a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, September 01, 2006

Talent and Awe

In thinking about the concert I saw the other night, it occurred to me how awed I am by talented singer-songwriters.

There's something about watching someone really good, on a stage, performing their music, that really grabs me. It's the closest thing to idol worship I have.

The irony? I don't really feel that way about screenwriters. And that bothers me.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of screenwriters I respect a lot. But I just don't have that sense of wow. Of awe.

Maybe it's because it has lost its mystery for me. I'm a reader and a writer, I've seen behind the curtain. Well-known screenwriters are just people like you and me, who are very good at crafting words.

Meanwhile, I have no musical skill at all. None. So it's all a marvelous mystery to me, being able to sit down, and write a great song, then be able to play it onstage and wow an audience... Much less 10 songs. Or 110.

There's no real similarity in screenwriting. Screenplays aren't really meant to be read; their purpose is to be a movie. So they are awkward, unsexy beasts, part of a long process that by its end just feels more and more divorced from the original creator.

Sure, screenwriters can stand on a stage, and read from their screenplays. But for me it doesn't stand up to a solid tunesmith working their art.

I hate feeling like this. I should be a scribe-worshipper. I shouldn't be feeding into the same mindset that leads teens looking to get laid to form a garage band, and not a screenwriting team.

But, sad as it is to admit, given the choice, I'd rather break bread with Neil Young than William Goldman. Tip a beer with Billy Corgan, rather than Shane Black. Tar Aimee Mann's driveway, rather than Charlie Kaufman's.

Sorry Charlie.

But somedays, I wish I could just write a perfect little song, and sing it on a perfect little stage. And kudos to the people that have the talent to do it.


At 5:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"they are awkward, unsexy beasts"... which is why when I send my stuff out to family and friends for critique I am met with blank looks after. They just don't know the format and are trying to force their novelistic predispositions on it

At 5:53 AM, Blogger Robert Hogan said...

I feel the same way. The closest thing I’ve found to that feeling in the movie world is watching an actor deliver a phenomenal performance. That’s why I secretly want to be an actor. It’s as about as close as I could ever get to being on stage playing a song.

Than again, I’ve had some pretty incredible experiences in a room full of writers kicking ideas back and forth. A collaboration of people applying their creative prowess to executing an entertaining and enlightening story, that’s my juice man.

At 6:02 AM, Anonymous pennythecat said...

I think the screenwriter would be akin to the guy who thought up the tune and wrote the words and then played the song in his room. The performer (director?) would then take that song and with his band, his sound system and lighting cues, and go make a magical experience for an audience of 20,000 when it is performed at the Garden. That's the magic.

At 6:08 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I think Charlie Kaufman might be the only screenwriter that I am in awe of. After seeing Malcovich and Eternal Sunshine, I felt so humbled.

Singers/songwriters don't really do it for me. For me, I think it is seeing and hearing accounts of soldiers at war since I just cannot imagine in my darkest dreams what it would be like to run directly at my death.

I think we are in awe of what we cannot do or think we can't.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger Spanish Prisoner said...

Well, if you just read a songtext before hearing it you won't be that much in awe either, I guess. If I would have read "Once Upon a Time in the West" as a scipt it wouldn't do a lot for me. But to watch the movie just makes it a wonderful experience.

At 7:31 AM, Blogger Brett said...

As has been pointed out, it's hardly a fair comparison.

A singer benefits from claiming the emotional credit for the final delivery of the product, while teh screenwriter is one of the first folks on the production line.

A singer has nearly unrivalled control over the style and quality of the final product, while the screenwriter does the best he can and then prays to the film gods that chimps with DGA and SAG cards don't turn it into a mountain of bronto poo.

A singer has to seem brilliant for 3 verses, maybe 4 minutes and change. A screenwriter has to be just as brilliant for 3 fully developed ACTS, maybe 100 minutes and change.

A singer can write a clumsy song, perform it badly as part of a set, and still get a standing ovation and ringing praise if the rest of the set that night kicks ass, and then adjust subsequent set-lists to delete that weak song from the show. A screenwriter delivers his work, and if it's a total botch up, that movie stays out there on his public record thanks to IMDB and a hundred similar resources. I'm having a hard time coming up with the singer-songwriter analog to GIGLI or FREDDY GETS FINGERED.

A singer gets to feel the tone of the audience everytime she steps out on stage, and subtly adjust her delivery to fit the situation, knowing that that specific performance is intended for that one specific audience or a few dozen or a few hundred of a few thousand. A screenwriter has one final shot to deliver the "performance" that will then be created by a cast and crew of hundreds, duped a thousand times, and then shown to millions of people, often in wildly different social and psychological situations, often using languages the writer could not identify, much less use.

