Thursday, 13 March 2014

Book Post: When The Olives Weep

I've written a screenplay based on Olives - A Violent Romance. I have to tell you, it was a great deal of fun and a most fascinating exercise. And the first thing I did was give it the title I should have - if there were anything between my ears other than kapok - given the book in the first place - When The Olives Weep.

It all started when I gave a talk to the DIFC book club last year. They meet in that most hallowed of haunts for the city's self-proclaimed CIPs, the Capital Club. Apart from having a pleasant evening, I was struck by one of the members who reported on his experiences reading 'Screenwriting for dummies'. It sounded interesting and I made a mental note to get the book myself one of the days and see what it was all about.

This from a man who spent seven years refusing to read books on writing before he had to be bullied into it. You can see I've learned stuff, can't you?

I went one better. I bought and read Syd Field's (in)famous Screenplay: The Foundations Of Screenwriting. And I spent a lot of time on the Internet sucking up everything I could about writing screenplays.

There are some odd conventions to scripts. The first and most wonderful is that a page of 12 point Courier text laid out in the standard margins of screenplays equates to a minute on celluloid. Not that they use celluloid any more, but you know what I mean. It's an immutable rule of film and the rules and conventions of formatting are even more rigid than publishing. Indents need to be precisely standard, new scenes treated this way, dialogue that. Looking at a blank Word doc and all that convention, you'd be forgiven for throwing up your hands then and there. Which is where Celtx comes in. Celtx is screenwriting software and it's simply brilliant. Mind-numbingly, it's freeware - such a polished and useful piece of software being offered for nada is stunning.

Celtx does the formatting for you and lots of other useful things, leaving you to focus on the actual, you know, story.

The first thing you notice is how the two ways of telling the same narrative differ so monumentally. In a book, you're setting up the scene, building a sense of place and grounding the reader in the characters' Point Of View, carefully describing things and actions and pacing exposition, dialogue and action.

In screenplay, that's pretty much the job of the director and actors. You're straight in there, keeping it crisp and description down to a minimum. Most of what you have to get across is straight action or dialogue. Scenes keep the action moving, you move to a new room it's a new scene. Move out of the house to the garden, new scene. It's got to flow, dialogue is critical and much of the dialogue in your book doesn't matter. In fact, whole scenes don't matter. Loads of them. You're paring down the story to its bare minimum - if it doesn't move the story forward, it goes. Nuance and subtlety are kept, but they work in different ways - they're the actor's job to communicate through your dialogue. It's on screen - you really don't want to listen to characters pontificating about the meaning of life. Oh no, you want stuff actually, you know, happening.

Now you'd think you'd have done that anyway, writing a well-rounded novel, no? But there's so much description, scenes setting up characters that can go when you have visual cues to play with. Then there are different ways of telling the story - I told more of Lynch's 'backstory' in the screenplay, showed some of the 'behind the scenes' stuff Olives infers but doesn't actually tell. A couple of scenes equals a whole load of shortcuts that mean lumps of book stuff can go. Because the visual medium is in many ways more powerful, different ways it has to be said. I'm not putting one above the other. But Olives the book is 260 pages of full text and the screenplay is 120 pages of tightly formatted, mostly dialogue, 12 point Courier - for a nice, standard two-hour film.

It was a real eye-opener, in some ways a chance to rewrite Olives as a faster, more urgent story than the realistic, leisurely novel I set out to write - in some ways a way of testing how you write and what you can, despite your conviction you've gone as far as you're comfortable, still tear out of the bodywork and engine and leave a functioning vehicle that's faster and lighter.

Strangely, When The Olives Weep fits neatly into Field's structure (he's been blamed with creating a formula so powerful that all Hollywood films are cookie cut from the same convention) with no tweaking. It establishes in the right places, kicks off in the right places and resolves in the right places - all out of the box, I hadn't intended it to fit so neatly. It's just that Olives does that anyway.  It's all a bit pacier than the book - and I can see how authors get upset at how Hollywood mangles their books. At least I did all my own mangling!

I now have not the faintest clue to do with the resulting work and it's sitting in a desk drawer until I work out what the hell you do with a screenplay. But it's a rollicking read, I can tell you that much!
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1 comment:

Macthomson said...

Syd Field, Robert McKee, ah the memories! I only turned to writing in novel form when I had learned from experience how difficult is is to get a screenplay realized. That was in the mid-nineties.

Twenty years down the line it is possibly less problematic to get a story from script to screen. A bunch of actors engaged on a revenue-sharing basis, production entirely on location, use of the latest low-cost tech and a miniumum of warm bodies behind the camera.

Yes, 'video' self-publishing!

You know you want to!

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