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Editorials 131–148 Creating Authorship? Lindsay

Anderson and David Sherwin’s
3–6 Jill Nelmes collaboration on If.... (1968)
Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard
7–10 Ian W. Macdonald
149–173 Screenwriting strategies in
Marguerite Duras’s script for
Articles Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)
Rosamund Davies
11– 25 After the typewriter: the screenplay 175–196 No room for the fun stuff: the
in a digital era question of the screenplay in
Kathryn Millard American indie cinema
27–43 ‘Everybody’s a Writer’ Theorizing J. J. Murphy
screenwriting as creative labour
Bridget Conor
45–58 ‘…So it’s not surprising I’m neurotic’ Research Resources
The Screenwriter and the Screen
Idea Work Group 197–202 Unpublished scripts in BFI Special
Ian W. Macdonald Collections: a few highlights
59–81 Teaching screenwriting in a time of Nathalie Morris
storytelling blindness: the meeting
of the auteur and the screenwriting Reviews
tradition in Danish film-making
Eva Novrup Redvall 203–206 Screenwriting: History, Theory and
83–97 The protagonist’s dramatic goals, Practice, Steven Maras (2009)
wants and needs 207–210 And the Best Screenplay Goes to…,
Patrick Cattrysse Linda Seger (2008)
99–112 Cyber-Aristotle: towards a poetics for 210–213 Authorship in Film Adaptation,
interactive screenwriting Jack Boozer (ed.) (2008)
Jasmina Kallay 214–217 Embodied Visions: Evolution,
113–129 Tonino Guerra: the screenwriter as a Emotion, Culture and Film, Torben
narrative technician or as a poet of Grodal (2009)
images? Authorship and method in
the writer–director relationship
Riikka Pelo

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John Adams, University of Bristol

Robert Engels, California State University
Adam Ganz, Royal Holloway, University of London
Phil Parker, Script Developer (ex-Head of Screenwriting at LCP)
Chris Walker, De Montfort University


Sue Clayton, Royal Holloway, University of London

Ken Dancyger, New York University
Jim Hill, De Montfort University
Steven Maras, University of Sydney
Kathryn Millard, Maquarie University, Sydney
JJ Murphy, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Steven Price, Bangor University
Isabelle Reynauld, University of Montreal
Andrew Spicer, University of West of England
Kristin Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Paul Wells, University of Loughborough

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JOSC 1 (1) pp. 3–6 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.3/2


Principal Editor

The Journal of Screenwriting is a timely and much needed addition

to the increasing number of published works on the subject of the
screenplay. As Co-Editor Ian Macdonald points out below, it is sur-
prising that there appears not to have been a journal on the subject
of screenwriting previously, but as a result of this lack, a journal spe-
cifically devoted to the study of screenwriting has now been launched
which aims to communicate and encourage the cross-fertilization of
ideas in a more immediate way. There have been few arenas which
allowed for writing and discussion of the screenplay with an aca-
demic focus; journals such as the Journal of Media Practice and Journal
of British Cinema and Television (JBCTV) have championed the cause
for further research by publishing articles and special issues on the
study of screenwriting; Lina Khatib (2007: 106), editor of the Journal of
Media Practice, has identified this as an ‘under-researched area’. John
Cook and Andrew Spicer (2008: 213), in their introduction to a spe-
cial issue on screenwriting in the JBCTV, pointed out that ‘discussion
of screenwriting is a notable blind spot in both British cinema and
television studies’. The number of academic books published on the
subject is now happily increasing; Steven Maras’s recently published
Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (2009) is one such exam-
ple and an important contribution to the field, while Steven Price’s
The Screenplay: Authorship, Ideology, Criticism is to be published later
this year. The first Screenwriting Conference was held in Leeds last
year and this year it will be in Helsinki, and on a much larger scale,
as the number of papers to be presented has tripled; the associated

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Jill Nelmes

Screenwriters Network has also burgeoned. All these factors suggest

there is a healthy, vigorous and growing interest in the study of the
subject at an international level.
Thus Intellect needed little convincing of the need for a journal
which specifically studied the screenplay, responding to the proposal
with great enthusiasm, and within a few months the first issue was
being planned. In fact the conception and birth of the Journal has
been remarkably straightforward. This could not have happened
without the support of Ravi Butalia, Journals Manager, and the team
at Intellect, especially Alanna Donaldson, who has dealt with the
production stage so diligently. The tremendous support and good
will provided by both academics and practitioners internationally
has also been extremely heartening. This bodes well not only for the
future of the Journal, but also for the subject of screenwriting as a
discrete area.
The Editors are pleased to have such a knowledgeable Editorial
and Advisory Board associated with the project, who have given
their unequivocal support to the journal. We are very grateful for
their positive input during the initial stages of development and
while in the process of publishing the first issue. Our thanks also go
to those who gave such thorough peer reviews and their valuable
time so willingly.
The first issue of the Journal has greatly benefited from Ian
Macdonald’s skills as Co-Editor; Ian has worked tirelessly and with
great dedication, championing a system of referencing film and televi-
sion which gives the writer equal placing alongside the director and
is to be used for all relevant referencing in this journal – perhaps in
future years this may become the accepted practice of referencing.
Jule Selbo, as Reviews Editor, has dedicated herself to the task with
supreme ease and efficiency.
There is still a wealth of unexplored material on the subject of
screenwriting and if this cannot be described as a new subject area –
there have, of course, been previous academic works on the screenplay
such as Wolf Rilla’s The Writer and the Screen (1973), Kristin Thompson’s
Storytelling in the New Hollywood (1999) and Sarah Kozloff’s Overhearing
Film Dialogue (2000) – perhaps we can view screenwriting as a subject
which has been recently rediscovered, not solely with regard to the sub-
ject of film writing but also the writing of television and newer media
forms such as interactive media.
The Journal aims to highlight the importance of the study of the
screenplay, to encourage the development of this expanding area
of research and to be a forum for debate on the subject. There are
many aspects of screenwriting history, theory and practice still to be
investigated: the Special Collections at the British Film Institute and
the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, for instance, are both
treasure troves of information, holding thousands of screenplays,
often with many drafts and accompanying letters (see Nathalie
Morris’s piece on the BFI National Library’s Special Collection in

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this issue). The development of new media forms such as compu-

ter games and how they are written begs further research, as does
the question of the relationship between screenwriting theory and
practice. The Journal will be a vehicle for promoting fruitful ways of
writing about and analysing the screenplay, from textual analysis
to studies of the industry to discussion of practice and theory. We
hope the international links will continue to develop and encourage
further research and possibly collaborative work, while enhancing
and developing academic scrutiny and scholarly activity via research
This is an exciting time for the Journal and also for the study of
screenwriting: there certainly seems to be an upsurge in publishing in
the area and an acceptance that the screenplay has been a remarkably
neglected area of study; it is the intention of this journal to at least
partly redress this.
The first issue of the Journal has already attracted a varied and fas-
cinating mix of articles, which give a sense of the depth and breadth of
the subject, and we are now preparing for the second issue, with the
third issue in mind! Each issue will be jointly edited by the Principal
Editor, Jill Nelmes, and the Co-Editors in rotation. For this issue the
Co-Editor is Ian Macdonald; the second issue will be co-edited by Jule
Selbo and the third by Barry Langford. The Journal will be published
twice yearly in the first instance and the Editors hope you will find this
issue a stimulating and thought-provoking mix of articles. We also
hope the Journal will inspire you to contribute as we are very much
dependent on your research and passion for the subject in this fasci-
nating and developing field.

Cook, John and Spicer, Andrew (2008), ‘Introduction’, Journal of British Cinema
and Television, 5: 2, November, pp. 213–22.
Khatib, Lina (2007), ‘Editorial’, Journal of Media Practice, 8: 2, pp. 105–06.
Kozloff, Sarah (2000), Overhearing Film Dialogue, Berkeley: University of
California Press.
Maras, Steven (2009), Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice, London:
Price, Steven (due 2009), The Screenplay: Authorship, Ideology, Criticism, London:
Rilla, Wolf (1973), The Writer and the Screen, London: W.H. Allen.
Thompson, Kristin (1999), Storytelling in the New Hollywood, Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.

Jill Nelmes is a senior lecturer in film at the University of East London and
a screenwriter. She has studied screenwriting at the National Film and
Television School and at UCLA, is the editor of Introduction to Film Studies
and is currently working on a ‘how to’ manual about writing the independent

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Jill Nelmes

screenplay and also researching a book on British screenwriters. She is par-

ticularly interested in looking at the relationship between theory and practice
in the screenplay and the collaborative nature of the film industry.
Contact: School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of East London,
E16 2RD.
Phone: +44 208 223 7483
E-mail: j.nelmes@uel.ac.uk

JOSC 1.1_5_edt_003-006.indd 6 8/22/09 5:31:16 PM

JOSC 1 (1) pp. 7–10 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.7/2



This seems to be the first peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to

screenwriting in the world. Good grief! you say, are you sure? After
more than a century of screenwriting? Well, not quite, I reply, though
the lack of any reference to such a publication in researches so far is
a strong indicator. I await a flurry of postcards from those who know
better than I do…
Although in the 1980s there was an occasional series of papers
published in Brussels under the title Cahiers du Scénario (still acces-
sible at http://www.uee.be), collections of scholarly articles on screen-
writing have usually turned up as occasional special numbers of film
and media periodicals like Cinémas, Film History, the Journal of British
Cinema and Television and Scan: Journal of Media Arts Culture (see also
Maras 2009: 187–88). The remarkable absence – until now – of a regu-
lar scholarly journal is probably due to film academics frying bigger
fish, focusing on New Waves, semiotics and male gazes, and only
intermittently recognizing a need to consider the formation of the idea
for a screenwork as something of interest.
An awkward and peripheral subject then, sidelined because of its
problematic relationship to the apparently more concrete final ‘text’ of
the film. Considered as rough sketches or the ‘blueprint’, or as incom-
plete or transitional, who would not look at the screenplay in its various
forms as somehow inferior? More recent scholars have, however, begun
to think of screenwriting as a practice involving more than writing a
screenplay; and of the process of conceptualizing the screenwork as
something more than merely part of production, or just a written text.

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Ian W. Macdonald

Screenwriting is now a broader academic subject than the industrial

process of the same name, and its analysis involves approaches ranging
from the sociological to the psychological. But the realization that there
is more to the screen idea than scriptwriting has caused its own prob-
lems for academics, scattering potential publishing outlets right across
media and cultural studies.
Finally, there is now a small corner of the academic universe
reserved for such work, and we all owe a debt of thanks in particular to
Jill Nelmes and to Intellect for creating this space. Jill’s success in start-
ing this journal has also coincided with a series of annual conferences,
the first of which was held at the University of Leeds in September
2008 and which resulted in the setting up of the Screenwriting
Research Network (join up at http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk). The second
conference takes place at the University of Art and Design, Helsinki,
in September 2009.
In this issue we present a few of the issues facing screenwriting
scholars at the present time, some of which surfaced at our first Leeds
conference. We look at the appropriateness of current industrial prac-
tice, at theorizing labour practices, at understanding how they operate,
and at how re-thinking screenwriting can change industrial thinking.
We ask how mainstream screenwriting might deal with the challenges
of terminological vagueness, and of interactive storytelling. The com-
mon assumption that the director is auteur is challenged in three arti-
cles which focus on the involvement of the writer in collaboration, and
we discuss the methods adopted by those in the independent sector in
the United States to get round the limitations of orthodox craft skills.
Kathryn Millard questions whether ‘Courier 12 point’ typescript
(and by implication a range of other practices) is the ‘natural’ way of
presenting a screen idea, or is due for a complete re-think. Bridget
Conor presents her investigation into theorizing screenwriting as a
creative labour process, and I suggest it is time to consider screenwrit-
ing as the product of the Screen Idea Work Group, a common indus-
trial grouping of key creative workers (and others). Eva Novrup Redvall
provides a historical analysis that connects the Danish film industry’s
adoption of new screenwriting practices with pioneering work around
screenwriting at the National Film School of Denmark over the last 30
years. Patrick Cattrysse and Jasmina Kallay talk of mainstream indus-
trial practice; Patrick on improving our understanding and use of key
terms in script development, and Jasmina on assessing the merits (and
difficulties) of using Aristotle’s Poetics as the basis for an interactive
screenwriting poetics. Riikka Pelo, Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard and
Rosamund Davies all present studies of how renowned film directors
worked with their often less well-known screenwriters. Despite being
revered as ‘the greatest Italian screenwriter’, Andrei Tarkovsky’s and
Michelangelo Antonioni’s collaborator Tonino Guerra is still a ‘foot-
note’ says Riikka Pelo. Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard carries forward
the discussion begun by Charles Drazin in the Journal of British Cinema
and Television (2008) on the collaboration between Lindsay Anderson

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and his screenwriter David Sherwin; and Rosamund Davies offers

some insights into the way that the experienced and respected writer
Marguerite Duras approached her first screenplay for Alain Resnais,
Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959). J. J. Murphy starts with Gus van Sant’s
observation that the screenplay does not leave a lot of room for ‘the
fun stuff’, and explains how US independent film has negotiated its
way around (or without) the script.
I hope it is clear from this range of contributions that our definition
of screenwriting is a very wide one. It is not restricted to the written
word, and is unconstrained by industrial demarcation. We are inter-
ested, in fact, in redefining the research and study of screenwriting in
ways suggested by our contributors and our readership over succeed-
ing issues. We now have the opportunity for a regular and sustained
debate around screenwriting, a focus point for scholars who until
now have been somewhat isolated. It is a great opportunity for us to
think seriously about this neglected area, and to do something about
grounding and cultivating it.
It is with much appreciation of and grateful thanks to my colleagues
Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo, to Alanna Donaldson and Ravi Butalia at
Intellect, to our hard-working contributors, and to the anonymous
peer reviewers without whom this process is impossible, that I admit
to being delighted and proud to have had the opportunity to start the
ball rolling, as Co-Editor of this first issue.

Cahiers du Scénario (c.1985–89), 1–3, 6–15. Brussels: Université Européenne
d’Ecriture, http://www.uee.be. Accessed 25 June 2009.
Cinémas (1999), 9: 2/3, Spring, Montreal, University of Montreal.
Film History (1997), 9: 3. Sydney [?]: John Libbey.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Wr: Marguerite Duras, Dir: Alain Resnais,
France/Japan, 91 mins.
Drazin, Charles (2008), ‘If… before If…’, Journal of British Cinema and Television,
5: 2, November, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 318–34.
Journal of British Cinema and Television (2008), 5: 2, November, Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
Maras, Steven (2009), Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice, London:
Scan: Journal of Media Arts Culture (2006), 3: 2, October. Sydney: Macquarie
University, http://www.scan.net.au/scan/journal/. Accessed 26 June 2009.

Ian W. Macdonald is the research director of the Louis Le Prince Research
Centre for Cinema, Photography and Television, in the Institute of
Communication Studies at the University of Leeds. His own research work
has concentrated on aspects of screenwriting, a subject he has taught since
1993, both during and after his time as head of the Northern Film School at
Leeds Metropolitan University (1992–2001). Most recently he has investigated
the changing and establishing practices of early British screenwriters during

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Ian W. Macdonald

the silent era. He is also Convenor of the Screenwriting Research Network,

and encourages anyone interested in screenwriting research to log on to
www.jiscmail.ac.uk and join up!
Contact: University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.
Phone: +44 113 343 5816 (incl. voicemail)
E-mail: i.w.macdonald@leeds.ac.uk


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JOSC 1 (1) pp. 11–25 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting | Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.11/1

Macquarie University

After the typewriter:

the screenplay in a
digital era

This article aims to contribute to contemporary debates about screenwriting screenwriting
as a process of developing the screen idea; about the ways in which for- scriptwriting
matting conventions from an earlier era of cinema may restrict innovation screen practice
in screenwriting; and about shifting practices of screenwriting in a digital research
era in which images and sound play a potentially more significant role. digital cinema
Additionally, it questions the use of terms such as ‘blueprint’ to describe independent film
the relationship between the screenplay and the proposed film that it repre- script development
sents. The article draws on the author’s body of practice-led research as a
writer and director of feature films and documentaries, as well as histories
of screenwriting, film production, comics and the graphic arts.

In 2003, I directed a feature film Travelling Light (2003) which was
loosely inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s visit to Australia to participate in
Adelaide Writers’ Week in the 1960s. The script, which was in devel-
opment for approximately six years, was funded draft by draft through
the Australian Film Commission, the national film-funding agency


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Kathryn Millard

then responsible for script development. The project was conceived as

a multi-stranded narrative with an ensemble of characters at pivotal
moments in their lives, all connected via their relationship to televi-
sion; in particular, to a fictional 1960s variety show Adelaide Tonight,
hosted by the equally fictional Ray Sugars. The screenplay utilized
motifs of light and electricity to be played out across the film’s image
and soundtracks. As is so often the case, however, as the project pro-
gressed down the financing route there came increased pressure for
the screenplay to conform to a more classic, protagonist-driven, three-
act structure. I, together with the script editor and producer, was
advised by assessors and readers that we should complete the set-up
more quickly, snip out those scenes about early television they deemed
unnecessary, and focus more on a central character (thereby ensuring
sufficient screen time to retain the prominent young Australian actress
who was attached to the project). We were also encouraged to fill out
the soundtrack with hit songs of the 1970s to ensure audience acces-
sibility. These pressures did not come from the film distributors who
were providing a distribution guarantee, but from the public broad-
caster and government screen-funding agencies who would form a
vital piece of the financing jigsaw if the script was to make it to the
screen. Needless to say, my talk of independent cinema with its ambi-
guity, internalized character conflict and visual motifs as structuring
devices did not go down well.
Over the third, fourth and fifth drafts, the film was re-structured and
pruned to fit a template more closely aligned to those promoted by the
screenwriting manuals. In the process, temporal, stylistic and thematic
complexity was significantly minimized. Finally I made enough changes
to steer the film through the two state agencies, the Australian theatri-
cal distributor, the Australian public broadcaster, the Australian pay-TV
broadcaster and the European-based sales agent, who were all needed
to secure the balance in federal film funding. The additional plot intro-
duced at the last moment to provide the narrative closure demanded
was undoubtedly the most ‘undercooked’ aspect of the script, introduc-
ing a false note to the characterization of Lou, our beat poet/trickster
character. Despite a number of nominations, awards and enthusias-
tic responses, critical reactions to the film were sharply divided, and
Travelling Light had difficulty finding its cinema audience in the nar-
row time-span within which even specialized, limited release films are
expected to perform.
While the claim is frequently made that Australian feature screen-
plays are under-developed, I would argue the opposite. My experi-
ence with Travelling Light, and my background as a script reader and
assessor for various funding bodies, leads me to the conclusion that
many scripts are over- rather than under-developed. The handful of
screenplays and film projects chosen for development through gov-
ernment programmes all too often lose momentum and energy as
a consequence of this selection. A selection which almost invariably
subjects them to drawn-out rounds of assessment, reports, required


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After the typewriter: the screenplay in a digital era

revisions and yet more revisions – all justified in the name of criti-
cal rigour and industry imperatives. Along the way, screenwriters and
their collaborators struggle to retain or re-inject into their screen ideas
what social psychologist Abraham Maslow called in his diaries a qual-
ity of ‘aliveness’ (Lowry 1982: 37); an attribute that Maslow consid-
ered fundamental to works of art if they were to connect with their
intended audiences.
Early in his career, Atom Egoyan observed that many script-devel-
opment and film-funding mechanisms seem aimed at delaying the pro-
duction of the film as long as possible in the belief that this was a good
thing (Burnett 1988). In all the many and various deliberations about
Travelling Light it was invariably words on a page that were discussed,
dissected and analysed, rather than images, sounds, gestures, rhythm
or the cinematic qualities of the script. Yet the work of many innova-
tive screenwriters and film-makers has long favoured audio and visual
expressivity over plot and narrative drive, and their approaches pro-
vide a wealth of alternative scripting methodologies and structures for
analysis. Scripts can be inspired by still photographs, visual art, sense
memories, location pictures, video footage or popular songs. Acclaimed
writers and film-makers, including Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Tony
Grisoni, Michael Winterbottom, Wong Kar Wai, Wim Wenders and
Chantal Ackerman, have all developed methods of shifting between
writing and production, working with both words and images. These
writers and film-makers embrace cinematic scriptwriting. Some of the
terms used to describe the resulting story designs include the road
map, the open screenplay, the visual scenario and the ars combinataria
screenplay (Millard 2006). As film-maker and screenwriting theorist
J.J. Murphy suggests, ‘real innovation in screenwriting […] comes not
from ignorance of narrative film conventions but from being able to see
beyond their limitations’ (Murphy 2007: 266).


Increasingly I find myself interested in screenwriting and development
processes aimed at realizing films within specific production contexts
and parameters, rather than free-floating script-development pro-
grammes that can so easily become ends in themselves. As Australian
playwright and dramaturge Noëlle Janaczewska notes in her blog
entry ‘The Development Sceptic’, the most useful development of new
playscripts is undertaken in contexts where the writer works with the
company and collaborators who are committed to producing the play.
Janaczewska is particularly wary of development programmes influ-
enced by the development practices of film. She argues:

Film has a whole host of development initiatives, most of which

seem to exist to (a) provide an income stream for assessors, script
editors, program directors, administrators and others, presumably


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Kathryn Millard

while they try to get their own projects up, (b) generate activity
and create the illusion that your project/screenplay is progress-
ing, and (c) to explain why things can’t or won’t happen.
(Janaczewska 2007)

Many development processes simply shape screenplays to pre-existing

templates, so that the distinctiveness of works can be gradually eroded,
assessment by assessment, draft by draft. As Ian Macdonald argues in
his discussion of the ‘screen idea’ as the basis for the proposed screen-
work, development processes such as those held by CILECT involve
writers in workshops in which ‘the screen idea was being shaped,
altered and drawn towards what the professionals thought of as
right, based on internalized experience and expressed as craft or lore’
(Macdonald 2004b: 91).
Although the workshop Macdonald discusses was specifically
aimed at screenwriters collaborating with directors and producers
as part of their studies at film school, the methods used appear to
be modelled on those used within the subsidized sectors of the film
industry. That is, screenplays and projects are often selected on the
basis of attributes such as originality and innovation, only to have
these very qualities systematically minimized through the workshop-
ping and script-development process. As Lewis Hyde suggests in his
book about the archetypes of creativity, ‘works proceed according to
their own logic […] Premature evaluation cuts off the flow’ (Hyde
2007: 187).


