Thursday, January 19, 2006

Script Versus Film

Excuse me while I state the bleedin’ obvious for a moment but words in a script are vital to a reader’s attachment to the story and characters. The economy of language and the evocation of imagery help to establish the characters and premise, and then develop the story into a dramatic and thematic conclusion.

Most scripts achieve a fairly decent economical style and maintain an easy pace with a breezy plot and efficient structure. But what happens when you have a ‘character piece’ - a story that is more about its protagonists than it is about a cop with only 24 hours to live? What words do you use to engage the reader in their characterisation and ensure that they remain emotionally involved with their predicament throughout?

In 2004, I read the script for Brokeback Mountain. It’s written by Larry McMurtry and Diane Ossana, adapted from the short story by Annie Proulx. You know the story by now: two cowboys meet in 1963 and develop a sexual bond that proves a huge emotional challenge on their ‘normal lives’ and developing friendship.

It is, from start to finish, a character-driven film. There is little or no plot to speak of. It’s all about the characters and how they react and respond to their basic desire and conflict. This style and approach is difficult to achieve and not very prevalent in the general spec pile. But what does a ‘character script’ look and sound like when it does happen to land on your desk?

Well. Usually long and meaty. On first glance, it will seem like there isn’t any economy of style or anything else to help the reader because of the amount of depth and detail the story has to successfully communicate. However, in safe and talented hands, the script will be intelligent and absorbing, no matter how dense or long the story becomes.

But what do I know? Without giving away any spoilers, here are a few extracts from my script report on Brokeback Mountain which demonstrates a reader’s reaction on the good and the ‘difficult to predict’ aspects of such a solid script.

“…It’s certainly an interesting and bold premise, and a screenplay based on this material stands out as original and intriguing fare. The script is handled intelligently and delicately so that the protagonists’ actions and behaviour don’t become risible or unsuitable.

…Now while all this is intelligent and solid stuff, its very premise and story line does not make it ideal fare for the box office. Ang Lee’s direction and the two stars of Gyllenhaal and Ledger gives the material some bite and appeal – there’s little question the critics are going to approve – but it’s hard to put a hand on heart and say that this is going attract a wider, more commercial audience.

…In the film, the tone and pace is quite even and steady. Structurally, the film’s timeline goes from 1963 to 1984 and charts the separate lives of our two protagonists, Ennis and Jack. … Ang Lee will get plenty of room to shine with the cinematography of Wyoming and Brokeback Mountain, and the two leads will enjoy their homoerotic subtext but it’s all a bit too even and sluggish to really get behind for a big thumbs up.

…Its moderate approach signals a sensitive and intelligent plot about how the two characters live their lives, and the writing does very well to create an engaging setting and story line.

…[The script] makes for absorbing reading but the character detail doesn’t get a chance to properly shine and the visual aspects of the setting don’t do enough to make up for the dramatic shortcomings of the plot. This could have been great but as it is, it’s an interesting and commendable film that will stand out for its original story line of two ranch hands that fall in love.”

This last bit: “the character detail doesn’t get a chance to properly shine” is obviously hogwash because if you’ve seen the film, Ledger and Gyllenhaal excel in making the characters’ emotions and motives compelling and moving.

And this is the reason for the post. Script versus Film. What you read on the page might not leap out as compelling and moving - I said it was “intelligent and absorbing” - but once it’s flesh and movement on screen, it becomes a wholly different matter.

I read the script in February 2004 and I saw the film last weekend, and while I was always generally conscious of the key transitions that are made from words on the page to how they are realised on screen, Brokeback Mountain has been a worthwhile lesson in witnessing how words and characters on the page can be successfully raised to a higher level of drama and audience response.

And the Oscar goes to…


Kas said...

excellent article as always, Danny. Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I am extremely unhappy that Brokeback Mountain is garnering the kind of hype it has now. I saw it last week, and yes, it was a good film, sensitive subject matter but sensibly handled with good acting and all - but Best Picture? Cinderella Man is a much better film - though script wise it probably ain't that great.

Tim Clague said...

I believe that blogs are worthless if they aren't honest. So two thumbs up Danny for NOT writing that knew it would be great from the off. Its only by constant reflection on our own thoughts and our work that we get better.

Lucy said...

The relationship between the script and the screen is a really perillous journey I think - so much is put on the notion of "action" by some agents and producers that I wonder how many character-driven films fall by the wayside in the way Danny suggests? His reader's report was a real eye-opener and very honest, which is great to see. I have read a great many scripts like Brokeback in that they're character-driven and as Danny says, have "no plot to speak of" and knowing what to do in a case like this can be a real bind. However, regardless of whether the reader reccommends it or not, I do think the reader is still only part of the process, not the be-all and end-all. This industry seems to me like a big chain reaction; the writer sets the spark which may fizzle out at the first hurdle (in not being able to get it read), or on the other end of the extreme it may even go all the way through the development process before funding or something else makes the film collapse. Whatever the case, the result is still the same - there is no BANG! That's always a shame -even if it's just for the writer themselves.

pao said...

well, i'm not actually here to say something about your article...
i just wanna ask for help...
i'm aware that you've read brokeback's script...
just wonderin', can you send me a copy of it.
my add is

Danny Stack said...

Sorry, don't have email version and no longer have hard copy of script.