Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Paul Schrader: On Screenwriting

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
In the following extract Paul Schrader discusses the screenwriting process in relation to his work on the seminal films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ – each directed by Martin Scorsese. 

You wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver in about ten days, and I know you’re of the school of thought that the faster you write a screenplay, the better.


You have to understand that the gestation period could be months, or even years, and the idea of writing fast is to keep from writing as long as possible, so that it just endures time and obstacles. By the time it comes out, it comes out almost fully formed. Then you write in approximately a time frame that’s like viewing a movie. You can sort of feel the experience as you’re living it, it doesn’t get attenuated, it doesn’t get threshed out. But I’m also of the school of I’m not going to write unless I know what I’m going to write. I pretty much know what’s going to happen on page seventy-five before I sit down and write.

So you have to have the whole thing in your head before you write it? 

Yeah, and outlined. It moves and shapes itself as you go along, but it is pretty well worked out, and it has endured numerous tests before it is written. By tests, I mean the oral tradition, telling people. You sit down and you tell people the story. You say, ‘Look, I wanna tell you a story. Man walks into a bank. There’s a robbery going on....’ There you are, you’re off and running, and you can watch people. It doesn’t really matter what they say, it’s what they do with their eyes and how they sit. You can see whether or not this story has a resonance, and as you tell it, sometimes you have to make changes. Because like a stand-up comedian, you realize you’re losing your audience, you gotta do something drastic. I think it was Chandler who once said, ‘If you ever get in trouble, introduce a character with a gun. Your reader will be so glad he’s there, he won’t ask where he came from.’ The same thing with telling a story; you realize you’re losing your listener, then you say, ‘All of a sudden, a red car pulls up, and these two guys in black coats come out.’ Boom! You got your listener back. Of course, you’ve also got a red car and two guys in black coats, but that’s one of the things you do when you work the oral tradition. By the time you write that script, you’re pretty confident that it’s worth writing because you have seen it work. If you can tell a story for forty-five minutes and keep people interested, you have a movie.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Who would you use as a sounding board? 

Anybody. The more ordinary someone is, the better, because they’re not going to give you arcane points, you’re just going to see if they’re interested. It’s like telling a joke – you know when it works. Obviously, certain material is very sophisticated, and it’s not going to work that way. I’m not going to sit and tell Mishima to somebody at the 7-11! But in general, if you’re dealing with a kind of a narrative, you want to get that kind of feedback. Also, another good thing about it is it stops you from writing a lot of scripts, because you see them die, and you see yourself getting stuck. It is very discouraging to write scripts that don’t get sold or made. If you can stop yourself from writing those scripts, you can prolong your career. Because all you have to do is write five or six of those scripts, and you’re about beat up. So if you have a bad idea, you can catch it in time. You haven’t lost a script, you’ve saved yourself four months. I lecture from time to time on screenwriting, and when I lecture, it’s a five-point program. It goes from theme, to metaphor, to plot, to oral tradition, to outline. That’s the progress of an idea. It all begins with a theme, and another word for a theme is a personal problem. In Taxi Driver it was loneliness, the metaphor was a taxicab. Bing-Bang-Boom, it starts to move.

When you sit down to write an original screenplay, where do you begin?

At any given time in your life, there are a number of problems running around. Problems that have a lot to do with where you are in your life cycle, whether it’s a mid-life crisis, problems with parents or children. You’re always looking for metaphors that will somehow address that problem. And once you find that metaphor, particularly if you’ve written as much as I have, it’s like a factory is standing there, fully manned, ready to go. All it needs is the raw material. The metaphor is the raw material. Once they get that, they can go to work.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
But your last few projects have been adaptations? 

About four years ago, I ran into a little dry period. Like so many others I turned to books. I did some adaptations where I originated the projects: Touch and Affliction. For about a year now I sort of fell back into the groove and have been doing a lot of writing again. That feeling of not having anything original to say has sort of gone away. I think I’ll be good for a couple more years.

It goes through cycles. 

Yeah. I don’t think anybody has something fresh to say every year. You just don’t have an original script every year.

You adapted ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, which was not an easy novel to turn into a film. How did you approach that adaptation?


