Hi there. I’m waiting for some time to become available to reorganize this page. I hope you enjoy the posts that are still up here in the meantime. You can find more information about my screenwriting here.
Hi there. I’m waiting for some time to become available to reorganize this page. I hope you enjoy the posts that are still up here in the meantime. You can find more information about my screenwriting here.
I’ve said it before: the worst thing one can see in the margin by one’s dialogue are those three little words…
ON THE NOSE
But how can one avoid one’s characters sounding artificial? The problem mainly seems to arise when characters’ dialogue bears too much responsibility when it comes to advancing the plot (through the convenient exchange of information between characters) or revealing the internal complexion of a character (through the clumsy revelation of psychological and emotional truths).
Given the above, and drawing inspiration from other more experienced commentators on screenwriting technique (e.g. Dara Marks, Robert McKee, John Truby et al.), I’ve been focusing in my own work and in my work with other writers on understanding the role of subtext in dialogue. Control the gap between what the character says and what they feel and want at both conscious and more unconscious levels, and I believe one stands a chance of fulfilling the storyteller’s basic brief: dramatising how processes of internal change and external change unfold and interrelate over time in relation to a protagonist in whom we’ve emotionally invested and that protagonist’s core dramatic problem.
“Show, don’t tell”, in other words.
[Spoilers...] In seminars and lectures I’ve given in the past, I’ve shown scenes from Lars and the Real Girl (2007, dir. Craig Gillespie) to help explain the power of understanding the difference between the surface meaning of dialogue, and the subtext that lies beneath, only because the central concept clearly, if also cleverly, illustrates the difference.
Watch the following clip…
The film, written by Nancy Oliver, tells the story of Lars (Ryan Gosling) who suffers deep mental trauma on account of his mother’s death during his birth (this all set up and sustained with an admirable lightness of touch). The “Real Girl” of the title, of course, refers to Bianca, the anatomically correct “sex doll” in whom Lars invests a massive fantasy life as a way of coping with his trauma. We know he doesn’t believe that Bianca is real; we know the film is more complex than that, a “deadpan” illustration of a character’s psychological battle with both his guilt and the fantasy life he’s invented as a way of surviving that guilt.
The film makes for an excellent tool for illustrating subtext in action because the gap between the surface meaning or what Lars says to and about Bianca and what he wants and feels deep inside is both clear (as clear as Bianca is physically visible and present on screen) and complex (because we know everything Lars says about Bianca inescapably indicates the psychological battle Lars is fighting silently and sub-textually within himself).
The technique here requires a trust in how the forces of conflict confronting the protagonist both internally and externally are the substantial component of the story, and that the dialogue in a film is an expression of these invisible forces of conflict, rarely a description of them. To paraphrase Hitchcock: show the story of unfolding conflict visually, and “let the talk be part of the atmosphere.”
In Valkyrie (2008, Brian Singer), the writer Christopher McQuarrie has an enviable glut of subtextual conflict upon which to draw. The ultimate origin point of external conflict in his story is none other than Adolf Hitler himself (played by David Bamber) and his cohort of evil sidekicks: a reliable epicentre of powerful antagonism in the story. Any action the protagonist and his allies even contemplate taking against this “heart of darkness” can’t help but generate in the audience a strong sense of the characters’ mortal fears and doubts.
In this scene, we see the story’s heroic protagonist Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), accompanied by his more cautious ally Olbricht (Bill Nighy), make first contact with the powerful General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) with a view to seeing if he will join a rebellion.
The scene offers a powerful illustration of subtext in action. Our hero and his ally are deep inside a web of paranoid, lethal corruption. To even intimate their mutinous intention to the General is to run the instant risk of terrible death. And so the scene can happily function without ever directly voicing the key details of the circumstances at hand. The audience are more than clear about what the characters want and also possess a chilling sense of what the characters fear, this made all the more palpable by decades of supporting historical information.
I guess not every scene nor every scenario will offer a writer such startling possibilities as Lars and the Real Girl or Valkyrie when it comes to conveying the core force of unfolding conflict underneath the surface of the characters’ spoken words. But I believe that screenwriting that effects the audience most strongly carries out this kind of continual and detailed assault on the audience’s unconscious understanding of the characters’ emotional experience. Much of this is generated in performance, and some also generated by the surface logic of a story, of course. But it’s evident that control of subtextual meaning is a pivotal part of the process and its details are best obsessively explored.
