I’ve used this space to comment on the excessive and anal influences of a group I call “The Screenwriting Priesthood.” Essentially I’ve argued that these folks have a counter-productive, often profound effect on new writing and new writers. They impose by the fiat of their so-called “expertise” a set of varying rules that have the effect of “hamstringing” material before it is able to find interest. I’ve made the case for the absurdity of some of these “rules.” Now I’d like to make a case for the need to ignore them entirely, except as guidelines, rules of thumb.
“Spec” scripts are scripts written speculatively, or without assignment by a producer, studio, or buyer of some sort. They are scripts that are entirely generated by the writer, him or herself. Spec scripts written by established professional screenwriters are not the same as specs written by new screenwriters. New writers have a great deal more to prove, a great deal more industry resistance to overcome in achieving a serious reading and evaluation by the industry. The Priesthood would tell you that this makes following their rules crucial. And to the extent they don’t hurt the reasonable communication of the writer’s story in cinematic terms, I might agree. But that’s where I’d also draw the line.
Certainly, new writers should play the game within the conventions: follow the accepted format and length strictures reasonably, and use Courier 12 pt. font, because these result in a finished work that can be assessed for screen time and budget better than deviating from such conventions allows. And there’s the psychological effect, too: if it looks right, one powerful reason to say, “No!” is eliminated. I would even go so far as to agree with the white-covers-and-two-brass-brads “rule” because, what does it cost you? Nothing. So, play their game and learn to pick your battles.
But then we find ourselves confronting the various rules over content. These are things like: dialogue speeches never exceeding three sentences; scenes never exceeding three pages; no flashbacks; no voice-over narration; no parenthetical dialogue direction unless it is not obvious from the dialogue itself; no montages (a successive series of images to truncate an unusual time span or substantial narrative material); no editor directions; no camera directions; etc., etc. Even these are generally good guidelines. They tend to keep the script simpler, more readable, jargon-free, and shorter. So they should always be present in the writer’s mind while working, but only as suggestions.
My greater problem with such rules, however, lies more in their enforcement than in their presence. Let us say that the writer needs to indicate some actor behavior during half a dozen lines of dialogue in which the reason for it is found in the subtext within the dialogue rather than in the surface dialogue. And, let’s say that subtext depended on action from ten pages earlier. The script is handed in and much like the cop stopping the driver for going 38 in a 35 mph zone, the Priesthood rejects the script with “Extreme Prejudice,” crying, “Foul!” for “intruding” on the actor’s territory. Why? Because many industry readers initially read only the dialogue in order to get through more scripts in a day than had they carefully read every word. In this way, our reader interpreted the parenthetical dialogue direction improperly. The reader understood it from the surface dialogue rather than the prior-action-based subtext of which, having missed it, he/she was unaware. The reader felt the direction “too-obvious” from the dialogue, and not “subtly-ironic,” as it was designed, coming from the subtext.
Is this too subtle or rare an example for you?
Well, then, let’s say that the writer inserts purely surface-level, character-based parenthetical instructions into the script. As expected, the Priesthood’s knees jerk, and they move on to the next script. Where is the legislation that says, “you can tell a director of photography that the sunset is gloriously red, but you can’t tell an actor that the character he plays has a nervous tic and he stutters, even if the script depends on it” (this, ostensibly because that’s up to the actor to contribute)? Remember, we’re talking about a spec script by our unknown screenwriter, here, not something already in the pipeline with stars and director lined up. This stuff, then, is nothing but power plays by people all too full of themselves, enabled by an industry that is terrified not to cater to them. Spec scripts have no actors yet, but their vision must be conveyed, all the same.
Okay, let’s try another. Let’s say the writer inserts a one-page montage sequence to depict an action by the protagonist that covers six months of narrative time. It is necessary to establish this action in order to support motivation for later action that would otherwise seem unfounded and excessive. The “high-priest” stops reading at “MONTAGE:” (right then and there) because it’s “old-fashioned,” and “Montages are the last resort of a weak script!” There’s no consideration given for the writer’s choice to use it, or its appropriateness in that particular story. The unstated assumption is that the writer doesn’t know how to correctly use montages because that writer is new, and, besides, there has to be a better way to get the information across.
