This is the second of our Huston Film Lectures, a series of lectures given to students at the National University of Ireland’s Huston School of Film and Digital Media in Galway. The lecture series features leading film directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and academics. This lecture about screen-writing is given by Howard A Rodman, an American screenwriter and novelist whose recent films include August, starring Josh Hartnett and David Bowie, Savage Grace, with Julianne Moore, and Joe Gould’s Secret.
Howard Rodman: What I want to talk about today is scene writing. Something really terrible happened to screen-writing about eighteen years ago – people began to realise there was money in teaching screen-writing. That’s been the ruination of many things.
I remember once talking to Abe [Abraham] Polonsky. He’s an American writer and writer-director and he wrote Body and Soul, he wrote and directed Force of Evil; he’s worked on wonderful movies. His name was blacklisted from 1946-1968. He couldn’t work under his own name. I remember asking him about screen writing, and he said, “Teaching screen writing”? He said, “teaching screen writing’s a good thing to do if you’re a teacher of screen writing”. He said everything he knew about screen writing he’d learned from the Commissary at Paramount Film Studios. Then he said: “Nope, I didn’t learn it there either”.
It started when Syd Field wrote a book called Screenplay. Have any of you read it or heard of him? I’m probably doing a great unfairness to him, but here’s what he said. (All of this is, I think, in some ways true, but I think, as we’ll see later, it’s also ruinous.) He said a movie is a roughly 2-hour thing. A page of screenplay is roughly equivalent to a minute of screen time, so a two-hour movie is a 120-page screenplay. Movies, like plays, like human lives, have acts, so there’s Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. Act 1 is pages one through thirty, or the first 30 minutes of a film; Act 2, because the second act is traditionally longer, is page thirty through page ninety; then Act 3 begins on page ninety. Somewhere along page three or page ten, depending on what edition of Screenplay you have, there is the inciting incident, the thing that kicks you into the screenplay. Somewhere around page 27/page 28, there is the little thing that propels you into Act 2, and around page 87-88, there’s the thing that propels you into Act 3. So he wrote this book which said those things.If he had said just those things, it wouldn’t have been a long book, but he padded it out with examples of movies which could be seen to have obeyed these rules.
The book was a wild bestseller, his courses were oversubscribed, and it got to the point where he had to write another book. So he wrote a sequel in which he said a minute of screen time is a page of screenplay, movies are two hours, screenplays are 120 pages long, there are three acts, but something happens on page sixty, because many people had sort of complained about that saggy section, so he propped it up in the middle. Two things happened I think as a result of this book and the other book (its spawn). One was that the people at studios and production companies who were always trying to give notes to writers now had a whole new set of cudgels with which to beat up writers. Where is your inciting incident? What’s the character’s arc? What’s his growth curve? Something’s wrong around the mid-point.
And then the other thing that happened was that on the production side of the model, a whole bunch of people who thought, ‘I have a life, I have a story’, bought the book and thought, ‘now I can write a screenplay’. And in general I think the democratisation of any art is a fine and wonderful thing. In most cases. In this case, the idea that anybody could write a screenplay I think was in some ways a very lovely flowering of an art form. Anyone know that great quote, one of the graffiti on French walls during May ‘68, which said, ‘Poetry should be made by all and not by one’. Well I believe that. Or there’s the example of the Romantic poets. Before around the mid-1700s, poetry was something that you did if you were a gentleman, it wasn’t for women at all and it wasn’t for lower-class men eitherl. I mean it was among the things you did if you were well-born and a man, like knowing how to tie a cravat that had the right number of wrinkles, like knowing how to fold up the proper corner of your visiting card when putting it on the silver tray to indicate the purpose of your visit. It was just among the things you knew if you were a gentleman. After the Romantic poets in general, after Lord Byron in particular, poetry became a vehicle for expressing feelings, and I would say it opened up a whole world of poetry which would not have existed otherwise, in which poetry became something where you could express feelings, express thoughts, express sentiments, as opposed to a more rigid, more codified form that you did if you were of a certain class. It also opened the floodgates up more generally for generation after generation after generation of truly rancid adolescent confessional poetry, some of which I think you’ve probably read, much of which I know I’ve written, and I hope you have too.
But as regards screenplays, what happened was both on the producing side (all these people writing screenplays), and on the consuming side (all of these people in studios and production companies who were reading screenplays), screenplays became reduced to structure – mid-points, inciting incidents, counteracts. And all of these have been ruinous to the motion picture industry because it means that every movie ends up being the same movie. I think largely it means that there used to be a whole panoply of human emotions that were permissible in movies, and now there is only one. Anybody want to guess what that emotion is? It’s triumph! No movie is a movie unless someone is able to pump his or her arm and say the word ‘Yes’. That’s a movie: ‘Yes’. Without that, no movie.
