I have a lot of admiration for screenwriters. They are the unsung heroes of the film business; without their stories, no film would ever be made. Being a writer is hard, anxious and often lonely work. You stare at the blank screen. It waits to be filled, it must be filled, and so you start to write, praying that the end result is worth the effort you give to it. I've started and not finished countless screenplays whose stories just wouldn't go anywhere, written and completed eight full drafts of an absolutely dreadful romantic comedy and, through various writing groups I've belonged to over the years, read a lot of developing screenplays that will, thankfully, never see the light of day. I'm such a geek, in fact, that I often read the scripts for films I love, over and over again, just to feel rhythm of the words on the page, and to get a sense for how those words translated into the finished film on the screen.
As so often happens, Anne Thompson at The Hollywood Reporter has written an astute piece on screenwriting that is so obvious it seems it should be carved into granite above the entrance to every studio in Hollywood: Great writing makes for great movies. The film with which Thompson explores this hypothesis is Stranger Than Fiction, which debuted at Toronto (sadly, I missed it there), and she makes her point about great writing by enumerating how many big stars wanted to be in the film based on the script alone. Some truly great films have come out of a script that speaks its truth to actors so purely and loudly that they simply must see the film get made. They'll work for scale, drop other projects, shuffle their schedules around, all for the sake of that golden opportunity to be in a film so good that it demands to be made, whatever the sacrifice. When critics and cinephiles bemoan the dismal quality of so many films sludging their way out of Hollywood, very often what we are really bemoaning is the lack of originality in storytelling, the lack of passion in penning that story, and mostly, the lack of truth that seems to permeate so many films.
If you think back to the movies you've loved -- the kind of films that give your soul a queer little ache when the closing credits roll because they were that good -- almost all of them, I'll bet, have a really good script behind them, and one of the elements that makes a really great script is truth. I could go through your basic film school list of "great" films, most of which also happen to have great scripts behind them, but I want to focus here on a couple of films that really speak to me. The first is A River Runs Through It, which was adapted by Richard Friedenberg very closely from the source material, Norman Maclean's memoir of the same name.
Why has A River Runs Through It stayed in my heart since 1992? Why did I love that film so much that I shelled out primo cash in 1996 for a special edition hard cover of Maclean's memoir with woodblock-print illustrations? It's just a simple story about two brothers, their father, and fly fishing, but it's about so much more than that. Maclean, in his simple prose, gets to the heart of what really matters in our relationships with others: love and understanding. In the film, older Norman (Craig Sheffer plays the younger man) reflects back on his life and the tragic loss of his brother Paul, whose ghost haunts his memoir. Toward the end of the story, after Norman's brother Paul (a very young-looking Brad Pitt) has been killed, his father, Reverend Maclean (Tom Skerritt, in one of his best roles ever), gives a sermon in which he says, "And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding." This simple truth, captured by Maclean in his memoir and translated to screen by Friedenberg's script and Robert Redford's beautiful direction, is the heart of A River Runs Through It, and it is why this film continues to haunt me, just as older Norman in the film, looking back on his life, reflects that he is "haunted by waters."
Another script driven by truth is 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, written by Stewart Stern. I've always loved this film, but until I interviewed Stern last year for Cinematical, I had no idea just how much of his own truth Stern put into every line of that script. Watching the film at its 50th anniversary screening at Northwest Film Forum after meeting Stern was like seeing it fresh for the first time, with a completely new insight. Having heard the stories of Stern's childhood, knowing that Jim Stark's parents were incarnations of Stern's own parents, made Jim's interactions with them, his raw need for his hen-pecked father to stand up to the cold, domineering mother, so much more real and heartbreaking. Spending time with Stern (with whom I've since been privileged to spend even more time), and talking to him about Peter Pan, which is an obsession that has threaded through his entire life from the time he was six years old, made the trio of Jim Stark, Plato and Judy so much more meaningful. The mansion scene at the end of the film, I learned from Stern, is Peter Pan: Jim, of course, is Peter, Judy is Wendy, Plato is all the Lost Boys, and the mansion, for that moment, is their Neverland -- until it's invaded by the pirates, in the form of vengeful gang members.
