Thursday, March 17, 2011
Screenwriter, don’t be a sourpuss party-pooper.
Right after the Oscars, cyberspace was buzzing with tweets from screenwriters ragging on Natalie Portman for not thanking the writer during her speech. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: screenwriters need to get over themselves. No one cares about a screenwriter’s feelings and their precious words but screenwriters. Sometimes. I’ve never heard of an editor bitching and complaining about not being thanked in an acceptance speech. And you know what? Editors are the ones that should be thanked by actors. The magic happens in the editing room.
When you decide to hand over your screenplay to the people that will make it a movie, you must know that you are giving up all rights to your creation. Isn’t that what you want? For those 120 pieces of paper to become a movie? You cannot know what kind of movie your script will become and you have no say in it. For you the writer, that’s the end of the road unless get called in for rewrites.
I can say this without any concern for what other screenwriters might think of me because I’ve been there. I used to be attached to my precious words and sentences. When it comes to screenwriting, this attitude is quite delusional, idiotic and amateurish. (Hate me if you must, but it’s the truth you will learn soon enough.) If you understand and are familiar with every aspect of filmmaking, you know that a script is just words on paper. A film is a combination of lot of things. A lot of things. A director’s greatest fear is that one misstep or bad decision can ruin her movie. You don’t know what fear is until you’ve directed a movie. More specifically, until you’ve been through the casting process. The most traumatic thing to a writer/director is making the journey from her imagination to committing to an actor. You are constantly asking yourself “Can this person be that character and can I trust them to make this film the best it can be?”
With the exception of Shadows, John Cassavetes’ films were heavily scripted. However, he often started filming without having a complete script; sometimes even with just a few pages. He’d work out the story during rehearsals and filming and he would stay up all night writing the next day’s scenes. Like Mike Leigh and a handful of other directors that work in a similar way, Cassavetes understood what is required to get at the truth and make the best film possible.
I’ve been attending the John Cassavetes retrospective this month at Cinefamily and earlier this week I saw Minnie & Moskowitz. I had seen it once before years ago and it wasn’t the film I remembered. I can honestly say that I didn’t get it then but I sure did this time. It is in Cassavete's films that you can see clearly how all the work and dedication to the final product pays off; from story inception, to allowing actors freedom, to getting the best out of every performance in the editing room. What follows illustrates this beautifully.
One particular sequence that shook me to the core is at the beginning of the film when we first meet Minnie (Gena Rowlands). The sequence is below and it runs to about 5:50.
I’m in awe of this sequence. It’s as if Minnie is speaking to me and through me, especially when she says “you know, quotes feminine.” I wondered how Cassavetes knew something only a woman could know. My admiration for him grew even more. The next day I consulted the shooting script, particularly the first 30 pages. It was fascinating to see exactly what made it to the screen and what was added during the performance and changed during the editing. I’ve posted two pages from that sequence below. As you can see, Cassavetes didn’t write that line, Gena added it during shooting. I knew it. A man would never know what that was about, let alone think it.
If you compare the sequence with the pages, you’ll see that quite a bit was improvised, especially on Florence’s part. (Florence, a non-actor, was Seymour Cassel’s mother-in-law by the way.) You will also note how the scene ends abruptly, almost cutting off Minnie’s line. That’s pure Cassavetes. (There are quite a few pages in the script that were shot that didn’t make it into the final cut.) He hated structure, rules and all that bullshit.
Can you imagine a screenwriter bitching and complaining about that scene, that the actors went off script and were not faithful to his carefully calculated words? Such a writer is not completely committed to making the film the best it can be. Filmmaking at its best happens when a daring group of people have the freedom and passion to create. So yea, screenwriter, don’t be a sourpuss party-pooper.
So you see, this whole business of giving credit, taking credit, awards, thanks and acceptance speeches is pure idiocy. The way we thank each other is by looking at the finished product and knowing we all did the best we could and being proud of it. And by doing it again.
The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to direct, or at least, produce a film of any length. Not only will you learn about the process, but you will discover things about yourself you didn’t know. It will help you get over yourself, I guarantee it. It will free you from those things that do not matter. Precious words on paper are only a small part of the equation.