Wednesday, May 26, 2010

People Will Talk VII – The Decline and Fall of the Movies (?)

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.


When people ask me why I prefer older films to what’s coming out today, I always feel like I become this curmudgeonly old guy with no teeth on a porch somewhere who always rants about things “back in my day.”

But consider this comment by Lem Dobbs on the subject, paying particular attention to his points about both quality and quantity and how “they always used to be” that way:

If only the Jews still controlled Hollywood.  In the late 60s/early 70s you could get a movie made starring Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, James Caan, Elliott Gould, George Segal, George Burns, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Walter Matthau, Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, Richard Dreyfuss, Dustin Hoffman, Mel Brooks, Barbara Hershey, Henry Winkler, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas, Robby Benson, Alan Arkin, Dyan Cannon, Barry Newman, Jerry Lewis, Peter Falk, Harvey Keitel, Laurence Harvey, Charles Grodin, Gene Wilder, Elaine May, Jill Clayburgh, Ali MacGraw, Joan Collins, Anthony Newley, Goldie Hawn, Marty Feldman -- and Topol.
Today?  Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Sasha Baron Cohen, Shia LaBeouf, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Connelly, Sean Penn -- and at least three of them are the progeny of older Hollywood.  Notice the slight drop-off in quantity and quality?  Screenwriters and directors and composers and studio executives -- same story.
On a one-week visit to New York in the early 70s when my father had an exhibition there, I went to see THE EXORCIST (Friedkin), SERPICO (Lumet), PAPILLON (Schaffner), with Dustin Hoffman, MEAN STREETS, with Harvey Keitel, THE GETAWAY, a Foster-Brower production, WESTWORLD, with Brynner and Benjamin, and Woody Allen’s SLEEPER.
Wanna see what’s playing in New York this week?  Yeah, it’s a head-scratcher why movies aren’t as good as they always used to be.
---Lem Dobbs, Interviewed by Dan Schneider (

‘nuff said.

But it does call into question the observations made by so many that “we haven’t even scratched the surface” of the potential of filmed narrative, movie stories. Have we? Have narrative films as we know them peaked? Are they now in decline? #


Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

It’s like movies have lost a limb. (as to the lack of great film scores today)
---Lem Dobbs, Screenwriter

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

People Will Talk VI – Screenplays Talk Too Much (And They Should!)

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.


Most films end up doing away with substantial portions of their script’s dialogue. The director eventually finds that lots of the story’s meaning is communicated or implied visually. The dialogue has become extraneous, unnecessary.


From Tales from the Script, Edited by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman, HarperCollins, 2010, p. 170, screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe described an example of how the script differs from the movie:

There was this experience on Air Force One, where I’d written this little speech. Harrison came up to me and he said,

“It’s a great speech.”

I said, “Oh, thank you.”

He said, “I’m not gonna do it. All this, I can do with a look.”

And he could.

And there’s this from Alex Garland in Screenwriters’ Masterclass, Edited by Kevin Conroy Scott, Faber & Faber Ltd. 2005, p. 164:

One of the things I definitely learned (from drawing cartoons) was how redundant dialogue can be at times. What you can do is rely on the image; (successful) comic books and films do this the whole time.

And later, on p. 165,

There’s a terrific urge to overstate because you’re afraid that people will miss something, and when I look at 28 Days Later, for example, which is the only screenplay I have ever written that went straight through to being made into a film, one of the things I think is tonally wrong about it is that it spells stuff out at times when it really doesn’t need to.

The problem is, screenplays, in their pre-film state, can’t rely on Harrison Ford’s “look.” They can’t always get things across that the eventual film, with ease, will do from within its visual, directorial, and performance arsenals. Worse, “spec” scripts from unproven screenwriters must get their stories across to an agency or studio reader already biased by the writer’s lack of experience. Yet those specs are held to the same standard. 
Screenplays must communicate their meaning fully and clearly or risk losing their reader and the sale because of the potential casting of somebody like George Spelvin (non-actor extraordinaire), rather than Harrison Ford, not to mention other deficiencies like insufficient information, critical logic lapses, or merely a lack of emphasis. It may look like a duck, it may walk like a duck, but on the page, until it talks like a duck, it ain't a duck! 
It recalls that old story about the blind men and the elephant: each man identified a different object as he touched some part of the beast. None “saw” the elephant. At least in the movie version of the fable, until they get Harrison Ford or Steven Spielberg, they’ll have to rely on the script. And, to all the spec writers out there, if that doesn't work, may the Ford be with you! # 
Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post:
What ... we have here... is a failure... to c’municate! 
---Strother Martin, Cool Hand Luke.