Monday, September 27, 2010

Paul Schrader’s Secret Screenwriting Sauce

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.

FADE IN:

QUEBECOIS!
(Kay-bec-qua!)

From the day Canadian crime became organized, the pégres (mobs) ruled Montreal, and Montreal ruled Canada.

Emigrating from Marseilles and Corsica in the early 1900's, French gangsters soon made Montreal the center for all smuggling operations into the United States. In the 20's they ran whiskey across the Maine and Vermont borders, in the 30's deported Mafiosi, in the 4O's black market meat and sugar, in the 50's heroin, and in the 60's gold bars and coins.

In 1952, at the instigation of then New York don Frank Costello, the American underworld began its move into Montreal. Seeking to control the pégres’ smuggling and gambling operations, the Italian-Americans took over the Italian community on Montreal's South Shore and set up headquarters in the center of the city. Shortly thereafter, New York Jewish mobsters starting muscling in on the West Side clubs and bars.

Throughout the next two decades, the Americans succeeded in dismantling, incorporating or destroying the French pégres one by one. Those which survived were forced to move block by block into the slum-ridden North and East sides of Montreal.

This is the story of the final days of the Gaulois Family, the last great French-Canadian pégre of Montreal.

PRE-CREDITS

FADE IN:

EXT. MONTREAL - NIGHT

Title reads: "Christmas 1971"

A light snow has been falling all day on the St-Michel District, and by nightfall a thin sheet of white stretches across the streets of northeast Montreal.

The cheerless neon lights of the Bouchern Taverne and Le Marche St-Michel show through the cold night air. The last bastions of hospitality: a neighborhood bar and all-night liquor store. A long black Citroen stands in front of the liquor store.

INSIDE THE LIQUOR STORK, a large old man wrapped in a blanket-like black overcoat stands at the counter. A younger man in a black overcoat, his BODYGUARD, stands several steps to his left. The younger man nervously clasps his thickly-gloved hands together.

The STOREKEEPER anxiously waits on the old man's every breath. This was no time to make a mistake; he knows who the old man is.

So does everyone else in Montreal — everyone, that is, whoever placed a bet, required a quick loan, went to an after-hours club or needed a fix. The old man is BAPTISTE GAULOIS, the scion of the Gaulois Family, the last of the kingpins of the French-Canadian underworld.

The old man mumbles something and the Storekeeper hastens to retrieve a bottle of Napoleon Brandy from the shelf. The Bodyguard, ill at ease, looks nervously from side to side.

Baptiste pays the Storekeeper and picks up the bagged bottle of brandy. The, Storekeeper, nodding, speaks in hushed tones of great respect:

                  STOREKEEPER
        Merci, Monsieur Gaulois. Merci.
        Au revoir.

Baptiste nods and walks toward the door. His Bodyguard precedes him.

The Bodyguard is already standing on the snowy sidewalk when Baptiste's eye catches the magazine rack. He motions ahead, but it is too late — the Bodyguard is out in the cold.

Baptiste picks up the tasteful large format copy of Elle and carries it back to the counter. Dropping a coin on the counter, the old man tucks the magazine and bottle under his arm and heads toward the door. Approaching the door, he braces himself against the winter night.

Baptiste stands OUTSIDE a moment, looks toward his black Citroen, and shuffles toward it when he notices something unusual — his young Bodyguard is lying in the snow beside the Citroen, his throat slit from ear to ear.

Baptiste drops his magazine and bottle (with a MUTED CRASH), and fumbles inside his bulky overcoat for a gun.

But it is too late. TWO THUGS, dressed in black from head to toe, jumped from the shadows and begin to pummel him with blackjacks.

The old man struggles vainly to protect himself as he sinks to his knees under the steady barrage of blows. The Thugs pause a moment, as if for decency, and then the old man's head thuds against the snowy sidewalk.

The Thugs drag Baptiste's heavy body across the sidewalk into the junk-strewn lot next to the market. Opening his overcoat, they go through his pockets, removing whatever valuables they can find.

Pocketing Baptiste's wallet, the first Thug reaches into the shadows and pulls out a gasoline can. He quickly douses the old man's limp body with gasoline.

Pausing only a moment for reflection, the Thug steps back, lights a match and tosses it toward the black lumpy mass. Pouf! The mass erupts in flames, and the Thugs run off.

There is a pause, interrupted only by the SOUND of a CAR starting up and accelerating away, then the burning heap begins miraculously to move. Baptiste Gaulois rises slowly to his feet.

