Monday, January 23, 2012

Screenwriting: Amateurs vs. Professionals

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.



Bare cherry trees; GLOBED LAMPS LIGHT the mist... and two figures strolling this esplanade. JOUBERT is checking the contents of an envelope handed to him by the other man... There are bills in evidence... As they PASS BENEATH A LAMP we recognize the other man--ATWOOD! He watches JOUBERT counting the money and:

          (a dig)
     That includes Condor, of course.

     Yes--I owe you Condor.

     Otherwise, it was...

     “Otherwise” doesn’t exist.

     Will Condor take long?

     You want an estimate?

     There is a time factor.

     Condor is an amateur: lost,
     upredictable... perhaps sentimental.
     He could fool a professional--not   
     deliberately, but precisely because
     he is lost and doesn’t know what to
     do. Unlike Wicks. Who was entirely
     The man... Condor killed in the

Above and end excerpts taken from the revised draft of Three Days Of The Condor, dated February 3, 1975, by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, based on the novel, Six Days Of The Condor, by James Grady.

Un-produced screenwriters who have yet to make a sale often describe how they started out by looking at films and then say to themselves, “I could do better than that!” Then they try. All I can tell them is: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown!”

Consider: they are comparing a finished film to their own internal and idealized “movie.” They fail to consider that the initial script for that movie passed through a dozen or (many) more “filters”: the screenwriter’s own reader(s), the various producer(s) who considered it and influenced revisions through notes, the various director(s) and stars doing the same, and probably a slew of other folks (like the budget people, studio mucky-mucks and their significant others, script consultants (notes only), script doctors (specific fixes), and “page-one” re-writing screenwriters, all who influenced changes, both big and small. It’s certainly true that some productions have avoided most or even all of the filters listed above. But most produced movies do not.

Art by committee is rarely, if ever, a pretty thing. But, because it’s “someone else’s money,” and since it costs obscene amounts of said money, that’s the nature of the film business.

Even if you as the writer can manage to write, produce and direct the film exactly as written, you still have to sell it. You have to distribute it to markets all over the world, on DVD, online streaming, and to the television markets. If it has merchandise potential, you have to generate that market, too. And all that is also “other people’s money.”

Is it any wonder, then, that all these filters result in taking what was once a fine and distinctive, “Vermont Cheddar,” and transforming it into a pre-sliced, individually-packaged for ease, ultra-bland variety of “American,” kind of a “Velveteen Schwaaa,” (if you catch the allusion)? Everyone might tolerate it, but no one really likes it.

I’ll venture an example of this is Brian DePalma’s film (“Obsession”) of Paul Schrader’s screenplay, “Déjà Vu” (not to be confused with the more recent film of the same name). I have three drafts of Schrader’s script and one can chart the emasculation and hybridization done to it as the “money” had its way. I should note that Schrader’s only mistake was to keep his name on the finished film, as the original story was conceived by he and DePalma together. A more recent example might be “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”  

And, so, isn’t it also a wonder when, on extremely rare occasion, it goes the other way, transforming something only serviceable into greatness? An argument can and has been made that this is the case with the original Mario Puzo novel, “The Godfather,” then filmed by Francis Ford Coppola, and later improved-upon in his “Godfather, Part II,” another extremely rare case where the sequel was generally thought to be better than the original film. I read the original novel, and it was, there’s no other way to describe it: a “potboiler,” nothing more than a long “beach read” with some interesting “inside-baseball” stuff about the mafia. But what a film franchise it became! Another example would be sci-fi writer, A.E. van Vogt’s first published story, “Black Destroyer,” (later incorporated by him into the novel, “Voyage of the Space Beagle”). It became the cheesy (though, okay for its time), 1950s monster movie, “It, the Terror From Beyond Space.” Then it was turned into “Alien,” and from there, expanded into the later “Alien” films.  

Third are the rarer “animals” still, those flat-out amazing cases where a truly great screenplay is then amplified further, into, well... legend. I’d argue “Chinatown” is one of those. And we know it’s so because we have the various drafts and the final result to compare. I, myself, have an early, middle, and late draft of the Robert Towne screenplay, and agree with history that Roman Polanski improved it. Another example of this might be its progenitor, Billy Wilder’s film of his and Raymond Chandler’s script of James M. Cain’s novel, “Double Indemnity.”

There’s a fourth case, rarest of all, where what is generally considered to be a truly bad piece of material is turned into the stuff of legend. And the prime example of that was when the stage-play “Everybody Goes to Rick’s” was turned into the film, “Casablanca.” I can’t think of another example. Perhaps someone out there can (?).

