Friday, 31 July 2020

Approaching the Sequel: Syd Field Interviews James Cameron

(Terminator 2: Directed by James Cameron)
In 1992, screenwriting teacher and author Syd Field approached writer-director James Cameron for an interview. The following excerpt is from the discussion on the origins of Terminator 2: Judgment Day

He paused for a moment, took a sip of coffee, and said that ‘from a writing standpoint, the things that interested me the most were the characters. When I was writing Ripley for Aliens there were certain things known about her and her experience, but then we lost track of her. In the sequel I was picking her up at a later point and seeing what the effects of those earlier traumas were. With Ripley there was a discontinuity of time, but experientially it was continuous for her because she just went to sleep, and when she woke up, time had gone by.

‘It was much different, much more interesting with Sarah. I had to backfill those intervening nine years, so I had to find efficient ways of dramatically evoking what had happened to her. The tricky part was having it all make sense to a member of the audience who didn’t remember or hadn’t seen the first film. Basically, I had a character popping onto the screen in a certain way, and therefore had to create a back story for that character. I told myself I had to write the script just like there had never been a first film. The sequel had to be a story about someone who encountered something nobody else believes, like the opening scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where Kevin McCarthy swears he’s seen something shocking, and nobody believes him; then he starts telling the story.

‘In Terminator 2, the first time we meet Sarah, she’s locked up in a mental institution, but the real question is, is she crazy? The advantage of a sequel is that you can play games you can’t play in the original. For example, I know the audience knows the Terminator is real. So they’re not going to think she’s crazy. But the question still remains: Is she crazy? Has the past ordeal made her nuts? I wanted to push her character very far.

‘The strange thing that happened in the wake of the film is that a lot of people made the mistake of thinking I was presenting Sarah Connor as a role model for women. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wanted people to invest in her emotionally, to feel sorry for her, because she had been through such hell. And people made a straight-line extrapolation from Ripley to Sarah.

‘They’re very different characters. Ripley’s been through a trauma, but she has certain innate characteristics of leadership and wisdom under fire; she’s a true hero. Sarah’s not really a hero. She’s an ordinary person who’s been put under extreme pressure, and that makes her warped and twisted, yet strengthened, in a sad way. It’s like you don’t want this to happen to her. The initial image of her had a big scar running down the side of her face, and we actually did makeup tests with scars, but it would have been a real nightmare to deal with a scar like that in production on a day-to-day basis. I really wanted her to look like Tom Beringer in Platoon (Oliver Stone). And Linda was up for it, because the last thing she had done was play Beauty in Beauty and the Beast for three years. It’s a tribute to her as an actor that she was able to pull off that severity without the help of any makeup whatsoever.’

In theater the main ingredient of modern tragedy is an ordinary person who is in an extraordinary circumstance; the situation creates the potential for tragedy. Sarah Connor is no hero; she’s an ordinary person who just happens to be placed in extraordinary circumstances. The situation has the potential for tragedy, but in this case, the Terminator, the Schwarzenegger ‘character,’ becomes the hero.

That was another major problem Cameron had to confront in the sequel. ‘There’s a strange history that happened with the first film,’ he explains. ‘A year or two after The Terminator came out, people remembered the film fondly. They remembered Schwarzenegger from the other roles he had played, like Commando or Predator (Jim Thomas, John Thomas), where he was running around with a machine gun in his hand, spraying bullets everywhere, like he had in The Terminator. But there was this curious blurring of distinction that he was the bad guy in The Terminator.

‘That made me very nervous,’ he says. ‘I knew the ‘bad guy being the hero’ could get me into some pretty dangerous territory, morally and ethically. I absolutely refused to do another film where Arnold Schwarzenegger kicks in the door and shoots everybody in sight and then walks away,’ he said, choosing his words carefully. ‘I thought there must be a way to deflect this image of bad guy as hero, and use what’s great about the character. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I thought the only way to deal with it would be to address the moral issues head-on.’

For the screenwriter, the challenge is to find a way to deal with this situation so it springs out of the story context and is based on the reaction of character. The dramatic need, the dramatic function of the Terminator is to terminate, to kill anybody or anything that gets in its way. Because he is a cyborg, a computer, he cannot change his nature; only a human or another robot can change the program. So to change the bad guy into a good guy requires changing the dramatic situation, the circumstances surrounding the action. Cameron had to find a way to change the context yet keep Terminator’s dramatic need intact.

‘The key was the kid,’ Cameron explains. ‘Because it’s never really explained why John Connor has such a strong moral template.

‘For me, John was pushed by the situation where he sees the Terminator almost shoot the guy in the parking lot. I think everybody invents their own moral code for themselves, and it usually happens in your teens based on what you’ve been taught, what you’ve seen in the world, what you’ve read, and your own inherent makeup.’

John Connor intuitively knows what’s right ‘but can’t articulate it,’ Cameron continued. ‘John says, ‘You can’t go around killing people,’ and the Terminator says, ‘Why not?’ And the kid can’t answer the question. He gets into a kind of ethical, philosophical question that could go on and on. But all he says is, ‘You just can’t.’

‘I thought the best way to deal with this was not be coy about it and hope it slides by, but to tackle it head-on, make this a story about why you can’t kill people,’ continued Cameron.

He paused a moment, stared at the blinking light on the telephone. ‘What is it that makes us human?’ he asked. ‘Part of what makes us human is our moral code. But what is it that distinguishes us from a hypothetical machine that looks and acts like a human being but is not?

‘Essentially you’ve got a character associated with being the quintessential killing machine; that is his purpose in life. Devoid of any emotion, remorse, or any kind of human social code, he suddenly finds himself in the strangest dilemma of his career. He can’t kill anybody, and he doesn’t even know why. He’s got to figure it out. He’s got to, because he’s half human. And he figures it out at the end. The Tin Man gets his heart. ‘Once I clicked into that, I saw what the whole movie was going to be about.’

