Wednesday, January 9, 2013

New year's resolutions - and what we can learn from Casablanca...

Nine days into 2013 and I'm deep into plotting and planning mode, which I guess a lot of people are. What are your goals for the year ahead? What do you want to have ticked off on your to-do list by Christmas 2013?

My goals are simple: to write another original feature screenplay and a TV pilot (my first ever). I do have a yearning to make one of my 2013 scripts an Irish-based one. But I don't know if that will be the feature script or the pilot.

There is, of course, other work to be done - rewriting existing scripts, for one. And if I get an idea for another script, which I tend to do on a regular basis, I'll write a one-pager or even a treatment for it.  And of course there's the regular stuff to keep up (watching movies and reading other people's scripts). But by year end, if I achieve nothing else I want the new feature and the pilot to exist -and ideally be blowing readers' minds...

So those are my screenwriting resolutions for 2013 - what are yours?

You could do better than sign up for Ashley Scott Meyer's brilliant blog on screenwriting. He has a guest column this week from writer/director/producer Alan Denman on seven signposts for successful screenwriting, two of which are Visual (making your scripts as visual as possible - show, not tell) and Emotions (as Denman puts it, "for your characters to be real they must perform explicit actions but they must also have non-verbal agendas driven by emotional needs"). Make the audience feel, don't just dazzle them with wizardry and expect them to respond.

I went to a screening of Casablanca last night as part of the Workmans Den Cinema Club (which I highly recommend by the way - their Facebook page is here. I'm going to be doing the intro to the monthly movie from now on. Oh, and it's free!).

Casablanca is, of course, a stone-cold classic. It's got a dream cast - not just Bogart and Bergman but the classic oily pairing of Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, not to mention the great bad-guy actor Claude Rains (who gets all the best lines). But the script is a minor miracle - four credited writers and even more rumoured to have worked on it, and yet it sounds like it was written by one, highly-talented scribe. The last five minutes alone has some of the most famous dialogue in movie history - every line's a jewel.

And yet, I'd argue that this is not what makes Casablanca such a beloved film. It's visual, for sure - instead of Captain Renault remarking that he's sick of being part of the Vichy regime, we have him staring pensively at a bottle of Vichy water and throwing it contemptuously in the trash. Instead of Rick admitting that he's not as hard as he pretends, we see him nodding at his roulette dealer to turn a losing gambler's fortunes. We see what a defiant hero Victor Laszlo is, not when he delivers a big speech but when he risks his freedom by getting a whole bar to sing The Marseillaise in front of a group of fuming Nazis.

So the visual impact is part of its attraction. But the emotional undercurrent - what the characters don't say but get across with their looks and actions - is what sucks you in. What makes the final scene between Rick and Ilsa so touching? It's not what they say but what they do. Shake hands politely and walk away from each other forever. I'll take that over a corny speech any day (hello, Pearl Harbor).

So maybe that should be my other big resolution for 2013 - to find a way to maximise the visual appeal of my scripts and to find the emotional core of each story, each set of characters. Show, not tell, in the truest sense of the phrase...

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