After Syd Field came Robert McKee (who you may have seen deftly played by Brian Cox in the film Adaptation (2002) threw a whole bunch of grooves in the screenplay. What you had then was a whole industry which wanted its acts to fall exactly where they were supposed to fall; which cared more about the fact that there were acts than what was in them. And the only thing that really became necessary about a character was that he or she had an arc. Have you come across this term? I think mostly what it’s supposed to mean is the guy starts out selfish and ends up realising he’s connected to the world and gives his money away. Or the guy starts out unable to love and ends up able to cry.
Whenever I hear about arcs, particularly when I hear about them in terms from people at studios who are demanding arcs, I am reminded of the story about the late actor Steve McQueen, who was offered a screenplay. This was before the word ‘arc’ was in common currency, so the producer didn’t say, “Look at the arc of this character”, the producer said, “look at this guy you get to play: he starts out here and he ends up here and it’s great”. And Steve said, “I don’t want to be the guy who learns, I want to be the guy who knows”. And I think for Steve McQueen who had a very good understanding of his screen character, he knew that what people were paying to see was not the emotional education of Steve McQueen, not silent man of few words becomes in touch with his emotions, but here is a guy who knows what he’s doing, he does it, and he does it well. He does it well again and he does it well again. End of movie. That’s a Steve McQueen movie and it’s supremely satisfying.
A lot of what I think of as the decline in commercial American cinema, the annus mirabilis 1974 when you had things like Godfather II and the Conversation and China Town and in the years before, epic things like Night Moves and King of Marvin Gardens and I could go on and on and on, was that screenplays all of a sudden had to have three acts, and they had to have characters with arcs, and they had to have midpoints so that they didn’t have that saggy middle. And all of a sudden people weren’t talking about writing anymore. It was as if they were talking about building suspension bridges: we have a river to cross so we have to put this cable here and these cables hanging from it and stuff like that. And I think that real writing is elsewhere.
To my mind, writing is less about index cards, less about plot points, beats, sequences, than it is about the wonderful and terrible and impossible test of taking human lives and putting them down on a piece of paper so that they can be reconstituted on the screen with actors. It’s almost a kind of weird…Has anybody here, when they were a kid, ever seen in the back of a magazine an ad for freeze-dried sea monkeys and sent away for it? That’s sort of what a screenplay writing is: you take a real life and you put it in a little 120-page packet and you hope that somebody will pour water in the other end, and they will blossom, and they will reach sea-monkeys. In the little instruction booklet that I got with the sea monkeys (and I wish I still had), there’s a sentence that I still remember. It said: “Treat your sea monkeys with dignity, do not give them silly names, give them proper names like Agamemnon”. Screenwriting tip: call your screenplays ‘Agamemnon’, not ‘Disco Pigs’.
At any rate, it seems to me that along with the rise of structure, there became another kind of split between ‘literary writing’ which became fey and precious and over-wrought, and then there were screenplays which had nothing to do with writing. You know, you could do it with a word processor, you didn’t even need a typewriter, you didn’t even need a pen. You just need the software, and in a funny way, out of the great grand tradition where there were writers and screenwriters, and they were all one big great mass of pottage, you now had e-boys and warlocks, you had the screenwriters who had these thick necks and walked around like this [stamps] plot point, midpoint, etc., surprise. And then you had these pale thin green people who were doing writing. I don’t know if you get here the national public radio show Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt here in Ireland. That is the very apotheosis of the kind of thing that the other kind of writing became. [Puts on accent]. “I was reading your book, and couldn’t help but be struck by the number of times that…” That kind of thing. And then of course you have screenwriters with guns in the glove compartments of their cars, bringing them out at meetings to prove that they really care about their writing, or care about their structure as the case may be. Basically, if they’re going to use Syd Field to beat you up about your mid-point, you’re going to take out your revolver to threaten to shoot them with it. This is progress.
So what I want to do today is to take all of that stuff about beats, arcs, acts, index cards, structure and for the duration of this morning at least, leave it outside the door. And what I want to talk about is really smaller stuff because I think that’s where writing lives. I think all of us who write screenplays, all of us who write, need to be good, have a good critical eye, be good editors of our own work, and need to be able to write something and then wake up the next morning and say, ‘That was crap’. And I think without that skill you’re lost, because when you write crap and crap and crap, you never know it.
