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Richard Kimble

The Writer's Room -- a thread about Screenwriting

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People don't know that somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.

 

What is screenwriting? 

 

"Wanting to be a screenwriter is like wanting to be a co-pilot." -- Marshall Brickman

 

What is a screenwriter's job?

 

EDDIE CANTOR: I don't know if this scene will work. It sounds sort of contrived.

 

ARNOLD AUERBACH: I know. I just sat here and contrived it.

 

For those totally new to the subject I recommend the very readable book Adventures In The Screen Trade, by William Goldman (author of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.

 

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[The Great Waldo Pepper] was basically an original screenplay of mine. I say "basically" because the pulse of the movie came from George Hill, the director, and we worked for ten days on a story. So Waldo wasn't as "original" as Butch, but it was a hell of a lot more mine than any adaptation I've ever done. Okay, we open in New York and three daily papers are split two terrific, one pan. In neither of the laudatory reviews was my name even mentioned. But you better believe I got top billing in the pan. I had screwed up George Hill's movie.

 

Nothing unusual at all about that -- it's SOP for the screenwriter. That is simply the way of the world. You do not, except in rare, rare exceptions, get critical recognition. But you do get paid.

 

 

One final example of protecting the star. Before Steve McQueen broke through in The Great Escape (1963), he scuffled like other actors. One of his earlier efforts, in 1958, was a low- budget horror movie, The Blob, in which the following badly conceived scene occurs. 

 

McQueen and his girl friend are sitting in a car. The Blob is menacing the neighborhood, and strong action is needed. McQueen asks the girl if she wants to go along, because tracking down Blobs can be dangerous. She says yes, and then adds that what they need are some other people to come along and help them. He asks, who? She says, what about your friends? He says, wow, what a good idea. End of scene. 

 

Not much protection there. Forget the fact that when the star goes after the monster, he would much prefer to do it alone. More important is that, in this scene, the secondary part does all the thinking and the star is this lump. One way to improve things would be this -- assuming we need the girl along to be frightened and the friends to be eaten: 

 

SECONDARY PART: I'm afraid to go after the Blob, Steve. 

 

McQUEEN: We don't know where It Is; you're safer with me, 

 

SECONDARY PART: Just the two of us alone? 

 

McQUEEN: Who said alone? (and as he winks--) 

 

CUT TO HIS THREE FRIENDS, ready to follow the star. 

 

Probably a better way still would be to cut the car scene entirely and just open on the friends and the girl, with McQueen saying something like "It's not going to be any picnic, going after the Blob; any of you don't feel up to it, I won't hold it against you." To repeat: sock in the vehicle role, give the star everything you possibly can. And don't worry yourself about it being too much. No matter what, it won't be enough anyway...

 

 

I was approaching what I believe to be the single most important lesson to be teamed about writing for films and this is it:

 

SCREENPLAYS ARE STRUCTURE.

 

As I said earlier, there are two Roman numerals to this book- the first being that nobody knows anything. Well, this is the other, in well-deserved caps:

 

SCREENPLAYS ARE STRUCTURE.

 

Yes, nifty dialog helps one hell of a lot; sure, it's nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have terrific characters spouting just swell talk to each other, and if the structure is unsound, forget it. Writing a screenplay is in many ways similar to executing a piece of carpentry. If you take some wood and nails and glue and make a bookcase, only to find when you're done that it toppies over when you try and stand it upright, you may have created something, but it won't work as a bookcase.

 

The essential opening labor a screenwriter must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing. And to do that, you have to know what is absolutely crucial in the telling of your stor -- what is its spine?

 

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Great idea here, RK !

always felt the writers never get their due & they're the basic 'soul' of any movie.

 

"People don't know that somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along."