He moves like a pillar of fire through the dark street, struggling step by agonizing step across the sidewalk and roadway. Each step takes the tortured giant old man a step closer to the lights of the Boucherne Taverne.

His fiery outline can be SEEN from a block away. The red and yellow flames leap from his body, licking up the snowflakes before they fall, casting flickering and grotesque shadows across the snow.

With a last superhuman effort, Baptiste crashes through the swinging door of the Boucherne Taverne.

INSIDE THE TAVERN, a motley crowd of French-Canadian drunks and workers bolt back in horror as they see a pillar of fire standing before then. They are too shocked to speak; the room is frozen still.

Baptiste Gaulois, his voice croaking with pain, screams:

                  BAPTISTE
        Assassins!

END PRE-CREDITS

(From the unproduced screenplay, Quebecois!, by Paul Schrader)



Paul Schrader crystallized the screenwriting development process like no one before or since in a great interview from the ‘70s when Taxi Driver debuted. Below are excerpted comments from that interview.

…when you’re writing films, you’re dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that’s alive and often unformed; you can’t be analytical about it, you have to let it develop.
One of the mistakes most young screenwriters make is, they go to the movies and say “I can write as well as that,” and go home and do write that well. Of course they can, because most movies are so shabbily written that anybody can write them as well. What they don’t understand is that nobody in the studio system would hire a fledgling Stirling Silliphant when he can get the pro—and he knows that Silliphant will do the job and come in with the product. He’ll gladly pay extra for that security.
You never try to beat the old pros at their game; they know it backward and forward. What you have to do is say, “What do I have that is so unique to me that if I write it, no one will be able to copy it, and if they want to buy it, they’ll have to come to me?” And  in order to do that, you must come to terms with yourself in a very brutal way. If you want to see a woman cut off a man’s hand and eat it, then you have to say, “Gee, I like seeing that in a movie, it was interesting.” You have to accept that fact and deal with it in your own work. But it has to be a personal reaction.
He described a friend who wrote a 300 page script on Charles Guiteau, the man who killed President James A. Garfield, a long and boring script about an obscure historical figure; when Schrader described the story back to him, the friend admitted that it would not be a movie he’d want to see.

That is a problem about writers: they write movies for the wrong reasons. They write them for their professors, their parents, the critics, studio executives, or to sell; and those are all the wrong reasons to write movies. Granted, some people do succeed writing movies for those purposes. The other reasons they write movies are to get laid and to get famous.
My advice is to reach deep into yourself, pull out something unique and meaningful to you, then try to take that raw piece of meat and see it in the context of commercial film: how can I transform this raw meat into something a million people want to see? As a painter, you deal with a very small number of people, a dozen or so buyers of your work. As a novelist, you could break even if ten thousand people will pay for your work. In movies, you’re dealing with a minimum base of a million people. It entirely changes your conception of how and what you’re doing. You have to find something that at once means something to you and yet has a broad base.
As you get an idea, start telling it to people. Maybe it starts at five minutes, and grows each time it’s told. As you tell it, you see feedback from the person you’re telling it to. The important thing is not to listen to anything they say; because they’ll always tell you it’s good or has possibilities; and if you’re insecure, you’ll believe what they say and it’ll fuck up your work. Watch their eyes and body movements; if you don’t have their attention, you’re losing the story—do anything to get their attention back. [Raymond] Chandler once said that if you’re losing their interest in a story, have a guy walk in with a gun. Nobody will ask how he got there, they’ll just be grateful he did, explain it later. As your narrative grows longer through retellings, you learn what it takes to hold an audience. When it hits an hour, I know it’ll work as a script.
This is a method I find doesn’t work for me. It may be different once you’ve become Paul Schrader, but mere mortals may fare worse. I find that the story in its nascent form is too fragile, my energy for it, too vulnerable, to put it out for reaction before it has reached some sort of proto-feature-length. This is because while I see the end result as it might become, the listener knows only what has been described, a far cry from that produced film. But, once the story can stand up to being told, it might be able to stay up.




