BEFORE THE SHOOTING STARTS
by John M. Floyd
I watched a documentary the other day called Tales From the Script, a collection of interviews with dozens of Hollywood screenwriters. Since I’m both a writer and a movie fan, I loved it.
I am not, however, a screenwriter. I’ve tried my hand at it, as have most writers at some point, and I think I at least understand the form and the process—but I’m better suited to fiction written for the printed page. After all, the things I like most about screenplays—the definite three-act structure, the dialogue, the visual scenes—are also important to the kind of genre stories I enjoy reading and writing. (The thing I find difficult about screenplays is that they of course can’t get into a character’s thoughts, except via dialogue and reactions.)
What made this documentary particularly interesting to me is that many of the featured writers’ points about screenwriting (ideas, content, editing, goals, self-doubt, inspiration, rejection, etc.) can also apply to most other forms of writing. When all’s said and done, stories are stories.
Here, then, are excerpts from some of the interviewees’ observations about writing for the big screen:
John August (Big Fish): I used to try to make everyone happy, and so if someone said they didn’t like something, and had a suggestion, I would immediately try to incorporate that suggestion. Which is one of the worst things you can possibly do.
Dennis Palumbo (My Favorite Year): A writer friend of mine once described screenwriters as egomaniacs with low self-esteem . . . On the one hand, you have to believe that what you wrote was so great everyone needed to see it, that the world couldn’t go on without it, and at the very same moment you think, God I knew I was crap.
Kris Young (UCLA professor): There’s a scene [in The African Queen] where Humphrey Bogart gets out of the river covered with leeches—and he hates that more than anything in the world, leeches. And they get all the leeches off, and the boat’s stuck in the weeds, and the scene where he has to get back in the water and pull the boat again . . . that’s how I feel when I have to do another draft.
William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid): Screenplays are structure and they’re story, and that’s all they are, and the quality of writing, which is crucial in almost every other form of literature, is not what makes a screenplay work.
Ron Shelton (Bull Durham): I learned early on that I can’t write something if it’s not about me . . . about my experience, my needs, fears, desires, whatever. So even if it’s about a photographer in the Nicaraguan revolution, his issues have to be issues that I care about personally.
Billy Ray (Breach): Chinatown took thirteen drafts—and none of us are as good as Robert Towne. Amadeus took I think 46—and none of us are as good as Peter Shaffer. So all that means is, with the previous 45 of Amadeus, someone said, “Peter, you can do better.” And I’m sure that pissed him off, but he kept writing.
Mark D. Rosenthal (Mona Lisa Smile): In Los Angeles there’s probably a quarter million people writing screenplays . . . and 99.999 percent of them, when they say “Oh I’m being rejected, I can’t get ahead”—it’s because their writing isn’t good.
Joe Stillman (Shrek): Just as a screenplay needs to be developed, I think a writer needs to be developed, and that it takes a number of failures in order to eventually write something that gets better. It seems like, yeah, I can fill 110 pages—that’s a screenplay, yahoo! But that’s very different from writing something that’s going to move somebody on some level, when they read it.
Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force One): The reason why Shakespeare is a genius is that he used to write his plays, watch them performed, and then go back and rewrite. And every time it didn’t connect with the audience, or didn’t have the intent that he wanted, he went back and he rewrote. And these plays were performed a hundred times, and he rewrote them a hundred times—and we don’t have that luxury.
John August: I think what newer screenwriters fail to understand is that about fifty percent of the job is how well you write. The other fifty percent of the job is how well you can understand what the people making the movie need in order to make the movie.
Jane Anderson (How to Make an American Quilt): If, as a filmmaker or writer, you can lift an audience’s spirits, and also give them something to chew on when they walk away, that’s the ultimate accomplishment.
I think that’s what all of us, whether we write scripts or novels or short stories, want to accomplish. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding.
One more thing: If you like this subject, stay tuned. My column next week will include some of the documentary’s views about the perception and the “business” of screenwriting. Until then . . .