“Nobody Likes Treatments”

“Nobody likes writing treatments.”

Apparently. So I’m told. And I’m inclined to believe it – though in this case I am that nobody: I like treatments.

But I do wonder where this aversion comes from? What have treatments ever done to us (or for us)? And what does this reveal about our current attitude to the creation of a film? I have a few complementary theories:

– The treatment as a selling document: subsequent to the screenplay, exterior to the creative process. Or in other words, a chore.

– The treatment as a vulgarisation of the true work, which is the screenplay. Reducing one hundred pages of screenplay to three pages of stilted prose, or fifteen, or one half, is an offence to your finely-tuned dialogue and concise yet vivid description of the pertinent action.

– the treatment as plan for the screenplay, a dry, mechanical catalogue of plot points

The answer is, I believe, to approach the treatment as a unique act of storytelling. Tell the story as if for the first time. Make it interesting. Forget about the screenplay (for a few moments).

This is an age where everyone in the industry talks of story as if it had a capital ‘S’ and yet so many screenwriters are unwilling to tell their stories in simple narrative prose. Simple narrative prose is good for telling stories, but we have chosen to hide inside the screenplay with its peculiar format, as if screenwriting could only begin with the words: FADE IN.

A screenplay is not a film. Unlike a novel or a poem, or even a theatre script, the screenplay does not function as a work of art. It does not satisfy like a work of art. (I enjoy reading them, but that pleasure it related to the promise of what the screenplay might become, as well as a professional appreciation of technical skill.) It is merely a proposal for a film, a promise, a map – a map of a city yet to be built.

Films don’t need screenplays at all. Once a film has been made, the screenplay is redundant. And they can be made without them. Take a look at the ‘scenarios’ written in the silent era. These aren’t screenplays: they are treatments. Great films came from these documents. However, with the advent of synchronous sound-recording, screenwriting placed increasing emphasis on dialogue – playwrights were hired to provide it – and the format of the modern screenplay began to emerge. Great films have been made with these documents too, but they are not essential.

