Thursday, November 02, 2006

Scripting a Lecture on Script Analysis

Be warned. This will probably be a long, rambling, thinking-out-loud kind of blog post. Tomorrow I have to give a 10-minute lecture on the subject of Script Analysis (a class I'll be teaching next fall), and I figured this would be a good place to work out what it is I want to lecture on. The people I'll be lecturing to will not be film people, so in order to keep the subject matter interesting, I'll need to keep it basic. But it is also supposed to represent the kind of lecture I would give in my class. I'm thinking the best approach might be a kind of introductory lecture on the topic that I might give on the first day of class.

So what is script analysis and why is it important?

The art of screenwriting has been ignored by critics and the academy, and even the film industry holds screenwriters in relatively low esteem. No one writes about screenwriting unless they're writing how-to books, and most of those focus on generic structural rules. People rarely read screenplays for fun. Students rarely study them. It is interesting that while stage plays are studied vigorously by students of drama, literature, and creative writing, screenplays are only studied by film students. Even within film education, little attention is given to screenwriting within cinema studies and directing tracks. Only students studying to become screenwriters really take the craft of screenwriting seriously.

Traditional arguments against the importance of screenwriting:
1. Film is primarily a visual medium. Subject matter, narrative structure, and dialogue merely work together to form the skeleton around which the film artist creates a work of visual art.

2. While both stage plays and screenplays are written to be performed, a film's performance is a recorded finality, while the stage play's performance is not recorded. By default, those studying stage plays must fall back on the written document, while those studying a film do not need to go back to the screenplay because the film itself is permanent and unchanging.

3. Along these same lines, a stage play is often reinterpreted again and again, while a screenplay is shot only once. Even if a film is remade, a new script is usually written. Again, this lends more importance to the stage play than the screenplay.

4. The stage director is more limited than the director of film, thus maintaining a balance in the level of meaning created by the document and the performance. The film director has many more tools at his disposal than the stage director, and therefore the film is more important than the document.

5. Auteur theory states that the director is the author of a film, hence the "film by" credit accorded to the director. Likewise, it states that a director who is truly an auteur will demonstrate a consistent style and theme throughout his entire body of work. If the director is the author and if an individual film is best understood within the context of his entire body of work, then the screenplay is less important (particularly if the director did not write the screenplay).

6. Unlike most other literary arts, the screenplay often has more than one author and can often be revised without consideration for the author's intent or permission.

7. The screenplay is technical, difficult to read, an incomplete picture, and more a business property than a work of art.

Responses to these arguments:

1. Historically, critically, and theoretically, this is undeniably true. However, it seems an unnecessarily snobbish position to take, as it pretty much ignores the way the popular audience engages the film. While the most educated film audiences will often comment on the beauty of a film's cinematography or the inventiveness of its editing, the vast majority of filmgoers recommend a film not on these qualities but on the strength of its story. In fact, a visually masterful film with a weak story will typically lose audiences much more quickly than visually amateurish film with an excellent story. Audiences are addicted to narrative, and narrative begins not with the finished film but with the screenplay.

2-3. The finality of film is perhaps its most obvious myth. Film educators are fond of the proverb, "a film is made three times: in the writing, in the directing, and in the editing," but in fact, this is a gross oversimplification. A film is made hundreds of times. Each scene of script is shot dozens of times, from different angles, with vast differences in performance and staging. These raw materials could form an infinite number of different films, and indeed, the editor and director work together to create several different version before a final version is chosen. But in today's world, even the final cut isn't final. Black and white films are colorized; films made with conventional special effects are remastered with digital effects; films are re-edited and released as special editions and director's cuts; DVDs are released with deleted scenes and alternate takes that offer viewers the option of creating a new version of the film, if only in their mind; 2D films are rereleased in 3D; films are recut for television; Godfather 1 & 2 were combined and recut in chronological order and released as a miniseries; the Memento DVD had an Easter Egg that allowed the viewer an opportunity to watch the film in chronological order; a group of teens actually reshot Raiders of the Lost Ark in its entirety. All of these examples call into question the idea that an authoritative version of a motion picture can be determined. And if this is the case, it would make sense that a careful study of a film's shooting script should be extremely relevant to any academic or critical exploration of a given film.

4-5. These are two of the most compelling arguments against the importance of the screenplay. It is true that compared to stage interpretation, screen interpretation offers much more freedom to add to the text. The film director has almost unlimited resources with which to express his idea of the film. Likewise, it is impossible to deny that a film usually represents the overall vision of the director. However, auteur theory may overstate its case. In fact, in a well-written screenplay, many of the director's choices have been made for him. The script will act as the primary source for location scouts, production designers, and actors as they attempt to bring to life the story found within the screenplay's pages. The director's own notes take the secondary position of comment and clarification to the screenplay. While in special cases, an actor may agree to do a film because of the director involved (if it's Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg), more often they choose a script. They see in its description of character something they connect to emotionally. As Gregory Peck once said, "the script is 90% of the movie. [. . .] When I go to work, I have to cope with a script. If I get some help or inspiration from the director, God bless him, but I don't depend on it." It is also not obvious that the director is the author of a film. Auteur theory seems obvious when one looks at the films of Scorsese and Spielberg, but what about the films made from the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman? George Clooney, Spike Jonze, and Michele Gondry are three of our best contemporary directors. But the films they made with Charlie Kaufman bear his unmistakable mark (even Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which Kaufman argued strayed too far from his script). Looking at the themes and narrative styles of these films and their screenplays, Kaufman's work passes all the tests of auteur theory, except that he didn't direct them. Certainly, he is at least equally responsible for the films that resulted from these partnerships.

6. This argument attacks screenwriting while casually turning a blind eye to the nature of film production. Dozens of people make creative decisions in the making of a motion picture, yet we are generally comfortable with considering film an art and giving the director most of the credit. Likewise, films are often released that contain decisions made not by the director but by the producers or the studio (hence the later release of the director's cut). Other forms of pop art frequently involve multiple authors, from comic books to Broadway to the songs of Lennon/McCartney. These artforms are valued and studied. And besides, not all screenplays are written by multiple authors, especially in these halcyon days of the writer/director.

7. The difficulty of reading screenplays is overstated. While a cursory introduction to form will aid an unfamiliar reader, most screenplays can be read in under two hours. Likewise, most screenplays avoid unnecessary technical descriptions (camera angles, etc.) in favor of a cleaner prose style. Screenplays are more concise and direct than novels, more descriptive and informative than plays, and their dialogue portions often have a lyrical quality akin to poetry. And while no one would deny that screenplays are commercial properties, so are motion pictures -- and for that matter, so are novels, albums, etc.

So what is script analysis and why is it important?

If anyone is truly interested in the vigorous study of narrative motion pictures, how can he ignore one of its most foundational elements? The script is the cornerstone of every narrative film, and if we are serious about understanding a director's choices or an actor's choices, it stands to reason we should first distinguish these from the choices made by the writer. It stands to reason we should give credit where credit is due.

Likewise, budding actors and directors would do well to learn how to read and analyze a screenplay well. If they really want to understand the story and the characters, they should learn to devour the screenplay and make it a part of themselves. Only then can they hope to contribute their own constructive meaning. If a director or actor engages a screenplay without understanding it, their work will be counterproductive, contrary, and confusing. Two singers can't sing in harmony if they don't listen to one another, and film artists can't create in harmony if they aren't on the same page -- and that page can be found in the script. Understanding how a screenplay works is the first step productive artistry in narrative cinema. Everything else is the icing on the cake.

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