Friday, January 28, 2011

Why It’s Good To Read The Screenplay First

Reading screenplays is essential to every screenwriter’s ongoing development, especially reading unproduced screenplays or screenplays of films you haven’t seen yet.

So many professional, successful screenwriters emphasize the importance of reading screenplays, that it’s a piece of advice worth taking seriously. However, I find that when I read a screenplay of a film I’ve already seen, I have to filter out the contributions of the director, the actors, the music, the set design and all the other elements that combine to create the movie-watching experience, in order to see what the script per se has to offer. Which is why reading screenplays of films you haven't seen yet, or which haven't been produced yet, can be enlightening.

Reading Movies You Love
Reading the screenplay of a movie you’ve enjoyed watching, is a bit like watching the movie again in your head. It’s a great way to identify keys moments and see how the screenwriter described them on the page, but what it doesn’t do is give you insight into the impression the writing would make before the film is made. One of my favourite films of last year, for example, was Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Although I love how the script is written, there’s no way I can imagine anyone other than Ben Stiller playing the part of Greenberg, with his brilliantly executed body language and inimitable delivery of the dialogue. Although reading screenplays of films you’ve seen can teach you a lot about style, dialogue, pacing, structure and so on, once you already have so many specific images, camera angles and cuts in mind, it’s harder to take the writing on face value.

The Professional Reader’s Experience
When you read a screenplay cold, with no specific actors or set designs, or soundtrack in mind, you experience what a potential director or actor or producer feels when they read a script for the first time. Does it trigger the imagination? Does the scene unfold with tension or humour? Are the twists unexpected or dramatic enough? How much is left to the actor’s discretion? Does the writing evoke distracting questions? It’s useful to take note of what works and what doesn’t in this respect, because your own material will be received precisely on these terms.

Watching the Finished Product
Sometimes a film will exceed the expectations evoked by the screenplay, sometimes it will disappoint, and sometimes the film is just what the script suggested it would be. But whatever your reaction to the finished product, it’s also an important source of information. You can now go back to the script and discover what it was about the writing that did or didn’t survive the production process as far as you’re concerned. Sometimes scenes will have been significantly shortened, sometimes it’s the camerawork that gives the scene added meaning, sometimes the acting doesn’t do justice to what you imagined whilst reading, and so on. What, specifically, was the difference between what was on the page and on the screen? These are all really useful insights to take back to your next rewrite.

Oscar Nominated Screenplays
Every year there’s a flood of great new screenplays on the web in the run-up to the Oscars. They’re all very recent films, some of which you may already have seen, but some of which you probably haven’t. If you want to find a ton of great screenplays to read, head over to chinokino and get reading!