When I first started out as a novelist, plot was the last thing on my mind. Everything was character, all was style. Partly it was due to what I’d been reading in those palmy days after grad school and who had been lately influencing me. Having had the perhaps singular and most interesting opportunity of being able to teach a full year of James Joyce (including Ulysses, something that would get me fired these days, I expect) to high-school students, I’d gone through a pretty long experimental fiction stage, and there was a sense that difficult equaled quality, and that publishers would recognize, appreciate and reward this. A few recognized it (“This is a difficult book that no one will appreciate”), a few appreciated it (“I really liked what you did, but I’m afraid finding an audience may be an uphill battle”), and no one rewarded it. I paraphrase my rejection letters, but you get the picture.
When I left the United States to relaunch my sad undernourished career in Britain, I knew that most novelists there—or at least many of them—were writing for television. One-off plays, adaptations of novels, even writing for series (Marxist playwright Howard Brenton even wrote, and still writes, for the terrific BBC series “Spooks,” known here for obvious reasons as “MI-5”)—none of this was beneath them. In fact, TV in England back then was going through something of a golden age. There was real art on the small screen—Dennis Potter’s “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Singing Detective,” for instance, and some six weeks of Alan Bennett plays—and the directors and actors working there had all come from the theatre or film. So I wrote a fifty-minute teleplay (fifty minutes being then the standard length for a stand-alone drama) and found an agent within a few weeks of my arrival there. That’s when I realized I’d better start understanding the nature of plot and pacing and—more importantly—to see that these were not negative qualities in a work but simply the engine that drove it.
Yet writing for a British audience (in “British,” no less, which required me to learn and understand very quickly the nuances of a language I had heretofore taken for granted) proved that tremendous suspense and release could occur between three people in a single room, over drinks and amid some very upscale furniture. Pinter did it all the time, as did, on a different level, Simon Gray, and I, too, learned how to keep things down to a few simple sets while peopling them with people who said very bad (or terribly amusing) things about someone else not two feet away from them. There were no special effects, no car chases, no heroics on Westminster Bridge at three in the morning. It was drama, my agent liked me and my work, and it got me noticed (though not produced), and led to my first commission to adapt my first novel, a task, considering the novel’s structure, I would not wish on anyone. Certainly I wasn’t up to it at the time.
I write this because I’ve also been writing screenplays for some years now for the very different U.S. market, and recently I finished an action thriller, something that relies on story, plot and drive more than anything I’d done previously. It also features two very young protagonists. There are no brandies in the conservatory, no marital spats on the stairway, no references to Mrs. Thatcher or Hampstead. This is pure adrenalin, and it was a blast to write. What it taught me was how to use story as the trampoline for character, how to create conflict between event and personality to reveal how a person thinks and plans, how he or she fears and rebels, how this person faces a long string of apparently insurmountable barriers to achieve the satisfying ending that commercial cinema must have. I know of many novelists who look down upon screenwriting as some kind of journeyman work, of something not worthy of the label “writing.” And yet I find that it has equal but different pleasures to writing novels.
When I write a novel I’m very much my own boss—I write what I like, and have always had editors who respect and understand what I've done. Writing a film is a commercial proposition, a collaborative undertaking, and thus one is at the mercy of many voices and many hands that hold the purse-strings. Thus if a development executive says, “Cut this, cut that, rewrite this scene, make it much bigger,” it’s what you learn to do. I had to do it with that first commission of my novel—over an entire year, in fact, along with much sound and fury and endless notes from the producers—that in the end signified very little, or at least never was put on celluloid due to budgetary restrictions (i.e. my version would have cost the earth to shoot). This was probably due to the fact that it took me twelve months to come up with a satisfactory draft. Hollywood doesn’t have the luxury of time. For me, a page-one rewrite (i.e. the entire script, revamped) should never take more than ten days. Movie executives have little patience and short attention-spans. One must always be a step ahead of them to survive in this business.
Sure, it’s journeyman work. It’s a craft, and if there’s art in it, it’s to be found in the details—the turn of phrase a character uses, a pause in a patch of dialogue that brings up the color of the scene, the immensely satisfying way a complicated and complex setpiece figures itself out right before your eyes. It’s why, between novels, I write these things. Screenwriting’s all about solving problems in a hundred minutes. It’s watchmaking, but when it’s all put together properly, and the tick-tick-tick of the thing is like music to your ears, there’s nothing quite like it.
One of the lessons I learned writing scripts in England was to deliver the goods—on time and, without excuse or whining, in response to notes given by agent or producer. I remember hearing a story about a location shoot for a film being made in Canada. English actor John Hurt was doing an on-foot chase scene with a much younger American actor whose name escapes me. There was a break between scenes, and the next was to show the two men at the end of the chase, winded and sweating. John Hurt stood by, calmly sipping a cup of tea, while the young American was doing jumping-jacks, push-ups and anything he could think of to take his breath away and raise a sweat. John Hurt watched him impassively.
The director said, “All right, guys, let’s get started.” Hurt handed his cup and saucer to a production assistant, the actors took their marks, and suddenly John Hurt was doubled over, absolutely winded and breaking into a genuine sweat. After the scene was over the American said, “How did you do that?”
“It’s called acting. It’s what they pay me to do.”
Causes J.P. Smith Supports