Neil Landau on the Art of Screenwriting

Christopher Karr

 

The screenplay is an art form in progress -- if it can be considered an art form at all. Even seasoned practitioners tend to disagree about its status.

 

Paul Schrader, the scribe behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, doesn't consider himself a writer at all; he's a screenwriter, "which is half a filmmaker." For him, screenwriting doesn't qualify as an art form "because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art," Schrader said in the preface to Ian Hamilton's Writer's in Hollywood 1915-1951.

 

Film, the rapid movement of meaningful images, is closer in spirit to the history of visual art than the history of written expression, and it requires a significantly different aesthetic approach than prose. At a glance, theatre seems to be the closest to film. It’s undeniable that theatre influenced the early days of moviemaking, but theatrical productions tend to lose their luster onscreen. The main reason for this is obvious: extended verbal exchanges are difficult to watch on film. The opposite is true of the greatest works of the stage. Like prose, drama is the writer's medium.

 

So where does the writer belong in the filmmaking process? Only recently has the screenwriter's role as craftsperson been dissected at length. The first broadly influential guidebook was Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1979), which set the standard for subtitling and rested on the cornerstone conviction that the ideal movie script is structured into three acts. Field referred to this as the Paradigm, and it has remained the standard model.

 

In terms of sheer popularity, Field's book was followed by Robert McKee's definitive, exhaustive, overwhelming Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. During the past few years, the market has been flooded with How-To guidebooks with seemingly all-encompassing titles like Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing, The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script, and, my favorite, Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways to Make It Great.

 

 

Now we have The Screenwriter's Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story by Neil Landau. Unlike Field and McKee, who have famously never enjoyed screenwriting careers personally, Landau is an experienced screenwriter with at least one permanent contribution to the genre of cult classics: Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, which he wrote with Tara Ison.

 

"To this day, I still believe that we sold the script because of that final payoff," Landau writes in chapter 16, the focus of which is "Crafting the Inevitable Conclusion." He goes on: "A satisfying ending feels inevitable without being predictable...How and when you dole out information is your power over the audience."

 

This is the kind of practical, well-articulated knowledge you can find in The Screenwriter's Roadmap. It's organized into 21 chapters that each focus on an essential aspect of the writing and re-writing process. Each chapter also includes a corresponding interview with a screenwriter currently in the business. The guidebook is clear, well-organized, and sometimes painfully academic and overly analytical. This is a common attribute of all screenwriting guidebooks, but Landau's prose is, at times, more readable than Field and McKee. He places main points in bold for emphasis, making each chapter both digestible and thought-provoking.

 

Landau's stated thesis is "there is no absolute formula when it comes to writing a successful screenplay." So much is evident from the interviews that accompany each step in the process outlined by Landau. Susannah Grant maintains that "the deification of the three-act structure is ridiculous," a notion that seems to fly in the face of a book of this nature, which is, necessarily, regardless of its proposed thesis, absorbed with structure.

 

There are many ways to write a script, but Landau's systematic approach reiterates the tried-and-true method. Landau's contribution to How-To literature should be placed on the same shelf with McKee and Field. His analysis reads like the notebook of a topnotch teacher, and the addition of the interviews is what makes this book a true gem.

 

Author Bio:

Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

Photo: Drew Coffman (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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