Script and Script Again

By Malcolm Mowbray

big-sleep-howard-hawks.jpgThe Big Sleep, 1946

Irresponsible ponderings on a place to write good screenplays


HOW DO YOU WRITE GOOD SCRENPLAYS? 

“I don’t know. Something you have to feel by instinct and experience and then one time out of three, at least, you’re wrong. I don’ think anybody can give you a formula.”[1] – I. A. L. Diamond

“I love you, Miss Kubelik...”

“Shut up and deal!”[2] 

“It’s kind of a natural thing. This is like asking a juggler, how do you do it, nine oranges and three bananas?”[3] – Billy Wilder

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”[4]

Good scripts, legend has it, are not fat, are around 105 pages, the pages are spare – not much on them. They talk quietly, draw you in. Don’t shout out their wares. Have no voice over. Format is important – it should look like a good script – be traditional in appearance, have an original subject, a strong sense of place and time. Be contemporary and fit for commercial exploitation.

RED: (V.O) “I guess I just miss my friend.”[5]

Then we find ourselves watching Sunset Boulevard, Trainspotting, The Shawshank Redemption, Alfie, Stand By Me, again and again, and we’re not sure.

“Convenient, the door being open when you didn’t have a key, eh?” “Yeah, wasn’t it. By the way, how’d you happen to have one?”[6]

Manuals abound, even come with diagrams. We know exactly what should be happening on page 10, page 25/30, pages 30 thru’ 60 etc. We know our paradigms, negatives, positives, the arc of our character, our story, whether the incident arrow should be pointing up at this point, or down. So why so few good scripts, and why is their number reducing?

You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”[7]

So how do you get to that place? ... 

“When I start writing I let the characters take over... because the characters are kind of telling the story. I have to write them from beginning to end.”[8] – Quentin Tarantino

“A ‘Royale' with cheese! ...What do they call a Big Mac?”[9] 

“All this weird being-in-Europe-for-the-first-time stuff was finding its way into the script. So some genre story that I’d had for five years started becoming very personal as I wrote it. That’s the only way I know how to make the work any good – make it personal.” [10] – Quentin Tarantino

body-heat-_lawrence-kasdan.jpgBody Heat, 1981

“I dunno, I didn’t go into Burger King.”[11]

Movies often grow out of tiny incidents: a simple idea, image, character, line of dialogue, the resonance of which is best explored within the actual writing of the screenplay, not hung out to dry on treatment.

“Anybody that doesn’t want to get killed best clear on out the back.”[12]

Not to know exactly what is beyond the fog, beyond the current page, has creative power. We should trust writers’ dramatic compasses. This freedom shouldn’t just be the privilege of the power filmmakers. We should allow new, emerging writers this freedom, to find their true individual voice.

“Gizza job, I can do that job.”[13]

There used to be a place.

“I had total freedom at the BBC to read and choose and commission scripts. I could promise the writers I chose that their scripts would be made. I could encourage them to be daring... I was also given the right to be wrong.”[14] – Roger Smith

fargo-joel-coen-ethan-coen.jpgFargo, 1996

“I’m not gonna debate you, Jerry.”[15]

“It’s loose and informal. We don’t split things up, like one person does a scene and the other reworks it. We sit in a room together and talk each scene through, and we work without an outline; we just start from the beginning.”[16] – Joel Coen

Alternatively, take your idea/scenes/first draft – workshop it with actors – in a Joint-Stock way, involving the actors in research, contributing to the script as a work-in-progress. Then as writer, go off and do the next draft.

“I’m through fucking around! Drop the fucking briefcase!”[17]

You could if you are lucky find a place like Mike Leigh has, to research ideas, improvise and then shoot off a script devised from that work. You could improvise on certain scenes – scripted scenes – “work off the page a bit”. Ocean’s 11, Midnight Run.

Flirting With Disaster. Now that was a good film, good script I thought too. Someone else had found that place, written a wonderful, original script and just gone out and shot it.

“Is it safe?”[18]

Then I learnt it was a Frankenstein movie. Reacting to the film’s testing they had re-scripted, re-shot and re-edited, re-tested, done that over and over until one night... The audience love it! As did I.

being-john-malkovich-spike-jonze.jpgBeing John Malkovich, 1999

“Well, la-dee-dah.”[19]

Annie Hall, another good film. It won an Academy Award for its screenplay. But not the first one they shot. In the cutting room they decided that the movie should really be about a character who at that time was only in three reels of the ten reel movie. Allen, as can be his way, stopped editing, re-wrote the script around the character that really interested him, went out for another 50 days and shot another seven reels of material following Annie’s story to add to the three he had.

