On the Horizon

I’ve been working for a year on a movie that IF in a few weeks all goes as it looks like it wants to go, I’ll be officially writing the project full time.  Yes. Please knock on wood, kiss the rabbit’s foot, say a prayer to whoever you want on my behalf.

I haven’t felt so passionate about a project since QUEEN OF CACTUS COVE. Indeed, I think I feel more passion for this project than QOCC. I want to fully explain this – why I feel this why, why the project is special, how it’s going to be unforgettable, what is known on the horizon and what the potential is of the unknown but…

Until the papers are signed, I don’t want to say more.

Instead, I’ll share some inspiration I found this week.  The following article was sent to me by a colleague.  Considering the vast, challenging and magical “writing a new screenplay” ocean that I’m about to (hopefully) jump into, I thought the timing of this article’s appearance in my Inbox was too perfect.

Words, Camera, Action!

Without the Art of Screenwriting, Hollywood’s Greatest Movies Would Not Have Been Great

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

On the surface, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “The Hurt Locker” might deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. They’re both explosive action thrillers hitting screens this summer. Both feature young men on a physically grueling quest in the desert, and both even feature robots as their heroes’ unlikely aides-de-camp.

But viewers who happen to see both films will no doubt feel and think radically different things upon leaving the theater. In the case of “Transformers,” directed by Michael Bay, they’re likely to feel pummeled and punched by the movie’s loud, relentless action, not to mention confused by what all the sound and fury was about. Something to do with an ancient robot race extinguishing the sun by way of a sharp metallic dingus in an Egyptian pyramid? Whatever, let’s go grab a Super Gulp and play Grand Theft Auto.

Upon seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” the audience is more likely to leave in a rattled but also reflective state, eager to talk about what they just saw. The story of an elite bomb squad in Iraq that follows a reckless soldier (Jeremy Renner) as he walks the fine line between bravery and hubris, the film is a powerfully immersive experience, at once a classic rock-’em, sock-’em war movie and a fascinatingly contradictory profile in courage.

Conventional wisdom would lay the difference at the feet of the films’ directors. Bay (“The Rock,” “Armageddon”) and Bigelow (“Near Dark,” “Point Break”) are each well known for delivering high-octane genre pictures, albeit with profoundly divergent approaches. Clearly each film reflects its director’s distinct visual sensibility and aesthetic judgment. But in both cases the essence of what the movie is — a big, dumb, incoherent car wreck on the one hand and a taut, visceral work of art on the other — can be traced to its founding document: the screenplay.

Does a movie leave you feeling brutalized or engaged? Did you see the twist coming down Main Street or did that third-act shocker leave you positively gobsmacked? (He saw dead people!) Were the characters each unique and fully realized, or more like interchangeable mannequins used as props for visual stunts? Are you still puzzling over the movie at breakfast the next morning, or have you forgotten the whole thing by the time you leave the theater?

More often than not, the answers to these questions depend on a movie’s script. We’ve all heard someone say, “That movie was really well written” as they walked out of a theater; indeed, we’ve probably said it ourselves. And by “well written” we probably mean the movie had memorable dialogue, from the rat-a-tat patois of film noir (“I’d hate to take a bite out of you, you’re a cookie full of arsenic”) to the urbane chatter that signals a Woody Allen movie at 100 paces.

But to call a movie well written is far more than a question of dialogue — in fact, most filmmakers agree that dialogue is the least of it. Instead, good movie writing comes down to what defines good writing in general: a command of structure, voice and momentum, all in the service of a story that grabs spectators by their throats, then leads them along a path they simply must follow or they won’t be able to eat, sleep or lead a happy life.

Even the tiniest visual details in a film — choices viewers might assume a director or editor made — were written in the screenplay. The pink underwear Scarlett Johansson wore in the opening shot of “Lost in Translation”? Specified in the script. The hamburger phone in Juno’s retro-tastic bedroom? Written into the script. The cut from a lit match to a sunrise in “Lawrence of Arabia”? Credited to editor Anne Coates, but originally written by screenwriter Robert Bolt.

In short, it’s the screenplay that, when it’s well written, makes a world come to life with plenty of vivid detail and, in creating characters with just as much singularity, makes the audience care. And it’s precisely that emotional investment that, by way of enlightened direction and superb performances, creates an indelible cinematic experience.

“I understand the attention that Mickey Rourke got for his performance in ‘The Wrestler’ because it was a very brave performance on his part,” says screenwriter Howard Rodman (“August,” “Savage Grace”), professor and former chairman of the screenwriting division at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “On the other hand, none of the moments in that film that were affecting would have been possible had the screenwriter, Robert Siegel, not written them.”

Not only must characters be authentic and fully formed in order to be brought to life on screen, but the writer must convey them as quickly and economically as possible. Think of the line, “I was misinformed” in “Casablanca,” and how those three little words conveyed the character of Rick Blaine. Or, more recently, the opening sequences of the animated features “WALL E” and “Up,” in which viewers came to care deeply about a trash-compacting robot and a grouchy old man in the course of a few dialogue-free but richly detailed, visually expressive scenes. In both cases, before any image was drawn, the scripts had gone through several painstaking rewrites at Pixar. “We will stop production if we have to, to get the story right,” said Pixar’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter, at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “It takes four years to make a movie at Pixar, and 3 1/2 of those years are spent on story.”

When he was writing “The Hurt Locker,” screenwriter Mark Boal — who based the script on reporting he had done as a magazine journalist in Iraq — first struggled with perspective: Through what point of view would the story be told? “I finally settled on something that was most like the kind of writing I did for magazines, where you’re bopping between third person and first person, but in a reportorial, New Journalism kind of way.” From there, he said, it was a constant question of adding description and detail to every scene. (Early drafts even included whole paragraphs describing the psychological states of each character.)