Admittedly, these days, it’s very difficult to finance a film without one. In this respect, the screenplay is a selling document no less than a treatment. They are both nothing more than promises.

~~~~~~~

This article was prompted by the tips offered by Charles Harris when promoting his workshop on writing treatments. His advice strikes me as very sensible; his methods supportive. From what I’ve read, I’d recommend the workshop.

I’ve gone off at a tangent, but I would like to make one particular comment regarding these tips.

As a means of getting into the storytelling mode, Harris suggests you begin the treatment with “Once upon a time …”. I’d agree with that. This implies the past tense and there is nothing wrong with using this tense to tell a story in prose. In fact, it is quite natural. However, elsewhere Harris stipulates the use of the present tense. Yes and no. This is the convention in the film industry. Everything on the screen happens in the present tense, or so the argument goes. If your treatment is for industry use, you’ll have to switch to the present. If not, the past tense is better for storytelling (before the story reaches the screen, or before the action is staged in front of a camera). Stick with it.

The Audience The Market and The Viewer

In the film industry, everyone is always banging on about the audience. Studio bosses, pundits, distributors, script consultants, even writers. It’s the professional thing to do, because, in the end, it’s all about the audience, isn’t it?

First off, let’s distinguish between the ‘audience’ and the ‘market’. Writers sell their scripts to producers, not to the cinema-going public. This is the writer’s market. Producers, in turn, have to sell their projects to financiers, and distributors. This is their market. Financiers and distributors are typically very concerned with the potential audience for a film (not people, but figures: box office and ancillary returns). This is their market.

Why should a writer take a view on the potential ‘audience’ for a proposed film when it is the producer’s assessment that counts? Surely if the writer is to concern his or herself with anything beyond the subject and craft of their writing, it should be to know their market: the producers?

That’s business. The ‘audience’ also gets invoked in the development process. Script developers talk of what the audience expects, what the audience needs to know, how the audience will react, but there’s an equivocation here because these propositions refer to a notional subject and not a quantifiable number of people who have decided to watch a movie. The viewer has needs and expectations. If the viewer sees a gun early in the plot, the viewer will expect it to be used. So might the ‘audience’, you say. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. If you talk about the ‘audience,’ you can slide sideways into questions of box office potential; you can start making illegitimate connections between aesthetics and commerce. If you talk about the viewer, you can’t.

The writer should consider the viewer, not the audience. (Likewise, the script developer.)

To summarise:

  • the market refers to the potential buyers of a film project or a finished film (producers, private and public finance, distributors)
  • the audience refers to the public who may or may not want to see the film
  • the viewer refers to the notional subject (person) who experiences the film
Okay, now we’ve got that sorted, let’s move on.

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

Not Necessarily Natural?

I read this statement in the details for a notable script development course:

“Development cannot and does not aspire to replace writing talent, however screenwriting has very specific craft techniques that can be learnt and that aren’t necessarily natural to the writing process.”

Odd. Very odd. On so many levels.

I had to read it again. “Development cannot and does not aspire to replace writing talent” – this is a startlingly defensive remark, answering an imagined or half-recalled accusation. It seems whoever put this course together sensed that what they were about to propose might be construed as antagonistic to writing talent.

What are they proposing? Well, techniques (“craft techniques,” to be exact, although the only reason for compounding the noun that I can see is to invoke the art/craft distinction.) Nothing that hasn’t already been presented in a screenwriting manual in some form, somewhere. These techniques, like all techniques, can be learnt.

What’s wrong with that? What’s the problem? What – to use a development phrase – is at stake here?

The last clause gives us a clue: these craft techniques “aren’t necessarily natural to the writing process”. In other words, the writer won’t necessarily, or naturally, apply these techniques, and as screenwriting requires these “very specific” techniques, they must be supplied by a third party: that’s to say, the script developer.

Script developers are marking out a territory here and this territory, in other disciplines, typically belongs to the author. It’s a land grab, if you like. They claim there are techniques essential to the craft of screenwriting that can be learnt, and mastered, without having to suffer the agonies, and ecstasies, of the creative process. In fact, they’re implying you might go through all that and not acquire these techniques at all. Fortunately, the script developers are here to help. At a price.

Damn, that is antagonistic. I can see why they were being defensive.

But this isn’t what bothers me. (Script developers can often give insightful feedback, particularly on a one-to-one face-to-face basis. You can keep your pro-forma reports, thanks.)

No, it’s this concept of the writing process as somehow detached from the end product – as if you could write without knowing what kind of thing (film, novel, poem) you were writing – and this idea that the cinematic form is somehow peculiar, as if the novel or the play or the poem didn’t each have their own conventions and grammars which might not “necessarily” be natural to the writing process, as they put it.

