20 June 2010
Mr. Darcy, you smell so good
21 June 2010

Secrets of screenwriters


Today’s guest blogger, screenwriter Diane Lake, will be speaking on the art of writing for the silver screen at the Library on Wednesday 23 June at 19h30.

“You’re a WHAT?!

When you tell someone you’re a screenwriter, they often don’t know exactly what that is. Some people assume that means you write the storyline of a film but the director does everything else. Some people assume you write the dialogue but the director does everything else. I’ve even run into people who think the actors make up their own dialogue after the screenwriter ‘sets the scene’ or something.

Ernest Lehman, screenwriter of films like Sabrina and The Sound of Music liked to tell the story of his experience writing North by Northwest when this question of what a screenwriter does came up. In that film there’s a famous scene—the crop dusting scene—where Cary Grant, left in the middle of the barren Illinois countryside, is pursued by a small plane. Grant dodges the plane and the lethal gas it’s putting out by running into the nearby cornfields and hiding. He’s eventually able to outsmart the plane and cause its demise. This series of scenes was hailed as brilliant by several critics and Hitchcook’s ‘masterful’ direction was again and again touted as ‘genius’ for the tight way those scenes were shot.

Lehman, who loved working with Hitchcock and begrudged him none of his praise for being such a fine director on the film, was clearly miffed, though, that all the credit for the success of that scene always went to Hitchcock. “It’s all there, in the script,” Lehman said to an audience at the Writer’s Guild of America one night not too many years ago. “Every turn Grant made, every shot—it’s all in the script.”

Generally speaking, it’s usually all in the script. While a director certainly does more than point the camera and say action, the entire scene that an audience sees on the screen was meticulously created by the screenwriter—word for word, action for action.

If film is the art form of our time, why is it we don’t know the people who create that art form? Everyone can name their favorite novelists—how many people can name their favorite screenwriters? While most people know their favorite directors how many people even know the names of the screenwriters who created their favorite films?

When I was moving houses in Los Angeles a few years ago, I was purging everything. As a writer, my life is full of paper and I decided it was ridiculous to keep carting around all the versions of scripts I had written for various studios that never got made. I have file cabinets full of not just the scripts themselves but all the research that went into writing those scripts. But as I was about to dump much of this material a friend of mine who’s a film archivist for Warner Brothers said I couldn’t. He said that all that material would be of great import if the film ever got made, that film scholars would want it preserved and it was my responsibility to hold onto that material. He was so passionate on the subject he made me feel like the keeper of the flame or something.

But the more I think about it, the more I think he may be right. At some point in the future, those who study film will want to know where the ideas for the film came from and how it was constructed. That’s when people will begin to wonder, “Hey, who wrote that anyway?”

–Diane Lake

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