The screenplay is often referred to as a ‘blueprint’ for the film to come,
but perhaps it is time to reconsider this term? After all, blueprints
derive their name from the cyanotype photographic process devel-
oped by John Herschel in the 1840s (Ware 2008). Herschel coated
paper with photosensitive compounds and then exposed it to strong
light. In the process, areas of paper were converted to Prussian blue.
The cyanotype, one of the tantalizing byways of early photography,
did not find wide acceptance because many viewers were unable to
accept the world rendered in shades of blue and white. The process,
however, was widely used to reproduce architectural and engineering
technical drawings until replaced by less expensive printing methods
in the 1940s and 1950s and, more recently, by digital displays. Given
the term ‘blueprint’ still carries with it this residue of technical draw-
ing and specifications rather than fluidity and flux, it seems a less than
ideal metaphor for the screenplay. The development of the screen idea
inevitably involves collaboration, and therefore to concentrate solely
on the screenplay as a source for the film-to-be seems unnecessarily
Collaboration involves reading and re-reading, notes, discussion
and redrafting, creating and recreating something that represents


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After the typewriter: the screenplay in a digital era

a common understanding. The readers of the screenplay and other 1. Cultural historian
Thomas Hine uses
documents inevitably construct a version of the screen idea in their the term ‘populuxe’
heads, which (unlike readers of novels) they then have to contribute to describe a trend
to (Macdonald 2004b: 91). This process, too, has only intensified with within architecture and
design in the United
the proliferation of digital technologies and the working methods they States of America
enable. In this era of digital cinema, previously discrete stages of pre- in approximately
1955–64: the
production, production and post-production tend to get collapsed design of everyday
into a single more fluid stage, in which images and sounds can be spaces and consumer
goods aimed at
reworked to a much greater degree. Increasingly, elements of post- a combination of
production and pre-production can be happening simultaneously. populism and luxury.
Surely then, more than ever, the screenplay needs to be a flexible doc- Hines suggests
that ‘populuxe’
ument? Film editor Walter Murch observes that ‘digital technologies simultaneously looked
naturally tend to integrate with one another’ (Murch 1999). Perhaps in back to the myths
of the frontier whilst
this environment it is more appropriate to consider the screenplay as anticipating the coming
an open text that sketches out possibilities and remains fluid through space age. For more
the film-making process? information about
populuxe see Hine


‘The screenplay […] is the record of an idea for a screenwork, writ-
ten in a highly stylized form. It is constrained by the rules of its form
on the page, and is the subject of industrial norms and conventions’
(Macdonald 2004b: 81). When I began writing screenplays in the 1980s
(assembling images and text with scissors, paste and colour Xeroxes to
construct the treatment for my first production) I was astonished to
discover the degree to which scriptwriting formats were rigidly pre-
scribed. Even now, the Nicholl Fellowships Guidelines, sponsored by
the US Academy of Motion Pictures, warn that you can create a nega-
tive impression of your script through the following list of foibles and
indiscretions: ‘Art on the script cover; Hard, slick Acco covers; Plastic
spine binding; Commercial, College paper covers; Wimpy brads; Long
“dangerous” brads; Cut “dangerous” brads’ (Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences 2008). Reading this list, a trip to the local
stationery shop is beginning to sound surprisingly complex. The pit-
falls awaiting the writer seeking professional acceptance and eventual
production are many. The Nicholl Guidelines go on to advise against
‘a clipped or rubber-banded script on non-three hole paper, overly thick
scripts, thin scripts, three-ring binding, color of card stock cover that
inadvertently bugs a reader’ (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences 2008, my emphasis).
The number one convention, however, is that the screenplay
must be presented in Courier 12-point font. Similar advice can be
found in screenwriting training manuals and submission guidelines
around the world. Why must it? Is it because this font conveys a
sense of timelessness, thanks to its association with the typewriter?
Yet the Courier font was designed not in the early twentieth century
along with the first mass-produced typewriters, but much later, in
the 1950s Populuxe era.1 It rapidly became one of the most popular


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Kathryn Millard

2. In typography, kerning fonts around, with versions available for almost every typewriter
refers to the process of
adjusting the spaces on the market. One of the first advertisements for the ubiquitous
between letters. Courier claimed ‘a letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it
can be the courier which radiates dignity, prestige and stability’
(Vanderbilt 2004).
Of course, this message is exactly what many screenwriting manu-
als and funding guidelines have long been trying to drum into aspir-
ing screenwriters. Present your scripts in the approved formatting,
and you not only imbue your work with ‘dignity, prestige and sta-
bility’, but announce your status as an insider in the film industry.
In What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting (Norman
2008: 190–96), Marc Norman reports that Preston Sturges was initially
hired to write dialogue in 1930s Hollywood on the basis of his stage
plays. Producer Jesse Lansky initially dismissed Sturges as an amateur
when he offered to take Lansky’s idea straight from pitch to first draft
(bypassing the conventional ten-page treatment common at the time).
When, a month later, Sturges turned in a script, Lansky was forced to
eat his words:

[It was] a complete screenplay of proper length, complete to

every word of dialogue, the action of every scene blueprinted for
the director, and including special instructions for the camera-
man and all the departments […] I was astounded. It was the
most perfect script I’d ever seen […] I wouldn’t let anyone touch
a word of it.
(Norman 2008: 193)

There are several ways to read this but it is hard to go past the view
that, in Lansky’s eyes, it was Sturges’s command of screenplay for-
matting that accorded him the status of the true professional.


One of the main reasons that Courier was able to migrate successfully
from the typewriter to the first personal computers in the 1980s was
that it did not require much memory. This is because Courier is a fixed
pitch font, in which every character has the same width, and therefore
requires no kerning.2 Although perhaps even more important to note
is that the packaging of Courier with the first PCs ensured that users
would be able to replicate typewriter-looking documents, enabling
a smooth transition to the new era of word processing and personal
computing. By 2004, however, Slate writer Tom Vanderbilt reported
that the US State Department was replacing Courier 12 as its official

Courier 12, created in 1955 by IBM, is perhaps the most recog-

nisable typeface of the twentieth century – a visual symbol of


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After the typewriter: the screenplay in a digital era

typewritten anonymity, the widespread dissemination of infor- 3. Noted in personal

communication with
mation (and a classification of documents), stark factuality, and Ian Macdonald, June
streamlined efficiency. 2009.
(Vanderbilt 2004)

Exiled from bureaucracies, the film industry remains one of Courier’s

last strongholds. But for how much longer?
Conventional wisdom in the film and television industries sug-
gests that the screenplay is not only a creative document, but also
one that encompasses production planning; providing information
about locations, actors, sets, props, time of day and, most vital of all,
timing. If the usual film formatting conventions are followed, then
a page of screenplay equals one minute of screen time. I suspect,
however, that the equation has never been as easily calculated as
this convention might imply. Tom Pevsner, who started as second
assistant director with Ealing Studios in the 1950s and completed
his career in the 1990s as executive producer on the Bond films, says
that the ‘rule’ of a page per minute has not always applied exactly;
the duration of any section of the screenwork will depend on the
director (Macdonald 2004a: 44–45). Pevsner mentions the example
of the screenplay of One Two Three (Wilder and Diamond, c.1961)
which was planned to increase in pace; it changed from a duration
of about 50 seconds per page to about 20 seconds per page by the
end. Macdonald notes that the unpublished script of One Two Three
includes a message as a frontispiece which states ‘This piece must be
played molto furioso – at a rapid-fire, breakneck tempo, suggested
speed: 100 miles an hour – on the curves – 140 miles an hour on
the straightaway’ (Macdonald, 2004a: 44n, original emphasis). This
anecdote refers of course to standard film format, which is only one
screen script format. There are other variations, particularly in TV
where styles also differ between companies, and many (possibly
most) of these TV formats do not conform to the ‘page-a-minute’
rule, always starting a new page with every new scene, however
short.3 Different genres and styles of film-making, as well as indi-
vidual director’s preferred patterns of coverage are likely to result in
a much greater range of page to screen ratios than the idealized one
minute of screen time per page of screenplay. Moreover, one cannot
help but wonder if the enforcement of this equation does not nudge
the screenplay towards a production and budgeting document,
rather than a creative record of a screen idea – an idea in flux and
transition, an idea on the way to becoming a film. Indeed, the insist-
ence on a single method of writing and presenting a range of screen
ideas across genres may primarily owe its existence to the need to
efficiently process large numbers of speculatively written screen-
plays. This may be a response to the growing number of screenplays
(fuelled in part, at least, by the growing number of screenwriting
manuals and workshops), rather than a response to the needs of the
development process.


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Kathryn Millard


theory of creativity
Howard Gruber Cognitive psychologist David Perkins is noted as saying that ‘a lively
proposes that each
creative practitioner is
interplay between the developing work and the mind of the artist’ is
a complex, organized an important factor in crafting large writing projects (John-Steiner
and knowing system. 1997: 128–29). Novelist Anthony Burgess, for example, describes the
His phenomenological
approach to studying early stages of new work as follows: ‘I chart a little at first […] lists
creativity involves of names, rough synopses of chapters, and so on. But one doesn’t
taking individuals’
self-reports as points
over-plan; so many things are generated by the sheer act of writing’.
of departure and Similarly, Nelson Algren is quoted as referring to a book finding its
studying them within own shape in the process of creation (John-Steiner 1997: 128–29).
the historical, social
and institutional Wong Kar-Wai ‘typically allows his stories to evolve as he films them;
frameworks within he simply sketches an outline of the story, finds locations, and begins
which they operate.
For more information, shooting’ (Bosley 2001: 24 in Geuens 2007: 413). As Wong puts it, he
see Gruber and does not really know what he wants at the writing stage, thus ‘making
Wallace (1989). the film is actually a way for me to find all the answers’ (Tizard 2002:
197 in Geuens 2007: 213).
The ‘evolving systems’ theory of creativity 4 proposes that major
innovations across the arts and sciences are usually the result of
extended periods of focused work on multiple, overlapping projects.
Gruber terms this the ‘network of enterprises’, arguing that such a
way of working increases the likelihood of cross-fertilization across
projects (Gruber and Wallace 1989: 11–13). Canadian film-maker
Guy Maddin uses just such a process. He describes the genesis of his
mockumentary Brand Upon The Brain (2006), explaining that he was
approached by Seattle’s not-for-profit The Film Company. They were
willing to fund a low-budget feature providing that it was based on an
original idea. Or as Maddin explains, ‘you can’t use an old pre-existing
script that’s got the producer’s breath all over the title page’ (Douglas
2007). He was asked to write something new within a month. Since
Maddin’s films typically revisit his autobiography, it was a given that
some such scenes would be included:

I didn’t have time to make up a lot of stuff, so I took some episodes

from my childhood, one key sort of pivotal coming-together. I
knew I didn’t have time to write dialogue, but I knew I had time
to wing a film poem together […] especially if I started writing it
later in the editing process, using title cards or narration.
(Douglas 2007)

In fact, his script never really existed as a traditionally presented and for-
matted screenplay. Instead, Maddin and his collaborators worked from
a story outline with lists of sets and props. He also describes gradu-
ally introducing other elements into the mix. Fascinated by sound post-
production he invited the film’s team of Foley artists to contribute to a
live performance, and his narration was partly inspired by benshi, the
film explainers of Japanese silent cinema. Maddin’s work presents one
possible model for opening up the screenplay, due to his insistence on
working with cinematic elements from early in the process.


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After the typewriter: the screenplay in a digital era

Maddin and Wong’s methodologies also have parallels with the

improvisational processes of performers and musicians. Social psy-
chologist and creativity theorist Keith Sawyer observes that improvisa-
tional theatre groups that do ‘long form improvisation’ almost always
prepare a loose structure in advance; ‘good jazz improvisers have years
of experience […] they build a repertoire of phrases, overall forms, and
memories of other musicians’ famous solos and recordings […] When
improvising, they draw on this material’ (Sawyer 2007: 170). In other
words, they draw on these phrases and forms, modifying and embel-
lishing them to suit the demands of specific situations. Yet in the film
and television industries it is usually only actors who are given the
latitude to improvise. Research conducted in the IT industries also sug-
gests that successful innovators build on limited structures: ‘the critical
balance for innovation is at the edge of chaos; not too rigid to prevent
emergent innovation, but not too loose to result in total chaos’ (Sawyer
2007: 169).


Screenwriter Jim Taylor (Election (1999) and Sideways (2004)) argues
that screenplays could draw more on comics and the graphic novel
in their formatting and layout. ‘I’m hoping to figure out a new way to
make screenplays more expressive,’ he says (Kretchmer 2006). Taylor
points to the work of comic artist Chris Ware as one of his own inspi-
rations for experimenting with the look of screenplays, since in Ware’s
comics text is often more prominent than pictures. Taylor’s own
experiments in creating visual interest include using a number of fonts
and letterforms. In a sample page from Sideways he delineated charac-
ters with the use of different fonts and typefaces, formatting all of the
Miles character’s lines in Comic Sans, and all of Jack’s in Chalkboard
(Kretchmer 2006).
Paul Wells’s Scriptwriting (in a series on Basic Animation) focuses
on the role of narrative forms and concepts, images, sounds and music
in the development of screen ideas (Wells 2007). Wells’s wealth of
beginning points for generating audio-visual narratives include iconic
images, sounds, sense memories, emotions, concepts and re-narra-
tions of established myths and fairy tales. Similarly, structuring devices
and methods of analysis include storyboards, friezes and ladders which
combine sketches and hand-drawn text and event analysis. Many of
these methods are drawn from the working methods of a diverse range
of writers and directors. While Scriptwriting is aimed at those begin-
ning to write for animation, it is the openness of this approach that
makes it a valuable source of ideas for screenwriters more generally. In
Comics as Literature (2007) Rocco Versaci notes that comics of all kinds
are increasingly being adapted into films. While mainstream superhero
films have long drawn on comics, less well-known and edgy mate-
rial has been successfully adapted into high profile films too; Versaci
(2007: 11) cites Sin City (2005) and V for Vendetta (2005) as examples.
His analysis of comics suggests, though, that the form has considerably


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Kathryn Millard

more to offer cinema than simply a stockpile of stories ripe for adapta-
tion. For him, they are a form of graphic language that operates within
a unique poetics.
Comic narration blends and modifies features shared by other art
forms – especially literature, painting, photography and film.

Like literature, comics contain written narrative and dialogue,

and they employ devices such as characterisation, conflict and
plot […] comics blend words and pictures […] Unlike film, the
images in comics are ‘read’ more like paintings and photographs
rather than ‘watched’ like movies.
(Versaci 2007: 13)

Versaci contends that reading the interplay between the written and
the visual is complex, and that comics do not happen in the words or
the pictures but ‘somewhere in between’, in a process that requires the
active participation of the reader to fill in the details between the panels.
It is this filling in the space between the words and the pictures, he suggests,
that fosters an intimacy between creator and audience (Versaci 2007:
14, my emphasis). For me it is this dynamic mix of words and images,
the fact that images as well as words (and the relationship between
the two) take centre stage from the beginning, that makes comics and
graphic novels one particularly apt model for the screenplay.
One artist/illustrator whose work I have found especially inspiring
is John M. Muth. In his graphic novel M, Muth restaged Fritz Lang’s
film (1931) about the investigation of a child murder with a neighbour-
hood cast and a collection of borrowed costumes (Muth 2008). He then
produced watercolours based on stills from these re-enactments. His
blurred, defocused images of his characters help convey the sense of an
everyman’s version of M. His graphic novel juxtaposes stills of dramatic
action and evidence from the investigation – maps, memos, bars of
haunting music and dialogue bubbles. Muth’s M suggests yet another
possible pathway for the screenplay, perhaps with collected and assem-
bled images for those of us who do not have his skills as a visual artist.
In her account of ‘breakthrough thinking’ across the arts and sci-
ences, Notebooks of the Mind, cognitive psychologist Vera John-Steiner
argues that images are a more nuanced form of representing ideas than
words (John-Steiner 1997: 109). This is not to suggest, of course, that
words such as the scene description within a screenplay cannot evoke
images for readers. Indeed, in his discussion of the evolution of screen-
play, Kevin Boon argues that the trend towards less technical informa-
tion within screenplays, and a more distilled, literary style has been
particularly pronounced over the last thirty years (Boon 2008). Boon
describes this transition as cinema and television shaking off the influ-
ences of staged theatre and developing its own distinct literary form.
He regards Robert Towne’s influential screenplay for Chinatown (1974)
as a significant marker in this evolution. For Boon, though, the object
of screenplay analysis is always this written documentation rather than


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After the typewriter: the screenplay in a digital era

the processes and collaborations that are part of both the development
of the screen idea and its transformation into the screen work. Perhaps
this arises from the fact that in charting the transitions in the formatting
of the screenplay over the last century and more, Boon is primarily con-
cerned with making a case for the film script as a distinct literary form.


Since perhaps the early 1990s, the film industry’s standard software for
screenwriting has been the Final Draft computer program, marketed
with the slogan ‘Just add words’ (Final Draft 2009). While Final Draft’s
main function is to assist writers in formatting screenplays to indus-
try standards, it also contains an expert problem-solver based on Syd
Field’s three-act structural paradigm. This generates reports and sugges-
tions about how the screenplay could more closely fit Field’s paradigm.
Other software programs such as Dramatica also include restrictive
story paradigms (Dramatica 2009). Ironically, just as digital technologies
and networked media are opening up new methods of sketching screen
ideas and collaborating with others, much of the scriptwriting software
may be serving to restrict the range of possible storytelling strategies on
offer. Story templates from the likes of Syd Field, Christopher Vogler
and Robert McKee have migrated across to digital platforms, along with
Final Draft and its Courier font. On the other hand, some individuals
and communities are developing shareware computer programs like
Celtx, which allows writers to add ‘assets’ to conventional script layouts
(Celtx 2009). These ‘assets’ can include video, stills, music and sound.
Celtx also aims to build online communities who can respond to each
other’s work. The potential source of innovation is when these features
are seen as aids to screenwriting as well as pre-production and produc-
tion. While programs like Celtx still have a long way to go in enabling
a more fluid use of imagery, sounds and words in the development of
screen works and ideas, they do perhaps point towards one new set
of possibilities for the screenplay. Similarly, pre-visualization (‘pre-viz’)
software such as Frameforge 3D (Frameforge 3D 2009) suggests new
possibilities when used as a tool for generating writing and scenarios
rather than as a director’s tool for the pre-production phase.


Want some screenwriting advice? Add drawings to your script.

And then put your dialogue in bubbles. If recent studio acquisi-
tions are any evidence, then the fastest way to get a movie deal
these days may just be to turn your next Big Idea into a graphic
(Fernandez 2008)

Thus wrote Jay Fernandez in The Hollywood Reporter. A new generation

of screenwriters who have grown up in a networked world saturated


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Kathryn Millard

with YouTube, TiVo, instant messaging, MP3s and cell phones as well
as graphic novels are abandoning the idea of writing only for the mov-
ies. Instead they are embracing a more elastic, cross-platform approach.
According to some commentators, the era of the speculative script with
its armies of gatekeepers may have passed. US-based manager/pro-
ducer Paul Young, for example, encourages his comedy clients to film
excerpts from their speculative scripts and post them online. He sees
producers, studios and distributors looking beyond the printed page for
material to film. Many people are now used to watching material online
and do not expect it to have high production values, Young suggests
(Fernandez 2008).

We are all subject to what Susan Stewart calls the ‘self-periodisation
of popular culture’, to the ways in which shifts in technologies and
viewing platforms shape our experiences of viewing and watching
(Straw 2002: 313). Courier, a product of the 1950s, could perhaps be
regarded as the film industry equivalent of the Ploughman’s Lunch. If
the Ploughman’s Lunch was a fake heritage item devised in the 1980s
to bolster lunchtime trade in British pubs, then might we see Courier
as a font maintained by a nostalgic film industry to keep itself aligned
with the era of classic Hollywood?
Media theorists Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn challenge
the assumption that new technologies displace older systems with
decisive suddenness. ‘Media change is an accretive, gradual proc-
ess, always a mix of tradition and innovation, in which emerging
and established systems interact, shift and collude with each other’
(Jenkins and Thorburn 2003: x). So much of cinema did not begin
with film, but migrated across from earlier art forms and entertain-
ments. Consequently, cinema’s histories can be found in photog-
raphy, painting, portraiture, music, the fairground, the peep show,
picture palaces, vaudeville, theatre, the nickelodeon, magic shows,
travelogues, the illustrated lecture, the public science experiment,
the book, the typewriter and the architectural sketch. Digital cinema
continues to transform, to adapt and reconfigure itself. So much of
the current era, with its proliferation of digital technologies, returns
us to the beginnings of cinema and creates spaces to investigate
the paths that were not followed, the possibilities not explored; the
branching lines and loops, or the byways of cinema as Guy Maddin
describes them (Marlow 2007). Film theorist Robert Stam notes:
‘Pre-cinema and post-cinema have come to resemble each other.
Then, as now, everything seems possible’ (Stam 2000: 318). I think
the same is true for the screenplay. As Lawrence Lessig argues, the
most interesting ways to write are increasingly with images and
sounds in addition to text (Korman 2005). The processes of screen-
writing and film-making have been separated since the early years
of cinema when Thomas Harper Ince, Hollywood’s answer to Henry


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After the typewriter: the screenplay in a digital era

Ford, devised his industrial system of the continuity script as a basis

for pre-planned productions (Staiger 1985: 191 in Geuens 2000: 83).
Over ninety years later, the digital era offers the possibility of re-
uniting screenplay and film production in an expanded notion of the

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (2008), A Few Notes on
Formatting, http://www.oscars.org/nicholl/format.html. Accessed 31
August 2008.
Boon, K. (2008), Script Culture and the American Screenplay, Detroit: Wayne
State University Press.
Bosley, R. (2001), ‘Infidelity in the Far East’, American Cinematographer, 82: 2,
pp. 22–33.
Brand Upon the Brain (2006), Wr: Guy Maddin, Louis Negin, Dir: Guy Maddin,
Canada, 95 mins.
Burnett, R. (1988), ‘Atom Egoyan: An Interview’, http://www2.cruzio.com/~
akreyche/aeai1.html. Accessed 24 May 2009.
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Douglas, E. (2007), ‘Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!’, interview with Guy
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Accessed 24 May 2009.
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103 mins.
Fernandez, Jay A. Evolution of a Screenwriter, Hollywood Reporter, 24th July,
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html Accessed 3rd August 2009.
Final Draft (2009), http://www.final draft.com. Accessed 8 June 2009.
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Geuens, J-P. (2000), Film Production Theory, New York: State University of
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—— (2007) ‘The Space of Production’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 24:
5, pp. 411–20.
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pomona.edu/index.php?article=1371. Accessed 3rd August 2009.
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(unpublished screenplay, Thomas Pevsner collection, Leeds Metropolitan


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After the typewriter: the screenplay in a digital era

Millard, K. (2010), ‘After the typewriter: the screenplay in a digital era’, Journal
of Screenwriting 1: 1, pp. 11–25, doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.11/1

Kathryn Millard is a writer and film-maker and is Associate Professor at
Macquarie University, Sydney. Her credits as writer, producer and director
include award-winning features, documentaries and essay films. Kathryn
publishes on topics including screenwriting, screen history, colour, pho-
tography, creativity and collaboration. She is currently carrying out further
research on the increasingly blurred boundaries between screenwriting and
pre-visualization software, and the creative possibilities that this represents
for screenwriters. Her feature-length essay film about Chaplin imitators, The
Boot Cake, was released in 2008.
Contact: Department of Media, Music and Cultural Studies, Macquarie
University, Sydney, Australia, 2109.
E-mail: kathryn.millard@mq.edu.au


JOSC 1.1_5_art_Millard_011-026.indd 25 8/22/09 5:31:02 PM

Transnational Cinemas
ISSN 2040-3550 (2 issues | Volume 1, 2010)

Aims and Scope

Transnational Cinemas has emerged in response to a shift in global film cultures
and how we understand them. Dynamic new industrial and textual practices are
being established throughout the world and the academic community is responding.
Editors Our journal aims to break down traditional geographical divisions and welcomes
9jea\Y\]dY?YjrY submissions that reflect the changing nature of global filmmaking.
;dYm\aYEY_YddYf]k%:dYf[g Call for Papers
<]ZgjY`K`Yo Transnational Cinemas covers a vast and diverse range of film related subjects. It
\]ZgjY`&k`Yo8hgjl&Y[&mc provides a new and exciting forum for disseminating research. The editors are seeking
articles, interviews, visual essays, reports on film festivals and conferences. Articles
jml`&\gm_`lq8hgjl&Y[&mc should be up to 6,000 words in length and should be written in English, with all
quotations translated.

afl]dd][lbgmjfYdk ooo&afl]dd][lZggck&[ge

JOSC 1.1_5_art_Millard_011-026.indd 26 8/26/09 10:45:12 AM

JOSC 1 (1) pp. 27–43 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting | Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.27/1

University of London

‘Everybody’s a Writer’
Theorizing screenwriting
as creative labour

This paper offers a theoretical agenda for a labourist analysis of screen- critical sociology
writing, and critically evaluates the marginal status of screenwriting creative labour
within film production systems. On the one hand, screenwriting offers an screenwriting
exemplary case study of creative work in post-modernized film production industrialization
industries, work characterized by freelancing and multivalent working pat- marginalization
terns, insecurity and hierarchization. Investigating screenwriting as creative collaboration
labour also offers unique insights into an intensely industrial vocation; this
requires a highly particular theorization of the contexts and conditions of
writers’ working lives.
This paper draws on sociological analyses of creative production and
utilizes a Foucauldian understanding of ‘technologies of the self’ as this
concept has been applied in the analysis of creative labour. This approach
enables a critical examination of particular aspects of screenwriting labour,
including the rigidity of the industrial screenplay form and its pedagogi-
cal frameworks, the standardized mechanisms of control over screenwriting
labour (such as inequitable collaboration and practices of multiple author-
ship), and the heady mix of both creative fulfilment and punishment which
characterizes this form of work.


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Bridget Conor

Syd Field’s (1994: 254) warning that ‘Everybody’s a Writer’ works
as a rhetorical device in his ‘how-to’ manual to describe the widely
held belief in Hollywood and beyond that many people aspire (but
often fail) to make a living as a screenwriter. Concurrently, Field’s
phrase warns that working screenwriters will constantly be offered
advice, comment, criticism and suggestions for improvement from
those they consult with, those who likely harbour dreams of success
and acclaim in the seductive world of film production like everyone
else. This paper presents a labourist analysis of screenwriting and
one which works to critically evaluate the marginal status of screen-
writing as a creative input within film production systems. On the
one hand, screenwriting offers an exemplary case study of creative
work in post-modernized film production industries, work charac-
terized by freelancing and multivalent working patterns, insecurity
and hierarchy. Investigating screenwriting as creative labour also
offers unique insights into a vocation that is often shaped by col-
lective organizing that bestows benefits and privileges not provided
for ‘below-the-line’ film workers. For Kohn (2000: 303) screenwrit-
ers now typically inhabit the familiar roles of new creative workers:
‘cosmopolitan, networked and networking, brazen, supremely self-
confident’ but argues that this masks a ‘hollowness’ and ‘insecurity’
which is perpetuated by the continued peripheral status of screen-
writing as a creative form.
I will argue in this article that the historical and continued margin-
alization of screenwriting labour can best be understood and analysed
by a) examining and critiquing standard theoretical paradigms for
‘creative labour’ practices, b) analysing how these standard paradigms
can be applied to screenwriting labour, and c) examining the unique
practices of screenwriting labour and the exceptional labour market
in which screenwriters work. This actively challenges key aspects of
established creative labour theory.