I do the same process in terms of problem/metaphor. You look at the book, and you say, ‘Where’s the problem?’ And it’s not necessarily the problem in the book, it’s your problem that you find in the book. ‘What part of me exists in this book that I can address?’ You have to personalize it, and therefore in a book like Last Temptation, there were probably five or six different scripts that could have been written from that. You have a 600-page philosophical novel, and it’s going to become a 110-page script. What I did in that case was I listed every single thing that happened in the book – there were probably 400 or 500 things that happened in the book – then I did columns. Did they address my problem? Were they important for expositional needs? Did they address any of the sub-themes? I went through all the scenes and put checks behind them to the degree that they were useful to me. And then I just took the top fifty scenes, because only between forty to fifty-five things happen in a movie anyway, and said, ‘Okay, what do I have to add?’ Or, ‘How do I make this meld all together?’ That way I was able to take three- quarters of the book, and just wipe it off the table in one grand stroke and reduce the size of the book. Then I went back and picked up from those pages I had swiped off, whatever little bits and pieces I might need.

Raging Bull (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
You did a rewrite on the film ‘Raging Bull’, and Martin Scorsese said that your version of the script was the breakthrough that helped get the film made. What exactly did you bring to the script for ‘Raging Bull’?


Well there was no Joey La Motta. Jake La Motta had written a book called Raging Bull with Pete Savage, and he cut his brother out of his book because he didn’t like his brother! So I started doing research, and I started hearing about the fighting La Motta brothers and that they were boxers together. I interviewed Vickie [Jake’s ex-wife] and Joey, and I realized you had a sibling story. The movie was about these two brothers who had this contract. Basically the contract was, they were both boxers, but one of them had the gift of gab, and the other one didn’t. So Joey basically said to Jake, ‘Here’s the deal. You get the beatings, you get the fame, I get the girls, we set up the bookies, and we split the money.’ Well that contract is fraught with dangers [laughs]! That was the implicit contract between these two men. Jake would be the headliner and take the beatings, and Joey would be the pretty boy who got the girls and they would split the money. You know that there’s going to come a day that someone doesn’t agree with that contract! So without Joey, you didn’t have a movie...

From – Paul Schrader Interviewed by Jim Mercurio and David Konow: Creative Screenwriting, vol 6, #1 (Jan/Feb 1999) and vol 9, #5 (Sept/Oct 2002).

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

From Pen to Screen: Charlie Kaufman

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Directed by Michel Gondry)
The acclaimed writer-director Charlie Kaufman discusses his early days growing up in New York, his transition from acting to screenwriting, and his unique creative process.


Were you an avid filmgoer in your early years and, if so, which films were particularly meaningful to you?

I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with watching movies. I liked movies and I went often, but I’m not like Quentin Tarantino, I’m not that person. I gravitated more toward theater and acting, and film was kind of an offshoot of that, as it had acting and theater in it. I also made a lot of movies when I was a little kid. I had a Super 8 camera, and it was a real passion of mine. I made films with stories, little dramatic things, and I’d write scripts for a monster or vampire movie. We’d shoot in graveyards, and I did some animation. I’d direct the films, and my friends and I would act in them.

You started out as an actor in high school and performed in several plays. What made you decide to make the transition to screenwriting?

Since third grade, I wanted to be an actor. I went to school for it in my freshman year of college, and then I switched to film in my sophomore year. I think I became self-conscious. I was very shy, and I became kind of embarrassed about it. I struggled for a long time because I really loved it. It was the one thing in my life that gave me some sort of joy. Then I thought, did I make a mistake by leaving it, because I don’t feel the same way about anything else? I always thought about going back and I never did, but I don’t feel that way about it anymore. I don’t think I could do it anymore.


What are the main differences between writing a screenplay for someone else to direct and directing your own screenplay yourself?

With the exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), I haven’t written specifically for any director. Spike was not initially engaged to be part of Adaptation (2002); that was for Jonathan Demme, and then he decided not to do it. Being John Malkovich (1999) was written before I knew Spike.

I think the difference is that, once I began directing, I started thinking, how am I going to do this? Practically, how am I going to make this happen on film, which is something I had never thought about. When I worked with Spike, if I had been doing a rewrite and I had an idea, he would say, “Well, don’t worry about what it costs. We’ll figure it out.” So I was kind of given carte blanche. But when I’m on my own, there is this feeling of, well, am I going to know how to shoot this scene? Am I going to be able to afford to shoot this scene? That’s the difference.


