THE POWER OF THE PRINTED WORD — THE SCREENPLAY AS A LITERARY ART FORM

Eck 2We laid a dear friend to rest this week. But his legacy is alive and well in the hearts of those who knew him. He instilled in us all a deep appreciation for the value of the printed word. Jim preached to any who would listen something to the effect: “Modern digital gadgetry can never replace an open book.”

I have a ton of books on shelves throughout my house. My office is cramped with loaded bookshelves. I can find the Kindle version of nearly all of them, but in no way would it be the same. When taking one of my books off the shelf and opening the front cover, the first thing one sees is a sticker beginning with, “This Book Belong To…” But why isn’t the same claim of ownership true ofbookshelf digital editions? Well, it’s not just the text that makes the book especially mine, its the margin notes; the underlines; highlights; and page references scribbled on the blank pages following the back matter. I open a text I purchased in 1973 and find notes scribbled everywhere that bring the volume to life once again. The thoughts that made the writing important to me at the time are revived decades later because they’re preserved in a printed book.

I’m looking at a book now that I once thought would make a great screen adaptation. I still think it would. But what were the ideas that surfaced as I read the book years ago? Open the book, and there they are—notes preserved through the years. Just waiting to be discovered again.

So now I’ll specifically address the screenplay genre. What is sometimes overlooked is that we’re not just writing movies between FADE IN and FADE OUT, we’re writing a literary piece that stands on its own merit. screenplay bookThis is why we pay close attention to grammar, construction, spelling and the like. Of course we take shortcuts and write incomplete sentences. Sure we write concisely with exacting precision. But that’s what separates this genre of literature from all the rest.

I had aspirations of being a novelist earlier on. I made several submissions, receiving, in return, nibbles with less conviction than minnows around an empty hook. I came to the conclusion that something was missing. I needed to sharpen my writing skills. So I started attending the writing workshops. It happened at a workshop at Arizona State. A reader told me point blank, “You’re writing screenplays, not novels.” There it was and that led me down a less traveled road that I have not regretted. It’s kinda like the story of the Ugly Duckling. The little creature wasn’t an ugly duckling at all, but a displaced swan. Among its own kind it was ugly no more.

So, screenplays are a genre of literature that read like none other. I recently read a screenplay by one of my moviemaking heroes, Yasujiro Ozu. The play is “Tokyo Story” which he wrote with Kogo Noda. The movie Tokyo Storyhe directed is brilliant. It is, of course, subtitled and that gets in the way just a tad. When looking away from the screen one risks missing an important piece of dialogue. The published screenplay fills in the blanks and is a book on the bookshelf that matches any other great piece of literature.

The same holds true for a volume by Mike Leigh containing Naked and other screenplays. I’ve seen his movies, but reading the plays brings as much pleasure as Melville or Joyce.

I’m sure you’ve heard someone remark about a movie, “It wasn’t like the book at all,” or “I enjoyed the book much more.” There’s a reason for that. Being spoon fed on the big screen is entertaining, but seldom wholly satisfying. Words in a good book, however, suck the imaginative juices out of the very marrow of one’s soul. I’m looking at an example right now. Raintree County. Listen to this:

“I didn’t exist before or after. I exist always. It’s a riddle of Time. Time was when Time was not. Man doesn’t live in Time, but Time in man, eternal conjugator of the verb To Be.”

I read that while in “the field” with my Army unit. I got to that paragraph and had to close the book and think. I thought about it while riding in a jeep over rough terrain. I thought about it while shoveling down C Rations. I guard dutyraintreethought about it as I stood on guard duty in the middle of the night. I thought about it when snuggled in my sleeping bag. It wasn’t until our convoy wound its way back to the base that I finally, somewhat feebly, understood Lockridge’s words. No movie has ever plunged into the depths my my mind in that way. Certainly not the 1957 film by the same name starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. That’s the power of the written word. It accesses all of the senses.

While reading Ernie Pyle I can actually smell the gun smoke and feel the roar of the Howitzer.

As we write a screenplay, we are contributing to an endless body of literature that never dies. The only electronic gear one needs to enjoy a good book is a reading lamp. With a bound screenplay in hand, one can read a scene, then stop, digest it, read it again, and make notes in the margin. Try that with a DVD.

Of course we must conserve words and nix the flowery descriptions to eliminate wasted space. But the genius of our genre is that we write tight without sacrificing story. An able screenwriter writes on a page that which would perhaps take a whole chapter in a novel. And, by the way, it’s perfectly O.K. to wax eloquent now and then.

Here’s a snippet from scene 108 on the printed page of Ghost World by Clowes and Zwigoff.

“She continues walking. The sun has set and there is a calm stillness to the city. She turns a corner ghost worldand is startled by her reflection in a large window made of one-way glass. She stops and looks at herself. Everything about her looks perfect for once. No need to change a thing.”

Now, in the context of what’s gone before, that’s a literary jewel. That’s the power of the written word. Try as she might, a director is hard pressed to capture with the camera that which the mind captures from the page.

