Archive for February, 2008

The art of making movies with the mind’s eye

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Feb 24, 2008

I have always been fascinated by the art of screenplay writing. I enjoy downloading screenplays from the Internet and reading them, the purest and most minimalist form of literature. The atmosphere of the scene is not described, except for a laconic “Exterior shot, night, outside John’s home”. No mention of the state of mind or tone of voice of the person when she speaks; no “‘Goodbye,’ she said; he could hear her voice tremble, and see the glisten in the dark of the first tears welling up”. In a screenplay, it’s “Mary: ‘Goodbye’”. Do what you can with that.

And you can. If it’s the script of a film one hasn’t seen, one can happily waste time imagining what a scene would actually be like in the film: the acting, the visual feel. And if it’s a film one has seen, it’s even more interesting, because now one sees how the director and the cinematographer and the others involved fleshed out the script’s bare bones in dynamic audio-visual. And that’s only one interpretation of the script. There would be myriad other ways — perhaps infinite other ways — to film a script and every scene in it. Keep everything else in the Godfather movies the same — the acting, the music, the pacing — and take away its distinctive colour palette, and it would be a totally different film. Jack Nicholson was originally offered the role of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Undoubtedly it would have been as menacing a performance as Anthony Hopkins’, but utterly dissimilar. The script is the tabula rasa.

Yet, the script is also the saviour. It may be easier for a good director to make a poor script look good than for a poor director to ruin a good script. Sometime in the 1980s, someone discovered that on any given day of the year, at least one TV station in the US was showing Casablanca. And this, more than four decades after it was released. Of course, Bogart could do the chain-smoking cynic with a golden heart better than anyone before, during or since, and Bergman was incandescent, yet I have always felt that the film is hardly well-directed (even though director Michael Curtiz won the Oscar that year). In fact, the only instruction Curtiz seems to have issued appears to have been that everyone talk fast and walk fast. The film is also edited at an alarmingly frenzied pace. So what’s so damn special about this movie that people never tire of watching it? My guess is, the screenplay, which presents a “real man” stereotype through razor-sharp dialogue. We say “Round up the usual suspects” and “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” without being aware that the lines are from Casablanca. And the ones that we know are from the film: “Here’s looking at you, kid”, or “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” Plus, the most famous of them all, which we all know was never actually uttered: “Play it again, Sam.” Curtiz was a Hungarian who could barely speak English! It was the screenplay.

Yet, hardly any screenplay writer has ever achieved star status. Indeed, Hollywood history is replete with tales of how poorly studios treated screenwriters. Anyone who has seen the Coen Brothers’ weird masterpiece Barton Fink, about an aspiring screenwriter in the 1930s (with a cameo appearance by a character modelled on William Faulkner, whom Hollywood turned into a raging alcoholic) will understand. (Or not. I once watched it with a group of friends, and half of us thought it was a heart-breaking tragedy, and the other half found it wildly funny.

The situation in the Bombay film industry was, I am sure, worse, but it seems to have been improving in the last few years. One is aware of only one marquee screenwriter name from the first nine decades of Hindi film-making, the duo Salim-Javed. But today, a few young men — like Jaideep Sahni and Abbas Tyrewala — are profiled and feted in the press. (Interestingly, the press saw both the hilarious Khosla Ka Ghosla and the inspirational Chak De India as Sahni’s films, much more than the directors’.) So maybe something is changing. In the meantime, there’s for me, whenever I want to read something relaxing yet stimulating, and confirm that I’ll never be able to either write a script or direct a film.