Before we talk about screenplays and source material I’d like to lay a couple more editing concepts before you.
JUMP CUT. The Wikipedia definition of a jump cut is “a cut in film editing in which two sequential shots of the same object are taken from camera positions that vary only slightly.” Wikipedia is often a very good resource, but should always be double-checked, as this definition is wrong. A jump cut doesn’t involve two different camera positions. It is a break in the continuous action of a shot. The camera can be static, or in motion. The absence of frames draws attention to itself, and is called a jump cut. A jump cut can also be a series of shots taken from the same camera position with different lenses – as in the scene in THE BIRDS (USA, 1963) in which the first victim of the birds is revealed, or the scene in 2001 in which the camera “jumps” in on the unblinking eye of HAL.
MONTAGE. What is it? Another French word, which means editing. Is it the same thing? Not quite. The difference as I understand it is that we in the English-speaking world use “montage” to describe an edited sequence which conveys information about the subject, and the passage of time. So a montage might be a series of travel shots, in which the protagonists cross the United States on motorcycles. Or it could be a series of interior shots in which the protagonist cooks a meal, prepares an elaborate floral display, or trains for the big fight. Often the shots are linked not by cuts but by dissolves, which are the lazy filmmaker’s way of indicating time passing.
Today our subjects include screenplays, source material, and adaptation. These are big subjects. We could spend a semester, or a lifetime, considering the nature of the screenplay, and the best way to adapt a book, or play, or story for a movie, or to turn someone’s life into an entertaining feature film.
Ah, screenplays! As a director, I’ve found it’s hard to make a good dramatic film without one. Others can do things differently, and the films of the director John Cassavettes demonstrate that it really is possible to let the actors “improvise”, all to the good of the project. We watch three scenes from THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (USA, 1978) in which Ben Gazarra, playing a clubowner, acknowledges his debt to the mob and takes his showgirls home.
Cassavettes collaborated with strong actors, and rehearsed at length. Working with actors like Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, and Seymour Casals, he produced a body of work which relied upon improvisational acting. These were low budget, independent films. Yet improvisational work happened in studio pictures, too. Actors like Peter Sellers – often stereotyped as “comedians” – were able to “riff” on their characters, expand them and make them funnier. But Sellers and the cast of DR STRANGELOVE were working from a script, written by a professional novelist and screenwriter, Terry Southern.
What is a screenplay?
For a feature film, the script is a single-spaced document, eighty or more pages long. Every scene is introduced by its location; whether it is an interior or an exterior; and whether it is day or night. There will be stage directions – descriptions of the action – but scripts are dialogue-driven, and you will usually see more dialogue than description on any given page.
Descriptions of the action have a left-hand margin. Leave a gap between paragraphs. Dialogue is always indented, in upper and lower case, beneath the speaking character’s name, in capitals.
One page of screenplay equals roughly one minute of screen time. So an 85-page screenplay will run 85 minutes, more or less, plus the credits. And a 280-page screenplay will probably not get made.
There is virtue in this. John Ford, the great American director, once said “a picture is good when it is long on action, and short on dialogue.” Brevity is an underappreciated virtue. Of course there are plenty of readers and filmgoers who are happy to wade through enormous novels and sit through INTERSTELLAR (USA, 2014). And some great films, like RAN and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, are long. But the real job of the filmmaker – of the team which makes the film – is to tell a story as concisely and coherently as possible.
This starts with the source material, continues with the screenplay, and with what the actors and director do with it, and is finally determined in the cutting room.
What is the source material of a dramatic feature? As we’ve seen, it can be a person’s life – as in the case of Mattei and Bobby Sands. It can be material published elsewhere – like the “Oz” books by Frank L. Baum, or Shakespeare’s plays. Or it can spring from the head of the screenwriter.
Tom diCillo wrote and directed LIVING IN OBLIVION. Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento wrote the original story for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST; Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati adapted it as a screenplay; a blacklisted American living in Rome, Mickey Knox, prepared the English dialogue version.
