The following is from a lecture given at the Screenwriting Network Research Conference 2016 in Leeds.
It’s a pleasure to be here, although I walked away from the screen some years ago. There were novels going round my head and I needed the time and space to write them out of my head.
I miss the camaraderie of working with people. But I don’t miss looking for funds, fighting executives and always being away on location.
I spent 50 years thinking about little else but how to write a screenplay and how to get it to the screen.
And the screenplay is still a mystery.
So today I propose to confuse you even more than you are already confused.
And If you think you’re not confused – you REALLY don’t understand screenplays.
I will narrow my use of the word “film” to fictional, narrative work. I will use the word “film” even though celluloid is obsolete; occasionally the word “movie” when I need to make a distinction between two separate cultural worlds; and in this digital environment make no distinction between the various means of connecting with an audience.
A screenplay, of course, is not a film. It should not even be a document waiting to be translated into a film. A film is lifeless if it is merely a transposition from page to screen: that is to say those films, much admired, where the shoot is merely putting on to a screen what has been worked up in detail in dialogue and storyboards. Actors are puppets on a string; the action is revealed by an omnipotent and omniscient god. With apologies to Hitchcock fans, these films are dead on arrival, at least to me.
In my working practice, a screenplay is an hypothesis we go out to test. Or, as Marxism should be, not a dogma but a guide to action. It is a piece of information everyone on the film can share. It is the basis of all conversation in cast and crew. It is a satnav guiding you from start to finish, even if you decide to change your route or stop for a picnic and a chat on the way. It is narrative structure and a repertoire of hints for the creation of living characters. You will have noticed a tension, possibly a conflict. The creation of living characters may result in them pursuing a different narrative structure to the one in the screenplay, one you have used to budget and schedule the film. Something will have to give. I shall return to this insoluble contradiction.
The work of the film editor after the shoot is over is similar to the work of the screenwriter, certainly after the first rough draft. Unless, of course, it is one of those films so constructed in advance, all the editor has to do is link it up in accordance to instructions. In my work, at least, the editor cuts and rearranges sequences, tries different rhythms, emphasises one facial expression over another – actors by their very presence changing the meaning of a scene as they bring it to life. So, for that matter, does the lighting and the choice of location.
I’ve always encouraged the screenwriter’s presence in the cutting room and have often been entranced by the interaction. The screenwriter in draft after draft is an editor; the editor is a writer.
Most people, even those in the film business, are incapable of reading a screenplay. They think that because it is written in their native language, they can usefully read it. They can’t. Some even think they can write one – after all, they are literate – and even try. Directors, many of them French, tend to suffer under this illusion.
Few realise that a successful screenplay hides its virtues. They must remain unseen, in the structure. It is a technical matter, and that technique is at its most sophisticated when it is hidden and invisible.
A screenplay is not the dialogue. When amateurs say they have read a screenplay, and I include most executives and many producers as amateurs, they mean they have mainly read the dialogue. In fact sometimes I have made sure we have two – one the real one, which is our working document, and another, just dialogue and exciting action descriptions, for the “executive read”.
A screenplay IS structure. Not as rule based as a sonnet, but just as rigid. If your film doesn’t work it might be for a number of reasons, but the most likely is a wobbly structure.
It’s interesting to reflect that the movie business – as a business – was modelled on real estate. Much of the law was taken from property law. We talk about “the underlying rights” and “chain of title” to “the property” .
So the screenplay can be thought of as the foundations and the main structural framework holding the whole edifice up, and the finished film the building, fully furnished and occupied. The screenplay is not visible, but if it’s not sound, the whole edifice will crack and possibly crumble. Few will know why.
A screenplay does not tell its story at the reader’s pace. The viewer must follow at the screen’s pace. So as my old mentor, Sydney Newman, would tell me, just as there are only three things you need to know about real estate – location, location and location; with screenplays they are – clarity, clarity and clarity. That is not the same as simplicity or obviousness. A narrative may have as many turns as a corkscrew and characters as opaque and many layered as a Medici Cardinal, but the audience must feel they are being driven knowingly to a worthwhile destination.
If the screenplay is clear, it is possible to mislay it on the journey of production; but if it’s fudged, you will rarely find it on the way.
A screenplay fundamentally is information. A world is revealed – time, place, characters, conflicts and so on. How and when these revelations are dispensed is the basis of storytelling. For instance, one can kill a film from indigestion with too much exposition. The European art film audience is more patient, but if you don’t grab the Hollywood movie audience or the television audience by the balls in the first minute, they escape. Hence one of the golden rules of screenwriting is the CIA principle- the “Need to know”. Jump straight into the action, conflict, jeopardy or misunderstanding. No setting up the characters with dialogue, no potted biographies. The writer is not a host at a social gathering, introducing one to another. You only give information on a “need to know” basis, that is, when the audience has to have, is demanding, that information. Then they won’t even know it is exposition.