Let’s look at some of these “better ways,” these montage-alternatives: The writer gives us twenty pages of correctly-formatted screenplay covering the events in the one-page montage. Now the script goes 140 pages instead of 120. But the “rules” are followed. Oh, yeah, not quite: now the 120 page limit is exceeded. Oops. So, let’s try another tack: the events are cut, instead. Or, maybe they are referred to, but only in a single line of expository dialogue. This time the script is rejected because the later behavior of the character is insufficiently supported, preposterous, even, not to mention that the dialogue is now “expositional” and “stilted.” The same group that wants shorter scripts argues against an established technique that has the ability to shorten the script by nearly twenty per-cent, and all because of the fashion-of-the-day, and adherence to some Priesthood-imposed “Table” of the “Laws of Screenwriting.”
The Priesthood is fond of arguing that major writers are “allowed” to break such rules because they have a proven track record. This seems to argue that professionals have earned such a right, and that the needs of the material, the needs of the audience, are irrelevant. They seem to be saying that the audience “gives a damn” for such “inside-baseball” justifications when all they really care about is that it’s a good movie. TIP - Major new writers, invariably, have emerged because they broke the rules, not because they waited until it was “okay.” They became “major new writers” because their stories stood out from the pack. Why? Because, as experts on their stories, they communicated their vision as they saw it. And because everyone else, that “pack” typing away into FINAL DRAFT and MOVIE MAGIC, was busy following those rules!
Has no one noticed how often the movies we hold up as leaders and innovators break the Priesthood’s rules? Has no one noticed how few credits their innovating writers often have when said rules were broken? The Priesthood’s party-line that rules may be broken only when the writer’s track record is firmly in place (i.e., when the Priesthood’s own influence is firmly trumped anyway) has no basis. David Lynch’s first feature, ERASERHEAD, didn’t just break the rules, it wasn’t even in their universe! It would’ve been turned into the cinematic equivalent of processed cheese had it conformed to them. Because of the flashbacks alone, Christopher McQuarrie’s script, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, couldn’t have been written had it been forced to follow the Priesthood’s rules. Joel and Ethan Coen’s script, RAISING ARIZONA, would have been scorned merely on the basis of its excessive narration. And Quentin Tarantino’s third produced script, PULP FICTION, thanks just to the length of it (and its two predecessors’) dialogue scenes, would have resulted in his being sent to a series of guru seminars for re-education. Tarantino doesn’t just ignore the rules of screenwriting, with his INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, he ignores the rules of the language, itself!
Ultimately, the Priesthood demonstrates the fallacy of its own dictums when it lauds screenwriters and filmmakers like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher McQuarrie, the Coens, and Charlie Kaufman, yet derides new screenwriters who practice similar techniques, all on the grounds they have no track record. What was Kaufman’s track record before BEING JOHN MALKOVICH? It was a lot of television, and not of the incredibly ground-breaking kind, either. And that’s fine! So, what?
Spec scripts from unknown writers have a much greater disadvantage than merely being unsolicited and from non-professionals. Thanks to the Priesthood’s rules, any specification, other than action and dialogue as seen or heard onscreen, has been denied them. Yet as we’ve said, they must somehow communicate the film from their writer’s vision without other elements in place like director or star. It is crucial that they put flesh and blood on that otherwise skeletal plan (which is, as Paul Schrader once described, less, even, than a blueprint). They must find and win new readers and buyers by seducing them with techniques, style, tone, texture, and nuance not yet contributed by performance, direction, camera, and editing; not yet implied by their natural yet woefully inadequate track record. I mean, it’s a wonder new screenwriters sell anything!
Spec scripts are not the movies they describe. A spec script is a reading script. At this point the movie exists only in the reader’s mind based on what’s on the page. It had better make an impression. Spec scripts are sales tools. Their task is to sell the movie, not just present some words. It must get the screenwriter’s vision across at all costs because only then can it stand out sufficiently to acquire necessary interest. Such touches may be the only advantage (other than price) that the unknown writer has.
Taking its cue from, and emerging out of the same non-thinking that spawned the auteur theory, the Priesthood is all about power: It chooses, indeed, needs to see a spec draft as a shooting draft without the scene numbers. It allows no room for creation ahead of the “real” film-makers: the director and actors. It sees the writer as little more than a typist who, inexplicably, somehow knows the story the director and actors want to tell. And, since the Priesthood, too, precedes any sale of the material, the reason is all about wresting, holding, and protecting its own power and authority, rather than getting to good films.
New writers need to take control of their scripts’ fate, to push this “literary paparazzi” of a Priesthood aside and render their potent vision. As Milton Berle once said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door!”#
Lee A. Matthias