Isn’t it axiomatic that any form requires specific ‘techniques’? So why would screenwriting require ‘techniques’ any more than, say, drama? And how could these techniques be external to the writing process? (One of the ironies of here is that so many of these so-called ‘techniques’ of screenwriting are derived not from cinema but from Aristotle’s Poetics, a scientific study of Ancient Greek drama, with an emphasis on the tragedies.)

Sounds like nonsense to me.

Either their concept of the writing process, or their concept of cinematic form, or both, are inadequate, that’s to say, limited, or too “specific,” which wouldn’t surprise me as these are the same people who concocted the ‘Anglo-American Tradition‘ of screenwriting and chopped the world of cinema in half. Nice one.

The Special Relationship?

I need your help.

Once upon a time the head of a certain UK-based script development training company told me they worked exclusively within the “Anglo-American” rather than the “European” tradition. After hearing that, I got to wondering about this strange distinction between ‘European’ and ‘Anglo-American’ – which derives, I think, from the assumption that the foreign language films typically distributed in the UK are a representative sample of ‘European’ output, not to mention the crass reduction of the diverse nations of the continent into one catch-all category of ‘Europe.’

More recently, however, I’ve been puzzling about the “Anglo-American” bit. Does such a tradition exist? I mean, you can talk of an ‘American’ tradition certainly, but an Anglo-American one. Hmmm.

So, if anyone has sighted this peculiar bird, or can point me to where I get a clear sighting of it myself, please post a comment below.

First, if there is any kind of ‘special relationship’ between British and American filmmaking is it really a ‘tradition,’ with all the reassurance and history and weight that word implies; a tradition which, apparently, excludes Europeans, even though many of the luminaries of pre-war Hollywood, classic Hollywood, were emigres from continental Europe rather than Great Britain? (Billy Wilder, anyone? Fritz Lang?)

I don’t believe we are entitled to claim a special relationship or to insert ourselves into someone else’s tradition. I suspect the notion is more than a little pretentious, or worse, delusional, or even worse, cynical (because the advocates know who’s going to be buttering their bread). But I could be wrong.

Does the relationship go any further than a common language which allows us to entertain the illusion that aspects of American culture our own somehow. Is it anything more than that?

“Two nations divided by a common language.”

<George Bernard Shaw, attr.>

You see, I believe the British are more ‘European’ than they care to admit and, though we like to think of ourselves as the uncles of the colony that, ahem, outgrew us, we have as much, if not more in common with our fellow colonialists on that great continent, the French.

Or perhaps, whether it exists or not, we must bring ourselves to believe in this ‘tradition,’ this myth, if we want to take advantage of the paralysis currently afflicting the Hollywood studios (see the post, ‘Are We Hollywood?‘), or merely if we want to retain a vestige of self-esteem as we play a game using someone else’s rules.

Are We Hollywood?

Listen, there’s an excellent article by Mark Harris on the paralysis currently afflicting Hollywood studios to be found in the US edition of GQ. It’s not exactly news – you’ve probably heard the song before – but here the argument is particularly cogent, the research and analysis thorough and detailed. Harris begins with an examination of the studios’ attitudes towards last year’s critical and box office smash, ‘Inception‘. To put it simply, they couldn’t deal with it.

“It has always been disheartening when good movies flop; it gives endless comfort to those who would rather not have to try to make them and can happily take cover behind a shield labeled “The people have spoken.” But it’s really bad news when the industry essentially rejects a success [Inception], when a movie that should have spawned two dozen taste-based gambles on passion projects is instead greeted as an unanswerable anomaly. That kind of thinking is why Hollywood studio filmmaking, as 2010 came to its end, was at an all-time low—by which I don’t mean that there are fewer really good movies than ever before (last year had its share, and so will 2011) but that it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide.”

<Mark Harris>

A sad, dispiriting state of affairs. Until we remind ourselves (in the UK) that Harris is talking about Hollywood studios and we are not Hollywood. The Hollywood studios do have a muscular grip on our exhibition network, however. As a result, the decline in their standards does impoverish our film diet and impact our cinema-going habits, though not as much as the escalating price of petrol.

Still, there may be some small reasons for hope.

If Hollywood is no longer inclined to produce ‘intelligent’ movies aimed at adults, then there is a clear gap in the market. Let’s seize it. One anonymous studio executive is quote as saying “we don’t tell stories anymore” – well, if the great, self-proclaimed ‘story’ machine has stalled, let’s crank up our own. But let’s not think about Oscars or US Box office. We need more than a King’s Speech or a Slumdog Millionaire, which were not exclusively financed this side of the pond anyway. Harris notes that Italian and Japanese audiences, for example, have recently begun to favour local product. Good. If Hollywood has let us down, then let’s carry on without them.

So, why don’t we? Is it a language problem? Have we succumbed to a kind of colonialism in reverse? Is America our land of dreams? Have we come to believe that Hollywood is the movies?