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What Is A Screenplay?
   Notes from the field
   by Timothy Dugdale

What is a screenplay?

This is always the first question I ask the students in the screenwriting class I teach every fall.

“It’s a story,” says someone, rolling their eyes as if answering a dolt.

“It’s a blueprint," says another.

“No, man, it’s a lottery ticket,” pipes up the reedy gent with the stud through his brow and Tarantino froth at the mouth.

Nice try, my pretties. Above and below all else, a screenplay is a puzzle.

Indeed, a screenplay is a devilish thing, not be entered into lightly because the moment you strike the first key, you’re out into the wilderness, playing with matches.

To illustrate my point, I show my class the first half of the film, Adaptation. Why? Because, frankly, the first half is the only part worth watching.
Charles Kaufman is a clever guy, perhaps too clever for his own good. As he (Nicholas Cage) frets and toils over adapting Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, his ninny twin brother, Donald (also Cage) blithely embarks on building a formulaic thriller from a mishmash of screenwriting cookbooks by erstwhile gurus cashing in on the gold rush.

Kaufman makes two key albeit conflicted points about screenwriting. Some material, larded with profound themes and delicate sentiments, is impossible to translate to the screen. Second, you’ll never know unless you try.

Adaptation is a cautionary tale about starting with high ambitions and ending up in the cellar counting a fortune. The financial imperatives of the industry compound the pressures inside the writer. Donald triumphs because he solves his puzzle along the path of least resistance and maximum return. Charlie flames out.

Then I show my class, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s last film of the 1980’s, a decade in which he had already produced Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose.

The film is the screenplay. That is to say that when you read the script, you can see the film exactly as it rolls out on screen. There are no special effects, or in the case of Scorcese’s Casino, extended montages accompanied by elaborate voice-over constructions manufactured in the editing suite.

Many people consider Syd Field, the venerable screenwriting guru, a relic who long ago lost his relevance. The future belongs to Kaufman, Tarantino and Bruckheimer. Sure, Field’s method is simple. Deceptively simple. Any good screenplay has three acts, he cautions. Character, plot and theme must work in harmony to lubricate and drive the story through those three acts. There are no short cuts to this goal. If the thing can’t get out of the gate smoothly in the first thirty pages, it’s doomed.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is a quintessential Syd Field film. Allen deftly initiates parallel plots, both concerning infidelity. Judah (Martin Landau), a successful eye doctor, is attempting to end an affair with Delores (Angelica Huston), an emotionally hungry stewardess who won’t let him go. She threatens to expose their affair to his wife and his financial improprieties to the many charities he leads. Meanwile, Clifford (Allen), an idealistic documentary filmmaker, is working on a film about a philosophy professor who espouses a hopeful interpretation of Kierkegaard. To pay for its completion, Clifford takes on a vanity project profiling Lester (Alan Alda), his brother-in-law, a pompous yet successful television comedy writer. On set he meets a lovely producer, Halley (Mia Farrow), who helps him forget his unhappy marriage to Lester’s joyless sister.

The title of the film is apt: Judah’s adultery progresses to murder; Clifford’s to regret and disappointment. Neither story could stand without the other. The autumnal mood and Shakespearian gravitas of Judah’s story finds balance in the hapless unrequited love story of Clifford and Halley. The absurdity of life, the contingencies of life offer both light and shadow.

Allen has always had a passion for Ingmar Bergman. He hitherto could never create the right venue to pay homage to the heavy-hearted Swede and his use of modern theatre techniques in cinema. Syd Field warns against the dream sequence or the flashback. Anything that stops the action is verboten. Yet Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors effortlessly utilizes the flashback and the dream sequence to explore Judah’s haggard conscience as he enlists the help of his gangster brother Jack to dispatch the harpie stewardess.

One sequence in particular I love. As Judah shambles through his Westchester County pile during a midnight thunderstorm, we hear a snippet of conversation from a previous scene. It is the voice of Ben, a rabbi and a patient of Judah’s to whom Judah has confessed his infidelity. Ben, suffering from a degenerative eye condition, advises that Judah look to his religious upbringing for moral clarity. Judah sits down in the living room, the embers still burning in the fireplace. He lights a cigarette. Suddenly we feel another presence in the room. It is Ben. “Can you really go through with it,” he asks Judah. They have a deep, searching chat about murder for hire that seems real but is in fact going on inside Judah’s head. We see an important decision being made in an inventive yet kinetic manner that progresses the plot while amplifying the elemental moral dodginess of Judah. No special effects, no fades or wipes, no Vaseline on the camera lens. Allen trusts the reader and the viewer to do the work of enjoying his trick.

A veteran drama teacher once told me that you should never count on casting to carry off your characters. If their voices and their motivations aren’t clear on the page, you’re dealing yourself some low cards. Crimes and Misdemeanors is flawlessly cast yet when you read the script, you realize that the character of Judah as written by Allen demands Martin Landau to stagger through the film rattled and ragged -- a Brooklyn rabbi’s son grown into a successful eye doctor unable to see his moral turpitude or take responsibility for it.

The last sequence of the sequence takes place at the wedding of Ben’s daughter. He is now completely blind. Judah has beaten the rap for his murder of Delores. Clifford has discovered that Lester is engaged to Halley. Allen closes with a montage of images from the film. We hear the voice of Professor Levy, the philosopher who, we learned earlier, has committed suicide. His words are lovely, gimlet-eyed yet moving. But why Professor Levy? Here is a minor character whom we only knew through his image on the screen of a movie editing machine. Why should he get the last words in the script? Ah, but wait. Throughout the film, Allen has used old movie clips to toggle from Judah’s story into Clifford’s. These clips, including Professor Levy’s, act as a Greek chorus, providing an omniscient, knowing commentary upon the little people of the film. Why shouldn’t Professor Levy have the last word.

Allen was fifty three when he wrote this film. Crimes and Misdemeanors examines people out in the middle of life’s sea where neither shore is visible and the undertow is strong and treacherous. Screenwriting students in their twenties might wonder how it is relevant to their hyperactive cultural world. But if you read, say, the script for Pulp Fiction, you can’t help but suspect that Tarantino jumps all around in his narratives because there’s not much to them or his characters. Moreover, because the characters never come to life as anything more than ventriquilist dummies for the author’s various obsessions, the audience is safe from any emotional involvement or imposition. Nothing is at risk.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is a puzzle brilliantly constructed and then brilliantly solved. The reader is confronted with difficult characters, difficult themes and plots that hardly adhere to the Hollywood model of happy endings. It is a testament to the ecology of a good script.

-- Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at the University of Detroit Mercy.


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