Saturday, June 26, 2010

Adventures in Screenplays Part III: Film for Fiction Writers

Back in 2004, my friend Charlie Bailey decided he had had enough. I would love to tell you the nuances of what was enough and how Charlie had it up to his eye balls, but that may be another story for another time. Suffice it to say, he decided to leave the country, and mostly, he decided to leave himself. I do now, and always foresee, loving Charlie Bailey. Charlie is bright, a PhD of Physics, a cab driver, a poker player. When Charlie, the physicist, the cab driver, and the poker player returned to the United States from Switzerland in 2008, he had a few stories to tell. In his basement apartment in Boulder, Colorado, Charlie told me about Switzerland. He told me how he learned to be a screen printer. He had met someone in the field, and he had offered his hands in exchange for the knowledge. It's an old way of doing things. Right? I'll give you my labor if you show me how it's done. Beautiful, really. As Charlie told me this story, he had to mention how in the USA, one must procure a degree or training in order to accomplish a certain task. Be that as it may, and he is probably very accurate in that assessment, what difference is it where we learn something? Formal training, and I mean anything of higher education in modern times, I highly endorse. After all, I loved my Goddard experience. Yet, there is something to say about the old ways of learning something. There is something to beheld in the “learning by doing” scenario. And there is something noble about learning something from someone who is doing it. As many of you know, my training in writing is in the craft of fiction. When I say training, of course I mean in the formal sense. When I think of my three three teachers: Vance Aandahl, Kyle Bass and John McManus, I have the utmost reverence. Now, Vance and John are both fiction writers, and writers they are. Kyle is a little bit different of a story. He is a wonderful writer indeed, and I'm certain that he crafts beautiful fiction. However, he has a very different sensibility entirely. Kyle's writing background is a bit of a collage. Kyle believes that the playwrights are expressing life, the fiction writers are exploring life and the poets are at home tending the garden. Beautiful stuff. Kyle is not only a fantastic writer, his sensibility starts with the poets. His training is the theater and rightly so, he's a musician, a poet and a Thespian all in one. Not to mention he is a wonderful teacher of writing because he is a wonderful writer.
I met Kyle Bass during my first semester at Goddard College. As an instructor Kyle was very critical of me, which caused the associated emotions. However, I trusted him for a variety of reasons. Like me, he had gone through the Goddard Program. After his graduation, he landed another job at Syracuse in the theater department. As I've said, anyone lucky enough to study under Kyle will undoubtedly do something great.
As we all know, my training is in fiction writing. One of my teachers has his training in theater. So, what does this mean? I suppose, as I'm talking to you, there are a few things I want to confess. First, there is something wonderful about on the job training. Second, a writer is a writer is a writer. Third, being fearless in your work as a writer will only lead to more work, other jobs, and in some ways, new genres.
Being formally trained as a fiction writer, I felt very strange in the screenplay genre when it was presented to me during the spring of 2009. As I began to think about writing for the screen, I thought first about Kyle Bass. Many of his students were playwrights, Micheal Grady and YoungJames Kenny, namely. As a fiction writer, it may have seemed like a strange match for Kyle Bass and me to be place together. Under his tutelage, I learned to read plays and think about them with my lens of a fiction writer. David Mamet's American Buffalo comes to mind instantly. How do you suppose our conversation about the reading of this play went? When Gio Toninelo approached me about a screenplay idea he wanted to produce, I was instantly and fearless attracted to the task. As a writer, and I think the analogy is correct here: I don't need to know how to fly a plane, all I need to know is how to get the damned thing off the runway. Likewise, a playwright whose training is as vast a poetry and fiction can fearlessly guide a fiction writer deserves a student who willingly learns how to convey story on the screen.
My experience as a screenwriter has three parts. Part number one: I've watched a great deal of movies. Two: I read a few books. American Film Institute's Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV by Dana Cooper was the principle book. Acting: The First Six Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky was the second largest influence. So, I'm telling you that 1)watching movies, and 2) reading a couple books lead me to this: on the job training.
That's right, I learned by doing. The largest difference I can tell between writing fiction and screenplays is that screenplay writing is very collaborative. Once the piece is written, it is subject to the director, the director of photography and in a lesser degree, the actor's interpretation of the words written. This is different than the way a fiction writer may look at a story.
The entire point here is yes, we have different ways of looking at something. In the entire point of these adventures in screenplays, it is from the POV of a fiction writer. As fiction writers, we look at the world in a combination known only to us. How can this combination be made pertinent to a viewer of film? Often times, as movie viewers we say: “so-and-so's acting sucked.” Or we say: “it wasn't believable.” How often do we say: “the writing really sucked!”? Truth is, when a film is bad, and I mean really bad, I think it comes directly from the writing itself. How can a fiction writer change things?
In the last entry, we discussed the short story, the novella, and the novel as the basis for film screenplays. I hope we came to the conclusion that the short story makes the better screenplay foundation than the novel. This is true because as screenplay writers, or directors, it is easier to add some elements than it is to subtract them. So, how do we go from fiction writers to screenplay writers?
First, let's write a story, or pick one. In this model I'll choose one. At this point, we should all be familiar with Etgar Keret and “Kneller's Happy Campers” and its film: Wristcutters. For this model, I would love to choose another Keret story from The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, “A Souvenir of Hell.” This story is less than four pages long. Can we make this a feature length film?
I'm pretty fearless, are you?
AFI suggests the ideal length of a feature screenplay is 114 pages.
Next: the Premise: this is a one sentence description of what the story is.
Next: the Treatment: how are we going to develop this story from the one sentence premise?
Let's go!
Before we get too carried away, “A Souvenir of Hell,” and for this exercise, we'll focus on the short film first.
In this translation of fiction to film, we have to read the story first.
Basic plot: Girl meets boy and losses boy (twice). There is a social stigma. The girl is human and of the world and the boy is from hell.
Characters: Anna (the girl), her father, her grandfather and the boy from hell.
The setting: A dead end town at the opening from hell.

My Premise: A tale of redemption and unrequited love within social and emotional confines.

The Treatment: As Anna experiences heartbreak, her grandfather finds forgiveness for earlier crimes committed against him. As the people of the town witness this events, they are determined (for the greater good) to prevent similar situations from ever happening again.

Next time: We write our own short story. Then we write the development of the feature: character development, the process of plot, structure and formatting.

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