I came into filmmaking through writing, but it’s taken me ages to get to the point where I even begin to feel like I have an idea about what I’m doing.
The thing with writing for films is that you end up trying to make the film on paper – the further you go in development, the more it seems that you have to know everything about how the final film is going to work.
What is a script supposed to do? On a practical level, it tells the actors what to say and where to go and what to do, and makes the crew aware of all of that too. But it also seems that a script has got to do another job, prior to getting anywhere near a set – it’s got to make the reader (for reader read ‘producer’, ‘exec’, ‘financier’) ‘see’ the film. It’s got to hit the tone, describe the characters, set the pace. It doesn’t seem to matter how many other pieces of writing or development you might do in addition to the script (character studies, treatments, workshops), it still seem that people want all of that in the script as well. All of which is a tall order, and in some ways works against what the script actually is.
The script is not the film. The film is the film. It doesn’t matter if the script ends up being the most remarkable piece of writing, a real experience in itself, a fully-fledged tour de force of scene-setting and mood creation – only a handful of people will ever get to read it. It’s not going to end up being made into hundreds of prints and sent around the country. If the film’s a success, then maybe you’ll end up with one of those Faber screenplay books (which always seem to read as though someone has watched the finished edit and written down exactly what they’ve seen, rather than any kind of working document), but even then it’s only ever acting as a reminder of what the film is.
The script as a piece of writing in itself is only really a selling document. It sells the film to the execs and financiers, maybe also to potential cast. It convinces people (hopefully) that you can see the film, that it’s all mapped out in your head, that you know exactly what you’re doing.
All of which seems to militate against any idea that, as a filmmaker, you might actually want to explore things through the process of filmmaking, a process within which the script is only a part.
This reverence for the script, this idea that the script should be perfect before you start seems to be a recent development – maybe since the Seventies onwards, when there started to emerge a group of ‘name’ Hollywood screenwriters – Schrader, Towne, Milius. Prior to that, it seems that films were made in a different way – there are a lot of stories about Hollywood films starting production with the script only partially completed – with screen writers on set working through the night to write the next day’s pages. The thing that mattered was the story – and as long as the filmmakers were clear about that, then they could put together the other pieces as they went along.
Nowadays it seems that the script is required to be the only place where story can reside. So the script has to be developed and honed and dialogue and character description and action and tone all has to be nailed down before the filmmaker gets anywhere near any of the other tools that they will be using. It seems counter-intuitive, as though the process is demanding that the film be made in one medium and then translated into another, rather than that it be developed simultaneously in all its relevant areas (design, cinematography, casting). It can end up feeling like a filmmaking style is something that is applied to a script rather than developing out of the story and its themes.
This isn’t to say that filmmakers shouldn’t be pushed to define their stories – just that there are more ways of creating stories for film than just writing a script. Maybe it’s just that scripts are relatively cheap to develop, less risky than letting someone develop through working with actors and cameras and designers. But the process means that you may end up with something that only works on the page – and which translated onto the screen feels overwritten and lifeless. Maybe scripts aren’t meant to be perfect – they’re just a part of the process. The story’s the thing – and that is only ever going to exist fully in the film itself.
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