“Now you’ve done it! Now you have done it!... You tore off one of my chests.”[20]

“... If I get it worked out to well, then I’m going to find the writing boring. I’d rather just have a few signposts and leave a lot of wide-open spaces, so things can happen when I’m writing.”[21] – I. A. L Diamond

“I see dead people.”[22]

At this place, wherever it is, I think above all there should be space, and confidence to let things happen, without prescription. No maps.

“No Maps.” Fade in:

INT. DOOR.

A man steps into view, facing the door. Our main character? We don’t know. We have him glance back down the stairs, so we can get a good look at him, at his face. Stairs? What’s down the stairs? Wait up, that door looks small, now he’s closer.

“Carrot juice, lots of it. I swear, sometimes it’s not worth it. I piss orange. I have to piss sitting down like a goddamn girlie-girl every fifteen minutes.”[23]

“With Maps.” Fade in:

INT. DOOR.

Our character is called Jim. We told him/ourselves that, and all about his problem/need, the difficult situation affecting him, what’s missing within. Given him/ourselves his back-story, character, what’s on the other side of the door, why it is important to him and who else is after it.

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”[24]

If in doubt Jim/we have a one page outline of the story idea and narrative structure, he can keep that to refer to. And we may have a 30 page outline, 60 page treatment. We know what’s beyond the door, Jim’s ready for it.

“Will I close the door? You’re fucking my wife, asshole.”[25]

“No Maps.” Fade in:

INT. DOOR.

The guy’s going back down the stairs. No, he’s stopped. He’s coming up again. He glances back. What is down the stairs? He’s putting his ear to the door. He’s heard something? “John?” A woman’s voice, it’s behind him, she sounds anxious. We see her feet, bare, at the foot of the stairs. He ignores her, reaches for the door handle, stops. The door’s opening towards him.

trainspotting-danny-boyle.jpgTrainspotting, 1996

“Boy, I got a vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”[26]

We had a place like it once, and money wasn’t the key. We like scripts from such a place, often more than others. They’re individual, original, personal but yet they speak to the world. Let writers show us where their individual passion, imagination, where their writing can take us. We need their maps. 

“Thank you, Mr. Murphy. We’ll let you know.

“The pleasure was mine. Best interview I’ve ever been to. Thanks”.

Spud crosses the room to shake everyone by the hand and kiss them.[27]

CUT TO:

Nine oranges and three bananas hitting the floor.


Endnotes

[1], [3], [21] I. A. L. Diamond, Billy Wilder, Diamond; “The Screenwriter looks at the Screenwriter” By William Froug, Delta Books.
[2] The Apartment (1960). Writing Credits: Billy Wilder & I. A. L. Diamond
[4] Sunset Boulevard (1950). Writing credits: Story: Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder, Screenplay: Charles Brackett, D. M. Marshman Jr. & Billy Wilder
[5] The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Writing credits: Story: Stephen King, Screenplay: Frank Darabont
[6] The Big Sleep (1946). Writing Credits: Novel: Raymond Chandler, Screenplay: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman
[7] Body Heat (1981). Writing credits: Lawrence Kasdan
[8] [10]. Answers first, questions later. Quentin Tarantino interviewed by Graham Fuller, Projections 3.
[9] [11], [17]. Pulp Fiction (1994). Writing credits: Stories: Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary, Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
[12] Unforgiven (1992). Writing credits: David Webb Peoples
[13] Boys From The Black Stuff (1980). Writing credits: Alan Bleasdale
[14] Roger Smith on the BBC in the ‘60s/’70s.
[15] Fargo (1996). Writing credits: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
[16] Joel Coen.
[18] Marathon Man (1976). Writing credits: Novel: William Goldman, Screenplay: William Goldman & Robert Towne (uncredited)
[19] Annie Hall (1977). Writing credits: Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman
[20] Some Like It Hot (1959). Writing credits: Story: Robert Thoeren & M. Logan, Screenplay: Billy Wilder & I. A. L. Diamond
[22] The Sixth Sense (1999). Writing credits: M. Night Shyamalan
[23] Being John Malkovich (1999). Writing credits: Charlie Kaufman
[24] 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Writing credits: Story: Arthur C. Clarke, Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke
[25] Boogie Nights (1997). Writing credits: Paul Thomas Anderson
[26] Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Writing credits: William Goldman
[27] Trainspotting (1996). Writing credits: Irvine Welsh (novel), Screenplay: John Hodges


Malcolm Mowbray is a film director and writer.