Firstly, I will outline the theoretical framework in which I contend that
‘creative labour’ can best be critically examined. Developments and
changes in the organization of production and the rise of supposedly
new forms of work and working experiences in late capitalism have
been analysed using a number of (sometimes conflicting) paradigms.
These range from what I would term ‘liberal-democratic’ theories of the
information society (following Banks 2007 and Brophy 2008) to post-
Fordist readings of changes in production organization. Autonomist-
Marxist perspectives have also been deployed to emphasize the
hegemonic influence of ‘immaterial labour’ in post-Fordist economies
and more critical sociological accounts have outlined the features of
creative labour in ‘fiercely neo-liberal’ societies (McRobbie 2002b: 518).


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‘Everybody’s a Writer’ Theorizing screenwriting as creative labour

All have been employed in order to understand how the experiences of I. Immaterial labour is
defined as ‘…the
work have changed in recent decades and, particularly, how the work labour that produces
of artists and creatives is now constituted and experienced within the the informational and
postmodernized cultural industries. cultural content of the
commodity’ (Lazzarato
1996: 133). Hardt
and Negri argue that
now a qualitative
Shifts in production organization since the 1970s and the rise of new hegemonic force within
postmodern production
working subjectivities have been analysed in numerous ways. There systems.
is a vast array of accounts of these changes which are largely within a 2. Note that the
‘liberal-democratic’ paradigm that celebrates them as progressive and autonomist-Marxists
both question the
humanitarian in the benefits they offer ‘post-modern’ workers (for adverse effects of
example see Aglietta 1979; Bell 1973; Castells 1996, 1997, 1998; Lash postmodernization
and post-Fordism for
and Urry 1987; Piore and Sabel 1984). This paradigm can also be seen immaterial labourers
at work in autonomist-Marxist accounts (see Hardt and Negri 2000, and also suggest
2004; Virno 2003; Lazzarato 1996) of these changes in production, the emancipatory
possibilities of
which focus on the nature of work in ‘informational’ societies. As immaterial labour,
Webster (2002) outlines, most theories of the ‘information society’ and but do not offer a
sustained critique
the shifts to postmodernized production systems focus on a number and lack empirical
of quantitative changes that, it is argued, have led to a qualitatively evidence to back up
new society. On the one hand, technological developments since the their philosophical
arguments. See Gill
1970s and the rise in the pervasive use of information and communi- and Pratt (2008) for a
cation technologies (ICTs) have been a starting point for analysis; for recent and very useful
others, economic changes, particularly the measured increase in
the economic worth of ‘informational activities’ are paramount.
Occupational changes are also foregrounded – from a preponder-
ance of workers in primary and secondary occupational sectors to
the rise in service sector (tertiary) and now ‘information-processing’
or ‘symbol-manipulation’ (quaternary sector) jobs (Hardt and Negri
2000: 292). Post-Fordist writers have produced parallel accounts
of changes in various production sectors, from car manufacturing
to film production, that emphasize shifts from mass production to
small-batch production. Hardt and Negri (2000, 2004) offer a typi-
cal and influential reading of these changes, writing that the shift
from an industrial to a post-industrial or information society can
be termed the ‘postmodernization’ of production. Most importantly
Hardt and Negri argue that postmodernization ‘marks a new mode
of becoming human’ (2000: 289) and integral to this is the new and
central role for immaterial labour in many areas of productive life.1
The rise in the centrality of immaterial labour is tied in with changes
in production and work since the 1970s and modern management
techniques, which, Lazzarato argues, have increasingly sought to
co-opt the soul of the worker – to make the worker’s personality
and subjectivity ‘susceptible to organisation and control’ (Lazzarato
1996: 134).
The conceptual problems with broadly ‘liberal-democratic’ theo-
ries of changes in production organization and more specific the-
ories of immaterial labour2 are their tendencies (both subtle and


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Bridget Conor

3. For example, de overt) to celebrate the ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ which post-Fordism,
Peuter and Dyer-
Witheford (2005) flexible specialization and other incantations of the ‘information
have emphasized society’ promise, thus often masking issues of increased exploita-
the consequences tion, precariousness, marginalization and discrimination which new
of the now stark
divisions of labour forms of immaterial work have also made visible.3 Whilst they have
within postmodern or varying philosophical agendas, they also tend to lack empirical evi-
post-Fordist production
systems – separating dence for the trends they discuss, or they offer quantitative data
out high-tech research on changes in occupational structures (Bell 1973 for example) but
and development
workers in Silicon
then make sweeping claims about changes to the nature of work
Valley from young and society whilst neglecting the continuities also visible between
women in developing industrial and informational capitalism.4 In fact, such theories also
nations who assemble
microchips for example. raise further issues by using ambiguous concepts such as ‘immate-
New hierarchies within rial labour’ or ‘symbol-manipulation’ to crudely hierarchize labour in
post-Fordist workforces
often reinforce traditional
new and problematic ways (between skilled/creative and unskilled/
stratifications along non-creative jobs for example). Such theories, whilst providing
gender, ethnic and important tools for understanding the disparate changes precipitated
lines, issues which by declining manufacturing industries, rising employment in new
proponents of post- types of ‘immaterial’ work, and the pervasive influence of informa-
industrial or information
societies and workers tion technology, offer a partial and distorted theoretical framework
often neglect entirely. for understanding changes in labouring practices in late capitalism.
4. Castells (1996, 1997, Critical sociological frameworks that recognize these changes, but
1998) offers a more
nuanced account of also foreground the marginalization of labour within ‘knowledge
these changes, arguing economies’, provide a sharper and more incisive theoretical frame-
for both transformation
and continuity and work. These accounts have some affiliation with the earlier seminal
is one of the most work of Braverman (1974) and labour process theorists who provide
authoritative scholars
on these various trends.
the most scathing critique of the degradation of work in advanced
5. Braverman and labour capitalism, emphasizing the spuriousness of claims made about
process theorists have labour ‘flexibility’ (for example Pollert 1988). However, Braverman is
been criticized for
their ‘neo-Luddism’, now dated and has also been extensively criticized and this signals
for romanticising that a more sophisticated approach is needed to questions of labour
forms of brutalizing
industrial work and for
in postmodern production systems.5 I argue that critical sociology
embodying a ‘radical coupled with a neo-Foucauldian understanding of governmentality
pessimism’ which and ‘technologies of the self’, as they are mobilized within working
leaves little room for
the subjectivities of selves, offers a more satisfying critical base.
workers themselves (see
Dyer-Witheford 2004).
As Blair (2003) notes,
the ‘missing subject’ CREATIVE LABOUR
within Braverman’s The theories outlined above have been mobilized to examine the par-
work has been a
sticking point for many. ticular changes that are visible within creative occupations and the
production of cultural goods. Certain cultural industries such as the
Hollywood production system have been analysed as exhibiting a
post-Fordist model in its changing organization (from mass production
to independent and contract forms of film-making, see Christopherson
& Storper 1986, 1989; Storper 1989, 1993) and the term ‘immaterial
labour’ has been utilized in relation to creative occupations within
new media production (such as game developers, see de Peuter and
Dyer-Witheford 2005). Celebratory accounts of a new ‘creative class’
(for example Leadbeater 1999; Landry 2000; Florida 2004) have argued


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‘Everybody’s a Writer’ Theorizing screenwriting as creative labour

that the freelancers and independent creative workers have become 6. Ursell (2000) also
provides an important
more visible within the economic growth patterns of cities and nations. account of self-
These workers are described as the vanguard of the workforce in ‘post- enterprise in television
industrial’ societies, embodying the traits – entrepreneurialism, networked, production work as
a powerful form of
multivalent, flexible – most valued in advanced, neo-liberal economies. pleasure in creative
These celebratory accounts have, in turn, been taken up by governments work and thus also a
technology of the self.
keen to invest in their ‘creative industries’ and ‘knowledge economies’
and hoping to reap both economic and cultural rewards. Thus discus-
sions and analyses of creative labour are developing at a particularly
interesting and rich intersection of a number of theoretical and policy-
directed paradigms.
Critical sociological accounts of creative labour (such as Ryan 1991;
McRobbie 1998, 2002a, 2002b, 2004; Ursell 2000; Blair 2001, 2003; Gill
2002, 2007; Ross 2003) provide an incisive basis for analysis when
combined with a Foucauldian understanding of work and subjectiv-
ity, and this mitigates against simplistic accounts of brutalized and
exploited workers. As Hesmondhalgh writes in his assessment of
theories of creative labour as they have developed in recent years, the
work of McRobbie and Ross provide the most promising openings
because, ‘they join theoretical sophistication with empirical sociologi-
cal analysis of the specific discourses of creativity and self-realization
in particular industries’ (2007: 67).
The most penetrating accounts of creative labour to date (McRobbie,
Ross, Ursell) have illuminated trends in late capitalist workplaces
(towards increased individualization, self-reflexivity and uncertainty; see
also Beck 1992, Du Gay 1996; Sennett 1998; Bauman 2001) whilst also
offering prescient critiques of neo-liberal working cultures and claims to
increased freedom and creativity in work. What these accounts do not
neglect, unlike labour process theory and some sociological accounts, is
the self in work. A Foucauldian perspective focuses on the ‘technologies
of the self’ or ‘self-steering mechanisms’ (Foucault 1988) that creative
workers embody and employ in order to conduct themselves in their
work. Thus buzz-words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘flexibility’ within creative
labour practices are ‘new languages and techniques to bind the worker
into the productive life of society’ (Rose 1990: 60) and are also embod-
ied and enacted by workers themselves. Angela McRobbie writes:

By handing over responsibility of the self to the individual, power is

both devolved and accentuated. So it is with creativity/talent. Where
the individual is most free to be chasing his or her dreams of self-
expression, so also is postmodern power at its most effective.
(McRobbie 2002a: 109)6

I argue that the work of screenwriters not only exemplifies creative

labour as it has been theorized by critical sociologists but also ena-
bles an analysis of a unique set of self-actualizing practices, tech-
nologies of the self and disciplinary techniques in film production
work. Overall, a theoretical lens that combines critical sociology


JOSC 1.1_5_art_Conor_027-044.indd 31 8/22/09 5:29:33 PM

Bridget Conor

7. McRobbie (2002a with Foucauldian concerns enables an investigation of the extremes

and 2002b) also
highlights the issue of of both self-fulfilment and pleasure in screenwriting work and also
the lack of diversity the vagaries of marginal labour conditions in the film production
within creative industry. I will now explore some of the specific discourses I see at
workforces and
the brutal working work in contemporary screenwriting labour practices.
conditions that often
disadvantage and
marginalize particular
women and ethnic
minorities, and this is
Angela McRobbie (1998, 2002a, 2002b, 2004) has been concerned with
an issue raised in much the development of the ‘new cultural economy’ in the UK, the develop-
of the current creative ment of the discourses of creative workers as ‘pioneers’ in their multiva-
labour research – Gill
(2002, 2007), Ursell lent working lives and in their lived experiences of work in ‘speeded-up
(2000) and de Peuter creative worlds’ (2002a). She identifies a number of features of ‘creative
and Dyer-Witheford
(2005) also identify
work’ which now make up the standard creative labour vocabulary and
lack of diversity as an these can be analysed in relation to screenwriting labour – the freelance
inherent consequence nature of much of the work in screen production, the insecurity of such
of the conditions
of new creative work, the ‘portfolio careers’ which creatives must assemble in order to
work. Within the make a living and the constant networking and entrepreneurial skills
screenwriting sector,
this is also an acute required to make contacts in cultural industries in order to build and
concern. See the Film maintain a reputation and secure future work.
Council reports that For example, McRobbie writes, ‘creative’ working practices are
have investigated these
issues in the context of characteristic of ‘portfolio careers’ (2002a: 111) which are collated
the UK screenwriting by individuals in order to offset the insecurity and capriciousness
industry (UK Film
Council 2006; 2007). which is now built in to ‘flexible’ production systems such as film-
or television-making. This then requires creative individuals to be
intensely ‘self-promotional’, echoing the constant need to ‘work on
oneself’ within a new enterprise culture that writers such as Du Gay
(1996) and Rose (1999) articulate. For screenwriters, this has become
an inherent feature of getting by and particularly moving up in their
field – the skills required to network, take meetings and pitch ideas
have become central to everyday screenwriting careers. McRobbie
writes that the pleasure workers express in their work through these
studies is a ‘critical and intransigent’ factor – despite chronic condi-
tions of low remuneration, extremely long working hours and ‘volatile
and unpredictable’ work patterns (2002a: 109).7
Another key feature of creative work for McRobbie is the uneven
spread of rewards across labouring sectors, a theme echoed by Gill
Ursell who observes:

Acclaim, reward, recognition characterise the top end of the

television labour market and arguably, it is the attractiveness
of such attributes which helps keep the bottom end entranced
and enlisted. Truly, this is a technology of the self which turns
on self-enterprise.
(Ursell 2000: 818)

This trend is certainly visible within Hollywood’s screenwriting labour

force. Levels of remuneration vary considerably between the minimum


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‘Everybody’s a Writer’ Theorizing screenwriting as creative labour

wages set by the US Writers Guilds for writing a treatment or first draft 8. The ‘Schedule of
Minimums’ is broken
in comparison with the very high retainers which are paid to the few up into yearly periods
‘sought-after ’ screenwriters at any particular point in time. Within the from 2008–2011
2008 Writers Guild of America ‘Schedule of Minimums’, the delivery and these figures are
for the first period
of an original screenplay, including treatment,8 ranges from US$58,477 effective 2/13/08 to
to US$109, 783. Figures for the top end of the pay spectrum are more 5/1/09. See Writers
Guild of America
difficult to accurately document9 but widely cited examples in the last (2008).
ten years include the fees paid to writer-directors such as M. Night 9. A number of factors
are influential
Shyamalan, paid US$5 million for Unbreakable in 2000 (Anon 2009) here including the
and David Koepp, paid US$3.5 million for Zathura: A Space Adventure commercial sensitivity
(2005) (Laporte 2004). Published interviews with screenwriters are also of these top-end
figures for production
littered with references to the glamour, excitement, creative fulfilment companies and studios
and prestige possible within the industry as compelling reasons to pur- as well as for the
established writers. But
sue such work. Again, creative screenwriting labour like other crea- also and even more
tive occupations offers simultaneous limitations and rewards, potential slippery, the notorious
autonomy and creative freedom as well as exploitation and insecurity Hollywood rumour mill
which thrives on such
and these are not binary oppositions but are enmeshed within the eve- speculative figures
ryday working experiences of screenwriters. serves to inflate hype
and prestige around
Broadly, screenwriting labour must be separated out from the particular projects
theorizations of other creative labour forms firstly because of the during the development
inherently industrial nature of the work – screenwriting is a histori- process. Arguably,
this further veils the
cal and contemporary industrial creative labour form which exemplifies material conditions of
idiosyncratic characteristics, enables distinctive working experiences the pay negotiations
that are routinely
and facilitates particular mechanisms of organization and control. For conducted within the
screenwriters, the inherent industrialization of their largely independ- industry, distorting
the perception both
ent, creative, pre-production or inception-oriented work means that within and outside
they have always experienced their labour as highly intensive and screenwriting labour
personal; individualized and collaborative; competitive and hierar- networks about what
screenplays and
chized; marginalized and elite – which then offers a rich mixture of screenwriting work
both pleasures and pains (Caldwell uses the term ‘trade pain’, 2008: is ‘really worth’ and
perpetuating such
221) which can only be understood by examining both the historical catch-all industrial
and contemporary industrial conditions within which screenwriting axioms as ‘nobody
functions. knows anything’
(see Goldman 1996).
10. Because the focus
of this theorization is
labour, it is important
LABOUR MARKETS to examine the
In particular, the development and contemporary workings of the Hollywood labour
market as the
Hollywood labour market in which screenwriters now function10 industrial centre for
provides key insights into the unique set of trends and conditions film production and
screenwriting work
that mark out the distinctive case of film writers as creative workers. particularly. Certainly
A brief examination of some of these trends and conditions in the British writers work
outside this centre
industry’s ‘post-Fordist’ phase emphasizes not only this uniqueness but with British film
(unionized creative workers are rare for example) but the clear paral- production inextricably
lels with other forms of creative work that encourage partialization tied into Hollywood-
centric networks of
for most workers – hierarchization, a dual labour market, entrenched film-making, writers
insecurity, individualization and compulsory entrepreneurialism. constantly engage with
and function within
Dichotomies that have now developed in the film production industries


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Bridget Conor

these networks. Many and the screenwriting labour market specifically, signal these issues –
British writers belong
to the US Writers above vs. below-the-line, and entrepreneur property-holders vs.
Guilds (more so than wage workers for example.
the UK Writers Guild) Scott (2005) provides an analysis of the increased hierarchiza-
and have US-based
agents. See UK Film tion of the Hollywood labour market in the period since the 1950s,
Council (2007) for one emphasizing the externalization of the employment relation and the
of the few studies of
writers for British films shift to predominantly temporary and freelance work for film work-
which highlights these ers. Scott (2005) and Miller, Govil, McMurria, Maxwell and Wang
(2005) write that a key element of this profound change was codified
within the new classification system which distinguished workers
according to labour-market power and was then enshrined within
the production budgets of the films themselves. So ‘above-the-line’
workers (such as stars, directors and writers) considered to be the
key creative inputs for a film, have individually negotiated salaries,
are guild represented and ‘are named explicitly as line item entries
in any project budget’ (Scott 2005: 121). Miller et al. (2005: 119)
note that these workers are subjectively viewed as ‘creative’ and
‘proactive’. In comparison, ‘below-the-line’ workers are the mass
of ‘reactive’ or proletarian workers whose wages are determined by
collective agreements or wage schedules.
Christopherson (1996) analyses the consequent shifts in the rela-
tionships between workers and firms in Hollywood after the 1950s
and argues that as the major studios divested themselves of once per-
manent workforces and began subcontracting production, there were
concomitant changes in labour organizations – mechanisms such
as health and pension benefit schemes and certification of skill and
experience came under threat and the unions were forced to adapt.
Particular strategies in response to flexible specialization were a roster
system to certify skills based on seniority and experience, health and
pension systems independent of any one employer and a system of
residuals payments for creative workers (Christopherson 1996: 103).
Overall these changes made it possible to ‘maintain and reproduce
a skilled and specialised labour force without long-term employment
contracts’ (Christopherson 1996: 104).
Christopherson also provides insight into new hierarchies that
emerged within the labour force at this time. She states:

The talent work force became more heterogeneous with respect

to gender and (to a much lesser extent) race and access to work
and property rights. For example, a split emerged between ‘writ-
er-producers’ – with entrepreneurial skills and property rights in
the film or tape product – and a vastly increased pool of writers
with dramatically varying access to work. This heterogeneity is
contained within the talent guilds leading to serious differences
between segments of the workforce whose primary interest
is access to work and those whose interests focus on property
rights in the form of residuals payments.
(Christopherson 1996: 104).


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‘Everybody’s a Writer’ Theorizing screenwriting as creative labour

These new hierarchies are fundamentally important to the exceptional 11. This is reflected by
the large number of
analysis of screenwriting labour – while on the one hand, their sta- possible modes of
tus as ‘above-the-line’, creative and ‘proactive’ workers bestows some screenwriting work
prestige on the profession overall (and enables certain levels of job now mobilized which
link to variable pay
security and industrial power in the form of the Writers Guilds), signif- rates, e.g. treatments,
icant hierarchization is now a feature of the profession and this opens first and subsequent
drafts, rewrites,
up new fault-lines and serves to stratify workers within the field. polishes and so on.
Christopherson also identifies the new entrepreneurial culture that 12. In 2007–2008 the
most recent strike
developed and contributed to new divisions of labour, as well as new action of the Writers
opportunities for acquisition of skills and working alliances across the Guilds in the United
production sector. As she puts it: States highlighted
residuals payments as
a key area in which
The historical social division of labour between craft and tal- screenwriters continue
to fight to maintain
ent, manager and worker, was undermined and new divisions, security and some
such as those between entrepreneur-property holders and wage control over their
workers, were constructed. This transformation created new ten- work. In eighteen of
twenty-one strikes by
sions between individual skills and collective identities. above-the-line guilds
(Christopherson 1996: 108) since 1952, the issue
of residuals was the
major or at least a
Scott argues that Hollywood’s occupational structure can now be prominent issue (Paul
viewed as two overlapping pyramids, ‘one representing the manual, and Kleingartner
1996: 172).
crafts and technical workers in the industry, the other – which has
many more tiers in the upper ranges – representing the creative or
talent workers’ (2005: 127). Scott also writes that the labour market is
characterized by an intricate system of occupational categories (now
codified within collective bargaining agreements) that illustrates the
myriad divisions of labour both above- and below-the-line and which
then often links directly to rates of pay, credits awarded to various
roles undertaken on particular films and prestige and status within the
industry.11 The creative pyramid of the labour system is characterized
by chronic bloating at the base of the employment pyramid because,
as Scott illustrates, there is a constant over-supply of ‘aspirants’ who
are then slowly filtered through the system along various paths: into
routine, relatively secure ‘day jobs’ such as television writing; out of
the industry altogether; or up into the higher echelons, where reputa-
tion, credits, asking prices and interpersonal networks all play signifi-
cant roles in maintaining one’s status (Scott 2005: 128). Networking
is also complemented, for Scott, by other ‘instruments of social coor-
dination’ (2005: 130) such as the prevalence of intermediaries (talent
agents, managers etc.). This also means that particular mechanisms of
control become the pivots of prestige and security within the screen-
writing labour market, such as the complex processes of residuals pay-
ments and credit allocation.12
I argue that at one level there are two broad modes of industrial-
ized screenwriting labour which can be identified and which broadly
determine the amount of autonomy and authority individual writers
have to control their own creative work and the uses to which that
work is put. This fits within the ‘dual labour market’ picture outlined


JOSC 1.1_5_art_Conor_027-044.indd 35 8/22/09 5:29:34 PM

Bridget Conor

by creative labour theorists and can be articulated using Ryan’s theori-

zation, in which he distinguishes two kinds of labour positions within
industrial creative production systems: ‘contracted artists’ and ‘profes-
sional creatives’ (Ryan 1991: 136). The former category is ‘personal-
ised labour’ and represents, for Ryan, not labour-power but the roles
of ‘petty capitalists’ who supply intermediate artistic goods to corpo-
rations such as production companies. For screenwriting, this maps
on to the labour market in which a small number of writer-producers
or well-known, consecrated writers function, survive and flourish at
the top end (Christopherson’s ‘entrepreneur property-holders’). They
are generally able to secure ongoing and rewarding work, are well-
remunerated, critically recognized and are more able to resist attempts
to extensively rewrite or change their work. On the other hand, ‘pro-
fessional creatives’ are ‘supporting artists in the project team [who]
are employed on wages or salaries in permanent or casual positions’
(Ryan 1991: 138). This is rationalized work, supporting work, ‘vari-
able capital to be put to work across continuous cycles of production’
(Ryan 1991: 139). Professional creative screenwriting labour represents
the vast majority of screenwriting work undertaken in contemporary
film production industries at the bloated bottom of the occupational
pyramid. Within this category, the multiple modes of piecemeal
screenwriting work come to the surface – treatment writing, drafting,
rewriting, polishing and so on. Screenwriters working at this blunt
end of the industry are concerned with security; they are constantly
scrambling to secure future work, may lack autonomy and control and
routinely face brutalizing and intense industrial conditions, the ‘serial
corporate churn’ characterized by Caldwell (2008: 113).


