Wednesday, February 6, 2013

                              A FEW THOUGHTS ON SCREENWRITING

I can’t speak for Mayank, but personally I got into screenwriting for the parties. So far though, I haven’t been invited to any. Well, maybe a few.

Dinah Shore invited me over for a movie screening at her house once and it turned out she needed me to run the projector. Well, not exactly, but I did rethread the film for her. I worked on Dinah’s TV show in my youth, and not too many years later I was walking along Broad Beach in Malibu and I went right past her without recognizing her. She yelled out to me, “Bob, Bob, it’s me, Dinah.” Rather embarrassing for me, and possibly for her. I’m so bad at recognizing people, the same thing happened with Pierce Brosnan, not once but twice. And I’d spent a week with him on the set of a “Remington Steele” I’d written a few weeks earlier. It also once happened with model-turned-actress Jennifer O’Neill WHILE she was starring in a TV series I was producing!

I’d like to say I didn’t recognize any of them because I was so busy writing a script in my head. But actually, it’s a physiological condition. All these years I thought I was just bad at recognizing people and remembering names. Then I saw a piece on it on “60 Minutes” and it turns out there are people who don’t recognize their own spouse if he or she changes their hairstyle or glasses frames. I suspect there’s a movie lurking somewhere in that bit of information. But I may not remember it long enough to write it.

Mayank has written that movies are about structure. And I concur. In fact, I used to try to show my undergrad students how important structure is to screenwriting by playing a little trick on them. I’d say, “OK, get out of piece of paper and a pen, or open your computer, get ready, now…write something wonderful.” They’d sit there with empty faces and empty sheets of paper. I’d leave that way for a good 15 second before I said, “OK, that’s almost impossible. But now, instead, write a limerick.”

That completely changed the situation. Those students who understood the structure of a limerick could write one, often a good one, in a couple of minutes. I stopped doing this exercise, however, because I found a good many of my 18-21 year-old college students had no idea what the structure of a limerick was. And having to explain and demonstrate it to them took much of the fun out of it for me.

But the point remains the same. Structure is not the enemy of creativity, it is the cradle of it. I have a few writer-friends who poo-poo structure. Who think that Blake Snyder and the others who write books on screenwriting structure are selling a formula that leads to crappy, boring, predictable scripts. I agree that it does, but only in the case of crappy, boring, predictable writers.

I began to notice the structure of movies long before anyone, let alone Blake Snyder, had written a book on it. And I learned my first lesson from Alfred Hitchcock. I’d be at a theater watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie and something would happen. I’d feel it in my bones. A shot of adrenaline would course through my system. I’d look at my watch. And lo and behold, it was ALWAYS exactly 30 minutes from when the movie had begun.

Once I was sensitized to it, I’d experience it in other directors’ films. And lo and behold, it was always 30 minutes in. Something had changed. I’d experienced some sort of, you should pardon the expression, climax. In a completely non-sexual sense. Years later I would learn, that’s called the turning point of Act One.

Every movie has that. And like it or not, it happens 30 minutes in whether the writer, the director and the editor of the film are consciously aware of it or not. Whether they set out to do it or not. It’s in their bones just like it’s in mine. And yours. Try it when you go to the movies. Or watch a DVD. You have to do it with a feature film, and it can’t be interrupted by commercials. I bet it’ll happen for you too.

And it’ll be an emotional, physical lesson in movie structure.

-          Bob Shayne

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