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Read Any Good Movies Lately?

STORYTELLING , By Todd Solondz, Faber & Faber: 108 pp., $13 paper A BEAUTIFUL MIND, The Shooting Script, By Akiva Goldsman, Newmarket Press: 160 pp., $17.95 THE MATRIX, By Larry and Andy Wachowski, Newmarket Press: 144 pp., $17.95

March 24, 2002|DAVID FREEMAN | David Freeman is a screenwriter and the author of "A Hollywood Education," "One of Us" and other books.

In Los Angeles, script reading can be a badge of honor, a sign of position. "Don't bother Mommy now, she's reading scripts." The little tyke is expected to back off, knowing there's no appeal. Mommy's mired in her "weekend read," plowing through scripts of unproduced movies. It means Mommy's important.

Now another kind of script is gaining a new popularity: the published versions of movies already made and in some cases even playing at the multiplex.The volumes are traditional paperbacks with snappy covers, usually with a still from the movie cropped in a way that probably gives pause to the cinematographer. The treatment of the text ranges from what looks like photocopied pages from the Mommy version, full of terms of art: POV, smash cut and even the occasional n.d. sedan (for nondescript). Others have the slick surfaces, easily read typeface and layout of the big publishing houses.

A film script, if it is ever produced at all, is produced only once, unlike its cousin the stage play, which may be done many times in many different styles. If a film is remade, a new script is written. A strange counter-example is the remake of "Psycho." Gus Van Sant, an otherwise exemplary director, made a point of shooting Joseph Stefano's original script and repeating Alfred Hitchcock's camera angles. The result was stillborn, more an art student's stunt than an independent work.

Published scripts date to the silent era. An early example is "Just a Song at Twilight" by Henry Albert Phillips, published in 1921 by the Home Correspondence School, an organization that must have been selling screenplay lessons even then. Publishing scripts hit a peak in the late '60s, when art house scripts were published here and abroad by Lorrimer, Grove and others. That was an era before videotape and DVD, when reading the script was the only practical way to examine a movie.

So who reads these scripts? As the old joke has it, everyone has two businesses: his own and show business. Interest in Hollywood and its lore has never been greater. In many cases, I suspect, these scripts are the equivalent of action figures for grown-ups. People often want to own a souvenir of a movie they've liked. Published scripts serve as a memento with more gravitas than a T-shirt.

Film students read them, trying to divine their mysteries. Writers collect them, looking for models. Academic presses publish them, heavily annotated with variant scenes and essays. The magazine Scenario has been publishing current scripts (three per issue) since the mid-1990s. Many scripts pop up on the Web.

Actors and acting students do scenes derived from these published versions for auditions or in class. A generation ago, in New York, young actresses often did Viola's ring speech from "Twelfth Night" ("I left no ring with her...."). They had probably played the role in college. They were pitting themselves against 400 years of tradition, hoping to hit all the right notes and perhaps add a bit of their own interpretation.

Now, in Los Angeles anyway, they might do a scene from "Erin Brockovich," throwing themselves up against Julia Roberts. They usually do better with the Shakespeare. One can hear the ring speech done many ways. It's part of our common literature, and anyone may take a whack at it. Erin belongs, body and soul, to Roberts, and anyone else seems a pale imitation.

A similar dilemma exists with reading film scripts for pleasure. When reading a play, you are free to imagine anyone in the roles. If you were to read, say, "Red River," it would be hard to picture anyone but John Wayne and Montgomery Clift.

Most of the scripts published today are "shooting scripts," a term that used to mean the script that started production, the so-called blue pages, the final revision. Now, in this new publishing sense, it's a record of the production. Hollywood scripts go through many drafts, often with contradictory purposes. A script that someone is hoping to sell to a studio (the selling draft) might have baloney along the lines of "It's metal against flesh as the cyborgs attack the giant strippers. Good golly, Miss Molly, what a fight!!!"

Then there's the star's draft, designed to flatter a big player, which might say something like, "The most gorgeous woman ever seen walks into the room. She radiates intelligence and wisdom." The writer, presumably, imagined a grand star reading that and thinking, "Hey! That's just like me. I think I'll say yes." There's often a director's draft that might say something like, "Put director's chase here." The budget draft, that is meant to make an expensive proposition sound flexible, might say something like, "It would be swell if we could have six camels in this scene."

The published version will have none of that but might include the work of other writers, ad libs and improvisations. So Mommy, absorbed in unproduced scripts to the exclusion of her family life, is not reading what you can buy at the bookstore.

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