But I think without the other skill, which is the ability to write without a censor, the ability to write something which may be great, it may be awful, and to spare the judgement until the next day, or sometimes until the next month, is equally valuable, if not more valuable. And I think that kind of writing often comes less from the conscious mind than from the unconscious, and I know that when I’m writing at my best (you can laugh at this), I hear voices in my head, I wake up in the morning knowing things about my screenplay that I didn’t know when I went to sleep, and when I listen to the voices, the writing is good, those voices have never yet led me astray. Sometimes I write a screenplay and for the whole length of a screenplay I never hear them; it’s structure trying to creep back in.
So I think that far too much attention is paid to the beats and rhythm and structure, and very little to how in the world to be quiet enough so that those small, small, small, small voices can speak through you. And then I think it is at the level of the scene where those two things come into play: on the one hand, scenes work or not because your characters are surprising you as you’re writing them. If they don’t surprise you, they’re never going to surprise anybody else. If they don’t satisfy you, they won’t satisfy anybody else. So I think it’s at the level of the scene where our notions of the unconscious, of surprise, of voices speaking through us, of us being quiet enough to be a vessel through which the characters can do what they do.
And certain smaller considerations of structure, because scenes have rhythms, and scenes have beats, and scenes actually have beginnings and ends, but rather than subject them to the terrible metronome of structure, we’re just going to go look at scenes and see what they tell us. Before we dive into that, I’m going to now completely reverse myself and start giving rules. I expect you to either write them down or if you don’t have paper, you can memorise them: it’s up to you. Rule number one: Treat a scene the way you would a really terrible dinner party. Arrive late, leave early. I would say almost every time you write a scene, it’s worth crossing off the first two lines of dialogue and actually seeing if you’re losing anything, or if you’ve got a better scene.
Often, once you’ve got a screenplay together, you can take the last beat, the beat where it gets resolved and pulled together, and sometimes if you just eliminate it entirely, you’re sprung much more propulsively into the next scene. So these are always things to look at in scenes. Can we begin later? Can we end earlier? Other rules are, and this is a question that I think one asks of scenes: whose scene is it? And from the outside that seems like a very naïve question, but it’s not necessarily the protagonist of the entire screenplay. Individual scenes can be owned by a whole bunch of different people. And often, what is fuzziness or vagueness or just a weird, lingering sense of ‘this isn’t working’ can be cured if you just have a sense of whose scene it is. One of the ways of figuring that out is: who wants something? Who wants something badly? Because that’s usually the person whose scene it is and this is being overly simplistic now (we’ll back away from this later), but an awful lot of the work of the scene is really about somebody wanting something badly and running into an obstacle. Sometimes it’s another person, sometimes it’s a…..monster, sometimes it’s that demon within. Ha! But there’s stuff like that.
And generally, although I wouldn’t make a fetish of it, because if you just have people wanting stuff badly, 24-7, 365 day a year, then you get Michael Bay movies. But generally what propels a scene along is that somebody wants something and on their way to getting it something else happens, sometimes an obstacle, sometimes an insight, sometimes a distraction. That applies even to movies which are not plot-driven: anybody know the movie Kings of the Road, the Wim Wenders movie about driving, on the road. Now that’s not a movie you go to because it’s got a gripping plot, but in every scene of that movie, there are these two guys, they sort of want stuff, things happen: you know? It creates a little local dramatic interest if not a [mimes car noise - brrrrrmm] plot.
So I would say what I want to do today is look at some scenes and subject them to those questions and maybe a few others. Is it beginning as late as it could, is it ending as early as it can? Whose scene is it? What do they want? What stands in their way? Is that contradiction worth sharpening? Is it worth kicking sand over because it’s too sharp? Is there too much subtext? Not enough subtext? Too much blog? Not enough blog? And the other things that you do: if this is Romeo’s scene, look at it from Juliet’s point-of-view. Would it make sense to her? The scene has to make sense from the point-of-view of each individual character.
In some ways, it seems overly simplistic to follow these rules, I think. In other ways though I think they’re less rules than just good interrogations you can apply to your scene, but after you’ve written it not before, because before you don’t want to think about any of this stuff. Some of it becomes second nature as you write more and more and more, becomes part of your process without thinking about it, as does, by the way, the three-act structure, which becomes kind of hard-wired. When you’re writing scenes, you don’t want to really be worrying about that stuff – those things either become internalised or you ask the question afterwards. Because if you’re writing to the rules, then you might as well be doing a paint-by-numbers painting.
This podcast was produced by Esther Gaytan Fuertes and was transcribed by Olivia Elder.