Monday, October 24, 2005

Screenplays are not blueprints

A screenplay is often analogized as being the blueprint for a movie. This makes the Metaphor Cannon extremely angry.

The blueprint for a building specifies, in exacting detail, every inch of the building -- its foundation, its skeleton, its electrical and maintenance systems, and so on. Blueprints must be so exacting, and followed so precisely, because deviance from the blueprint can kill people.

Screenplays are not nearly so sensitive. A screenplay with many problems can still be made into a decent movie -- and usually, no one dies in the process. A movie contains thousands of details that are not in the script: costume choices, set design, lighting choices, camera angles, actors' facial expressions, line delivery, etc.

You could write a screenplay that contains all those details, although you'd never be able to sell it, because nobody would want to read something that long, detailed, and dry. If you didn't have to worry about selling it, though, why not include all that extra detail? Assuming you're a decent writer and the details mesh with and inform the story, the way they would in a well-written novel, then you certainly could write a 300-page ultra-detailed screenplay. Once a screenplay is committed to production, you don't need to worry about selling it, and so there's no pressure to make it a terse, spare, good read. It can now function as a guide to production, not an entertaining read that has to stand on its own.

Ifa screenwriter was also expert at costume design, set design, and the myriad other decisions that film production entails, then his 300-page screenplay might have a unity of vision that would make for greatness. In reality, even the greatest screenwriters are not experts at all those fields, and cannot do this. Even if you don't have to worry about selling the screenplay, it's pointless to worry about those niggling details, because movies are made as a collaboration, not as the work of a single individual. The set designer will worry about the details of the set design, and they will do a better job than we could.

So screenplays, for good reason, do not contain many of the thousands of minor details that go into a movie. It seems that, in fact, a screenplay is a description of a story, not a description of a movie. Ultimately, a screenplay is not a blueprint for a movie; a better metaphor is to say that it is the foundation for a movie. You can build many different buildings on the same foundation. The rooms will have the same general shape and layout, though the decorations might differ, and the fa├žade might be made of brick instead of wood, but the core of the building, the foundation, remains the same.

* The Metaphor Cannon rolls away, whistling a happy tune. *