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Sunday, March 11, 2007

SCRIPT: Words That Become Movies

Script magazine is a bimonthly for writers of motion picture and television screenplays, which should guarantee its publisher, Final Draft of Calabasas, California, a circulation of millions in the Los Angeles area alone. It's also an eye-opening read for plain old movie fans.

The main way of telling a story to many people at the same time used to be writing a novel. A lonely business, but the novelist was God at the Creation until his editor showed up with a blue pencil.

Today the motion picture has overtaken the novel as the mode by which stories are told in this country, and hundreds of people are involved in its construction―you've seen how lengthy the credits can be at the end of a film. But most motion pictures at least begin with a solitary man or woman pecking at a computer keyboard, inventing and populating a world.

That's the art, craft and business celebrated in the January/February issue of Script, and I've let a couple of interesting Netflix movies―and a favorite old novel―gather dust as I've perused its pages these past couple of nights.

The prototypical article in the magazine might be the account of the making of Notes on a Scandal, a movie that came out late in December. It's based on Zoe Heller's 2003 novel. The timely plot, set in London, is about an affair between a high school student and his teacher, played by Cate Blanchett. An older teacher (Judi Dench) finds out about the affair. Will she tell?

The device used by screenwriter Patrick Marber to propel the story is famously difficult to steer: The Unreliable Narrator. The moviegoer naturally tends to accept a narrator's words as true. In this movie Dench's character is the narrator. It gradually dawns on the viewer that what she's describing doesn't match what her character is doing. In fact, she's psychotic, and is motivated by a jealous yearning for the Blanchett character. Among his many decisions, screenwriter Marber fashioned Dench's interest in Blanchett to be more overtly lesbian than in the novel.

Another story in the issue is about Michael Arndt's long road to his first screenwriting success, Little Miss Sunshine, which won the Academy Award for best original screenplay a couple of weeks ago.

Interviewer Zack Gutin asked Arndt if he had any advice for the young screenwriter. Arndt's reply was depressingly scientific and deterministic. It's worth quoting because he claims it applies to just about any endeavor:

Studies have been done of people who are experts in their field to determine what separates the great people from the mediocre. They've found that the key variable is the amount of time spent alone in deliberate practice―intense focused concentration, in this case toward trying to write a story. What was interesting was that it applied across any field―no matter what the profession. The amount of time spent in deliberate practice was the number one indicator of how successful you would eventually be.

The study put a number on it and said if you spent 10,000 hours alone in deliberate practice, you will get up to a professional level. You may not be the best of the best, but you will be at a professional level. Ten thousand hours, which is roughly four hours a day, five days a week for 10 years.

Arndt calculates that 10,000 hours are what he spent learning and honing his craft until his great success. He got paid for about half of those hours, toiling as a freelance script reader, what he describes as "the salt mines of the industry."

A nice feature in each issue of Script is a column that details what screenplays and books have been purchased by movie studios. I learned that Irene Nemirovsky's novel Suite Française, about the German occupation of France, has been acquired by Universal and will be adapted to the screen by Ronald Harwood, who wrote The Pianist. Borat co-writer Dan Mazer has been hired to script the comedy New Year's Steve, about "outrageous, life-changing resolutions made over New Year's Eve." See, you have a year or two lead on your friends on what to watch for.

There's more advice for writers from some "literary managers" at Benderspink, a new kind of Hollywood literary agency that gets a producer credit when it sells a screenplay. They urge writers to find their voice, tell their own story, not "chase the marketplace." After Benderspink's first big success, American Pie, the agency was inundated by a mountain of American Pie-inspired scripts. These were not tasty pies.

They also suggest you move to Los Angeles, work in those movie industry "salt mines," make many contacts, then try to sell your screenplay.

Script recently underwent an ownership change and a facelift, and management got rid of those pesky parentheses―the magazine used to be called Scr(i)pt. I like the changes, but the type's too small!

An annual subscription to Script (six issues) is $24.95 from the publisher. We'll send you a sample copy for $2.59.

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