Every screenwriter knows that there are four major elements that make up the visual dynamics of screen character. One, the main character or characters must embody a strong dramatic need.

Dramatic need is what your main character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the screenplay. What drives your character through the obstacles of the story line, through the conflicts of plot? In the case of Sarah Connor, John Connor, and the Terminator, the dramatic need is to destroy the future by destroying the one vital computer chip that will determine that future. To destroy that computer chip they will have to destroy the creator of that chip, Miles Dyson, along with the manufacturing entity, Cyberdyne. They will also have to destroy the Terminator 1000, sent back from the past to protect the future. It is this dramatic need that pushes the entire story line through to its completion.

In some screenplays a character’s dramatic need will remain constant throughout the entire story, as it does in Terminator 2. In other screenplays, the dramatic need will change based on the function of the story. In Witness, for example, the dramatic need of John Book changes after Plot Point I. The same thing happens in Thelma and Louise. If the dramatic need of the character changes, it usually will occur after the Plot Point at the end of Act I.

The second element that makes good character is a strong point of view, the way your character views the world. Point of view is really a belief system. ‘I believe in God,’ for example, is a point of view. So is ‘I don’t believe in God.’ So is ‘I don’t know whether there is a God.’ All these are belief systems.

What we believe to be true is true. For Sarah, nothing can alter her belief that the future is already here. On August 29, 1997, the nuclear holocaust will be unleashed and sweep across the planet like some wild wind destroying everything in its path. That we know from The Terminator. This inevitability defines Sarah’s point of view and motivates everything she does.

The third thing that makes good character is attitude – a manner, or an opinion. People express their attitudes, or their opinions, and then act on them: Dr. Silberman has the opinion that Sarah Connor is loony and acts on that. And he’s not ready to change that opinion, no matter what she says or does, at least not for another six months of her incarceration.

The fourth component that makes good character is change: Does the character change during the course of the screenplay? If so, how does he or she change, and what is the change? Can you trace this character arc from beginning to end?

In discussing Terminator 2, Sarah ‘does not change that much,’ Cameron said, ‘although she goes through a kind of epiphany after she experiences her character crisis [the moment when she cannot kill Miles Dyson]. But her crisis happens relatively early in the story.’

But what if your character is a robot? If you consider the prospect of an emotional change occurring within a robot, you find there’s an immediate contradiction. A robot cannot change unless it has been reprogrammed by someone or something outside itself. In this case, as Cameron has mentioned, there will be a major change within the Terminator. At the beginning of the screenplay, Schwarzenegger’s dramatic need is simple: to protect and save John Connor. That is the first directive of the warrior machine, to preserve itself so it can function.

During the story there is a change in the Terminator’s ‘character,’ and his dramatic need changes to fit the moral beliefs of John Connor. And we know the Terminator cannot change his need, he ‘cannot self-terminate’; he needs John Connor to do that for him. This means that the Terminator has to disobey his own built-in program.

To do that, Cameron said, ‘he must make a command decision, and it is the only true act of free will that he has in the entire film.’

Wait a minute. A robot with free will? Even though that’s a contradiction, it’s the basic issue that concerned Cameron in approaching the sequel. If you look at the two films you’ll see there’s a thematic continuity that runs between them, because both deal with the conflict between destiny versus free will.

If these films are about anything, Cameron maintained, it’s an exploration of the eternal conflict between destiny and free will. How do you get that to work? I asked him.

Cameron took another sip of coffee, put down the cup, and asked, ‘At what point is everything we do in life preordained in some way?’ In other words, if we can go forward in time and look back on it, if we can jump around in time, then isn’t everything we do in our life already part of a movie that’s already been shot? Or is there a way you can change it? Can you get it to a certain point on the decision tree and then go the other way?

He paused for a moment, thinking. ‘Basically, what I did in Terminator 2 is say that everything is meant to be a certain way. At least to that point in time where they’re sending somebody back from that future. But can you grab that line of history like it’s a rope stretched between two points, and pull it out of the way? If you can pull it just a little bit before it rebounds, and cut it exactly at that moment, then you can change it and go in a different direction. Like catastrophe theory. If you do that you get a future that no longer exists at all, except in the memories of the people that are here now. They have a memory of a future that will never happen, which is curious, because it defies our Newtonian view of the world. But it is possible.

‘That became my point of departure,’ he said, smiling slightly. ‘It’s like the Terminator’s been born from the forehead of Zeus but he’s an anomaly in our time because he’s the only one who has memories of a time that will never exist. He becomes an integral part of the ongoing fabric of the world, and it’s his existence here that prevents that particular future from ever popping into existence. In a spiritual sense, it would be like a manifestation of God changing the path.’

I took a sip of coffee, and as I put down the cup I casually mentioned that there seemed to be a spiritual awareness creeping into the American screenplay. As we study the forces of destruction to our environment; sense the wanton violence raging throughout the land; experience the decay of the cities, the dissatisfaction with politics and politicians, the failure of the American Dream, the helplessness of the homeless, it seems we’re becoming more and more aware that a spiritual aspect is missing from our lives. There’s a longing to incorporate into our lives some kind of spiritual perspective about the moral order of the universe.

Cameron agreed, then continued, ‘There’s a million ways to look at all these different paradoxes and ellipses. As a matter of fact, in the first script I wrote a scene where Sarah is driving along, talking to herself on the tape machine, and she says, ‘But if you had done this then this would have happened, and if you did that then that would have happened and then you wouldn’t have even existed, and I could go crazy thinking about it. I just have to deal with what’s in front of me.’

