Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation brought to the general public’s attention the angst-ridden, ego-busting process that is called screenwriting. To many, it may seem like a glamourous job, cavorting on film sets and all, but it’s a lucky writer who gets invited to the set – or whose artistic spawn actually makes it out of development hell. Screenwriting is hard work. Yes, it may start off with a spark, a flash of inspiration, but making a script work properly is more akin to architecture – making sure the foundations are solid – than to stringing beautiful words like a pearl necklace.
In Adaptation, the struggling writer grudgingly succumbs to the lure of a workshop by ‘guru’ Robert McKee, only to have his script, and consequently the film, derail into an implausible action flick with a bit of sex thrown in. Now, I am no big fan of Kaufman, who with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
has proven to have the attention span of a six year old commercials director on dope (everything has to be colorful, topsy turvy and too clever for its own good). But you’ve got to credit him for bringing the anxieties of the screenwriter to the attention of the public at large.
During her career as a screenwriting lecturer at the London International Film School until 1999, Pat Silver-Lasky must have dealt with quite a few budding Kaufmans in her day. Her recent book Screenwriting for the 21st Century is down-to-earth and no-nonsense. ‘It won’t help for a screenwriter to think of him/herself as sitting in a candlelit garret writing immortal prose’, she warns in Chapter 1. God forbid.
Originally a Hollywood actress, she paired up with Jesse Lasky Jr, son of the mogul who founded Paramount, with whom she wrote scripts and novels. She keeps milking this connection over and over again, with Lasky family pics and numerous Lasky quotes, both by Sr. and Jr. What it shows is that even though she has lived in the UK for over a few decades, she still sees the film industry as most Americans do: as a business.
Pity the poor European student who has paid the school’s considerable fees to create art. Pat admonishes her reader that European films have twice as many lines of dialogue (1,000) as American films (500). Maybe someone should count the dialogue in Slacker, Clerks or any Hal Hartley film. But then again, Pat doesn’t seem to go for indie. She calls Beautiful Mind a ‘deeply probing film’. Apart from Ingmar Bergman, European cinema does not seem to exist.
Silver-Lasky writes from the box office perspective – the bottom line that every writer should keep in mind. ‘Whenever you can, stick a kid in your story. Children are great for the B.O. (box office) and are always a good way of interesting producers in your project.’ What happened to the old maxim of never putting animals or children into movies? Oh yes, that’s the director’s problem, not the writer’s. On writing stage directions: ‘Only tell the reader what is necessary to know. Most producers hate reading scripts anyway, so try to keep him awake!’
There is a very strange section in the book where she lashes out at Ken Loach – who has made art out of filmmaking. ‘[His] films all tend to be set ‘up North’ with downbeat endings,’ she writes, as if describing something unpleasant found in a garbage can. Referring to one of his recent films, Sweet 16,
Silver-Lasky castigates Loach and the film’s writer Paul Laverty for having kept the strong accent of the lead actor intact, plus a generous amount of swear words. This – gasp, horror – necessitated subtitles even for English-speaking audiences and a higher censorship rating. Which in turn meant less money at the box office. Silver-Lasky even writes how she cornered Loach in person about the low box office appeal. ‘You have to be true to the way people are’, he replied. That’s Loach’s mission as a filmmaker, not counting box office receipts. By the way, it’s the only time in the book she mentions the source of a quote. Many other quotes go uncredited, so it’s not clear whether she has talked to the person herself or whether she is borrowing from other sources.
She briefly skirts the subject of art films, which she calls ‘minimalism’ because they are ‘static portraitures with no acts. … There may be a through line of events with little or no pressures on the protagonist.’ With the same sour-puss puckered lips that were unleashed on Loach, she states that ‘the French are not averse to this structure’, although she includes Orlando and Memento in the same category.
Even though the book doesn’t teach you how to write the next European arthouse hit, it does make it clear that writing – any writing – takes healthy doses of realism and discipline. The structure of the book is a little unclear – Silver-Lasky hops from one aspect of screenwriting to the other – but it does touch upon most elements of the process: from logline to treatment. She dedicates chapters to different formats and genres.
The book consists of several charts, for example one prescribes where to insert ‘key moments of crisis’ in a traditional 90 minute, three-act script. Another charts the Hero’s Journey, based on Greek myths. Another one shows the ration action/dialogue in percentages for several different genres. These are all based on the theories of several ‘gurus’ (Robert McKee, Syd Field, Frank Daniel). None of these people have invented the wheel; we can probably credit the Greek playwrights for that. But they have found interesting ways of teaching people about drama.
Silver-Lasky follows in their footsteps by asking the budding writer those pesky questions: ‘Where is the conflict? What are the protagonist’s goals? What are the opposing forces and values at stake?’ These questions may sound harsh to anyone who has dreamed up his or her masterpiece, but at some point they have to be asked. Even if you are aware of them – and as a veteran of two European screenwriting workshops (The Binger Institute and North by North West) I am – it still pays off to take off the freefloating-ideas-hat and to put on the thinking cap. Writing biographies for your characters may feel like a chore when you’re in the midst of creating cinematic magic, but it does pay off in the end. In fact, I solved a major problem in a script I’m writing on a commission from the Dutch Film Fund, when I read Silver-Lasky’s following statement: ‘The plot doesn’t make the character. The character’s decision must, finally, control the plot.’ It’s easy to have things happen to a character, but it will be much more rewarding for the audience if those things come from the characters themselves.
A part of the book is dedicated to the industry (both film and TV) and how to deal with it, from finding an agent to the digital future – whatever that may be. There is little that’s 21st century about the book, which describes the traditional writing process for film and TV, but in the film business nobody knows anything, so likewise nobody can predict the future and the impact it will have on creative processes. Dealing with reality is a big part of this book. It’s a tough world out there, but someone’s gotta do it. Unless you want to be the next Andrei Tarkovsky or Tsai Ming-liang, this book is helpful for any aspiring writer. Whether they want to let the box office. B.S. rule their art is another question – but when it comes to the craft aspect of writing, Silver-Lasky asks all the right ones.