioned it, so they will continue along the same path and that vision won’t end up in the nearest bin. But you also don’t want to ‘over-direct’ not only the production designer, director, cinematographer and the editor, but certainly also not treat the actors as mere puppets and you pulling their strings, constricting them of any input themselves. And with that I mean how to express certain emotions for instance.

When we talk about production design for instance, we read 2 scripts in the previous phase that were on complete opposite sides of the spectrum, interestingly enough. Avatar (2009) had a very extensive, detailed description of the world of Pandora and their inhabitants in its screenplay. It almost read like a novel. But that makes sense, because for one, it is an imagined world of which not many have any association of what it might look like. For a normal world, if I write ‘a typical teenage boy bedroom’, I am sure the production designer kind of knows what to do with that. And only if certain specifics are important to the story, will it be necessary to include them in the description. On the other side of that spectrum we had a script, which was very short, about 30 pages shorter as the film turned out to be, with almost no description of anything. It was as naked as a new born baby. Too naked in my opinion (and many other students felt the same). You might say, as one student now has said about her reverse screenwriting movie, that you want to leave it ALL up to the other members of the filmmaking team. Giving them a blank slate. Yeah, I don’t believe in that. Because for one, it will be very hard to imagine the tone of the story and to envision it. Surely as a producer, who usually gets to see the script before any of the other members do, wants to be enticed as well. And not have to come up with all of the visuals themselves. After all, that is (part of) the screenwriter’s job. Up to a certain point at least.

Elaborating on the subject of dialogue, it can produce a whole amount of extra work for the director and actors when the writer leaves all the interpretation of the dialogue to them, especially when it’s not very clear how it is meant. It will also be more difficult to get into their roles. If the director has to come up with everything themselves and the actors also wonder how lines are meant, when they first read it, to me, it forms obstacles to get into it. And might even get them to feel the need to improvise everything or leave out some of the dialogue, if it’s not clear how that is meant. Quel nightmare! Because you as the writer had not put that in for nothing, you had a specific reason for that line of dialogue. You often hear actors refer to a script as so well and tightly written, that there was absolutely no reason to improvise anything. And I am sure they did not mean that the script dictated everything to a T, but that everything also made such good sense and was clear how it was meant, that no improvisation was needed.

Even though I stand behind everything I have just said 100%, the execution of it is still quite a challenge. How much is too much, how little is too little? One of the indicators to follow and for this reason I think, is of course the 1:1 ratio that has been set as a standard. You know, 1 page of script equals 1 minute of movie. And having seen that also put into practice with the 20+ scripts and done pretty well with almost all of them, I believe this to be a good one for this reason. But also for another reason and that is so producers get an indication how long a movie will probably be, when they first get a script into their hands and have to decide if they want it or not, taking this into account as well.

One thing I am still somewhat amazed by is the editing. And I don’t mean editing in the re-writing sense of the word. I’m talking about film editing. That although it’s not your job as a screenwriter to be the editor, how much film editing actually is part of your writing and your job. I remember when reading the scripts in the first phase, how surprised I was about how much the writer ‘decides’ on the editing of the story, for one. At least the sequence, the order of it. How much is already in the writing. I have done some editing already in my past, but that was mostly non-fiction, and in that, as the editor (I was actually also the director of it) I decided on the order and how the story got told and the editing is one of your strongest storytelling tools in that. Perhaps this is why I love editing so much. Give me the pictures and I will place them in an order that tells the story in a compelling way. And when then reading the scripts, I thought ‘wow, the writer actually already writes the order of the story also, so he makes editing decisions as well’. In the broad sense. And this can change of course. I remember one script which was clearly shaken up order wise in the movie. And it made much better sense, this new order. But in general, you are also wearing an editor’s hat to some extent.

As for the cinematography, and I absolutely love this, I actually feel a sense of freedom that I don’t have to decide on the exact shots. Me, who loves many, many different options and can think about them endlessly. Plus having photography in my background, making it even harder for me to decide, because I know a thing or two about it. Thank God, and I mean that, for cinematographers! Let them work it out. It is in fact also almost a mortal sin to pretend to be the cinematographer and put camera directions in. Do that and your screenplay is guaranteed to get a one-way ticket to the nearest bin. What I am doing in my writing is give specific instructions only for dramatic purposes and this you do see often in the scripts and this is widely accepted. For instance the CLOSE ON instruction, when you want something to be focused on first in a scene, often to hide or not reveal further information yet about the surrounding as an element of surprise or suspense. Or when you are writing an action scene containing multiple characters, who we are with then at that moment, ON JAKE, for instance. In one of the first scripts we read, seeing this kind of instructions, I thought it was a mistake, but now I completely understand why it’s done this way and have seen it in numerous other scripts after that. And through the writing I do give the cinematographer and the director ideas, by saying ‘he looks at the building’ or ‘he looks surprised’ and then they get an idea what to do with that, so it’s not that as the writer I don’t have any influence at all. But in many of the scenes I have written already now, well, transcribed from the movie, I was very glad I didn’t have to write specific instructions on how the director and cinematographer should have shot that scene. If I do my job well, they both will get a sense of how I ‘see’ the scenes through the writing and also what kind of story this is, its tone, and what kind of shots are appropriate with that, to bring that across. I must trust their skills also. Like I said before, I truly believe making a film is a joint venture, in which all the different talents and skills come together and will serve one another. And when you’re striving for excellence, don’t you want that excellence executed in all elements? I certainly do. And we already established it’s impossible to be excellent in all the disciplines, no matter how many people still think so or try to be. This of course applies to any other industry as well by the way.

Coming back to the Coen Brothers, the reason why I believe they have such a strong and successful track record in executing the many roles they fulfil, is because there are the two of them, so they already have someone else to bounce their ideas off and still they don’t do everything themselves. A team is much, much bigger than ‘just’ the writer, director and editor.

I can’t wait to be done and see their version of the screenplay and how they put all of what I just said into practice in the writing. Especially because they fulfil so many roles. Will that give them the freedom to write differently? Shorter? Or much longer perhaps? Only time will tell and I still have a bit to go.

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