‘Ultimately, it gets back to morality,’ Cameron concluded. ‘Because if the universe can’t be explained, if everything can’t be known, then we’ll never know what’s right or what’s wrong. We can only know what we feel is right and wrong, which is why I like the idea of the kid spontaneously creating a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s the same way in River’s Edge (Neal Jimenez) when the little kid is about to shoot his brother, and he suddenly realizes he can’t, you don’t do something like that. Even if nobody’s ever told him, he knows it.

‘As I got ready to write the screenplay,’ Cameron said, ‘I kept asking myself, What’s the real goal of this movie? Are we going to blow people away and get them all excited? Is that it? Or is there a way we can get them to really feel something? I thought it would be a real coup if we could get people to cry for a machine. If we could get people to cry for Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a robot, that would be terrific.

‘That was the fun of the whole thing. It wasn’t all the chases and special effects and all that stuff, though I get off on that on a day-to-day basis. I love sitting at the KEM [the editing machine] and making cuts and getting the action working, but when I look back I feel the real thrill was being able to contour a response that was totally opposite from what we got the first time. And to just have fun with that. To play against the expectations. You’ve got to do that in a sequel.’

And that’s where we begin.

– ‘Approaching the Sequel’ by Syd Field. From Four Screenplays (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994), 90–97. 

Monday, 27 July 2020

Paul Schrader, Truth, Fiction

Raging Bull (Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Paul Schrader, screenwriter of Mishima, Raging Bull and Patti Hearst, on balancing fiction and history:

Interviewer:  In dealing with truth, how do you decide how far to go with fictionalizing true events?

Paul Schrader: It's a balance. There are two responsibilities, the first is to history as you know it and as you know, history is not a simple thing. We can both walk away from this meeting with two very different versions of what happened, but you have to be very faithful to the facts as you discern them. And secondly you have the responsibility to drama which is not necessarily the traditional truth - it has to do with themes and tensions, the exploration of issues - and at some point you strike a balance and say, "Okay, this is fair enough to history - and this is fair enough to drama, and I'm okay now." You can go over the line, you can do things dramatically that they are such an affront to history that they undermine the credibility and drama of your story.

- Paul Schrader interviewed in Film Freak Central

Friday, 24 July 2020

Francis Coppola: The Screenwriter's Challenge

The Godfather II (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

Francis Ford Coppola on the screenplay as haiku:

Interviewer: What’s the greatest challenge of a screenwriter?

Francis Ford Coppola: A screenplay has to be like a haiku. It has to be very concise and very clear, minimal. When you go to make it as a film, you have the suggestions of the actors, which are going to be available to you, right? You’re going to listen to the actors because they have great ideas. You’re going to listen to the photographer because he will have a great idea.

You must never be the kind of director, I think maybe I was when I was 18, “No, no, no, I know best.” That’s not good. You can make the decision that you feel is best, but listen to everyone, because cinema is collaboration. I always like to say that collaboration is the sex of art because you take from everyone you’re working with.

Interviewer: What is the one thing to keep in mind when making a film?

Francis Ford Coppola: When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In The Godfather  it was succession. In The Conversation it was privacy. In Apocalypse Now it was morality.

The reason it’s important to have this is because most of the time what a director really does is make decisions. All day long: Do you want it to be long hair or short hair? Do you want a dress or pants? Do you want a beard or no beard? There are many times when you don’t know the answer. Knowing what the theme is always helps you.

I remember in The Conversation, they brought all these coats to me, and they said: Do you want him to look like a detective, Humphrey Bogart? Do you want him to look like a blah blah blah. I didn’t know, and said the theme is ‘privacy’ and chose the plastic coat you could see through. So knowing the theme helps you make a decision when you’re not sure which way to go.

- Francis Ford Coppola interviewed by Ariston Anderson

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Francois Truffaut: Autobiography and Alter Ego

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
A cinephile from a young age, François Truffaut first made his cinematic mark as an outspoken critic for Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, opposing the French film industry’s established form and techniques and urging for the director to be regarded as the ‘auteur’, or author, of the film. Truffaut then became an auteur himself, beginning  with The 400 Blows, which won him the best director award at Cannes and introduced the French new-wave to an international audience. The 400 Blows remains one of Truffaut’s most popular and seminal works. It was followed by two key films of the French new wave, Shoot the Piano Player – adapted from the David Goodis’ thriller Down There – and Jules and Jim – the story of a love triangle set in pre-war Paris. Truffaut also continued to follow the exploits of The 400 Blows main character Antoine Doinel — played by Jean-Pierre Léaud — through the 1970s (Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Love on the Run), while directing such classics as Day for Night and The Last Metro, which displayed his passion for art and life. Shortly before his untimely death in 1983 Truffaut was interviewed by Bert Cardullo. The discussion mainly centered around the making of The 400 Blows. In this extract Truffaut talks about his early career and how his filmmaking process was influenced by his work as a film critic and his lifelong obsession with watching movies. 

We know you were a film critic before you became a director. What film was your first article about?

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times [1936], an old print of which I saw in a film club. It was seized afterwards by the police because it was a stolen copy! Then I started writing for Cahiers du cinéma, thanks to André Bazin. I did an incendiary piece in Cahiers against French films as typified by the screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, the fossils of French cinema. That article got me a job at the weekly Arts and Entertainments, where I wrote the film column for four years.

I think being a critic helped me because it’s not enough to love films or see lots of films. Having to write about films helps you to understand them better. It forces you to exercise your intellect. When you summarize a script in ten sentences, you see both its strengths and its weaknesses. Criticism is a good exercise, but you shouldn’t do it for too long. In retrospect, my reviews seem more negative than not, as I found it more stimulating to damn rather than praise; I was better at attacking than defending. And I regret that. I’m much less dogmatic now, and I prefer critical nuance.

