As a way of introducing myself to readers, and to give a sense of where I’m coming from, I’ve decided to tell you something of my reasons for writing my book What’s the Story? The Director Meets Their Screenplay. First things first, I'm not suggesting that the director owns the screenplay. Everyone in the creative team on a film however, might do well to regard the script as theirs—theirs to understand, to bring to life, to render on the screen. Nor did I wish to assume that the director was necessarily a he, so I used the non-gender specific their.
Why though, did I write a book about the director meeting their screenplay? What do I mean by meet? I might equally have said encounters, approaches, engages with—as if this putative director were meeting not words on the page but a person, or at the least a living thing, a being with a life, an identity, a psyche to be recognized and respected. But to answer my own question as to where the idea for the book originated, I'm going to refer to an incident I witnessed some years ago when I was in Italy, in Tuscany, directing second unit for my friend, writer-director Anthony Minghella on his film The English Patient. I remember one day watching Ant as he paced the location—a beautiful but ruined monastery overlooking a sun-baked vista—poring over the crumpled pages of a scene, his eyes narrowing with every line. After a while, his patience running out, he threw the infuriating pages high into the air, yelling loudly “What was the writer thinking?”
Well, of course, Ant was the writer! So what, I wondered, was going on?
It wasn't that his writing was unfit for purpose—the movie went on to win nine Academy Awards. No. Ant’s exasperation came out of his realization that now he was in directing mode and no longer in writing mode. There are differences, but they needn’t be quite so schismatic; if he'd been functioning in directing mode earlier, he might have found what, on the page, would not work for the screen and could have rectified the problem long before the day of the shoot. It was an illuminating incident, not least because it revealed how Ant was always willing to admit his own mistakes then go on to correct them, a facility any creative filmmaker must possess if they hope to make a successful movie. What it showed me too, was how important it is for the director to engage fully with a movie’s screenplay, digging deep into the dramatic narrative and the connective tissue the screenwriter has designed—or should have…
During my time at AFI Conservatory where I headed the directing program for some eight years, I gave the thesis presentation class in which the director and their team would have to present their screenplay a few weeks before the shoot. It was a demanding exercise. Directors would be expected to understand the dramatic narrative of their film at a deep, forensic level. The craft of directing is not merely cosmetic. Not a question of adding pictures to words on the page but of grasping the substrata of the screenplay and utilizing these in developing the organic articulation and execution of the film. Topics covered in the sessions included premise, theme, genre, tone, journey of the character, and journey of the audience—I have added several more considerations in my book.
After a reading of the screenplay, followed by the director’s slide presentation giving insights into the first of those concerns, the director would then be expected to take the class through every scene in the screenplay in order to demonstrate their understanding of its workings and the intentions of the screenwriter. Sometimes—as in the case of Anthony Minghella—they discovered that if they were the writer-director, they’d either failed to understand their own screenplay or that as a screenwriter they hadn't understood they were writing for the screen. The class could certainly be challenging but after a year of witnessing the presentations of their peers as well as facing the music, so to speak, themselves, the directing “fellows” were well positioned to go out into the world for meetings, to pitch, and to direct. They had developed a method of analysis, together with the language of dramatic narrative that so many directors, many well-known names among them, lack—to the frustration, of course, of their screenwriting counterparts.
Perhaps the key factor beneath the divisions in the industry between filmmaking crafts, the suspicions, the wariness, the competitive battles, the jealousies and territorial spats, is the lack of understanding each so often has for the skills of the others. It seems to me that story and storytelling, this latter visual and auditory in the case of our medium, are the primary elements we each of us need to understand, to respect, to love, and to make work. Directors do not simply direct actors and put pictures on the screen, they bring the screenplay to life. Screenwriters in the same way, do not just put words on the page and leave the rest to the director, the production designer, the cinematographer, and the editor, you write much more than those words—you write emotions, images, thoughts, tension, suspense, conflict, character, relationships, and so on. This is not easy! Indeed, in my opinion, screenwriting is the most difficult form of writing there is. But I will pick up on that idea in later weeks ...
Directors need to understand how a screenplay works. The screenwriter should not be made to feel they are handing off their work to an ignoramus. To the contrary, they should feel confident they have someone who can bring the life of their script to fruition on the screen and in the hearts, minds, and guts of an audience.
That is why I wrote my book.