Tuesday, June 10, 2014

screenwriting versus direction

There is a world of difference from screenplay to production to finished film. (This is not a new thought and has been expressed/covered in multiple forums most cogently in the maxim: a film is made 3 times - screenplay, production, and in editing).  This is not to discount the primacy of screenplay because I, in part due to my background as a once aspirant screenwriter, think it's vital. But I used to think the script was at the top of hierarchy, the tree the other limbs sprang from instead of how I see it now: the embryo that grows the complex organism. Essential but not ultimate.

The screenplay for the black sea went through multiple iterations and drafts across many years until it finally was nailed down. It's a complicated, slightly dense thing - amusing since i set out to write/direct something straightforward and easily digestible for my feature debut - but every word of prose and every bit of dialogue was to my liking and moved with an economy I found satisfying as we moved across pre-production and into shooting. It worked. 

On set there were minor adjustments here and there, growing pains, adjustments and reconfigurations particular to production. A line altered here. A line ad libbed there. Bigger: A plate of chocolate (seen in the dinner table shot below), and one character's animated refusal to take any was meant to happen in the background, under the dialogue, to be a foreshadowing for later things. It's tiny and small but important to the world of the film. Further, it worked on the page. But in directing this (to me) complicated scene was subsumed by the on-set machinations of eyelines and 2-shots and covering 5 pages of dialogue shooting a 4:1 ratio (on Super 16). The plate of chocolate and its import became diminished so the animated refusal was not even shot. A perfect example of how production can overwhelm/alter the screenplay. The writer in me might have fought for the plate of chocolate but the director in me cut it loose to better get through the day. Perhaps this is a case of directorial inexperience.

A bigger example of screenplay v. film came in a another scene that worked on the page. We see character 1 sitting by the window, looking at the ocean and then cut to a flashback where he meets character 2 at a bar. However the scene ended w/ jump cut to later in the night, at same location w/ Character 2 on phone w/ Character 3, Character 1 long gone. Then we cut back to Character 1 sitting by the window. Believe it or not it worked on the page in a lyric poetic way, the words and prose guiding the reader's POV so that it made sense in terms of text. It had a flow and the reader could understand what the screenwriter was attempting to do. So I directed it and we shot it. But once we were in post, we could not make it work. All the lyric prose in the world can't shoe-horn two opposing POVs across the cut. Perhaps directorial inexperience again but I also like to think it is a remnant of my dependence on the written form instead of the filmic one.

A screenplay is made of words so it's easy to confuse with literary forms.  But the image and what it says/does-not-say is more enduring and vital than any well-turned phrase in the prose of the screenplay. It's taken me a long time to realize/admit this.

cross posted at bags of wind