Script Symbology: The Synchronicity of Classic Scripts

Publish date:

"Bogey would invite me into his dressing-room with his usual 'relax and have a drink.' We would talk and sometimes a genie popped out of the whiskey bottle and off I'd go to develop the idea into a scene."

Howard Koch
(Co-Screenwriter, Casablanca)

"They are laying bets over on the RKO lot that the Orson Welles deal will end up without Orson ever doing a picture there. The whole thing seems to be so mixed up, no one can unravel it."

The Hollywood Reporter (January 1940)

Sometimes, you don’t find symbols for scripts. Rather they find you. All of this relates to that atmosphere hanging over all great art that might be termed part of the symbolism of chance and synchronicity in life and art.

It is times like these when greatest scripts are often created in the shortest amounts of time. While some of this creation might be conscious, most of it during the production of the following seemed more unconscious, feminine. Something breaking out from in all directions from inside rather than some masculine arrow shot high up into the outside world.

Weather Vane

One method for finding the presence of synchronicity in scripts is to select those classic scripts that have been written in the shorted amount of time. These were scripts where the symbols of alignment and opposition fell in place with their own internal power somehow.

Of course many products are created quickly - often too quickly - with a consequent fate of being forgotten just as quickly. But what if some famous products show a quick creation time? What if a pattern is found in a number of them?

Consider the interesting stories around three of the most famous products of twentieth century art - the films Casablanca and Citizen Kane and the novel Heart of Darkness. All were created in extremely short time periods. In fact, one could say they were created almost by chance, on types of "detours" from their original destinations. Was the "zeitgeist" of their times the real "author" at work behind the scenes?


The Race Between Pencil And Camera

Since its original release date, Casablanca has played more revival dates than any other film in history. In the Introduction to Casablanca:Script And Legend (1973) critic Ralph Gleason writes "Casablanca summed up the morality of its time better, I think, than any other film ever has. Everybody saw Casablanca. Everybody knew the story, knew the characters, and knew the context...Casablanca was how we thought we were, all right, a pure explication of the mood in which we entered World War II."

Howard Koch, one of the main creators of Casablanca is truly surprised at the success of the film. Koch writes in the above book that, "none of us involved in its production could have foretold that Casablanca was to have an illustrious future-or, in fact, any future at all. Conceived in sin and born in travail, it survived its precarious origin by some fortuitous combination of circumstances to become the hardiest of Hollywood perennials, as tough and durable as its antihero, Humphrey Bogart."

Interestingly enough, there never was a planned script. It began when Warners Brothers purchased the rights to a play called Everybody Goes to Ricks but this script fell by the wayside before it reached Broadway. Jack Warner wanted a new female lead and chose an unknown female actress named Ingrid Bergman under contract to David Selznick. To pry her away from Selnick, the Epstein brothers pitched Selznick on an idea for a movie that would advance her career and her value to Selznick. They were good enough to have Selznick loan them Miss Bergman.

As Koch notes, the troubles began at this time. "The Epsteins confessed to Hal Wallis that the story with which they entertained Mr.Selznick was actually a feat of verbal hocus-pocus without any real substance to provide a basis for a picture." The scheduled shooting was only six weeks away.

Two weeks from the scheduled shooting date, Koch had about forty pages or a quarter of the eventual screenplay. "Fortunately," notes Koch, "I had the help and encouragement of Humphrey Bogart ... Bogey would invite me into his dressing-room with his usual 'relax and have a drink.' We would talk and sometimes a genie popped out of the whiskey bottle and off I'd go to develop the idea into a scene."

By the day shooting commenced, Koch had roughly the first half completed. "But a vast unknown territory lay ahead," Koch notes, "with only signposts here and there to guide me. The race was between my pencil and the camera. I began to think of the camera as a monster devouring my pages faster than I could write them. About two-thirds of the way through the production, it was a dead heat."

Koch remembers that the final weeks were a nightmare "of which I remember only fragments. When I sent down to the set the last scene and wrote 'The End' on the screenplay, I felt like a weary traveler who had arrived at a destination but with only the foggiest notion where he was or how he had got there."