To more forcefully carve out a theoretical agenda for a consideration
of screenwriting as a creative labour however, I argue that screenwrit-
ing labour must, to some extent, be separated out from the accounts
of postmodernized production/Fordism-post-Fordism/creative indus-
tries altogether. The standard vocabulary that supports and makes up
these accounts must be broken down and new terms, dialectics and
subjects be produced.
Screenwriting labour can be viewed within a creative work para-
digm but can certainly not be considered to be a wholly new form of
creative work unlike other occupations such as those in new media
for example (see Gill 2002, 2007, and de Peuter and Dyer-Witheford
2005, for example). The history of Hollywood-centric screenwriting
illustrates the historical development of industrialized writing and
suggests that many of the rigidities which characterize the labour
process and limit the autonomy of individual writers in a contempo-
rary setting can be traced through the history of screenwriting (par-
ticularly as it was standardized within the Hollywood studio system


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‘Everybody’s a Writer’ Theorizing screenwriting as creative labour

and into other industrial film production contexts such as in the UK; 13. For example Thomas
see Stempel 1988, and Norman 2007 for historical accounts in the Ince is cited as
ushering in a process
US). For example, the divisions of labour formalized in the Studio of script development
era of Hollywood production, which separated out conception from and film production
which separated
execution and offered a standardized screenplay model,13 can be conception from
highlighted, as well as the coordinated mechanisms of control that execution. In evidence
here is the first sign of
solidified routine practices such as multiple authorship in the film the degradation of the
production system, eroding claims to individual creative authorship screenwriter’s creative
by screenwriters.14 Changes in the organization of the film produc- process under the
strictures of an industrial
tion industry have certainly followed broader changes in production production system.
organization but, again, screenwriters cannot be analysed as exempli- As Staiger writes, the
application of scientific
fying new, flexible, post-Fordist labour practices. management to screen
Firstly, this is because screenwriters have always and continue to production leads to a
be inherently individualized and atomized in the experiences of their separation which
‘…destroys an ideal
working lives – by nature of their work and its placement in the incep- of the whole person,
tion stages of a film production, often before a ‘project-team’ has even both the creator and
the producer of one’s
been assembled. Simultaneously, writers are called into being within ideas’ (1982: 96, my
daily industrial working contexts as collaborative and therefore inher- emphasis). Arguably
ently partial – their work only becomes productive, useful and thus this separation is
applied vigorously
meaningful when it is subject to development, notes, and input from to screenwriting
other film-makers. It is then produced in filmic form, leading to a con- in later years and
is thus acutely felt
stant and chaotic tension between individualized and collaborative by screenwriters
modes of work.15 So, whilst some screenwriters may work in teams, themselves.
14. The strategies of a
most experience the writing itself as solitary, even if working within studio boss such as
larger television writing teams or other agglomerations. Also, more Irving Thalberg can be
commonly, they experience competition on numerous professional highlighted here – he
developed the routine
levels as well as both productive and punishing forms of collaboration practice of hiring
during the writing process. Examples of this potent mix of solitude, multiple writers and/
or teams of writers for
competition and collaboration can be seen in the narratives recounted a single project without
by screenwriters such as Mark Andrus (who co-wrote As Good As It the others’ knowing;
Gets, 1997, with James L. Brooks without the two writers ever meet- see Stempel (1988:
71) for an account
ing; see Katz 2000).16 Ron Bass’s self-described ‘ordeal’ writing Rain of this and Norman
Man (1988) is another telling example (Engel 2002: 55); his experience (2007: 135), who
refers to this by the
involved initial collaborative work with Stephen Spielberg, a firing insider term ‘following’.
with the arrival of a new director (Sydney Pollack) and the eventual re- 15. This is the premise
hiring of Bass. Macdonald (2004: 204–5, citing Petrie 1996) also pro- and focus of Becker’s
sociological account
vides a fascinating inventory of the collaboration between the Scottish of collaborative
actor and writer-director Peter Capaldi and Miramax in 1995–1996, networks and collective
production within ‘art
which includes numerous approvals and disapprovals, suggested worlds’: ‘Art worlds
rewrites, delays and a threat to bring on a new writer.17 consist of all the
people whose activities
Additionally, the creative drive of screenwriting labour is and has are necessary to the
historically been highly marginalized but this must be simultane- production of the
ously viewed alongside the organized (and thus securitized) and elite characteristic works
which that world, and
positionings of screenwriters. The liminal status of the screenwriter perhaps others as well,
as an author/artist and the questionable status of the screenplay as lit- define as art’ (2008:
erature or art (visible in the rhetoric of auteur theory for example18) 16. This practice
are important elements of broader arguments for crude marginaliza- of ‘distanced
tion and brutalization of screenwriting but these discussions cannot collaboration’ is


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Bridget Conor

common – Tom be viewed in isolation. The long-term organization and unionization

Stoppard and Marc
Norman’s work for
of the Hollywood-centric screen production industries also offers
Shakespeare in Love an important diversion from creative work as it is conceptualized
(1998) is another by McRobbie and others and arguably mitigates against the worst
example recounted in
Katz (2000). vagaries and brutalities of the industry. It is also impossible to dis-
17. For Macdonald, this miss the elite status of screenwriters here – they are ‘above-the-line’
example ‘…underlines
Capaldi’s status as workers, largely educated, often able to produce work in a number of
a supplicant’ (2004: literary fields and potentially able to command significant amounts
205). of remuneration and ‘consecration’. An analysis of the processes
18. This is a complex
issue which I am not and experiences of screenwriting labour indicate that a renewed and
able to elaborate on reinvigorated vocabulary for the theorization of screenwriting crea-
here – it raises much
broader philosophical tive labour is productive and essential here – one that foregrounds a
issues about notions number of terms: old and new; individualized and collaborative; atom-
of authorship in film-
making. See Stam
ized and partial; standardized; elite; entrepreneurial and disinvested.
(2000) and Corliss These terms should not be viewed as binaries or polarities but they
(1974) for relevant complement, complexify and play off each other and serve to rein-
19. See Stempel (1988) vigorate creative labour theory itself.19
and Norman (2007)
for more in-depth
accounts of the
standardization and SCREENWRITING LABOUR
marginalization of
screenwriting work The material and frequently brutal conditions of the screenwriting
in Hollywood’s labour market have profound effects on how screenwriters them-
Studio era. Collected
interviews with selves function – their career trajectories, their creative and craft
screenwriters, for practices, their daily working lives and their self-perceptions are
example Katz
(2000) and Engel
shaped by these specific dynamics of cultural production. The key
(2002), offer a good question examined here is: what particular mechanisms of screen-
starting point for writing labour and ‘technologies of the self’ are mobilized within
first-person accounts
of contemporary screenwriting labour practices in order for writers to at least survive
screenwriting and perhaps prosper within this labour market and how do these
collaborations of
both the productive/
both marginalize and empower screenwriters? Nikolas Rose empha-
rewarding and sizes this ‘double bind’, writing that modern power is exercised by
destructive/ both producing individual selves and constraining individuality (see
disheartening kind.
Note that these are not Rimke 2000: 72). By way of conclusion, I offer a few preliminary
necessarily mutually thoughts on the areas in which disciplinary techniques and ‘tech-
exclusive categories
but that screenwriters nologies of the self’ mobilized within screenwriting labour are visible
can and do frequently and, using a reinvigorated theoretical framework, can be empirically
experience these investigated and analysed.20
highs and lows
within a single In particular, certain features of the production of screenplays strike
project development me as pivotal mechanisms in the dialectical process of the production
experience. Again,
the previously cited and constraint of screenwriting labour in both historical and contem-
anecdotes from writers porary terms. Firstly, the fairly rigid structure of mainstream screen-
Ron Bass (Engel 2002)
and Peter Capaldi
plays arguably acts as a set of coercive tools and sets standards and
(Macdonald 2004: expectations within the industry. These rigidities are then perpetuated
204–5) are indicative within ‘how-to’ screenwriting manuals, screenwriting courses and
20. I offer here a number film and television commissioning and funding bodies.21 Secondly, the
of ‘directions’ that encouragement (usually by producers, studio bosses, agents and so
I believe, through
on) of disinvestment in the screenwriters’ own work through concrete


JOSC 1.1_5_art_Conor_027-044.indd 38 8/22/09 5:29:34 PM

‘Everybody’s a Writer’ Theorizing screenwriting as creative labour

practices such as ‘inequitable collaboration’22 which dilutes the author- qualitative, empirical
research, will mirror
ity of the screenwriter as a primary creative input and therefore affects Hesmondhalgh’s
the ability of the screenwriter to maintain control of their own work. ideal approach
for creative labour
Also, the entrepreneurial mechanisms that require constant network- research: ‘…theoretical
ing, pitching, negotiation and meeting-taking are all practices that can sophistication...[and]
discourage screenwriters in their pursuit of secure and rewarding work empirical sociological
analysis of the specific
or force them to ‘play the game’ (often to their detriment) within a discourses of creativity
corporate cultural production system. All these factors are experienced and self-realisation in
particular industries’
by screenwriters at the deepest levels of the self – ‘how-to’ screenwrit- (2007: 67).
ing manuals that encourage writers to put their hearts and souls into 21. Ryan’s analysis terms
their writing then, on the following pages, remind writers to subject this ‘formatting’ ‘loosely-
connected parameters
and adapt those screenwriting selves to the everyday vicissitudes and pointing to preferred
brutalities of the industry. outcomes’ (1991:
180), but which
However, all this does not preclude the very real benefits that nonetheless exert a
screenwriting labour provides and the creative and artistic, as well ‘coercive power’ over
as economic, rewards which the work offers. As Caldwell writes in creative labouring such
as screenwriting.
relation to the resilience of the film and television production indus- 22. I use this term to
tries and workers, ‘reflexivity operates as a creative process involving connote particular
routine practices
human agency and critical competence at the local cultural level as and discourses,
much as a discursive process establishing power at the broader social perpetuated within the
film production industry
level’ (2008: 33). Screenwriters are able to exercise creative autonomy over time and now
and freedom not possible for many other film production workers; invoked in ‘how-to’
they can and do experience fruitful collaborations with fellow creatives screenwriting manuals
and within production
and may be rewarded with both high remuneration and also critical meetings that routinely
rewards and recognition. It is this rich mix of individualization and col- place screenwriters
in the position of
laboration, constraint and reward, exploitation and autonomy within (as Macdonald,
this work that an examination of screenwriting as creative labour can 2004, terms it),
illuminate. supplicants. These
practices demand
and/or assume that
screenwriters be
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Conor, B. (2010), ‘‘Everybody’s a Writer’ Theorizing screenwriting as creative
labour’, Journal of Screenwriting 1: 1, pp. 27–43, doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.27/1

Bridget Conor is a Ph.D. candidate in the media and communication stud-
ies department of Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her disserta-
tion is a critical analysis of screenwriting as creative labour in the British


JOSC 1.1_5_art_Conor_027-044.indd 42 8/22/09 5:29:35 PM

‘Everybody’s a Writer’ Theorizing screenwriting as creative labour

and North American film industries. She is also a lecturer in media and
film theory in the UK. Previously, Bridget taught and studied in Auckland,
New Zealand, her research focusing on the globalisation of the New
Zealand film industry.
Contact: Goldsmiths College, 8 Lewisham Way, New Cross London, SE14 6NW.
E-mail: cop01bc@gold.ac.uk


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JOSC 1.1_5_art_Conor_027-044.indd 44 8/26/09 10:52:49 AM

JOSC 1 (1) pp. 45–58 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting | Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.45/1

University of Leeds

‘…So it’s not surprising

I’m neurotic’ The
Screenwriter and the
Screen Idea Work Group

The Screen Idea Work Group (SIWG) is a flexibly constructed group organ- Screen Idea Work
ized around the development and production of a screen idea; a hypotheti- Group (SIWG)
cal grouping of those professional workers involved in conceptualizing and screenwriter
developing fictional narrative work for any particular moving image screen interviews
idea. In this article, I use the notion of the SIWG to draw together the views doxa
of key workers about how the process of screen idea development works – or best practice
doesn’t. My findings are based on a small ethnographic study I undertook craft skills
in 2004, in which, through in-depth semi-structured interviews with seven production analysis
SIWG workers, I attempted to understand how they came to occupy their
role, how they felt their judgements were made and received, and how far
the SIWG’s view of the screen idea accorded with the screenwriting doxa
(characterized as how to do a ‘good’ piece of work). As detailed below, their
answers were concerned with status, a sense of self-worth and respect,
points of tension, power, control, collaboration and trust, and the nature of
the doxa itself.


JOSC 1.1_5_art_Macdonald_045-058.indd 45 8/22/09 5:30:40 PM

Ian W. Macdonald

1. For example, the UK If you believe the stories, film and TV screenwriters are frequently
professional journal
Scriptwriter has struggling in an already tough freelance business.1 They are misunder-
included articles fairly stood, unappreciated and ignored, and what creative power they have
regularly on what is neutralized before anything gets going. Their one bargaining chip –
is wrong with the
industry’s relationship their creative idea – is exchanged for a contract, and from that point on
with the screenwriter, they are at the mercy of anyone that has even junior executive status.
such as in issues 6
(September 2002), 7 One writer I talked to (on condition of anonymity) was bitter about
(November 2002), the treatment he’d received from film and TV companies, who wanted
8 (January 2003),
10 (May 2003),
his scripts but not his opinions once he had delivered his drafts:
15 (March 2004),
17 (July 2004), 21
(March 2005), 22 [I] mostly have to deal with idiots [who] don’t know what I do,
(May 2005)… etc.
2. See, for example, how difficult it is. The pay is ridiculous in the UK. Meetings
Bourdieu (1984; can easily be cancelled… [there is a] courtesy problem. [I also
1993; 1996).
3. The doxa is therefore
have experience outside the UK] – but instead they want me to
the internalized disappear. There’s a lot riding on it for me, so it’s not surprising
practice of a set of that I’m neurotic and nervous.
norms based around
a particular orthodoxy. (Writer ‘B’ 2003)
The doxa also informs
the habitus, and the
feeling of ‘rightness’ So what is the screenwriter’s role in relation to the development of the
that comes with the screen idea, and to the others involved in that process? I have argued
doxa will contribute
to the (re-)composition previously (Macdonald 2004a) that the study of screenwriting as a
of the habitus. This practice can be approached using Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habi-
disposes the ‘agent’
to make judgements
tus’, which he developed to describe how individuals form a system of
in the same or similar dispositions within a culture and area of activity, and which then work
way in the future, in an to structure practice.2 Habitus provides the practice with its normative
almost circular fashion.
4. For more information codes, which are (re-)internalized as ‘best practice’, craft skills and so
on this study, see on. Best practice becomes the doxa – the way we feel it is done best in
Macdonald (2004c),
Chapter 7. the rules of the game – which is articulated as an orthodoxy or doc-
trine via manuals and other ‘how-to’ books and articles.3
Secondly, I have argued that such practice congregates around
a shared screen idea rather than focusing on a specific written text
(Macdonald 2004b). Thirdly, I have also suggested the idea of a Screen
Idea Work Group (SIWG) as a flexible and semi-formal work unit that
congregates around the screen idea, and whose members contribute to
its development (Macdonald 2004c; 2008). In this article I describe the
notion of the SIWG, based on a small ethnographic study undertaken
in 2004. In this I attempted, through in-depth semi-structured inter-
views with seven SIWG workers, to understand how these workers
viewed their creative involvement, and how they believed it worked in
relation to each other and to their industrial context.4 The quote above
comes from a screenwriter interviewed for this project.
The Screen Idea Work Group is a conceit; it is a researcher’s way
of understanding how a process takes place around something that is
non-existent (the screen idea). The concept is taken from the ‘flexible
work group’ referred to by Helen Blair (2001, 2003), where she talked
of a figuration – using Norbert Elias’ term – of networks of interde-
pendence between freelance workers in a fairly closed industry. It is


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a flexibly constructed work group organized around the development 5. The well known and
respected TV adaptor
and production of a screen idea; a hypothetical grouping of those pro- Andrew Davies offered
fessional workers (with, potentially, a few non-professionals) involved an amusing and
in conceptualizing and developing fictional narrative work for any revealing example of
his relationship with his
particular moving image screen idea. director in his 1995
Of course one could argue that the kind of opinion contained Royal TV Society Huw
Wheldon Lecture
in this quote from Screenwriter B above is not confined to writers, (Davies 1995).
and that ridiculously low pay, short cuts around courtesy and a lack
of interest in previous experience is what some other people also put
up with in the film and TV industry. These kinds of comments are
individual reactions to the way the film and TV industries are organ-
ized, and also represent the common understanding in the business of
‘how it works’ (or the doxa). People know it’s a tough business, and
there may even be a rough sense of pride in surviving it.
However, the negative and personal nature of such comments still
characterize such problems as fixable at the individual level, or as issues
for strategic action. There is little sense that they might be systemic,
entrenched in the doxa itself. In other words, the assumption – whether
generally negative or not – appears to be that better treatment for
screenwriters lies in recognizing their authority as true originators of the
screen idea, and therefore of their deeper, more fundamental understand-
ing of it. Screenwriters deserve higher status and better treatment (the
argument might go) because they know the idea better than others. But it
stops short of demanding change to the system, of (for example) claiming
an authority for the writer that might trump the director. In practice some
of those writers who have developed a personal status that might be
powerful enough to cross that demarcation line, shy away from claiming
it.5 Others, like Dennis Potter, seek more power by becoming hyphenates
(e.g. writer-producer, writer-director), which solves an individual prob-
lem without changing what appears to characterize the writer’s role.
Some production studies, like Georgina Born’s 1997 study of news
production in the BBC (Born, 2002) reveal, as David Hesmondhalgh
says, what creative staff struggle with – real dilemmas and difficul-
ties involved in making public service broadcasting (Hesmondhalgh
2006: 83). This emphasizes the inner dynamics of institutions while
also suggesting ‘the continuing existence of spaces where relative inde-
pendence can exist’ (Hesmondhalgh 2006: 84). I suggest that study-
ing the conceptualization of fiction production for the moving image
in terms of firstly the doxa, and secondly of the specific practices of
the SIWG, can be useful in understanding the link between produc-
tion practices and text. It could explain how ‘relatively independent’
working is encouraged, shaped, directed and channelled as well as
constrained; and also how that process informs the development of the
screen idea into something this group of workers recognizes as legiti-
mate in their understanding of a moving image narrative. In this article
I use the notion of the SIWG to draw together the views of key work-
ers about how they perceive the process of screen idea development
works – or doesn’t.


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6. For example, Todd This kind of study is, I suggest, a form of production analysis
Gitlin’s excellent
analysis of the US which concentrates on the early conceptualization of the production.
networks in the 1980s Production analysis can help in understanding why a screenwork is like
(1985); or Feuer, it is, but such studies often concentrate on the later and practical ele-
Kerr and Vahimagi’s
useful study of the ments of production post- script development, and are usually descrip-
MTM production tive of specific cases. This limits the generalizations that might be made.6
company (1980).
Roger Silverstone’s Individual biographies or production diaries are also helpful in under-
Framing Science standing the creative context, but again such approaches reinforce the
(1985) is a good
example of a factual
sense of individual actions taken in the context of a specified role within
production analysis. a production – Hesmondhalgh’s space of ‘relative independence’. In
All these include useful relation to the study of screen idea development in general, however,
information about
early screen idea two suggestions offer areas for further consideration. First, John Corner
development, but the has suggested that the development of screen ideas from pre-production
focus on individual
cases makes it harder
through to viewing the final film can be seen as a series of transfor-
to draw general mations (Corner 2008: 125). The direction of these transformations
conclusions about is influenced by (or even determined by) decisions made in response
common patterns of
development. to specific and significant elements – from TV network policy to ele-
7. For example, Parker ments identifying a particular company style, to practical interventions
(1998: 42–43),
McKee (1999: 415) in project development like changes in location, budget, schedule or
or Cattrysse (2003). even censorship rulings. In relation to these elements, the more overt
See also Patrick judgements and decisions usually occur some way into the production
Cattrysse’s article in
this issue of the Journal process. However, less obvious is what informs decisions made in the
of Screenwriting. early stages, when people are assessing and developing the perceived
general worth of the screen idea. This occurs in the perhaps ‘purer’
air of script development rather than in pre-production proper, where
realities intrude on creative suggestions.
Second, as Newcomb and Lotz have suggested (2002: 76), the
emphasis on struggles and power relations in accounts of produc-
tion sometimes obscures the collaborative nature of such work, which
also obscures the nature of that collaboration and what underpins it.
It may be easier to observe decisions made in response to the kinds of
changes mentioned above, than it is to identify the quieter decisions
made in agreement with others. But one assumption must surely be
that screenwriters and their colleagues wish to reach amicable agree-
ment about the screen idea and its meanings, and that such collabora-
tion is an important factor in deciding the eventual screenwork.
Before looking more closely at the transformations, collaborations
and conflicts within the SIWG, two observations on the conventional
framework within which screenwriters are invited to work – the current
doxa – are pertinent, as this is the basis for collaboration and communi-
cation. Usually referred to as ‘craft skills’, the doxa is well documented
in manuals and underpinned by courses for budding screenwriters, and
by the UK’s training agency for screenwriting, Skillset, when approving
such courses. The professional discourse of screenwriting has recently
become more overt with a proliferation of works during the last fifteen
years, marked by increasing discussion in the professional arena about
specific aspects of orthodox practice such as terminological incon-
sistency.7 Screenwriting manuals reinforce the status quo, while their


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proliferation offers the impression of difference in the field. However, 8. To get a clearer sense
of the extent of this
there is little or no difference. The point is that they all offer a consistent ‘normalisation’, in
normative framework representing a specific approach to storytelling on 2003 I conducted
screen, even where there is some variation between what Philip Parker a representative
survey of concepts
has called the ‘new structuralists’ (2000: 66) and those presenting ‘alter- and terminology. I
natives’ such as Dancyger and Rush (2002).8 Secondly it is important to analysed twelve
manuals (six British
note this as a discourse which characterizes the process of screenwriting and six US), and
as individual, personal and oriented towards a goal that is qualitative cross-referenced
the similarities. An
and universal – that is, possessing merits independent of its industrial analysis of terms and
brief. It connects the industrial need of commercial film-making with the concepts produced
subjective mindset of an individual worker, and it makes a clear appeal a very close fit. For a
full account of this see
to the screenwriter to put aside any questions, and immerse themselves Macdonald (2004c),
in the process of writing. Debate within the doxa is usually restricted to chapter 3.
9. The concept of elective
ways of understanding the orthodoxy – the secrets of how it is done. This interaction with others,
is seductive, as it offers systematic help to the struggling individual, and in a hybrid activity
promises you can write any content as long as it is written ‘this’ way. between consumer and
producer – ‘prosumers’
Of course screenwriting is only ‘individual’ for as long as it takes for or ‘produsers’ – has
the writer – working within the doxa – to complete the first draft (or even been discussed
recently, e.g. by Bruns
treatment). When this is produced, the screen idea is then developed (2008).
through a social process amongst a ‘community of practitioners’, as Bill 10. The importance of
Nichols put it (1991: 14). However, this is not a democratic community the screenplay as
text is also implicit
as Nichols implies in his model (though there are democratic elements in academic studies
to it), and neither is it elective or self-nominating as Internet groups are.9 such as Sternberg
(1997). She also
Drawn together for the purpose of developing the screen idea, the Screen makes the point that
Idea Work Group simply refers collectively to all those who have some it is an ‘unstable’
document open to
direct connection with the development of the screen idea. various interpretations
This notion of the SIWG allows us to consider the screen idea devel- (Sternberg 1997: 1),
opment process both in general terms and in terms of what is specific effectively allowing
its unreliability and
to that particular production. We can avoid being limited to discussion partial nature. See
of activity linked to an individual role as currently demarcated, such as also Pasolini ([1966]
what the director commonly does or does not do. We might identify how
judgements and decisions are made within the changing flux of power
relations in this group, and in relation to screen idea and to the industrial
field and the field of power. We might consider the habitus of the individ-
uals, the extent of the constraints and possible spaces allowed for nego-
tiation within the field of film and TV drama production, the imported
status of those individuals, the social power they actually wield, and the
actual negotiation processes involved in the working of that SIWG.
It is, I claim, easier to think of a group working in both formal and
informal ways to shape this screen idea than it is to accept the com-
monly described linear model of a succession of individuals crafting a
script like some kind of object passing down a Fordist production line.
I suggest it also helps to get away from focusing on the importance of
the script itself; not as a document of record, because it is clearly the
main written evidence of the screen idea, and the main document that
people work with,10 but because the people around it are not working
with the script alone. They work with their notion of the screen idea in
the contexts of that document and of that particular group.