Nothing can replace the written word, and you, dear writer, though you write for a visual medium, have the grand opportunity to contribute to the body of literature stories that pass on from generation to generation; stories that in time may well fall in among the classics listed on a College sophomore’s reading list.

A SCREENWRITER’S DOWNSITTIN’S AND UPRISIN’S

Eck 2No work compares with that of a screenwriter insofar as the height of the highs and depth of the lows. Members of our profession spend more time making repairs than General Motors. For most of us, unfortunately, the lows outweigh the highs. By that I mean the probability of not selling our product is staggeringly greater than making a sale. Sure, just the writing of a good story has its own reward, but lets face it, that pony can only be ridden so far before it’s exhausted.

The old Psalmist knew something about highs and lows. King David took great comfort in knowing that his God was with him during the down sitting and downsittingagain in the uprising. (“Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising, thou understandeth my thought afar off.” Psalm 139:2) I love that phrase. I was in the hospital once and my cellmate was an elderly African-American preacher. His health was rapidly failing. His family had forsaken him. He was dependent on public assistance for his welfare. “But through it all,” he’d say, “The Lord He knows my downsittin’s and my uprisin’s. He knows when I’m up, and, thank Jesus, he knows when I’m down.”

A screenwriter may not have that kind of faith to draw from, but there is within our fraternity some satisfaction in knowing we’re not alone in our passions. From Quentin Tarantino to the unknown writer who might line live just down the street, the mind wars are all the same. Up is up, and down is down.

Perhaps the downer of downers arises out of a writer’s fear of rejection. If someone rejectiondoesn’t like my work, they don’t like me. If flaws are identified in my script, I am flawed. If I can’t sell a screenplay, then my self-worth is zero. Our psychiatrists are quick to point out that one should not tie one’s well-being to the opinion of others. But in our business it’s unavoidable. We are our work, and our work is us. The words on the page are extensions of the thoughts, the ideas, and the inspiration of my inner being. If my second act is flawed, I am flawed and to fix it I must fix myself. I must rearrange the index cards in my cerebral cortex before anything significant can be achieved on the cork board.

We’re the only profession that spends ninety percent of our time fixing our product. recallEven General Motors has fewer recalls than a screenwriter. How does one deal with that? I think, if nothing else, it lifts one’s spirit to rehearse the following:

1. The ups and downs are the norm.
2. I am not in this thing alone.
3. I’m doing what I want to do.

I love the old spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” It’s all about down sittings and uprisings.

Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)

The spirituals were about hope in the midst of tribulation. Our tribulations are infinitely smaller than those of the workers on the cotton plantations, but the words speak to us nonetheless. Do you know what one of the greatest sources of courage was for slaves in the field? Each another. Generally, no one was alone. One sang his song and others joined in.

Here’s the deal, fellow screenwriters. Yours is a life of downsittin’s and uprisin’s, but you do not, I repeat, you do not sing the song of your struggles alone.

Here. Sing along with this. I’ll join you.

Back to the Moviemaking Basics

Several NFL teams are having unexpectedly poor seasons. Invariably, when asked for an explanation, the coach replies with a version of, “We’ve gotta get back to the basics.”

This applies to any walk in life, and most assuredly to the filmmaking business. It’s so easy to get caught up in the technology and the trends, one forgets the roots.

One is never more into basics than when fresh out of film school. Recently I was able to surround myself with some young people who were either graduates, students, or soon-to-be students in some area of filmmaking.

Together we produced a short film using basic equipment on a near zero budget. All-in-all they created a product worthy of short film competition at a few film festivals. Oh sure, this isn’t Sundance quality work, but with the myriad festivals now, they’ll be able to find hospitable hosts.

An excellent by-product of the work was discovering a film-ready community. Douglas, Georgia wholeheartedly opened their doors to our production team. Everyone from the Mayor to the emergency responders were unbelievably cooperative and enthusiastic about the project.

I highly recommend this city to other filmmakers. As we begin post-production for a feature-length film, “Some Glad Morning,” it is for certain that the first location we will scout is Douglas, GA, and Coffee County.

So, my advice to screenwriters and aspiring moviemakers is to get a camera, get outside, and make a movie. A short film isn’t that difficult, and I can tell you that your screenwriting will be ratcheted up a couple notches when your words on the page become action and dialogue on the set. If the page doesn’t translate to the camera, more than likely heeding the advice of the NFL coaches will fix the problem. The Coen Brothers can scribble a hit on a napkin as effortlessly as Peyton Manning flings a pass. But for you and me, our best shot comes with a return to the basics.

Spurrier’s Passion

Eck 2It happened again. And again, and again, and again. Steve Spurrier’s drive to defeat the University of Georgia runs so deep, his season is never a success unless he’s brought down the Dawgs. Here’s the backstory (and writers love backstories):

Some are not old enough to remember. Others may have forgotten. But here’s the story behind Spurrier’s relentless drive to defeat Georgia at all costs.

Vince Dooley was the head coach at Georgia from 1964-1966 when Spurrier was the starting quarterback for the University of Florida. Spurrier and the Gators never beat Dooley’s Dawgs.