I've heard Stern talk about his teaching style (long since retired from Hollywood, he nonetheless has devoted innumerable hours to teaching other would-be screenwriters the art and craft of writing well), and talked to some of his students, and the one point he emphasizes over all else -- over style, over form, over structure -- is truth. He believes that truth lies at the heart of every good story, and he teaches those writers lucky enough to work with him how to get in touch with their own inner truths, and to translate those truths into good stories. He relentlessly forces his students to get in touch with what lies buried within their own hearts through brutal writing exercises where students write (longhand only, no computers) in timed drills about whatever seemingly innocuous topic he tosses their way, until they find the truth buried somewhere at the core. Stern very often puts himself through the same rigorous drill alongside his students, writing tirelessly on his own legal pad until his hand is cramped and he has to stop.
These days, it seems you're much more likely to find truth at the heart of an independent film than a studio film, and I think part of why this happens, is simply that studios are motivated by the dollar potential of a story -- how it will translate to screen, and how cool the special effects will be, and who they can get to star in it -- over whether there's actually a good story at the heart of it. Of all the films I've seen so far in 2006, there are only a handful that really packed that magical combination of compelling story with underlying truth.
The Proposition, written by Australian musician/Renaissance man Nick Cave, is one of the most perfectly written scripts not just of this year, but any year. Cave penned an interesting story with complex characters, but the story resonates because each of the characters has his own truth, and Cave finds those truths and reveals them to us in all their ugliness and beauty. Cave's score is almost a part of the script, each note perfectly accompanying the translation of script to screen; one can easily imagine the notes running through Cave's head even as he put the words to the page.
The three best films I saw recently at Telluride and Toronto all stand out for me because of the strength of their scripts: Pan's Labyrinth, Babel, and Little Children. In Pan's Labyrinth, writer/director Guillermo del Toro reaches deep inside his own darkest places from -- in his words -- his "fucked up childhood," to bring to life this dark fairy tale about a little girl for whom the escape of a fantasy world is every bit as dangerous as the real one she seeks to leave behind. With Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu started out to make a film about the borders within ourselves that keep us separated into "us" and "them," but found as work on the film progressed that he was making a story, instead, about the ways in which we are similar. And then there's Little Children.
Co-written by director Todd Field with Tom Perotta, author of the book on which the film is based, Little Children will in all likelihood be a contender for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and as far as I'm concerned it should be the winner. I found it fascinating to talk to people about this film, and was particularly interested in how most of the people I spoke with who didn't like it, cited Kate Winslet's character, Sarah, as the reason for their dislike. That, I would submit, speaks more clearly than anything else to how much truth lies within the script of Little Children: The entire point of the film -- in particular what Sarah represents as a character -- is how she judges herself, and is judged by others, as an imperfect mother because she is unable to bond with her daughter. Her life feels empty and meaningless, in spite of its Town and Country exterior; she seeks out a relationship with Brad (Patrick Wilson) in a desperate attempt to feel something, anything.
The truths at the heart of Little Children are these: That giving up your career to be a stay-at-home mother can feel like cutting out a huge chunk of your sense of self-hood; that women can suffer from postpartum depression so crippling it can keep them from bonding with their children, and this does not mean that they are bad people or bad mothers; that the ways in which women judge and attack each other, especially in the context of sacred motherhood, is vicious and evil and hurtful. No one -- not the talk show hosts, not the authors of most parenting books, certainly not the glossy pages of parenting magazines -- talks truthfully about these dirty little secrets of suburban bliss in the darkly honest way Little Children does, and for daring to speak these truths within the bounds of this compelling story, this film deserves every accolade it's gotten and every one it has yet to receive, and more.
True doesn't just mean it did happen or it could happen -- it means a story taps into the basic truths in all of us and speaks to us there, in our secret hearts that we seldom reveal even to those closest to us. When a film strikes that chord with you, when you feel it resonate to the very marrow of your bones with wrenching honesty, when reliving the moments of a film you first saw over a decade ago can still choke you up -- you'll know you've stumbled upon the greatest gift of cinema: A writer who has given a bit of his or her own soul in the creation of a story that can touch others with the truth at its core. And when that happens, fellow cinephiles, sit back, soak it in and be grateful for the gift.