Notice that in the scene in Valkyrie, a sensitivity towards subtext isn’t just part of the approach to the writing; it actually contributes to how the plot develops. Stauffenberg and Olbricht have come to sound out Fromm’s potential as an ally. Stauffenberg knows how carefully they must tread; but Olbricht (whose proneness to nerves later contributes to the story’s tragic outcomes) fluffs his lines (2:01) and reveals their subtextual intentions too bluntly at the crucial moment. Such “on the nose” behaviour in such a tense situation unsettles Fromm just when Stauffenberg was reeling him in, and so the scene ends with our protagonist having taken a backward step.
How do you get out of a scene?
“Early!” I hear you shout. And, of course, you’re right. Let the content of the scene do what it needs to do to push the character onwards through the story and develop our sense of that character (and others that are involved), then get on with typing the next slugline and the next scene. Unnecessary lingering in a scene risks killing the momentum of the unfolding drama.
So far, so good. Except the “Get in late, get out early” maxim, for all its undeniable value, glosses over a moment in a scene that can lead to headaches: the final beat. We know that moving on quickly to the next scene is crucial for keeping the pace up and often the final beat of a scene naturally leads to the next. To use a very obvious example, we see Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) stop Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) at the side of the freeway in the middle of Heat (1995, dir. Michael Mann):
“Follow me”, the final line of the scene that appears on screen and which, interestingly, wasn’t there on the page of a 1994 draft, naturally (and obviously) allows the story to cut rapidly to the famous conversation between the two characters in the diner.
It’s not always this simple. Though momentum is desperately important, there probably needs to be variation in rhythm as we move from one scene to the next or the audience might start to tune out, and some situations allow or require the final beat to bring a scene to a more identifiable close rather than simply catapult us on to the following scene at high speed. I guess the metaphor here might be the way a full-stop/period ends one sentence before the text moves on to the beginning of the next.
Of course, the final beat mustn’t slow momentum too much, and perhaps this is why film characters rarely seem to say good-bye on the phone as a way of signalling an end to the conversation, but use some other formulation of words (or, indeed, sometimes just put the phone down or press end on their mobile and get on with the story).
Another method of bringing one scene to something of a climax before shifting on to the next is to deploy a line of dialogue that feels like a summation of or commentary on the transition that’s taking place in the story at the time. Think of the moment in The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) when Tessio brings in the fish wrapped in a bullet-proof vest. Sonny’s confused before Clemenza explains by way of those immortal words: ”It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” Needless to say, the sign-off line in this scene gives us one of the most cherished lines of dialogue in film history.
The final beats of scenes aren’t always quite so beautifully poised. I remember Jim Carey lampooning David Caruso on Dave Letterman’s show some years back. If you’re not a CSI: Miami viewer, then you’ll be unaware that Caruso’s character Horatio Caine has a seemingly pathological tendency to default to a jaded (sic), mono-rhythmic “button” line at the end of many of his scenes. As Carey makes hilariously clear…
…such moments are easily overblown, though this suits some material and some audiences, as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s notorious one-liners often prove (as do Caruso’s).
Another approach to the final beat of the scene focuses on how it echoes or “answers” some preceding element of the scene as much as it leads on to the beginning of next scene. And this is where what I’ve coined in this post “bracketing the scene” comes into play. Watch this pre-titles scene from a Will & Grace episode called “Nice in White Satin”.
The scene starts with Will and Jack providing a few laughs with regards Will’s new “crumber”, a device that removes crumbs off the dinner table (0:13). It’s gently funny, playing along with the long-running gag about Will’s fastidiousness, but it’s not part of the logic of the story at this stage, more a detail within the character’s circumstances as he takes part in the story.
After half a minute of banter about the crumber, we get a short passage where Will speaks to Grace on the phone (she’s in Cambodia accompanying her doctor husband) before Karen arrives with the episode’s “A-plot” problem: she needs to have a medical examination, but is scared. More comic back-and-forth ensues before Will nails down the end of the scene by insisting that Karen go to the doctor and promising that he and Jack will accompany her.
Notice that the crumber now (2:38) makes a reappearance in the scene: previously it seemed nothing more than a background joke; by the end of the scene, it’s been transformed into a comic component that works in the service of one of the main plot threads of the episode.
This is why I call this technique “bracketing” the scene: the elelement in question marks the beginning and end of the scene like a pair of parentheses. And it seems to be a fairly dependable approach, something one can see at work in a lot of US sit-com, probably because it allows the writers to use what little screen-time they have at their disposal highly efficiently. Certainly, a lot of the Will & Grace pre-title skits use this approach, and you see it used a lot in Frasier, just to give you two examples.