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The orthodox account of creating a screen idea is characterized as a

process of script development that involves workers in different roles and
having different status. It characterizes these roles as almost set in stone,
even if an individual can hold several at once, such as a writer-producer –
a hyphenate. The impression given is that a good development process is
one in which everyone knows their place and contributes ideas that serve
an ideally constructed screen idea. Even in the wider ‘Triangle’ model of
producer/writer/director collaboration, there is an assumption of ‘passing
the parcel’ as many times as is necessary in the expectation of progress.
Accounting for the creation and development of the screen idea
using the SIWG model is less rigid and more wide-ranging. The
SIWG is made up of all those people who have a direct relationship to
that particular screen idea. We can sub-divide the group into two ver-
sions – firstly the group as it exists and works before any concretization
of production, and secondly the group as it works once practicalities
like actual footage or availability of personnel and equipment inform or
even drive decisions. This effectively means a slightly different character
to the group before and after the start of principal photography.
Core members of the group before principal photography takes
place are considered to be those who are required to write, read,
comment on, contribute to or otherwise shape or influence the
screen idea as a direct consequence of their role as currently defined.
In conventional practice this would be the writer, the script reader,
the script editor (a TV term) or development executive (a film term),
the producer and/or the commissioning editor or department head,
and the director. These are considered ‘core’ in that they will almost
always be represented in a SIWG.
Others will also be involved and may be influential during this time.
They might include the art director, the location scout, the actors, or any-
one else with whom core members have a strong relationship. Executives
may get involved, even financial backers who have no other involvement
except to read the script and approve it (or not). They may give back
notes and get credits as Executive Producers, for example. Membership
of this hypothetical group could even extend to a friend in the bar who
offers his own ending to the story, for consideration. The point is that
membership of the group is flexible, and may extend to the unorthodox,
non-professional or even fleeting, but every SIWG has the same purpose
and goal – it serves and discusses a screen idea in order to agree, as far as
possible, what should constitute the emerging screenwork.
If we use the notion of the SIWG to construct a small survey of
opinions of key workers, we might clarify both what occurs during
screen idea development, and how this process affects and is viewed by
those involved. This could study either a specific group based around
an actual screen idea, or could be used to draw more generalized con-
clusions by targeting key workers who have worked on different screen
ideas. As a small-scale exercise to test the practicality of this, I targeted
seven workers representing the core roles involved in any mainstream
SIWG (see Table 1). These were three writers, a producer, a director, a


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Writers Others Total

White 3 3 6

Non-white 1 0 1

Male 2 2 4

Female 1 2 3

Film experience* 2 4 6

TV experience* 2 4 6

London location 2 3 5

Regional location 1 1 2

*NB: Some interviewees appear in both these categories. Source: author’s analysis
of interviewee information, 2003/2004.

Table 1: Origin and background of seven selected script-ideaworkers.

script reader (TV) and a development executive (film). They also repre-
sented some key differences in gender, race, industry experience, and
location within and outside London. I was trying to understand what
went on in general, using specific but different experiences to build up
a composite picture of conventional practice.
In semi-structured interviews lasting 60–90 minutes I asked inter-
viewees questions designed to elicit how they got to occupy their role,
how they felt their judgements were made and received, how far the
SIWG’s view of the screen idea accorded with the screenwriting doxa,
and what might have shaped, constrained or restrained the judge-
ments of those involved. I asked them about screen idea development,
the concept of ‘good’ screenwriting, the training of screenwriters and
their sense of the audience. Their answers came back as being con-
cerned with status, sense of self-worth and respect, points of ten-
sion, power, control, collaboration and trust; as well as being about
the nature of the ‘doxa’ (characterized as how to do a ‘good’ piece of
work). The three writers, the director and script reader discussed their
personal power in negative terms, with only the development exec
and the producer appearing to be satisfied with their personal power
and status. This seemed to be based on their direct experiences of
treatment received, with all giving examples. The writers in particular
talked of being ‘constantly rejected’ (Writer B 2003) and ‘being locked
out of decisions’ (Writer A 2003) and of being led into directions they
were not inclined to go down; ‘all the banging your head against a wall
thinking yes, but this isn’t what I wanted to write’ (Writer F 2004).
The opposition of power and control versus collaboration and trust
was a balance important to all interviewees, and this seems to go to
the heart of the operation of a SIWG. Good experiences were those


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Ian W. Macdonald

11. ‘Format’ here refers to in which the interviewee felt both empowered and trusted, as well as
shape, style, tone and
genre of this series, not trusting the judgement of colleagues; and unsurprisingly these occurred
(necessarily or only) to with people of similar backgrounds and experience. Bad experiences
script format. were those where there was disagreement leading to a breakdown of
trust, which seemed to happen when there was a change in person-
nel or direction of the project for external reasons, together with a
difference in cultural vision. It was a separation of views of the screen
idea that seemed to lead to breakdowns in trust, the point where what
might be an undercurrent of differences in opinion became less of a
negotiation and more of a power struggle.

Cultural differences really came to a head in the [nth] series. Until

then [the director] had been following the format11 laid down
by other directors. Now there was a chance for him to re-con-
ceive the whole project in his own [way]. He knew more about
the American market… From being recognisably English in the
old sense, it was given this very North American quality. The
music [for example] … suddenly became very North American.
Completely changed the tone.
(Writer A 2003)

Here the aesthetic judgements of the writers were successfully chal-

lenged, mistakenly in Writer A’s opinion. This particular TV series was
always a UK/North American co-production. While the concept of the
series was stable, based on a UK audience and culture, the balance of
power fell in favour of the judgements of a UK producer and writers.
When market circumstances forced some form of change on the pro-
duction team, the UK producer was not invited to join the new team.
The concept of the series spin-off changed towards the ‘mid-Atlantic’
in the attempt to address the North American market more strongly,
and in favour of the judgements of the North American producer and
director, who demanded changes and rewrites to the scripts. In the
opinion of Writer A, it lost its British television values; ‘we can never
match the same kind of production values as some of those American
series, yet we were trying – to me that was a mistake’ (Writer A 2003).
The redevelopment of this series shows a realignment of cultural
vision after these market forces intervened, which resulted in a change
of personnel and shift in control of the content, and a different set of
judgements being made. To that extent it can be said that the writers’
dispositions were being challenged by others, and that their sense of
what was good judgement was not (fully) working within the new
power structure, whether or not the series succeeded in its market
aims. It cannot be said, however, that the writers did not (then or
eventually) adapt completely to a different market; only that, in this
example of change, the stimulus of external forces on opposing dispo-
sitions created a rift in views of the screen idea, and that one prevailed
to create the form of the new series. The writers had to accept defeat.
This example shows how a TV drama series can change radically as a


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result of a shift in the operation of the SIWG, even while retaining the
original screenwriters writing the same kind of storylines.
What about film production? In another example, Writer B describes
the personal dislike that he took to the people in the company that
wanted to produce his treatment and first draft. After various con-
tractual moves over some time, the same company acquired the script
but not the writer, suggesting the feeling was mutual. According to
the writer, the screen idea changed radically after his departure and it
no longer ‘worked’ because the genre did not fit the different context.
Here, judgements could not be made in common and disagreement
was terminal, for the writer. In this example, Writer B was originally
working with one producer with whom he agreed, but eventually
another SIWG took over the screen idea and developed it differently.
These examples highlight differences, but shot through all the
interviewees’ comments was the clear desire to find common ground
on which to collaborate. This takes the Newcomb and Lotz observa-
tion mentioned above a bit further, in that collaboration seems to be
the desired way of working. It is when individual struggles for power
and control become important, and when market and industrial pres-
sures combine with individual habitus to bring about difference of opin-
ion that can be acted upon, that trust breaks down and collaboration
ceases. At that point the character and operation of that SIWG changes.
The well-known term ‘development hell’ suggests (anecdotally at least)
that difficulty and breakdowns are not uncommon. Such a conclusion
implies that our conventional industrial model places the screenwriter
in a difficult position personally; this is often damaging to the ego, and
it’s tough to survive that.
If the Screen Idea Work Group is based on the desire for collabora-
tion, the basis for that collaboration and communication is clearly the
doxa. Conventional craft skills, and a shared vocabulary of technical
terms were mentioned and used (although one interviewee did not
believe the trend towards greater use of such terminology was add-
ing value). There is a universal belief amongst these interviewees in
the ‘admirable screenplay’, a piece of consecrated work whose quali-
ties are difficult to define but which are clear ‘when you see it’. It is
believed that this is achieved once a screen idea has been developed
in accordance with the doxa, but which then somehow transcends the
ordinary. The admirable screenplay appears to aim particularly at four
specific goals associated with industrial practicability: realizability; an
appropriate structure; a clear thesis, and some aspect of originality (or
perhaps novelty). Good screenwriting, according to all the interview-
ees except one writer, is something that connects subjectively with the
reader. ‘Great screenwriting’ is something that transcends the frame-
work of craft skills. These are orthodox views that do little to illumi-
nate the process of screen idea development, except to show that their
holders have absorbed professional screenwriting culture to a point
where they rarely question their practice and accept it as the norm.
What constitutes or leads to admired work can therefore only be


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Ian W. Macdonald

divined from the previous work of professionals, including their repu-

tation and their contribution to the discourses of taste. Development
Executive G describes discussion of the screen idea commonly in rela-
tion to previous screenworks; ‘which film are we going to use as our
touchstone?’ (Development Executive G 2004). As Reader E suggests,
it is important to know the field; ‘watch as much as possible what
else has been made, old and new, good and bad, so that you can see
what works and what doesn’t, and you can learn why people make
the judgements that people make’ (Reader E 2004).
This is another invitation to join the illusio as Bourdieu terms it
(1996: 228), the game of using and constructing the field, including
acceptance of conventional notions of what works and what does
not. The suggestion from interviewees’ responses is that the ‘admi-
rable screenplay’ is something ‘new’ and emotionally engaging, a
singularity that is usually described as original or from an original
voice, and the provenance of which is assumed to be the genius of
the writer. The description of how this transcendence occurs is vague,
and acknowledges nothing of the cultural and normative context that
might define ‘new’ in the first place. It is not surprising therefore that
normative discourse in development always characterizes the produc-
tion of something genuinely new as difficult.
So, in general how does this hypothetical SIWG appear to work?
It is based around the conventional production hierarchy (led by the
producer or executive producer), through which decisions are made
or confirmed. This is affected by institutional factors, by professional
status, by other forms of social status both inside and outside the field,
and by power granted to individuals through the operation of both
artistic and commercial capital in the marketplace. If the group were
to meet, this would be the social framework in which the screen idea
was initially discussed. However, there is also a second and level-
ling factor in operation as development progresses, in its discourse of
artistic practice and craft skills – it does allow for lower status mem-
bers of the group to offer opinion on the screen idea, on almost equal
terms. If the script reader, as a junior member, described various prob-
lems with the script in articulate and perceptive ways, their influence
on the idea is likely to increase. Anyone from teaboy upwards could
suggest an improvement that might have a significant bearing on the
final screenwork, even if this contribution is eventually uncredited or
filtered through the intervention of others. This kind of contribution
informs but does not threaten the decision-making process, control-
led or directed by the powerful within the group.
This is authorship on two levels. The first level is intended as collab-
orative within the official hierarchy and conventions, where individuals
collaborate to present a coherent version of a screenwork according to
accepted parameters and social status. In this there are contributions
from official and acknowledged authors, demarcated, specialized, even
informal but likely to be credited on the screenwork. Then there is the
second, rather more anarchistic process in which ALL those individuals


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involved negotiate a place for their ideas within the screen idea. They 12. See Barthes’ S/Z
(1974), and
do collaborate but also compete to present and legitimize their version Macdonald (2004b,
of the screen idea outside the framework of observable and conven- 2009).
tional power relationships. Successful adoption of a contribution does
not necessarily reflect the power structure, as all members of the group
usually subscribe to some kind of consensus about the screen idea in
question, and how it should operate. This means that any contribution
to the screen idea is absorbed into the official hierarchy and conven-
tional ways of working and – importantly – is (re-)directed towards the
commonly understood goal of producing a particular (type of) screen-
work. As Newcomb and Lotz suggested, in relation to the production
structure of a US TV drama, ‘it would be wrong to suggest that unequal
power relations always reflect fundamentally opposed perspectives, or
that ‘winners’ exercise power in order to obliterate the ideas and contri-
butions of “losers”’ (Newcomb and Lotz 2002: 76).
Working on the screen idea then, during the period of script devel-
opment, is a complex process which acknowledges some contribu-
tions but not others, where the power that comes with status is used
in decision-making but where acceptance of ideas does not always
relate to status, where judgements are made in relation to the doxa
of screenwriting and its surrounding culture as well as in relation to
direct market and institutional pressures and where, as Roland Barthes
might put it, a writerly process is directed towards a readerly goal.12
The way the SIWG works requires an individual to submit their
contributions to a process of review and decision-making in an arena
fraught with social complexities, industrial and cultural conventions
and individual habitus masquerading as ‘sound artistic judgement’.
This makes the screenwriter immediately vulnerable, as noted at the
start of this article – their status as the originator of the screen idea
is initially high, until others have become familiar with it and begin
contributing, but then the writer is in practice no different from any
other contributor. Of course their official status as writer comes with
a level of respect that demands diplomacy in how they are treated,
and it is likely that their experience and familiarity with the project
affords them a higher chance of making valuable contributions, but
the conventional role of the screenwriter requires them to relinquish
control of decision-making in the screen idea. On a personal level this
is never going to be easy, especially in the freelance and pressurized
film industry in the UK, because their dispensability reduces their lev-
erage, to use Joseph Turow’s phrase (1997: 26).
This small study (and my accompanying arguments) is merely a
pointer to future work. I suggest it indicates the value of studying group
practice as an SIWG, and it raises a few possible conclusions that need
further investigation. Firstly it suggests that professional screenwriters
are likely to believe in an orthodox way of doing things – even if it is
approximate in their view – which doesn’t just inform their work – it
forms their work. I suggest tha t thinking of their work in terms of the
screen idea and the SIWG helps to recognize how this orthodox discourse


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underpins the, sometimes confusing, world of actual production. This is

not to suggest that all such groups work in the same way, though one
could argue that all have some sort of relationship to the doxa.
Second, by understanding the process as one of developing the
screen idea, we can link production to conceptualization and to text
through the study of the provenance of specific screenworks. This is
not just in terms of trying to identify textual progress in screenplay
drafts, or of attributing authorship, or of institutional pressures and
internal power struggles, or of other drivers such as a public service
broadcasting ethos, but also in the membership and activity of a par-
ticular SIWG in the service of a particular screen idea.
This approach also re-places the study of the screenplay in its
context. Instead of looking at it either as an inferior version of the
screenwork, or as a literary work of art in its own right, it can be seen
as a stylized expression of a screen idea at a particular moment. It is
therefore neither separated from its purpose, nor unappreciated for its
own beauties. It can be poetic, and appreciated as such – Carl Mayer’s
Sunrise (1927) or Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1970), for exam-
ple, are both sparing and expressive, even poetic and wonderful to read
on the page. They work as literary pieces expressing the visual, read
according to the conventions of the screenplay. But they also record
what was thought to work at that moment, and in that sense they are
as valid an expression of the screen idea as the later screenwork. The
‘progress’ of development may not (always) be a linear process.
Lastly the notion of the Screen Idea Work Group is not intended
to replace the sense of individual authorship, despite the implication
that collectively the SIWG is the true site of the emerging screen
idea. Attribution of, or credit for, creative ideas is not the purpose of
this way of studying screen idea development. It is instead intended
as a way of understanding what actually happens when a moving
image narrative is conceived, developed and produced. It is a way
of seeing what conventions, attitudes, judgements and taste inform
that particular screen idea; and how they interact to produce the work
collectively regarded as – if not good – then satisfactory for the pur-
poses of production.

Barthes, Roland (1974), S/Z, Oxford, Blackwell.
Blair, Helen (2001), ‘“You’re Only as Good as Your Last Job”: the Labour
Process and Labour Market in the British Film Industry’, Work, employment
and society, 15:1, pp. 149–169.
Blair, Helen (2003), ‘Winning and losing in flexible labour markets: the forma-
tion and operation of networks of interdependence in the UK film indus-
try’, Sociology, 37:4, pp. 677–694.
Born, Georgina (2002), ‘Reflexivity and ambivalence: culture, creativity and
government in the BBC’, Cultural Values, 6:1/2, pp. 65–90.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1984), Distinction. A social critique of the judgement of taste,
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


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‘...So it’s not surprising I’m neurotic’ …

Bourdieu, Pierre (1993), The Field of Cultural Production, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1996), The Rules of Art, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bruns, Axel (2008), Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: from production to
produsage, Oxford: Peter Lang.
Cattrysse, Patrick (2003), ‘Training in Scriptwriting’, Scriptwriter, 9, March,
pp. 48–53.
Cleary, Stephen (2002), Short Documents, unpublished course notes on docu-
ments used in development of the screen idea, London: Arista.
Corner, John (2008), ‘On Documentary’, in Glen Creeber (ed.), The TV Genre
Book, Second Edition, London: British Film Institute/Palgrave, pp. 123–127.
Creeber, Glen (ed.) (2008), The TV Genre Book, Second Edition, London: British
Film Institute/Palgrave.
Dancyger, Ken and Rush, Jeff (2002), Alternative Scriptwriting: Successfully
Breaking the Rules, Third Edition, Boston, MA: Focal Press.
Davies, Andrew (1995), ‘Prima Donnas and Job Lots’, The Huw Wheldon
Memorial Lecture (for the Royal Television Society), London: British
Universities Film and Video Council.
Egri, Lajos (1960), The Art of Dramatic Writing, New York: Simon &
Feuer, Jane, Kerr, Paul and Vahimagi, Tise (eds) (1980), MTM : ‘quality televi-
sion’, London: BFI.
Field, Syd (1994), Screenplay. The Foundations of Screenwriting from Concept to
Finished Script, expanded edition, New York: Dell.
Frensham, Raymond (1996), Teach Yourself Screenwriting, London: Hodder
Friedmann, Julian (1995), How to make money Scriptwriting, London: Boxtree
Gitlin, Todd (1985), Inside Primetime, NY: Pantheon.
Grove, Elliot (2001), raindance writer’s lab: write + sell the hot screenplay,
London: Focal Press.
Hauge, Michael (1992), Writing screenplays that sell, British Edition, London:
Elm Tree Books.
Hesmondhalgh, David (ed.) (2006), Media Production, Maidenhead: Open
University Press.
Jensen, Klaus Bruhn (ed.) (2002), A Handbook of Media and Communication
Research. Qualitative and quantitative methodologies, London: Routledge.
Kubrick, Stanley (1970), Clockwork Orange, shooting script, 07/09/70, London,
Hollywood Scripts [distributor]. 107 pp.
Macdonald, Ian W. (2004a), ‘Manuals are not enough: relating screenwriting
practice to theories’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 1:2, pp. 260–274.
Macdonald, Ian W. (2004b) ‘Disentangling the screen idea’, Journal of Media
Practice, 5:2, pp. 89–99.
Macdonald, Ian W. (2004c), ‘The presentation of the screen idea in narrative film-
making’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Leeds: Leeds Metropolitan University.
Macdonald, Ian W. (2008), ‘“It’s not surprising I’m neurotic!” The screen idea
and the Screen Idea Work Group’, paper by invitation at Behind the scenes
of cultural production, mediatization of culture seminar, 25–26 September
2008, Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen. A version of this paper was
also delivered as a lecture at Shih-Hsin University, Taipei, 10 April 2009.
Macdonald, Ian W. (forthcoming 2009), ‘Behind the mask of the screenplay:
the screen idea’, in Clive Myer (ed.) (forthcoming 2009), Critical Cinema:
Beyond the Theory of Practice, London: Wallflower Press.


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Ian W. Macdonald

Mayer, Carl (1927), Sunrise. A Song of Two Humans. Photoplay. [Los Angeles,
Fox Film Corporation] [DVD]. [London], Eureka Video, 2003 [distributor].
McKee, Robert (1999), Story. Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of
Screenwriting, London: Methuen.
Myer, Clive (ed.) (forthcoming 2009), Critical Cinema: Beyond the Theory of
Practice, London: Wallflower Press.
Newcomb, Horace and Lotz, Amanda (2002), ‘The production of media fiction’,
Klaus Bruhn Jensen (ed.), A Handbook of Media and Communication Research.
Qualitative and quantitative methodologies, London: Routledge, pp. 62–77.
Nichols, Bill (1991), Representing Reality: issues and concepts in documentary,
Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Parker, Philip (1998), The Art and Science of Screenwriting, Exeter: Intellect
Parker, Philip (2000), ‘Reconstructing Narrative’, Journal of Media Practice, 1:2,
pp. 66–74.
Pasolini, Pier Paulo ([1966] 1977), ‘The Scenario as a structure designed to
become another structure’, Wide Angle, 2:1, pp. 40–47. (Originally publis-
hed in Pasolini, Pier Paulo (1966), Uccellacci e Uccellini, Milan: Garzanti.)
Silverstone, Roger (1985), Framing Science: the making of a BBC documentary,
London: British Film Institute.
Sternberg, Claudia (1997), Written for the Screen. The American motion-picture
screenplay as text, Tuebingen: Stauffenberg Verlag.
Tobin, Rob (2000), How to write high structure, high concept movies, Santa
Monica, CA: Xlibris Corporation.
Trottier, David (1998), The screenwriter’s bible. A complete guide to writing, for-
matting and selling your script, Third edition, Los Angeles: Silman-James.
Turow, Joseph (1997), Media Systems in Society. Understanding Industries,
Strategies and Power, second edition, New York: Longman.

Macdonald, I. W. (2010), ‘‘...So It’s not surprising I’m neurotic’ The Screenwriter
and the Screen Idea Work Group’, Journal of Screenwriting 1: 1, pp. 45–58,
doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.45/1
Contact: University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.
Phone: +44 113 343 5816 (incl. voicemail)
E-mail: i.w.macdonald@leeds.ac.uk


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JOSC 1 (1) pp. 59–81 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting | Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.59/1


Film and Media Studies Section, Department of Media, Cognition
and Communication, University of Copenhagen

Teaching screenwriting
in a time of storytelling
blindness: the meeting
of the auteur and the
screenwriting tradition
in Danish film-making

This article analyses how the approach to screenwriting in Danish cinema screenwriting
has undergone major changes from an auteur-oriented film culture in the film schools
1960s with basically no professional screenwriters, to a ‘collaborative auteur’ Danish cinema
industry where screenwriting is now a recognized craft and screenwriters collaboration
are established professionals in the film industry. Focusing on the histori- authorship
cal development of the Screenwriting Department at the National Film
School of Denmark, the article discusses how the educational emphasis
on teaching screenwriting has had an impact on Danish cinema both
by introducing a basic understanding of screenwriting models and tools


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Eva Novrup Redvall

for a new generation of Danish film-makers, and by developing a common

awareness of the importance of screenwriting as well as successful collabora-
tions in creative teams. The article highlights how, after widespread enthusi-
asm over the emergence of successful screenwriters, there are currently debates
about the dangers of professionalization as well as critical voices calling for a
return to a more personal kind of auteur film-making. Finally, it is suggested
that further investigation of the nature of close collaborations between direc-
tors and screenwriters, now more prevalent in Denmark, can provide interest-
ing material for new perspectives in discussions of authorship.

‘It was a time of storytelling blindness’ (Fredholm 2006: 18). This

is how one Danish director described his time at the National Film
School of Denmark (NFSD) soon after it was first established in 1966.
In the years following the introduction of the auteur theory and the
films of the New Wave, issues like story structure and dramaturgy
were not on the curriculum. There was a widespread suspicion of
classical ‘Hollywood’ principles, and screenwriting was not something
that was taught during its first decade.
Some critical studies of the state of European cinema have argued
that the ‘auteur culture’ of European film has marginalized screen-
writers and led to a lack of focus on screenwriting and development
(e.g. Finney 1994, 1996). In this article I analyse how the approach
to screenwriting has changed dramatically in Danish film since the
establishment of the NFSD. Focusing on the challenges which faced
the Screenwriting Department from the mid 1970s, the article will
highlight how the educational emphasis on screenwriting has had
an impact on Danish cinema; not only by introducing a basic under-
standing of screenwriting models and tools, but also by developing
a shared language between professions and a common awareness of
the importance of screenwriting as well as successful creative teams.
The approach to screenwriting in Denmark has undergone a major
change from an auteur-oriented Danish film culture with basically
no professional screenwriters to the ‘collaborative auteur’ industry of
today where screenwriting is a recognized craft and an established
profession, and screenwriters are considered important collaborators
in the film-making process.


As has been discussed by a number of scholars, Danish film has under-
gone major changes since the mid-1990s. On a financial and structural
as well as a textual level, the effects of globalization have influenced
the small national Danish film industry (Bondebjerg and Hjort 2001;
Schepelern 2001; Hjort 2005). An ambitious plan of action from the
Danish Film Institute (DFI) helped boost film funding considerably in
the late 1990s, while the new Film Act of 1997 and the reorganization
of the DFI has changed the institutional framework (Mathieu 2006;
Darmer, Mathieu et al. 2007). Major new industry players like Zentropa


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Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness

and Nimbus Film have emerged (Darmer, Pedersen and Brorsen 2007), 1. Not surprisingly, many
film professionals
and the financing of the films has gone from a mainly national focus with a focus on
towards international co-production or co-financing (Brandstrup and screenwriting are
Redvall 2005). On the textual level, Lars von Trier and the Dogma 95 not happy with the
auteur theory. After the
Manifesto has had a great influence on the output of films and their publication of Sarris’s
international positioning (Hjort and MacKenzie 2003; Schepelern 2001), writings, the film
critic Richard Corliss
and a number of prestigious prizes as well as local box office hits have thus replied with a
made audiences turn to Danish films, producing an impressive mar- ‘Screenwriter’s Theory’
in Talking Pictures:
ket share ranging from 24 to 33 per cent of the domestic box office in Screenwriting in the
admissions since 2001 (Danish Film Institute 2002–2009). American Cinema
However, one aspect of this blossoming time for Danish film that 1927–1973. The
debate is still alive in
has not received much attention is how screenwriting has become a recent books like David
respected craft and profession during these years of success. Several Kipen’s The Schreiber
Theory: A Radical
directors have found inspiration and help in working with a screen- Rewrite of American
writer, and this article argues that a crucial reason for the emergence of Film History (2006).
the screenwriter as an important collaborator is the establishment of a
full-time screenwriting department at the NFSD, and consequently an
almost paradigmatic change in the status of storytelling techniques and
dramaturgy. Focusing on the development of the NFSD Screenwriting
Department, this article takes a historical approach using written Danish
sources together with qualitative interviews, to show some of the effects
of teaching basic storytelling tools combined with the deliberate inten-
tion of creating collaborations between directors and screenwriters.


