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COUNTERPUNCH

Script Readers See Blueprints

August 28, 1995|SCOTT MORGAN | Scott Morgan is a Los Angeles screenwriter

I am a great fan of David Mamet. His plays are brilliant. But I am also a successful screenwriter, and think his article criticizing the process of writing and selecting scripts was misleading, rambled, whined and it degraded many talented screenwriters ("That's Entertainment. That's Too Bad," Los Angeles Times Magazine, Aug. 6).

Granted, most screenplays are rife with grammatical errors. Agents don't care and submit these scripts because they sell anyway. High-concept rules. The "readers" scan the description, speed-read the dialogue and consider the whole work simply a "blueprint" that will be rewritten many times.

I advise any beginning screenwriter to write at least one play. Plays rely solely on story, character and sharp dialogue to be appealing to a reader. It's a shame that more movie makers forget the value of these elements and consider it filler between what draws the crowd: eye-candy sex-and-violence scenes. Studios bank on box-office stars and high concept to make their millions. But that doesn't mean that all screenplays are totally without merit.

The studio audience has, by accident or design, been trained to demand certain things from a movie. The studio script reader is instructed to bear in mind the key elements of this "formula." And while Mamet professes that this is a recent travesty afflicting screenwriters alone, this "Hero With a Thousand Faces" formula has in fact been around since the beginning of storytelling and has influenced "The Iliad," Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and all of mythology. And Mamet's plays are not exceptions.

Screenwriters are limited: in how many characters they can introduce, how much time they can spend describing them; by plot-turning points, emotional pinches, hooks, epilogues. Screenwriting "professionals" strive to present something fresh within these limits. A few times each year, we screenwriters succeed, and we do so grandly, by writing something compelling and unique within these limits.

Sorry, Mr. Mamet, sometimes these examples are found within what you call pornographic movies like "Pulp Fiction." (It should be pointed out that many Mamet plays rely on four-letter-word volleys to drive home a point.)

Screenplays are not plays. They have available a more visually expressive medium, one that is not confined to a single stage. Screenwriters should explain what a scene will look and sound like. On film, not on stage, not in a novel.

Whether reading books, plays or screenplays, the reader conjures an image of the characters based on brief description, dialogue and narration. So why can't a screenwriter describe, in his own style? It's the pro who remembers that readers appreciate brevity--concise, succinct description. A character initially described as an invincible mountain of a man might be replaced by a 5-foot-6 actor, but that doesn't mean that we can't write what our minds envision. And if Mamet would read "Body Heat," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Taxi Driver" and "Silence of the Lambs," he'd find them captivating without hyperbole or inept filler scenes. He'd also see that they presented on paper almost exactly what was shown on film (including the action scenes).

The fact is the reader's job is a misery. Most screenplays are garbage. All screenplays are rewritten into shooting scripts; therefore, we are writing for the reader (and the agent, assistant, actor, director, producer). They read so many, why can't we make it more pleasant for them by writing in screenplay-shorthand and adding colorful description? Screenwriting should be awarded its own "poetic license." If we wanted to write a novel that had to be perfectly written, we'd write one, but we are writing a screenplay.

Mamet should take the time to read 300 scripts (the average year's work for a reader), find the three or four exceptional ones, and reward the talented writers who actually can write an exceptional script by buying and funding a few movies. Or is he afraid of the same thing execs are: that a perfect screenplay doesn't guarantee return, and is therefore no more important than concept and casting?

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