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Script Gods Must Die: The Playwright as Screenwriter


“I was so mad at my agent. I had polished and polished and polished… and he referred to it as a draft. I wrote him a bitter letter: ‘How can you call this a draft? I don’t do drafts.”–Cynthia Ozick

“Movie makers buy plays because it makes them feel smart. Acquiring a play that has been well received makes them feel incredibly worldly. But the irony is that plays are about words, and here in L.A., they like to make movies about lava flowing down Wilshire Boulevard. A play reveals itself through dialogue. In a movie, the dialogue is likely to be, ‘O.K., shoot him.’”–Anonymous Hollywood Executive

“(Rewriting is) a whole other art form; it’s about craftsmanship.”–Sam Shepard

The concept of screenwriting is foreign to playwrights. In playwriting, you are waaaay up there on the priority pyramid. If they come at you for script changes in theater, they’ll come in a conciliatory fashion: “Excuse me, Mister Esteemed Playwright, can we discuss page 88, possibly changing the and to but?”

A bit further down the priority pyramid squats the screenwriter. Volumes have been dedicated to the atrocious treatment of this delicate creature. I’ll not add to these. I will simply point out that, if Sam Shepard, one of the great playwrights of our lifetime, has to rewrite in service of others—so will you.

Plays are about words. Movies are the juxtaposition of imagesfor emotional impact. As a playwright, I've felt this uneasy transition myself. Jane Doe, a film I made with Calista Flockhart, was based on my play. To be fair, one reason Jane Doe went into the toilet was my insistence on using the same Voice Over that appeared in the play. This forced additional scenes to be shot when they weren’t necessary. Another reason was the faulty shooting schedule. More often than not, we wouldn’t “make our day”—meaning we couldn’t shoot all the scenes required. Meaning scenes were cut for no reason other than we didn’t have time/money to shoot them. Meaning that the story no longer made sense. Meaning rewriting under the gun because, without scene B, you have to build a bridge from scene A to C for the story to make sense. And you have to do it in 17 minutes with a crew of 15 people standing around waiting for you because time time time is money!

This is, of course, the more attractive door to step through. It assumes you’re still writing for the project. Option B is that you refuse to make changes, and the words are changed for you, by the guy who replaces you. The professional suicide of refusing those in power can be left for another discussion. Option C might be that you’ve already been replaced and don’t know that the movie has been changed beyond all recognition from the movie you wrote so long ago. Did I mention that—compared to a playwright—the screenwriter has a diminished place in the power dynamic of Hollywood movie-making?

How many times did Coppola rewrite Apocalypse Now? Julius Epstein had no idea how to end Casablanca until the last minute (“Round up the usual suspects.”). Cassavetes improvised entire movies. Sofia Coppola won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar thanks, in large part, to Bill Murray improvisations. Read screenplays and you’ll recognize, often times, what’s on the page isn’t what makes it to the screen. Spec screenplays are skeletons, blueprints, early-stage instruments, not a verbatim, nightly performed and not to be screwed with work of art—a.k.a, a play.



The first five minutes of any movie is real estate. Valuable real estate. You need to establish four things early on in a film script:

  • Key characters
  • Tone
  • The world of the movie
  • Conflict

While movies are inherently a visual medium, there exist great verbal set pieces in movies. Look at the opening of Inglourious Basterds where Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) pays a routine visit to a farmer and pressures him to betraying an entire family hiding under the floorboards. This scene sets up the major characters, the conflict, the world, and tone of the movie. And who but Tarantino could pull off a ten-minute set piece with two characters seated and talkingat a table? Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, the bomb under the table, here is the family, huddled and hiding for their lives. Ballsy-beyond-belief writing.


Can the playwright-turned-screenwriter do the same thing with a monologue? Understanding the importance of these first screenplay pages makes this task seem like pure insanity. Monologues are for plays, not screenplays, riiiight? What reader wants to see a Velveeta brick-sized monologue on page 1?

To this I say, check out Woody Allen, page 1 of Annie Hall:


Abrupt medium close-up of Alvy Singer doing a comedy monologue. He’s wearing a crumbled sports jacket and tieless shirt; the background is stark.

