Defining the screenplay

Two quotes on screenwriting from Paul Schrader:

“I could be just a writer very easily. I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker… ”

“is not an art form, because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art.”

I don’t entirely agree with Schrader’s views. Yes, absolutely, it’s correct that a screenplay is generally little more than a ‘blueprint’ for the finished film. If it goes in to production through a production company, it may well come out the other side looking very little like the original script had intended. Less so if the director is also the writer, but even in situations such as this – and even with very short films – the film can transform massively during production right up to editing and post-production. A short film I saw a few months ago called Inseparable shows this to be the case – the script contains a great deal of dialogue, but the final film is far more visual, not relying on dialogue to tell the story at all, wherever possible (available to watch here – a bundle is available to purchase for £1.99, which gives access to the film, and the original script, and some additional behind-the-scenes stuff).

So I do agree with Schrader up to that point.

However, I do disagree that a screenplay cannot be considered a work of art. I have read many screenplays without seeing the film created from them, and many of them have moved me and touched me as much as – if not more than – a great deal of novels I have read. To be able to produce emotion through a screenplay, which contains as few words as it’s possible to get away with, is quite a skill, and something I hope to be able to achieve.

It used to be that the scriptwriter was king, even if their names weren’t that well known at times. People with real literary abilities worked as script-writers – people such as Dalton Trumbo (though if the books and film about him are to be believed, he could rattle out half a dozen scripts in a fortnight). Now it seems more and more that movies are written almost by committee. The amount of “story by” and “written by” credits appearing in credits, especially for the block-busters, make it clear that it is very rarely one single person’s vision making it to the screen.

The relative ease of making low/no-budget films now means that independent productions can be created relatively cheaply, so there are a good deal of writer-directors out there, who are able to bring the story they personally envisioned to the screen. But for the larger budgets, the studio, producers, other executives, even the stars themselves seem to have more say in the final direction of a movie than the original writer(s). Often, it seems, this is to the detriment of the film itself, and it would be fascinating in many cases to see what the original script would have looked like as a film without the additional interference.

For example, the original script for Suicide Squad is available online. The story is simple, the characters are well setup, there’s humour, there’s action, and it’s a nice straightforward superhero action movie. Never going to blow anyone away, but a decent film. Once Batman Vs Superman happened and the DC Cinematic Universe took hold and it was felt that Suicide Squad needed to go down that path, the final film turned out to be a complete mess and generally widely panned by critics, and for a change didn’t even blow the box office away.

It’s a sad reality that the screenwriter is now considered less important than when Hitchcock said, ‘to make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script’. But yet without that initial draft, regardless of how it comes about, there would never be any sort of film to speak of.

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