When I attended ‘Filmi Keeda – Chapter One’, the complex craft of screenwriting stood out to me for the first time. The event entailed a screening of the movie Lootera and discussion on its adaptation from O. Henry’s short story, ‘The Last Leaf’. Mrs. Ishika Motwane, shared the experience of making this film, the kind of research that had gone into the same and how Mr. Motwane shot for two different endings to see which one would fit best. I remember thinking what a gargantuan task it must have been, making a whole movie from a mere short story. And it was this that brought my attention to screenwriting. Both, as a profession and as an art.
It harked back to memory a session I attended at the Tata Literature Festival last year, i.e., 2018, called ‘Book My Show’. At the time, the major attraction in this event was Deborah Moggach, the screenwriter of Pride and Prejudice, who shared the ‘how tos’ of screenwriting along with other esteemed panellists. But she was the paramount reason for me to attend this session. After all, Pride and Prejudice is to date, a classic, and I’ve seen it a gazillion times. Naturally, I was excited to hear her talk about it. In light of the realisation that dawned on me in Filmi Keeda, I now look back at this sitting with a very different perspective.
The panel discussion was also graced by David Ebershoff, the author of The Danish Girl, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie himself, and Christos Tsiolkas, famous Australian writer. The journey of writers from a book to a film was what entailed this session. Deborah was very insightful and gave detailed advice and suggestions about how very different it is to write a screenplay than it is to write a book. She illustrated that novel writing exists in noun form, whereas a screenplay takes shape in verb form, as in, something constantly needs to keep happening in a screenplay. It usually has characters with adaptability, and that forms its defining characteristic. All of these nuances of screenwriting come into sharp focus in my memory, making me realise that the art of filmmaking is based on the ground work that is screenwriting. There is so much more to lights, camera and action. It is dialogue, setting and a story outline.
When it comes to dialogues, all of the three panelists emphasised on not writing dialogues as a way of going about making a screenplay, or learning to write one. The trick is to develop a visual sense of the background first, and write according to the sounds and other details that form your imagination. A 2018 Danish movie, ‘The Guilty’, made way into the conversation and was much appreciated. Deborah shared stories of how discussions on a screenplay in a boardroom with Steven Spielberg resulted in the story arc changing completely, thereby highlighting the fact what an evolving and dynamic process it is. The original screenplay and the end product were completely different! She also enumerated on a scene from Pride and Prejudice wherein Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) visits Mr. Darcy’s (Matthew Macfadyen) house, unaware that he was there, too. The subsequent dialogue between the two has been described in detail in the book, whereas in the movie, all the unsaid things like ‘I’m such a fool’, ‘I miss you’, ‘We could have been married by now’, are not included and the portrayal of the same is heavily relied upon the actors’ histrionic skills. Hence, a screenplay is enhanced in value through the actors involved and its execution depends on the way the characters are brought to life. Deborah further supplies screenwriting tips to keep in mind like, a script for a feature is hardly 120 pages long and can even be less than 90-110 pages at the maximum.
On writing the screenplay of his own book, David disclosed, “It can be like breathing the same air twice”. As he described the process, he also shared an invaluable piece of information that all or any writer can hold onto for motivation. David reminisced about the time when he was an aspiring, unpublished writer. He said while writing The Danish Girl he would often pause and indulge in the negative bout of doubts that creep into every struggling writer’s mind, “Am I going to make it?” David said he remembered thinking, “Would anyone want to read this?” And after a slight pause, he replied to his own question, “Well, I would”. It is what kept him going. And 20 years later, The Danish Girl had sold many, many copies, was made into a feature film and became a topic of worthy discourse all around the world. Although, David admitted that waiting for 20 years was scary and was a really long time to endure, his message to everyone present was to not lose hope and keep writing, whether it was a book or a screenplay. This is one piece of inspiration I will always carry with me.
Screenwriting is like cooking at the right temperature, with just the right amount of ingredients and involves a lot of practice, study and research. Here is what you can take away from this conversation –
- Read lots and lots of screenplays.
- Watch the movie. While watching, pause it and compare it with its screenplay.
- While editing your screenplay, once again, pause the movie and compare it with the screenplay.
- Step wise – read a book, watch a movie, read the screenplay then write your own screenplay of the same movie. Compare. (In that order).
- Don’t pen down dialogues, write a scene visually. Imagine it first. Write down the sounds and all the details that come to mind.
- Retain the scenes from the book that push the movie forward.