Amateurs in television, especially in Europe, misunderstand this, so they offer a pre-title sequence of violent action as a hook, and then after the titles proceed to a leisurely exposition offering information no one will need for ages. British television has been particularly guilty of this method of killing a drama stone dead. I’ve even had to stop executives, who I wouldn’t employ as trainee story editors, insisting we fully explain the plot in the first few minutes – “to make sure the audience is not confused” they patronisingly say.
There are three things you may not ever want to hear. One, the cheque is in the mail. Two,…Well that’s too rude for this pre-watershed hour. Three, Hello, I’m just here to help you. I don’t want to interfere. That’s the one the screenwriter particularly dreads.
My own practice, whenever I could wrestle enough creative freedom, has been to reject Fordist filmmaking, the industrial assembly line created by the Hollywood studios and since followed unthinkingly around the world, in which a screenplay is passed down the line to preproduction, then to the shoot and then to editing and finally to the post. My fundamental assumption is that a film is a social creation. I would work with a full, detailed screenplay, but did not treat it like a biblical text. We tried to shoot in sequence and never allowed an actor to see more than they needed of the next sequence. In life we remember past events and but only have hopes for the future. What we know in each moment is all we know. Why burden actors with more information than they need? We encouraged improvisation in order to create spontaneity. In the theatre, Hamlet knows even when he is on the battlements in the beginning, that a couple of hours later he will be in a sword fight with Laertes. He does this night after night. But a film is the accretion of private, unrepeatable moments. So if the actor cannot live in each moment the film is dead. To act at all takes great courage. One is tempted to hide, in self protection, behind bits of business with a phone, say, or a repertoire of facial tics – not the emotion, but the representation of that emotion. It is even possible to hide behind the text, which is why during each take something unexpected is made to happen. Anything to keep the unrepeatable spontaneous moment alive.
Writers tend to object to all this. I’ve had to walk them round the block when they threatened to murder the director. I brutally tell them they are not writing in iambic pentameters. I explain that their participation in a film is a social one. Their task is to offer a document which will guide but not imprison all the other creative minds; not a blueprint, but another shifting set of suggestions, sensitive and pliable as it inspires and responds.
If the director is the screenwriter, the screenplay still comes first. How else is information going to be distributed around the crew?
I would marry writer and director early so they could enter each other’s heads and welcomed the writer on location and in the cutting room.
The model here, instead of an assembly line, is one of overlapping concentric circles.
So, if a film is a social achievement what is the possessory credit? A single name signifying creative ownership? That is a journalistic convenience. Or it is artistic theft. Or it is just an indication of individualism becoming the dominant ideology. Take you pick.
Certainly for almost all fiction films there are many contributors.
Credit is a matter of fashion and of power. In the early days of American cinema the director was just some guy who was sent out to supervise the shoot. Who would want to stand in the desert heat all day? When the material came back the producer and the “cutter”, the editor, went to work. The last day of the shoot was the last day of the director’s contract.
Even cineastes can only remember a small handful of screenwriters; the general film going public, none. It used to be the star, sometimes the producer, recently, even in Hollywood, the director who is remembered. Some of them even sell tickets. In France it is always the director, whose signature “un film de” has the same status as the sole author of a novel. Andrew Sarris and others spread this theory to America.
Rarely is any of this artistically justified, but by creating a name to plant into the public’s mind, it is one answer to the question “What will help us market the product”.
You will notice that although nearly everyone in the business needs the screenwriter, it’s as though the screenwriter does not exist.
Of course those locked into the ideological prison of individualism will conclude that I plead the case of the writer in order to reduce the importance of the director.
I do not. I was a director and have spent my life working happily and intimately with other directors, creating space for them and protecting them.
As someone who has written screenplays I am not pleading a special case for the writer, either. Instead, I’m suggesting we shift our fundamental assumptions on to new territory. I know this will be difficult for some, because these assumptions are so deeply ingrained they have become an unquestioned “given”.
Films are expensive, some eye wateringly so. The power to vote the money is, de facto, power over every creative aspect of the film. This power is allocated, within limits, to a variety of elements – sometimes the star, or the producer, or the director. Never the screenwriter. Contrast that with the theatre, where the power of the writer is not only historically constructed (the director was merely the stage manager 150 years ago), but is a contractual obligation.
