by Fiona Wheeler
Joseph McBride writes in his screenwriting manual Writing in Pictures,
The fragmentation of the TV-watching experience, the influence of the Internet and YouTube, and the effect of our amped-up video culture on feature filmmaking have resulted in a modern style relying more on moment-to-moment sensation than on the traditional pleasures of coherent storytelling.
Culture is turning away from books in favor of the visual media in recent decades, the related decline in reading skills also have had damaging effect on our storytelling skills.
Steven Spielberg was speaking in an interview about the Golden Age of films from the 70s and early 80s, considered by many the greatest period of American cinema. The interviewer asked why it was that great films like those aren’t being written any more. Spielberg replied,
They read the great words of great minds… In our romance with technology and our excitement at exploring all the possibilities… I think we’ve partially lost something we now have to reclaim… for only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers.
Is that right? Are screenwriters who have dropped classic reading from their “to do” lists to blame?
[Read Steven Spielberg’s Curriculum, the 200 films Spielberg thinks every filmmaker should watch.]
How The Blockbuster Began Its Reign
The Paramount case of 1948, during those paranoid post-War times, saw the enforced separation of production, distribution and exhibition. A single company could no longer make movies secure in the knowledge that each new title would be passed along and shown (by the various branches of the parent company) to a ready-made domestic and international audience.
Budgets were tightened, studios became more cautious. A film now had to rely on the pulling power of great stories and well-known actors. Actors, that is, who increased and maintained their screen appeal by their savvy choice of well-written, complex characters.
To write such multi-faceted characters, studios sought to hire well-known authors. Writing critically-acclaimed novels has never exactly paid well, so it is was that many great writers and playwrights of the day, with their vast reserves of cultural and literary knowledge, turned to screenplays. Being well-read became the screenwriter norm.
The rise the French New Wave and its knock-on impact on American culture meant that by the 70s in America the film director “auteur” was dictator. But, as any historian will tell you, no dictatorship lasts forever. A series of mega hits saw studios giving directors as much rope as they wanted, and inevitable massive losses resulted.
During this dictatorship of the directors, the studios had been working behind the scenes to repeal the “divorcement” decree of 1948. In 1985 they were successful. Finally, global conglomerates were once again allowed to make, distribute, and exhibit their own product (movies). Plus, they could exclusively use songs from music labels they owned, as well as license, manufacture and sell movie-related merchandise in their various food and retail outlets.
Knowing they stood to make so much in value-added income, studios could once again afford to bankroll the blockbusters. Suddenly story and nuanced, complex characters weren’t important anymore. Special effects and related technologies were where the investment dollars were funneled.
But that doesn’t explain why we, the screenwriters, stopped reading.
The Modern Screenwriter
Societal shifts and the rise of the literary savant (first-time novelists whose self-style rebel image was built upon their refusal to read the classics, or any written works) meant that for the first time writing became an accessible, and acceptable, dream for not just the cultural elite, but everyone. And what’s more accessible than film and TV? Thousands, tens of thousands, who were intimidated by the very idea of great literature, felt comfortable sitting down to write their very own screenplay or teleplay.
Then came the next tsunami: the digital revolution. Almost overnight the prohibitive cost of making a (celluloid) feature film disappeared. To the non-professional, unaware that a film production is a myriad of perfectly balanced moving cogs, writing a feature seemed even more possible than ever before.
Does it matter that filmmakers with no formal training in writing, directing or cinematography are making features?
Some would argue that that’s exactly what the French have been doing all along.
What works for one nationality, doesn’t necessarily work for another. Firstly, 80 percent of French box office is for American, not European, films. Secondly, the French are educated in an entirely different way than Americans. Philosophy and the culture of knowledge are fundamental to the French way of being.
If you grow up in Paris, you live only a train ride from the place where the first ever declaration of Human Rights was penned. From there you can stroll down to the Seine River and gaze across at Notre Dame, which was saved from crumbling to ruins because an author, Victor Hugo, wrote a novel set there. When a French director says they read “no more than most” and have no great focus on literature, culture or ideas, it’s relative.
So what are American writers, and those who wish to write for American producers/studios to do?
Read, Watch, Experience, Enjoy
Julian Hoxter, author of the screenwriting manual Write What You Don’t Know says, “Engage with culture, politics and the world… your characters don’t live in a vacuum and, if you want to make them come alive, neither should you.”
We all agree that a screenplay is the blueprint of a film. For an architect to be judged knowledgeable enough to create a blueprint for a building, they must first study other great structures and understand why it is those landmarks have withstood the tests of time. I agree with Spielberg: only a generation of great readers will spawn a generation of great writers.
So read. Read the newspaper. Read classic novels. Read pulp fiction. Read your friend’s scripts. Read produced scripts. And watch and experience and revel and enjoy, as well. Surround yourself with art and knowledge, and your craft is sure to benefit.