Tuesday, February 23, 2010

BAFTA: from the page to the screen

Inspiration shouldn't be short in the world of screenwriting with last night's BAFTA results. The best film and the best short film were both directed by women, which is fantastic news, and two great scripts, Up In The Air and The Hurt Locker, deservedly won their respective awards, with the added thrill that the best original screenplay went to a script with a protagonist who (sshhhh, say it quietly...) doesn’t change. How many readers would return that script with well-rehearsed notes demanding more character arc, more resolution, more depth, more... insert guru quote here... further proof that if you write something that damn well the truth will always be more powerful than the idea. In keeping with that, an honorable mention goes to the stunning Un Proph├Ęte for winning the Best Foreign Language Film with a story that contained a mesmerising protagonist with hardly any back story or character exposition. Superb.

The two best actor wins may also be something worth thinking about. At the time of reading them I remember feeling that both scripts (An Education and A Single Man) were similar in being so basic in their execution I wondered how they would be received in the hands of the right actor. They felt like blueprints in the truest sense, nothing exciting as written but everything laid out clearly giving the actors free reign and space to do what they do best. Whether that was a conscious decision or a stylistic choice, who knows, but it certainly paid dividends for those actors, and it’s certainly arguable as to whether that’s exactly what a screenplay should be: no embellishments whatsoever, just a basic template to inspire others to work their magic.

My gut feeling on reading them centered on the main character roles, and although there were elements of both scripts that didn’t quite click for me, I genuinely felt excited at the potential for those main roles, especially in An Education, as it read as such a rare and great opportunity for a young female actress. What struck a chord with me (as someone who is moved very easily by writing) is that I didn’t *feel* either script and thought there was a distinct lack of emotion, more so in An Education, but both scripts have been bugging me since reading them, and the subsequent BAFTA wins got me thinking about them and about my own writing and this confusing discipline as a whole.

There are so many obstacles to getting your script produced, but writing such an appealing lead part can only increase the chances of a great actor championing your cause, even if the narrative is a bit creaky or slightly lacking in places, and even if the overall effect of reading the script isn’t particularly emotionally gripping. Just because I didn’t feel emotion from the page doesn’t mean some wonderful actor won’t then reduce me to tears with their interpretation. So what was it about those two characters that laid the groundwork for two storming award-winning performances?

They are both iconic figures. They are both very representative of their time and place in history. A desperately lonely gay man in a repressed 60s society and a confused rebellious girl in a repressed 60s society. They aren’t just characters dropped into any old setting, they are characters that helped define their generation. Throw into the mix a few universal themes of love, loss, despair and humiliation, and it doesn’t get much bigger than that.

When characters step off the page and in front of a camera lens the magic kicks in. The power of film to communicate and provoke visually on such a primitive level is unrivalled by anything literature or theatre can offer, from camera angles, framing, editing, lighting, point of view, music, and is why most writers would benefit hugely from a greater understanding, awareness and confidence in the power of the camera to communicate through imagery, often in a way that reaches out to us at a subconscious level. Being constantly aware of that, and being able to write into our scripts that intangible magical something, is what separates the good from the great.

Shit. This doesn’t get any easier.