Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Blueprint

There’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in Hollywood, usually by directors, actors, and producers. It’s kind of insulting and condescending the way it gets used, but there is a degree of truth to it. That phrase is...

The script is just a blueprint.

Now, the reason I say that’s condescending is because this gets used by directors who want to justify rewriting scenes and actors who want to justify changing (or just making up) lines. We’d never say the director’s just there to block out the scene or the actor’s just supposed to read the dialogue, but for some reason it’s acceptable to say the writer is just a stepping stone for everyone else’s brilliance.

Here’s my take on this. There are numerous stories in Hollywood of brilliant scripts that became average-to-sub-par movies when the director and actors were done with them. Pay It Forward. Excess Baggage. Wanted. Little Monsters. Heck, even Suburban Commando. Yeah, you’re cringing, but have you ever read the original screenplays for any of these films? The ones that sold and got the project greenlit? Most of them were damned entertaining, and one or two of them were just phenomenal. Who do you think’s responsible for the movies that came out of these scripts? The key grip? The wardrobe supervisor? Heck, the writer of one recently released film confided to me that the whole reason the movie went through numerous expensive reshoots was because the director had made “a few changes” during the original shoot which destroyed the character arcs for both protagonists (much to the frustration of both the screenwriter and the producers).

Now, to be fair, how often have you heard of a brilliant director and great actors being saddled with a sub-par script which sank their film? A few times for that, too, right?

Riddle me this, though, Timmy-- if the script was sub-par, why did they decide to go into production with it?

Doesn’t make sense, does it? No one’s going to build a house if the blueprints don’t include a foundation, a front door, or a staircase to the second floor. Considering how much more a motion picture costs than a house, does anyone here really believe a studio would march into production with a crap script? That a director would agree to work on it? That actors would rush to be in it?

Unless, of course, those people don’t know what they’re doing, either...

But I digress...

As I said up above, there is some truth to the script as a blueprint analogy. No matter what Hollywood and auteur wankers like to say, the screenwriter is the architect of the movie. They’re the one who sits down with a vision and an idea that gets committed to paper and referred to throughout the construction process. Even if the film is an adaptation or a remake, it’s the writer who has to plan it all out and decide what to keep and what to discard. There’s a reason the architect said put the door here, the window there, and the support beam right there. A screenplay is a blueprint, and when you don’t follow the blueprints--or don’t know how to read them-- you get cracks, crumbling, and sometimes a full-on collapse.

However...

(Yeah, there’s a however. If there wasn’t you wouldn’t need to read any of this,would you?)

This does not mean the screenwriter is the end-all, be-all of the process. A good architect knows there’s a lot of stuff he or she gets to shape and insist on, but just as many that they have no control over. Frank Lloyd Wright designed some of the most beautiful structures in the world, but he didn’t have a say on the appliances in the kitchen, the living room carpet, or what the owners decided to use for bedlinen. There’s a point the architect has absolute control, but there’s also a point where the blueprints have to get handed over to the contractor, the painter, and the interior decorator. Not to mention the people who are buying the house. Heck, if the architect gets hired to design a beach house and they turned in plans for a Victorian office building, it doesn’t matter how good that office building is, they’re not getting another job.

Let’s stick with this metaphor for a few more paragraphs. Imagine you hired an architect to design your new house and the first two pages of the plans are an explanation of how the building may look odd but is actually modelled after the house the architect lived in as a child. That house was built by his great-uncle who had fought in World War Two and returned home to Boston afterwards to build a home that resembled the structures he’d seen while fighting in the Pacific Rim. None of this has anything to do with your house, granted, but the architect felt it was worth mentioning. And eating up two pages of blueprints with.

How are the carpenters going to react when they see that half of every page is instructions on how to use a circular saw, lists of preferred nails, and step-by-step guides for using a measuring tape? There’s an extra 50 pages worth of blueprints here telling everyone on the construction crew how to do their jobs--jobs that more often than not the architect doesn’t know how to do himself. How far in will everyone get before they start ignoring everything the architect’s written alongside the diagrams? And then what happens when there finally is something important in all those notes?

Anyone who’s ever taken drafting knows how important clean lines are. If the architect’s cluttered every diagram up by drawing in wood grains or micromanaging every stud and strut, it just get confusing. We don’t need to see all those individual nails, but we do need to see that load-bearing beam and it’s getting lost in the glut of useless detail. A good foreman knows there needs to be a load-bearing beam somewhere in this wall, and if he can’t find it in the blueprints he’ll just put it in himself. If that messes up plans for the second floor fireplace... ah, well.

One of the biggest mistakes beginners make with screenplays is not understanding what a screenplay is. It’s not an exhaustive list of instructions for the director and the crew. It isn’t a magical tool for making actors do and say certain precise things. It’s not a chance to dazzle people with high-falutin’ vocabulary or hyper-detailed imagery. It’s a framework.

A screenplay--a good screenplay-- is the underlying structure of a film. It’s the solid framework everything else is built on. It’s careful balancing act of minimal, concise language that’s got to have as much punch and nuance to it as humanly possible. It isn’t choked with excess verbiage or screen directions in the same way the plans for a house don’t list china patterns and carpet selections.

It is the blueprint of the film.

Just not in that insulting, condescending way those other folks say it.

Next time, I’d like to talk about something that lifts and supports.

No, not that. You can find that lots of other places online.

Until next week, go write.

2 comments:

Rakie said...

you're using the W-word on purpose now, aren't you? >:(

y'know, i was wondering about the "blueprint" thing myself. I've been doing a few acting classes recently, and one thing the instructor keeps saying is it doesn't matter if you don't stick to the script - even in auditions, he says, no one cares if you change large chunks of the dialogue, unless "the writer's there and he/she's a very precious sort". Which always makes me vaguely uncomfortable. If the exact words don't matter, why do writers spend so much flipping time trying to gert them right? are we just wasting our time? :D

so, yeah, good post! i shall keep it in mind next time i speak to Mr Acting Instructor. :D

Virtual Stranger said...

The W-word just sums up so many of my feelings on "artistic" writers. It can't be helped.

Fine, I'll try to help it more in the future... ;)

I think there's a definite space where actors can improvise a bit, but I think this whole blueprint thing is an example of people who have the all-or-nothing mindset. In their minds, the only possible options are not changing a thing or being able to do whatever they want. And of course they vote for doing whatever they want.

How many books or scripts depend on the characters using a precise set of words? Can you imagine someone ad-libbing through The Usual Suspects or The Prestige or an episode of LOSTwith the attitude of "Oh, the dialogue doesn't really matter that much... Just say what you want to."

Trust me. I've been there on set when this happens. It never goes well. :(