Dennis Packard

Francis Ford Coppola once said that we would eventually get tired of special effects, and filmmakers would again focus on writing and acting. He may well have had in mind the so-called Golden Age of Television, when producers in New York felt they couldn’t compete with Hollywood filming, so they would hire the best writers and best up-and-coming actors. The result was a series of television dramas that led critics to say the best drama was coming, not from Hollywood, but from New York television. Many of those writer/actor dramas, like Twelve Angry Men or Trip to Bountiful, ended up being successfully remade for the big screen in Hollywood.

We may well have reached the point Coppola was talking about. Movie audiences increasingly blink less when they see what once would have been an impressive special effect. A number of years ago, I remember being wowed by a realistic shot in Titanic when a man slips off the deck of the sinking ship and bounces on the propeller and falls to his death. I wondered how they pulled that shot off. But my critical side also noticed that the effect had pulled me out of the shot, which Aristotle would have condemned. For him, “spectacle” should always sustain the written text, never upstage it. He claimed that a quality text should move us in just reading it. If it didn’t, it wasn't worth staging and performing.

And of course every decent actor knows how much good acting depends on quality writing. Anthony Hopkins was once asked how he prepared for a scene. He is such a fine actor that I thought he might say he did lots of research or lots of method-acting practice playing his character in various situations. But he said he prepared by reading the scene a hundred times. That was it. He just needed to get the writing in him.

A number of writing-to-filming sites foster the central role of writers. Coppola himself has his Zoetroppe site, where writers post their stories, and filmmakers, including his daughter, turn some of them into films. One of his writers claims, “It's impossible to overstate the importance of the Zoetrope Virtual Studios in my growth as a writer. I joined in 2000 as a complete novice. I would not still be writing today if it were not for the kind mentorship and encouragement of the talented and accomplished writers on this site.”

Another such site is Wattpad, put together by two Asian Americans intent on providing story material for not only the United States but Asia as well. A recent article about the site is entitled “How this $400 million Storytelling Platform is Disrupting the Global Entertainment Industry.” The article's first two sentences read, “The most watched film on Netflix last year was a teenage rom com, The Kissing Booth, which changed the life of Beth Reekles. She is the writer of The Kissing Booth, a story she first posted on one of the world’s biggest platforms for reading and writing.”

So, with the demand for film exploding worldwide, writers must step forward and help. Zoetroppe and Wattpad invite writers into a community, with lots of mentoring help, including material about writing. But neither site provides writers with a smooth path from writing stories and novels to writing screenplays. Writers, to their consternation, most often have to rely on filmmakers to rewrite their stories and novels as screenplays for them.

During the thirties, Hollywood studios invited great writers like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald to write screenplays for them. The studio hopes were high, their vision to combine the best writing with the best acting and filming. MGM took out a full-page ad in a major newspaper inviting writers to apply. The result was disastrous. The writers couldn’t understand what the film studios wanted, and the studios didn’t know how to explain what they needed. The world of serious writing and filmmaking were just too far apart.

Meanwhile, some writers, like John Steinbeck, were bringing those two worlds together. Steinbeck wrote novellas like Of Mice and Men that he intended to be staged by lifting the dialogue out directly. Sure enough, Of Mice and Men was staged within a year and it was filmed multiple times not long after that. Such novels, called film novels by some filmmakers, told their stories as if you were watching a movie. Scene by scene, we see what is happening and hear what is being said and even narrated. The pioneers of this approach were the vivid writer Gustave Falubert and James Joyce, an avid movie watcher, who wrote some of his novels, like Ulysses, as screenplays. Faulkner himself wrote a novel in this visual style called Sanctuary.

These writers created international changes in the film industry, including, some claim, making possible the New Wave in France. The French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a film novel that was filmed shortly after he wrote it. Other writers started writing film novels, and soon some of these writers were making their own films from their novels.

Some directors turned to writers who wrote screenplays with the care of a novelist. James Agee was such a novelist / screenwriter, and John Huston, a literate filmmaker, attentively filmed his writing. Huston was once praised for the shots in a scene of the African Queen. He said he was just following the guidance of Agee's description in the scene.

Finally, great writing and great filming were coming together. Where does that leave writers today? I believe we are moving into a golden age for writers. But writers have to rise to the new age. Only those that do will thrive.

Writers shouldn’t just write novels and wait for filmmakers to rewrite and perhaps butcher them. Nor should they just write screenplays, which can sit on the shelf for years before being made if ever. Writers need to write novels to be filmed, gain a reading audience, an independent reputation as a writer, and the attention of filmmakers. Writers who have already written novels need to rewrite them as film novels themselves.

Studios know that the best movie releases come with more than their movie. Ideally, every movie comes out with an accompanying novel, a film novel, and a graphic novel. Writers can create the first two and can help significantly with the last one. There is some additional formal help for this.

A book called The Film Novelist, which was field tested, and the principles taught at multiple universities for more than fifteen years, explains the development of film novels. It also explains how to write a filmable story and script in stages and how to turn the script into a novella.

In later blogs I’ll break down some of the information from The Film Novelist into introductions on how to take an idea or story or novel and turn it into a script and a film novel. And I'll point you to a site with tutorials and tools that will help you apply what you've learned about a filmable story and script.

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