Some Notes on Screenwriting

Posted on : by : jjmurphy

Before I had my own weblog, Mystery Man on Film commented about the brief excerpt from my book that I posted on my Web site: “Then the chapter went on to talk about how Gus Van Sant threw out the screenplay for Elephant and just improvised and shot it using an outline. I fail to see how that explains How Independent Screenplays Work.” Well, it was partially an attempt at irony and humor to choose a film that wasn’t based on a screenplay to represent a book about screenwriting. But my choice was actually more calculated and deliberate than that. I believe that any truly alternative model of screenwriting would have to include the possibility of dispensing altogether with the screenplay, in much the same way that John Cage proposed “silence” in his legendary 4’33″ as being a fundamental aspect of music.

The screenplay has been a source of contention since the very beginning of modern American independent cinema, as evidenced by Jonas Mekas’s desire to “shoot all screenwriters” for keeping cinema so conventional. The controversy surrounding the two versions of John Cassavetes’ first feature, Shadows, also fueled the debate about the merits of using a script. In the 1960s Andy Warhol often deliberately subverted the scripts of his collaborators, namely, Ronald Tavel and Paul Morrissey. Warhol preferred those moments when the scripts would break down and the performers would fall out of roles and become themselves. Besides Gus Van Sant relinquishing the screenplay in favor of an outline in Elephant, there are other examples of non-traditional approaches in my book. Jim Jarmusch wrote a treatment rather than screenplay for Stranger Than Paradise. Richard Linklater also used a short treatment of scenes for Slacker and created the script after the fact.

Matthew Barney’s films don’t have conventional scripts. His production designer on Cremaster 2, Matthew Ryle, gave a lecture here this past winter. It sounded as if Barney simply had locations and images and maybe some visual storyboards when they began filming. Chris Smith’s new film The Pool won the award for “most singular vision” at Sundance in January. Smith and a small crew went to India with a rough story idea that consisted of twenty-two pages. According to the editor, Barry Poltermann (who is a former student of mine), Smith only found the actual “story” after shooting lots and lots of footage. And David Lynch apparently went back to guerrilla filmmaking (and no final screenplay) in making his new digital film, Inland Empire. The issue comes up again in relation to the recent mumblecore films. I also seriously doubt that Yang Fudong’s incredible five-hour, plotless epic, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, which I wrote about extensively in my last Venice Biennale blog, has any sort of conventional screenplay.

I’m actually part of an international research circle on “Re-thinking the Screenplay,” organized by Ian Macdonald of the University of Leeds in the UK. One of the members, Kathryn Millard-a writer, director, and associate professor in the Department of Media at Macquarie University in Australia-has written a terrific article on screenwriting, entitled “Writing for the Screen: Beyond the Gospel of Story,” which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject. She explains why the manual writers’ emphasis on dialogue and story can be so limiting in writing a script. This is exactly what drove Van Sant to abandon the screenplay in Elephant. I’m providing a link to Millard’s article because it happens to be published online, but what she also says about “screenwriting texts as self-help literature” is particularly on the mark. Millard writes: “They are best categorised on the basis of the following three dimensions of their content. Firstly, the anecdotal versus the informational, secondly the prescriptive versus the descriptive and thirdly closed versus open systems or underlying philosophies (Starker 1989: 9-10). The vast majority of screenwriting manuals are descriptive in that they link prescribed behaviours to results: ‘The prescribed behaviours usually are linked with the presumed utility of the work by way of a simple promise: do this and you will get that’ (Starker 1989: 9). Failure to achieve the desired results usually suggests that the prescribed behaviors have not been followed faithfully.”

In a recent post, the very same Mystery Man writes: “The second big education for screenwriters begins when they unlearn everything they thought they learned from Robert McKee. (A sampling: Sympathetic Protagonists, Character Arcs, and Voice Overs.) When aspiring screenwriters start thinking for themselves, they’ll quickly realize that the reality of storytelling rarely fits the rigid, narrow-minded rules laid out by the gurus.” I obviously agree with Mystery Man about the pitfalls of the manual approach, which is why I wrote a book on screenwriting that tries to provide both a critique and an alternative approach, which uses independent films as more flexible models. I also believe screenwriters have to find their own voices and start thinking for themselves, and the manuals don’t emphasize that, which is the drawback of the “self-help” method critiqued so well by Millard. So I’m encouraged to see screenwriters such as Richard Gess (who wrote a review of my book on Amazon), William Speruzzi of [This Savage Art], and Mystery Man take a stand against the formulaic approach of the manuals.

I did a short interview with Jesse Land for the May Newsletter of Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum on Me and You and Memento and Fargo. In it, I said the manuals tend to inhibit beginning screenwriters rather than open up the creative process to the wider possibilities of cinema as an art form. If you simply follow the rules, you’ll end up writing a very conventional film. In my book I argue that novelty plays a much more important role than is generally acknowledged. Even my editor at Continuum Books was interested in my manuscript because he thought it was very different from the other screenwriting books out there. He was tired of reading the same old stuff in slightly different form. The same holds true about screenplays. Having turning points fall on certain pages is really beside the point. That doesn’t guarantee that your script is going to be any good. As David Lynch’s films demonstrate, writing also involves being able to tap into the unconscious as well. Screenwriting is a very difficult process. Simply reading a book can’t turn someone into a screenwriter in a weekend or 21 days or whatever. Learning craft is one thing, but making art is another. All screenwriters need to have a basic understanding of dramatic conflict and story structure, but it’s also important to realize the full range of creative options available to you.

I might add that rapid changes in technology already are having a huge impact on the industrial model of screenwriting advocated by the manual writers. The signs are everywhere, and these changes no doubt are certain to affect the future form of the screenplay. Is it just a coincidence that two of the most important American indie filmmakers, Gus Van Sant and David Lynch, have already moved away from using conventional scripts? Partially as a result of the manual writers, the notion of what constitutes a screenplay has become fixed and rule-bound, when, in fact, screenplays should be fluid and adaptable to the changing times. After all, a screenplay is not really intended to be entitiy in itself, but a step in the process of making a film. In the latest issue of MovieMaker, Henry Jaglom writes: “Today’s moviemakers can make a film for practically no money, thanks to the amazing changes in the technology, and can get it seen by simply sending it out through e-mail or posting it on YouTube, MySpace or whatever will pop up next. None of this existed when I started out and all of it contributes to the fact that this is the very best time in history to be an independent moviemaker!