Screenwriting: The Movie
Some of my favorite scenes in movies have been about screenwriters.
And they each offer a different insight that’s informed real life.
I’ve mentioned these in interviews, but it’s amazing how a few key moments in films have had such an impact on me — and continue to.
Paris When It Sizzles, starring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn, was a movie I saw on TV as an impressionable teenager. Holden plays a screenwriter who hires typist Hepburn for the weekend. In Scene One, he lays out blank pages all over his Paris apartment, telling her the story of the script he’s yet to write but has in his head. On page 12, he says, throwing down one page, this happens, a few pages more, a reversal! What stunned me was how he knew. (my introduction to structure?) But the capper came when Holden finished with a flare, then asked Audrey if she wanted a martini. Oh, and by the way, the script was due Monday, and he’d already spent all the money.
I was hooked.
I fell in love with another screenwriter later when my own career had begun. Barton Fink stars John Turturro and my Blank Check buddy, Michael Lerner, as crazed studio head Jack Lipnick. Early on, Lipnick offers Barton work on a wrestling picture and gives him what is, it seems to me, a crucial test. It was one that, to greater or lesser degree, I’ve found myself facing many times. But maybe it just feels that way.
Okay, the hell with the story. Wallace
Beery is a wrestler. I wanna know
his hopes, his dreams. Naturally
he’ll have to get mixed up with a
bad element. And a romantic interest.
You know the drill. Romantic
interest, or else a young kid. An
orphan. What do you think, Lou?
Wally a little too old for a romantic
interest? Look at me, a writer in
the room and I’m askin’ Lou what the
goddamn story should be!
After a robust laugh, he beams at Barton.
…Well Bart, which is it? Orphan? Dame?
There is a disappointed silence. Lipnik looks at Lou. Lou
clears his throat.
…Maybe we should do a treatment.
The lesson I derived from this is: Never waffle in your answer to a studio head. You may be wrong. But for God’s sake, be definite!
You can always change your mind later on.
I think my favorite lesson in screenwriting at the movies came from the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, starring Robert DeNiro as a fictional version of studio legend Irving Thalberg. In one scene, De Niro gives a primer in screenwriting to a novelist having a hard time making the leap to motion pictures. But motion is what it’s about. In his amazing demonstration, as DeNiro plays out an inpromptu and instructive scene, there’s little dialogue, but lots going on.
I found myself thinking of this scene the other day while talking to a screenwriter who was having similar problems; he was overthinking his story. Simple, I kept saying, keep it simple… A young girl whose mother died, she runs a tailor shop, and one day a mysterious stranger enters with a box… We don’t need to say more. Our minds flood with the sight and smell of that little storefront, the desperation of the girl, the unknown of what the next scene will bring. And that’s all we need.
At the end of the scene in Last Tycoon, De Niro’s character is asked what happens next? “I don’t know,” he replies, “I was just making pictures.”
And that’s what we’re doing, too.
Little moments ripe with meaning. Memorable. Life-changing.
Lessons for us all.
- Mike Rinaldi
Right. Be definite! Because we don’t want the suits asking for treatments.
I loved State and Main. Just watched it the other day. I related to every production setback– funny stuff!
Of course, probably the greatest movie ever made about a screenwriter is Sunset Boulevard. I just watched it the other day. Some of my favorite parts are the scenes with Betty, the pretty reader wanting to be a screenwriter. She wants to run with an old script idea our hero had about a teacher, but he’s not interested in pursuing it (at first). He tells her to take the story and make it her own. One day visiting her on the Paramount lot he teases her about a potential plot idea.
“How about this for a situation: she teaches daytimes. He teaches at night. Right? They don’t even know each other, but they share the same room. It’s cheaper that way. As a matter of fact, they sleep in the same bed — in shifts, of course.”
She looks up at him and asks “Are you joking? Because I think it’s really good.”
And I thought so too!
Hey… maybe I should write it.
- Sue B
The movie Joe pitches to Betty in Sunset Boulevard was the basis for a later Wilder hit — The Apartment.
Sue B, you are so right. I can’t believe it didn’t hit me.
Adaptation by Charlie Kaufman.
I heard great advice from the McKee character as played by Brian Cox as written by Kaufman: “And why the f*** are you taking up my precious two hours of time with your movie? I don’t have any use for it!” That was McKee’s tirade in response to Kaufman’s (Nicolas Cage) question of how to make a movie where nothing happens…you know…like in the real world.
Sometimes that little outburst comes to mind when I get new ideas. Is this story worth someone’s $10.50 and two hours of their time?
How about some Blake Snyder audio/dvds? Not all of us can get out to a workshop but we’d all love to hear you talk about screenwriting (a great distraction from actual writing). And it is great to have someone teaching screenwriting who is a real screenwriter!
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In ‘State and Main’ Philip Seymor Hoffman plays the writer Joe White. This character’s arc is built around getting the answer to the question ‘What is it about’? It’s a great film that reveals insight into David Mamet’s philosophies on screen writing. Ofcourse it’s a good laugh for anyone who’s worked on a movie that infiltrated a small town —- all so true.