This bracketing approach, a sub-variation of standard “set-up-pay-off” techniques, can also be applied in a more deadpan manner. Watch this scene from Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson).
Notice the first thing to happen in the scene is that Håkan (Per Ragnar) takes a bite of the apple before continuing to pack his murderous toolkit. Notice, also, the final thing to happen in the scene is that he takes another bite of the apple before we cut to a scene at a school.
This isn’t just symmetry for symmetry’s sake. The eating of the apple creates a tension in the scene because it’s such a functional and mundane process of nourishment for the character, this working in direct contrast to the grisly process within which it’s interwoven: the mechanical preparation for murder so that Eli (Lina Leandersson) may be nourished in a way that is anything but mundane.
The apple also works at a general symbolic level, connecting with the story’s themes of corruption and sexuality, and also at a more specific symbolic level. During the scene, Håkan asks Eli to forgo meeting Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) that evening, but she implicitly ignores this request (or, at the very least, signals that she will). The apple helps amplify the idea that Håkan is deeply uneasy about Eli and Oskar’s friendship and that he fears she’ll be tempted away from him, and also allows him to express a reaction (1:27) to Eli’s implicit rebuttal without the writer having to resort to dialogue which might end up feeling “on the nose”. Without a line of dialogue, the end of the scene could easily feel a little “floppy”, but the crunch of Håkan taking another bite of the apple gives the scene a definable and resounding final beat.
One sees a lot of film dialogue quoted and discussed on the internet. We seem to revel in the words that come out of the mouths of the characters who affect us and continually quote film lines at both ourselves (remember James Franco’s pot-dealer Saul in Pineapple Express chuckling at sit-com punchlines?) and each other. My brother and I even used to play a game where we texted each other lines from Gladiator from memory, each trying to outdo the other by quoting a more-impressive-yet-less-obvious-line from the film (when we’d exhausted this, we moved on to This Is Spinal Tap!). But it feels strange, given so much of a screenwriter’s time is spent on scene action, that there isn’t more discussion of this part of the process.
This is understandable, perhaps, given the scene action is an element of the script the audience doesn’t experience directly (unlike the dialogue that stands half a chance of making the journey from the page to the audience’s ear). Nonetheless, it seems to me that the “prose” element of a screenwriter’s output (not that it should ever be prosaic) is worth at least a similar amount of focus. It’s in this part of the script that the visual language of the subsequent film is nascently coded. At a more general level, I know from my past experience as an industry coverage-drone that so much scene action is written in a stilted, awkward (and woefully punctuated) prose that leads to a poor(er) experience of the story being told.
To this end, I thought I’d begin a series of intermittent posts drawing attention to impressive examples of scene action. There’ll be no “system” to these choices, just a gentle attempt to admire good writing technique where it can easily be found, and I thought I’d start with a moment from the Wachowski’s screenplay for The Matrix (1999, directed and written by Andy and Larry Wachowski).
The moment on which I’d like to focus is a big one: the moment Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) attempt to rescue Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne). In the 1996 draft, the scene in which they begin their counter-attack read like this:
This is beautiful, taut scene action, finding the right balance between streamlined momentum and the inclusion of some superb details. On first reading, I remember being bowled over by the perfectly constrained onomatopoeia of “muted spit”. Years later, it’s the sassy synesthaesia of “razored whistle” and the bold, uncompromising deployment of “Dark glasses, game faces” on its own line that stands out. (If one was to be picky, then perhaps the use of a full-stop/period between these two clauses might have been even punchier; for the same reasons, one might move “In long black coats…” to the end of the first sentence and turn the verb at the beginning of the second paragraph into an active one – i.e. “Neo carries a duffel bag…” – but this is all a matter of individual taste, if not personal pedantry).
By the time the Wachowskis had completed their 1997 draft, the scene had grown considerably:
Not knowing the exact history of the development of the project means we don’t know the specific drivers behind the changes from one draft to the next. What’s undeniable is that the scene as it was written in the 1997 draft was much closer to the one we see on screen. Also, the scene is instantly more dramatic, not just in how it’s written, but also in that which it contains. The hotel in the earlier draft is now a “stark” government building and, if each scene should present the character(s) in question with obstacles-to-progress, then the re-drafting hugely amplifies what stands in Neo and Trinity’s way as they enter this building, bringing in the metal detector, focusing more on the guard who gets the only lines in the rewritten scene, and giving more scene time to the ultimately futile resistance of the other guards and cops.
