The Making of a Screenplay: The Creative Process (Part 3)Posted: May 9, 2016
Many students of literary writing issue moans and groans when it comes time to do the research for their book. After all we’re writers, not researchers, right? But the fact is, that in order to write the story, even though it may be fictional, you half to know your stuff, and with literature, that could mean being familiar with the time period you’re writing about, or when certain items or words came into use, or being familiar with the place in which your book is set. If you’re writing a science fiction novel, you must at least be somewhat familiar with the science of the technologies you’re writing about, and even in fantasy works, you must be familiar with what the fantasy creatures you’re writing about are capable of.
It’s no different in screenwriting. You need to be familiar with the time period and location your screenplay takes place in, as well as being familiar with what the tropes are for your genre and what has been done that is similar to your story. But, I haven’t heard screenwriters complaining, maybe because the research is a little bit different than literary research. In fact, research in screenwritng can be fun.
In Parts 1, I talked about how the story goes from idea to beat sheet and/or outline. In Part 2, I described the tools used to sell a screenplay. Now, let’s look at the research that goes into a screenplay, and don’t shy away, because in screenwriting, the research is the fun part.
Both literary writing and screenwriting require research. The type and extent of research required depends on what you’re writing. I watched every documentary on Bonnie and Clyde that I could find, as well as every DIY film on YouTube I could find, in order to get a feel for who these two people were. This helped a lot in determining what their bios would look like and how they would be portrayed in the film. I also visited websites with information on them and websites on the depression era, where I picked up slang from the 20s, which I salted my screenplay with to give it the proper feel.
But there’s a different kind of research you do in screenwriting, in addition to the research mentioned above. In screenwriting, you examine movies that are similar to yours in some way to learn what’s been done, and what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes you may chose a movie just because it has a scene similar to one you’re trying to do and you want to see how they went about it. This is one of the neatest things about screenwriting, you get to sit around and watch movies and call it work.
For my thesis, obviously any fictional portrayals of the outlaw couple needed to be on my list, but I also wanted to watch other gangster type movies to get a feel for the lifestyle, and the era. I watched biographical pictures to learn how they make real life events fit into the screenplay formula, and buddy love films to see how they allow one character to lead another into things, without portraying the leading character as a villain. It was amazing when I realized the different things I learned from each one.
- Bonnie and Clyde, 1967, written by David Newman and Robert Benton – this was the original movie that we all think of when we think of the outlaw couple. It glamourizes Bonnie and Clyde, what they did and how they lived, and portrayed them as cold, blood-thirsty killers. This was not how I wanted to portray them, and I didn’t want to do what had already been done, so this film showed me what I didn’t want to do.
- Bonnie and Clyde 2013 miniseries on the History channel – this portrayal of the couple really played up the cold blooded killer image of all of them, Blanche and Buck, as well as Bonnie and Clyde, and it’s a ruthlessness that I don’t believe was truly there. Again, I learned what not to do. I wanted my screenplay to be very different from this.
- Donnie Brasco, 1997, adapted by Paul Attanatio from the book by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley– I found this to be one of the best mob movies I had ever seen. I was truly impressed with the craftsmanship seen in this film. I chose it because of the similar situation, getting caught up in circumstance and events beyond the character’s control.
- Black Mass, 2015, written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth – Not only is this film a crime drama, but it is a bio-pic, based on the true story of the criminal career of mobster Whitey Bulger. The similarity here was found in the way the character Whitey Bulger rationalized his actions, which I considered when having Bonnie rationalize her actions, and what she was willing to do in order to be with Clyde. I also looked at this film in regards to how they set the events to the beats in the film.
- Dillinger, 1973, written and directed by John Millius – Not only is this a bio-pic, but they make mention of Bonnie and Clyde in this movie, which gave me the idea to make mention of Dillinger and other well-known gangsters of the time in my own screenplay as a means of marking the time period.
- Scarface, 1983, written by Oliver Stone – This is an excellent movie, but I didn’t take a lot away from it which could be used in my screenplay. Bonnie and Clyde weren’t anywhere near the big time criminal that character Tony Montana a.k.a. Scarface, was in this bio-pic.
- The Untouchables, 1981, written by David Mamet – This movie gave me a feel for the times, and the public sentiment towards the criminal element which was prominent in the times.
- Public Enemies, 2009, written by Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman – This is a period film that was set in the same time period as my own screenplay. It deals with the gangster subculture of the times, of which Bonnie and Clyde ran on the fringes.
- Thelma & Louise, 1991, written by Callie Khouri – This buddy love is similar in circumstance to my screenplay in that the protagonist gets swept up in the circumstances, and that the circumstances were created by the choices the protagonist makes, and that they both die in the end.
- The Falcon and the Snowman, 1985, from the book, The Falcon and the Snowman: A Story of True Friends and Espionage, by Robert Lindsay and adapted by Steven Zaillian – I viewed this movie for some of the same reasons I viewed Thelma & Louise. The protagonists gets caught up in circumstances of their own creation, brought about by the choices that they made, which send them on a downward spiral. Plus it is a biographical film, based on a true story.
- Natural Born Killers, 1994, written by Quentin Tarantino and revised by David Veloz – Although this movie is very bizarre, the protagonists are lovers on a crime spree. Like previous portrayals of Bonnie & Clyde, these two are portrayed as cold-blooded killers, ruthless, killing for the fun of it. That is not the story I wanted to tell, therefore this movie showed me more of what I did not want to do in my own screenplay.
- Blow, 2001, adapted by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes from the book by Bruce Porter, Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All – This is a biographical film of cocaine smuggler Gorge Jung, so I was looking at how the events were shaped to make up the beats of the movie, and it is another story where the protagonist gets caught up in the criminal elements due to the choices made, and their life spins out of control in a downward spiral.
- Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980, written by George Vecsey as an adaption of the biography of country singer, Loretta Lynn – In this film I was looking for how the events were molded into the beat sheet formula of screenplay, as well as the romance elements.
- What’s Love Got to do with It?, 1993, adapted by Kate Lanier from the book I, Tina, by Tina Turner and Kurt Loder – This biographical film tells the story of how Tina Turner found the courage to break out of an abusive relationship. What I took away from this film was the way that Tina rationalized staying with her husband, Ike, how she kept telling herself that things would change, which is very similar to how my Bonnie rationalizes staying with Clyde, first believing he will change and go straight, and when it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen she allowed herself to believe they would go away to California.
Of course, this type of research, the fun stuff, has its equivalent in literary writing. It’s always good to read books in your genre to see what’s out there and know the tropes. The real difference is that in literature, the author is always trying to come up with a totally original idea, but in screenwriting, its acceptable, in fact encouraged, to use movies that have already been done successfully in describing what your movie is about in the logline or pitch, where you explain how your movie is the same as (a movie that’s already out there), but different. It is common practice in Hollywood, apparently, to describe your movie or television series as: (Title of existing movie) with a twist. For example, I described the pilot series that I wrote, titled Unhappily Ever After, as “A reverse Once Upon a Time combined with a humorous Into the Woods.” You can tell a lot about my pilot series from that, but I’ll have to save that for another post.
The point here is, in screenwriting it’s okay to do the same story someone else has done, as long as you give it some kind of twist to set it apart from the rest. For my thesis, I told the story from Bonnie’s perspective and that made it a very different movie from the other portrayals of the same story.
Next week we’ll take a look at the last step in creating the finished screenplay, rewriting. A screenwriter rewrites constantly, for as many drafts as it takes to get the desired results and make her screenplay tell the story she wants to tell, the way she wants to tell it.
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