I’ve often come across screenwriting discussions (and in the comments in screenwriting blogs, and on-line forums & message-boards) that make a profound distinction between amateur and professional screenwriting. The implication is that there is almost no way for a given amateur to ascend such professional heights without super-human attention to the finest points of the craft. And the argument goes on to say it's provably so because of its indisputable rarity.

There is certainly a difference between the average amateur work and something that’s already sold. But that’s akin to expecting a good mechanic and metal-worker to create a design for a Ferrari in his back-yard from nothing. The truth is that a competent amateur with a truly “movie-worthy” idea, and care in his/her writing, will, given championing by a truly industry-connected insider, become a professional in as few as one script. There isn’t some secret writing formula, some extreme and granular attention to stylistics, some conceptual “secret sauce” that is needed by said “amateur” to become said “professional.” One of the most recent examples of this is Diablo Cody. An earlier example is Shane Black.

In fact, over and over, in reading professional screenplays, I’ve encountered amateur-like mistakes that no professional industry reader would let go by, had it come from a “nobody.” I’m referring to things like: spelling errors; 120+ pages (when, for everyone else, “100” is the new “120” limit); ( WE SEE & WE HEAR; over-use of parentheticals (e.g. (wryly));  8-page dialogue scenes (i.e. greater than the unwritten limit of 3); “un-filmables” (e.g. “Joe wonders if she is the killer.”); too many characters introduced too fast and too early; present-progressive action descriptions (e.g. “Joe is running toward the car.” Rather than “Joe runs toward the car.”);  CUT TO: & SMASH CUT TO: & DISSOLVE TO:; CAMERA PANS RIGHT; etc. Let’s not kid ourselves: pros are allowed these indiscretions because of who they are.

And yet, it’s also true that “who they are” usually goes well beyond being just a pal or relative of the producer, or that the writer is a genuine V.I.P. (screenwriting or writer-director superstar). “Who they are” carries with it the imprimatur of being successful in the past. Nobody can make “the rules” go away faster than Quentin Tarantino. His latest script, DJANGO UNCHAINED has a title page that’s hand-scribbled, a page count of 167, at least one dialogue scene that runs 14 pages, flashbacks, voice-over narration, use of “We See,”  mis-spellings, and various other indulgences that are allowed because… “QT directs his own scripts anyway.” I’ll venture they’d be allowed if he wasn’t the director, too. So, it pays to have “earned it.”

But this is the reality. Apparently, nobody said it had to be fair. It all illustrates what new, un-sold screenwriters are up against. But what really “sticks” in many new writers’ “craws” is that they are often expected to include stuff the pro doesn’t. So they, in their allotted 100 pages, must exceed what the professional is allowed to do in pretty much anything under 200, and within that, they must show what the pro is allowed to leave out.  

Consider this interview by Chris Davison with screenwriters Hawk Ostby & Mark Fergus (Co-writers of IRON MAN, CHILDREN OF MEN and most recently COWBOYS & ALIENS):

Q: In traditional dramatic writing they say to always leave room for the actor, in a VFX-heavy film do you write to leave room for the VFX artists?
Fergus: most of the time they just say not to think about how to make aliens that no one's ever seen before, ones that can outdo Ridley Scott's aliens or the Giger aliens, and we just write a couple of details about what would make a great alien and we make sure that the sequences are very meticulously mapped out. When they get to it, for budgetary or logistics reasons they might totally change it around, as long as dramatically it's the same intent, it's what the sequence was about, we can kind of imagine whatever the hell we want and then Jon and his team have to go and break it down. We can say "the most awesome aliens you've ever seen" and then someone else has to go figure out what that means.
Ostby: that's one of the cool things about writing, you don't have to in essence figure out how these cool things are going to come to life, you make them come alive on the page and then it's the job of the director and the staff to make it real. It's a bit of a luxury, we can just say "the building blows up" and then ultimately it's a design thing.
Fergus: HP Lovecraft has this story, I remember Stephen King made a joke about it, he said "what I saw when I opened the door, if I described it to you would drive you mad with horror". I don't know what that means but that's some pretty damn scary thing and we take a cue from that, it's someone else's job to figure out how to bring that to life and those guys are awesome because all they do is try to do things that eyeballs have never seen before. It's amazing since everyone's immersed in film history, they all know what's already been done and they always say based on the resources, the money and the time, "let's try to come up with something awesome".
Q: When writing a VFX scene, do you describe what you want the viewer to see or is it more how you want the viewer to feel?
Ostby: I think what we say for that is "there it is, the alien ship, massive and magnificent, more frightening than anything you could imagine". Ultimately, it is a design thing since somebody's going to have to make a mock-up of 15 ships and then bring it to Jon and he'll look at it and say "I like that, I don't like that, that's too reminiscent of another film" and so on.
Fergus: you hit on it, really, it's just the emotional necessity of what you feel when you see the aliens. Perhaps one detail of what they might be but we're not going to get into a million details because we don't know what the design is yet. You just say what you need for the story and what has to be there and then the emotion of how you feel when those VFX come in, how you want them to move the story forward and how you want people to feel.
It's the same as with actors, the less, less, less you can put in the better. Just tell the essentials and let the professionals do their jobs. Actors don't want to be told "move over here three steps, laconically, and say this line profoundly". Good actors go through and cross all that crap out anyway, they want to find the character and be in the moment. This kind of writing takes a while to develop, at first you write everything and then you read the masters and it's like haiku, white space on every page, beautiful simplicity and that's hard, it's much easier to write a lot and just throw everything in. It's really hard to write just what's necessary, it takes a lot of years to get to the place where you trust in that and to get everybody else exactly what they need and then they can own it and they can really bring their game to it. Trust your collaborators, they're really great people, no need to over-explain everything. Actors will cut lines, they'll improv, and Jon leaves lots of room for inspiration with the actors and the VFX guys, it's one of his real gifts to hire great people and let them have the freedom to bring their own stuff to it, everybody's got great ideas.
If a non-connected, amateur screenwriter put into his “spec” shorthand such as "the most awesome aliens you've ever seen" but, no corresponding description of said aliens, that spec would very likely be tossed aside in a heart-beat to the groan of “where’s the writer’s imagination? If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage!” But pros are allowed to leave it out, to let “someone else go figure it out.”