The scene also gives its own answer to a question I pose myself when I’m writing certain kinds of material and that I hear asked a lot when I give talks and seminars: how much detail should one include when describing a fight or battle? The standard concern seems to be that too much description takes up too much space, can feel mechanical to read, risks stepping on the director’s toes and is a waste of the writer’s time as the director, performers and stunt-team will adapt, develop and ignore what’s been written in favour of what works best within the specific and real production situation.
Of course, writers worth their salt or trying to prove themselves as such don’t want to “phone in” any scenes and aim to imbue each scene they write, if not each line, with something unique to them and their imagination, and it’s little wonder one feels uneasy at the thought of simply writing “They fight” and leaving it to the director and the team to puzzle out. In the end, the best answer lies somewhere within the specifics: for whom is one writing and what is the nature of the relationship?
A little over a year ago, I finished a commission broadly in the epic “swords ‘n’ sandals” genre (what I like to call a “breastplate movie”). The final act of this three hour behemoth was mostly given to a 35-page battle sequence (admittedly with short lulls in the action every so often). In this instance, my brief was to report the battle not quite blow-by-blow, but in much more detail than I would have dared if it had been a spec script. Conversely, if a director tells me specifically not to go into detail during a specific scene (e.g. they tell me just to write “John disarms the thug” rather than “John lunges, grabs the thugs’ wrists, twists and flips the cudgel round blah blah blah…”), well, you can imagine I don’t rush to do the opposite of what I’ve been asked.
As for a spec script? A compromise between detail and momentum needs to be struck. Director Mo Ali offered me a piece of advice that’s useful to writing both spec and commissioned scripts. He suggested that although things inevitably change during filming, each description has to “tell the story“ of the fight it describes and capture its essence. For me, this means the language that makes up the description has to capture the look, rhythm and even the sound of the violence being described. Also, what’s unique about the action? What about it is specific to the theme, characters and particular dramatic scenario being explored? It’s this that needs to be emphasized in the writing, not necessarily the details of whose hands fly where in what exact order.
I pointed out the obvious before, that the 1997 draft of the scene in The Matrix was much closer to that which appears on screen than the earlier draft. In reality, the screened version is even bigger and celebrates the high-concept capabilities of its heroes with patience and flair as they cartwheel, flip and scissor-kick their way through the bullets. Even if the eventual scene expands beyond the parameters of what they wrote on the page, the Wachowskis managed to capture the essence of all this in a single, gracefully deployed line: “Weapons, like extensions of their bodies…” In the mental, metaleptic world of the Matrix, conventional distinctions concerning the body, the mind and external reality are collapsed and inverted, while their powers are increased, concentrated and combined. How else could one give this adequate life on the page except in a mesmeric, rolling blur of “weapons”, “feet” and “fists”?
The process of writing dialogue often feels like a tightrope act. The need to drive the story forwards in a way that feels undeniable to the audience is clear. But this balances against the need to avoid clumsy exposition at all costs. It risks annoying the audience (breaks the spell). It gives actors unnecessary headaches (they have to say it with a straight face and invent subtext that isn’t there). And from a writer’s perspective, receiving the “on the nose” note is about as gratifying as a punch to the kidneys.
One technique I’ve noticed other screenwriters use and attempt to employ myself is the weaving of some thread of “interference” through a scene. There are many kinds of interference and, as usual, a lot of one’s options depend on the genre and specific story scenario within which one is working.
In a disaster movie, for instance, we often see two characters discuss something emotional as the ground literally crumbles beneath their feet. In a buddy cop story, the two partners might choose the middle of a shoot-out with some bad guys as the moment to air various comic grievances. Either way, the physical world runs a continual “interference” in the scene, not allowing the characters to exchange spoken information in a manner that’s convenient to them and to the progression of the storyline.
Another route to achieving a similar effect is to insert some continual source of interruption into the scene, disrupting easy lines of communication between the characters and, in the best cases, adding layers of meaning to the central action. [Note: spoilers] There’s a great example of this in The Fisher King (1991, directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Richard LaGravenese). Jack (Jeff Bridges) returns to the video store where he lives, having just been attacked by thugs and rescued by Parry (Robin Williams). Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), the owner of the store and Jack’s girlfriend, is inevitably alarmed by Jack’s state and confronts him. Jack, a committed non-communicator at the best of times and still dazed by his experiences, doesn’t want to talk about it. Anne won’t relent, of course…
…and so the characters go back-and-forth for a few moments (see 0:00-0:49 above), attacking and defending, pushing and pushing back. This is lovely, but it could all too easily feel a little binary and repetitive. Hence the introduction of the customer who wants to come into the back room to choose a porno. The comedy of his intrusion runs interference through the scene, a thread of action that exists in a rhythmic tension with the more serious dramatic issues in the foreground.
