Monday, February 15, 2010

Arts and Crafts - Bo Goldman vs. Philip Dunne

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


So, what is screenwriting, an art or a craft?


Screenwriting is an art:

In Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, 1996, Silman-James Press, p. 55, author and interviewer William Froug interviewed celebrated screenwriter, Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard, Scent of a Woman, etc.), who says on the subject of art vs. craft:

I never saw a lawyer in my life until I started making some money, and then I got one lawsuit after another. (Laughter) And I remember one of these lawyers, representing someone who’s coming out of the woodwork claiming I’d just stolen their life, said something about my ‘craft.’ Well, you know, it’s not a craft. Whenever I hear the word craft, I think of a rainy day at Camp Wigwam, where you throw darts and make leather pouches. It’s not a craft, it’s an art. It takes the sensibility of an artist. And a lot of great writers who are novelists or journalists can’t do it. (italics, mine)

Screenwriting is a craft:

On the other hand, screenwriter Philip Dunne (The Robe, Ten North Frederick, The Agony and the Ecstacy) in Backstory 1, Edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 1986, p. 166, said:

I agree with my old friend Jo Swerling, one of the earliest screenwriters, who said screenwriting is not so much an art as like fine cabinetmaking. I think that’s right. Nunnally (Johnson) used to use that analogy, too... We never claimed to be artists, but we thought we were good craftsmen.

So which is it?

Well... the way I see it, it’s both.

When I first started college, I was an art major. And the one thing they were Nazis about back then was something called, “craftsmanship.” We were not to produce work that didn’t exhibit quality concerning materials, assembly or construction, execution of the concept, basic neatness, and a spare-ness that demonstrated no unnecessary elements. This had nothing to do with whether the work was good and/or meaningful as expression. This was all about the artist’s equivalent of good carpentry. So Philip Dunne seems to be winning.

But Bo Goldman’s view is valid, too. He refers to it as it aspires to be: “it takes...” He talks about it requiring “the sensibilities of an artist.” I suspect that what he means is that, for it to be of any great value, it must exhibit things like sensitivity, beauty, a range of emotion, meaning and even profundity, subtlety and succinctness, potency or power, freshness and originality, sub-text, compelling characters, verisimilitude and universal truths.

These are things writers must try for in their works, but they are not, and must not become, requirements. As Niko Stumpo of the Wooster Collective says, “Art has never been made while thinking of art.” I would venture that the artist who always sets himself the task of producing art is both doomed to inevitably fail and fooling himself that he always can.

So, for me, screenwriting is both. From the screenwriter’s perspective, it must be a craft. And when it best meets the needs of its audience, every so often it ascends to an art. #


Lee A. Matthias

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