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
You were a film critic for four years, but all the while you were looking for an opportunity to make a film, right?

Oh yes, absolutely. I started making little movies in 16mm that weren’t worth showing. They had all the same flaws as most amateur films: they were extremely pretentious; and they didn’t even have a storyline, which is the height of conceit for an amateur. I probably learned something from this work, like how to suggest rather than show. But in the first of these shorts, there was nothing but doors opening and closing – what a waste!

My first real film, in 1957, was Les Mistons – ‘The Mischief Makers’ in English. It had the advantage of telling a story, which was not common practice for short films in those days! It also gave me the opportunity to start working with actors. But Les Mistons also had commentary interspersed with its dialogue, so that made making it much simpler…

Is it awkward for a writer-director to have been a critic first? When you start a scene, does the critic in you tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘I don’t think so!’

It is indeed rather awkward, because not only was I a critic, I have also seen nearly three thousand films. So I always tend to think, ‘But that was done in such-and-such a film,’ ‘Compared to X’s movie, this is no good,’ etc. Plus, however necessary they may be, I’m very skeptical of storylines. So much so that I turn a script’s narrative over in my head endlessly, to the point that often, at the last minute, I want to cancel the filming of it.

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
How, then, do you ever manage to complete a film?

Because the advantage of cinema over novels, for instance, is that you can’t just drop it. The machine’s in gear, contracts are signed. And besides, I like actors a lot, at least some of them –those I choose! There are promises to be kept, there is motivation to keep your word. But once you’ve begun, that type of problem falls away, that doubt of a general nature. Then there are just the daily problems of moviemaking, which are strictly technical and can be solved amid all the noise and laughter – it’s really quite exhilarating. When the filming is over, though, the doubts come back.

What was the provenance of ‘The 400 Blows’?

When I was shooting Les Mistons, The 400 Blows already existed in my mind in the form of a short film, which was titled ‘Antoine Runs Away.’

What caused you to lengthen Antoine’s story and make ‘The 400 Blows’ longer?

It was because I was disappointed by Les Mistons, or at least by its brevity. You see, I had come to reject the sort of film made up of several skits or sketches. So I preferred to leave Les Mistons as a short and to take my chances with a full-length film by spinning out the story of ‘Antoine Runs Away.’ ‘Antoine Runs Away’ was a twenty-minute sketch about a boy who plays hooky and, having no note to hand in as an excuse, makes up the story that his mother has died. His lie having been discovered, he does not dare go home and spends the night outdoors. I decided to develop this story with the help of Marcel Moussy, at the time a television writer whose shows dealt with family or social problems. Moussy and I added to the beginning and the end of Antoine’s story until it became a kind of chronicle of a boy’s thirteenth year – of the awkward early teenaged years.

In fact, The 400 Blows became a rather pessimistic film. I can’t really say what the theme is – there is none, perhaps – but one central idea was to depict early adolescence as a difficult time of passage and not to fall into the usual nostalgia about ‘the good old days,’ the salad days of youth. Because, for me in any event, childhood is a series of painful memories...

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
Does the screenplay of ‘The 400 Blows’ constitute in some ways your autobiography?

Yes, but only partially. All I can say is that nothing in it is invented. What didn’t happen to me personally happened to people I know, to boys my age and even to people that I had read about in the papers. Nothing in The 400 Blows is pure fiction, then, but neither is the film a wholly autobiographical work.

Let me put my question another way: it has often been said that Antoine Doinel was you, a sort of projection of yourself. Could you define that projection, that character?

There is indeed something anachronistic or composite-like about Antoine Doinel, but it’s difficult for me to define. I don’t really know who he is, except that he is a kind of mixture of Jean-Pierre Léaud and myself. He is a solitary type, a kind of loner who can make you laugh or smile about his misfortunes, and that allows me, through him, to touch on sad matters – but always with a light hand, without melodrama or sentimentality, because Doinel has a kind of courage about him. Yet he is the opposite of an exceptional or extraordinary character; what does differentiate him from average people, however, is that he never settles down into average situations. Doinel is only at ease in extreme situations: of profound disappointment and misery on the one hand, and total exhilaration and enthusiasm on the other. He also preserves a great deal of the childlike in his character, which means that you forget his real age. If he is twenty-eight, as Léaud was in 1972, you look at Doinel as if he were eighteen: a naïf, as it were, but a well-meaning one for all that.

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
A related question: Is it because Montmartre holds personal childhood memories for you that you came back to it in at least two of your Antoine Doinel films – the first two, as a matter of fact – ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘Love at Twenty’ (1962)?

Yes, most likely. It’s easier to orient myself when I shoot on familiar streets. Also, when you’re writing, you tend to think of people and places you know. So you wind up coming back to these familiar places and people for my method of writing, I started making ‘script sheets’ when I began work on The 400 Blows. School: various gags at school. Home: some gags at home. Street: a few gags in the street. I think everyone works in this way, at least on some films. You certainly do it for comedies, and you can even do it for dramas. And this material, in my case, was often based on memories. I realized that you can really exercise your memory where the past is concerned. I had found a class photo, for example, one in the classic pose with all the pupils lined up. The first time I looked at that picture, I could remember the names of only two friends. But by looking at it for an hour each morning over a period of several days, I remembered all my classmates’ names, their parents’ jobs, and where everybody lived.

It was around this time that I met Moussy and asked him if he’d like to work with me on the script of The 400 Blows. Since I myself had played hooky quite a bit, all of Antoine’s problems with fake notes, forged signatures, bad report cards – all of these I knew by heart, of course. The movies to which we truants went started at around ten in the morning; there were several theaters in Paris that opened at such an early hour. And their clientele was made up almost exclusively of schoolchildren!