In addition to this, the source of interruption touches on the deeper emotional undercurrents in the story. Anne’s concern for Jack at this specific moment is part of a more general frustrated desire for him to open up to her emotionally; how hilarious to insert a man into the scene who’s actively seeking his romantic experience of women within the narrow emotional bandwidth of VHS jack-off material.
The scene owns this irony with a series of cracking lines. “What you looking for?” Anne asks, subconsciously hoping there’s more to this man emotionally than meets the eye the same as she does for Jack, “you looking for a story?” “I seen most of ‘em,” the customer flounders beautifully. “Here,” says Anne, thrusting a VHS into his hands, “Kreamer vs Kreamer…it won an award!“).
For me, this is expert craft potently demonstrated – forty seconds of compressed, compounded, interconnected meanings slickly bound together – and offers an example of the level of precision and detail that we should all be trying to achieve. And the brilliance of the motif doesn’t end there, for the use of the porno videos in the store as a mischievous device was set up in an earlier moment in the story and contributes to the sincere emotional climax at the end of the piece.
Earlier (see 0:50-2:29 above), we’re introduced to Jack’s dysfunctional approach to life by way of a scene that shows him insulting one of Anne’s customers. The customer wants him to recommend a rom-com, “nothing heavy”, something “Katherine Hepburny-Cary Granty”, or “Goldie Hawny-Chevy Chasey” at the very least; Jack tosses her a copy of another “award-winner”: Ordinary Peepholes.
We’re in a different place by the end of the piece (see 2:30-4:49 above). Jack has negotiated his difficult redemption and he returns to tell Anne that he loves her, opening up the emotional channel between them that she’s wanted for so long. She’s shocked. She slaps him. She kisses him, all in timeless fashion. But the film is far too mercurial to let this moment operate entirely conventionally, and so of course the climactic kiss takes place against the wall of porno videos we saw earlier, a wall that collapses and comes tumbling down on our reconciled lovers in a plastic avalanche of gently ironic symbols.
[Note: this is a link to a second article that I wrote for Granta Online a little more recently, about the depiction of aliens on book covers. It was written with a literary readership in mind, but I hope its suggestions about sci-fi are also useful to screenwriters.]
The end of Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel Watchmen has its megalomanic superhero, Ozymandias, attempting to end escalating hostilities between Earth’s superpowers by teleporting the carcass of a genetically-engineered organism into the middle of New York. Ozymandias’s crazed hope is that the materialization of a beast the size of several city blocks and the resulting ‘psionic wave’ that kills millions of people will convince humanity that it is suffering a botched extraterrestrial attack. The idea is that we humans can be encouraged to transcend our localized, earth-bound differences if we are presented with a sufficiently tangible threat from ‘out there’ in the cosmos against which we can unite…
In order to continue reading this article, please click here.
[Note: in the spirit of getting things started, I'm going to re-post a brief article I wrote for Granta Online a little under a couple of years ago. You can read the article in its original location here.]
‘Film is a visual medium’. So goes the screenwriter’s favourite truism. And hence the most sublime joy of reading screenplays: the language of scene action. I’m not denying the pleasures of the cinematic experience for one moment. But the literary pleasures to be had from reading well-written scene action can be extremely powerful – and yet are largely overlooked.
As with prose fiction, approaches to scene action fall into different ‘schools’. There are the ‘Purists’, worshipping at the altar of clear sentences and precisely chosen images. ‘Show, don’t tell,’ they chant to themselves as they tap away in Final Draft. As the script ‘guru’ Billy Mernit put it last year  in his blog, the conventional approach to scene action pushes the writer not to ‘over-explain’ or ‘pre-direct’ the story events he or she is trying to depict:
Be clear, be precise… your prose should be as spare and smart as a Raymond Carver story.
This advice has a lot to recommend it. But Mernit acknowledged that some successful screenwriters also break this cardinal rule, citing the scripts for Oscar-winners Milk and Slumdog Millionaire – and this is where variations on the Purists’ method can produce exciting literary experiences. For instance, there are the screenplay equivalents of the Beats, proponents of an anarchic brand of stream-of-consciousness that releases the story on to the page one manic fragment at a time. From the first draft of Bad Lieutenant by Abel Ferrara and Zoe Lund:
LT leaps up. He’s on a manic roll. Conceives an insanely captivating, impossible idea. As he speaks, he speeds more and more until he seems to be reciting a rapid-fire tongue twister perfect.
