The script’s the thing

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As Hollywood blockbusters increasingly rush into production minus finished scripts, why the screenplay is still an irreplaceable blueprint.

The Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa once said, “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film.” The script serves as a blueprint for the movie. Whether or not some of the ideas in it work immediately, it is via the trust and collaboration between the director and the screenwriter that ideas flourish and produce masterpieces. Let’s take a few iconic moments in cinema history.

“With a good script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film” – Akira Kurosawa

In the making of Alien, still Ridley Scott’s finest work (yes, it’s superior to Blade Runner), the original Xenomorph design saw the creature covered in tentacles, and the homosexual subtext was essentially the text. Now, what made this film far from a disaster was a solid script bursting with ideas. The overt sexuality became the subtext and, through this, the design team was able to experiment with the Xenomorph, making it allegorical of sexual threat towards men. Scott saw potential early on because the script provided it.

In a drastically conflicting genre, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket saw ex-drill sergeant-turned-actor R Lee Ermey spew a tirade of improvised insults, all of which were his own, at the actors playing recruits. The essence of what made this film work was its script of two halves – the first half involves combat training, and the second is set in war-torn Vietnam – which gave Kubrick the freedom to improvise (something he wasn’t known for). Kubrick’s work ethics were stringent and borderline sociopathic, but this proved that he was open to suggestion in working with the script, not against it.

full metal jacket r lee ermey

Going further afield, there is arguably one of the greatest comedy films ever made: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The now iconic use of an empty, halved coconut to emulate the sound of galloping horses was never in the original script. Up until the final draft, the horses were in there, but due to budgetary reasons the production team couldn’t afford any.

It is down to what’s written that films like Clerks, Slacker, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Pulp Fiction are revered and remembered today

In direct opposition, there are filmmakers who follow the script with precision. In arguably the most overt and blatant example of the script’s importance, one only has to look at 90s indie filmmakers Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. Their recent films may have seen mixed results (Linklater is an exception to this), but their early works are undeniably solid. Their dialogue-driven narratives highlight a script’s importance, for it is down to what’s written that films like Clerks, Slacker, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Pulp Fiction are revered and remembered today.

In fact, the films are revered more for their screenplays than their visuals. In the Clerks making-of documentary, it’s revealed that much of the feedback from the fans wasn’t really on how the film looked but on how they spoke. “They speak like regular people”, said one fan, which, for filmgoers, shows that Kevin Smith’s style was perceived as something revolutionary. Quentin Tarantino was interviewed saying his reason to write films like Pulp Fiction was that 80s films were all about plot and not about the dialogue or script, which explains the iconic Royale with Cheese scene between John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson.

pulp fiction royale with cheese

As none of these had a budget to create a visually impressive picture that relied on elaborate set pieces, they relied on the dialogue to progress the narrative. In taking this route they were able to experiment more with environment and atmosphere and, equally, create complex, or at the very least interesting, compelling characters. The sets are minimal and, to prevent stagnation, the dialogue is forced to be enriched with wit and intelligence. Linklater’s Slacker is arguably the riskiest of the aforementioned, a film comprised of disillusioned young Generation X adults philosophising, questioning and theorising; there is no central protagonist and no clear defining plot-thread, just a series of conversations. This film relies on a script for it to work.

A script is what holds a film together – it’s where the ideas blossom from. Sometimes it’s hidden in the text, sometimes its dialogue is imperative to the narrative and sometimes chunks can be rewritten thanks to the solid ideas presented in the initial draft. However one looks at it, the best films come from screenplays with great ideas, those that are presented with enough depth for interpretation and exploration.

 

Read more: Quentin Tarantino and the Pulp Fiction legacy

 

Featured image: Orion Classics

Inset image: Warner Bros; Miramax

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