Writing a Screenplay?

Matthew McNulty and Maxine Peak in Room at the Top

I am now on draft 4 of my screenplay.  It is slowly coming to life and I feel a bit sweaty and embarrassed when I think of how rough it was before, with lots of vague instructions and long-winded dialogue.  Now I understand why the advice is given – if you are thinking of writing a screenplay, don’t! – because it is the hardest sort of writing I have ever tackled in my life. 

This is partly because you have to leave out everything except the most essential elements, you have to hint rather than show or tell, your characters must never say exactly what they mean – it’s all got to be done visually.   It is as hard, I think, as writing poetry or composing a magic spell because every single image, action and word has to right and to be working towards the emotional impact of the whole.  There is no room for bagginess or divagations, as there can be in a novel.  That said, it is a fascinating and surprising process: only now do I feel I am getting to the nitty-gritty, to a sense of what the film is really about.  As William Nicholson (who has a great website offering advice) said:

“All good writing comes out of some hidden well within us, and somehow you have to get to it through all the layers of self-delusion and self protection.”

I have found this to be true. You can’t get away with stereotype, wooliness, idealism, even a scrap.  It is an unforgiving medium.  And yet there is so much claptrap peddled as screenwriting tuition, most of it based on a Hollywood idea of what a film should be, three acts, seven beats or 32 beats (can’t remember) etc etc.  The trouble is, some of these ideas are helpful, but, if you followed them slavishly you would produce a formulaic script.  Have you seen Inception or Source Code?  Then you know what I mean!  Also you will fork out a load of cash to sit on your bottom listening to a Screen Guru for three days. 

But you need help, help, help!  You need feedback.  The most helpful are: friends in the film business (who have read many bad scripts); friends who have written or are struggling with a screenplay (who will be brutally honest because they too have suffered); sharp-cooky friends who won’t flatter you and will tell you the truth.  Thanks to Val, Richard, Debs, Tim, Anita, Nicky.  In fact the most helpful feedback is rarely flattering, I have found, but it resonates with your own sense of what needs doing. 

I have watched many films in the last eighteen months and come to the conclusion that the best ones really do add to your sense of what it is to be human.  For example: I saw James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer and BBC 4’s Room at the Top within two days.  The former was classy, gloomy, cool and very watchable – but it didn’t haunt me.  The latter was … shattering –and I was remembering of the look on Alice’s (Maxine Peake’s)  face when Joe (Matthew McNulty) told he was marrying Susan for days afterwards.   And the final scene, when he unwraps the dressing gown…  you see a man losing his chance of a life of integrity without a word spoken.

This is why I love cinema, and think it is the most vital, and spiritually meaningful art-form of our times. ThinkAvatar, Hunger Games, Red Road, Nostalgia for the Light, Tree of Life… 

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