Screenwriting is not akin to fiction writing at all. It’s like campfire storytelling, and that’s how you should think of it. Words are not your primary tools. Dialogue is essentially a function of hearing. Most dialogue is just picking up the argot of the situation. I don’t think a movie should have too many good lines—at most five great lines and ten good ones—and the rest should be absolutely ordinary and banal. Too many great lines make it top-heavy and unrealistic. This doesn’t apply to comedy, of course. I think one of the problems with Terry Malick’s writing is that it has too many good lines; you begin to listen to all the good lines—Tom McGuane has the same problem—and it breaks the dramatic narrative thread of the movie. You must learn to use good lines as spice.
I find this applies to Aaron Sorkin’s writing, particularly in television series work such as The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

If your structure is proper, if you get two characters together at the right place and time, it doesn’t really matter what they say. Preferably, you should get them there about a minute before the audience expects them to be there, so you’ve got the element of surprise. If you have a man and a woman, once married, and then having undergone separate episodes, and they are to meet again, which the audience expects them to do in front of a fountain, but you have them meet in a supermarket, you’ve absolutely got the audience. They go back to her place, it doesn’t matter what they say at this point, because you’ve got them. He can say, “I never realized your coffee was so good,” or “Your coffee doesn’t seem as good as it used to be,” or “I think your coffee is getting better,” or “Did you change coffees?” Every single one of those lines has (sub-textual) meaning because the context is so strong that, no matter what they say, it has reverberations; you’ve put the audience exactly where you want them. That kind of structure (setting up a scene laden with sub-textual meaning) is much more important than dialogue (in which the entire meaning is spoken or explicitly stated in dialogue). In fact, you can kill that scene by having them say something right on the nose—uttering a (so-called) great line at that point.
Once the subtext becomes the text, once the intent of the character(s) is stated directly, the tension implied in the scene (and the meaning inferred by the audience) is dissipated, lost. The scene, now “on-the-nose,” is effectively “killed.”

And then there’s the problem of too many good scenes:

I just had a meeting with Warren Beatty and [John] Milius in which Warren told John something I’ve been telling him too: “You [peak] too soon and you [peak] too often.” I think that’s one of his problems: he’s so full of juice he just can’t stop [peak]ing, rather than holding back and tightening the situation and building characters. That releasing diffuses the energy, the characters are too broad because they never have time to build up the inner strength.
All peaks and no valleys leave one flat. This is perhaps the source of the difficulty I have always had with Milius’s scripts for The Wind and the Lion and even The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.



Schrader goes on to offer his take (at the time) on films’ stories vs. their visuals:

I don’t want to make films whose sole function is to be looked at compositionally. I see directing as an extension of storytelling, which itself is an extension of thematic explorations. So the work I would do would be strictly at that level: as a thinker and as a dramatist. That’s how I see movies. Whatever work I directed I would not be directing as a painter. Maybe after a number of years, I would graduate to that.
I see the image in…pragmatic terms, as a way to get information across. The visual language is different from the verbal language; I see it very functionally. If a shot does not convey certain information, no matter how beautiful, it doesn’t belong in the movie. The primary reason for a movie is to tell a story…
There are those who don’t agree, who see film as first a visual medium, second a storytelling medium. Some directors conceive of movies first as shots, and that’s why you need scripts—you need a very clear demarcation between the writer and the director. You have situations where the writer has conceived a movie in terms of scenes and characters, and the director has done so in terms of visual rhythms—and then they meet. Some directors, thinking in terms of shots, composition, pans, and tracks, listen to your story and think, “Yeah, that’s good, I can put my visual stamp on it.” Well, I’m a writer; my first interest is in the story. I say, “I have to have a scene in that bed which conveys impotence or exhilaration, or whatever; how can I shoot it to convey that?” Whereas the director may say, “I have a certain image in mind, now how can I lay that on the scene?” There’s a little of that in Marty [Scorsese, director of Schrader’s Taxi Driver], because he’s not by nature a writer. He had certain shots, visual things, he wanted to do in Taxi Driver which had to be fitted into the movie. He’d tell me, “I want to do this shot. There isn’t a place for it now. Write a spot for it into the movie.”
But 32 years later, in 2008, Schrader has evolved. Concerning his transition from writer to writer/director, he commented:

It’s on-the-job training. It’s not that hard to direct a movie. That’s one of the myths of filmmaking. All you have to do, is surround yourself with an experienced team. So many cinematographers and assistant directors ghost direct movies. We know their names. They get paid to do that. I can take anyone here, put them with that team, and an efficient, workable movie will result. So what you are bringing to the dance is not experience, but a kind of vision and originality. “I would like to tell this story. It hasn’t been told before, I don’t think. But I don’t quite know how to tell it. Help me out.” I did two films where I didn’t know how to direct: Blue Collar and Hardcore. Somewhere during American Gigolo I figured out what directing was, which was primarily because of a production designer named Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who got me to start thinking in visual terms instead of literary terms. They’re different thought processes. By the time I did Gigolo, I was starting to think as a picture maker much more than as a storyteller. But it takes a while. During the first and second film in particular, you’re just trying to keep your goddamned head above water.


