Dog Day Afternoon was a newspaper article before it became a movie. The idea of The Pianist arose from the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, writings of a survivor of Holocaust. But an idea is not enough to write a screenplay. A subject is essential to incarnate and dramatize the idea.
Subject: The basis of every screenplay are the subjects, it is what the story is about. A subject is defined as an action and a character, and each screenplay dramatizes this action of the character.
Based on the subject the screenplay writers develop the-
- storyline – who is it about and what happens.
- story structure – the story’s beginning, middle, and end that is the set-up, confrontation and the resolution of the story.
- characters – who are they personally, professionally, and privately.
- treatment – the narrative synopsis of the storyline.
- beat sheet – detailed descriptions of the story’s key moments.
So, for creating a screenplay, every professional screen writers must have a strong understanding of who the movie is about and what happens to the character during the stretch of the movie.
Knowing about the subjects:
The professionals are often hired for writing screenplays on subjects that are unknown to them but knowing about the subject is absolutely essential. So, initially before expanding the structure of the story they often articulate the subject in terms of action and the character within few pages before starting with the screenplay, in order to articulate the idea much clearly. Knowing the subject is also important to determine the dramatic execution of the story.
What or whom the story is about/ looking for the subject:
Plethora of subjects are present all around, it only takes a little observation to find out a subject for the film. The screenplay may be based on a character, a particular emotional situation, or an experience. An information in a newspaper or on the TV news or an incident that might have happened to a friend or relative can also be the subject of a movie.
Robert Towne the writer of Chinatown found the material for Chinatown in the Los Angeles water scandal, he read about it in an old newspaper of that period. Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader) began as a story about the loneliness of driving a cab in New York city. Robert Rodat’s Saving Private Ryan also set off from an actual incident that occurred during the Second World War.
Expanding the subject:
After the subject is known, fleshing out the action and focusing on the characters broadens the storyline. There comes the importance of researching on the subject.
Gathering the information related to the subject from the available written materials like books, magazines, newspaper articles or internets or from personal interviews is absolutely essential in this phase of scripting to make the storyline real, believable, and true. The information gathered allows the writer to operate from the position of choice, confidence, and responsibility.
There are two kinds of research-
1. Text Research: This includes library works pulling out books, magazine articles or newspapers and reading about the period, people, profession, place or whatever. This is what most of the screenwriters do in order to gather information on the subject. Bram Stoker while writing Dracula had never been to Transylvania, but instead he spent long hours in a library reading descriptions of disquieting Romanian mountains. Edward Zwick, director of The Last Samurai, too worked extensively spending more than a year reading about the Japanese culture and the samurai tradition with John Logan, the writer. In these days of bits and bytes, the internet has made the process much easy.
2. Live Research: The second form of research which may include going to the source-doing live interviews, talking to people, getting a “feel” for the subject. Personal interviews provide with a more immediate and spontaneous information. Paul Greengrass while developing UNITED 94 interviewed military and civilian participants involved in the 9/11 event and those who had lost loved ones on the plane, for getting the real feel of the subject.
Richard Brooks spent eight months researching Bite the Bullet before he put a single word on paper. While Waldo Salt, who wrote Midnight Cowboy, researched Coming Home by speaking to and recording about twenty-six paralyzed Vietnam veterans, which resulted in two hundred hours of taped interviews.
Thus, whatever may be the form, the more the knowledge on the subject, the writers are in a better position of choice and responsibility when making creative decisions.
But the scriptwriters must refrain from chocking up the script by providing all the available information about the subject as then the story gets lost in the assembled facts or it reads like a manual.
Knowing the action and character:
There are two types of actions-
Physical Action: A battle sequence as that of the opening sequence of the Cold Mountain or a car chase as in The French Connection or a fight fed by revenge as in Kill Bill I and II.
Emotional Action: It is the emotional journey of the character, that is the journey inward as in the films of Bergman like Persona, Winter light, Through a glass darkly or the masterpieces by Antonioni like Blow-Up. La Notte, L’ Avventura etc.
But films mostly contain both the actions.
Once the action is determined the screenwriters move into the life of the character. The dramatic need of the character determines the dramatic structure of the screenplay. Waldo Salt once said, only the “character’s dramatic need is sacrosanct” as it structures the entire story.
This need of the character drives to the resolution of the story. In Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) needs to know who wants to kill him and why. In Dog Day Afternoon, Sonny (Al Pacino) robs a bank to get money for the sex change operation for his male lover. Whether the character reaches the destination or not, achieves what he wants or not becomes the action of the story. In the course the writer creates conflict, struggle or obstacles to keep the viewer attached while moving towards the resolution of the story. Thus conflicts build up the action of the story, without conflict, there is no action and without action, there is no character. Thus action is the character in a story.
The subject is the foundation of a screenplay. Every screenplay has a subject, and only by exploring the subject the screenwriters build up the story structure including a beginning or proper set-up, confrontation and a proper resolution of the series of events strung together by dialogues and descriptions.