Screenwriting as an independent profession has been under pres-
sure in European cinema since the ideal of the auteur with a focus
on the ‘caméra-stylo’ to express a personal vision was introduced in
the 1950s (Truffaut 1954). American film has always had a stronger
industrial tradition in screenwriting, even though the auteur theory
has also been influential in American film. As argued by Tom Stempel
(2000) in his history of American screenwriting, the general accept-
ance of the theory had grave consequences for screenwriters follow-
ing Andrew Sarris’s translation of the thoughts behind la politique
des auteurs (Sarris 1962) and the publication of his ‘auteur bible’ The
American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–68 (1968). According
to Stempel, one of the charges against the theory is that it created an
inaccurate view of American film history and the role of screenwriters
in it (Stempel 2000: 192).1
The auteur theory does not imply that a director is himself a screen-
writer, necessarily. Many of the directors celebrated by the originators
of the auteur theory worked in the American studio system, where they
managed to give their films a personal signature in spite of changing
terms of production or of different collaborators, some of these being
screenwriters. However, the auteur theory has often been interpreted
as a theory of the director as a writer-director, and, as noted by Steven
Maras when discussing auteur theory in his recent book on the history,


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Eva Novrup Redvall

2. While the director was theory and practice of screenwriting, ‘few issues provoke as much emo-
in focus, director/
novelist teams like tion in screenwriting discourse’ (Maras 2009: 97).
Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt/ Since the establishment of the DFI in 1972, in the institutional frame-
Klaus Rifbjerg and work of Danish cinema directors have been given the main credit as
Bent Christensen/Leif
Panduro thus emerged initiators of films. As described in classical studies of the American film
at the time as noted industry as well as studies of small national cinemas like the Danish one,
by Dan Nissen when
writing on a new wave the structure of Hollywood is of course dramatically different to a small,
in Danish film in the state-subsidized film industry (Bordwell et al. 1985; Hjort 2005). When
1960s (Nissen 2001:
it comes to screenplays, the American industry has a producer-driven
film culture where studios and producers often buy the rights to finished
screenplays and later get a director attached to the project (Taylor 1999;
Wasko 2003), while modern Danish film culture has been based on the
conception that a film springs from the idea and the vision of a director.
As noted by former film consultant Vinca Wiedemann, Danish directors
primarily want to work on films that they have initiated while screenplays
initiated by writers are considered second rate (Wiedemann 2003).
In his analysis of the transition from a classical to a modern Danish
film culture, Ib Bondebjerg has argued that from 1930 to 1960 Danish
film was dominated by a studio system where a number of strong
production companies worked with regular film teams and directors
(Bondebjerg 2005: 56–57). Peter Schepelern has documented how
only six writers wrote more than half of the 350 sound films produced
in those same thirty years (Schepelern 1995a: 19). These writers were
craftsmen who could deliver both original screenplays as well as adap-
tations on a regular basis.
As Bondebjerg (2005) concludes, a lot of very different causes led
to major changes in the film culture of both the United States and
Europe around 1960. Among them, the French New Wave and mod-
ernism in European film led to a focus on the individual artist, or a
privileged position of the director in the production process. This
shifted the power structure in the industry and films were considered
less as factory products and more as individual works of art.
The Danish director Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt has described the New
Wave as an inspiration to move from a view of film as being ‘just’
entertainment to a view of film as a medium where new realizations
could be explored. He says,

We found that the old rules of the craft that we had slavishly
been following were without meaning […] If the content was
vital, then one just had to start telling the story and trust that a
form would appear. The essence could grab an audience without
the use of stiffened conventions.
(Bondebjerg 2005: 85)

This meant that there was no longer the same interest in efficient crafts-
men producing formula films. If directors were looking for collaborating
writers, they were more likely to collaborate with authors from the new
realism in literature who had become interested in film, for example.2


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Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness


School is the only
It was in the middle of this revolt against traditions and conventions official institution
for learning film-
that the National Film School was founded in 1966 in Denmark, with making in Denmark.
I.C. Lauritzen as the head and Theodor Christensen as tutor.3 The first It is a state school,
years were turbulent, since an industry previously based on apprentice- financially supported
by the Danish
ship was suspicious of an art-oriented film school. The National Film Ministry of Cultural
School was also affected by the youthful rebellion of the era. In 1969, Affairs. There are four
study programmes
self-proclaimed ‘filmcommunards’ occupied the School, opposing available: film, TV,
‘elitism’ and demanding that the technical equipment of the School be screenwriting and
made available to ‘the people’ (Philipsen 2005: 39). Bent Christensen animation directing.
The number of students
has described his time as head from 1970 to 1972 as marked by the is approximately 100,
anti-authoritarian actions of the period, and the reaction against all with six directors
and six screenwriters
established systems (Christensen 1991: 30). being accepted every
Jens Ravn took over as head from 1972 to 1974 and has expressed second year. All lines
the thinking behind his structuring of ‘this difficult education between of study are four-year
programmes, except
art and technicality’ as ‘leaving the problem to those who so desper- for the two-year
ately wanted to be talented film directors. Figure it out for yourselves. screenwriting course.
On the website the
Here is a School with a lot on offer, so that you can build your own School is presented
education’ (Ravn 1991: 35). Theodor Christensen had based his cur- as an art school
‘which means that
riculum around long courses where the teaching between the differ- the teaching aims
ent departments was synchronized to allow collaboration between at developing and
specializations, but under Ravn the School organized shorter courses. supporting each
student’s unique talent.
One of the reasons for this was that at the time Filmfonden4 wanted At the same time it is
courses as professional training for the industry. important to us that our
students learn the craft
When Jens Ravn left the School, Henning Camre (who was attached of film-making to ensure
to the School as cinematography tutor) replaced him in 1975. He rein- their future employment
stated the earlier synchronized courses, with each lasting several years. in the professional film
and media industry’
The intention was to foster collaborations between different professional (National Film School
specializations, and to give the students both a theoretical and practical of Denmark 2009).
4. Filmfonden was
knowledge of the entire film-making process. Screenwriting was a part established in 1964
of this. Henning Camre has formulated his ethos in this way: to support Danish
film of artistic and
cultural quality with
The thought that film was made by the cooperation of basic money from a levy on
cinema tickets. When
ingredients: direction, image and sound was hardly revolution- the number of tickets
ary, but [was] at that time new. The auteur-driven Schools in sold declined, the levy
was repealed, and in
Lodz [PWSFTViT5] and Paris [FEMIS6] didn’t teach sound, for 1972 the Danish Film
instance. That took place in a technical university that only dealt Institute was established
with sound as a technological phenomenon. The absence of a to administer state
support for Danish
screenwriting education was striking – there was not an actual film (Schepelern
education in the work with screenplays, that was something the 1995b: 106).
5. Panstwowa Wyzsza
director – as auteur – was expected to already have mastered. Szkola Filmowa
(Camre 2006: 24) Telewizyjna i Teatralna
(the Polish National
Film School).
Shortly after becoming head, Henning Camre hired Mogens Rukov 6. La Fémis (the French
National Film School).
as screenwriting tutor. Together they established an independent
screenwriting education that Camre remembers was met with both
resistance and indulgence: ‘something as fundamental as dramaturgy


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Eva Novrup Redvall

and screenwriting didn’t exist at that time. And it was presumably the
dominant opinion that teaching it wasn’t feasible’ (Camre in Wivel and
Bro 1991: 11). Rukov agrees and believes that the teaching of screen-
writing started at a very bad time, because it was a time of moving
from subjectivity being the ‘law’ together with the idea that nobody
could teach anybody anything, towards an acceptance of the possibil-
ity of basic elements in screenwriting being something that could be
learned (Rukov 1991: 39).
The director Gert Fredholm was a student in the first class of direc-
tors graduating in 1968. He has described his time at the School as
a time of ‘storytelling blindness’ (Fredholm 2006: 18). After Theodor
Christensen had left the School, the more focused analysis of gen-
res and structures disappeared, according to Fredholm, who com-
plains about not having heard of Aristotle or basic dramaturgy at
the School: ‘intuition can be a good thing, but it was not until much
later when Mogens Rukov made his entry at the School that there
started to come words and terms on a dawning film dramaturgy’
(Fredholm 2006: 18).


At the end of the 1970s, in addition to the introduction of storytell-
ing elements into the programmes for directors, shorter standalone
courses on screenwriting were introduced, providing more profes-
sional training for outsiders than the fully integrated courses at the
School. Mogens Kløvedal was among the students of the first courses.
He found them to be amazing at a time when writing (in his opinion)
was regarded as art and thereby reserved for artists, meaning directors
(Kløvedal 1991: 44). Kløvedal graduated from the first official screen-
writing course in 1982 and has described the education as ‘heretic’,
since one of the fundamental teachings was that writing to a great
extent could not be taught. He believes that a lot can be learned and
accentuates that one should not only focus on dramaturgy in this
regard. A crucial part of teaching screenwriting is developing a shared
mindset: ‘a way to read each others’ ideas, so that you can express
yourself in a helping, concrete, and structural manner […] The Film
School has been the midwife of a new way of exchanging knowledge’
(Kløvedal 1991: 44).
As Kløvedal emphasizes, teaching screenwriting is not only about
presenting concrete models and tools that can guide the writing,
but also about creating a shared language for communicating about
stories. One of the thoughts behind the reinstatement of the longer
‘integrated’ courses was to secure the existence of long-term collabo-
rations between specializations, while simultaneously giving all those
specializations a shared basis of knowledge and a shared language
through obligatory courses for all students.
Creating such collaborations has been a cornerstone policy of the
School, but integrating screenwriting has turned out to be one of the


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Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness

major challenges. While it has been natural for directors to use a cin-
ematographer, an editor and a sound engineer on their productions,
screenwriters have not been an immediate choice as collaborators.
Over the years, the School has attempted many strategies in trying
to establish collaborations but, as exemplified by the problems of the
first screenwriting students, it is hard to force directors into directing
screenplays in which they have no faith.
When writing about Lars von Trier’s time at the NFSD in 1979–82,
which was also when the first cohort of writers started on a longer
screenwriting course, Peter Schepelern has described how there was
trouble brewing when von Trier refused to direct a screenplay he was
given during one of the few firm attempts to force the students to col-
laborate. His categorical refusal could have been a cause of expulsion,
but there were no negative consequences since Mogens Rukov – after
having read the screenplay in question – argued that directors want-
ing to direct that particular screenplay ought to be expelled instead
(Schepelern 1997: 42–43).
The anecdote is amusing, but the fact is that establishing collab-
orations with the students of the other departments, especially the
directors, has been a genuine problem for the writing students. This
is partly due to the conviction of many directorial students that ‘real’
directors are writer-directors with no need of assistance on the screen-
play, and partly due to logistical problems in terms of coordinating the
education of the different departments.

At the time the first screenwriting students graduated in 1982, the
screenwriting courses lived a parallel life of their own, separate from
the rest of the School. However, around the same time there was
beginning to be a new awareness in the industry that one might
actually be able to learn something about telling stories. The present
director of the drama department of the Danish public service TV
station Danmarks Radio (DR), Ingolf Gabold, thinks that there was a
minor revolution in the Danish film and TV world when the Swedish
dramaturg Ola Olsson came to the NFSD in 1979. Olsson intro-
duced ideas about story structure and terminology that, according to
Gabold, created the possibility of a shared language between screen-
writers, directors, production designers, cinematographers and the
rest of the team.

Ola Olsson gave us a film and TV dramaturgy that let the stuffy
air out of that room, which a lot of film and TV people had
kept hermetically closed, believing that their creations could
not be put in a formula or be discussed in a professional lan-
guage beyond judgments of taste by their colleagues and the
(Gabold 2006: 9)


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Eva Novrup Redvall

7. In the 1980s, the As a directing student at the School (graduating 1979) and afterwards
output of films was on
average 12.4 films a screenwriting student (graduating 1982), Rumle Hammerich experi-
per year (Bondebjerg enced how Ola Olsson and the British screenwriter Neville Smith were
1997: 15). As put great revelations in the field of screenwriting. Hammerich described it
by two film historians
in 1985, Danish film as a shocking experience to learn that stories have a certain structure
at the time was very like a beginning, a middle and an end since until then the students
depressing, losing
money and getting had been ‘floating around in a magical darkness regarding screenwrit-
bad reviews (Schmidt ing’ (Hammerich 2006: 97).
and Nørrested 1985:
153). Between 2003
Peter Thorsboe, who graduated in 1984 and is now a successful writer
and 2008 the average of TV fiction together with his brother Stig, participated in one of the
Danish output of fiction early short courses and later applied for the longer screenwriting course,
features was 26 films
per year, including which had classes laid out over the whole year so that one could attend
100 per cent Danish- part-time and still maintain paid employment. As Thorsboe states,
financed films as well
as major and minor
there was no prestige in writing films at the time, and for most people
co-productions (Danish screenwriting was something they would do over a summer break out-
Film Institute 2009: 8). side their official careers in literature or journalism. Considering that the
directors ‘of course wanted to write their own films’, Thorsboe was nev-
ertheless impressed by the facilities that the School put at the disposal
of the writing students (Thorsboe 2006: 144–45).
Although the early years of teaching screenwriting were not
marked by fruitful collaborations, important first steps were made
towards establishing a shared language, one of which was the
obligatory dramaturgy class, attended by all other specializations
as well as the screenwriting students. A central conclusion in Heidi
Philipsen’s Ph.D. thesis on the NFSD is that most former students
emphasize having acquired a shared language as one of the most
valuable things learned at the School (Philipsen 2005: 352).


According to Lars Kjeldgaard (graduated 1987), there were numer-
ous problems with the screenwriting courses up through the 1980s
(Kjeldgaard 2007). Indeed, one possibility was eliminating them all
together, since they did not have much to do with the teachings at the
rest of the School. However, it was decided to dramatically re-think
the design of the courses before the decision was made to establish an
independent department for screenwriting in 1988, based on an eight-
een-month curriculum of full-time studies. Lars Kjeldgaard was hired
as an assistant for Mogens Rukov and together with Henning Camre
they decided to make a conscious effort to fight the strong focus on
literature in Danish film, to which they attributed the depressing state
of Danish films made in the 1980s.7
Until the establishment of the Screenwriting Department in 1988
there had been many novelists among the students in the writing
courses, but now a deliberate attempt was made to attract new peo-
ple from advertising agencies, artists or actors. The basic idea was to
‘teach people to surrender themselves to film’ instead of having a


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literary approach to writing films (Kjeldgaard 2007). ‘Show, don’t tell’ 8. As it is satirically
shown in De Unge
became a mantra and, as a supplement to in-house lecture notes about År/The Early Years –
directors ranging from Buñuel to Cassavetes, American screenwriting Erik Nietzsche Part 1
manuals like Syd Field’s Screenplay (1979) were introduced. Kjeldgaard (2007) – directed by
Jacob Thuesen, from
calls the approach a continuation of ideas from the French New Wave a screenplay by Lars
and Italian neo-realism, but a fundamental principle was to identify von Trier that was
inspired by his time at
with ‘great storytellers, no matter where they were’ (Kjeldgaard 2007). the School – a circular
However, because of the introduction of terms like ‘acts’ and ‘gen- dramaturgy was on
the NFSD agenda
res’ some people in the film establishment, according to Kjeldgaard, at the time of the
felt that the teaching was too influenced by thoughts from Hollywood earliest screenwriting
film-making.8 students. Students
of the first class of
The Screenwriting Department launched in 1988 by letting 30 the Screenwriting
applicants participate in a four-week introductory course, before Department in 1988
remember also being
accepting 12 students on to the eighteen-month programme. Nikolaj taught alternatives to
Scherfig, screenwriter and later film consultant from 2003 to 2006, classical, dramaturgical
was among the first 12 students chosen. He found being introduced models but, as one
graduate of the first
to basic and concrete thoughts about elemental storytelling concepts intake has stated,
like plot, character, scenes and conflicts to be a great revelation, but the female students
of the introductory
he also states that the notion of a real director at the time was still course were primarily
that he wrote screenplays himself, or wrote them together with a interested in circular
famous novelist (Scherfig 2006: 158). In tongue-in-cheek fashion dramaturgy which was
considered to be more
Scherfig has described how directors felt threatened by screenwriters, ‘round’ and ‘female’
since they were convinced that they in fact wanted to become direc- while ‘all the others just
thought that dramaturgy
tors; the idea of anybody actually wanting to be a screenwriter was was a bourgeois
too absurd (Scherfig 2006: 159). Scherfig managed to start working Hollywood thing that
impeded the free,
with the director Søren Fauli on his graduation film, and then later artistic will’ (Scherfig
wrote films for the students of 1989–93; he himself started teaching 2006: 156).
at the Screenwriting Department in 1995. He is convinced that the
graduating students of 1988–89 were the starting signal for something
crucial in Danish film in the 1990s and onwards, because they devel-
oped into a whole new professional grouping in Danish film, whose
primary focus was on film story. Nowadays the members of this group
are popular as collaborators with directors (Scherfig 2006: 162).
The so-called ‘golden year’ directing students of the class of
1993 have been highlighted as being the first to be interested in the
screenwriters (Philipsen 2005). Director Thomas Vinterberg had the
impression of the School having previously been dominated by the cin-
ematographers, while he and his directing colleagues now had a new
focus, that of putting the actors and the story around their characters
at the centre of attention (Vinterberg and John 2006: 180). Producer
Bo Ehrhardt who, together with Birgitte Hald, started the production
company Nimbus Film as a base for a number of directors from this
‘golden’ year, believes that the collaborations between directors and
screenwriters at the School did not seriously take off until their year
(Philipsen 2005: 230).
The Dogma 95 Manifesto (von Trier and Vinterberg 1995) and
Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov’s collaborative writing of Festen/
The Celebration (1998) are among the events that, in the late 1990s,


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Eva Novrup Redvall

9. The Bodil award started to make people outside the NFSD aware that something
is the Danish film
award given by interesting was happening in the Screenwriting Department.
Denmark’s National Vinterberg remembers that as a student it was a great insight that
Association of Film there was inspiration to be found there with Lars Kjeldgaard and
Critics (Filmmedarbej-
derforeningen). Mogens Rukov doing interesting research and coming up with con-
Established in 1948, cepts like ‘the natural story’ (Vinterberg and John 2006: 184). The
it is one of the oldest
awards in Europe. concept of ‘the natural story’ can be described as – in its utter banal-
Mogens Rukov shared ity – stating that the physical contexts, plots and rituals that make
the Honorary Bodil
with screenwriters
up every moment of every day are the basic building blocks of film
Anders Thomas drama (Wiedemann 2005: 24). According to Vinterberg, the concept
Jensen and Kim Fupz worked very well with the desire of the directors to give the actors
more room for creating living characters, and together with a hand-
held camera this created the framework for telling stories that gave
actors the opportunity to show what they were worth (Vinterberg
and John 2006: 184).
This concept of the natural story has been influential in Danish
film since its introduction at the School. The former film consultant
Vinca Wiedemann highlights it as important for a change in how to
approach writing stories and finds that by leading to films like The
Celebration it raised the bar for Danish films in general and Danish
screenwriting in particular (Wiedemann 2005: 24). Rukov’s impor-
tance has been acknowledged in Danish film by an honorary Bodil
award in 2003 and he has also become known abroad.9 When the
script tutor Dick Ross in 2002 counted NFSD among the leading film
schools in the world he credited Rukov for a lot of the School’s success
(Ross 2002: 47).
The films made by the directors of the class of 1993 show an inter-
est in writing stories in close collaboration with others. While still at
the School, Vinterberg started working with the screenwriter Bo hr.
Hansen (graduated 1991). Together they wrote his graduation film
Sidste Omgang/Last Round (1993), the much-acclaimed short Drengen
der Gik Baglæns/The Boy Who Walked Backwards (1994) and Vinterberg’s
first feature De Største Helte/The Biggest Heroes (1996). Then Vinterberg
turned to collaborating with his old teacher, Mogens Rukov, with The
Celebration (1998), It’s All About Love (2003) and En Mand Kommer
Hjem/A Man Comes Home (2007).
After having worked with screenwriter Ole Meldgaard (graduated
1991) on his graduation film, director Ole Christian Madsen worked with
Lars. K. Andersen (graduated 1996) on Pizza King (1999), the TV series
Edderkoppen (2000) and the recent box office hit Flammen og Citronen/
Flame & Citron (2008). He also directed screenplays by Mogens Rukov (En
Kærlighedshistorie/Kira’s Reason (2001)), Bo hr. Hansen (Nordkraft/Angels
in Fast Motion (2005)), and Kim Fupz Aakeson (Prag/Prague (2006)). All
screenplays have featured Ole Christian Madsen as co-writer.
Peter Flinth, another director from the same class of 1993, directed
Nikolaj Scherfig’s screenplay for Ørnens Øje/Eye of the Eagle (1997)
while Per Fly, after having directed the puppet film Prop og Berta/Prop
and Berta (2000) from a screenplay by the author Bent Solhof and


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Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness

screenwriter Mikael Olsen (graduated 1987), became famous for his

much acclaimed trilogy Bænken/The Bench (2000), Arven/The Inheritance
(2003), and Drabet/Manslaughter (2005). All three films were developed
in close collaboration with several writers and consultants, among
them Rukov, Kjeldgaard and Kim Leona (graduated 1997).


After a small class in 1994, where only four of just six student writers
graduated, the NFSD decided to expand the number of screenwriting
students considerably from 1996. Poul Nesgaard, who replaced Henning
Camre as head in 1992, explained that this expansion was the result of
an initiative from the Cultural Ministry to create more trainee oppor-
tunities, and that this new funding – combined with money from the
Nordic Council for studies in screenwriting as well as a prestigious sym-
posium – showed a new interest in the screenplay (Vinterberg 1994).
The Screenwriting Department came to the attention of the
national media when Rukov and Kjeldgaard arranged a symposium
in 1995 entitled ‘To Move the Film: The Script’. A number of direc-
tors and writers remember this symposium as a landmark event.
Nikolaj Scherfig describes it as the first sign of public interest in
screenwriters and screenwriting (Scherfig 2006: 163). The film critic
Bo Green Jensen was at the symposium and began his long report
from the event (with guests like Paul Schrader, Richard Price, David
Newman, and Italian co-writer of neo-realist classics, Suso Cecchio
d’Amico) by underlining the fact that it had never really been a secret
that a good screenplay is the basis for a successful film. However,
he continued, the importance of the screenplay had only been truly
recognized in Denmark in the past ten years, but it was still hard to
convince the funding bodies to invest money in giving screenwriters
the peace to work on their screenplays for a substantial amount of
time. (Bo Green Jensen 1995).
The blackboard with the notes from Paul Schrader’s lecture is today
to be found behind glass and framed on the wall of the Screenwriting
Department, and the symposium is accorded great importance by the
current department tutor, Lars Detlefsen (graduated 1997). He views
the symposium and especially Schrader’s visit as a turning point for
the entire School, because it legitimized more craft-oriented work
methods. He says:

People started taking writing seriously instead of just saying ‘art

is free’. After his visit, people really started working after the
rules of art and understanding that it is not something evil which
Hollywood has come up with, but rather something that is true
in the human nature in terms of communicating in a certain way.
It is not about what you can tell. You decide that. It is about the
way you tell it and that you can actually learn in a school.
(Redvall 2007: 34)


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While Ola Olsson began in the 1980s by drawing attention to a basic

dramaturgy, the screenwriter of films like Taxi Driver (1976) and
Raging Bull (1980) helped to draw attention to American film and its
screenwriting tradition in the 1990s.


