Thursday, November 17, 2011

What Happens Next - on Hollywood's earliest adventures in screenwriting

One of the most common ways of denouncing a film is to scoff “There was no script.” Casual viewers say this all the time – witness the news-channel coverage of people exiting movie halls on Friday afternoons, wiping the popcorn kernels off their shirts, looking intently into the camera and going “Gaane acche thay, par koi story nahin thi” – and so do professional movie writers. (Most recently, I was so flabbergasted by the sketchiness of the second half of Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar that I wondered if someone had lost the only copy of the screenplay midway through shooting and if the crew had been forced to ad-lib the rest of the film.)

Of course, no one is being literal-minded when they say these things. Everybody (I hope) knows that even terrible movies did have hardbound screenplays – often multiple drafts put together by a number of people (in collaboration or at different points). This is something we take for granted today. And so, it’s instructive to read about the early days of Hollywood in Marc Norman’s book What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting.

Norman is an Oscar-winning screenwriter himself and he obviously went to a writing school that taught its students “Begin with colour. Pull your readers in right from the first sentence”, because his book opens with the words “It’s July 1914, and here’s D W Griffith, striding across the Hollywood Hills”. (The Great War began that same month but Norman makes no reference to it, and I’m fairly sure the single-minded Griffith wasn’t thinking about it either.) This short opening section concludes with the line: “America’s greatest director is making the greatest American film to date, and there’s no screenplay.”

The “greatest American film to date” is Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation, unprecedented in the scale of its ambition and revolutionary for the way it helped develop the medium’s grammar and bring it new respectability. But as Norman tells us, The Birth of the Nation, while based on the popular novel The Clansman, never had an actual script. One of Griffith’s associates may have prepared a rough scene break-up of some sort, but the director essentially carried the structure of the film in his head; camera angles, movements and gestures were improvised on the set. Karl Brown, an assistant cameraman who made his own notes during the shooting, was dismayed by the apparent shabbiness of some of the on-set decisions (“Nothing seemed to go together, nothing seemed to fit...I could not see how that mixed-up jumble of unrelated bits and pieces of action could ever be made into anything”). He expected the premiere to be a disaster, but like everyone else he was blown away by what finally unfolded on the screen.

The first few chapters of Norman’s book chronicle the progression from the earliest “films” – 30-second shots of waves lashing a beach or trains pulling in at a station that startled their first audiences but soon lost novelty value, creating the need for proper stories to be told – to puerile narratives inspired by the cheaper newspaper comics, and
thence to the radical idea of hiring and paying people to write scenarios in advance. (Many of the first writers were women – Gene Gauntier and Anita Loos among them – who supposedly had a better sense of narrative flow because they read more fiction than men; besides, they could be underpaid.)

For years, copyright wasn’t an issue and filmmakers freely dipped into whatever material was available. Then, in 1907, the estate of author Lew Wallace sued the makers of Ben Hur (a version made nearly 20 years before Charlton Heston was born) – and this opened the gates for new standards of professionalism, but there were many stumbling blocks ahead yet. Even as late as the 1920s, there were humorous stories about silent-movie inter-titles being subject to manipulation, so that it was possible to alter the dialogue – and perhaps the entire meaning of a scene – simply by cutting away from an actor as he was about to speak, inserting a new title and then cutting back just as the actor’s lips stopped moving. Later, sound brought new complications for everyone, not just for the screenwriters. (Norman mentions the actress ZaSu Pitts saying that she had to go home “and learn my titles”.)

With much history and trivia of this sort, What Happens Next is an entertaining account of a period that is in some ways as distant and unfathomable for a modern movie-buff as the Epic of Gilgamesh would be for a contemporary novel-reader. But at the same time, one is reminded that the recipes for incompetence don't change much over the decades. Who would deny that it’s just as possible to make a thoroughly incoherent film today as it was a century ago? The evidence is all around us.

P.S. I have some reservations about Norman’s book (which I haven’t finished yet). His (understandable) bias towards Hollywood’s countless undervalued writers leads him to be fairly disdainful about the relative role of directors. (“Of course, the auteur theory was painfully wrong” he informs us, thus summarily dismissing an idea that may have been overzealously expressed in its first incarnation but which, in its more nuanced forms, offers a useful and meaningful way of analysing many great movies and filmmakers.) I think he also under-appreciates the technical side of moviemaking in general.

[Much appreciation to Uday Bhatia at A Fan Apart for lending me the book. Also see: Garson Kanin's Hollywood]


  1. Given the kind of popularity Rockstar has received, Jai - I wouldn't be surprised if our fellow audience start pretending that Imtiaz Ali has put the artist's tortured soul on the screen in the same way Fellini did with 8 1/2...I guess you must be following the comments at FB :-)

  2. I wouldn't be surprised if our fellow audience start pretending that Imtiaz Ali has put the artist's tortured soul on the screen in the same way Fellini did with 8 1/2

    Well, if someone honestly feels that he did, what's the problem? The film overall didn't work for me personally, though I thought there were some very good moments in the first hour.

  3. Glad you liked it, Jai (and wrote about it, instead of being lazy like me).

    Rockstar was, for me, a mess from start to finish (though I liked that interior monologue in which Ranbir bemoans his normal childhood). What is it with Imtiaz Ali's characters breaking up established relationships?