Monday, March 22, 2010

Studio Stories IX – "Kafka": The Power of a Single Word

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.


In his great interview by Dan Schneider, screenwriter Lem Dobbs recounted the effect of changing a single word in Steven Soderbergh’s film of Lem Dobbs’ script, Kafka:
In Kafka, the marvelous actor Ian Holm -- if he’s to blame -- changed one word which, in a climactic summing-up speech, changed the meaning of the entire movie, if you ask me.  His character declares himself in favor of a mob because a mob is easy to control.  It’s the purpose of the individual he finds, as written, ‘questionable.’  But in the film what he says is that the purpose of the individual is always -- pregnant pause – ‘in question.’
Since he’s playing a mad scientist, the original phrasing is more in keeping with his project -- the revelation of the film’s mystery, such as it is -- which is to lobotomize individualism.  He’s saying, in effect, I know perfectly well what the individual human mind is all about, and I don’t like it, I find it suspicious, so I’m working to change the equation.  But by saying “in question” instead, he neutralizes his own argument and legitimizes his quest for knowledge.  He becomes an ordinary, inquisitive man of science trying to find out what makes the human brain tick.  What’s lost is, of all things, the Kafkaesque (‘questionable’ also carrying a hint of the interrogation room).
Now, this may very well be nitpicking -- the director certainly thinks so -- it may even be a better choice for the character, if you want to look at it that way.  But it wasn’t my choice and here’s the thing -- I bet you it was no one’s choice.  It was probably just the way Ian Holm happened to say it while the camera was rolling on that day in that take at that moment -- and no one cared or even noticed.  I could be wrong.  I wasn’t there.  It certainly wasn’t malicious; no one says, Let’s [ruin] the script.  Maybe there was discussion or debate about it, maybe Ian Holm said, ‘Would you mind if I said it this way, it feels more comfortable to me’ … But I’d be surprised.  The point is, it doesn’t cross anybody’s individual mind for a second that the writer might actually have selected the words he put down on paper with any thought or deliberation whatever -- with the luxury of time and contemplation to do so -- rather than in the midst of film set pressure and chaos.  It goes to show you, it’s not only the massive or truly destructive changes routinely wrought on scripts.  These relatively tiny details can drive you -- well, me -- crazy.  Let go.
In Steven (Soderbergh)’s interview book with Richard Lester, there’s a story about working on a script with Pinter and how desperately at the last minute he needed to add a comma.
--- Lem Dobbs, Interviewed by Dan Schneider) 
And I thought I was obsessed with minutia. # 
Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post:
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.

---Oscar Wilde

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