How much thought do you think writers should invest in terms of tracking the broad strokes of the protagonist’s emotional journey when structuring the story?
I think all screenwriters should know the emotional journey from beginning to end. If you have the character’s arc clearly in mind, you can then begin to build your story and character utilizing the emotional journey as one of the major leads into the physical journey. Action and character, those are the two things to follow during the unfolding of the script. Take a look at Avatar or The King’s Speech – it’s an emotional journey as well as a physical one. The Fighter embodies this as well. When I designed my App for the iPhone, the Syd Field Script Launcher (soon on the market) – I wanted writers to understand just how the character’s arc can frame the narrative through line of the story. The structure holds the action and character, emotionally and physically, together. And the Script Launcher App is designed to guide the user through the process – idea to subject to structure to character arc and development. It’s an essential part of the screenwriting process and cannot be overlooked or taken for granted.
Speaking of sequences, and having taught at USC, what do you think of sequence structure and how do you think it relates to your Paradigm?
Structure is what holds it all together. Whether it’s a story, a sequence, or a scene, you build and construct into the pieces you need to tell your story. And, by the way, I’m still teaching at USC, in the Master’s of Professional Writing Program, a graduate 2-year program leading to an MFA. And, I teach that to the screenwriters – starting out with understanding the language of film – shots, scenes, sequences – they’re all structured. They each have a beginning, middle and end – but in some scenes you’ll only show a snippet of the beginning, then enter the scene in the middle and only have a shot at the end, or no scene ending at all. But when we come to a sequence that’s a different story – by definition a sequence is a “series of scenes connected by one single idea with a definite beginning an end.” One single idea, like a chase, wedding, funeral, shootout, escape, - just watch the ending of The King’s Speech when he actually gives the speech. The whole third act is delivering the speech. That’s the action line. They start at the beginning and move through the arrival, preparations, and delivery of the speech. Beautiful! Great writing! You have to design the sequence, whether it be long or short, into a unit of dramatic action – just look at the Real Estate Sequence in American Beauty. Sequences are an essential part of screenwriting, and therefore are an integral part of structure whereas the Paradigm is a form, and sequences, along with shots and scenes, are a part of that form. You have to structure your story line with shots, scenes and sequences. The form doesn’t change, only the pieces within the form change. Ask a fish how the water is and he’ll say – “what water?” That’s why structure IS the Paradigm!
What, in your opinion, is the Great American Screenplay of the last decade?
I have many screenplays that are my favorite – in the last decade, maybe The Lookout, a great teaching film written and directed by Scott Frank. 500 Days of Summer shows you what you can do with a simple love story in a non-linear structure, and The King’s Speech is just a masterpiece of great storytelling.
What would you most like to see young writers learn from the writers of the past that you feel is lacking today? For example, why was Billy Wilder so consistently good in so many genres?
Billy Wilder was a great artist –an extraordinary filmmaker. I have my students at USC study Sunset Blvd. all the time – it begins with a flashback in VO – which then leads us into the character and story. It’s a great illustration of the Inciting Incident – that scene or sequence that sets the story in motion, and, many times, brings the main character into the story line. Wilder knew story and always talked about the importance of structure. I had the good fortune of having lunch with him one day and told him I wrote about structure and we spent the next 40 minutes talking about the nature of structure in relation to story and character. He was truly a maestro! Only 3 filmmakers have I ever called Maestro – Wilder, Renoir, my mentor, and Antonioni, a great friend and mentor. It was hard for Renoir to think of himself as Maestro – he only thought of his father as Maestro! But if you look at some of Renoir’s masterpieces, Grand Illusion, for example, the whole story is built on structure. And he shows you what you can do with telling your story with pictures! In spite of the old, old sound track, no CGI, no special effects, his story just grips the heart in understanding. Just a masterpiece!
How do you think the growing use of literary devices (Flashbacks, Voice Overs, Title Cards) in film will influence the medium? What is the biggest change in relation to these devices that you’ve witnessed the last few years?
We are in the digital age right now, and that technological frame has, in my mind, changed the “way we see things.” I think we’re in an age of screenwriting which I call Evolution/Revolution. Because of digital technology, our visual perceptions have changed. I have a whole course that I offer for the scientists of NASA and JPL, among others, which I call Evolution/Revolution and my point is that filmmaking in the days of Casablanca, The Hustler, Chinatown, have led us to the modern script like Bourne Supremacy, Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I feel our new technology, where linear time lines have changed and altered, now give us a greater visual understanding of the character. In today’s script, we have the opportunity to incorporate thoughts, dreams, memories, flashbacks, different points of view because we have the technology to do it. Fifteen years ago we couldn’t, but because we now have this at our disposal, it is changing and shaping the way we tell our stories visually. And, that of course, is what a screenplay is – a story told with pictures. And the way we tell our stories changes, like silent film to sound, typewriter to computer, analog to digital, etc. Film is both an art and a craft that evolves to match the cultural currents of our time.