Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Dilemma

Turnagain Arm sunset

I had some Q&A's compiled from a couple of Alaska based filmmakers and artists, but decided to open this new blog with a personal dilemma on screenwriting as a form of story-telling.

Like many of you I'm sure, I made multitudes of Super-8 shorts growing up. One a week to be exact.

I'd take my savings to the local drug-store on a Friday afternoon or early Saturday morning, purchase one fifty-foot roll of Kodachrome or Ektachrome film, and with whatever friends I could round up, we'd shoot an approximately three-minute story edited in camera.

Our writing was usually the discussions we'd have before we clicked the shutter on the first shot.

As I grew older and more interested in trying to develop my craft I began putting pen to paper and writing out a story before we began shooting.

But I wasn't thinking about the 'rules' of story-telling via screenwriting at that time. I was just writing what interested me. In fact my first (and so far only) indie-feature was written in this vein.

Then one day I decided I wanted to sell my works to the motion-picture industry. So I diligently began to attend courses and expos. Read books, articles, other screenplays. Dissected films...

And the rules began to take shape for me.

As did my dilemma.

The Rules & The Dilemma

If you have seven extra minutes please begin with this David Mamet interview. [link currently down, but you can get the gist of it by reading on...]

In regards to Mamet's comment -- 'Drama is about three things: Who wants what, What happens if they don't get it, Why now' -- they echo fairly consistently with every other screen-writing course, article, website etc, but I always wonder where some other elements fall.

For example: The Thin Red Line adapted and directed by Terrence Malick.

I love this movie, but would have to think hard to find those three questions answered on anything but an esoteric level. Still, this remains one of my all-time favorites because:

1) I enjoy films that help me feel not so alone in the world.
2) There is a sense of uplifting, and hope for humanity in the story-telling.
3) There is a sense of wonder and mystery.

When I started out writing this was how I wrote. I actually had a clear goal of 'touching our humanity' 'inspiring hope', and the story would just progress naturally. I even made an indie feature with a story like this.

But then I started taking courses, attending writing expos, reading screenwriting articles, and with my last 5 scripts the process always began with some version of the three points Mamet made -- Because I think that is how I am supposed to write if I want to sell a screenplay.

My question is:

Does only the filmmaker/director really have the opportunity to tell a story in a less-traditional way, because he/she has the benefit of images, music, performances to keep us riveted to the screen with or without the 'who wants what and what happens if he doesn't get it'?

Is the screenwriter who only wants to sell his work (versus a writer-director) condemned to mimicking this long existing model?


The gate-keepers to the Hollywood script-buying industry.

As a newcomer or amateur, if you present readers with anything less than an industry standard formatted script that follows the basic rules of story-telling as mentioned above, your screenplay will more than likely never be passed up the chain.

If you, so inspired, create as a screenplay a template of imagery, which when you envision coupled with the proper soundtrack is designed to elicit empathetic emotions from an audience, your script will more than likely never be passed up the chain.

But You Are So Inspired

This doesn't mean not to write what and how you want to write. But it doesn't hurt to learn the rules of a long-established industry before you break or question them.

And there is always the option of figuring out how to produce your own work. I think the dual-hatted writer-filmmakers are more often successful with creating unique works... Even if they don't bring in as much at the box-office.

Which brings us back to the original dilemma.


Michael Jay said...

On Super 8 short a week? I never got together enough dough to turn them out like that, but I would have. I made about five a year. But then half of them were animated and that takes a lot of prep before shooting.

Matt Shields said...

Yeah, I made quite a few of them. I think the price was about $3 a roll and we'd make films that were exactly one roll long.