I’ve just seen David Hare give a lecture on screenwriting at the NFT (the lecture wasn’t on ‘screenwriting at the NFT’; it was just held there).
He was very urbane and interesting, talking and answering questions for an hour and a half.
The structure of his talk consisted of his five rules or beliefs by which he writes.
1. (Sorry in advance. I’m going to fuck this up a bit because I wasn’t taking very careful notes, so what I might do is just regurgitate his advice, no matter how many points there are) In any piece of film the director is the only one who has a full idea of the concrete finished version in his head. Everyone else involved will have their own idea of what’s being produced, but it will not be the same as the director’s. Filming of The Hours was delayed for 6 hours while Meryl Streep had the set rearranged to fit her preconception of it. The she did her usual fucking-annoying-but-good Meryl Streep performance.
2. This leads to disappointment. Sir David said that ‘a film they dreamed of as being everything is suddenly something’, and that cannot fail to disappoint (remember all those times you’ve stared stonily at the first cut of your ad, trying to process ten million things at once AND look politely pleased in front of the director?).
3. What does a writer do for a living? mostly he or she thinks. Or to put it less prosaically, he or she imagines (remember yesterday when you were sitting at your desk with your feet up? Back-breaking work). He said that it’s all about the structure, and once that’s in place, writing dialogue is a piece of piss.
4. In any field, in any meeting, only the idiot speaks first. The most powerful person speaks last, and in film that is the director.
5. Your imagining (the script) is merely a kind of booster rocket to allow the director to do his own imagining before discarding yours.
6. Always end-load your film. Sir Davey said that most films are based on some idea/proposition, eg: Sandra Bullock is a nun who inherits $100,000,000 on condition that she marries a muslim. The problem with that is that it is front-loaded and will not produce a satisfying ending. Start with what happens at the end and build towards it. That way you will have a story that satisfies with its inevitability and sustains its interest until the end. If you’re heading somewhere good, you can’t go wrong.
7. Allow more talented people than you to do their work.
8. Who is the third that walks among us? He illustrated this point with a scene from The Fallen Idol, a Carol Reed film in which a deep and important conversation about a relationship is compromised when a small boy turns up and cannot be turned away. We feel the enormous tension of this scene because the two people involved in it are not ostensibly talking about what they are talking about. This is how and when real life is inserted into a piece of drama. Imperfection that makes it perfect (fans of Mad Men will have seen this in the scene where Betty confronts Don about his secret past while Don’s lover waits in the car downstairs, ready to burst in at any moment).
9. Tell, don’t show. We all know that we are supposed to ‘show, don’t tell’, but in some instances, telling can be the best thing to do because film is not only a visual medium, it is also verbal. Hare illustrated this with this scene from Citizen Kane, which he called the greatest speech in the history of cinema:
10. Finally, oh, hang on. I think this last point could be an entire post of its own, so I’ll do it on the weekend for Monday.