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Writing Pictures: Ann Hornaday on the Art of the Hollywood Screenplay

Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker." Screenwriter Mark Boal says he "painstakingly fleshed out every nook and cranny of the action sequences" with director Kathryn Bigelow.
Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker." Screenwriter Mark Boal says he "painstakingly fleshed out every nook and cranny of the action sequences" with director Kathryn Bigelow. (AP)

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

On the surface, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "The Hurt Locker" might deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. They're both explosive action thrillers hitting screens this summer. Both feature young men on a physically grueling quest in the desert, and both even feature robots as their heroes' unlikely aides-de-camp.

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But viewers who happen to see both films will no doubt feel and think radically different things upon leaving the theater. In the case of "Transformers," directed by Michael Bay, they're likely to feel pummeled and punched by the movie's loud, relentless action, not to mention confused by what all the sound and fury was about. Something to do with an ancient robot race extinguishing the sun by way of a sharp metallic dingus in an Egyptian pyramid? Whatever, let's go grab a Super Gulp and play Grand Theft Auto.

Upon seeing Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," the audience is more likely to leave in a rattled but also reflective state, eager to talk about what they just saw. The story of an elite bomb squad in Iraq that follows a reckless soldier (Jeremy Renner) as he walks the fine line between bravery and hubris, the film is a powerfully immersive experience, at once a classic rock-'em, sock-'em war movie and a fascinatingly contradictory profile in courage.

Conventional wisdom would lay the difference at the feet of the films' directors. Bay ("The Rock," "Armageddon") and Bigelow ("Near Dark," "Point Break") are each well known for delivering high-octane genre pictures, albeit with profoundly divergent approaches. Clearly each film reflects its director's distinct visual sensibility and aesthetic judgment. But in both cases the essence of what the movie is -- a big, dumb, incoherent car wreck on the one hand and a taut, visceral work of art on the other -- can be traced to its founding document: the screenplay.

* * *

Does a movie leave you feeling brutalized or engaged? Did you see the twist coming down Main Street or did that third-act shocker leave you positively gobsmacked? (He saw dead people!) Were the characters each unique and fully realized, or more like interchangeable mannequins used as props for visual stunts? Are you still puzzling over the movie at breakfast the next morning, or have you forgotten the whole thing by the time you leave the theater?

More often than not, the answers to these questions depend on a movie's script. We've all heard someone say, "That movie was really well written" as they walked out of a theater; indeed, we've probably said it ourselves. And by "well written" we probably mean the movie had memorable dialogue, from the rat-a-tat patois of film noir ("I'd hate to take a bite out of you, you're a cookie full of arsenic") to the urbane chatter that signals a Woody Allen movie at 100 paces.

But to call a movie well written is far more than a question of dialogue -- in fact, most filmmakers agree that dialogue is the least of it. Instead, good movie writing comes down to what defines good writing in general: a command of structure, voice and momentum, all in the service of a story that grabs spectators by their throats, then leads them along a path they simply must follow or they won't be able to eat, sleep or lead a happy life.

Even the tiniest visual details in a film -- choices viewers might assume a director or editor made -- were written in the screenplay. The pink underwear Scarlett Johansson wore in the opening shot of "Lost in Translation"? Specified in the script. The hamburger phone in Juno's retro-tastic bedroom? Written into the script. The cut from a lit match to a sunrise in "Lawrence of Arabia"? Credited to editor Anne Coates, but originally written by screenwriter Robert Bolt.

In short, it's the screenplay that, when it's well written, makes a world come to life with plenty of vivid detail and, in creating characters with just as much singularity, makes the audience care. And it's precisely that emotional investment that, by way of enlightened direction and superb performances, creates an indelible cinematic experience.

"I understand the attention that Mickey Rourke got for his performance in 'The Wrestler' because it was a very brave performance on his part," says screenwriter Howard Rodman ("August," "Savage Grace"), professor and former chairman of the screenwriting division at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. "On the other hand, none of the moments in that film that were affecting would have been possible had the screenwriter, Robert Siegel, not written them."

Not only must characters be authentic and fully formed in order to be brought to life on screen, but the writer must convey them as quickly and economically as possible. Think of the line, "I was misinformed" in "Casablanca," and how those three little words conveyed the character of Rick Blaine. Or, more recently, the opening sequences of the animated features "WALL E" and "Up," in which viewers came to care deeply about a trash-compacting robot and a grouchy old man in the course of a few dialogue-free but richly detailed, visually expressive scenes. In both cases, before any image was drawn, the scripts had gone through several painstaking rewrites at Pixar. "We will stop production if we have to, to get the story right," said Pixar's chief creative officer, John Lasseter, at the Cannes Film Festival in May. "It takes four years to make a movie at Pixar, and 3 1/2 of those years are spent on story."


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