When I was at Warner Brothers I picked a project and traced its history. What I had in my hand was the sixth draft. At that time the studio had over 300 projects in what they termed “active development” The writer being comparatively inexpensive, they commissioned widely, and used the results as bait for hot stars and reliable directors. This project had suffered: three writers and endless notes from various executives, from a Vice President of Creative Affairs (yes, they exist), to the wife of the studio head, who used to be his personal assistant; plus “elements” who had briefly been “attached”, tempted by it. Its first draft, submitted on spec after a pitch, was rough round the edges and there was a narrative cul de sac at the turn of Act 2. But it was alive, the characters roared off the page. You cared about them and wondered what their fate would be. This 6th and final draft ran as smoothly and perfectly as a Swiss watch – and was just as predictable and just as lifeless. Go to almost any Hollywood movie and that is just what you will see.
It reminded me that representational art, like life, should be a little rough round the edges. The only perfection is in death. Life is not perfect.
All this is why many of the screenwriters I knew in Los Angeles, rewritten as a matter of course and earning a good living by rewriting others, were lying beside their luxury swimming pools. Contemplating suicide.
If it is a European Art Film, the screenwriter is the one with the vision and the talent, but not the huzpah to be the director. Or if French, the director is the screenwriter because, although having little talent for it, he or she is called l’auteur, so why not?
If we wish to understand the function and place of the screenplay in film making we must look to history. In its present customary form it originated as a necessary device during the transformation in Hollywood from when tight groups of film makers pursued their hunches and developed their talents – auteurs, indeed – to a factory system, regularly and predictably supplying product to multiple screens world wide. A detailed screenplay is much more than a narrative in which characters act and talk to each other. It is: size of cast, where and numbers of locations, which period, what special effects, on what scale and so on. That is to say, enough information for any production manager or production accountant to make an accurate enough guesstimate of the below the line cost. This, accompanied by the screenplay, gives the marketing people and others information from which they may allocate earnings for each territory; whether it is a tent pole Summer movie with a big budget, needing bankable above the line elements; or if it is a smaller December release with Oscar nomination possibilities. Or, more likely, if it is a pass.
So a screenplay is a good executive read, a tool of business, a cheap way of making a prediction in a business very difficult to predict. The original creative act of the screenwriter, sitting alone, setting down a vision of a movie, is a necessary tool of business.
A screenplay is many things: like a novel, it is an original creative act; it is a tool of business; it is a working document to be shared with a large number of creative people.
A film is the product of many skills and imaginations, yet needs to be one organic whole. Each department works from an imagined world created and described in a screenplay. But then that world is then reimagined many times. There lies the problem. Not only does everyone read the same text differently, but when reimagining the text before them, each sees a different film. This results in each contributor going off at a tangent, not even knowing that the film playing in their head is different from the one playing in the heads of others. Many films just don’t hang together, they are not a coherent creative whole, because the participants are making different films.
Creating a film of integrity out of all these disparate imaginations is a social act.
After I have married the writer and the director we become the three musketeers, different in expertise but with one collective aim. Then I hire all the Heads of Department a week or ten days early, sit everyone round a table and go through the screenplay in minute detail, page by page, allowing everyone to make and listen to contributions. The screenplay is adjusted by the writer and the director’s vision is shifted and enriched as the Heads of Department share their ideas.
After ten days of discussion everyone goes on to the floor to make a single cloth from many weavers. This group of individuals becomes a single co-operative entity. I have not tried to reel all those creative imaginations in, so that they obey one person’s vision. I have tried to create a unified creative world, using all the ideas possibilities on offer.
This entity must then use money to creatively weave this cloth. Money and art: those two worlds separated by a gulf of disdainful misunderstanding. Film is an expensive art. That is an inescapable fact. Many film makers tell me it is, or should be, irrelevant: how dare I imprison their creative talents with my Philistine constraints? I reply that even in a socialist paradise resources will be allocated, judgments made. It is childish to imagine they will be allowed to spend what they wish. The budget is the budget is the budget. Not a fantasy, as it was in “Heaven’s Gate”.
So I tell people: every budget decision is an artistic decision and most artistic decisions are budget decisions; that money is only wasted if it is spent unknowingly. For instance, if you see a sequence where hordes of Cossacks are riding over the hill, you are entitled to say that it was poorly staged, should have been placed elsewhere in the action, or that it needed dramatic close ups. You are not entitled to say it was a waste of money, unless you know that the film makers themselves were unaware how much it was going to actually cost. That is to say, to spend money unknowingly is to waste it. That is unprofessional. To spend money knowingly is an artistic judgment.
I open the budget up to everyone. As we allocate resources I make the director central to the decisions. Choose. If we spend two days on this sequence, we cannot go to that location. And so on. During our ten days together we get into each other’s heads. For instance, if the DOP has no idea what’s precisely in the director’s head or if the screenwriter has not explained a location, they will make sure the lighting van is full, ready for any possibility – to avoid the embarrassment of being found out lacking the means to light a location. But if the director and the screenwriter have a clear idea what is needed from a sequence, it might be clear it is in close up. Few lights will be needed. Ditto dressing a set and numbers of extras and costumes and so on. That might release money for an extra day to shoot an emotional sequence, when to rush it might ruin it. A film is the allocation of finite resources over time. If you exclude the screenwriter from that process, you are saying, in effect, your screenplay is to be used as a rough starting point, now go away and leave it to us. Why waste this talent?
