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Are Screenwriters as Important as They Think?

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Hollywood screenwriters are up in arms! (See video above.) They have declared war on Disney and, in particular, Disney executive Andy Hendrickson who, according to an article in Variety, said, “People say ‘It’s all about the story.’ When you’re making tentpole films, bullshit.” He said that for a film such as the Tim Burton directed/Disney produced Alice in Wonderland, which made a truckload of money (hence it’s a tentpole movie), “The story isn’t very good, but the visual spectacle brought people in droves.”

I agree with Andy Hendrickson. I’ve already written a piece in which I stated my position on the subject of the screenplay and the plot. In short, I think that the plot is vastly overrated. It should be seen as merely one possibility among many for organizing scenes, spectacles, acts, just like Ed Sullivan united the acts on his show, or the Ring Leader unites the acts in a Three Ring Circus.  The more a writer insists that these disparate elements be united in more and more obvious ways, the more acts you leave out of the show, and the weaker your show will end up being. The weaker your plot, the more diverse the acts the plot will allow under the tent. It’s no accident that movie executives call certain kinds of movies tentpoles, an image that derives from the circus.

Plot and character are like the string in a necklace, and the elements of a film, the actors, characters, scenes, actions, dialogue, are the jewels on the string. If your string is more like a rope, it will overpower the jewels. Each jewel in a film should be relatively autonomous. If you are an agent booking a variety show, you should not plan on telling what each act should do. But this is what the screenwriting books by writers such as Syd Field and Robert McKee teach us.

Look at some of the earliest long form stories in the Western cannon. Such as The Odyssey. Such as The Divine Comedy. They are exactly what I am talking about: a series of scenes connected by character and the frame of a journey. The scenes can be anything. There’s nothing that says that Odysseus must meet the Cyclops or Circe. There’s nothing that says that Odysseus’ journey home must last 10 years or 100 years. Dante’s trip through Hell could last into infinity. Odysseus could become the eternal wanderer and his adventures could go on forever. The limit is really what the audience for the story is expecting.

Likewise, neither Odysseus nor Dante are necessary elements of these stories. Both The Odyssey and Divine Comedy could be done as travelogues with a narrator addressing the audience directly as each new land in the Mediterranean or station of Hell is approached. It could be done in the manner of Tex Avery’s “The Isle of Pingo Pongo,” a series of gags united by the frame of a travelogue spoof (WARNING: racist stereotypes):

So characters are not necessary to make a good film. How about plot? Here’s a definition often used in screenplay manuals:

a narrative structure that divides a story into five parts, like the five acts of a play. These parts are: exposition (of the situation); rising action (through conflict); climax (or turning point); falling action; and resolution.

This definition assumes the presence of characters. But if characters are not necessary, then neither is plot. I submit that the plot, like the character, is best seen as a device to organize the various elements of a film, the film’s package. The less emphasis that is put on it, the better off the elements in the package will be. What do people remember best about a film? Is it the plot? Or is it a scene? A moment? Such as: Psycho‘s shower scene, the car chase in The French Connection, the spaceship landing in Close Encounters, King Kong fighting off the planes, Indiana Jones running from the boulder, the Death Star blowing up, Jack Nicholson trying to order toast in Five Easy Pieces, the walk in The Wild Bunch, the presentation of Simba to all the animals at the start of The Lion King, Charlie Chaplin doing the roll dance in The Gold Rush), a line of dialogue (“Rosebud,” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” “You’ll need a bigger boat,” “You talkin’ to me?”, Danny Kaye trying to remember if the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle in The Court Jester.

If I’m wrong and people remember plots more than they remember moments, then why is the film, “Precious Images,” so powerful?

Why are there so many clips from movies on Youtube? It’s not because Youtube doesn’t allow full movies to be uploaded. It’s because moments and scenes from movies stand on their own and are usually the highlight of the movie they are from. They do not need a plot to support them. In many cases, the plot only serves to dilute their impact. Hollywood knew this years ago when it produced compilation films such as That’s Entertainment, which includes scenes from musicals, and before that, compilations such as When Comedy Was King, made from silent movies. Youtube merely continues this tradition.

What’s the story in this clip? There is none. It’s united by music, actors, and theme.  It’s complete, as is.

I’m looking at the list of top Domestic Grosses adjusted for ticket price inflation. There are several Disney movies on this list. I grew up watching clips from Disney on television before I saw most of the films. Clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (#10 on the list), 101 Dalmations (1961) (#11), Fantasia (#21), Mary Poppins (#24), The Lion King (#25), Sleeping Beauty (#30), Pinocchio (#38), Lady and the Tramp (#68). Each of the scenes that I saw on television stood on its own. It did not need the support of a plot. The film on the list with the weakest plot is Fantasia. In fact, there is no “plot.” Some individual sequences have something of a story, but each sequence is completely separate, and the film as a whole does not have a unifying plot. What unity the film does have, other than unity you get by bringing the sequences together under one name, Fantasia, is provided by the idea or theme (illustrations of classical music) and Deems Taylor. Compilation films often attempt to unite the separate sequences with a framing device that involves a group of characters, each telling a story. Examples: Dead of Night and Tales from the Crypt. Fantasia shows that such a framing device is totally unnecessary. But my point is this: when you allow the plot to weaken, and allow each element of a film to be relatively autonomous, you unleash the full potential of each scene, sequence, element of the film.

Let’s embrace the freedom of a jazz improviser who treats the given musical theme merely as a take-off point. The only limitations are the talent and imagination of the artist.

Here’s an example of jazz improvisation by Norman Mclaren using the drawing direct on film technique. If you skip ahead to the 45 second mark you will begin where the film really begins.

So, Disney exec Andy Hendrickson is correct, but what he said applies to more than just tentpole movies. Plot should be treated as a supporting character, and not as the film’s headliner. This enables greater variety when casting your show. However, screenwriters should put down their weapons and return to their word processors. Someone still has to write this stuff.

Ed Sullivan did not worry about plot.


Georges Méliès

Georges Méliès agrees with Andy Hendrickson:

For Méliès the scenario had little importance. He preferred to invent details first of all, out of which a final narrative developed. He liked to include a few tricks–“one trick leads to another,” he once said–then one principal grandiose effect and a final apotheosis. “You could say that the scenario is in this case simply a thread intended to link the ‘effects,’ in themselves without much relation to each other. I mean to say that the scenario has no more than a secondary importance in this genre of composition… I was appealing to the spectator’s eyes alone, trying to charm and intrigue him, hence the scenario was of no importance.” One is reminded of Nevil Maskelyne’s words on magical items: “beads held together and supported by the thread of dramatic interest.” These ‘effects,’ or ‘beads’–tricks, sets, costumes and props–were hastily scribbled down on any available bit of paper. (From Marvellous Méliès by Paul Hammond; p. 57)

Will Martin Scorsese’s homage to Méliès, Hugo (based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick), honor this aspect of the pioneering filmmaker’s art? We will know soon enough, but my bets are being placed against.


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