I’m addicted to screenwriting books — searching for the ultimate secret! — and to books of interviews with film practitioners, so I should have liked Declan McGrath and Felim MacDermott’s book more than I did. It’s either called Screencraft Screenwriting, which is what it says on the front, or Screenwriting Screencraft, which is what the spine says. And that’s a clue to the central problem. (In fact, it’s an entry in a series called Screencraft, with this being the volume devoted to the script. But you wouldn’t know that.)
A book about writing should be readable, but this one is hampered by a weird format. George Axelrod is just saying “As you write the script, you know Audrey couldn’t possibly say something so ~” and you turn the page, and instead of the end of the sentence you have four pages of stills of Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra, with lengthy captions and a letter about censorship problems. Should I read this now, before I find out what Audrey couldn’t possibly say?
But there’s worse. William Goldman is saying “You are seeing the city at night, you are seeing this kid in terrible pain, you are seeing the bad guys coming after ~” and then we get four pages of stills and script pages (printed very small so you need a jeweller’s eyeglass to read) with accompanying commentary by Goldman on the pages. It’s a whole essay embedded within the essay.
This makes the book kind of a nuisance, even though most of what’s said in it is interesting. It’s probably more the publisher’s fault than the authors’.
Goldman probably needed nudging to say something he hasn’t already said in his various books, and it’s a shame to have Jim Sheridan, one of the maddest, most brilliant raconteurs I’ve ever heard, simply explaining the basics of three-act structure. He does come up with some good suggestions as to WHY the structure is useful — a script needs to have a strong point of view, but unless you’re careful, “It is like being stuck in the pub with someone who is telling you a very personal story and you begin to feel that this person is compelled to tell you that story whether you want to hear it or not. You start to feel uncomfortable. Structure can help the writer avoid creating that uncomfortable feeling in the audience. It works as a necessary impediment to that potential torrent of emotion.”
It’s also great that the book has contributions from Kaneto Shindo and Suso D’Amico and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, people who don’t usually get asked questions about screenwriting in this kind of study. One screenwriting book uses THE KARATE KID as its example of a perfect screenplay. It’s very nice to have a broader and, let’s face it, better range of references. Unfortunately, while the Americans (Schrader, Towne, Zaillian, Andrew Stanton) love to talk about the nuts and bolts of craft, writers outside Hollywood seem reluctant to get into specifics. There are some stories about directors (Vittorio De Sica was very superstitious), some generalities about working hard and using your own psychology, but nothing you can take to the bank, as Robert Blake would say. The exceptions are Ruth Prawer Jhabvalla, who is very explicit about her technique, and the great Jean-Claude Carriere, who has a very practical mind as well as a poetic one — some of which he seems to have learned from Tati. Writing is problem solving — or problem creation, perhaps.
Here’s a good bit ~
In DANTON, an important part of the script was that the two main characters, Danton and Robespierre, should meet only once. Before shooting we rehearsed the scene where they met, in Wajda’s apartment. The dialogue worked but there was some spark missing. I said to Depardieu (who played Danton), “I think there needs to be a physical contact between the two of you. Consider that it is easy for a judge to sentence someone to death but much more difficult to kill someone with his own hands. Now, what will you say to Robespierre?” Depardieu understood immediately. He took Robespierre’s hand and put it round his neck saying, “You feel this flesh, this neck, if you keep going your way you will be obliged to cut it.” This became one of the best moments in the film and it came from the collaboration with a great actor who gives more than he is asked for.