So a month has nearly passed, and since that time I’ve received and signed a contract to write the script. In fact, I’ve already written a first draft. In a way, this is my second assignment, my first—a much more difficult one—being to adapt my first novel The Man from Marseille as a screenplay; a process that took nearly a year and ended up not being made, of course. Such is the nature of the business.
This, though no walk in the park, was both challenging and exciting to write. My brief—i.e. the pitch I was working off of—was simple: a certain kind of character in a particular situation. Of course the pitch was more specific than that, and beyond that the story was up to me, and by the time I and the producers were satisfied with what I’d outlined I was ready to write FADE IN in the upper left corner of a blank sheet of a Final Draft document.
I’ve been putting in seven-hour days on this, and will spend another ten days simply going over it daily from first page to last, making sure the internal logic is in order, the beats (the events of the story) placed at exactly the right time and in the right place, the setpieces served up as candy for whoever directs this.
And another possibility has reared its pretty head. My original screenplay “Chasing Daylight” has attracted the interest of a very highly-respected Hollywood producer, and we have been discussing both that (still under consideration) and other projects I might be interested in taking on as assignments.
For a novelist, screenwriting can either be, for the purist, the devil’s work, or financial security. I know a number of writers (and wannabe writers) who think a novelist, especially a “literary novelist” such as myself, only dirties his hands by dipping them into the commode known as Hollywood. Nothing could be further from the truth. For writing, at its core, is craft, and while writing a novel is art built upon that craft, writing a screenplay is pure craft; and that’s nothing to sneer at. Each learns from the other.
In writing the script for a 115-minute feature film you need, first and foremost, to create a story and character so compelling that your audiences won’t want to leave their seats. You need to anticipate what your audience might be thinking at every given minute (“Do they know what’s wrong with the character? Are they beginning to see the world the way he sees it?”), and in doing so writing dialogue that dances off the celluloid and devising characters we enjoy living with for those two hours in the murky multiplex darkness.
Screenwriting is problem-solving, at heart. And though what you’re creating is an armature for someone else to stick the clay on it has to be strong enough both to hold the characters through to a satisfying end and the audience glued to the screen. We all know when we’ve seen a bad movie, though most who aren’t in the business can’t always put their finger on it.
In the traditional three-act world of a screenplay there are certain givens. Major things happen at the 30-minute, 45-minute, 60-minute marks, increasing in intensity and occurrence as we move through the long second act and approach the catharsis of the third act. These events are almost subliminally anticipated by an audience, without their knowing what exactly might happen. The next time you watch a DVD and the timer’s clicking the seconds and minutes away on the unit, see how accurate this is.
Last week end we went to see Stephen Soderbergh’s “The Informant!”. It has a uniformly strong cast and is built on an interesting story featuring a fascinating type of character who, in fact, really did (and probably still does) exist. Yet I felt the director wasn’t entirely sold on the story. Starting with that uncomfortable exclamation point in the title (very un-Soderberghian), and a soundtrack better suited to a spy film made in 1962 (very possibly an intentional choice), this was tonally all over the place. It was, in fact, distracting, in that I felt distanced from the movie both by the look of it and that bloody retro music.
Yet it has a great story to tell. This could have been told in a hundred different ways, and I couldn’t help thinking, as the credits, rolled, that Kafka would have loved the concept and turned it into an undoubtedly darkly comic, but ultimately tragic, story. In Soderbergh’s case it lacked the darkness and the tragedy, and that was obviously a definite choice on his part. Thus, to me at least, it seemed he took the short cut and avoided the perhaps more interesting nuances the story contained within itself.
On the other hand, another film I saw recently revealed a filmmaker with perfect pitch. Sophie Barthes’s “Cold Souls”, the tale of an actor named Paul Giamatti who, unable to get to the heart of his role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” has his soul extracted and put in cold storage across the river in New Jersey. His soul is a chickpea in its big storage jar, but it weighs a great deal, as he discovers. At the same time, in Russia there is a growing black market in souls, and when an actress there desires to have the soul of Al Pacino, she ends up instead with Paul’s chickpea inside her. And now he wants it back.
Farce? Sure. Written as such, played as such? Not at all. It’s written and played straight, and never at any time—though there are laughs, to be sure—do we ever lose sight of the plight of our protagonist. We care for him, we want him to succeed, and the ending is touching. The filmmaker has created a kind of fable for our times. And we leave the theatre smiling not only at the comedy of the situation but of the sheer rightness of the journey and its conclusion. Which is why, when you’re writing a screenplay, the process can be so damned pleasing.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports