Friday, July 31, 2009

Responsibility, Respect, & Recognition: The Playwright vs The Screenwriter

This is kind of a part 2 to this post of mine, as it's from the same stream of thought.

In that previous post I ask various questions pertaining to the responsibilities of the screenwriter vs. those of the director. In plays the responsibilities seem to be very different. Part of a playwright's responsibility is to refrain from directing the piece on paper, to refrain from explanation and to let the actors and directors do these jobs. Any directing and explaining needs to be cleverly hidden within the dialogue to make it something that can't be thrown out and/or resented by those putting on the play. Contrary to the "Show don't tell" rules that abound in fiction and screenwriting it's a "show, through telling" that is going on in a play's text. A clever mention of something can imply that certain bit of direction must happen, without outwardly saying "so and so moves this way." It's partially this lack of stage direction and limited descriptions of the scenery that allow plays to be performed time and time again under various interpretations.

Perhaps screenwriting holds similar conventions I haven't found yet, but if the screenwriter is as responsible for the visualization and presentation of the story as the screenplays I've read imply, why don't the screenwriters get more respect from their peers and recognition from the audience?

In theater, actors and directors hold relatively steadfast to what is on paper. Scenes may be cut, a few lines of dialogue too, but it's my feeling that, for the most part, actors and directors try to adhere to what is written and work around and with it rather than through it. On first production the actors and directors may have varying degrees of impact on the final result, the playwright can be encouraged/forced to change things just as in film, but in the end it seems to me that the playwright will get a whole lot more recognition from the theater community and audience than the screenwriter will. It's strange to realize as so far, it seems to me the screenwriter might have a bit more responsibility for the end result.

Instead, the screenwriter seems to be abused. After a screenwriter sells their work they (seem, from what I'm learning) to be in a bad position. They've made more money than the playwright will likely make, but their screenplay can get shredded up into every which way, or even perhaps heavily rewritten. They get the blame if the movie is bad, with critics saying the director did the best they could with a crappy script (despite a critic never having read the script) and then little to none of the credit and congratulations when the film is good. On top of that, how many people, even those who are "serious" about film, can name the writer of their favored piece? They can name directors and actors, sometimes even producers more than the writer.

This has a great deal to do with the movie being a visual, one time thing, I understand. Plays can be produced over and over and over again forever which contributes to why a playwright's name survives, even if the population at large can't name 5 plays when asked. But those that do watch plays can name the playwright at a far higher rate than those who see films can name the screenwriter.

Money changes the dynamic but the movie usually wouldn't exist without the writer. It's the other pieces that, logically, seem the replaceable ones but it's the writer that gets bullied. Is it because we're the nerds in the room?

I understand that sometimes writers can be bad. Stories don't go how the people in charge think they should go and sometimes, yeah, a writer might need to be replaced and/or blamed. But how come they seem to rarely get the inverse of that, at least publicly?

CUT TO: questions

I was reading the iconic shower scene from Psycho (posted as a "Great Scene" of the day at, again, Go Into the Story) and seeing Joseph Stefano's direction in the script as to how it should be filmed... I was stricken. Where, in film, does the writer end and director begin?

Maybe to some it seems obvious, but coming from a theater background it is a little strange to see all the "stage directions" on the page. Not so much the action, I very much understand the inclusion of that, but more so the "shots" it describes. It doesn't only describe what is going on, but how we see it which is what surprises/confuses me a little. This is the iconic Hitchcock film... how much of that scene is Hitchcock, and how much of it is Stefano?

Much of the specifics, angles and the like, is something I'd expect the director do. Is it because it's a shooting script and it is after the director and writer have collaborated? In that case my reading of the shooting script in whole won't answer my question. Is the writer responsible for how the viewer is to eventually see his action in such a way? In part, of course, the way it's filmed would effect the story greatly, but still, coming from theater it's something I'd expect the director to have the greater responsibility for. Also, is what the writer describes as far as scenes and editing - Cut to, reverse angle, the camera moves away - something one expects to be changed by other parties eventually and the writer does mostly in the spirit of conveying better the tone of the story? In that case, it would be the writer's attempt at communication to parties involved, so when/if it does get changed, they are better able to keep the writer's vision in tact (if they wish to be so respectful). I understand that these bits are often likely to be added once the script is bought and not usually included to such a degree in one's spec script, so perhaps the idea of it being after collaboration makes sense (but so does the expectation of a director throwing it out). Or does the writer tend to only start listing such specifics in a particularly pivotal scene? Coming to think of it, the screenplays I've read don't constantly describe the angles, it's more a "sometimes" thing, so this may yet be the answer.

Maybe they're all right and it's all circumstantial. I'm sure it is, regardless, to a point. But I'm also sure there must be a more precise answer than "it depends."

I don't have the answers to these questions yet but I thought it important to include them up here so as to remember them in the future.

I'll try to remember and post an update when I eventually discover the answer.

The scene also had me questioning something else re: playwriting vs. screenwriting, but I'll post it separately. Long posts can be daunting to a reader.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Readin' Readin' Readin' and Doin'

One of the first screenwriting blogs I grew attached to was Scott Meyer's Go Into The Story. He updates many times a day and besides offering his opinions on what's going on in the film world he makes an effort to help any fledgling screenwriters that hop along his path by offering helpful hints. He teaches online courses for UCLA so it's a "thing" for him I guess, you know... being helpful.

Anyway, so one of the suggestions he makes is to read screenplays. Its a common thing students hear "If you want to write, read books, if you want to act, watch plays, if you want to do something else, engage as a spectator of someone else's something else." However, it's not only a tip people often ignore, with screenwriting maybe one decides watching movies is enough. Either way it's a common message.

Meyer goes farther than that though. He has what he calls 14 days of screenplays where he links to 14 screenplays of differing authors and styles. His hope, more or less, is that by reading a screenplay everyday for a time will force your brain into picking up something more quickly via osmosis. That, in reading many works in a short period, your brain will start playing connect-the-dots and see the patterns more clearly and quickly than it might otherwise. So I've been doing this.


I've only recently (very recently) begun considering the writing of screenplays as a worthwhile endeavor for myself. I like thinking up stories and characters and dialogue but my forays into fiction writing didn't leave me very happy. I didn't enjoy that process very much and for the most part found it tedious. It recently occurred to me that maybe novels were the wrong medium for me. I've written short bits of plays before and liked it, liked spending time with the characters, but occasionally found it limiting. Maybe screenwriting can bring together the bits of the writing worlds I like in a way that suits me.

I've been immersing myself in the screenwriting world these past few days. Reading blogs, screenplays, books pertaining to screenwriting, and journaling about my own ideas. I thought perhaps keeping my own blog about my process might be interesting. As a very, very, novice screenwriter-to-be (I've yet to add word to paper in a formal non-journal scribble form - no actual screenwriting done yet) I know frighteningly little about the craft. This blog can discover things with me and can perhaps be fun for others to follow as I hopefully go from one in the early stages of exploration to someone confident and experienced with work under her belt.

Here I think I'll share resources I've found helpful as well as my process of self-teaching, frustrations, and solutions. If nothing else, if no one finds this blog worth their time or nothing comes of my writing, well, it can be a time capsule for a bit of my life where I thought I found something.