The authors have made it their mission to get inside the heads and hands of the premier screenwriters working today. This hit-and-miss book focuses on the motivations behind the works of 13 esteemed screen scribes from across the world, including William Goldman, Robert Towne, Steven Zaillian, Paul Schrader, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Jim Sheridan. This collation of loosely connected thoughts will appeal to a specialized segment and has some fascinating insights, its charms are limited because it doesn’t present a consistent argument.
The format is a short bio followed by an intimate interview with each screenwriter on his method and occasional madnesses. The writers consistently make the point that screenwriting is an art form best learned through some thorough introspection. Schrader maintains, “Writers should not study cinema, they must study themselves. For first-time writers this can even be commercially beneficial, because when you are studying yourself, you are studying the only absolutely original thing that you know.” Sheridan goes further: “Great writing,” he says, “is usually when a writer discovers a moment of change in himself and then finds a vehicle through which he can dramatize that change.” Unfortunately, the book only skims the known facts of these notable writers’ bios, thus missing the opportunity for pursue this intriguing observation.
“Screenwriting” does better in examining the writers’ complex views of communication, both in their characters’ words and their own efforts to deliver reality. Script doctor Robert Towne’s belief that “some of the most eloquent statements are made when people cannot quite say something the way they mean” is shared by Schrader: “When you read a first-time script backwards is suddenly gets more interesting because the people are answering the questions before they hear the questions, which is what, in fact, happens a lot in life.” It seems it is not what is there, but what is not there that is often most important. Pinter’s classic post-modern statement that “language is a tool we use not to communicate” comes to mind.