Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Screenwriting - art or craft?
Is screenwriting merely a craft or is it, can it also be an art? Whilst a screenplay is primarily the blueprint for a film, can its appeal (the finished film) have more to do with the artistic sensibilities of the screenwriter than his or her skill as a craftsperson? Silly questions whose answers are obvious? Maybe, but worth discussing. Are we, from both an industry and cultural point of view, so obsessed with questions of craft that we devalue the screenwriter’s capacity, at a level much deeper than craft skill, to tap into the zeitgeist, to understand not what audiences want to see (based on recent box office receipts) but what they need to see – even if audiences have no idea that they need to see it. By ‘need’ I mean a story that speaks (again at a deep level) to their desires, hopes and dreams in the present. The ‘present’ for the audience is, of course, a few years down the track for a screenwriter starting work on a screenplay. S/he needs to take the raw material of the present and imagine what the ‘present’ a few years down the track may feel like for the audiences to whom they wish to speak; whom they want to entertain. For instance, any screenwriter starting work on a screenplay today would be wise to take into account that in all likelihood his or her audience in a few years are likely to be in the midst of a serious financial crisis. And what sort of films are audiences in the midst of a ‘depression’ most likely to want to see? Did anyone other than Michel Hazanancius (writer/director) think that there would be an audience for a silent black and white film (“The Artist”) when he started work on it several years ago?
This ability to look forward, to guess, to have one’s finger on the pulse, is one of a screenwriter’s most important skills. Yes, s/he needs to have well-developed craft skills also but these are merely to serve the story that connects, that resonates with an audience. The most perfectly crafted screenplay can be (and often is) boring, predictable, clichéd. Does the desire for such craft perfection (encouraged by film bodies and script gurus alike) obscure from view what it is that really makes a good screenplay work for an audience? Do we admire the Sydney Opera House for the craft skills Joern Utzon demonstrated or for his artistry? Do we admire the skills of a cabinet-maker, a musician, a dancer….any form of artistic expression for the craft skills demonstrated by the creator? Or do we admire the way in which these artists have used their craft skills to create something that is not a clone of what has come before but which induces, in the viewer, the listener, a ‘wow!’ response?
Given that the influx of gurus and experts this past few years to our shores has failed to improve our collective screenwriting skills, the questions implicit here seem to me to be well worth discussing, debating.