All in the Script? Then Why Make the Movie!

By James Leahy

Materials collected and presented by James Leahy


“When Joe first told me about it I asked him, quite simply, ‘What sort of film is it going to be, what sort of film do you want to make?’ He looked at me for a minute, to see that I wasn’t being smart, and then said, ‘The perfect film. This time I’m going to make the perfect film. I’ve got the perfect script, the perfect cast, the perfect crew. All I need now is the sun for as long as it takes.’”Dirk Bogarde on Accident (1967, Joseph Losey) interviewed during shooting by John Russell Taylor for Sight and Sound, Autumn 1966.

la-grande-illusion-jean-renoir.jpgLa Grande Illusion1937

On the edge of an abyss, Rosenthal (Marco Dalio) sings to keep up his spirits. Renoir told Alexander Sesonske: “The assistant to the producer was Albert Pinkévitch… he’d once studied to be a rabbi… He was always on the set, and he would come and stand by me and tell me how a Jew would act and what he would say in that situation… he did it only to amuse me, but… I soon began to think that I should use what he told me... That’s hoe Dalio’s part began to grow”… and how it came to carry one of the film’s major themes.


“At Raindance we passionately believe that writers are the foundation of the film industry. The problem is that there is precious little good advice for writers in the UK. We believe that John Truby is the best script instructor in the world...While other books and courses teach the tired 3-act structure that produces superficial and predictable scripts, courses and software at Truby’s Writers Studio show writers the ‘deep structure’ that tracks their hero’s moral and emotional growth... The old 3-act structure is based on theater… Movies are far more fluid, so it makes no sense to hold them back with a rigid form.”

Raindance is “Britain’s only market for independently produced features, shorts and documentaries.”


“We believe that the story is all, and the story is in the script”.John Truby,


Howard Hawks: I said to Bogey, “We are going to try an interesting thing. You are about the most insolent man on the screen and I’m going to make a girl a little more insolent than you are.” “Well,” he said, “you’re going to have a fat time doing that.’’ And I said, “No, I’ve got a great advantage because I’m the director... she’s going to walk out on you in every scene.” “You’ve won already.”… Without his help I couldn’t have done what I did with Bacall. Not very many actors would sit around and wait while a girl steals a scene. But he fell in love with the girl and the girl with him, and that made it easy.

Peter Bogdanovich: To Have and Have Not is basically a love story. You don’t think much of the political intrigues in the picture, do you?

HH: As a matter of fact, the writer got terribly worried. He said, “I’m going to quit.” I said “Why?” He said, “Here we are four reels in to the picture and you’re afraid to tell the plot - will you go on and do those scenes!” I said, “I guess I’ve just been steering away from them because they’re so dull.” – Howard Hawks interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich, first published in the programme for the Hawks season at the Museum of Modern Art New York, July 1962.


“Personally I love to improvise. Improvisation often helps better adapt the idea of a character to the personality of an actor, to the character of a set, of a landscape or of a prop, the meaning of which one sometimes only discovers at the last moment on the set. But this kind of improvisation is only possible when it applies to the improvement of something already existing, a kind of basis; in other words, if it is a modification of the shape, not of the idea. When improvisation handles the actual invention of the story, I consider it bad.” – To Dudley Nichols, 7 August 1942 (Jean Renoir Letters, Faber & Faber 1994)


Rebel Without a Cause was being written all through the shooting... I don’t even follow my own camera placements... It’s like following a Walt Disney animation board. Painting by numbers. The relationship between improvisation and the script usually begins with the director’s dissatisfaction with the way the scene is coming alive... Essentially there’s this tremendous search for the dramatic core or centre of each sequence, then for a way to lay that bare, or even analyze it, or even comment on it in the editing, but never any kind of attempt to create a performance in the editing... If you haven’t done it on the screen, you can’t do it in the editing.” – From interviews with Nick Ray recorded in New York, Summer 1970.

rebel-without-a-cause-nicholas-ray.jpgClifford Odets, Nicholas Ray and Natalie Wood at the cast/crew party. Odets was Nick’s original choice as scriptwriter, but was blocked by Warners. Nevertheless Odets contributed (uncredited) to the rewrites during shooting.


