Monday, May 26, 2008

Why prose fiction is sometimes the best option for writers

Who'd be a writer of films in this world of images?

I've twice had a go, experiences I satirized in one of the short stories in my collection Balancing, 'The Shooting Script', which I read on Thursday at Manchester Central Library to an audience which always includes some writers, and which responded on this occasion with wry heartfelt laughter. I don't want to boast, but Adele Geras said in a review that this story should be 'required reading for anyone who fancies themselves writing for television.'

But it's not just the structures of the industry which divest writers of power (as this story indicates), it's the requirements of the form.

On Saturday I went to a screening of a short student film which I took part in as an actor last summer. Well, I loved being in this film: I love acting, I love the camaraderie (such an antidote to the isolation of the desk!) and I loved being part of the team working on the vision of the two writer-directors. But that's just it: you are part of a team, and there's never a guarantee that everyone on that team will share the vision of the writer or indeed respect it. And let's face it, when there's a camera and an editing suite at the heart of things it's the person behind the camera and/or with their finger on the computer button who wields the power to impose their own vision. On this occasion it didn't matter, because the writers were also the directors, and bitter past experience had taught them that they needed to do their own editing.

But just how much script writers can be marginalized by the form itself was illustrated for me when I finally saw the film at a screening in a bar on Saturday afternoon. I ordered up the film (it was on the 'menu' from a bar as part of a mini film-festival) and a fortifying glass of Chardonnay (seeing yourself on film playing an overalled cleaner and later naked in a bath is NOT an ego-stroking experience!) (and nearly choked at the exorbitant price of the wine) and settled down in the dark alcove set aside for viewing.

The film opened with beautiful shots, as I knew it would, of empty offices at night time, with the lone cleaner (me) silhouetted as she busied away in the vast spaces, strangely competent yet vulnerable - scenes which we never even rehearsed: I just turned up on the appointed night and we did it. Later the film cuts, as intended, to a kitchen in a house and here the dialogue begins. But they had cut half the dialogue! Half the ruddy dialogue, which we had laboured to learn (it was difficult dialogue to learn, because it was deliberately confused, illogical and inconsequential, as the characters were stressed) and which we had rehearsed over and over...

What had happened here was that image had squashed out the words: rightly, as it happened, because the way the film begins sets up a certain grammar which needed to be fulfilled, but also because sometimes - or indeed more often, in films - image is enough to tell the story: one closeup of me saying nothing but closing my eyes was more expressive and convincing than the speech which had followed the gesture but was now cut.

Writing for film is thus not so much the writing of a script - based in dialogue - but the provision of a kind of choreography of image. It's an interesting challenge, but you could ask: Why bother, when it's the director and the cameraman who really have the power to create and choose the images? And it's not surprising, I guess, that so many directors, like the two on this film, 'write' their own.

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