Such detail is especially important in scripts for action movies, which at their worst will simply say, “Two men shoot at each other on a deserted street,” and leave it at that. The result is often something as generic and unspecific as the writing. “With Kathryn, we painstakingly fleshed out every nook and cranny of the action sequences in order to make them feel realistic,” says Boal. “In the right context, a detail that normally doesn’t seem suspenseful can be suspenseful, like putting on a bomb suit. . . . You know there’s a reason you’re seeing all this, you’re just not sure why.”

On big-budget studio productions as many as 17 screenwriters have been known to take a whack at the script, one writer punching up dialogue here, another one juicing up the love interest there. It’s just such writing by committee that saps so many mainstream movies of the very thing a great screenplay should provide. “Movies obviously can and should be escapist fun,” says Anne Carey, who with Ted Hope heads This Is That Productions (“The Savages,” “Adventureland”). “But so often, they lack authenticity. Specificity and authenticity should drive all decisions going forward. And in the goal of hitting the widest target audience possible, and everybody trying to hit a home run, those details are ironed out.”

For his part, Rodman lists by-the-numbers franchise-extenders “where a collision, a fireball and a quip [are considered] good writing” as one of his pet peeves, along with formulaic rom-coms. He declines to name names, but offers the following, er, proposal: “When I see a romantic comedy where two lovers who are clearly destined for each other break up at the end of Act 2 just so the guy can run through an airport so he can propose at the end of Act 3, I feel manipulated and condescended to.”

Consider how characters from the hit romantic comedy “He’s Just Not That Into You” are introduced in the script: Gigi, “pretty and approachable,” Conor, “cute but holding on to his frat boy roots” and Anna, “hot in an earthy sort of way.” And compare that level of detail to how writer-director John Patrick Shanley describes Loretta, the leading lady of “Moonstruck,” in the first few pages of the script: “Italian, 37. Her hair black, done in a dated style, is flecked with grey. She’s dressed in sensible but unfashionable clothes of a dark color.” After a few tartly revealing exchanges of dialogue, Shanley writes that Loretta gives a florist “a sudden, brief, blinding smile. It’s the first time we’ve seen her smile. She has gold work around one of her two front teeth.” The audience has a clear, indelible, even poignant image of Loretta (ultimately played in an Oscar-winning performance by Cher) as a woman who might be practical and even tough, but whose longing for romance has yet to be completely extinguished. All by the time the opening credits have rolled.

Economy and detail are key in writing characters, says Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote “Field of Dreams” and represents the writers branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But when assessing a screenplay, he says, “I always begin where the writer begins, which is: Is this a good idea for a movie? And did it deliver what it promised it would deliver? The engine of a movie is fueled by surprise.”

Toward that end, Robinson adds, “The main contribution that the writer makes is the choice of how much information to divulge at any given moment, and when to hold back. . . . If you reveal too much, then there’s not enough at stake and you lose the audience. And if you hold too much back, they’re never with you.”

Robinson points to Robert Towne’s screenplay for “Chinatown” as a textbook example of the crucial structural work that goes into a script. “Every scene reveals something that changes how you perceive the movie,” he observes. “He’s constantly peeling back the layers of the onion. If a scene doesn’t advance the story in some way, move the plot forward or reveal something about a character or set something up that pays off, it shouldn’t be there. And ideally it should do more than one of those things at a time.”

Ultimately, as veteran script doctor John Sayles once put it, the screenwriter must think in pictures. “The screenwriter doesn’t just write a screenplay,” Alden says. “He writes amovie.” Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, concurs. Dietz, who also coordinates the Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship, which helps fund scripts that have been developed at the Sundance Screenwriting Labs, recalls reading Joe Eszterhas’s script for “Basic Instinct” years before a director and stars were attached to the project. “It seems unfair to all the collaborators involved, but it read exactly the way the movie turned out,” he says. “The minute those people hit the screen I thought, ‘Perfect.’ Those are exactly the people he described. He could really make you see things.”

In Hollywood they say that you can’t make a great movie from a bad screenplay. But even seasoned veterans will hedge that rule. Franklin Leonard, a development executive with Universal, has for the past few years developed the Black List, an annual collection of the industry’s best unproduced scripts (past Black List scripts include “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Juno,” “Things We Lost in the Fire” and “I Am Legend”). He notes that the script and other filmmaking elements such as direction and editing “aren’t necessarily distinguishable when you watch a movie.”

Until last year, Leonard worked for Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella’s production company. “I remember Anthony saying many times that he thought of the screenplay as an architectural document,” Leonard says. “And I think that’s pretty accurate. When you see a great building, you don’t know what the plans looked like, but it’s hard to imagine seeing a great building that didn’t have great plans.” As for how he knows one when he sees one, he says, it comes down to three questions. “Is it a good story well told, do I care what happens next and do I want to talk about it after the movie’s over? Those things are usually clues that the script is better than most. But even then there are no guarantees.”

No guarantees, indeed: Just three weeks ago, Sony Pictures hastily scrapped “Moneyball,” a baseball movie starring Brad Pitt and directed by Steven Soderbergh, with $10 million already spent and just a few days before shooting was to begin. Why? Sony chief Amy Pascal reportedly wasn’t happy with the script.


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4 Responses to “On the Horizon”

  1. Briel Says:

    *jumping up and down*! I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

  2. Gabe Says:


    Good article too.

  3. The Skunks and I Are Busy « Anna Christopher | News Says:

    […] I’ve been working on three big things that aren’t even the BIG thing I referenced in ‘On the Horizon‘ and a bunch of small things that I couldn’t […]

  4. Bon Says:

    I feel passionate too! 🙂

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