Against Archeology

‘Script development is like an archeological dig.’

The writer, on her knees scraping away in the dust, trying to put things together, but not in the best position to view her work. The view better from above, where the script editor stands. Up there, the writer will be able see what the script editor sees: how the bones should fit together, the way they could be made to articulate; only from up there, can she see what kind of thing it is that she has ‘uncovered’. With this knowledge, the writer can return to the hole in the ground, roll up her sleeves, and start to put things in order.

The guys at the now-defunct Arista were fond of this metaphor, I believe. They liked to talk about the ‘archeology of the story’. They were experts on structure and the identification of types and models and genres. They could paraphrase Aristotle. But I don’t think they got on their hands and knees to dig with you.

Archeology, of course, deals with dead things. Nothing is being created. Nothing expressed. Archeology reconstructs. It ain’t screenwriting.

There is merit in the metaphor, of course, but it’s not exactly revelatory: ‘sometimes it helps to take a step back’. The question, perhaps, is how far back.

Veteran dramaturg, David Wingate, admitted he used to oblige the writer to adopt the script editor’s perspective, but now advocates the reverse: the script editor should enter the writer’s world, (that’s to say, the world in which the film exists).

First, it’s a matter of respect. In the archeology scenario, the writer has been assigned the subordinate role of assistant to the script editor’s ‘professor emeritus’. Now, the script editor/developer/dramaturg may well be an expert in the field of what makes a film work, but a film begins in the imagination of the writer. The script editor has been invited along as a guide to assist in its passage from the imagination to reality as light and sound. The guide needs to be well-informed and the traveller may not know exactly where they want to go, but the guide has joined the traveller on her journey, not vice versa.

(Perhaps this is something that comes with experience, and age, when we are not so eager to impress with our learning and our reputation no longer depends on displays of professional expertise.)

Second, writing, and re-writing, is a creative process. Yet it is widely recognized that analytical modes of thinking are, shall we say, antagonistic to this process. Come too far out and you have trouble getting back in. So the script developer shouldn’t seek to pull the writer out of her work. If anyone is to move, it should be the script developer: going down into the hole, bringing his expertise with him, urging the writer to dig deeper. This is how David Wingate regards his role, I think: to keep the writer writing, digging deeper.

Until they find what it is they’ve been looking for.


David Wingate has worked as dramaturg across Europe and Scandinavia, with Sources2, and at the Berlinale Talent Campus, amongst others


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