Individual, identifiable style is used as a marker of authorship. It is true that you only have to see the first minutes of many films to identify the director. With European art films this is an advantage. The distributors know that their key audiences will pay to see directors they like and with some directors they know in advance what will be earned. The films have a signature. So they can put a price on their advance.
But does an individual style denote “authorship”? Style is identifiably expressed by screenwriters, too. A screenplay by Harold Pinter will always be idiosyncratically his. It won’t be confused with a screenplay by the Ealing Comedy writer, T E B Clarke. Similarly, the work of a DOP, considered over a lifetime, has a signature, even though the kinds of film, the genres, the screenwriters and the directors vary.
By all means celebrate and study each one. But for me, as a worker in the world of screen stories, it is the achievement of the whole cloth that matters.
The digital revolution, which has only just begun, is already breaking down the assembly line industrial model. As an example, motion capture technology allows a scene to be created, acted-out and viewed immediately. Many motion-capture artists come from dance and acting. They write with the body. This digital technology brings “storyboarding” into the realm of direct creativity on the screen. They are not “interpreting” a “written text”. Is it screenplay writing? Is it filmmaking? Who cares?
Andrew Sarris had an elegant phrase. “As a screenplay is less than a blueprint and more than a libretto, so is directing less than creating and more than conducting’. The distinction between creating and interpreting reminds me of the distinction between art and craft, the separation of which over the centuries has diminished both. All art needs craft skills in order to exist; ideas in one’s head are not art. Not yet. Craft and art were once thought inseparable. The class system was guilty in their separation.
The directors I chose were all strong minded, with a creative imagination. That is why I chose them. The writers I chose were similar. Most had little experience. When I read a sample screenplay I looked for the following: did the characters come off the page? Did its world feel credible? If the answers were yes, I could teach them the rest. There are some things you can’t teach and some things you can. I lived with a tension between director, writer, DOP and so on. If it became destructive, that is to say driven by ego, I would bang heads together. Up to a certain point tension is creative, sparks fly; beyond that point, the work suffers.
My ultimate loyalty was to the work. Every other consideration was secondary, with the exception of the crew’s safety. Life is more important than art.
The task of the critics is to honestly describe their reactions to a film, resisting the flattery and subtle bribes of those selling the film as a product. In addition to their unique sensibility the critic will be judged by the quality of the prose. Hazlitt was a great critic. So was George Bernard Shaw. In my lifetime Ken Tynan. Ken’s prose was beautiful if you were lucky. Like napalm if you displeased him. He wrote what he saw and in reading him you feel as though you are watching it too. It is that vivid. But of the process of film making Ken was innocent. He wasn’t particularly interested, either. It was not his job.
Even professionals have little idea who contributed what, even about films they have worked on. A film is a complicated social achievement, accomplished over time by a large, disparate group. Teasing out who did what, who thought of this or that, how ideas were enriched as they passed from one special talent to another, is not only impossible. It is redundant and potentially destructive.
If you look at the opening credits on an American renewable one hour drama series, you will count around a dozen producer credits. Not only do I not know what any of them did, those working on the show don’t either.
Whose idea was it to make a film about x? Well, even if the idea is a clever hook, ideas are ten a penny. Who developed that idea, turned it into a story with legs? Who created that fascinating lead character? The screenwriter, the producer, the director with his or her brilliant left field casting or the actor herself? In my experience, they all had a hand in it.
But my question is, who gives a shit? In the films made by my colleagues and me discussions like these were redundant. Ideas were not copyrighted. They were shared property. What mattered was their contribution to the film. A film we were making together.
But someone must be in control, you might be saying; and that someone who arbitrates and decides, is the ultimate creator.
I think that is a reflection of a particular ideology.
There is an alternative ideology. It would allow us to imagine and then prefer the idea that a group of individuals can contribute their particular creativity and craft, while also being part of a collective organism that is not guided by “our great leader”, the creative genius with a “vision”. It is the consequence of co-operation and common respect; of the capacity to listen, discard first thoughts and recreate afresh; of being able to live with in a collectivity which is alive, demanding give as well as take; of a world where the quality of the idea trumps rank.
A world greater than the sum of its parts and much greater than any one part.
The Day the Music Died is the memoir of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett. For the first time, Tony shares exclusive details from his childhood in working-class and war torn Birmingham. He takes readers behind the scenes of a selection of his more famous productions, offering secrets and anecdotes. Some moving and some amusing. Now available to buy on Amazon.