 

....so true :)

 

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http://gardenandgun.com/article/william-faulkners-hollywood-odyssey/page/0/2

 

William Faulkner's Hollywood Odyssey

 

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“We heard that he was coming.” That was what the head stenographer at Warner Bros. said, recalling the day the author William Faulkner set foot on the studio lot in 1942. Here was the most famous resident of Oxford, Mississippi (population 5,000), in—of all places—Tinseltown. The tweed and pipe just seemed out of place with the neon and palm trees.  But although Faulkner will forever be identified with his life among the cedars in Oxford—a man “deeply, almost mystically attached to the land,” as Time memorialized him in 1964, complete with a Delta lilt—his years as a screenwriter in Hollywood were not a mere hiccup in his biography.

 

“I am writing a big picture now, for Mr. Howard Hawks, an old friend, a director. It is to be a big one. It will last about 3 hours, and the studio has allowed Mr. Hawks 3 and ½ million dollars to make it, with 3 or 4 directors and about all the big stars. It will probably be named ‘Battle Cry.’”

 

In the spring of 1943, Faulkner posted a letter to Oxford. It was a report addressed to [daughter] Jill and outlined his most ambitious undertaking to date: a unique war picture that would capture the upheaval the world was undergoing, a drama that would give voice and emotion to the Allied forces in World War II, “a defense of liberty all over the world,” as studio notes describe it.

 

I discovered that for Battle Cry, Hawks had assigned Faulkner to merge short stories, a radio drama, and even a musical cantata into one screenplay. The two had come a long way since their first collaboration on Today We Live back in the 1930s. Hawks was now formidable, with such hits as Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and Sergeant York under his belt. Faulkner, too, was on his way up to the pantheon, having published The Unvanquished, The Wild Palms, The Hamlet, and Go Down, Moses and Other Stories since first coming to Hollywood. To work on Battle Cry, Faulkner left with Hawks and went to June Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains to begin writing (and fishing and drinking). Two weeks later, Faulkner had 143 pages of a treatment. By the end of July, he had written an entire script.

As I paged through the script, I saw scenes in Paris, on the beaches of Dunkerque, France, and in Springfield, Illinois (for a sequence paying tribute to Abraham Lincoln). Two characters were called Fonda and Reagan. I’d find out later this reflected the writers’ practice of inserting the names of actors they imagined would best play the parts. Faulkner envisioned Battle Cry as an epic starring Henry Fonda and Ronald Reagan, then a movie star under contract at Warner Bros. (In 1945, Faulkner adapted Stephen Longstreet’s novel Stallion Road into a screenplay. The studio cast Reagan as the star and released the picture in 1947.)

I discovered that Faulkner’s upward trajectory peaked with an offer to work exclusively with Hawks in their own independent filmmaking unit. “He and I had a talk at the fishing camp…. I am to be his writer,” Faulkner wrote to Estelle in 1943. “He says he and I together as a team will always be worth two million dollars at least.” It was an outstanding plan, one that would appeal  to filmmakers even today. Faulkner wrote, “We can count on getting at least two million from any studio with which to make any picture we cook up, we to make the picture with the two million dollars and divide the profits from it. When I come home, I intend to have Hawks completely satisfied with this job, as well as the studio. If I can do that, I won’t have to worry again about going broke temporarily…. This is my chance.”

The dream of a lifetime. One that would have launched Faulkner and Hawks into the Hollywood stratosphere. But it was never to be. Hawks had a reputation for going over budget on his pictures, which meant that the $4 million required to produce Battle Cry ($53.8 million in today’s money) would surely mean more…and more…and more. The studio said no. Faulkner’s romantic dream of filmmaking had come to an end.

 

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http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/hecht_ben_t.html

 

From the transcript of The Mike Wallace Interview with Ben Hecht (February 15, 1958):

 

WALLACE: Oh, Ben, but you’re suggesting that all movies are trash and that’s not so. Take a look at movies like “Marty,” or “On the Waterfront,” or “Hatful of Rain,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Now these are all Hollywood or Hollywood oriented products.

HECHT: I’ve written some that weren’t trash myself. Maybe out of seventy, I’ve written about eight or nine movies that I could tolerate if I were a member of the audience.

WALLACE: Like for instance, which ones?

HECHT: I wrote a movie called “Wuthering Heights,” “The Scoundrel,” “Viva Villa.

