‘Film is a visual medium’. So goes the screenwriter’s favourite truism. And hence the most sublime joy of reading screenplays: the language of scene action. I’m not denying the pleasures of the cinematic experience for one moment. But the literary pleasures to be had from reading well-written scene action can be extremely powerful – and yet are largely overlooked.
As with prose fiction, approaches to scene action fall into different ‘schools’. There are the ‘Purists’, worshipping at the altar of clear sentences and precisely chosen images. ‘Show, don’t tell,’ they chant to themselves as they tap away in Final Draft. As the script ‘guru’ Billy Mernit put it last year in his blog, the conventional approach to scene action pushes the writer not to ‘over-explain’ or ‘pre-direct’ the story events he or she is trying to depict. ‘Be clear, be precise… your prose should be as spare and smart as a Raymond Carver story.’
This advice has a lot to recommend it. But Mernit acknowledged that some successful screenwriters also break this cardinal rule, citing the scripts for Oscar-winners Milk and Slumdog Millionaire – and this is where variations on the Purists’ method can produce exciting literary experiences. For instance, there are the screenplay equivalents of the Beats, proponents of an anarchic brand of stream-of-consciousness that releases the story on to the page one manic fragment at a time. From the first draft of Bad Lieutenant by Abel Ferrara and Zoe Lund:
LT leaps up. He’s on a manic roll. Conceives an insanely captivating, impossible idea. As he speaks, he speeds more and more until he seems to be reciting a rapid-fire tongue twister perfect.
The broken grammar and gathering momentum of the language is ideal for portraying a scene where our anti-hero, the Lieutenant of the title, is blitzed on an intravenous cocktail of heroin and cocaine with the bad guys steadily closing in around him. Conversely, in the opening pages of The Big Lebowski (Ethan and Joel Cohen), we find a completely different kind of rhythm to enjoy:
It is late, the supermarket all but deserted. We are tracking in on a fortyish man in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses at the dairy case. He is the Dude. His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep.
This kind of effortless precision is thrilling to read. What could be more suited to conveying the meticulously idle drift of El Duderino (‘I’m not into the whole brevity thing’) than the rolling Rs of ‘rumpled’, ‘relaxed’ and ‘runs’? The grammatically pedantic but rhythmically gentle ‘in whom casualness runs deep’ serves the same purpose.
Talking of The Big Lebowski, the wider world of screenwriting contains its own Nihilists. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script for Seven unsurprisingly presents a grisly catalogue of dystopian images. Even the rare flashes of beauty in the script are quickly tainted with corruption and death.
INT. SOMERSET’S APARTMENT – MORNING
Somerset picks items off a moving box: his keys, wallet, switchblade, gold homicide badge. Finally, he opens the hardcover book he had with him on the train. From the pages, he takes the pale, paper rose.
INT. TENEMENT APARTMENT – DAY
Somerset stands before a wall which is stained by a star-burst of blood. A body lies on the floor under a sheet. A sawed-off shotgun lies not far from the body.
Later in the script, we are given such percussive treats as
Crack vials and hypodermic needles on the stairs crunch under the cops’ heavy boots.
A variation on the Nihilist approach might be the Minimalist approach. Consider this moment from the opening page of Alien by Dan O’Bannon:
SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:
INT. ENGINE ROOM
INT. ENGINE CUBICLE
Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
INT. OILY CORRIDOR – “C” LEVEL
No other movement.
In a conventional ‘earthbound’ storyline, the scene heading – e.g. INT. ENGINE CUBICLE – would need to include an indication of the time of day. Not so in this piece. We’re in deep space, the disorientation of an endless night, our sensory palette reduced to a hollow, haunting hum.
Luckily for readers with more Romantic tastes, it’s not all doom and gloom. Consider the poise of the opening lines of Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient and ask whether they would seem out of place at the start of a literary novel:
SILENCE. THE DESERT seen from the air. An ocean of dunes for mile after mile. The late sun turns the sand every color from crimson to black.
Even the Postmodernists get a look in. Perhaps my favourite screenplay is Shane Black’s notorious script for Lethal Weapon; notorious because it earned him \$250,000, an extremely large sum at the time for an unknown writer; notorious because no one writes quite like Mr. Black.
EXT. POSH BEVERLY HILLS HOME – TWILIGHT
The kind of house that I’ll buy if this movie is a huge hit. Chrome. Glass. Carved wood. Plus an outdoor solarium: a glass structure, like a greenhouse only there’s a big swimming pool inside. This is a really great place to have sex.
Lethal Weapon. A metafictional masterpiece. Who knew? The postmodern flourishes proliferate throughout the script:
The General laughs. Rianne shrieks. Harrowing. Terrible. A scene out of Hell. And then the Devil comes in and kicks the door off its hinges. Okay. Okay. Let’s stop for a moment. First off, to describe fully the mayhem which Riggs now creates would not do it justice. Here, however, are a few pointers: He is not flashy. He is not Chuck Norris. Rather, he is like a sledge-hammer hitting an egg. He does not knock people down. He does not injure them.
He simply kills them. The whole room. Everyone standing.
‘Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture,’ observes Sunset Blvd. protagonist, struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis – ‘they think the actors make it up as they go along.’ Sixty or so years later, it’s probably even easier to find oneself entranced by the latest impeccably produced offering and forget that a writer had to sit down at a desk hour after repetitive hour and write the damn thing one word at a time.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the screenwriter’s art is an unseen one. ‘The challenge of screenwriting,’ Raymond Chandler proposed, ‘is to say much in little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement.’ The next time you’re sitting in that cinema seat, letting the enchanting ‘effect of leisure and natural movement’ wash over you twenty-four times per second, you might want to remember Joe Gillis and his unread poetry.
Image by Stephen Curry