The Perfect Screenplay

This comes from my old Myspace blog, dated 4.7.2006

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Nobody ever talks about the perfect song, the perfect novel, the perfect poem. Because to do so would presuppose that there is an ideal of any of these art forms, and that would be preposterous with such a variety of voice and style inherent in all artistic mediums. Yet, with film there is this frustrating tendency to classify some films, and particularly screenplays, as perfect – the perfect structure, the perfect plot twist, the perfect character development. Forget that most of the criteria that determine these ideals of “perfect” ignore the virtues of some of the greatest films made outside the United States (Antonioni, Wong Kar-Wai, to name two). It doesn’t matter when you’re trying to create a product that will reach the largest audience and, by consequence, garner the largest profit.

Film became a business model in the eighties with the fade of old school film producers/executives who were brought up in the “industry” and the rise of business school CEO’s as studio bosses, corporate take-overs, media conglomerates, and my personal favorite, the test screenings. This is not to say that film wasn’t a business before that. The studios have always tried to predict the tastes of their audiences and then give them pleasing and unchallenging movies as a result. However, older film executives also understood that, without having numbers at their disposal, they had to go off their gut reaction to a story and produce from there. That’s what allowed us to have the film noir movement through the 40’s and 50’s, it’s what allowed us to have the Hollywood renaissance through the 60’s and 70’s. But since then, the bulk of the most interesting films made in America have come out of the independent movement (which in itself is now slowly being devoured by the studio system – we’ll see what happens).

Guys like Syd Field, Robert McKee and the like have responded to the idea that there is an ideal business model for the creation (not the production) of film stories, and consequently we get books like Screenplay and Story that try to mathematically break down how a story should be told. There are even people who try to provide a systematic method for creating stories, not just showing how those stories should be told. By creating essentially a mathematical formula for an artistic form, we now have an “ideal” to which we as writers should aspire. Bullshit. What a way to stifle artistic expression and creation.

While I agree with these mountebanks in that the way you tell a story is just as important as the story itself (see Inside Man as an example of this), we need to realize as both a business and an audience – yes, this includes those of us that still go to movies – that not all films need to be all things to all people, that it’s okay for some films to have small audiences just as it’s okay for some films to have huge audiences. More than that, if you’re just showing people what they want to see, how are you holding up your side of the artistic bargain, or even the commercial bargain for that matter? Aren’t you as either an artist or a salesman supposed to show people something different, something they didn’t realize they needed, and let them decide whether to like it or not? There’s something that happens at this moment – dare I say mind expanding? – that you never get if your values are just re-enforced by telling the studio you want more action movies with Bruce Willis (which is not to say I don’t enjoy those films…).

Just as in music, books, poetry, painting, sculpture, performance art, theater, and any other artistic form that falls between or outside, we as artists, audience, and business people need to break from the idea of an ideal film that almost everything will fall short of. In doing so, we might start enjoying things that are just a little (or even a lot) imperfect.

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(note: the following was a response from friend Jeff Crocker. I liked it at the time, and still do – I mean, when else are you gonna get a Napoleon Dynamite and Total Recall reference in the same paragraph – so I thought I’d include it. Enjoy.)

I think where your argument shifts it’s tracks is when you start talking about Syd “Big Joe Campbell” Field and Robert “Billy Joel” McKee. Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Meyer, the points you are making are accurate and unfortunate. But Field and McKee exist only in the world where we have accepted COMPLETELY that film is a business. There was a gap and they filled it. They subconsciously were convinced that only a certain screenplay sold consistently and then saturated the market with their own brand of, shall we call it- “screenplay scientology-” a self-help program for the weak and greedy, the quick-bucks and the Big Momma’s Houses.

Syd Field and Robert McKee are trying to make money themselves with their own soul-stealing business models. They realized a long time ago that selling a screenplay is one in a million, but there are thousands of Starbucks that need aspiring screenwriters to go into their coffee shops with their laptops and read “Hero with a Thousand Faces” while their modified MS Word idles on page 4 of their screenplay. It’s good conversation.

But again, you’re absolutely right that the exceedingly creative side of things has been in the independent sector, which will always result in a metaphorical and emotional strip-mining of these people, with Hot Topic shirts, Burger King Tie-ins, and MTV contests “To BE Napoleon Dynamite for a day!”

The only comfort I can take in this is that the pendulum will always swing back and someday in the near future, between Demolition Man and Total Recall, we will be begging people to care about movies to one-sixth the amount they do today.

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Published in: on March 14, 2008 at 7:11 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Goddamn! I’m a great writer.


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