Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The script as a means to an end

     Last week I sat on a scriptwriting panel at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.  The focus was on the process of writing a screenplay and there was a lot of lively give and take among the panelists and with our audience.  Many interesting and useful points were discussed and I think everyone in attendance left with ample food for thought. 

     However, as the two-hour session progressed and the discussion got ever deeper into the screenwriting process, one overriding thought began to nag at me.
  Here we were talking about the screenplay, how to write it, shape it, what to avoid, what to include, what works and what doesn’t, and on and on, and what increasingly began bugging me was that in fact what we were doing was talking about the screenplay as an end in itself rather than only a means to an end. 

     In other words, what seemed to be missing in the whole discussion was the overriding truth that screenplays are written to be made into films, nothing more, nothing less, and that they aren’t meant to be approached as an end in themselves like the novel or the short story or poetry.  I know this sounds so obvious and that everyone takes it as a given, but sitting there on this panel I couldn’t help but wonder if this simple fact isn’t sometimes lost in the conversation. 

Granted, there are rare screenplays that can justifiably stand on their own as art and be placed in the category of literature.  Robert Towne’s Chinatown, for example, was mentioned more than once during our panel discussion as a screenplay that qualifies.  And I agree. But for the other 99.9% of screenplays written and released into the great beyond, their whole point and function is to serve as the foundational starting point in a highly collaborative enterprise involving artists from many disciplines.  And the end result is the work of cinematic art that emerges. In fact, in the end that’s all that should matter.

Obviously, this is not to say that your screenplay shouldn’t be brilliantly written, with memorable characters and a page-turning story.  Of course it should be. There is definite craft and artistry involved.  How else are you going to attract the key players who can carry your script into production?  But I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal from the get-go for any screenwriter has to be getting that work actually made into a film. It’s a “script” after all.  And in this business, that pretty much automatically makes it a means to an end and not an end in itself. 

The ultimate destination of the successful script—the actual pages themselves—should be, when all is said and done, forgotten on the dusty floor of the production office or left languishing in the actors’ on-set mobile trailers. It’s meant to be dissected and adjusted, rewritten and color-coded, memorized and made one’s own, remaining fluid and open to changes on the spot as warranted when the film is in production.  Usually, but not always, the script is an invaluable part of the making of a film, as are the director, actors, sets, cameras, and lighting and sound, and the crews that make it all happen, but in the “end” what’s important in production is simply the quality of the footage captured and not the pages of script it’s based on.

And, of course, after the film is shot and the script has been transformed into footage, the project goes through yet another metamorphosis in the editing process.  The work by now has totally transcended the script and left it behind.  What emerges finally, for better or worse, is a work of cinema, sometimes quite far removed from a writer’s original conception, but the ultimate goal of the whole enterprise.

I say all this because sometimes I get this uneasy feeling that a lot of screenwriters are working away in relative isolation on their scripts with little or no thought as to how their work fits into the bigger scheme of things in the actual no-nonsense making of the film itself.  And as a result an entire screenplay industry has developed with its own contests and prizes and theories and approaches outlined in dozens of books on the subject and discussed in countless panels like the one I was on. It’s become a business in and of itself.  And the danger is that this loss of sight as to the true purpose of a screenplay—the hands-on and practical reasons that a script is written in the first place--can open up a lot of misconceptions and frustrations, even for the prize-winning scripts and their feted creators. 

Writing a brilliant screenplay is a major accomplishment and should be every writer’s goal, but I have this sneaking suspicion that a hidden and critical part of the process in giving it that brilliance is to keep in mind that it’s merely a means to an end. 

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