Screenwriting is about more than just words on the page.
Just ask the Writers Guild of America, which this year nominated two unconventional screenplays: “Borat,” a movie in which a well-prepped Sacha Baron Cohen ambushes unsuspecting non-actors, and “United 93,” where critical scenes aboard the hijacked plane were improvised and developed by the cast.
“I’d say there’s more word-processed material generated for this film than for any other,” says Anthony Hines of “Borat,” for which he is credited alongside Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer. Though the film follows a traditional three-act structure, it depends on interactions with real people over whom the team has no control.
The Writers Guild has made progressive choices in the past, nominating the all-improv “Best in Show” in 2001 and awarding Julian Fellowes a trophy the following year for “Gosford Park,” which was made in Robert Altman’s usual improv-friendly style.
“I think it’s odd that you can have a Paddy Chayefsky screenplay with brilliant dialogue on the one hand, and on the other an outline for a movie where you are relying on the improvisational skills of your actors,” says “Best in Show” co-writer Eugene Levy of his own Christopher Guest collaborations, which provide a detailed outline and character background from which the cast freely extrapolates.
The process on “Borat” was considerably different: Baron Cohen got together with his three fellow writers, who tossed around ideas for comedy bits that also advanced the story. The challenge was to plan for every eventuality with appropriate dialogue.
“Most of the time, you can fairly accurately predict the responses you get from people that Borat encounters,” Hines says. For example, a group of drunken frat boys can be expected to set Borat straight when he produces a copy of the Pamela Anderson sex tape and says, “This is the woman I’m going to marry. She’s a beautiful virgin.”
Baron Cohen’s job was less a matter of improvisation than steering each encounter toward the predetermined jokes. Writing continued throughout the production (and even into post) as the team adapted to changes and helped Baron Cohen prep for the next day’s scenes.
“It’s a different kind of screenwriting because it’s evolving along the way,” Baynham says. “If people are saying this is spontaneous and improvised, then we’re doing our job right.”
Reality affected “United 93” in a different way.
“The film is essentially two stories woven into one,” explains writer-director Paul Greengrass. “One is the story of what happened in the air, and the other is what happened to the people on the ground as they tracked the plane.”
For the ground story, Greengrass wrote detailed scenes based on scrupulous research and interviews. But in the scenes set in the plane, he left things open, specifying only the key points that were known about the flight.
“I was always clear in my own mind that you could only bring to life what occurred in the air by having a company of actors improvising around the knowable facts. That blend would go to unlock a believable truth,” says Greengrass, who employed a similar strategy with fact-based scenes in “Bloody Sunday.”
Records reveal the exact time passengers made telephone calls, when the attack occurred, when the plane turned and so on.
The shooting script established the dramatic framework and was careful to mention every passenger on the manifest. “But it very deliberately did not provide a detailed account of who did what on the plane, because I wanted to leave that for us to discover,” he says.
Prior to filming, it was thought the passengers had commandeered a breakfast trolley in the back of the plane and ran it down the aisle to the front.
“Several things became apparent in rehearsals, instantaneously and unanimously,” he says: Rolling a trolley forward took far too long — almost 40 seconds — and would have given the hijackers too much time to react. But sprinting down the aisle for a surprise assault took only four.
Based on their process of “rational discussion and experimentation,” the actors playing passengers grabbed a trolley at the front of the plane and used it to ram the cockpit door.
“And indeed, that’s what you hear happening,” he says. “I can’t prove it, but what you hear on the tape is a gigantic shouting and screaming — a charge, basically — and later the sounds of impact and glass.”