Saturday, February 27, 2010

Killing Your Darlings: Spec Scripts as Burnt Offerings for the Hollywood Pyre

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.


A spec script is a "speculative" screenplay, one that the Variety slanguage dictionary defines as being "shopped or sold on the open market, as opposed to one commissioned by a studio or production company." --- Wikipedia
Spec scripts for motion pictures, have two faces. There’s the real spec and there’s the wannabe spec. The real one is usually an original by an established screenwriter. The wannabe is usually an original by anyone else, mostly newcomers. And thanks to the system, the wannabe spec-writer has to get the job done, make it become real, with “both typing-hands tied behind his back.”

In fact, in most cases, the wannabe spec isn’t really a script for a movie at all. It’s a script for the read. Thanks to the deluge of material besieging Hollywood all the time, and the resulting utter despair of the legions of readers whose job it is to process it, wannabe specs are distortions of what professional screenplays really are, not to mention what they should be.

The distortion amounts to a pervasive erosion of any unique authorship the piece might have once had. The present system culls that submission herd of material – 50,000+ submissions per year - through a rigorous, downward-evolving standard. It compels that ever-leaner, ever more “operatic” and “universally-translatable” stories be written. That’s right: leaner, yet, bigger and dumber. Specs need to be the story equivalent of Ah-nold: 6-pack abs, 29-inch waists, 30-inch biceps, and an accent on the foreign. Where once you could tell a story of mystery and suspense, that story now needs to have a world-threatening mystery, with larger-than-life heroes and villains, yet told with haiku-like prose in which the dialogue is unimportant, if not altogether unnecessary, to the larger market.

Twenty years ago, acceptable page counts were 120 pages with 130 still within acceptable range. Some professional readers now look for 110, 105, even 95 pages. Where 3 page scenes were the average in years past, 1-2 page scenes are the order of the day now. Where action paragraphs could go 5-6 lines of text in the ‘70s (they were twice that 20 years earlier), the standard is now 2–3 text lines. Where one once had the entire first act to set up a script - more recently the first 10 pages - we now hear demands for a “killer first page” - even a “killer opening line” - as being required to avoid losing the studio reader. I’m not talking here about excessive camera directions, editing instructions, and other film jargon. That was chucked long ago – and, I agree, good riddance. I refer to story tissue: skin, muscle, even bone. And most especially, brain.

But the most egregious forced-expunging is to viewpoint, the writer’s vision of his story. This is truly unconscionable. Leaving politics aside, the real issue is in the effect to the writer’s vision of the story itself. Should said writer include any idiosyncratic or merely distinctive specifics (even written in ways that are internal to the action descriptions rather than overt camera or editorial instructions), the writer risks receiving his comeuppance for treading on the director’s responsibilities. Despite originating the story, said writer must not have an interpretation of it, nor a vision for it. Not even as a vision of the tale from which to begin, merely as a point of departure for the inevitable collaboration. 

Consider these comments from that terrific Lem Dobbs interview I recommended awhile back:

I’ve always thought of it as describing a movie on paper, that’s all.  There are scripts I’ve read, or once did, by favorite writers, that have never been made into movies, but I feel like I’ve seen them.  You should be able to “see” the movie when you read a script, even though there aren’t actors, there’s no music … but somehow it’s washed over you as if there were. 
But this also presupposes the right sort of reader, a dying breed, someone who might actually know what a movie is and be able to visualize it.  The lack of knowledge and experience -- of taste -- of people in the film business has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 
The generally accepted page count has decreased significantly from what it used to be.  As costs have increased.  So scripts judged “a fast read” now -- a man, his wife, his vampire mistress -- on a plane -- are often mistaken for good.  NORTH BY NORTHWEST or 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY require a little more cognitive effort from everybody.
Studio types even realized at some point that the term ‘high concept’ was making them look ridiculous, so now they say they want movies with ‘big ideas.’
Having worked as an agent, I’ve read a thousand or more submitted scripts and novels, myself. I pity the poor reader, wading as he does through that miserable swamp of spec-script sewage. Never, however, did I demand the material be tailored to my comfort. Are we to castrate and lobotomize all of what’s read to ease the life of that reader of swill? I guess so, because that’s exactly what we’re doing.

While this isn’t based on a scientific study, I believe movies aren’t significantly shorter than they were 20–30 years ago. They may, in fact, be slightly longer. So, this all points the finger at an unavoidable truth: those lean, mean, wannabe specs amount to throwaways, read-only pieces. They are disposable. They aren’t gonna get made in the form at which they are forced to come in. In fact most of the ones that get offers aren’t gonna get made at all. And such system-imposed mayhem is all in line with the notion that lean writing is poetry. But, while poetry is lean writing, lean writing isn’t always poetry. There are other terms for much of it: sketch, outline; certainly not story.

So, in effect, the industry requires wannabe spec-script writers to offer up the sacrifice of, at minimum, one good idea as payment to enter the (definitely not) “Promised Land.” And it wants them to know that that is no guarantee of entry. In fact it is almost gleeful in predicting that there will likely be many more of these burnt offerings before entry is granted – “you should expect to write ten scripts before you should ever expect to sell one.” Forget one, it demands ten of your “darlings”! And in some twisted version of the world, the one where, in the battle between art and commerce, commerce always wins, this makes complete sense.

