Some years ago I wrote a book entitled The Screenplay as Literature. The book was not intended to be a book of film criticism. Instead, I wrote it to formulate for myself the approaches and techniques of the great, mostly European, filmmakers of the 1960’s–which included, among others, Godard, Fellini, Bergman and Antonioni. My book differed from similar books of the time in that I considered the screenplay as the critical element in understanding the genius of these aforementioned film masters. The book was, by the way, based on a course that I had taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. Needless to say, my book and, more precisely, my approach to film studies, were not well received in the United States (or at least that is what I thought at the time). After its publication I never gave the book much thought, nor did I keep track of its success—it certainly wasn’t a best seller. Instead, I pursued a career in film, which included stints as a story analyst for both Warner Brothers and MGM, and as a story editor for an independent film company in New York. However, much of my professional career involved the international film business, particularly as an international film sales agent. Well, I don’t contend that it was much of a career, but at least it was a career, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else: I was truly fortunate to have worked with some very talented and creative people, some of whom you might have heard of but most I am sure you would not.
Which brings me back to The Screenplay as Literature. As most of my work in the film industry had to do with film as commerce, I had little time to follow film as art. This was not as regrettable as it may seem, as there was precious little of it after the 1960’s. Not only were there few true film artists still working in film at that time, but there appeared to be no audiences for such films as well: the film art houses and distributors of art films in the United States had practically disappeared. It was with great irony and a note of sadness that some of the most legendary European producers of art films would beg me to take their films to America to find distribution, but I regretfully had to explain to them that there was no longer a market for them in the U.S. And partly for this reason my book took on a greater significance. After I wrote The Screenplay as Literature, I assumed that similar books would subsequently be written based upon the lessons of the new film masters that would come along. Unfortunately, not only were there no real film artists of stature to appear, but the lessons of the old ones were soon forgotten or never learned. Thus my book became something of a mainstay (for those who took such an approach seriously), as it remained in print for many years.
And now to the present. A few years ago, on a whim, I looked up The Screenplay as Literature on the internet. I was amazed to find that it had taken on a life of its own. For example, it was listed as essential reading on Fellini by the Cinemateque Francaise, and it is a widely quoted source on Italian Neorealism. But most surprising to me, it is well-known in the emerging countries of the world (e.g. an unauthorized translation was published in China in 1983). But what about the western countries, particularly, the United States? Unfortunately, not much has been written about the screenplay as such; but there are hundreds of manuals on how to write a screenplay—but as one Professor of Cinema in England (Ian W. Macdonald) has written, Manuals are not Enough when it comes to producing good screen writers. And for what passes as film scholarship and criticism today, the less said about that the better.
Who should read this blog? Just about anyone with a genuine interest in film; particularly those that feel that the cinema of today has not lived up to its potential. However, if you are looking for pointers on how to write a screenplay to make a lot of money, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you are interested in writing a screenplay that you may be proud of, this blog just may be worth your time.
Douglas Garrett Winston