 
====
 
HECHT: You see a movie begins like most things with an idea and then it turns out that the inventor of the idea who was usually the writer is a stowaway. He has the privileges of a stowaway. He has no powers to assert himself and about ten or fifteen villains including his own incompetence usually corrupts that he – the reason he thought of – in this particular case, “The Iron Pettycoat,” the corruption came through the recutting of the movie and the movie was written for a lady, Miss Katherine Hepburn, and ended up instead as a role for the hero, Mr. Bob Hope, Miss Hepburn was removed from in by fifty percent. I got irritated and took my name off it – it had nothing to do with the movie I wrote.
 
===
 
WALLACE: We’ve talked about this – this week with another top screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, who admires you very much, by the way. He’s the fellow who wrote “Marty” and “The Bachelor Party” and he said this, he said, “It’ all up to the individual writer.” Chayefsky said, “I’ve never written just for the money in my life, I’d rather hand the money back than write something just because somebody else tells me to.”


HECHT: He sounds like little Goldilocks. (Laughs) He’ll change his mind after he’s been out here a while. He has one success and one success usually gives a fellow feverish ideas about who he is and what he can do and how important he is, but after you’ve had four or five successes and about fifty failures, you change your mind.

 

===

 

WALLACE: Ben, you’re on television tonight, what do you think of television?


HECHT: Well, television excites me because it seems to be the last stamping ground of poetry – the last place where I hear women’s hair rhapsodically described – women’s faces told in odic language – the commercials are for me the most thrilling and exuberant poetry that is left in the United States.

 

WALLACE: Well, you’ll have a chance to hear one in just about a minute, Ben, but you’ve said that it’s a babysitting industry cooing at the crowds, it threatens to turn us all into furniture.


HECHT: It will when it gets matured. When you get your screen eight by ten feet picture on the wall and color and three dimensions, I’m afraid America will lose the use of its legs.

WALLACE: Yet here you are in Hollywood, working on a new television project that’s going to earn you another tidy sum of money.

HECHT: Some people try to make money by going to the moon, a more dangerous and odd enterprise than I’m doing.

 

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I've proof read a lot of screenplays in my day.

For the most part, they have struck me as self-indulgent, the author trying to SAY something rather than show something for the viewer's benefit.

I've also found too much sloppy writing, relying on pop culture & personal references.

 

I once argued with a screenwriter about including the phrase, "as she pops a tic-tac" as something that should be rephrased for other cultures to understand, not to mention product placement issues. No go, the guy was insistent his phrasing was perfect. Needless to say, the story was never picked up.

 

It all goes to show how really great the (often) timeless art was created by old Hollywood masters. We can watch these old chestnuts and marvel at their reach beyond time & cultures.

 

Really, how often do you quote an old movie's dialogue? Contrast that with common modern movie catchphrases- no comparison.

 

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I've proof read a lot of screenplays in my day.

For the most part, they have struck me as self-indulgent, the author trying to SAY something rather than show something for the viewer's benefit.

I've also found too much sloppy writing, relying on pop culture & personal references.

 

I once argued with a screenwriter about including the phrase, "as she pops a tic-tac" as something that should be rephrased for other cultures to understand, not to mention product placement issues. No go, the guy was insistent his phrasing was perfect. Needless to say, the story was never picked up.

 

It all goes to show how really great the (often) timeless art was created by old Hollywood masters. We can watch these old chestnuts and marvel at their reach beyond time & cultures.

 

Really, how often do you quote an old movie's dialogue? Contrast that with common modern movie catchphrases- no comparison.

 

I believe when you say 'For the most part, they have struck me as self-indulgent' you're talking about proof reading initial screenplays, and not screenplays associated with actual released filmed.

 

Similar to viewing all of the footage shot before a film is edited,   I would find it very interesting to read an initially submitted screenplay,  see the drafts and revisions made as one gets to the 'final' screenplay (I say 'final' because of course changes are often made while shooting the picture), and of course the actual film.