[In writing my script, FOE (listed in the side matter on this blog), an alien invasion tale, I set myself the task of, as Fergus says, conceiving “the most awesome aliens you’ve never seen.” This was a tall order, given the height of the bar set by films like ALIEN, THE THING, PREDATOR, and STARSHIP TROOPERS. A validation, however, came in a reader’s unsolicited comment that “You should patent those aliens!”]

In fact, however, the original 1976 draft of ALIEN by the almost unknown screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon (he’d co-written DARK STAR) refers to the alien only as “the creature,” limiting the specifics to various stages of growth, and “tentacles.” The final June, 1978 draft of the script by Walter Hill and David Giler does even less. The producers knew the alien was the centerpiece of the film and needed a conception so fresh and original, so powerful, that they found a true artist to make it a reality, H. R. Giger. And, boy did he deliver.
So, this is the hand you’re dealt: amateurs are expected to write screenplays that are better than what’s done routinely by the professionals. And... by having to commit to specifics and elements which may not reflect the capabilities of the industry at that time, they’re expected to top these established pros, effectively with one “hand tied behind their backs.” While I can understand the reasons for such discrimination, I can also say that it’s one of the prime reasons it is so damnably difficult for new writers to break into the field. Professionals get away with “murder” while amateurs are “murdered” for cutting a corner and, in effect, “jay-walking.” I’m tellin’ ya (I say, straightening my tie), they “don’t get no respect.”


Looking far out over sloping lawns and a meadow. A pretty VIEW. Joubert FILLS HIS LUNGS, deeply. A car is parked a safe distance from the house:

     Tell me about the girl.

     What about her?

     She was chosen... how? By age? Her
     car? Appearance?

     At random. Chance.

     Can I drop you?

     I’m going back to New York.

     You have... not much future there.

Turner looks at him.

                JOUBERT (CONT'D)
          (lighting a cigarette)
     It would happen this way: You may be
     walking one day maybe the first sunny
     day of spring... and a car will slow...
     beside you, and a door will open... and
     someone you know--perhaps even trust--
     will get out of the car and he will
     smile--a becoming smile... But he’ll
     leave open the door of the car... and
     offer to give you a lift.

Turner sinks slowly to the steps.

          (not really asking)
     You seem to understand it all so well...
     what would you suggest?

     The fact is: What I do is not a bad oc-   
     cupation. There is never a Depression.   
     Someone is always willing to pay.

     I would find it tiring.

     No. It is--quite restful. Almost peaceful.  
     No need to believe in either side, or any
     side. There is no cause. There is only
     yourself. And the belief is in your

          (very tired now)
     ...I was born here Joubert... in the United
     States. I miss it when I’m away too long.

     A pity.

     I don’t think so.
     Would it be too much trouble to drop me at 
     Union Station?

     It would be my pleasure.

As Turner rises to walk down the slope to the car, Joubert holds out the .45. Turner looks at it, then at Joubert. Joubert shrugs:

               JOUBERT (CONT'D)
     For that day...

Beat. Turner takes the gun.#


Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

“…what really ‘sticks’ in many new writers’ ‘craws’ is that they are often expected to include stuff the pro doesn’t. So they, in their allotted 100 pages, must exceed what the professional is allowed to do in pretty much anything under 200, and within that, they must show what the pro is allowed to leave out.”