In the graduation handbook for the eleven students graduating in
1996 there is an excerpt from the talk given by Schrader that, together
with a study trip to New York, was regarded as being among the
highlights for the students that year. In an interview for the news-
paper Information, two of the students described their satisfaction in
graduating at a time when more attention was being directed towards
the screenplay. As Dunja Gry Jensen states:

It is all about film-making as a collaboration. You have to

respect each other’s skills and specialities whether you are an
editor, a screenwriter, or a director. Some directors think that
they have to be able to do it all and are ashamed if they don’t
write the screenplay themselves. But why is that? A screen-
writer’s job is precisely to be at the director’s disposal with his
professional knowledge. And together one can then create a
story that works.
(Michelsen 1996)

Collaboration is also present in their description of the education they

received and of the nature of their work. One of Dunja Gry Jensen’s
colleagues from the class of 1996 is Kim Fupz Aakeson. After having
written Susanne Bier’s domestic box office hit Den Eneste Ene/The One
and Only (1999) he went on to become one of the screenwriting stars
that are known to the public together with Rasmus Heisterberg (gradu-
ated 1999) and the self-taught star of the trade Anders Thomas Jensen.
Aakeson has mostly praise for his time at the School, but he finds that a
basic problem was that he never really got to see any screenplays made
into films. One of the reasons for this was that the directors still did not
want to work with the writers. Aakeson describes a programme where
no formal collaboration was scheduled. There were a few ‘dating-
meetings’ where the writers would present their ideas and the directors
would turn them down, and for the writers this lack of seeing words
become images was problematic (Aakeson 2007b).
Besides the frequently noted scepticism towards the writers and
their craft on the part of the directors, the problem of coordination
between the different departments is also mentioned. The full-time
screenwriting programme started as an eighteen-month course but
soon became – as it remains in 2009 – a two-year course, while the
other specializations are based around four synchronized years where
students collaborate across the courses on small assignments, mid-
term projects and final films. This difference in length is repeatedly


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Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness

pointed out as an elementary obstacle in terms of establishing collab-

orations. A team of directors and writers starts at the same time, but
the writers graduate halfway through the education of the directors. A
new team of writers then starts, but they have a hard time getting the
attention of the ‘older’ directors.
Rasmus Heisterberg is among those who think that the screen-
writing programme ought to be extended to four years. One reason
is that it would increase the possibility of collaboration, and another
is that it would show the necessary respect for the trade where the
hardest thing, according to Heisterberg, is the rewriting and not the
writing. There is no time, he says, to explore this enduring process
in only two years (Heisterberg 2007). The idea of extending the pro-
gramme to at least three years has been discussed on several occa-
sions, but for a number of economic as well as practical reasons this
has not happened. As explained by Lars Detlefsen, the education of
screenwriters is expensive if one is to allocate the teaching capacity
to take each writer and his or her writing seriously. Logistically, the
idea of fostering collaborations with the directors is also challenged
by accepting more writers than directors (Detlefsen 2007). However,
as discussed in a panel on educating screenwriters in Denmark, at an
annual industry seminar in June 2009 at the Danish Film Institute, the
School is currently trying out new paths by initiating collaborations
with directors outside of the School. It is also considering establishing
a one-year Masters course in screenwriting, with a focus on writing
feature films (Detlefsen 2009).


In 1997, the year after Aakeson and his colleagues graduated, the
NFSD tried introducing obligatory collaboration on shorter film
exercises. Marianne Moritzen, now Head of Development in the
Department of Production and Development at the DFI, was in
charge of coordinating the curriculum at the School from 1993 to
1999. She remembers how there were many discussions about how
to improve the relationship between directors and writers. One very
concrete initiative was to help the writers make their texts come alive
by introducing a new method (for Danish film) called ‘readings’. In
simple terms readings are meetings where the screenplay is read
aloud, often using actors in the different parts; though as an inter-
nal work tool in the Screenwriting Department it can also help the
words ‘come alive’ by just using writers.
As described by Moritzen, the use of readings grew out of a struc-
ture that was not working. Since the directors would not work with
them, the writers did not get the opportunity to work with actors and
hear their texts spoken or acted. The School wanted to solve this prob-
lem within a reasonable budget, and one solution was to start collabo-
rating with the Theatre School by using their actors for readings. At
the same time Moritzen and Poul Nesgaard applied for funding from


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the Actors Guild to finance readings with professional actors at fixed

rates, so that it became possible at a reasonable cost to:

… get them around a table, give them a day to play with it and
hear it, and make their text come alive by putting it in the mouth
of an actor […] Suddenly people started to realize what that could
give and then suddenly I think that the directors started listen-
ing. What are the actors suddenly doing with the screenwriters?
(Moritzen 2007)

Thus, specific problems for the writers led to the introduction of a

practical method that is now widely used in the industry. According
to Lars Detlefsen, readings are still commonly used in the NFSD
Screenwriting Department because they work both as a useful tool for
the writer and also as a way of making the writer’s text come alive for
others. Detlefsen believes that few people in the industry know how
to read screenplays, and by making it possible to hear a screenplay
read aloud professionally, readings make the text more attractive and
nourish collaborations (Detlefsen 2007).
Besides being a tool for the writer, readings are thus an attempt
to make screenplays more accessible to people who find it harder to
sense a story on paper. Readings can be seen as yet another attempt to
make the writers visible, and since the class of 2005 the Screenwriting
Department has produced DVDs with readings of texts written by the
graduating students.


In 2005, after the difficulties of establishing writing courses and col-
laborations, Detlefsen and Rukov said that the screenwriting students
were now so popular among the other students that they were almost
over-burdened with dramaturgical assignments. Detlefsen and Rukov
describe it as a move from being stuck in a corner to being suddenly
placed in the spotlight (Philipsen 2005: 260).
The experiences of the students of the class of 2007 indicate that
the directors are now more open to working together with the screen-
writers, in spite of initial difficulties. As graduating screenwriter Maja
Juul Larsen puts it, there are bound to be problems from the outset
because of insecurity and fear on both parts. However, all directors
voluntarily chose to use writers on their mid-term films (Iskov 2007).
The graduating students’ description of their time at the School
gives the impression of a busy schedule with constant deadlines on
both their own projects and projects by the directors. One exercise
on the programme since 2003 is a project where they – in collabora-
tion with the producer students – develop a long series for TV over
the course of an academic term. Television writing is a popular choice
for some students, and a number of students from recent years have
got their first professional assignments writing popular TV series.


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Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness

Many directors regard this as a growing problem, since the relatively

steady employment and attractive salaries currently available in the
TV industry make it hard to convince the best screenwriters to stay in
the less lucrative and less secure film industry (Redvall 2008a). In 2009
screenwriting as a craft and screenwriting for a specific audience is
now more fully incorporated into the NFSD curriculum, and there no
longer seems to be a problem talking about dramaturgy.
Both Danish critics and audiences seem to have appreciated an
improved quality of screenplays in Danish films, and the success of
tight screenwriting collaborations on films by such partners as Nikolaj
Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas
Jensen, Annette K. Olesen and Kim Fupz Aakeson or Per Fly and oth-
ers. The result of this new emphasis on well-crafted dramaturgy in
Danish film overall has also been noted abroad, as when film histo-
rian David Bordwell wrote about ‘a strong sense of narrative desire’ in
Danish film (Bordwell 2004). Three years later, writing about risk and
renewal in Danish cinema, Bordwell commented on the ‘well-carpen-
tered’ screenplays, and called Anders Thomas Jensen ‘one of the finest
script craftsmen in world filmmaking today’ (Bordwell 2007: 17).


However, following the increased focus on craft, and general satis-
faction with the professionalization of the writers, critical voices have
now started to appear warning against the dangers of this develop-
ment. As the film critic Morten Piil wrote on this new ‘canonization
of the writers’ in 1999, it was fruitful to have a number of new writ-
ers from the NFSD Screenwriting Department, but one has to beware
‘barren professionalism’ (Piil 1999). He states that the director needs a
good screenplay, but only the art of the director can make a film into
more than an indication of good intentions on paper. He says:

In the same way, no director automatically becomes less of an

auteur by collaborating with a screenwriter. On the other hand,
this can help him/her crystallize what is in the personality. Much
more cannot with certainty be said about the collaboration of a
director and a screenwriter in general.
(Piil 1999)

Piil is convinced that trained screenwriters are needed, but that it is

naïve to believe that they are the ones who will improve the general
quality of films.
Two years later in 2001, when journalist Bo Tao Michaëlis reviewed
a new Danish book on screenwriting he referred ironically to a recent
lecture, where he says he found himself moved by how much the film
industry apparently owes ‘old Aristotle’, whom he describes almost as
a living person teaching his Poetics at the Film School. He continued to
point to the major difference in dramaturgical approaches in Danish


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Eva Novrup Redvall

film and theatre, noting that while Danish theatre has for a number
of years tried to break out of this ancient Greek way of thought, many
film people have fallen in love with this old model, with a touching
and faithful passion (Michaëlis 2001). By 2001, classical dramaturgi-
cal tools were now so established and commonly used that they, in
the opinion of Michaëlis, cemented a certain conservatism that might
work but which might also obscure more original approaches.
So, after some years of general enthusiasm for efficiently narrated
films, a fear of dramaturgy as a straitjacket began to emerge; the sug-
gestion that it makes it harder for different and more experimental
films to see the light of day. If most people in the industry have learned
the same things about the nature of stories, and now read screenplays
using the same parameters for judging quality, it is hard to go against
the stream. A dominant discourse then becomes hegemonic.
In 2005, when Lars von Trier sharply criticized the current state of
Danish film he began another debate about screenwriting. Ten years
after having attacked the predictability of dramaturgy for being ‘the
golden calf around which we dance’ in the Dogma 95 Manifesto, he
now criticized writers like Kim Fupz Aakeson and Anders Thomas
Jensen for being so good at writing screenplays that are so clear in
their structure and easy to read that it is damaging for films. Von Trier
called for people to have a personal relation to the subjects treated,
and for a discussion of the profession of screenwriting per se:

The problem is that a director who turns to a writer comes with

an idea for something that has more or less of a heart. And one
thing is certain: that when it has been through this very quick
dramaturgical treatment there is no longer a heart. Then it is
extremely superficial.
(von Trier in Schepelern 2005: 28)

The writers were accused of abusing reality by taking all sorts of topics
off the shelf and – in an American fashion – treating them only at a
superficial level.


As implied by Lars von Trier in the above criticism, by 2005 screenwrit-
ers were now an established professional group in Denmark and could
be discussed as such, often in relation to their effect on the director as
auteur or not. Film critic Morten Piil emphasized that a good screenplay
is evidently not enough to create a good film (Piil 1999). The essential
thing, he says, is how every person in the process of making the film
has the right skills and the ability as well as the potential to make them
work in the best way for the collaboration. The NFSD Screenwriting
Department has played an important part in creating, in Denmark,
industrial awareness of the importance of a good screenplay, as well as
in establishing a professional cadre of writers with skills that directors
can call on for inspiration and storytelling assistance.


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Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness

Despite his criticism of screenwriting as a separate specializa-

tion noted above, Lars von Trier has continued to collaborate with
screenwriters since then. Anders Thomas Jensen wrote the initial
screenplay for the controversial thriller Antichrist (2009) based on
von Trier’s original idea for the film, before von Trier then rewrote
the first draft. Few people would claim that involving a screenwriter
(as well as the several consultants that are mentioned in the cred-
its) has made Antichrist any less of a film from the heart and mind
of Lars von Trier; although it might of course have been expressed
differently without the different collaborators attached. And, in con-
trast to von Trier’s statements, successful directors like Susanne Bier,
Per Fly and numerous other Danish directors have stated that they
have found great help in exploring and expressing their personal
vision for films, in collaboration with screenwriters who have com-
plementary skills to theirs (Hjort et al., forthcoming 2010). Indeed, it
is striking how appreciative many directors are of the emergence of
accomplished screenwriters. Henrik Ruben Genz gives considerable
credit to screenwriter Dunjy Gry Jensen for her work on his Karlovy
Vary-winning film Frygtelig Lykkelig/Terribly Happy (2008), stating
that it saved him from ‘three years of despair’ in helping him adapt
Erling Jepsen’s novel.

She cut to the bone, and she only wanted to get to what I
wanted to get to. That is what a good screenwriter does; digs
out what you are looking for or helps find what you cannot see
for yourself.
(Genz, in Redvall, forthcoming 2010)

Genz also pointed out in the same interview that he later ‘re-conquered’
the material, making it his own, but also that he believes he has a
tendency to get too caught up with everything in a potential story to get
anywhere with it directly. Genz’s opinions suggest that, far from making
the material lose its heart, the screenwriter helps the material find its
right form. However, while appreciating the work of screenwriters, Genz
nevertheless also mentions the prevailing tendency to try to fit every-
thing into the same story structure as one of the greatest challenges of
Danish cinema today (Redvall, forthcoming 2010).
Concerned voices have argued recently that the artistic integrity of
the director is threatened by the increased industrial status of the screen-
writer, and after a number of years where the National Film School of
Denmark has been credited as one of the major reasons behind the
recent success of Danish film, the NFSD has also become the target of
criticism (Monggaard 2007; Benner 2008). In a series of articles focusing
on the state of Danish cinema in 2006/7, the School was charged with
having become too oriented towards the industry rather than towards
creating art. Lars Kjeldgaard stated that the storytelling theories of the
Screenwriting Department have been devalued by being regarded as
too general, rather than as aids to creating engaging stories. He would


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Eva Novrup Redvall

like to see a return to an auteur understanding of film production, both

at the School and in the industry (Monggaard 2007: 53). This may seem
reactionary, even retrograde, but as pointed out at the beginning of this
article, auteurism does not necessarily mean the death of the screen-
writer. On the other hand, I would argue that this could be an exciting
time for a more modern sort of Danish auteur film-making, where the
director is the personal driving force and decision-maker on a film,
but who now also has increased opportunities to find accomplished
writers with a broad understanding of film with whom to collaborate.
As Genz has put it, it was ‘a gift’ to get a screenwriter to help him sort
out how to approach the adaptation Terribly Happy (2008).


The director still has the final cut in Danish film. However, besides the
well-known auteur directors, Danish film now also has ‘author-auteurs’
to use the term coined by Richard Corliss when trying to drag extraordi-
nary screenwriters out of their anonymity with his Screenwriter’s Theory
(Corliss 1974). Based on her experiences at the Film School and as film
consultant, in 2007 Vinca Wiedemann argued for the concept of a ‘col-
laborative auteur theory’ that she found unique to Danish film. Projects
are still initiated and driven by the director, but the director collaborates
closely with all the people in the team who to a greater or lesser extent
all have a storytelling function (Vilhelm 2007: 279).
As I have argued in previous articles on the work of director Annette
K. Olesen and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson in making their feature
film Lille Soldat/Little Soldier (2008), this process can be a close and
time-consuming collaboration all the way from an original idea until
a final draft, with a number of other people invited to contribute their
input for the screenplay along the way (Redvall 2008b; Redvall 2009).
There was never any doubt about the director having the final call on
decisions, but the finished film is very much the unique result of two
people with complementary skills seeking a way to overcome some of
their individual professional weaknesses, and so creating something
that they could never have created by themselves.
It is not just practitioners who have challenged the ‘single auteur’
tendency. In Creativity and Constraint in the British Film Industry (1991),
Duncan Petrie analysed British film production during the years
1987–88, concluding that expertise and creative input from collabo-
rators is of great importance to all film-makers, even though critical
focus on the auteur tends to obscure this. He rejected the strict term
of ‘collective authorship’, but called for a greater understanding of the
creative collaborations in film studies (Petrie 1991: 206). Recently more
discussions about different forms of authorship have emerged with
writings on multiple authorship (Gaut 1997), collaboration analysis
(Carringer 2001) and collective authorship (Sellors 2007). Moreover,
more scholars are taking an interest in how production analysis of
the creative processes behind film production can contribute valuable


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Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness

insights into questions of authorship and intentionality, as well as in

the analysis of film texts themselves (Grodal et al. 2005).
As I have attempted to show in this article, the National Film
School of Denmark has for a number of years worked hard to cre-
ate a common understanding for film production, and to teach stu-
dents to collaborate. By 2009, largely as a result of the teachings at
the NFSD and the influence their graduates have had on the Danish
film industry, screenwriters now play a considerably more impor-
tant role in the production process of Danish feature films than they
did formerly. In addition, based on the various forms of fruitful col-
laboration between directors and screenwriters in developing films
together all the way from an original idea, one could argue that
while the auteur notion is still at play in Danish cinema, it is now
in the form of an extended, collaborative version that has invited
screenwriters to take part in – and to take credit for – their creative
contributions. The teachings at the NFSD have created an awareness
of the need for, as well as the existence of, these skilled partners in
crime. And one thing is certain. Discussions in Danish cinema today
are more likely to be about the risk of being blinded by storytelling
than about being blind to storytelling.

Aakeson, K. F. (2007a), ‘Honey, I’m home’, in O. John (ed.), At lære kunsten,
Copenhagen: Aschehoug, pp. 188–93.
—— (2007b), research interview by Eva Novrup Redvall, 9 August.
Antichrist (2009), Wr/Dir: Lars von Trier, Denmark, 104 mins.
Arven/The Inheritance (2003), Wrs: Per Fly, Kim Leona, Mogens Rukov and
Dorte Høgh, Dir: Per Fly, Denmark, 116 mins.
Benner, T. (2008), ‘“Verdens bedste filmskole” i strid modvind’, in Politiken,
17 September.
Bænken/The Bench (2000), Wrs: Kim Leona and Per Fly, Dir: Per Fly, Denmark,
86 mins.
Bondebjerg, I. (2005), Filmen og det moderne, Copenhagen: Gyldendal.
Bondebjerg, I., Andersen, J. and Schepelern, P. (eds) (1997), Dansk Film 1972–97,
Copenhagen: Munksgaard/Rosinante.
Bondebjerg, I. and Hjort, M. (2001), The Danish Directors: Dialogues on a
Contemporary National Cinema, Bristol: Intellect.
Boorman, J., MacDonald, F. and Donohue, W. (eds) (2002), Projections 12:
Film-makers on Film Schools, London: Faber and Faber.
Bordwell, D. (2004), ‘A Strong Sense of Narrative Desire’, FILM, 34,
pp. 24–27.
—— (2007), ‘Risk and Renewal in Danish Cinema’, FILM, 55, pp. 16–19.
Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (1985), The Classical Hollywood
Cinema, New York: Columbia University Press.
Brandstrup, P. G. and Redvall, E. N. (2005), ‘Breaking the Borders: Danish
Co-productions in the 1990s’, in T. Elkington and A. Nestigen (eds),
Transnational Cinema in a Global North, Detroit: Wayne State University,
pp. 141–63.
Bro, A. (ed.) (1991), Filmskolen: De første 25 år, Copenhagen: National Film
School of Denmark.


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Eva Novrup Redvall

Camre, H. (2006), ‘Hvordan var det nu det var’, in O. John (ed.), At lære kuns-
ten, Copenhagen: Aschehoug, pp. 21–25.
Carringer, R. L. (2001), ‘Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship’, in PMLA,
116: 2, pp. 370–79.
Christensen, B. (1991), ‘Da ungdomsoprøret toppede’, in A. Bro (ed.), Filmskolen:
De første 25 år, Copenhagen: National Film School of Denmark, pp. 30–31.
Christensen, R. (2001), ‘Manusforfatterne: Film er noget man skriver’, Politiken,
27 April.
Corliss, R. (1972), The Hollywood Screenwriters, New York: Discus/Avon.
—— (1974), Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema 1927–1973,
New York: Penguin Books.
Danish Film Institute (2002–2009), Facts and Figures, Copenhagen: DFI.
Darmer, P., Mathieu, C., Pedersen, J. S. and Strandvad, S. M. (2007),
‘Professionalisering i den danske filmindustri: Det Danske Filminstitut’,
in J. O. Bærenholdt and J. Sundbo (eds), Oplevelsesøkonomi – Produktion,
Forbrug, Kultur, Copenhagen: Samfundslitteratur, pp. 209–29.
Darmer, P., Pedersen, J. S. and Brorsen, J. P. (2007), ‘Zentropa – i de gyldne
palmers skær’, in J. A. Madsen (ed.), Organisationer i forandring, 5th edn.,
Copenhagen: Handelshøjskolens Forlag, pp. 149–97.
Den Eneste Ene/The One and Only (1999), Wr: Kim Fupz Aakeson, Dir: Susanne
Bier, Denmark, 100 mins.
De Største Helte/The Biggest Heroes (1996), Wrs: Bo hr. Hansen and Thomas
Vinterberg, Dir: Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 90 mins.
Detlefsen, L. (2007), research interview by Eva Novrup Redvall, 21 June.
—— (2009), presentation in panel on the education of screenwriters at The
Fiction Day, 8 June, Copenhagen: Danish Film Institute.
De Unge År/The Early Years – Erik Nietzsche Part 1 (2007), Wr: Lars von Trier
(as Erik Nietzsche), Dir: Jacob Thuesen, Denmark, 92 mins.
Drabet/Manslaughter (2005), Wrs: Per Fly, Kim Leona, Mogens Rukov and
Dorte Høgh, Dir: Per Fly, Denmark, 104 mins.
Drengen der Gik Baglæns/The Boy Who Walked Backwards (1994), Wrs: Bo hr. Hansen
and Thomas Vinterberg, Dir: Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 37 mins.
Edderkoppen (2000), Wrs: Lars Kjeldgaard and Lars K. Andersen, Dir: Ole
Christian Madsen, Denmark, DR, tx. DR1 26/03/2000–30/04/2000, 58 mins
× 6 eps.
En Kærlighedshistorie/Kira’s Reason (2001), Wrs: Ole Christian Madsen and
Mogens Rukov, Dir: Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark, 93 mins.
En Mand Kommer Hjem/A Man Comes Home (2007), Wrs: Thomas Vinterberg,
Mogens Rukov and Morten Kaufmann, Dir: Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark,
97 mins.
Festen/The Celebration (1998), Wrs: Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov,
Dir: Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 106 mins.
Field, S. (1979), Screenplay, New York: Dell.
Finney, A. (1994), The State of European Cinema, London: Cassell.
—— (1996), Developing Feature Films in Europe, London: Routledge.
Flammen & Citronen/Flame & Citron (2008), Wrs: Lars K. Andersen and Ole
Christian Madsen, Dir: Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark, 130 mins.
Fredholm, G. (2006), ‘Erindringsmonolog om Theodor’, in O. John (ed.), At
lære kunsten, Copenhagen: Aschehoug, pp. 13–19.
Frygtelig Lykkelig/Terribly Happy (2008), Wrs: Dunja Gry Jensen and Henrik
Ruben Genz based on novel by Erling Jepsen, Dir: Henrik Ruben Genz,
Denmark, 104 mins.


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Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness

Gabold, I. (2006), ‘Forord’, in P. H. Hansen (ed.), Den dramaturgiske værktøjs-

kasse, Copenhagen: Frydenlund, pp. 9–10.
Gaut, B. (1997), ‘Film Authorship and Collaboration’, in R. Allen and M. Smith
(eds), Film Theory and Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Grodal, T., Larsen, B. and Laursen, I. T. (2005), Visual Authorship: Creativity
and Intentionality in Media, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.
Hammerich, R. (2006), ‘Noget vigtigt man husker’, in O. John (ed.), At lære
kunsten, Copenhagen: Aschehoug, pp. 91–99.
Heisterberg, R. (2007), research interview by Eva Novrup Redvall, 25 July.
Hjort, M. (2005), Small Nation, Global Cinema: The New Danish Cinema,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hjort, M., Jørholt, E. and Redvall, E. N. (eds) (forthcoming 2010), Danish
Directors 2, Bristol: Intellect Press.
Hjort, M. and MacKenzie, S. (2003), Purity and Provocation: Dogma 95, London:
British Film Institute.
Iskov, B. (2007), ‘Filmskoleafgang 2007/Manuskriptlinien’, FILM, 59, pp. 36–38.
It’s All About Love (2003), Wrs: Mogens Rukov, Thomas Vinterberg, Dir:
Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 104 mins.
Jensen, B. G. (1995), ‘Det gode manuskript’, Weekendavisen, 24 February.
John, O. (ed.) (2006), At lære kunsten – 40 år med Filmskolen, Copenhagen:
Kipen, D. (2006), The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film
History, New York: Melville House.
Kjeldgaard, L. (2007), research interview by Eva Novrup Redvall, 13 September.
Kløvedal, M. (1991), ‘Lusk’, in A. Bro (ed.), Filmskolen: De første 25 år,
Copenhagen: National Film School of Denmark, pp. 44–45.
Lille Soldat/Little Soldier (2008), Wrs: Kim Fupz Aakeson, Dir: Annette K.
Olesen, Denmark, 102 mins.
Mathieu, C. (2006), ‘Transforming the Danish Film Field via “Professionalization”,
Penetration and Integration’, Creativity and Innovation Management, 15: 3,
pp. 242–49.
Maras, S. (2009), Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice, London: Wallflower
Michaëlis, B. T. (2001), ‘Filmfortælling: Aristoteles på filmskolen’, Politiken,
1 September.
Michelsen, L. (1996), ‘Billedglade fortællere’, Information, 3 February.
Monggaard, C. (2007), ‘Verdens bedste filmskole?’, in EKKO, 38 (August),
pp. 52–54.
Moritzen, M. (2007), research interview by Eva Novrup Redvall, 3 August.
National Film School of Denmark (2009), ‘About the school’, http://www.
filmskolen.dk. Accessed 22 June 2009.
Nissen, D. (2001), ‘Filmens moderne gennembrud’, in P. Schepelern (ed.),
100 års dansk film, Copenhagen: Rosinante, pp. 199–236.
Nordkraft/Angels in Fast Motion (2005), Wrs: Ole Christian Madsen and Bo Hr.
Hansen based on a novel by Jakob Ejersbo, Dir: Ole Christian Madsen,
Denmark, 120 mins.
Ørnens Øje/Eye of the Eagle (1997), Wr: Nikolaj Scherfig, Dir: Peter Flinth,
Denmark, 91 mins.
Petrie, D. (1991), Creativity and Constraint in the British Film Industry,
New York: St Martin’s Press.
Philipsen, H. (2005), ‘Dansk films nye bølge: afsæt og aftryk fra Den Danske
Filmskole’, Ph.D. thesis, Odense: University of Southern Denmark.