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
As a former critic, if you had had to talk about ‘The 400 Blows’, would you have spoken about it in the glowing terms used by most critics?

No, I don’t think so. I honestly think I’d have liked it, because I like the ideas in the picture – they’re good ideas – but I wouldn’t have gone so far in praising The 400 Blows as the critics did. I couldn’t have called it a masterpiece or a great work of art, because I can see too clearly what’s experimental or clumsy about it.

Could you say something about the relationship, in your career, of ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ to ‘The 400 Blows’?

Shoot the Piano Player, my second feature film, was made in reaction to The 400 Blows, which was so French. I felt that I needed to show that I had also been influenced by the American cinema. Also, after the exaggerated reception and publicity for The 400 Blows its disproportionate success – became quite agitated. So I touched on the notions of celebrity and obscurity in Shoot the Piano Player – reversed them, in fact, since here it is a famous person who becomes unknown. There are glimpses in this film, then, of the feeling that troubled me at the time.

Shoot the Piano Player (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
I had made The 400 Blows, in a state of anxiety, because I was afraid that the film would never be released and that, if it did come out, people would say, ‘After having insulted everyone as a critic, Truffaut should have stayed home!’ Shoot the Piano Player, by contrast, was made in a state of euphoria, thanks to the success of The 400 Blows. I took great pleasure in filming it, far more than in The 400 Blows, where I was concerned about Jean-Pierre Léaud. I was wondering whether he would show up each day, or, if he did, whether he had had a fight the night before and would appear on the set with marks all over his face. With children, we directors worry more, because they do not have the same self-interest or self-regard as adults.

Léaud’s work gave birth not only to ‘The 400 Blows’, but to the whole Antoine Doinel saga, which I think is unique in the history of cinema: starting in 1959, to follow a character for twenty years, watching him grow older over the course of five films. Let’s talk now about the other films in the cycle: ‘Love at Twenty’, ‘Stolen Kisses’ [1968], ‘Bed and Board’ [1970], and ‘Love on the Run’ [1979]. At the end of ‘The 400 Blows’, we left Jean-Pierre Léaud on the beach. He had just escaped from a reform school, where he had been up to some mischief and had suffered various misfortunes.

When I brought him back, in Love at Twenty – which was really just a sketch, called ‘Antoine and Colette,’ as part of an anthology film – he was eighteen and perhaps living on his own. In any case, you no longer see his family in this film. Antoine is starting his professional life, working in a record company, and we see his first love affairs a few months before he must go into the army. Stolen Kisses is simply the continuation of the adventures of Antoine Doinel. It is the same character: like me but not me; like Jean-Pierre Léaud but not Léaud.

Stolen Kisses (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
I must say that I like to start with more solid material than this. I like having two or three reasons to make a movie: say, the coming together of a book I want to adapt or an atmosphere I want to depict with an actor that I want to film. In Stolen Kisses, I admit, I just wanted to work with Jean-Pierre Léaud again; I more or less set a specific date by which I wanted to begin making a film with him. And with my screenwriters Claude de Givray and Bernanrd Revon, I sat down and said, ‘What are we going to do with Léaud?’ For his professional life, we adopted a perfectly simple solution. Leafing through a phone book, we found an ad for private detectives. We thought, ‘Here’s a job you don’t see in French films, usually only in American movies about a famous detective named Marlowe.’ But it should prove funny in France. For Doinel’s romantic life, I suggested putting him opposite a girl his own age, even younger. We’d even suppose that he wrote her when he was in the army and therefore already knows her. We would then have him live what I think is every young man’s fantasy: an affair with a married woman. I thought right away of Delphine Seyrig for the part of the married woman, because I didn’t want this affair to be sordid but instead a bit dreamlike or idealized.

In ‘Bed and Board’ you were examining the problems of romantic relationships. How did you approach them?

Not really as problems. More as a chronicle, with some happy scenes and some serious or dramatic scenes.

Bed and Board  (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
‘Shoot the Piano Player’ has similar changes of tone.

It does. They were planned in that film, since they were also in the American David Goodis’s source novel – but the changes of tone were reinforced during the shooting because I realized I was faced with a film without a theme. The same thing happened spontaneously in Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, themselves movies without clear subjects: some days during the shooting I stressed the comical side, other days the dramatic side. Compared to what I did in Stolen Kisses, though, in Bed and Board I tried to be much funnier when something was funny, and much more dramatic when something was dramatic. It’s the same mixture in both films, but in Bed and Board I just tried, so to speak, to increase the dosage. And I did this in part by showing Antoine Doinel as a married man.

It was around ten years later that I made Love on the Run, which included flashback sequences from the earlier Doinel films and had the feeling of a conclusion for me. When the characters in Love on the Run talk about a memory, I was able to show that memory, while still telling a story happening in the present and with new characters. There is a summing up in this film, since I had already decided that, once it was finished, I would no longer use the character of Antoine Doinel.

Bed and Board  (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
So, in the end, you were happy with this film?

To tell the truth, I wasn’t happy with Love on the Run. This picture was, and still is, troubling for me. People may well enjoy it, but I’m not happy with it. It didn’t seem like a real film to me. For one thing, the experimental elements in it are too pronounced. A movie often has an experimental feel in the beginning, but by the end you hope it feels like a real object, a real film, so that you forget it’s an experiment.

But in defense of your own movie, it’s a kind of diary on film. You watch a character through his evolution.

Yes, but did he really evolve? I felt that the cycle as a whole wasn’t successful in making him evolve. The character started out somewhat autobiographical, but over time it drew further and further away from me. I never wanted to give him ambition, for example. I wonder if he’s not too frozen in the end, like a cartoon character. You know, Mickey Mouse can’t grow old. Perhaps the Doinel cycle is the story of a failure, even if each film on its own is enjoyable and a lot of fun to watch.

