The screenplay for “The Revenant” was co-written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarrito and Mark L. Smith.
We’re talking narrative. We’re talking the primary source of all storytelling, filmic or narrative print. In fact, we can’t appreciate Leo’s versatile acting in early films like “This Boy’s Life,” “Who’s Eating Gilbert Grapes,” or even “Titanic” without saluting the narrative that was first imagined and crafted on paper.
The original script. Or the script adaptation from a novel.
In the most recent Academy Awards celebration, the evening’s first two Oscars recognized screenwriting. The Academy of Motion Pictures launched its public tribute to the mega-star employees within its billion dollar industry by illuminating one of the most understated of the industry’s art forms.
It’s the actual art which every actor, actress, director, cinematographer, and producer must salute. Leo DiCaprio knew it so well on February 28, and to Leo’s continuing credit, he’s a humble guy, an acting dynamo whose genius lifts every script he touches to a peak that we also crave to reach as movie-watchers. Leo DiCaprio thrives on top of that peak, and he loves to carry the torch for colleagues and fellow artists that give him ample room in front of a camera.
To reach that precipice, Leo had to follow the writing. It gave Leo and his director words they could trust.
The results of screenplays – the writing that gives a movie life – constitute the simplest and most extreme reason these “employees” can take advantage of their longevity and diverse opportunities. Each actor interested in some role usually, at first, reads a screenplay that his or her agent, producer, or director-friend passes along.
It was appropriate that screenwriting was recognized first on February 28. The writing should be the first thing an actor sees. In recent Oscar ceremonies, screenwriting has been front and center as the lead-off award category.
I teach a screenwriting course, and it’s not an easy genre to teach, much less one in which to write. It’s always interesting to think where a film starts. With words. With visual images and dialogue put on pages. Sure, a film might start with a director or producer’s vision, but the real grind starts with the process of transferring that vision to the page.
As with “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” in 2015, those visions perhaps exceeded expectations on Oscar Night when both films were awarded “Best Original Screenplay” and “Best Adapted Screenplay,” respectively. It immediately occurred to me that the films’ epic productions perfectly transcended the words that were crafted to play out these visions.
My colleague at Mount St. Joseph University, Elizabeth Barkley, recently passed along to me a beautiful tribute to the script of “Spotlight,” one of her favorites in 2015. I’d asked her about the writing. She wrote, “The two worlds portrayed in ‘Spotlight’ are ones I know well: journalism and the Catholic Church. The script, especially the dialogue, felt authentic to me. The Boston Globe investigative team revealed frustration and excitement as they began to realize what they were onto. And they also felt fear, a natural response as they weighed the implications of their investigation for the Catholic Church. Church leaders, in contrast, came across as smug, convinced that no one could build a credible case against them. It was the ordinary Catholics in the film that rang truest: one reporter who had ‘fallen away’ from his faith, but still felt guilt, and another reporter’s grandmother, whose life had been intricately entwined with her local parish, so visibly shaken (no words necessary) at the end of the film as she pored over the story. Nothing fancy about this script – but it credibly captures the complexity of this heartbreaking, yet inspiring, moment in journalism history.”
Dr. Barkley points out honest, truth-to-power language in the film. The “Spotlight” script captured such varied tone.
The essence of a script or screenplay is pared down language. What are the most emphatic yet unadorned set of words you can craft for a scene? What are the fewest words possible that will do the most work, give the boldest understanding to how that scene, moment, and dialogue are to be played out? What can you, the screenwriter, convey promptly yet elegantly in your script that will energize an actor reading a role? How exacting can you be with words? This is all part of the art of screenwriting.
Yes, it’s an art form.
What makes it art? It takes creating scenes that drive energy, intrigue, and character interaction toward a resounding resolution. How the movie ends depends upon all points working in the previous 100 pages of the script, if it’s a regular feature film. No question that many poorly written scripts have given birth to thousands of poor quality movies.
Stephen King once said that the huge difference between screenwriting and novel writing was that screenwriting “forced the writer” to write in obligatory short increments. The writer’s imagination couldn’t wander; the imagination was required to dream up something that had to be major contained. No room for wandering on the page, cutting a delightful swath of language and robust lyricism. In the Hollywood-framed script, King said the writing couldn’t become unmoored and wander into something akin to poetry – not for long.
The next time you watch a movie, for just a moment, when you hear a spurt of dialogue, think about the writing behind the words. Lock into your mind the sequence; imagine the writer(s) penning those words. Imagine the fact that they could have been penned over and over again, until the perfect pitch, vibe, and delivery melded. Until what you hear rings with adulation, fury, real joy, utter disdain – whatever the tone, whatever the moment.
Think this, too: the acting, cinematography, set design, and costume creations were certainly reasons “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Room” won Oscars this year in multiple categories. But, their ultimate appeal can be traced back to a writer sitting alone in front of a computer screen, cranking out page after page of words, scenes, and directions. I’m sure the thought of a red carpet rolled out at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood was the last thing on the writer’s mind.