I’m interested in how you build and structure your screenplays. Do you follow a similar pattern every time?

It depends on the piece. When I’m on my own and I'm doing something for myself, I don’t do an outline. I build it, little by little, as I’m working on it. I think about it for like six months, and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s interesting here!” It’s going in a cool direction, but I don’t know in advance how it’s going to end. I like to have the freedom to see where it goes. I don’t like to cement myself into something.

Sometimes it can take me a few years; it’s not an efficient way to work. I do like the idea that sometimes I come to a new thing, six months into writing it, and that changes everything. Adaptation is an example of that. It was a struggle for me in the first six months, until I came up with the idea of putting myself in, and then suddenly I knew how to write it. If I had forced myself to write any more, it wouldn’t have been the same, and I don’t think it would have been as good.


You mentioned loving the theater earlier. Who are some of your favorite dramatists?

I like Pinter, I like Beckett, Ionesco. When I was in high school, I was actually in a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author, by Pirandello. I was really struck by that, and it was very influential on me. Interestingly, I think Woody Allen has a play in one of his books, where the characters on stage talk to the audience. I like stuff like that. I liked Lanford Wilson when I was a kid, and I like John Guare.

I also loved musicals when I was a kid. I mean, when you’re in school theater you do a lot of musicals!

Finally: you’re on a desert island and are allowed to take one film with you. Which film would it be and why?

A movie I really love is Barton Fink. I don’t know if that’s the movie I’d take to a desert island, but I feel like there’s so much in there, you could watch it again and again. That’s important to me, especially if that was the only movie I’d have with me for the rest of my life.

– Excerpted from ‘From Pen to Screen: An Interview with Charlie Kaufman’ by Neil McGlone (article here).

Monday, 27 February 2017

Antonioni on ‘Blow-Up’

Blow-Up (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni transplanted his existentialist ennui to the streets of swinging London for the Italian filmmaker’s first English-language feature. Blow-Up takes the form of a psychological mystery, starring David Hemmings as a fashion photographer who unknowingly captures a death on film after following two lovers in a park.

In the following extract Antonioni discusses the making of Blow-Up, the creative process and its inspirations.

My problem with Blow-Up was to recreate reality in an abstract form. I wanted to question ‘the reality of our experience.’ This is an essential point in the visual aspect of the film, considering that one of its main themes is to see or not to see the correct value of things.

Blow-Up is a performance without an epilogue, comparable to those stories from the twenties where F. Scott Fitzgerald showed his disgust with life. While I was filming, I was hoping that no one in seeing the finished film would say: ‘Blow-Up is a typically British film.’ At the same time, I was hoping that no one would define it exclusively as an Italian fIlm. Originally, Blow-Up’s story was to be set in Italy, but I real­ized from the very beginning that it would be impossible to do so. A character like Thomas doesn’t really exist in our country. At the time of the film’s narrative, the place where the famous photographers worked was London. Thomas, furthermore, finds himself at the center of a series of events which are more easily associated with life in London, rather than life in Rome or Milan. He has chosen the new mentality that took over in Great Britain with the 1960s’ revolution in lifestyle, behavior, and morality, above all among the young artists, publicists, stylists, or musicians that were part of the pop movement. Thomas leads a life as regulated as a ceremonial, and it is not by accident that he claims not to know any law other than that of anarchy.


Before the production of the film, I had lived in London for some weeks during the shooting of Modesty Blaise, a film by Joseph Losey star­ ring Monica Vitti. In that period I realized that London would be the ideal setting for a story like the one I already planned to do. But I never had the idea of making a film about London.

The same story could certainly have been set in New York or in Paris. I knew, nevertheless, that I wanted a gray sky for my script, rather than a pas­tel-blue horizon. I was looking for realistic colors and I had already given up, for this film, on certain effects I had captured in Red Desert. At that time, I had worked hard to ensure flattened perspectives with the telephoto lens, to compress characters and things and to place them in juxtaposition with one another. In Blow-Up, I instead opened up the perspective, I tried to put air and space between people and things. The only time I made use of the telephoto lens in the film was when I had to – for example in the sequence when Thomas is caught in the middle of the crowd.