 

The above is a hidden process of movie making and like editing, I know little about (as it relates to how one gets from A to Z).

 

E.g.  for the Oscar for best editing what do the voters based their opinion on?  Just viewing the final film?   I would think one would have to see at some of the overall footage to determine how well a film was edited. 

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E.g.  for the Oscar for best editing what do the voters based their opinion on?  Just viewing the final film?   I would think one would have to see at some of the overall footage to determine how well a film was edited. 

 

While I'm no judge, it does seem good editing would be apparent viewing the final product. I recall watching some movie and right from the opening montage realized this was edited really well. Credits revealed Marcia Lucas was the editor and I recalled people's high regard for her.

 

A good film editor helps tell the story in pictures, visually and clearly. Most important virtue is succinctness. Knowing what "pictures" will derail the story for the audience. (why you never see bathroom breaks, or charactors sleeping!)

 

I think when you're watching a movie and you want the scene- the camera shot to finish - and go to the next scene, the editor was asleep at the wheel.

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Getting back to the OP, and it's mention of WILLIAM GOLDMAN, who sucessfully adapted at least two(that I know of) his own books into film, (Marathon Man and Soldier In The Rain) and several works by other authors, his book about screenwriting should be interesting.

 

I don't know anything about the craft, and won't prsume to discuss what I think should or shouldn't be done in regards to screenwriting.  But I will state that book editing and film editing seem to be two sides of the same coin.  I would imagine a book editor, just like a film editor would "cut out" and excise that deemed to be excessive and that unnecessarily slows the pace of the story(which is why I always felt "editing" was what was missing in the case of THE DEER HUNTER).

 

I have, over the years, come up with what I thought would be good ideas for movies.  But not knowing how to even begin to go about writing a screenplay, I just whistfully pass the time wondering "what if?"  And I've read many books that I thought would make good movies, but, Ah, for the lack of knowledge of screenwriting, they've gone undone.

 

 

Sepiatone

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I have, over the years, come up with what I thought would be good ideas for movies.  But not knowing how to even begin to go about writing a screenplay, I just whistfully pass the time wondering "what if?"  And I've read many books that I thought would make good movies, but, Ah, for the lack of knowledge of screenwriting, they've gone undone.

 

Every movie buff should read Goldman's book.

 

If you're interested in trying your hand at writing a script, I'd suggest:

 

The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier

 

Screenplay by Syd Field

 

Story by Robert McKee

 

As far as film editing is concerned, I recommend the book When The Shooting Stops The Editing Begins by Ralph Rosenblum

 

There is alsa very informative documentary on editing called The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing

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It was just a passing thought KIMBLE, but if I ever DO seriously consider trying a script, I'll take all that under advisement.  :)

 

 

Sepiatone

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There is alsa very informative documentary on editing called The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing

 

Thanks-that sounds really interesting!

 

And yes, editing is editing, no matter what the medium. It takes a person with empathy for the audience, someone who can suspend their knowledge and view the story with "newborn" eyes.

 

I find the very most difficult writing & editing is "technical" writing. Most "stories" expect the audience have some life experience. 

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Every movie buff should read Goldman's book.

 

If you're interested in trying your hand at writing a script, I'd suggest:

 

The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier

 

Screenplay by Syd Field

 

Story by Robert McKee

 

As far as film editing is concerned, I recommend the book When The Shooting Stops The Editing Begins by Ralph Rosenblum

 

There is alsa very informative documentary on editing called The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing

 

Thanks for these great tips!  

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As far as film editing is concerned, I recommend the book When The Shooting Stops The Editing Begins by Ralph Rosenblum

 

There is alsa very informative documentary on editing called The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing

I'll second Richard's recommendation of Ralph Rosenblum's book. Once you read it, you will never again talk glibly about "the director's vision." Several films only succeeded because of the enormous amount of work Rosenblum did to stitch something together out of the chaos he was handed.

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Haha, my library search for "The Cutting Edge" resulted in some insipid romantic comedy.