And at the end of the performance, all the fanboys and groupiegirls will gush and love all over the singer, while the lowly writer is back in his dank little office, hammering keys and praying to the gods that he be given one more decent set pf pages before he kills himself by swallowing an entire box oc Acco #5s.

I'm not saying that the singer-songwriter has it easier or that there is not a magical quality to their craft, but in my mind the singer-songwriter has far more opportunity to claim victory than does the screenwriter, and far fewer buffoons and incompetents interfering with the fair and accurate delivery of their creative output to a potentially receptive audience.

Also, we writers often tend to suffer bouts of self-loathing. Maybe by loving the singer-songwriter so much, you are also (to some degree) possibly abusing yourself for perceived shortcomings as a writer. If so, that would hardly be the first time a writer pulled such a stunt.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger wcdixon said...

Bit of apples and oranges, but know what you mean. Closest I've come to experiencing what you are describing was sitting in theatre listening to and feeling the audience respond to a film I'd written/made. But I wasn't up on the stage 'feeling the love', as it were.

There can also be awe created when working in a writers room on a tv series and witnessing a brilliant writer spin... but still not the same.

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

"I think Charlie Kaufman might be the only screenwriter that I am in awe of. After seeing Malcovich and Eternal Sunshine, I felt so humbled."

But that's the problem isn't it? Your perception of the writing is different after having seen the performance.

Screenplays are blueprints, and as such are meant to inspire the other artisans to enhance the structure put forth. Blueprints can be admired for structure and nuance and expression, but they don't come alive until they're "built."

Songs (lyrics) are pretty boring when they're read. They, like movies and plays are meant to be performed.

At 10:21 AM, Blogger Spanish Prisoner said...

I have a feeling we are talking about songwriters/singers and screenwriters. But not songwriters/singer and screenwriters/directors here. If you write and direct your material later it is another thing. You have more control and therefore more credit to the final product.

There are some songwriters who are hugely successful but nobody knows them because Mariah Carey or some other stars sing their songs.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

The better analogy is probably to writer-directors. But still, as much as I admire Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson or Noah Baumbach, it's the singer-songwriters that have the magic for me.

I'm not saying it's a good or right thing. I'm just saying that my shivery moments are usually musical performance ones.

Maybe because, with the best movies, I'm so lost in the film that I'm not detached enough to actually view it on the other, admire-the-performance level that gets me with a good singer-songwriter.

At 6:11 PM, Blogger S. A. Petrich said...

I dunno, if I met Wes Anderson, I'd probably kiss his hand.

...but than again, if I met Nick Cave, I'd most probably kiss his feet. Huh. It's a strange world out there, innit?

At 5:20 PM, Blogger AdicaRoy said...

Unfair comparison. They aren't doing the same thing. Watching a concert, you are seeing the persona - the performance, and if it is good, it is so in part because of some charm/charisma/stage presence. That is part of the schtick. You don't want to pave the driveway of the writing team who penned "Me Against The Music" for Britney Spears. It ain't the writing that selling you, yo. Writing is long, slow, internal, boring, and repetitive. Its the mojo that's selling the rest of the audience and driving people into CD stores, or at least to itunes. We all wish we had that. Especially us few who spend so many hours alone fidgeting in front of a computer screen.

At 7:38 PM, Blogger Dave said...

I've found that I'm "in awe" of the writers who write so well I get lost in the script. When I first read Unforgiven, I read like 20 pages before I even realized it. I felt the writing was terrific. There are a few others like that for me as well, where the writing is so good, you just get lost in the story - even when you've read it or seen it before!

The problem you're having, as everybody pointed out, is the comparison of the final product. Try reading lyrics and reading scripts for a more even comparison.

For me, lyrics are often an afterthought to the music. If the music/melody grabs me, then I turn to the lyrics. If they're not annoying, then I'll probably like the song. If the lyrics are annoying, I'll hate myself for liking the song and then there are times when the lyrics are fantastic as well.

At 5:06 PM, Blogger Dante Kleinberg said...

I'd rather make out with Jenny Lewis than Sofia Coppola...

But in all seriousness, I know what you mean. Lately I've been going through Fiona Apple lyrics, analyzing them, and then praying to them. I've never done that with a Haruki Murakami novel.

At 8:32 AM, Blogger GregT said...

Good writing is good writing, and I like it but I kind of move on. Great writing, though, certainly leaves me in awe. Aaron Sorkin's best West Wing or Kaufman's three good movies, or even the combination of original material and treatment that resulted in Fight Club. It's the difference between the writing where I say, "I'd like to write that well," and the writing where I say, "I will never write that well."


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