Spurrier

Bulldogs Hound Quarterback Steve Spurrier

In 1966, the Gators had managed a perfect 7-0 record leading up to the annual “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” matchup in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.

Dooley and his defensive coordinator, Erk Russell came up with an innovative game plan and the Bulldogs repeatedly sacked and battered Spurrier on the way to a 27-10 Georgia victory.

Spurrier went on to win the Heisman Trophy that year, but the loss against Georgia cost Spurrier and the Gators their first SEC championship. The “Evil Genius” has acknowledged that the loss was among the most painful he ever absorbed and it manifest itself in later years when he was coaching the Gators and continually running up the score in victories over Georgia.

Before it was all said and done the Coach had a 16-6 record against Georgia while at Florida.

With Spurrier out of the picture, Georgia would own Florida from 1990 to 2005 with a 14-2 record. But then, as ill fate would have it, Spurrier shows up at South Carolina, and it begins again.

Dooley retired before Spurrier became head coach, so they never faced each other. Oh, that it were possible to alter the space-time continuum to put those two on the field at the same time. I wonder… hmm… I feel a screenplay emerging.

The Movies and a Culture of Domestic Violence

Eck 2I didn’t watch the Thursday night football game between Baltimore and Pittsburg. This represents a personal milestone for an heretofore avid fan of the game. In the wake of the Ray Rice incident, and the revelation that spousal abuse is not uncommon among professional athletes, it was just too much. The joy was gone. What compounds these scandalous reports is that, for the NFL, it was just business as usual. Oh, a few token actions were taken, and on-camera apologizes were made, but ultimately nothing has changed, other than Rice losing his job.

The fact remains, however, that this would have been just one more such case to be swept under the rug, had it not been for the now infamous security tape of Rice punching Janay’s lights out. My boycott of anything NFL will go unnoticed as the millions of dollars continue to pour into professional football. Ultimately, the league and team owners and administrators would rather just forget the reality that they are, in some instances, employing thugs who brutalize, or at the least dehumanize, women. These guys are billion dollar assets. And fans clamber to see their teams win.

But enough about sports. The tape that brought Ray Rice down brought about a collective gasp (or at least a gulp) among viewers who saw it on the evening news. Here’s the thing though — and this gets closer to home — as of this writing, the tape continues to air hundreds of time a day on  ESPN, CNN, Fox News, and other news outlets in the U.S. and abroad. The question I have asked is, “Why?” The first airings of the unconscionable act served their purpose. The world knows a terrible crime was inflicted on a female by a muscular football star. The wheels began turning in the league offices. Investigations began. Rice lost his job. But enough, already, on showing the tapes. If the media is so appalled that a woman has been abused in this way, why continue abusing her by playing the video over and over? No one’s going to say this, so I will. In a dark corner, deep within the human heart, we want to see it. That animal nature that resides in the reptilian complex of the human brain shows itself when abhorrence is replaced with curiosity in the face of violent acts. After all, some, not all, NASCAR fans are drawn to the sport by the thrill of witnessing a twenty car pileup. So, one of the news media’s most reliable tools to garner viewership is footage of violent events. The unthinkable happened when two American news reporters were beheaded by ISIS. The tape produced by the fiendish perpetrators was shown over and over for days after the the damnable acts occurred. Sometimes the showing was prefaced by, “You may not want to watch this.” Then why broadcast something that the public might not want to watch? Because the masses do want to see it. The ratings prove it. The actual beheadings were not seen, but the poor miserable victims awaiting their fate were splashed across every 80 inch Hi Def screen in America, without a thought about how this must have affected the families of the victims.

So, the media knows how to cash in on violence, and so does the movie industry. I’m posting a short video with examples of men smacking women that was, and is,  a staple ingredient in the movies. The only difference in acts of violence against women earlier on, and in recent years, is that the violence has become more violent. But certainly the seeds were planted during the period of the black and whites.

I remember when a woman getting whacked on the screen was so common, it was expected. In some instances such acts were even presented as comical. Women in these instances were portrayed as weak and lower on the food chain — even deserving of being knocked around. Here are some examples.

I’m writing the third draft of a movie in which the lead character finds himself in a state of deep depression after his wife leaves him. As it was first written one might assume that his wife is the root of his misery. A scarlet woman leaving her man who can’t cope with her departure. The backstory paints a different picture. My hero was responsible for his woes by verbally abusing his wife after they experienced the most traumatic of events — the death of a child. But this wasn’t clear in the script, so, being more sensitized these days to the stereotyping of women, I did a little rewriting in that area, bringing the backstory forward with more clarity.

What shall we say to these things, then? The movie industry has been a force for social change throughout most of its history. In some cases, however,  the movies have been slow to act because, like the NFL, ticket sales drive the market. Its scorecard on domestic violence and the abuse of women reflects more strikeouts than home runs. You and I can’t change the driving forces in Hollywood. But we can change the way we write and make films. And I can refuse to support those entities with a culture of violent acts committed against women.