That said, Antoine Doinel’s life is just a life – not an exhilarating or prodigious one, but the life of a person with his own contradictions and faults. When I have a man like this as the main character on screen, I focus on his weaknesses. I also did this outside the Doinel cycle: Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player, Jean Desailly in The Soft Skin, and Charles Denner in The Man Who Loved Women are not heroes, either. American cinema is great at depicting ‘heroes,’ but the vocation of European cinema may be to express the truth about people, which means to show their weaknesses, their contradictions, and even their lies...

Love on the Run (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
In 1957 you wrote the following: ‘The films of the future will be more personal than autobiography, like a confession or diary. Young filmmakers will speak in the first person in order to tell what happened to them: their first love, a political awakening, a trip, an illness, and so on. Tomorrow’s film will be an act of love.’ If someone wanted to make movies today, would you tell that person, ‘Tell us about your life. There’s nothing more important or more interesting.’ Or would you say, ‘The industry is tougher now. Conform to it and don’t listen to what I said.’

Very tactfully put... My prediction was fulfilled beyond my wildest dreams – you know that. So I wouldn’t say the opposite today. But I would say, ‘Talk about what interests you, but make sure it interests others, too.’

– From ‘Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran,’ edited by Gary Morris (London: Anthem Press).

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Alfred Hitchcock Discusses Screenwriting

North By Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The legendary film director and ‘master of suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock shared his knowledge on film production in the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. His discussion was first published in 1965 as part of a larger entry on motion pictures written by a collection of experts. A captivating read, Hitchcock’s text offers insights on the different stages of filmmaking, the history of cinema, and the relation between a film’s technical and budgetary aspects and its fundamental purpose, telling stories through images. 

The following excerpt is from Hitchcock’s discussion of the craft and role of the screenplay. Hitchcock warns against the temptation for screenwriters of overusing the physical mobility afforded by the camera: ‘It is wrong,’ Hitchcock writes, ‘to suppose, as is all too commonly the case, that the screen of the motion picture lies in the fact that the camera can roam abroad, can go out of the room, for example, to show a taxi arriving. This is not necessarily an advantage and it can so easily be merely dull.’ Hitchcock also admonishes Hollywood to remember the distinct nature of the cinematic form and be true to it, instead of making films as if they were simply the transposition of a novel or a stage play onto film.

By far the greater majority of full-length films are fiction films. The fiction film is created from a screenplay, and all the resources and techniques of the cinema are directed toward the successful realization on the screen of the screenplay. Any treatment of motion-picture production will naturally and logically begin, therefore, with a discussion of the screenplay.

The screenplay, which is sometimes known, also, as the scenario or film script, resembles the blueprint of the architect. It is the verbal design of the finished film. In studios where films are made in great numbers, and under industrial conditions, the writer prepares the screenplay under the supervision of a producer, who represents the budgetary and box-office concerns of the front office, and who may be responsible for several scripts simultaneously. Under ideal conditions, the screenplay is prepared by the writer in collaboration with the director. This practice, long the custom in Europe, has become more common in the United States with the increase of independent production. Indeed, not infrequently, the writer may also be the director.

Strangers On A Train (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
In its progress toward completion, the screenplay normally passes through certain stages; these stages have been established over the years and depend on the working habits of those engaged in writing it. The practice of these years has come to establish three main stages: (1) the outline; (2) the treatment; (3) the screenplay. The outline, as the term implies, gives the essence of the action or story and may present either an original idea or, more usually, one derived from a successful stage play or novel. The outline is then built up into the treatment. This is a prose narrative, written in the present tense, in greater or less detail, that reads like a description of what will finally appear on the screen. This treatment is broken down into screenplay form, which, like its stage counterpart, sets out the dialogue, describes the movements and reactions of the actors and at the same time gives the breakdown of the individual scenes, with some indication of the role, in each scene, of the camera and the sound. It likewise serves as a guide to the various technical departments: to the art department for the sets, to the casting department for the actors, to the costume department, to makeup, to the music department, and so on.

The writer, who should be as skilled in the dialogue of images as of words, must have the capacity to anticipate, visually and in detail, the finished film. The detailed screenplay, prepared ahead, not only saves time and money in production but also enables the director to hold securely to the unity of form and to the cinematic structure of the action, while leaving him free to work intimately and concentratedly with the actors.

Unlike the screenplays of today, the first scripts had no dramatic form, being merely lists of proposed scenes, and their content when filmed was strung together in the order listed. Anything that called for further explanation was covered in a title.

Step by step, as the form and scope of the film developed, the screenplay grew more and more detailed. The pioneer of these detailed screenplays was Thomas Ince, whose remarkable capacity for visualizing the finally edited film made a detailed script possible. In contrast were the talents of D.W. Griffith, who contributed more than almost any other single individual to the establishment of the technique of filmmaking, and who never used a script.

Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
By the early 1920s, the writer was meticulously indicating every shot, whereas today, when the scenarist writes less in images and gives more attention to dialogue, leaving the choice of images to the director, the tendency is to confine the script to the master scenes, so called because they are key scenes, covering whole sections of the action, as distinct from individual camera shots. This practice also follows on the increasingly common use of the novelist to adapt his own books; he is likely to be unfamiliar with the process of detailed dramatic and cinematic development. The dramatist, on the other hand, called onto adapt his play, is usually found to be more naturally disposed to do the work effectively. However, the scenarist is faced with a more difficult task than the dramatist. While the latter is, indeed, called upon to sustain the interest of an audience for three acts, these acts are broken up by intervals during which the audience can relax. The screenwriter is faced with the task of holding the attention of the audience for an uninterrupted two hours or longer. He must so grip their attention that they will stay on, held from scene to scene, till the climax is reached. Thus it is that, because screenwriting must build the action continuously, the stage dramatist, used to the building of successive climaxes, will tend to make a better film scenarist.

