A Little Something About Writing Screenplays

Every year I “attend” the Academy Awards in my living room, paying more attention to how Hollywood is feeling than the host.  This year, the impression was that Hollywood was quite upbeat about the movies, and especially the future of movies.  The two awards that usually interest me the most are for screenplays, adapted and original.  Quentin Tarantino winning for his screenplay for Django Unchained was less of a surprise than Chris Terrio’s win for his screenplay adaptation for Argo.

Credit: heyuguys.co.uk

Chris Terrio (Credit: heyuguys.co.uk)

Writing a screenplay adaptation presents a writer with different challenges than writing an original screenplay in which the writer dreams up the story, characters, conflicts and ending.  Working from source material requires respect for that material and its author, but also a sharp eye for story deconstruction.  Sometimes more than one source is needed to fill in the story.  Sometimes a great deal of deep research is needed, especially for historical screenplays like Lincoln.  But no matter what the screenwriter needs to do, he knows the finished script  will probably displease the original author.

Unfortunately for that author, the screenwriter need not please him, but he must please the producer(s) and director.  These people are looking for a visual and entertaining story, with sympathetic characters (not necessarily multifaceted), and a bang-up ending of some kind.  This, of course, simplifies the situation.  Producers have their interests and tastes in stories, and directors as well.  They may spot a script that delights them, but they believe it “needs work.”  The film industry enjoys a certain notoriety for taking a script and having multiple writers work on it, sometimes completely ruining it so they must return to the original writer and have him fix it.  When I was studying screenwriting, I also heard stories of producers hiring writers for different aspects of the script, e.g. one writer for dialogue, a different writer for action scenes, yet a different writer for romantic scenes, etc.

One of the complaints I’ve heard from movie-goers about Argo is that parts of it never happened.  These people want their movies that are true stories to be factual, true to what really happened.  In other words, a documentary.  Unfortunately, six people waiting in rooms at the Canadian Embassy in Teheran is not terribly dramatic or entertaining.  All the action for these characters occurs internally, i.e. their thoughts and feelings.  Internal action cannot be seen, no matter how good the actors are.  So the challenge here is to be true to what happened but also entertain your audience.

This movie drew most of its material from the book Tony Mendez wrote about how he extracted the six American Embassy workers from Teheran.  As wild as it sounds now, I believe that the entire cover legend he created about the science fiction movie was true.  His cohorts in Hollywood did help him in the way presented in the movie.  However, Mendez was operating totally on his own once he arrived in Iran.  That, to me, raised the possibilities for heightened suspense.  Now, I understand that the extraction went far more smoothly and without interference than is depicted in the movie.  Once again, how to take something that wasn’t dramatic and make it so.

Credit: argo-movie-trailer.blogspot.com

Credit: argo-movie-trailer.blogspot.com

Argo is based on actual events.  This “disclaimer” allows Hollywood to add or subtract from the story/action in order to create suspense and entertain.  I don’t know about you, but I was on the edge of my seat once Mendez arrived in Iran.  Anything could go wrong (suspense).  When would it?  I understand that the location scouting expedition with the six “house guests” didn’t occur — at all.  It struck me as a stupid thing to do as I was watching it, but that sequence had been set up well, creating a situation in which Mendez must scout locations with his crew in order to establish their identities and get the Iranians to believe Mendez.  It was an opportunity to ratchet up the suspense and Ben Affleck did so with directorial expertise.

The ending of this story is an historical fact: the six Americans escaped Iran successfully with the help of the Canadians and the CIA.  But how did they get from the Canadian Embassy in Teheran to the U.S.?  The reality went without a hitch as Mendez extracted the Americans.  In Argo, this is where the filmmakers really needed to ratchet up the suspense until it looks like they’re not going to get out…but then they do.  I liked the side plot with Mendez and his boss deciding to pull the plug on the extraction the night before, but Mendez deciding to go ahead anyway.  That set up for all their “support” to disappear — air line reservations, etc.  But his Hollywood cohorts didn’t get the memo, and Mendez’s boss decides to support him anyway.  So all that essential support infrastructure went from being completely down to going back up at the last minute.  Suspense.  I was on the edge of my seat.

The loudest complaint comes about the wild action on the airport runway, with Iranian security in vehicles chasing the plane Mendez and the Americans are in.  They won’t be safe until they leave Iran and Iranian air space.  There was a comical, Keystone Kops-kind of edge to this sequence that I enjoyed as a nose-thumbing to the Iranians.  Otherwise, it was just a suspenseful sequence, the beginning of the climax resolution.  I’m certain that it was added for the suspense and entertainment value.

To adapt source material into a screenplay takes intelligence, patience, a sharp, objective eye, nerves of steel, a thick skin, and courage.  Writing screenplays anyway is not for the faint of heart (or stomach).  It’s hard work, whether you’re talking about dealing with producers and director or the actual writing.  Complain away about adaptations, but I’d guess Hollywood’s approach to creating movie entertainment won’t change any time soon….




4 responses to “A Little Something About Writing Screenplays

  1. According to one of the embassy “house guests” (via his cousin, my friend), the bazaar scene-scouting, indeed, did not happen. Neither did the chase down the runway/catch at the airport. They apparently made it to the airport, got on the plane, and were chewing their nails until they reached international airspace. Your assessment seems to match what I heard via my friend. It was apparently nerve-wrackingly boring. But, that’s the experience of the 6 Americans. I am curious to know how much of the Mendez-CIA story [that the embassy employees would have no way of knowing] was true. e.g., Carter calling it off, Mendez doing it anyway, the Hollywood front story (with Arkin/Goodman’s story line).

    • I do know that the Arkin/Goodman storyline is fairly accurate — I suspect there were some liberties taken for dramatic effect — as far as setting up the cover legend, publicizing the fake movie, setting up the production office, etc. Goodman’s character was a long-time contact for the CIA who had worked with disguise specialists…makes sense. Arkin’s character I suspect was a composite but I’m not sure. As for Carter calling it off, I don’t know if that really happened or not. I haven’t read Tony Mendez’s book about that particular extraction.

      My assessment wasn’t guesswork. I also have my sources.(smile) Good to see you here again!

  2. My favorite screen adaptation is the 2002 Granada production of Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga”; by Stephen Mallatratt; though Galworthy’s story begins in 1886 and the screenplay in 1874. I very much enjoyed the extra 12 years; the viewer was able to see what motivated and developed certain characters and thus empathize with them, yet everything still stayed very true to the story. I’ve always thought that the characters of this story were the best developed characters of any novel.

    • I remember that mini-series on PBS. Mallatratt had a bit more space in which to work, not limited to a 2 hr. adaptation but a mini-series. The usual issue with adaptations is the need to cut so much of the novel in order to squeeze the story into 2 hrs. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention — I’ll put it on my Netflix queue.

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