Akira Kurosawa on Screenplay

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Yesterday I was talking about the relevance of screenplays in film-making, there was a query from one of my students about the approach of Akira Kurosawa to screenplays in his films. I think the best way to look at Kurosawa’s outlook towards screenplays in film making is to go through his Something Like an Autobiography.

I’m enclosing a few lines from the book for you to get enlightened, like I did when I went through them.

With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this.’

In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things. You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.’

A good structure for a screenplay is that of the symphony, with its three or four movements and differing tempos. Or one can use the Noh play with its three-part structure: jo (introduction), ha (destruction) and kyu (haste). If you devote yourself fully to Noh and gain something good from this, it will emerge naturally in your films. The Noh is a truly unique art form that exists nowhere else in the world. I think the Kabuki, which imitates it, is a sterile flower. But in a screenplay, I think the symphonic structure is the easiest for the people of today to understand.’
Something that you should take particular notice of is the fact that the best scripts have very few explanatory passages. Adding explanation to the descriptive passages of a screenplay is the most dangerous trap you can fall into. It’s easy to explain the psychological state of a character at a particular moment, but it’s very difficult to describe it through the delicate nuances of action and dialogue. Yet it is not impossible. A great deal about this can be learned from the study of the great plays, and I believe the “hard-boiled” detective novels can also be very instructive.’

I began writing scripts with two other people around 1940. Up until then I wrote alone, and found that I had no difficulties. But in writing alone there is a danger that your interpretation of another human being will suffer from one-sidedness. If you write with two other people about that human being, you get at least three different viewpoints on him, and you can discuss the points on which you disagree. Also, the director has a natural tendency to nudge the hero and the plot along into a pattern that is the easiest one for him to direct. By writing with about two other people, you can avoid this danger also.’

I‘ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing. For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book. I write down my reactions and what particularly moves me. I have stacks and stacks of these college notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthrough. Even for single lines of dialogue I have taken hints from these notebooks. So what I want to say is, don’t read books while lying down in bed.’                                                                                                                                                                   

 A novel and a screenplay are entirely different things. The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay without using narration.’

Characters in a film have their own existence. The filmmaker has no freedom. If he insists on his authority and is allowed to manipulate his characters like puppets, the film loses its vitality.’

At some point in the writing of every script I feel like giving the whole thing up. From my many experiences of writing screenplays, however, I have learned something: If I hold fast in the face of this blankness and despair, adopting the tactic of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect, who glared at the wall that stood in his way until his legs became useless, a path will open up.’

Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. Perhaps you can write only one page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script. I began in this spirit, with a target of one page a day. There was nothing I could do about the nights I had to work till dawn, but when I had time to sleep, even after crawling into bed I would turn out two or three pages. Oddly enough, when I put my mind to writing, it came more easily than I had thought it would, and I wrote quite a few scripts.’

I'd recommend any aspiring screenwriter to read Something Like an Autobiography

Narration I

Friday, October 1, 2010

I have been reading last night, a script for a 10-minute-short written by one of my mentees, Varadhan, which actually provoked me to write about format of and narration in screenplays.

Though the idea and substance of your screenplay may be exquisite, but when you falter in format and narration, you can’t maintain the readability of your screenplay.

One thing I find common in young writers is the confusion of using FADE IN and FADE OUT. I found the same error in Varadhan’s script too, last night. In a feature film format, one doesn’t write the title at the top of the page (though some writers prefer to do it). The first thing that you write on the first page of your screenplay is FADE IN: in the top left hand corner. FADE OUT.  is written in place of THE END in the bottom right-hand corner of the last page of your screenplay. Please note that FADE IN is always followed by  : (colon) and FADE OUT always followed by . (period) and written in upper caps. Most of the novice writers confuse Fade In and Fade Out with DISSOLVE. Please be assured that FADE IN and FADE OUT come only once in your screenplay.

We all know that a movie is a story told in pictures and sound. The narrative – also called ‘narration,’ ‘business, ‘blackstuff’’ or ‘description’ – is where a screenwriter writes those pictures and sounds (other than dialogues). And to keep the story moving, in literal terms, requires brevity, clarity, and pace. Also the screenwriter has to bear in mind that with the business and dialogues that he/she writes, in the style of format, one page should roughly meet one minute of screen time. I’ll suggest a few things which experienced writers always adhere to:

No paragraph in a screenplay should be longer than four or five lines – short, uncomplicated sentences. Long paragraphs of narration give the reader a burden to look at and difficulty to read. It is better to break up the paragraphs to units of action or ideas.

The narrative describes the action and imagery with economy, so simple sentences (subject, verb and object) should dominate the text. Complex grammar will only slow the read and lessen the impact.

All narrative is written in SIMPLE PRESENT TENSE. Everything is written as if it were happening now, in front of our eyes, just as the film will be.

Narrative should also be written in ACTIVE VOICE. Active voice is easier to understand and more immediate than passive voice.

The environment should have an effect on the reader. You want the reader to see and experience it, and lose in it. The best way to do this is to use picture-making words. It’s very important for the upcoming screenwriters to have a strong grip on picture making words, to gain brevity at the same capture the senses of the reader. The function of metaphor and simile can well be made to use to evoke visual images and emotions in the reader. Then, the metaphor or simile must first be original. Clich├ęs don’t stir up emotions.

15,000 Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook Of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, And Oratorical Terms, For The Embellishment Of Speech And Literature, And The Improvement Of The Vocabulary Of Those Persons Who Read, Write, And Speak English."

I find this as a very useful tool for aspiring screenwriters, because when one gets mastery over condensed phrases, one gets more confidence in brief pictorial narration. "A good phrase may outweigh a poor library," as Thomas W. Higginson once wrote.

One of the screenwriters I personally adore, M T VASUDEVAN NAIR, wrote once described the one of the characters in his screenplay as ‘emotional door-mat’. What a portrayal! Brief, deep and imaginative!

A useful link for FREE Download Template: http://www.films.com.br/introi.htm

And before I conclude, let me caution: poor spelling, improper punctuations, and bad grammar will sink a script.