Sequences must never peter out but must carry the action forward, much as the car of a ratchet railway is carried forward, cog by cog. This is not to say that film is either theatre or novel. Its nearest parallel is the short story, which is as a rule concerned to sustain one idea and ends when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve. A novel may be read at intervals and with interruptions; a play has breaks between the acts; but the short story is rarely put down and in this it resembles the film, which makes a unique demand for uninterrupted attention upon its audience. This unique demand explains the need for a steady development of a plot and the creation of gripping situations arising out of the plot, all of which must be presented, above all, with visual skill. The alternative is interminable dialogue, which must inevitably send a cinema audience to sleep. The most powerful means of gripping attention is suspense. It can be either the suspense inherent in a situation or the suspense that has the audience asking, ‘What will happen next?’ It is indeed vital that they should ask themselves this question. Suspense is created by the process of giving the audience information that the character in the scene does not have. In The Wages of Fear, for example, the audience knew that the truck being driven over dangerous ground contained dynamite. This moved the question from, ‘What will happen next?’ to, ‘Will it happen next?’ What happens next is a question concerned with the behaviour of characters in given circumstances.

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
In the theatre, the performance of the actor carries the audience along. Thus dialogue and ideas suffice. This is not so in the motion picture. The broad structural elements of the story on the screen must be cloaked in atmosphere and character and, finally, in dialogue. If it is strong enough, the basic structure, with its inherent developments, will suffice to take care of the emotions of the audience, provided the element represented by the question ‘What happens next?’ is present. Often a successful play fails to make a successful film because this element is missing.

It is a temptation in adapting stage plays for the screenwriter to use the wider resources of the cinema, that is to say, to go outside, to follow the actor offstage. On Broadway, the action of the play may take place in one room. The scenarist, however, feels free to open up the set, to go outside more often than not. This is wrong. It is better to stay with the play. The action was structurally related by the playwright to three walls and the proscenium arch. It may well be, for example, that much of his drama depends on the question, ‘Who is at the door?’ This effect is ruined if the camera goes outside the room. It dissipates the dramatic tension. The departure from the more or less straightforward photographing of plays came with the growth of techniques proper to film, and the most significant of these occurred when Griffith took the camera and moved it in from its position at the proscenium arch, where Georges Méliès had placed it, to a close-up of the actor. The next step came when, improving on the earlier attempts of Edwin S. Porter and others, Griffith began to set the strips of film together in a sequence and rhythm that came to be known as montage; it took the action outside the confines of time and space, even as they apply to the theatre.

The stage play provides the screenwriter with a certain basic dramatic structure that may call, in adaptation, for little more than the dividing up of its scenes into a number of shorter scenes. The novel, on the other hand, is not structurally dramatic in the sense in which the word is applied to stage or screen. Therefore, in adapting a novel that is entirely compounded of words, the screenwriter must completely forget them and ask himself what the novel is about. All else – including characters and locale – is momentarily put aside. When this basic question has been answered, the writer starts to build up the story again.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The screenwriter does not have the same leisure as the novelist to build up his characters. He must do this side by side with the unfolding of the first part of the narrative. However, by way of compensation, he has other resources not available to the novelist or the dramatist, in particular the use of things. This is one of the ingredients of true cinema. To put things together visually; to tell the story visually; to embody the action in the juxtaposition of images that have their own specific language and emotional impact – that is cinema. Thus, it is possible to be cinematic in the confined space of a telephone booth. The writer places a couple in the booth. Their hands, he reveals, are touching; their lips meet; the pressure of one against the other unhooks the receiver. Now the operator can hear what passes between them. A step forward in the unfolding of the drama has been taken. When the audience sees such things on the screen, it will derive from these images the equivalent of the words in the novel, or of the expositional dialogue of the stage. Thus the screenwriter is no more limited by the booth than is the novelist. Hence it is wrong to suppose, as is all too commonly the case, that the strength of the motion picture lies in the fact that the camera can roam abroad, can go out of the room, for example, to show a taxi arriving. This is not necessarily an advantage and it can so easily be merely dull.

Things, then, are as important as actors to the writer. They can richly illustrate character. For example, a man may hold a knife in a very strange way. If the audience is looking for a murderer, it may conclude from this that this is the man they are after, misjudging an idiosyncrasy of his character. The skilled writer will know how to make effective use of such things. He will not fall into the uncinematic habit of relying too much on the dialogue. This is what happened on the appearance of sound. Filmmakers went to the other extreme. They filmed stage plays straight. Some indeed there are who believe that the day the talking picture arrived the art of the motion picture, as applied to the fiction film, died and passed to other kinds of film.

The truth is that with the triumph of dialogue, the motion picture has been stabilized as theatre. The mobility of the camera does nothing to alter this fact. Even though the camera may move along the sidewalk, it is still theatre. The characters sit in taxis and talk. They sit in automobiles and make love, and talk continuously. One result of this is a loss of cinematic style. Another is the loss of fantasy. Dialogue was introduced because it is realistic. The consequence was a loss of the art of reproducing life entirely in pictures. Yet the compromise arrived at, although made in the cause of realism, is not really true to life. Therefore the skilled writer will separate the two elements. If it is to be a dialogue scene, then he will make it one. If it is not, then he will make it visual, and he will always rely more on the visual than on dialogue. Sometimes he will have to decide between the two; namely, if the scene is to end with a visual statement, or with a line of dialogue. Whatever the choice made at the actual staging of the action, it must be one to hold the audience...

– Excerpt from ‘Alfred Hitchcock on film production (motion picture)’.  In the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1973).


Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Akira Kurosawa: On Screenwriting

Red Beard (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
In October 1990, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez visited Tokyo during the shooting of Akira Kurosawa’s penultimate feature, Rhapsody in August. García Márquez, who spent some years in Bogota as a film critic before penning landmark novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, spoke with Kurosawa for several hours on a number of subjects. In the following extract Kurosawa discusses how he approaches the task of writing a script:

Gabriel García Márquez: I don’t want this conversation between friends to seem like a press interview, but I just have this great curiosity to know a great many other things about you and your work. To begin with, I am interested to know how you write your scripts. First, because I am myself a scriptwriter. And second, because you have made stupendous adaptations of great literary works, and I have many doubts about the adaptations that have been made or could be made of mine.

Akira Kurosawa: When I conceive an original idea that I wish to turn into a script, I lock myself up in a hotel with paper and pencil. At that point I have a general idea of the plot, and I know more or less how it is going to end. If I don’t know what scene to begin with, I follow the stream of the ideas that spring up naturally.

García Márquez: Is the first thing that comes to your mind an idea or an image?

Kurosawa: I can’t explain it very well, but I think it all begins with several scattered images. By contrast, I know that scriptwriters here in Japan first create an overall view of the script, organizing it by scenes, and after systematizing the plot they begin to write. But I don’t think that is the right way to do it, since we are not God.

García Márquez: Has your method also been that intuitive when you have adapted Shakespeare or Gorky or Dostoevsky?

Kurosawa: Directors who make films halfway may not realize that it is very difficult to convey literary images to the audience through cinematic images. For instance, in adapting a detective novel in which a body was found next to the railroad tracks, a young director insisted that a certain spot corresponded perfectly with the one in the book. ‘You are wrong,’ I said. ‘The problem is that you have already read the novel and you know that a body was found next to the tracks. But for the people who have not read it there is nothing special about the place.’ That young director was captivated by the magical power of literature without realizing that cinematic images must be expressed in a different way.

García Márquez: Can you remember any image from real life that you consider impossible to express on film?

Kurosawa: Yes. That of a mining town named Ilidachi, where I worked as an assistant director when I was very young. The director had declared at first glance that the atmosphere was magnificent and strange, and that’s the reason we filmed it. But the images showed only a run-of-the-mill town, for they were missing something that was known to us: that the working conditions in (the town) are very dangerous, and that the women and children of the miners live in eternal fear for their safety. When one looks at the village one confuses the landscape with that feeling, and one perceives it as stranger than it actually is. But the camera does not see it with the same eyes.

García Márquez: The truth is that I know very few novelists who have been satisfied with the adaptation of their books for the screen. What experience have you had with your adaptations?

Kurosawa: Allow me, first, a question: Did you see my film Red Beard?

García Márquez: I have seen it six times in 20 years and I talked about it to my children almost every day until they were able to see it. So not only is it the one among your films best liked by my family and me, but also one of my favorites in the whole history of cinema.

Kurosawa: Red Beard constitutes a point of reference in my evolution. All of my films which precede it are different from the succeeding ones. It was the end of one stage and the beginning of another.

García Márquez: That is obvious. Furthermore, within the same film there are two scenes that are extreme in relation to the totality of your work, and they are both unforgettable; one is the praying mantis episode, and the other is the karate fight in the hospital courtyard.

Kurosawa: Yes, but what I wanted to tell you is that the author of the book, Shuguro Yamamoto, had always opposed having his novels made into films. He made an exception with Red Beard because I persisted with merciless obstinacy until I succeeded. Yet, when he had finished viewing the film he turned to look at me and said: ‘Well it’s more interesting than my novel.’

García Márquez: Why did he like it so much, I wonder?

Kurosawa: Because he had a clear awareness of the inherent characteristics of cinema. The only thing he requested of me was that I be very careful with the protagonist, a complete failure of a woman, as he saw her. But the curious thing is that the idea of a failed woman was not explicit in his novel.

García Márquez: Perhaps he thought it was. It is something that often happens to us novelists.

Kurosawa: So it is. In fact, upon seeing the films based on their books, some writers say: ‘That part of my novel is well portrayed.’ But they are actually referring to something that was added by the director. I understand what they are saying, because they may see clearly expressed on the screen, by sheer intuition on the part of the director, something they had meant to write but had not been able to.

García Márquez: It is a known fact: ‘Poets are mixers of poisons.’ But, to come back to your current film, will the typhoon be the most difficult thing to film?

Kurosawa: No. The most difficult thing was to work with the animals. Water serpents, rose-eating ants. Domesticated snakes are too accustomed to people, they don’t flee instinctively, and they behave like eels. The solution was to capture a huge wild snake, which kept trying with all its might to escape and was truly frightening. So it played its role very well. As for the ants, it was a question of getting them to climb up a rosebush in single file until they reached a rose. They were reluctant for a long time, until we made a trail of honey on the stem, and the ants climbed up. Actually, we had many difficulties, but it was worth it, because I learned a great deal about them.

García Márquez: Yes, so I’ve noticed. But what kind of film is this that is as likely to have problems with ants as with typhoons? What is the plot?

Kurosawa: It is very difficult to summarize in a few words.

García Márquez: Does somebody kill somebody?

Kurosawa: No. It’s simply about an old woman from Nagasaki who survived the atomic bomb and whose grandchildren went to visit her last summer. I have not filmed shockingly realistic scenes which would prove to be unbearable and yet would not explain in and of themselves the horror of the drama. What I would like to convey is the type of wounds the atomic bomb left in the heart of our people, and how they gradually began to heal. I remember the day of the bombing clearly, and even now I still can’t believe that it could have happened in the real world. But the worst part is that the Japanese have already cast it into oblivion.

– Extract from: García Márquez / Kurosawa (via
Full article here