ALVY: There’s an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of ‘em says: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such ... small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The-the other important joke for me is one that’s, uh, usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud’s wit and its relation to the unconscious. And it goes like this-I’m paraphrasing: Uh ...”I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women. Tsch, you know, lately the strangest things have been going through my mind, ’cause I turned forty, tsch, and I guess I’m going through a life crisis or something, I don’t know. I, uh ... and I’m not worried about aging. I’m not one o’ those characters, you know. Although I’m balding slightly on top, that’s about the worst you can say about me. I, uh, I think I’m gonna get better as I get older, you know? I think I’m gonna be the-the balding virile type, you know, as opposed to say the, uh, distinguished gray, for instance, you know? ‘Less I’m neither o’ those two. Unless I’m one o’ those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism. (Sighing)Annie and I broke up and I-I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I-I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind and-and examining my life and tryin’ to figure out where did the screw-up come, you know, and a year ago we were... tsch, in love. You know, and-and-and ... And it’s funny, I’m not-I’m not a morose type. I’m not a depressive character. I-I-I, uh...(Laughing) You know, I was a reasonably happy kid, I guess. I was brought up in Brooklyn during World War II...

There are no absolutes in screenwriting. Sure, starting your movie with a monologue is a risk. It’s just, well, not done! Yet this one page does everything you’re looking your first five pages to do. It defines Alvy (protagonist), introduces Annie (conflict), establishes the world (New York), and sets up tone (Woody Allen neurotic.)


Monologues can work if there is justification. For instance, the Pacino monologue in Scent Of A Woman. This speech has been earned by the Pacino character throughout the course of the movie. Like the opening of Annie Hall, it’s a defining scene and it’s verbal, not visual.

Imagine the reader at a management company, screenplay contest or agency opening up your script to find a full-page monologue on page 1. What do you think the reaction will be if it isn’t utterly essential or doesn’t kick ass? The reader will be looking for the slush pile, toot-freakin’-sweet. Point being: Monologues? Sure, you can pull it off. But you need to be very brave, and very, very good.

Here's another monologue that defines character, buried in a dialogue scene from The Hustler:


Eddie leans back on the grass and looks at Sarah. They both seem easy and relaxed together.

EDDIE: Sarah, do you think I'm a loser?

SARAH: A loser?

EDDIE: Yeah, I met this guy--Gordon, Bert Gordon. He said I was. Born loser.

SARAH: Does it bother you? What he said?

EDDIE: Yeah. Yeah. It bothers me a lot.‘Cause, you see, twice, Sarah -- once at Ames with Minnesota Fats and then again at Arthur’s ...(sits up)... in that cheap, crummy poolroom ... Now, why’d I do it, Sarah? Why’d I do it? I coulda beat that guy, I coulda beat him cold. He never woulda known. But I just had to show ‘em, I just had to show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it’s great, when it’s really great. You know, like anything can be great -- anything can be great ... I don’t care, bricklaying can be great. If a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why, and if he can make it come off. I mean, when I’m goin’ -- when I’m really goin’ -- I feel like... (beat) ... like a jockey must feel. He’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him, he’s comin’ into the stretch, the pressure’s on him -- and he knows -- just feels -- when to let it go, and how much. ‘Cause he’s got everything workin’ for him -- timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right, and you know you’re right. It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. Pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s a -- pool cue’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood -- it’s got nerves in it. You feel the roll of those balls. You don’t have to look. You just know. Ya make shots that nobody’s ever made before. And you play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.

SARAH: You’re not a loser, Eddie. You’re a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything. I love you, Eddie.

Beautiful. And with Paul Newman delivering those lines, totally defines who Eddie is, what the relationship means to Sarah, adds huge stakes, and foreshadows much of the tragedy to come. Doesn’t get any better.

If you can do that with your monologue, go for it. When you think about the odds against you selling your Indie-budgeted, three million-dollar spec script, maybe taking the risk is the way to go.


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