So a screenplay can be the work of one person, or of many. There are directors who know nothing about writing, and are content with that. There are directors who, through avarice or insecurity, covet a screenwriting credit which they do not deserve. And there are directors who are also screenwriters. Sometimes they write scripts for other people to direct, sometimes they write for themselves, sometimes they direct the work of others: Francis Coppola directed his own screenplay for THE CONVERSATION, and a script by John Milius for APOCALYPSE NOW.
Doing an adaptation of an existing piece of work may well involve copyright law. Unless a book or story is in the public domain, somebody owns it, and it’s necessary to make a deal with them if you intend to make a commercial version of their work. Now, there are exceptions to this. The law of Fair Use contains a number of ways that artists can avoid the draconian limitations of copyright law, and make transformative art despite the power of big media corporations, as we shall see.
Most narrative films, and plays, follow a three-act structure. The first act introduces the characters and their situation, and sets up the conflict: someone wants something/something is at stake. Act two throws every possible obstacle at the protagonist or protagonists, leaving them at their lowest point by the act’s end. Act three – the shortest act – resolves the situation. If it’s a comedy or a musical, the end will probably be happy (a black comedy, on the other hand, usually requires a pessimistic or ironic ending). If it’s a tragedy, the hero or heroine falls to their destruction (a tragedy isn’t just a sad story with an unhappy end — it’s a drama in which the protagonist falls “from high estate” to their downfall, due to a character flaw or an insuperable adversary). If it’s a contemporary indie feature, ambiguity will likely be the order of the day.
This is a very simple analysis of the three-act structure. Some academics may argue that it is too simple, but I see no benefit in making it more complex. The five-act structure of the Elizabethan theatre and Japanese traditional drama might seem to contradict it, but I don’t think they do. Unless there is a break or intermission (which film doesn’t usually have) five acts equals three acts: one introductory act, three “oppositional” middle acts, one act to wrap things up. Whether it’s three or five, this same dramatic structure seems to transcend the bounds of nationality and language, and apply to Shakespeare, to Noh and Kabuki, and to NIGHTCRAWLER (USA, 2014) or BIRDMAN.
It’s been said that only bad books make good films, and there’s some truth in that as if you have no expectations at all you cannot be disappointed. Sometimes a poor, potboiler novel has been the basis of a great film (for example, Mickey Spillane’s KISS ME, DEADLY and its film adaptation, directed by Robert Aldrich (USA, 1955). It would be hard to make a successful narrative feature out of books as big and complex as MOBY DICK or THE BIBLE, though, to his credit, the director John Huston attempted to adapt both (USA, 1956 and 1966). Sometimes a fine work of literature makes a great film: Vladimir Nabokov adapted his own novel LOLITA for Stanley Kubrick (USA, 1962) with tremendous results. We watch a brief clip from that film, where Nabokov adopts a literary device – the letter – to save Kubrick the expense of shooting multiple additional scenes.
The LOLITA clip consists of an extreme closeup of a sheet of paper in a typewriter. The camera holds on the image as Lolita writes to Humbert Humbert, explaining that she is married, pregnant, and urgently in need of cash.
Which brings us to our reading material, the book DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? by Philip K. Dick.
Philip K. Dick is today a very highly-regarded science fiction writer. Unfortunately he died in 1982, and did his writing at a time – the late 1950s and 1960s – when science fiction wasn’t highly regarded, so for many years he like most of his contemporaries struggled to make a living from his work. He won the Hugo Award in 1962 for THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, a story set in an alternate-reality United States after the Nazis and the Japanese win World War II.
Writing through the 60s he developed a unique style of uneasy storytelling in which reality would not hold. Roger Zelazny, a contemporary sf writer, wrote, “The worlds through which Philip K. Dick’s characters move are subject to cancellation or revision without notice. Reality is approximately as dependable as a politician’s promise.”
The world which Dick created in 1968, when he wrote DO ANDROIDS…, has been devastated by a nuclear war — a series of nuclear wars, ending in World War Terminus. Radioactive dust and ash continue to fall, poisoning the survivors, slowly killing all living things.
