I was driving today in my banana yellow Peugeot 205 Junior (for sale £125, ono) when I fell into a reflective mood. Was I right, I pondered, to expend fifteen years in researching and writing a screenplay about an ecclesiastical tailor in late-Renaissance Utrecht and his ultimately fruitless struggle to persuade the Catholic establishment to lengthen the cassock by an inch and a half?
The answer of course was – I was wrong. I should have trained as an estate agent.
Too late for that now but this led me on to think about the screenwriter’s plight and I was soon hearing again the words of Dr Raj Persaud who noted, at a recent speech at the London Screenwriter’s Festival, that screenwriters are a particularly benighted breed; and the proof, apparently, is in the Oscars.
He noted that actors who win the award live an average of 3.9 years longer than those who were never nominated and directors who’ve raised the little gold man enjoy an extra 2 years of life over and above those who were just nominated. But here’s the horror story: screenwriters who win the Oscar actually have their lives curtailed by the experience. They die sooner as a result! Gulp!
His explanation was simple: – when screenwriters walk off the Oscar podium, having thanked Mums, agents, coffee manufacturers etc , unlike actors and directors, they don’t get blinded by flashbulbs but deafened by a resounding lack of interest – thus causing them to grow bitter and die.
Actually it turns out Dr. Raj was getting his numbers from a 2001 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by noted physician and epidemiologist Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto. As you can well imagine, this study gave journalists a juicy story to fill column inches when the report was made public and sure enough the papers were full of it for a while – mainly focusing of course on the added longevity for Oscar winning actors.
Problem is, as with all statistics, it was easy to massage the numbers into an eye-catching shape. As one statistician observed, the conclusions of the report ignored what he poetically called the ‘immortal time bias’; “Actors who live longer” He observed “have more time to pull off the Oscar”.
And so with one pull of a thread the whole thing unravels.
What interested me was that Dr. Raj's reading of the report confirmed his belief that things were worse for screenwriters than they actually were. The truth is the report showed a negligible effect on longevity for screenwriters. Now you could argue that is because we are a down-to-earth well-rounded crop of characters who don’t let awards go to our heads (as I plan to demonstrate when I win one). But the fact is Dr Raj was sticking to the old narrative that screenwriters are the hardest done by of all film folk.
This idea may stem all the way back to when audiences were so ignorant of the movie making process that they assumed that actors made things up as they went along. Certainly actors do improvise on films – in a recent interview Scarlett Johansen reported that on the set of a Woody Allen movie she informed him that nobody says the word ‘valise’ which he had written in the script. He told her to just change it and, while she was at it, to change any other dialogue she felt she could improve on. As she put it “as long as the line had the same intention it was OK”.
In this case, of course, the screenwriter is also the director so he is able to monitor closely what his actors are doing to his words. I suspect they didn’t veer too wildly off the page, particularly when it came to Woody’s famously well-crafted jokes. A great director who liked to work very closely with his writer was Billy Wilder, who collaborated with I.A.L Diamond on several of his masterpieces including Some Like it Hot. Wilder insisted that Diamond be present on set every day, where his job was to ensure that not a syllable of their script was altered.
But altering lines so that they flow more easily is very different from improvising whole scenes – and good luck to anyone who wants to improvise a whole film. Where will you send the camera crew? Who will they film? Are the actors just going to be themselves? If not, what characters will they play? What will they wear? The questions will pile up thick and fast and before you know it someone will have to start answering them – in a screenplay.
But “Mike Leigh” I hear you cry! The British director is famous for improvising his films, perhaps proving once and for all that we don’t need screenwriters at all!
Alright calm down, I’m coming to Mike Leigh now.
Talking recently at the same festival as Dr. Raj, the gnomish Mr. Leigh was kind enough to describe his working process in some detail. He begins by thinking about his theme and then about the whole film “like a symphony”. In other words, he has an idea of the highs and lows of the story – the shape of it - but initially it is a vague, fuzzy thing. He then selects actors and supplies them with detailed character notes for the fictitious people he has created. The actors flesh their characters out by immersing themselves in the appropriate métiers. The improvisational element takes place without cameras. For example, in the film Secrets and Lies there is a scene at a suburban barbecue. He invited his actors to arrive in character at the location and act out a complete family party where certain key pieces of information would be delivered. The actors were only told the information they needed to live their character’s lives up to that point. Surprises were kept from them so that they could react in as authentic a way as possible.
The barbecue scene was improvised for (incredibly) twelve hours while Mike Leigh closely observed what the actors came up with. From this he distilled the best bits down into a written scene lasting a few minutes in the final film.
At the screenwriter festival someone asked Mr Leigh if he employed a dramaturge to take notes during these improvisations. Already a somewhat grumpy presence, Mr Leigh’s mood darkened considerably at this point. He became visibly angry and berated the questioner for daring to even hint that someone else might be involved in penning his scripts.
What he does in effect is choose actors not only for their skill as performers but also for their imaginative powers. He then harnesses those powers by getting them to improvise intelligently within the confines of the story he has created and harvests the best moments using his skills as an observer and creative writer. It is a highly sophisticated technique, which was inspired by his experiences doing life drawing as an art student.
So where is all this leading, I hear you ask. Aren’t these just the ramblings of another paranoid screenwriter? Well that’s exactly what they are – and believe me I’ve only just got started. But it's interesting, is it not, that Mike Leigh, who is famous for improvising his films, has been nominated for no less than five Oscars for his screenplays. What effect this will have on his longevity I have no idea.