The greatest difficulty I encountered was in reproducing the violence of reality. Enhanced and ultra-soft colors often seem to be the hardest and most aggressive. In Blow-Up, eroticism occupies a very important place, although the focus is often placed on a cold, calculated sensuality. Exhibitionistic and voyeuristic trends are particularly underlined. The young woman in the park undresses and offers her body to the photogra­pher in exchange for the negatives she wants so much to retrieve. Thomas witnesses a sexual encounter between Patrizia and her husband, and his presence as spectator seems to increase the young woman’s excitement.


The risque aspect of the film would have made filming in Italy almost impossible. Italian censorship would never have tolerated some of those images. Let’s not forget that, even though censorship has become more tolerant in many countries in the world, Italy remains the country of the Holy See.

In the film, for example, there is a scene in the photographer’s studio where two twenty-year-old women behave in a very provocative way.

Both are completely naked, although this scene is neither erotic nor vul­gar. It is fresh, light, and, I dare hope, funny. Certainly I cannot prevent viewers from finding it risque. I needed those images in the context of the film, and I did not want to give them up only because they might not meet with the taste and morality of the audience.

As I have written other times in reference to my films, my narratives are documents built not on a suite of coherent ideas, but rather on flashes, ideas that come forth every other moment. I refuse, therefore, to speak about the intentions I place in the film that, at one moment, occupies all my time and attention. It is impossible for me to analyze any of my works before the work is completed. I am a creator of films, a man who has certain ideas and who hopes to express them with sincerity and clarity. I am always telling a story. As far as knowing whether it is a story with any correlation to the world we live in, I am always unable to decide before telling it.


When I began to think about this film, I often stayed awake at night, thinking and taking notes. Soon this story, with its thousands of possibil­ities, fascinated me, and I attempted to understand where its thousands of implications would take me. But at a certain point, I told myself: let’s start making the film – that is to say, let’s try, for better or for worse, to tell the story and, then.... Today I still find myself at this stage, even if I am near­ly finished filming Blow-Up. To be frank, I am still not completely sure of what I am doing, because I am still in the ‘secret’ of the film.

I believe my work depends on both thought and intuition. For example, just a few minutes ago, I was all by myself, thinking about the next scene, and I tried to put myself in the shoes of the main character at the time when he finds the body. I stopped in the shade of the English lawn; I paused in the park, in the mysterious clarity of the London neon bill­ boards. I approached this imaginary corpse and I totally identified with the photographer. I strongly felt his excitement, his emotion, the thousands of sensations that were released in my ‘hero’ by the corpse’s discov­ery. And then I experienced his way of coming back to his senses, of thinking, and reacting. All of which lasted only a few minutes, one or two. Then the rest of the cast joined me and my inspiration, my sensations, vanished.


–  ‘E nato a Londra ma non e un film inglese’, from Corriere della Sera, 12 February 1982. Translated by Allison Cooper.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Akira Kurosowa: How Rashomon Was Made

Rashomon (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
A woman is raped in a forest by a bandit, and her samurai husband murdered. In court, the victim and her attacker give contradictory accounts of what happened, while the dead man, communicating through a medium, offers another differing interpretation. Finally, a fourth account is given by a woodcutter who claims to have witnessed the attack. But whose version can be believed? Rashomon, which won the Grand Prix at Venice as well as the Oscar for best foreign language film, is an example not only of the great Kurosawa at the height of his powers – working with his regular collaborator, the imposing Toshiro Mifune – but of cinematic storytelling at its most daring. With its multiple contradictory flashbacks conspiring to present truth as an amorphous entity, Rashomon has been hugely influential on film structure and vocabulary in the 60 years since it was made (Ryan Gilbey).

In the following extract from his autobiography, Akira Kurosawa discusses the making of Rashomon.


When I had finished Scandal for the Shochiku studios, Daiei asked if I wouldn’t direct one more film for them. As I cast about for what to film, I suddenly remembered a script based on the short story ‘Yabu no naka’ (‘In a Grove’) by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. It had been written by Hashimoto Shinobu, who had been studying under director Itami Mansaku. It was a very well-written piece, but not long enough to make into a feature film. This Hashimoto had visited my home, and I talked with him for hours. He seemed to have substance, and I took a liking to him. He later wrote the screenplays for Ikiru (1952) and Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) with me. The script I remembered was his Akutagawa adaptation called ‘Male-Female.’