The broken grammar and gathering momentum of the language is ideal for portraying a scene where our anti-hero, the Lieutenant of the title, is blitzed on an intravenous cocktail of heroin and cocaine with the bad guys steadily closing in around him. Conversely, in the opening pages of The Big Lebowski (Ethan and Joel Cohen), we find a completely different kind of rhythm to enjoy:
It is late, the supermarket all but deserted. We are tracking in on a fortyish man in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses at the dairy case. He is the Dude. His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep.
This kind of effortless precision is thrilling to read. What could be more suited to conveying the meticulously idle drift of El Duderino than the rolling Rs of ‘rumpled’, ‘relaxed’ and ‘runs’? The grammatically pedantic but rhythmically gentle ‘in whom casualness runs deep’ serves the same purpose.
Talking of The Big Lebowski, the wider world of screenwriting contains its own Nihilists. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script for Seven unsurprisingly presents a grisly catalogue of dystopian images. Even the rare flashes of beauty in the script are quickly tainted with corruption and death.
INT. SOMERSET’S APARTMENT – MORNING
Somerset picks items off a moving box: his keys, wallet, switchblade, gold homicide badge. Finally, he opens the hardcover book he had with him on the train. From the pages, he takes the pale, paper rose.
INT. TENEMENT APARTMENT – DAY
Somerset stands before a wall which is stained by a star-burst of blood. A body lies on the floor under a sheet. A sawed-off shotgun lies not far from the body.
Later in the script, we are given such percussive treats as:
Crack vials and hypodermic needles on the stairs crunch under the cops’ heavy boots.
A variation on the Nihilist approach might be the Minimalist approach. Consider this moment from the opening page of Alien by Dan O’Bannon:
SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:
INT. ENGINE ROOM
INT. ENGINE CUBICLE
Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
INT. OILY CORRIDOR – “C” LEVEL
No other movement.
In a conventional ‘earthbound’ storyline, the scene heading – e.g. INT. ENGINE CUBICLE – would need to include an indication of the time of day. Not so in this piece. We’re in deep space, the disorientation of an endless night, our sensory palette reduced to a hollow, haunting hum.
Luckily for readers with more Romantic tastes, it’s not all doom and gloom. Consider the poise of the opening lines of Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient and ask whether they would seem out of place at the start of a literary novel:
SILENCE. THE DESERT seen from the air. An ocean of dunes for mile after mile. The late sun turns the sand every color from crimson to black.
Even the Postmodernists get a look in. Perhaps my favourite screenplay is Shane Black’s notorious script for Lethal Weapon; notorious because it earned him $250,000, an extremely large sum at the time for an unknown writer; notorious because no one writes quite like Mr. Black.
EXT. POSH BEVERLY HILLS HOME – TWILIGHT
The kind of house that I’ll buy if this movie is a huge hit. Chrome. Glass. Carved wood. Plus an outdoor solarium: a glass structure, like a greenhouse only there’s a big swimming pool inside. This is a really great place to have sex.
Lethal Weapon. A metafictional masterpiece. Who knew? The postmodern flourishes proliferate throughout the script:
The General laughs. Rianne shrieks. Harrowing. Terrible. A scene out of Hell. And then the Devil comes in and kicks the door off its hinges. Okay. Okay. Let’s stop for a moment. First off, to describe fully the mayhem which Riggs now creates would not do it justice. Here, however, are a few pointers: He is not flashy. He is not Chuck Norris. Rather, he is like a sledge-hammer hitting an egg. He does not knock people down. He does not injure them.
He simply kills them. The whole room. Everyone standing.
‘Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture,’ observes Sunset Blvd. protagonist, struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis – ‘they think the actors make it up as they go along.’ Sixty or so years later, it’s probably even easier to find oneself entranced by the latest impeccably produced offering and forget that a writer had to sit down at a desk hour after repetitive hour and write the damn thing one word at a time.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the screenwriter’s art is an unseen one. ‘The challenge of screenwriting,’ Raymond Chandler proposed, ‘is to say much in little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement.’ The next time you’re sitting in that cinema seat, letting the enchanting ‘effect of leisure and natural movement’ wash over you twenty-four times per second, you might want to remember Joe Gillis and his unread poetry.