Monday Prescription – 5 jobs a screenwriter must do (with examples from Awards-season screenplays)

Hi Film Folk,

This week, The Film Doctor team would like to focus on the multiple jobs a screenwriter must fulfil when writing his/her screenplay.

All too often, we see missed opportunities, undeveloped characters or descriptions that just don’t conjure any images at all… and some that try for too many! So what’s the sweet spot? Well, it’s a balancing act. It’s the trick of shape-shifting between various jobs and sticking to your own. It’s getting things ‘juuuust right’.

Today, we’ll look at the various roles a screenwriter must play, using examples from awards-season screenplays, including Twelve Years a SlaveAll is lost, August: Osage County, Kill Your Darlings and The Place Beyond the Pines.

 

Film Doctor - Screenwriter

 

Here we go:

 

5 JOBS A SCREENWRITER MUST DO FOR THEIR SCREENPLAY

 

1. Cinematographer – The screenwriter is the first image-creator in the motion picture business. The words you choose must create a scene inside the head of the reader. You don’t need to write long, poetic passages.

Take these 2 examples:

 

AN ENDLESS SKY AT TWILIGHT

Foreboding. Heat lightning in the distance. Miles of unforgiving, summer-scorched prairie.

(August: Osage County by Tracy Letts)

 

EXT. RIVERSIDE PARK – NIGHT

Underwater.

Shafts of eroded light slice into the depths of the Hudson River. The ghostly melody of “Lili Marlene,” the ache of the war-time lover, plays as a strange SHADOW drifts into view.

(Kill Your Darlings by John Krokidas and Austin Bunn)

 

See what atmosphere and images these sections create with such little wording. Think about the light, think about the spacing, think about the atmosphere. Then write it.






 

2.  Production Designer This is similar to Cinematographer, but here you’re drawing importance to certain objects by paying them attention. When is a desk just a desk and when is it something more than that? A briefcase full of money can be the the entire focus of a story in the gangster genre, for example, but just a small incidental thing in a different film. The description and length of time we spend on the objects must be proportionate to their importance in the story. Create those images in the reader’s head.

Here are 2 examples:

 

We are close on a PAIR OF BLACK HANDS as they open A FINELY WRAPPED PACKET OF VIOLIN STRINGS.

(Twelve Years a Slave by John Ridley)

 

INT. ALLEN’S DORM ROOM – DAY

Allen sets his bag on his bed. He notices on one wall are patriotic posters, exercise posters. He’s already got a roommate.

He eyes a map of the New York City subway system. He can’t believe he’s really here in the big city. He walks over to it.

Allen studies the map, his finger gliding down to Greenwich Village.

(Kill Your Darlings by John Krokidas and Austin Bunn)

 

The packet in Twelve Years a Slave presumably is of some importance. It is ‘finely wrapped’. The map in Kill Your Darlings serves to illustrate Allen’s feelings/thoughts about the city. We can not hear his thoughts and this visual move to the map shows us instead. The posters explain to us what kind of person the character he’s moving in with is.




 

3. Editor/Sound Designer – A screenwriter must be thinking about how the scenes and images will come together in the editing room, how sound will play an important part and at what moments. It goes without saying, the more words used to describe a scene, the longer the reader feels we will be seeing it on the screen. Take this example of quick cuts from The Place Beyond the Pines:

 

EXT. ALTAMONT FAIR. NIGHT. 

Engine gunning, Luke circles the inside of the steel cage in a rage. He is on the verge of crashing. The audience rapt.

 

LATER 

ROADIES and performers pack up the steel cage. Luke wanders through the activity and ignores the throngs of kids seeking autographs. He searches the fair for Romina. She is nowhere to be found. He mounts his bike.

 

EXT. ROUTE 5 – NIGHT 

Raging, Luke drives fast through the night streets.

 

EXT./INT. TWO FAMILY HOUSE – LATER. 

MALENA, 47, Guatemalan, opens the door in nurse’s scrubs. Instantly, she recognizes Luke.

(The Place Beyond the Pines by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio & Darius Marder)

 

Sounds are incredibly important for all films and particularly important at creating atmosphere and story beats in a screenplay. Take this example:

 

THE SCREEN IS BLACK

We hear the sounds of gentle waves.

V/O: 13th of July, 4:50 pm. I’m sorry… I know that means little at this point, but I am.

The sound of water peacefully running against the bow (front) of a boat.  A terrible crunching and ripping noise echoes through the small space.

(All is Lost by J.C. Chandor – V/O shortened for brevity)

 

Film Doctor - All is Lost

 

4. Performer – The screenwriter must become many characters during the writing of their screenplay. As The Great Gastby writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said ‘Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.’ Whether the characters are subtly designed and naturalistic or leap off the page in a Tarantino/Sorkin/McCarthy ‘writer’s voice’ fashion, what they say and do must be specific to that character and define them. It might be writing that they waddle or strut instead of bland, indistinctive ‘walk’.

It’ll certainly be in their interactions and treatment of other characters. Take this example from August: Osage County:

 

MATTIE FAE
What was it I caught you watching the other day?

LITTLE CHARLES
I don’t remember.

CHARLIE
Mattie Fae —

MATTIE FAE
You do so remember, some dumb talk * show about people swapping wives.

LITTLE CHARLES
I don’t remember.

MATTIE FAE
You don’t remember.
(to Ivy)
Too bad there isn’t a job where they pay you to sit around watching TV.

(August: Osage County by Tracy Letts)

 

In the above scene excerpt, the conflict occurs at the family dinner table where other extended family are present. Little Charles is depicted as mousey beforehand and is given little dialogue. He is in his mid-30s and Mattie Fae and Charles are his parents. Mattie Fae’s  treatment of Little Charles goes a long way towards explaining what their relationship is. Little Charles’ answers deliberately avoid the confrontation and Charles intervention shows that this is something that occurs on a regular enough basis.  The fact that it all occurs at the dinner table in front of other people says something, in particular about Mattie Fae, who started the conflict.

 

Film Doctor - August: Osage County

 

5. ProducerThis part isn’t so much to do with the creative ‘craft side’, but having the business skills to commit to the right concept/project. Think about your circumstances. Which film industry people do you have access to, if any? What credits do you already have, if any? Real credits. You must write films that will attract the people whose work you admire into your space.

Certainly, you must write something that is of a low risk to produce and requires little money.

Forget the named talent (acting, writing and directing) in August: Osage County, look at the number of locations. It’s 90% set in the Weston household. It’s cost-effective to produce.

 

NB/ The Film Doctor Team always recommend taking a long hard look in the mirror before embarking on any creative journey. Are you really a writer? Or are you just doing it out of necessity (because you want to direct something or act in something)?? Maybe it’s better to collaborate with/hire somebody committed to writing? We cover such topics in ‘Can you really be a multi-hyphenate writer/director/actor?’ and ‘Are you meant to direct?’

 
We hope this post was helpful. Now read 5 things a screenwriter must NOT do.
 
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Have a great week!
 
The Film Doctor Team
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