"The primary thing in a screenplay is to make the reading experience as identical to seeing the movie as possible... I want the prose to match the tone of the movie. I want it to smell as much like the movie as it possibly can."
-- Tony Gilroy
What's one thing the 2007 Oscar-nominated screenplays have in common? I'll follow Tony Gilroy's lead and say it's this: they smell like the movies they are, or to put it in less colorfully metaphorical terms, they read like movies. Their writers have put the movie in their minds on the screenplay page -- so specifically that any director worth his lens-knowledge could tell what the movie was supposed to look, sound and feel like.
Interviewed in the Newmarket Shooting Script edition of the Michael Clayton screenplay, Gilroy goes into depth on the painstaking, often obsessive amount of work he puts into all of his projects and did on Clayton in particular. What he divulges here should put to rest any lingering misunderstandings as to what kind of fierce intelligence must be brought to bear on a successful (i.e. one that's substantive as well as commercially viable) script. And his work is an embodiment of Robert Towne's famous dictum, "When I write a screenplay I'm describing a movie that's already been shot."
Cinematic storytelling -- the term that's come to define this particular approach to screenwriting -- involves a kind of three-step process (though these steps are often enacted simultaneously): 1) you conceive your story in filmic terms, 2) you see the movie in your head, and 3) you write the story in a language that vividly communicates that movie's sounds and images.
The common criticism made of this methodology is that film is a director's medium (i.e. leave all that complicated filmmaking stuff to the big boys) and that using technical terms (e.g. camera angles, etc.) in a script destroys the read. I say hogwash to the first (tell that to the hordes, from directors to caterers, put out of work by the WGA strike) and oh, ye of little brains! to the second.
The ten Oscar-nominated screenplays are all "pre-directed." They're crammed full of specific visual/aural choices that timid Little Brains would deem "directors only!" -- and most of them achieve their aims without ever resorting to camera language (the Coen's No Country lays out the writer/directors' shot list, as is their wont, but this and P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood prove the exceptions amidst the current crop of Oscar-nom'ed screenplays).
No, as Gilroy makes clear, you can make the reading experience as identical to seeing the movie as possible, sans any distracting technical talk, if you're an imaginative writer who has an understanding of how movies are made. (And if you're not, why don't you try blueprinting a house without learning anything about construction and architecture, while you're at it?)
FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE - LATE AFTERNOON
A light rain falls on a small farmhouse. The last remaining dead leaves tremble in the gusts. The quiet is shattered by a LOUD GUNSHOT that lights up the inside of the cottage.
Simple but effective: you smell the autumn in the air, and get the full effect of that gunshot because of the deft lighting detail. Here's a moment from No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen). It's the first glimpse we have of Chigurh, the psycho killer played by Javier Bardem, after a nighttime shot featuring "the flashing light bars of a police car stopped on the shoulder":
The deputy, with a hand on top of the prisoner's head to help him clear the door frame, eases the prisoner into the backseat. All we see of the prisoner is his dark hair disappearing into the car.
Clear, precise... and ever-so-faintly ominous. You can't imagine seeing anything but just this much of the villain on screen. And the rest of the sequence that follows (Chigurh escapes and murders the deputy) is similarly laid out, giving us little glimpses of the man, never coming in close on his face until he's in the (perversely ecstatic) moment of cutting the deputy's throat.
Juno's bedroom is decorated with punk posters: The Damned, the Germs, the Stooges, Television, Richard Hell, etc. She picks up a hamburger-shaped phone to call her best friend, LEAH.
Apparently director Jason Reitman didn't mind the screenwriter specificizing his props for him (we all remember that phone). By contrast, Cody nails Leah's bedroom with one bold stroke:
Leah's room is cluttered with the sentimental junk that certain girls love to hoard.
The SOUND of a typewriter, irregularly struck, now fluent, now creating an urgent rhythm that forms the percussive element of the opening score.
The writer creates identification with a protagonist by giving you her point of view in Tamara Jenkins' Savages:
Wendy glances over the top of her cubicle and sees the disembodied head of MATT, her manager, fast approaching. With a quick click of her mouse, she brings a spreadsheet up on the computer, then covers her folder with an accounting file.
Jenkins delivers the painfully poignant experience of "what it's like to be Wendy" via one artfully conceived visual moment (expletive-averse readers, please skip this). We're in an overhead closeup of:
Wendy with Larry on top, moving rhythmically. She tries to get lost in the sex but can't. She opens her eyes and looks at the ceiling. After a few moments, she turns her head and finds herself staring into the sad eyes of [
herLarry's dog] Marley. She reaches for a paw. Wendy and Marley stay like that gazing into each other's eyes while Larry fucks her.
Like a flickering eyelid a picture begins to take shape: a small, bare hospital room, the faces of NURSERS either side ot the bed looking down expectantly, directly into CAMERA.
THE CAMERA IS JEAN-DOMINIQUE BAUBY, KNOWN AS JEAN-DO.
I think you'll agree that in this particular case, mention of the camera is absolutely necessary. You feel camera, rather than read of it, throughout the whole of Michael Clayton, which prob'ly won't win the Oscar (the Academy's more likely to go with Juno's flashy dialogue), but for my money was the most exciting screenplay of 2007, for structural risk, for its honed-diamond dialogue and story logic, for the tension you feel right from its opening:
It's 2:00 a.m. in a major New York law firm. Ten floors of office space in the heart of the Sixth Avenue Canyon. Seven hours from now this place will be vibrating with the beehive energy of six hundred attorneys and their attendant staff, but for the moment it is a vast, empty, half-lit shell. A SERIES OF SHOTS emphasizing the size and power of this organization; shots that build quietly to the idea that somewhere here -- somewhere in this building -- there's something very important going on.
Would you read more? I think so. William Goldman gives this opening an amused, appreciative nod in his intro (come to think of it, the shrewd tone of Gilroy here is very vintage Goldman), and the whole of it is like a textbook for making a movie snap, crackle and pop. And speaking of which:
I'll be using pages (and matching clips) from Clayton in the Cinematic Storytelling class I'm about to teach as a four-day intensive workshop at the UCLA Extension Writers' Studio, February 7th through 10th. Details are in the sidebar, but give Leigh-Michil a call at 310-206-2612 if you're interested in attending. Even if you come into my classroom feeling cinematically clueless, you'll leave it with the tools you need to realize your mind's movie on the page.