Human beings are divided into those well enough to emigrate to the Mars colonies, and those whose DNA is so damaged that they must remain on earth. Those who emigrate are given their own personal android. Those who remain dedicate themselves to a new religion, to watching TV, and to tending animals.
Dick anticipates the concept of the “Anthropocene” age, in which we live and witness the biggest die-of of species since the end of the Cretaceous period. In DO ANDROIDS…, most animal species are already extinct, and humans now compete to pet the surviving ones. Competition for the best job or car has been replaced with competition to own and care for a prize goat, or horse. But these last live animals are very expensive, and many humans, in shame, resort to fake replica animals, and pretend to tend to these.
Rick Deckard, bounty hunter, is one of those unfortunate humans without a real animal. We read an extract of three paragraphs, beginning “After a hurried breakfast…”, pp. 7-9 of the 1996 Del Rey/Ballantine paperback edition.
Rick, and his wife, Iran, both use a machine called the Penfield Mood Generator, which creates artificial feelings based on the code you input.
#481: Awareness of the Manifold Possiblities Open To Me in the Future;
#594 Pleased Acknowledgement of Husband’s Superior Wisdom in All Matters.
They also subscribe to a new religion called Mercerism, which is also accessed via a machine, the Empathy Box, which engages the user in a vision of uphill struggle and torture.
The narrative alternates between Deckard and John Isidore, a human who services broken-down artificial animals, and who has been denied permission to emigrate.
In the back of both their stories is the falling ash, the continuing species die-off, the long end-game of World War Terminus.
We read two more paragraphs from DO ANDROIDS, beginning “In addition, no one today remembered why the war had come about…”, pp. 15-16
These androids are very intelligent, and very strong. Some of them want to visit Earth. This is illegal. Deckard’s job is to track down any that enter the Northern California area, and destroy them, or as their business lingo goes, “retire” them.
At the start of chapter 8 Deckard lands his hover car on the roof of the Lombard Street Hall of Justice: the police station. Two chapters later the book slips into a Dickian alternate reality, where Deckard lands on the roof of the Mission Street Hall of Justice, a parallel police station apparently in the grip of androids. The author writes an exciting chapter about this and never deals with it again, which is weird since if the reader accepts the fake police station as part of the main narrative, then it becomes a major plot point and a potential gold mine for Deckard and the other bounty hunters, who are paid $1000 for every android slain. But in 1968 a hard-working science fiction author, racing to meet his deadline, might well develop an additional plot-line and then forget or abandon it, as Dick appears to have done here.
Regardless, DO ANDROIDS is a fully-realised, science fiction world, populated by real humans with tragic dimensions. Its androids are comparatively background characters. Its surviving humans try to flee their sins by moving to Mars, or to atone for them by caring for animals or plugging into machines.
A good film adaptation of a book, or tale, or poem, or play, may make many changes along the way. If the source is a big novel, many things get thrown away. “Good” does not mean “exactly the same”. But it does require two things, I think:
1. that the adaptation remain faithful to the spirit of the book/play/whatever
2. that it be true to the book’s theme.
What is the “theme”? It is the single thing that the story, and every scene in the story, is about. It is the reason acts one, and two, and three happen: they tell the story, and convey the theme.
Leitmotifs are themes, and so a film or a book can have more than one. In ANDROIDS, I think the main theme is the “legitimacy” of life. Healthy humans are invited to live on Mars; radiation-sick humans must remain on Earth. Even sick humans are more legitimate than androids, who have no rights and must be killed. Real animals are legitimate and create status for their owners; fake animals are shameful things. Real humans feel empathy, and shame; androids do not.
Tomorrow we’ll watch BLADE RUNNER, a big-budget Hollywood movie based on DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP. This was first released in 1982, the year Dick died, in a version with a happy ending and a Philip Marlowe-style voice over. Since then two other versions have appeared, the “Director’s Cut” and a later “Final Cut” also approved by the director, Ridley Scott. It is the Final Cut which we shall screen.
As you watch it, note what the studio filmmakers have taken from the book, what they have invented, and what they have eliminated. Is the theme the same? Are the same things at stake?