“In reality I had this subject so much inside me, so profoundly with me, that I had written only the entrances and movements, to avoid making mistakes about them.”Jean Renoir on La Règle du jeu, interview filmed by ORTF, 1961

le-crime-de-m-lange-jean-renoir.jpg Le Crime de M. Lange, 1936

Lange (René Lefèvre) awaits the judgment of a “people’s court”. This was poet/dramatist Jacques Prévert’s first full-length screenplay, his wittiest, and probably his best. He was on set every day during shooting, involved in the generation of new material through improvisation.

“One doesn’t really know what a film is going to be until one’s finished the editing. Under its benign appearance, this story attacks the very structure of our society. And yet, from the very start I had wanted to present to the public not an avant-garde work, but a nice normal little film. People came into the cinema with the idea that they were going to be distracted from their cares. Not at all... I painted people who were gentle and sympathetic, but portrayed a society in the process of decomposition. These characters were defeated in advance... the spectators recognised them... they recognised themselves...”Jean Renoir on La Règle du jeu in My Life and My Films (Collins 1974).


“There is a revealing story told... by the German director Fritz Lang. When he made his first Hollywood film, Fury, in 1935, he knew about thirty words of English. (This did not prevent him from working on the script.) The brilliant picture that emerged was considered too controversial and disturbing by a distinguished front-office executive. Irately he summoned Lang to his office and accused him of having changed the script. Lang replied that his lack of English made this impossible; comparing his script with the finished film, he showed that not a line of dialogue nor a situation had been changed. All the same, the executive complained, the film was entirely different from the script.”Nicholas Ray: “Story into Script”, Sight and Sound Autumn 1956.

nicholas-ray-james-dean.jpgNick and Jim: Dean felt meeting Odets was like meeting Shaw or Ibsen.


...CUT to a reverse angle, with Fritz Lang (himself) to the left, back to the camera, head and shoulders only; he remains seated throughout. Director and producer Jeremy Prokosh, (Jack Palance), confront each other: “Would you like to rewrite it, Jerry?”; “You’ve cheated me, Fritz. That’s not what is in that script”; “It is!”; Prokosh lunges for Lang’s script; Lang recoils: “Oh no!”; Prokosh points: “Get me the script, Francesca”; Paul Javal, the writer, (Michel Piccolli, speaking French) tries to check that he understands what is going on as Francesca brings the script. Prokosh leafs through it as he prowls about, then: “Yes, it’s in the script. But it’s not what you have on that screen”. Lang responds: “Naturally, because in the script it is written and on the screen it’s pictures.” Throughout, the assistant has been piling up the scattered film cans in front of the screen. Prokosh kicks the pile over; Lang: “Motion pictures it’s called!” Prokosh picks up one of the cans, hurls it like a discus towards the back of the room; Lang: “Finally you get it, the feel of Greek culture!”. In the foreground, Paul crosses from left to right, saying he’s arranged to meet his wife, and needs to see if she’s arrived. Prokosh lifts his arm: “You stay right there!”; Paul freezes where he is, Prokosh turns back towards the camera, reaches into his breast pocket: “When I hear the word culture, I bring out my cheque book!” Francesca bends over, making a table of her back on which Prokosh writes a cheque. Behind Prokosh is the screen; beneath it a motto in Italian: Louis Lumière’s assertion: THE CINEMA IS AN INVENTION WITHOUT A FUTURE. – A passage from Le Mépris (1963, Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard).




Le Mépris, 1963
1. Lang and Prokosh confront each other; Francesca to the left.
2. Prokosh getting “the feel of Greek culture”. The whole scene is played in a single take lasting over two minutes, with only minimal movement of the camera.
3. Paul watches, embarrassed and uncertain, as Prokosh writes the cheque which is going to purchase his services.


“Leigh... lambasted the film establishment for their mania for judging projects on ‘bits of paper’ that have little or nothing to do with the finished film.

“‘The script process is a bureaucratic thing that gets in the way of films being made, because the people who fund films have not the wit, the imagination nor sophistication to find other ways of giving out the dosh without going through this devaluing, philistine nonsense.’”Mike Leigh: Report by Fiachra Gibbons, The Guardian, 22 November 2001.


“‘It was all in the script’, a disillusioned writer will tell you. But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?”Nicholas Ray: ‘Story into Script’, Sight and Sound Autumn 1956.

James Leahy has worked on scripts with Nick Ray, Ken McMullen and Med Hondo.