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.


Vera said...

Well put, Jared. I had exactly the same feelings about "An Education" - haven't read "Single Man" yet but now I certainly will.

I do wonder, however, how big the chances are that my perfect blueprint script - once I've written it - will get past readers into the hands of the actor / director / producer it deserves...

Janet van Eeden said...

Wow it is difficult Jared, and Vera puts it succinctly. What a gift that those scripts didn't hit a blinkered script editor or director. We have chosen one of the most difficult professions in the world where what we write is at the mercy of so many people's opinions before it gets anywhere near a screen. Think that's why I spent a few minutes in my shed crying on Wednesday. It's just been so damn HARD to get to this point. But I'm digressing.

Am going to read An Education and Single Man in the next few days. Both of them have created such a buzz. It sounds like the scripts are the equivalent of Hilary's Swank's acting. A friend of mine worked with her on Red Dust and was so concerned that she hardly showed any emotion during takes. He thought her role was severely underplayed. Until he saw her performance on screen. Love her or hate her, she has mastered nuanced film acting with an ability to create huge swathes of emotions using just a twitch of her eyelid. Now if only I could get my writing to be as powerful in a minimalist way. Fascinating blog Jared.

Ellin Stein said...

I read a version of Up In the Air, and it was missing the whole opening monologue. This version of the script started with him giving the self-help seminar, so that whole V.O. explanation about what he does and the cameos by the recently laid-off must have been added at a later stage. Interesting, no?