Also from the Lem Dobbs interview:

…as former United Artists executive David Picker has said  …everything changed when investors stopped asking ‘How much can we lose?’ and instead started asking ‘How much can we make?’
Writers are used to multiple drafts and honing their craft. They are even used to stories not selling. But the notion that no saleable idea likely exists until the tenth or eleventh is, while lunacy, unfortunately also reality. Why? Because the market has squeezed down to an international demographic of mostly adolescent and post-adolescent males that suffers no variety in its film fare. And, no question about it, that’s a shame.

This all could just be writers crying in their beer except for the effect it is having on product. I’m not talking about wannabe specs, but rather the movies that are getting made. The stylistic that is required of wannabe specs has seeped into the larger industry. And while this is a stylistic that has a lot to recommend it, especially for contemporary thrillers and contemporary comedies, it should not apply across-the-board.

I personally like much of the effect the need for brevity compels in writers. Many films have benefited from it because it both appeals to the reader, and, done well, enables the writer to work more substance into the script. But brevity aside, all style to the exclusion of almost any substance has also resulted in too many scripts getting through that should not have been made as they were. The sizzle won out over the steak. Today, many films arrive in the theater brain-dead on arrival. They aren’t, as in the past, just bad to begin with. No, while not badly made, they have been made bad.

A classic example is the widely-praised film, Wild Things (see my analysis). This was intended to be a contemporary film noir, but it had so many twists and turns shoe-horned into its 95 minutes it ended up a caricature of, rather than a real, film noir. The character-development was so thin, the plot so preposterous, that I was still wondering as the end credits rolled if it wasn’t really a comedy about to finally reveal itself. It certainly was funny, but it was entirely unintentional. And it’s troubling how much praise this film has garnered. It’s evidence that audiences are changing to fit such product.

So, all of this begs the question: what should spec scripts be, then?

I’ve looked at it a long time, and I’ve had my comeuppance many times. Still do. This is because I refuse, and always will, to adhere strictly to the so-called rules. When it comes to story, whether it’s true or not, as a writer, I have to believe I know better than any reader how to realize my movie on paper. I don’t mean I know everything. I mean that when confronted with a new insight, I know best whether it fits my vision of the tale. So, I actively seek reaction and well-intended comments.

Most spec writers are well-acquainted with the readers waiting out there to issue that comeuppance without offering anything meaningful or useful. After awhile they realize they don’t have to accept such “gifts.” But if a suggestion recurs from reader to reader, or if it raises a valid issue, or makes an interesting suggestion or observation, I consider it gold. This is because I know that because I’m the writer, I am of necessity too close to sometimes “see the forest for the trees.” They’ll catch things that I’m too focused to see.

Spec scripts should be great reads with great movies clearly in evidence despite cosmetics like author-voice intrusions, or occasionally going beyond showing in order to tell. It’s one thing to constantly tell without showing, and another to get across an idea once or twice that would otherwise only emerge in the performance, direction, editing, or music. It’s always the degree with such things. Commit the “felony” three times and you’re probably out. But you must write to the edge when it comes to the rules. The script has to find ways to stand out, and the story concept itself must be so compelling that it out-weighs the transgression.

Many claim dialogue is greatly over-valued, especially in specs. This is because movies are now international products and will have to communicate to audiences unfamiliar with any particular American dialect. It’s also due to the nature of movies as a visual medium first and foremost. While I place a high value on the visual, I disagree, somewhat. Where a director like Alfred Hitchcock saw movies as purely visual, and the dialogue as only added later, perhaps valued at 10% of the whole or less, I put dialogue closer to the 40% mark. Why? Because the dialogue is one of the primary elements that attracts actors. Give them great lines, and they will sign on to a project almost regardless of how compelling the visuals are. Having come up during the silent era, like an old general, Hitchcock was still fighting “the last war.”

With the advent of sound, dialogue has been here to stay for over 80 years. It has the power to nail visual concepts that escape the power of the camera to articulate. It can provide rhythms and character nuances no image can equal. And, of course the reverse is also true. But that just means they’re closer to equal in value than “the visual-ists” claim. So I place great weight on great dialogue in specs. For me, at least three or four scenes have to have dialogue that “rings like a bell.”  But, too many, and the piece becomes “precious,” too cute to be believed. Balance, again, is the watch-word.

(Pardon the intrusion, but that was my problem with tv’s The West Wing, before which everyone seems to genuflect. Its dialogue was too precious, too cute.)

But the bottom line for specs, I feel, is that they exhibit that viewpoint that I’ve lamented gets excised, that writer’s vision. And this best emerges through the behavior of the characters. New writers usually see character-development as the character’s resumé, his backstory. It isn’t. Character-development is behavior – what’s said and done - under pressure, or story-altering behavior when it doesn’t cost them. Character-development is that character’s internal moral or ethical code emerging, behavior that is unique to that character alone. Couple such elements with the dialogue I described above and a bona fide “movie-concept,” and you can break a slew of rules and still survive the reader.

And that, my friends, is how I see it. I’m ready, now, for my comeuppance. #


Lee A. Matthias 

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