But in the earlier interview, he described how he generates his movies:

I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness. Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot [our italics].
Elsewhere in the interview he revealed how he arrived at his plot for Taxi driver:

…two things happened which tied the project [Taxi Driver] together: a Harry Chapin song called “Taxi,” in which an old girlfriend gets into a guy’s cab; and [Arthur] Bremer shot [Presidential Candidate and Alabama Governor, George] Wallace. That was the thread which led to the script. Maybe I shouldn’t admit to this, but why not be honest? After all, there’s really nothing new on the face of the earth.


Elaborating on his method at one point, he explains:

One of the problems with screenwriters is that they think first in terms of plot or in terms of metaphor, and they’re going the reverse way; it’s awfully hard to do. Once you have a plot, it’s hard to infuse a theme into it, because it’s not an indigenous expression of the plot; that’s why you must start with the theme and not the plot.
Metaphor is extremely important to a movie. A perfect example is Deliverance, where you have point A and point B, and four men going from A to B—the first time [theme] for the men, the last time [metaphor] for the river. On the strength of that metaphor, you could put the Marx Brothers in that boat and something would happen. When somebody walks up to you and says, “I’ve got a great idea for a Western and this is the twist,” you know right off the bat that they’re in trouble, because they’re coming at it the wrong way. Maybe they’ll be able to write a novel that sells, make a lot of money, and live in Beverly Hills; but it’s not interesting to me; not something I really care about.
As Pipeliner [his first script and an effort to finance it] was falling through, I got hit with two other blows to the body at the same time: my marriage fell through, and the affair that caused the marriage to fall through fell through, all within the same four or five months. I fell into a state of manic depression. I was living with someone at the time, and she got so fed up with me that she split. I was staying in her apartment waiting for the cupboard to run out of food.
I got to wandering around at night; I couldn’t sleep because I was so depressed. I’d stay in bed till four or five P.M. then I’d say, “Well, I can get a drink now.” I’d get up and get a drink and take my bottle with me and start wandering around the streets in my car at night. After the bars closed, I’d go to pornography. I’d do this all night, till morning, and I did it for about three or four weeks, a very destructive syndrome, until I was saved from it by an ulcer; I had not been eating, just drinking.
When I got out of the hospital I realized I had to change my life because I would die and everything; I decided to leave L.A. That was when the metaphor hit me for Taxi Driver, and I realized that was the metaphor I had been looking for: the man who will take anybody any place for money; the man who moves through the city like a rat through the sewer; the man who is constantly surrounded by people, yet has no friends. The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin.
I wrote the script very quickly, in something like fifteen days. The script just jumped from my mind almost intact.
Recalling:

…when you’re writing films, you’re dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that’s alive…


He goes on…

Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I re-read [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero, that is, the man from The Stranger, Notes From The Underground, Nausea, Pickpocket, Le Feu Follet, and A Man Escaped, and put him in an American context. In so doing, you find that he becomes more ignorant, ignorant of the nature of his problem. Travis’s problem is the same as the existential hero’s, that is, “should I exist?” But Travis doesn’t understand that this is his problem, so he focuses it elsewhere, and I think that is a mark of the immaturity and the youngness of our country. We don’t properly understand the nature of the problem, so the self-destructive impulse, instead of being inner-directed, as it is in Japan, Europe, any of the older cultures, becomes outer-directed. The man who feels the time has come to die will go out and kill other people rather than kill himself. There’s a line in [The] Yakuza which says, “When a Japanese cracks up, he’ll close the window and kill himself; when an American cracks up, he’ll open the window and kill somebody else.” That’s essentially how the existential hero changes when he becomes American. There is not enough intellectual tradition in this country, and not enough history; and Travis is just not smart enough to understand his problem. He should be killing himself instead of these other people. At the end, when he shoots himself in a playful way, that’s what he’s been trying to do all along.
From Film Comment magazine, March-April 1976, Paul Schrader interviewed by Richard Thompson, January 26 and 29, 1976.
Screenwriting according to Schrader:

Theme by way of metaphor yields plot.

The only things left out are story and talent. #

FADE OUT

Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot
---Paul Schrader 



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