Probably my subconscious told me it was not right to have put that script aside; probably I was—without being aware of it – wondering all the while if I couldn’t do something with it. At that moment the memory of it jumped out of one of those creases in my brain and told me to give it a chance. At the same time I recalled that ‘In a Grove’ is made up of three stories, and realized that if I added one more, the whole would be just the right length for a feature film. Then I remembered the Akutagawa story ‘Rashomon.’ Like ‘In a Grove,’ it was set in the Heian period (794-1184). The film Rashomon took shape in my mind.


Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930’s, I felt, we had mis­placed and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the esthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past.

In particular, I believed that there was something to be learned from the spirit of the French avant-garde films of the 1920s. Yet in Japan at this time we had no film library. I had to forage for old films, and try to remember the structure of those I had seen as a boy, rumi­nating over the esthetics that had made them special.

Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and wishes growing out of my silent-film research. To provide the symbolic background atmosphere, I decided to use the Akutagawa ‘In a Grove’ story, which goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, laying bare its dark com­plexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow. In the film, people going astray in the thicket of their hearts would wander into a wider wilderness, so I moved the setting to a large forest. I selected the virgin forest of the mountains surrounding Nara, and the forest belonging to the Komyoji temple outside Kyoto.


There were only eight characters, but the story was both complex and deep. The script was done as straightforwardly and briefly as possible, so I felt I should be able to create a rich and expansive visual image in turning it into a film. Fortunately, I had as cinematographer a man I had long wanted to work with, Miyagawa Kazuo; I had Hayasaka to compose the music and Matsuyama as art director. The cast was Mifune Toshiro, Mori Masayuki, Kyo Machiko, Shimura Takashi, Chiaki Minoru, Ueda Kichijiro, Kato Daisuke and Honma Fumiko; all were actors whose temperaments I knew, and I could not have wished for a better line-up. Moreover, the story was supposed to take place in summer, and we had, ready to hand, the scintillating midsummer heat of Kyoto and Nara. With all these conditions so neatly met, I could ask nothing more. All that was left was to begin the film.

However, one day just before the shooting was to start, the three assistant directors came to see me at the inn where I was staying. I wondered what the problem could be. It turned out that they found the script baffling and wanted me to explain it to them. ‘Please read it again more carefully,’ I told them. ‘If you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.’ But they wouldn’t leave. ‘We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don’t understand it at all; that’s why we want you to explain it to us.’ For their persis­tence I gave them this simple explanation:


Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings – the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going be­yond the grave – even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.

After I finished, two of the three assistant directors nodded and said they would try reading the script again. They got up to leave, but the third, who was the chief, remained unconvinced. He left with an angry look on his face. (As it turned out, this chief assistant director and I never did get along. I still regret that in the end I had to ask for his resignation. But, aside from this, the work went well)…


There is no end to my recollections of Rashomon. If I tried to write about all of them, I’d never finish, so I’d like to end with one incident that left an indelible impression on me. It has to do with the music.

As I was writing the script, I heard the rhythms of a bolero in my head over the episode of the woman’s side of the story. I asked Hayasaka to write a bolero kind of music for the scene. When we came to the dubbing of that scene, Hayasaka sat down next to me and said, ‘I’ll try it with the music.’ In his face I saw uneasiness and anticipa­tion. My own nervousness and expectancy gave me a painful sensation in my chest. The screen lit up with the beginning of the scene, and the strains of the bolero music softly counted out the rhythm. As the scene progressed, the music rose, but the image and the sound failed to coincide and seemed to be at odds with each other. ‘Damn it,’ I thought. The multiplication of sound and image that I had calculated in my head had failed, it seemed. It was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.

We kept going. The bolero music rose yet again, and suddenly picture and sound fell into perfect unison. The mood created was positively eerie. I felt an icy chill run down my spine, and unwittingly I turned to Hayasaka. He was looking at me. His face was pale, and I saw that he was shuddering with the same eerie emotion I felt. From that point on, sound and image proceeded with incredible speed to surpass even the calculations I had made in my head. The effect was strange and overwhelming.

And that is how Rashomon was made.

– Excerpted from Something Like an Autobiography, trans., Audie E. Bock. Translation Copyright ©1982 by Vintage Books.