We’re only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!
— Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), Barton Fink (1991)
Remember — all drama is conflict. See whether your character’s dramatic need drives the action forward; Film is behavior; either the character drives the action, or the action drives the character. Check it out!
“Screenplays are structure and they’re story,” declares William Goldman. “And that’s all they are.” In reducing his work to such bare bones (as he has done before), the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride isn’t so much omitting the job’s complications as he is reframing them. So, though he goes on to say that screenwriting does not feature “the quality of writing which is crucial in almost every other form of literature,” other qualities are crucial, not to mention hard-learned and underappreciated.
One of 46 screenwriters who appear in Tales From the Script, Goldman makes an appealing talking head. They sit in offices adorned with posters and awards, seemingly typecast by their sweaters and scruffy faces (at least in the cases of the white males who do most of the talking here). They remember their careers, tribulations, and occasional pleasant surprises. And they provide a mostly general, sometimes acute, sense of how movies get made, with particular attention to how the industry has changed, not so recently.
It’s not a little ironic that Peter Hanson’s film offers such conventional story and structure. But if the format is typical and the plights familiar, the speakers are often entertaining and sometimes enlightening. Many of their stories have to do with nameless executives (“Always wear flats” when you’re pitching, advises 48 Hours and Judge Dredd writer Steven de Souza, “You never want to be taller than the producers and you are already”) or fundamental, well-known lessons (“Writers have so little participation in the work they create,” observes Bruce Joel Rubin, who won prizes for writing Ghost).
Other subjects focus on the capacity for writers to endure ignorance and diurnal abuses. Frank Darabont (best known for his Stephen King adaptations, say, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), notes “the potential for that crap never goes away.” And Adam Rifkin announces, “If you’re a purist and you don’t want your words touched, you should either be a playwright or an author, because if you’re gonna be a screenplay writer and expect that your words are gonna be treated like gold, that’s just not reality.”
The reality is that screenwriters are cogs in a giant machine, one that has grown prohibitively expensive and increasingly premised on a “focus group” approach, catering to low common denominators and fearful of making costly mistakes (“Everything is so fucking expensive,” laments Goldman). “It’s a moving train and it’s not gonna stop for the writer,” says Michael Wolk (Innocent Blood). Allison Anders describes meeting with “people who told us to do two things in a script that were diametrically opposed.” It seems such existential chaos is now built into the production process: Larry Cohen reports that you’re regularly meeting with eight people at a time, all with pieces of ideas they want included. “If it hasn’t been in some other movie, if it’s not familiar to them, then it’s gotta be wrong,” he says.
This leads to restrictions on “creativity,” of course. Naomi Foner (Running on Empty) says that an Ordinary People could never be made now, except maybe as a “Lifetime TV movie.” In fact, many interviewees look back on the good old days (repeatedly citing ’70s films like Network, Chinatown or The Godfather, according to de Souza, “the greatest movie ever”) and lament the current process. Within this system, a finished product usually looks very little like an original concept (that’s not to say that Charles Lederer or Julius Epstein didn’t go through similar ordeals working for studios in the 1930s or 1940s; but now, after the ’70s, today’s emphasis on box office seems excessively crude).
Dishy and very funny, Guinevere Turner says that her script for the notoriously terrible Bloodrayne became a movie by Uwe Boll that included “twenty percent of what I wrote.” She recalls one explanation for the changes (“Uwe doesn’t really speak English”), and now imagines the movie will eventually “ripen,” attaining something like the level of Showgirls‘ badness, that is, “campy.”
While most writers remember being kept off sets and learning to let their “babies” go, others recall fondly (or not so fondly) long and laborious processes. Antwone Fisher says he must have worked through some 100 drafts of his screenplay with producer Todd Black and director Denzel Washington. And Josh Friedman (who wrote War of the Worlds) smiles, “Steven’s like your kindly, funny Jewish uncle,” noting that something isn’t quite right and sending you off to fix it, without much specific direction and all kinds of faith. As Zak Penn sees it, “They’re not hiring you because they want to tell you what to do.” The ambiguous and all-powerful “they” want you to come up with a wondrous and profitable big prize. “You have to fight through that natural inclination to go with the flow,” Penn insists. “The flow will push you right out the door.”
All this is not to say that it’s impossible to make movies outside the franchise system, wherein comic book heroes and prefab plots rule the day. It’s just hard. Darabont remembers trying that while he was seeking funding for The Mist, he was advised by one potential $30 million backer to change the ending (a famously surprising and effective ending, by the way). He nobly declined the financing and made the film another way.
Tales from the Script doesn’t judge Darabont or those who do franchise writing. Neither does it offer particular pointers for survival or startling insights. Its structure and story are foregone.