But somehow the film made a connection to the symbolic archetype of its time. And Koch suggests this saying, "As I look back at the film's chaotic genesis ... I like to think it achieved its real identity by some affinity with this new searching generation."

Was there symbolic synchronicity at work in the creation of Casablanca? The reader should be the judge. In a review attached to Casablanca:Script And Legend, film critic Richard Corliss notes that there are two theories about the film. "The first is that Casablanca is a political allegory, with Rick as President Roosevelt." Corliss notes that "casa blanca" is Spanish for "white house." In this scenario, a man gambles on the odds of going to war until circumstances and his own submerged nobility force him to close his casino. Corliss notes that this is read partisan politics. He commits himself first by financing the side of right and then by fighting for it. The time of the film's action in December 1941 adds credence to this view, as does the fact that two months after Casablanca opened, Roosevelt, or Rick, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, or Laslo, met for a war conference in Casablanca.

Citizen Kane

An Atmosphere Of Extreme Urgency

While Casablanca was created in a fury of writing mixed with whiskey, Citizen Kane was born out of another project altogether. In the book The Making of Citizen Kane (1996), Robert Carringer notes that Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by RKO studio head George Schaefer with a contract that guaranteed him a degree of artistic control unheard of in the industry. Welles was engaged to produce, direct, write and act in two feature length films. His Mercury Theater operation had been shut down since the flop of Danton's Death.

By prearrangement in his contract, Welles's first film was to be an adaptation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness which Welles' Mercury Theater had done as a radio show. But budget skyrocketed on the film and Schafer and Welles came to a new agreement to do another film before Heart of Darkness and use this film as collateral to finance Heart of Darkness. The film was Smiler With the Knife. But the project died and rather than continue work on Heart of Darkness, Welles let it die also.

By this time, Welles had been in Hollywood for five months with nothing to show for it. The January 1940 Hollywood Reporter writes, "They are laying bets over on the RKO lot that the Orson Welles deal will end up without Orson ever doing a picture there. The whole thing seems to be so mixed up no one can unravel it."

As Carringer notes, "It was in this atmosphere of extreme urgency that the idea for Citizen Kane came into being." Welles found Herman Mankiewicz who was between jobs and recovering from an auto accident. Mankiewicz went out to the desert to a guest ranch in Victorville with John Houseman and a secretary. Actually, Mankiewicz was sent out to the ranch to keep him out of the way because of his drinking problem.

It was at the ranch, during March, April and May of 1940, that the first installments of Citizen Kane were completed. The material that Mankiewicz and Houseman sent from Victorville was 250 pages long and called American. It was about a publishing tycoon. The shooting script was finished on July 16.

Heart Of Darkness

 A Sudden Flurry Of Activity

The two years before Joseph Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness, one of the masterpieces of English literature, were filled with very little production. Yet an incredible flurry of activity possessed him when he began writing Heart of Darkness and the entire novel was finished in a little over a month.

This is an incredible feat of almost spontaneous creativity. In The Last Twelve Years of Joseph Conrad (1928) Richard Curle remarks, "I remember Conrad telling me it's 40,000 words occupied only about a month of writing. When we consider the painful, slow labor with which he usually composed, we can perceive how intensely vivid his memories of his experience must have been...and how intensely actual."

And, critic Ian Watt adds in Conrad In The Nineteenth Century (1979) that "after nearly two unproductive years, in little more than two months, and in the midst of several further anxieties, Conrad had managed to write, revise, proofread, be more than paid for, and even see beginning in print what was to prove one of the earliest and greatest works in the tradition of modern literature."

This type of speed in composition it leaves little room for conscious contemplation and consideration of the intricacies of novel plotting and character development. More than Conrad writing his great novel it is more likely that it was writing him. The unconsciousness was coming through and expressing itself in symbolic terms. The result was that archetype of Conrad's age was approached. It may never have happened if the book was written and revised and rewritten. For a few months of time, Conrad was a captive (one again) of the muses of the symbolism, art, chance and synchronicity.

More articles by John Fraim