 

Second search resulted in a new double disk set of BULLITT. The 99 min editing documentary is on disk 2. Since I've never seen BULLITT, I might as well.....

 

Thanks!

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They had faces then: Horace McCoy (1897-1955), author of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and prolific screenwriter.

 

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Speaking of editors:

The segment on Monday nights in October called "Trailblazing Women" had a night dedicated to women editors with Illeana Douglas and Lynzee Klingman (one of the editors of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"). Although Klingman was a bit tight-lipped during the intro/outros to "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Casino" (edited by women with long collaborations with Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese), her discussion of David Lynch's "The Elephant Man" edited by Anne V. Coates was very interesting.

She talked about the initial rough cut that can be 4- or 6-hours long and the process of weaning that down to a "watchable" two hours or so. She talked about the "intimacy" that must exist between editor and director, and that's why some of these collaborations are for a lifetime. Editor Susan E. Morse worked with Allen many times; and Thelma Schoonmaker and Scorsese did countless films together and continue to collaborate.

These discussions are usually repeated on the Watch TCM app and on demand. And they're worth watching.

 

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In the old days, if you were William Goldman or Ernest Lehmann and the audience recognized the name of the screenwriter on the credits before going in, that was a mark of achievement.

Nowadays, if you're Akiva Goldsman, Linda Woolverton, Alex Kurtzmann or Joe Ezterhas, and the audience recognizes the name of the screenwriter on the credits before going in, you're in trouble...  :ph34r:

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9 minutes ago, marcar said:

Speaking of editors:

The segment on Monday nights in October called "Trailblazing Women" had a night dedicated to women editors with Illeana Douglas and Lynzee Klingman (one of the editors of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"). Although Klingman was a bit tight-lipped during the intro/outros to "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Casino" (edited by women with long collaborations with Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese), her discussion of David Lynch's "The Elephant Man" edited by Anne V. Coates was very interesting.

She talked about the initial rough cut that can be 4- or 6-hours long and the process of weaning that down to a "watchable" two hours or so. She talked about the "intimacy" that must exist between editor and director, and that's why some of these collaborations are for a lifetime. Editor Susan E. Morse worked with Allen many times; and Thelma Schoonmaker and Scorsese did countless films together and continue to collaborate.

These discussions are usually repeated on the Watch TCM app and on demand. And they're worth watching.

 

This collaboration 'process' between editor and director is one of the least discussed magical 'events' that happens when making a movie.     E.g.  does the director first 'tag' those scenes that are untouchable (must remain)?    Tag scenes that the director knows are too long saying 'start here' as it relates to reducing 4 - 6 hours of rough cuts to say 3 hours of less 'rough' material, and the next steps are then to cut from those 3 hours to 2? 

What are the steps used?       

  

 

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Frankly Klingman didn't go into a lot of detail but she did say that with today's digital technology it is a lot easier to edit movies. She said she and the director cut different scenes together in different ways and then just hit the "save" button; if they don't like what they've got they hit "undo" and start again. Prior to this, editors and directors were using individual bits of film, sometimes frame-by-frame, she said. A tedious process.

She discussed the importance of previews and that audience input can drastically change the pace of a movie--when to hold a shot longer, when to pause for a laugh or how to enhance a director's camera angle by cutting a shot in a different way to emphasize it more. That can affect the final cut length.

She did say that some directors have "sacred shots" (not sure what term she used, that's my term) or shots that must be included in the final cut; but she also said a good editor can make her case for any number of different approaches to a film.

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Eddie MullerVerified account @EddieMuller 56m56 minutes ago

 

It’s been applied cavalierly for decades and blithely accepted by people who should know better.

The Writers Guild should NEVER have allowed directors to have that “A Film By” credit.

If you didn’t write, produce and direct it ... “A Film By” is nonsense.

@tcm @NoirAlley

On @NoirAlley I will NEVER refer to a film as belonging to the director unless he/she wrote it too.

It’s an insult to the writer.

“Otto Preminger’s LAURA” — my ****.

 

Movies are a collaborative art. @noirfoundation @tcm #endtheauteurmadness

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