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Eva Novrup Redvall

Piil, M. (1999), ‘Skriverkarlens kanonisering’, Information, 20 January.

Pizza King (1999), Wrs: Ole Christian Madsen, Janus Nabil Bakrawi and Lars
K. Andersen, Dir: Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark, 103 mins.
Prag/Prague (2006), Wrs: Kim Fupz Aakeson and Ole Christian Madsen, Dir:
Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark, 96 mins.
Prop og Berta/Prop and Berta (2000), Wr: Mikael Olsen based on books by Bent
Solhof, Dir: Per Fly, Denmark, 73 mins.
Raging Bull (1980), Wrs: Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, Dir: Martin
Scorsese, USA, 129 mins.
Ravn, J. (1991), ‘Den åbne skole’, in A. Bro (ed.), Filmskolen: De første 25 år,
Copenhagen: National Film School of Denmark, pp. 34–35.
Redvall, E. N. (2007), ‘Ingen elsker avisartikler’, FILM, 59 (September),
pp. 34–35.
—— (2008a), ‘Ny skole for manuskriptskrivning’, Information, 6 October.
—— (2008b), ‘Virkeligheden som råstof og modstand for fiktionen: Om brugen
af research, readings og improvisationer i udarbejdelsen af manuskriptet
til Lille soldat’, Kosmorama, 242, pp. 145–60.
—— (2009), ‘Scriptwriting as a Creative, Collaborative Learning Process of
Problem Finding and Problem Solving’, Mediekultur, 46, pp. 34–55.
—— (forthcoming 2010), ‘Henrik Ruben Genz’, in M. Hjort, E. Jørholt and
E. N. Redvall (eds), Danish Directors 2, Bristol: Intellect Press.
Ross, D. (2002), ‘Dick Ross: Tutor’, in J. Boorman, F. MacDonald and
W. Donohue (eds), Projections 12, London: Faber and Faber, pp. 39–53.
Rukov, M. (1991), ‘Om at lave skole’, in A. Bro (ed.), Filmskolen: De første 25 år,
Copenhagen: National Film School of Denmark, pp. 38–41.
Sarris, A. (1962), ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962’, in Film Culture, 27
(Winter 1962–63). Reproduced in G. Mast, M. Cohen and L. Braudy
(1992), Film Theory and Criticism, New York: Oxford University Press,
pp. 585–605.
Sarris, A. (1968), The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–68,
New York: Dutton.
Schepelern, P. (1995a), ‘Mellem lyst og pligt: Filmkultur og filmkritik
i Danmark’, Medie Kultur, 23 (February), pp. 5–25.
—— (ed.) (1995b), Filmleksikon, Copenhagen: Munksgaard/Rosinante.
—— (1997), Lars von Triers elementer, Copenhagen: Munksgaard/Rosinante.
—— (2001), ‘1990–2000 Internationalisering og dogme’, in P. Schepelern
(ed.), 100 års dansk film, Copenhagen: Rosinante, pp. 305–59.
—— (2005), ‘Drillepinden’, EKKO, 28 (June/July), pp. 20–26.
Scherfig, N. (2006), ‘Erindringer om skandaløse taler og andre anekdoter fra
senfirserne’, in O. John (ed.), At lære kunsten, Copenhagen: Aschehoug,
pp. 153–63.
Schmidt, K. and Nørrested, C. (1985), ‘Har dansk film en fremtid? Dansk film
i 80’erne – image og realiteter, problemer og løsninger’, in Sekvens 1985:
Om Dansk Film, Department of Film Studies, University of Copenhagen,
pp. 153–93.
Sellors, P. C. (2007), ‘Collective Authorship in Film’, in Journal of Aesthetics and
Art Criticism, 65: 3, pp. 263–71.
Sidste Omgang/Last Round (1993), Wr: Bo hr. Hansen, Dir: Thomas Vinterberg,
Denmark, 34 mins.
Stempel, T. (2000), Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film,
New York: Syracuse University Press.
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Taylor, T. (1999), The Big Deal: Hollywood’s Million-Dollar Spec Script Market,
New York: William Morrow.
Thorsboe, P. (2006), ‘Om at lære et håndværk’, in O. John (ed.), At lære
kunsten, Copenhagen: Aschehoug, pp. 142–47.
Truffaut, François (1954), ‘Une certaine tendance du Cinéma Français’, in
Cahiers du Cinéma, 31 (January), pp. 15–28.
Vilhelm, T. (2007), Filmbyen, Copenhagen: Ekstra Bladets Forlag.
Vinterberg, S. (1994), ‘Haves: film og fjernsyn. Ønskes: gode historier’,
Politiken, 4 August.
Vinterberg, T. and John, O. (2006), ‘Samtale’, in O. John (ed.), At lære kunsten,
Copenhagen: Aschehoug, pp. 177–87.
von Trier, Lars and Vinterberg, T. (1995), The Dogme 95 Manifesto, reprinted
in R. Kelly (2000), The Name of this Book is Dogme 95, London: Faber and
Wasko, J. (2003), How Hollywood Works, London: Sage.
Wiedemann, V. (2003), ‘Et manuskript uden instruktør er som en…’, Replikker,
4, pp. 20–21.
—— (2005), ‘Immaculate Conception’, FILM, 41 (February), pp. 24–26.
Wivel, A. and Bro, A. (1991), ‘Interview med Henning Camre’, in A. Bro (ed.),
Filmskolen: De første 25 år, Copenhagen: National Film School of Denmark,
pp. 6–15.

Redvall, E. N. (2010), ‘Teaching screenwriting in a time of storytelling blindness:
the meeting of the auteur and the screenwriting tradition in Danish film-
making’, Journal of Screenwriting 1: 1, pp. 59–81, doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.59/1

Eva Novrup Redvall is Assistant Professor in the Film and Media Studies
Section of the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the
University of Copenhagen. She has contributed to a number of anthologies on
Danish and Nordic film, among them Transnational Cinema in a Global North
(Wayne State University Press, 2005), and she is the co-editor of a new edition
of Danish Directors – Dialogues on a Contemporary National Cinema together
with Mette Hjort and Eva Jørholt (Intellect Press, forthcoming 2010). She is
currently finishing a Ph.D. thesis on creative collaborations behind screen-
writing practices in Danish feature film production. She has been film critic for
the daily newspaper Information since 1999.
Contact: Department of Media, Cognition and Communication, Film and Media
Studies Section, University of Copenhagen.
Phone: +45 – 3532 9437
E-mail: eva@hum.ku.dk


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JOSC_1.1_5_art_Redvall_059-082.indd 82 8/26/09 11:01:53 AM

JOSC 1 (1) pp. 83–97 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting | Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.83/1

Emerson College European Center; Antwerp University;
Université Libre Bruxelles

The protagonist’s
dramatic goals, wants
and needs

Screenwriting manuals tell us that narratives should have a protagonist character design
and that a protagonist should have an important dramatic goal to achieve. protagonist
With respect to this goal, manuals often mention another common distinc- dramatic goal
tion, that between a protagonist’s ‘want’ and ‘need’. Wants are generally want
understood as external and/or conscious dramatic goals, whereas needs need
are defined as internal and/or unconscious dramatic goals. This essay empathy
argues that these tools could be made more powerful if defined in a more
precise way. Whereas wants refer to the goals of characters at the level
of story, needs play at the level of the interaction between plot and real
audience. This re-definition links the wants and needs debate with the
much wider and far more complex study of audience involvement and its
relationships with the value systems expressed in a narrative and those
experienced by a viewer; a subject which stretches far beyond the limits of
a single article.


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Patrick Cattrysse

1. Few exceptions confirm INTRODUCTION

the general rule; see
Bordwell (1985:13ff.; Although screenwriting manuals on the one hand and academic nar-
2006: 247–248), rative studies on the other have both dealt with storytelling, they have
who does also
consider the study of managed to do so by largely ignoring each other for many decades.1 As
screenwriting manuals. a consequence, both practitioners and theoreticians have missed oppor-
2. For more information,
see http://ec.europa. tunities to learn from each other. One can surmise several reasons for
eu/education/ this situation. Screenwriting manuals serve a purpose that is very differ-
policies/educ/ ent from that of narrative studies. As a consequence, the terminology
pdf. Accessed 5 June developed on both the practical and the theoretical side of storytelling
2009. is considerably different. From a practitioner’s point of view, academic
3. For example the
Catholic University of jargon is often considered too sophisticated and not practical. From an
Louvain association, academic’s point of view, the practitioner’s terminology is considered
or the University of
Antwerp Network
imprecise and confusing. However, bridging the gap between theore-
connecting Belgian ticians and practitioners would benefit both parties. Several initiatives
Universities with may assist in achieving that goal, though needless to say there is still
4. I understand narrative a long way to go. For example, the Bologna decision to restructure
studies in its broader European higher education according to the bachelor-master (BA-MA)
post-1980s sense, that
is as ‘post-classical’
structure compels non-university tertiary education institutions (TEIs)
(Herman 1997) or to reinforce the academic component in their objectives.2 At the same
‘contextual’ (Fludernik time, it requires universities to consider more and new aspects of
2005: 44) narrative
studies involving the vocational training. Following the BA-MA Bologna indications, insti-
input from a whole tutional collaborations and networks have been set up between uni-
range of disciplines
such as rhetorics, versity and non-university TEIs.3 In the particular case of screenwriting
pragmatics, cognitive it is worth mentioning the international conference on ‘Re-thinking
studies, psychology, the Screenplay’ held at the University of Leeds in September 2008, to
cultural studies, etc.
be followed by another at the Helsinki University of Art and Design in
September 2009, with a third being planned for 2010. These conferences
and other initiatives could launch (or perhaps re-launch) a discipline
called Screenwriting Studies, where both ‘traditional’ academic research
and practice-oriented research could join forces. More concretely, this
implies that know-how from practical writing classes can encounter
academic narrative studies.4 Such a meeting represents a typical inter-
disciplinary situation with all the complex problems and obstacles asso-
ciated with a clash of different cultures: that is, different mentalities and
attitudes, different intra-disciplinary points of view, differences between
what is commonly known and what is not, different discourses or lan-
guage use such as register and terminologies, etc. Consequently, aca-
demics will have to find ways to communicate better with practitioners,
and the latter will also have to make efforts to meet the former half-
way. In order to bridge the gap between theory and practice, some sort
of new ‘interlingua’ may have to be developed which is sophisticated
enough to meet academic standards of precision, but not so sophisti-
cated as to appear pedantic to the practice-oriented writer or trainer.
Since a language never functions outside specific user contexts, some
common ground will have to be developed in order for that ‘interlingua’
to be used socio-pragmatically and culturally in common (and therefore
more efficient) ways by both practitioners and academics.


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The protagonist’s dramatic goals, wants and needs

It is within this larger context that I venture a very modest con- 5. This is also part of this
‘other’ practitioner’s
tribution. It deals with one, rather widespread, terminological con- culture. Trainers pass
fusion in the normative discussion about protagonists, dramatic on knowledge and
goals, and more specifically in the use of the terms wants and needs. expertise in workshops
such as the European
Screenwriting manuals tell us that narratives should have a protago- programme ‘North
nist and that a protagonist should have an important dramatic goal by Northwest’ (which
included tutors from
to achieve. Why this is so is not always clearly explained but one may University of Southern
assume that it is less difficult to interest audiences in someone rather California) who
‘mention’ this in their
than in something – hence the protagonist of the story – and that it is workshops. Unlike the
easier to interest audiences in someone who wants something than in academic tradition, the
someone who does not want anything; hence the dramatic goal. The oral tradition prevalent
in such workshops
types of problems or dramatic goals protagonists may run into have does not have written
been widely discussed in screenwriting manuals. Dramatic goals can references.
be concrete or abstract, external or internal, short term or long term,
temporary or final, static or dynamic, simple or layered, conscious or
unconscious, etc. With respect to this goal, screenwriting manuals
often mention another common distinction, that between a protago-
nist’s want and need. In what follows, I claim that these tools could
be made more powerful if defined in a more precise way. At the same
time, what follows puts into practice a shift towards the aforemen-
tioned ‘interlingua’ between academic and practitioner, in the hope
that the over-specialized academic and the imprecise practitioner may
begin to find their common ground.


According to oral tradition,5 the terms want and need originated with
screenwriting guru Frank Daniel, but since then several other screen-
writing commentators have applied the terms, adapting them some-
times to their particular needs. Table 1 shows some examples taken from
Trottier (1998: 24–28), Cowgill (1999: 45–46) and McIlrath (2004: 36). I
add two more examples in order to support my argument.
The definitions of want and need given by the sources mentioned
above reveal two recurring parameters: external vs. internal and con-
scious vs. unconscious. One parameter does not necessarily exclude
the other.


Several critics use the concepts want and need to distinguish an exter-
nal goal from an internal one. For example, in The Screenplay: A Blend
of Film Form and Content, Margaret Mehring writes ‘a character can be
driven to achieve one goal while being simultaneously compelled to
seek a very different and conflicting goal. It is this warring between
the external and internal goals that is the essence of great drama’
(Mehring 1990: 195). Mehring associates the want with an outer,
physical struggle and the need with an inner, psychological one. This
distinction is taken up by several other commentators such as Vogler
(1992: 17), who distinguishes a protagonist’s external journey from his


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Patrick Cattrysse

Title Want Need

Gone with the wind (1939) Scarlet (Vivien Leigh) wants Scarlet needs Rhett Butler, who is
(among many other things) not married.
Ashley, who is married.

Casablanca (1942) Rick (Humphrey Bogart) wants Rick needs to discover what hap-
to forget about Paris and bury pened in Paris (in order to regain
himself in Casablanca. his proper self).

Some Like it Hot (1959) Joe (Tony Curtis) wants to cheat Joe needs to love Sugar (‘tell her
Sugar into a relationship. the truth’).

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) wants Kramer needs to become a good
the custody of his son. father.

Romancing the Stone (1984) Joan (Kathleen Turner) wants to Joan needs to find love.
find the stone.

Witness (1985) John Book (Harrison Ford) wants Book needs to relate more com-
to catch the corrupt cops. passionately to others.

Moonstruck (1987) Loretta (Cher) wants to marry Loretta needs to marry Ronny
Johnny because he is a safe bet. whom she loves.

Twins (1988) Vincent Benedict (Danny De Vito) Vincent needs the love of a family.
wants $5 million.

Pretty Woman (1990) Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) Lewis needs to follow his heart.
wants to further his career.

The Devil’s Advocate (1997) Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) Kevin Lomax needs to seek moral
wants to continue his profes- justice and not prevent perverts
sional career as a lawyer who and gangsters from escaping their
never lost a case. rightful punishment.

Traffic (2000) Robert Wakefield wants to fight Robert Wakefield needs to fight
the drugs cartel on an interna- the drugs problem on a family
tional scale as a politico-judicial scale as a medical or a healthcare
problem. problem.
Analysis: the author

Table 1: Protagonists’ wants and needs in Hollywood films.

internal journey, or Lucey (1996: 51ff.) who refers to an A-storyline

which deals with an external problem – winning a law suit, destroying
the monster – and a B-storyline dealing with internal problems, usu-
ally of a psychological nature, such as regaining self-esteem, acquiring
independence or love, etc.
Finally, a similar distinction can be found more recently in Batty
(2006: 12) who explicitly titles his article ‘Wants and Needs: Action
and Emotion in Scripts’. Batty also associates the want with a literal,


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The protagonist’s dramatic goals, wants and needs

physical journey and the need with an internal, emotional one (see
also Batty 2007: 45).


A second group of screenwriting experts associate want and need with
a conscious vs. unconscious dramatic goal. This is believed to be how
Frank Daniel originally understood the concepts. Others have picked
up this definition, such as Robert McKee (1997) who uses want, need
and goal interchangeably, but who indicates that a protagonist may
have a conscious desire and a self-contradictory unconscious desire:
‘the most memorable, fascinating characters tend to have not only a
conscious but an unconscious desire. Although these complex protag-
onists are unaware of their subconscious need, the audience senses it,
perceiving in them an inner contradiction’ (McKee 1997: 138). David
Trottier indicates that if the central character has a conscious goal,
beneath it may loom a great unconscious need:

The need has to do with self-image, or finding love, or living a

better life – whatever the character needs to be truly happy or
fulfilled. This yearning sometimes runs counter to the goal and
sometimes supports or motivates it. The Crisis often brings the
need into full consciousness.
(Trottier 1998: 24)

Finally, in a similar vein, Mark McIlrath (2004: 35) distinguishes between

a want as a conscious objective and a need as an unconscious one. In
agreement with Trottier, he argues that the need may become visible to
the main character in the end. As a consequence, the need may become
the explicit objective in Act 3 (see McIlrath 2006; 2007: 40).


The examples script-experts advance to illustrate their concept of need –
finding love, fighting a low self-image – show how a need defined as
an ‘internal goal’ may easily shift into (or be associated with) a need
defined as an ‘unconscious goal’, even though an internal goal need not
necessarily be unconscious. Physical actions are often associated with
a conscious goal whereas character evolutions are frequently treated
as evolving in an unconscious way. That is why some authors even
combine both parameters to distinguish a want from a need. David
Trottier connects the conscious want with what he calls the ‘Outside/
Action Story’ and the unconscious need with the ‘Inside/Emotional
Story’; ‘usually the need is blocked from within by a character flaw.
This flaw serves as the inner opposition to the inner need. This char-
acter flaw is obvious to the audience because we see the character
hurting people, including himself’ (Trottier 1998: 25). In a similar way,
Cowgill suggests that ‘the character’s need… refers to his unconscious
motivation and comes from a depth of his psyche of which he is often


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ignorant’ (Cowgill 1999: 45), and that ‘what a character needs is often
the psychological key to understanding his inner obstacles’ (Cowgill
1999: 47). Furthermore, irrespective of the parameters used to define
the concepts of want and need, the examples mentioned above show
two more common aspects of the want and need dilemma. Firstly, the
development of a conflict between an inner and an outer or between
a conscious and an unconscious goal can help to establish more psy-
chological depth and to ‘dimensionalize’ characters (Lucey 1996: 52) so
as to avoid the narrative becoming too cartoon-like. Secondly, when
a conflict is written in between the want and the need, it is shown to
the audience that the more protagonists go for their want, the further
away they drift from their need. Hence, applying the want vs. need
terminology, a story with a happy ending is a story where the main
character abandons his want in time to go for his need, whereas a trag-
edy represents a narrative where the main character sticks to his want
and thereby loses his need. A ‘Hollywood happy ending’ then is, as
the joke goes, when the protagonist exchanges his want for his need in
time and therefore ‘deserves’ to obtain his want in the end after all.
In spite of these common features, I would argue that the respec-
tive parameters external vs. internal or conscious vs. unconscious are
not accurate enough to describe the aforementioned examples of
wants and needs in a precise way.


To associate want and need with an external vs. internal goal or journey
appears to be problematic in more than one way. Firstly, a dramatic
goal refers to an intention, an objective. One may therefore assume that
all intentions are internal. That is why beginner screenwriters are often
advised to watch out for intentional writing, and not to write intentions
that readers of the script (e.g. director, actors) will not be able to see,
hear or dramatize, e.g. ‘He wants to buy cigarettes’.
Furthermore, a closer look at the examples given as external vs.
internal goals reveals that to verbalize dramatic goals in narratives is
subject to interpretation. Sometimes the dramatic goal is very clear,
concrete and visual; at other times it is not (and for the sake of my
argument I discount those narratives which do not seem to present a
dramatic goal). Consequently, the external vs. internal nature of the
goal often depends less on the goal itself than on the interpretation or
perception of the goal, that is, on the level of abstraction of its expres-
sion. For example, if we consider The Devil’s Advocate (1997), we could
say that Kevin Lomax’s want is to further his professional ego while
his conflicting need is to develop his moral judgement. In this case,
both want and need would be considered as internal. However, one
could also say that his want is to win the case against the paedophile
while his need is to abandon the defence of the client, in which case
both want and need could be seen as external.


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The protagonist’s dramatic goals, wants and needs

Conflating external and internal ‘goal’ with external or internal

‘journey’ as some critics do (e.g. Mehring 1990, Lucey 1996, Batty
2007) may be even more confusing because the goal generally refers
to the end point of the journey, while the journey (whether external or
internal) refers to the process, i.e. the way(s) to reach that goal, or not,
entirely or partially.
The distinction between an external and an internal journey of a
character is, I suggest, a very useful one (and also a very old one).
Whereas in ‘external journey’ the word ‘journey’ is used in a literal
sense to indicate a real voyage or a series of events and actions, the
‘internal journey’ refers to a metaphorical journey indicating psycho-
logical changes a character may or may not go through. In other words,
the outer and inner ‘journey’ refer to the old distinction between plot
(understood here as the course of events) and character design. Both
plot and character represent the two inseparable sides of the same
dramatic coin. Obviously, between the two, numerous relationships
can and probably should develop.
If the distinction is clear between character change understood (in a
metaphorical way) as an ‘inner journey’ and the external, literal journey,
the concepts want and need – which seem to refer to goals rather than to
journeys – may be confusing here. Also, to the extent that the concepts
internal and external goals describe very well some differences such as
the internal goal ‘to become a better father’ (e.g. Kramer vs. Kramer,
1979), and the external goal ‘to nuke a meteorite’ (e.g. Armageddon,
1998), the terms want and need may not be required at all.


To define want and need as the respectively conscious and unconscious
dramatic goals of the main character is also problematic for more than
one reason. Firstly, several critics (e.g. Trottier 1998, Cowgill 1999,
McIlrath 2007) acknowledge that near the end, the unconscious need
may become conscious. If both the want and the need are conscious,
how does the conscious vs. unconscious parameter help to distinguish
want and need in a precise way?
Secondly, in some examples the need not only becomes conscious
towards the end of or in Act 3, but it is as conscious within the char-
acter’s mind as the want, and from the very beginning. The Devil’s
Advocate (1997) starts with country lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu
Reeves) who has never lost a case and who is defending a child rap-
ist. When, in a not too subtle way, the suspect is shown masturbating
in court while the D.A. is questioning his victim, Lomax is outraged
and asks the judge for a short recess. He runs into the bathroom and
confronts himself in front of the mirror. At that moment, Lomax expe-
riences an inner conflict, made obvious to the audience through the
cliché of having him looking at himself in the mirror: what shall he
do? Follow his want or his need? Go left or right? Continue his list


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of wins in court and let this pervert go free or abandon his client and
allow justice to run its due course? The stakes of the dilemma are
raised because if Lomax abandons his client now, he will be barred
from his profession as a lawyer. Both journeys, both choices, may be
perceived and described as equally external or internal (as mentioned
above) but, above all, in the mind of the protagonist they are both very
conscious from the very beginning. In Some Like it Hot (1959) one may
assume that Joe (Tony Curtis) is also very conscious of the fact that
he should not lie to Sugar, that he should tell her the truth. However,
when Daphne (Jack Lemmon) confronts him with his immoral behav-
iour, Joe(sephine) replies that one cannot make an omelette without
breaking eggs.
Thirdly, when looking at the examples mentioned in screenwrit-
ing manuals it is not always clear how conscious or unconscious pro-
tagonists are about their need. For example, is Scarlett (Gone with the
Wind, 1939) conscious of the fact that she should marry Rhett Butler?
Probably not. Is Rick (Casablanca, 1942) conscious of the fact that he
should discover why Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) abandoned him in Paris?
At first he is not, but as the narrative progresses, he is. In Traffic (2000)
judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) wants to become President
of the United States of America and in order to achieve that goal he
accepts a high profile job to fight the international drugs cartel in
Mexico. This represents his want. However, about thirty minutes into
the movie, the audience discover that Wakefield’s daughter Caroline
(Erika Christensen) is taking all kinds of hard drugs. When the audi-
ence see how one night a boyfriend collapses after an overdose and
she and a couple of her friends dump the boy on the street in front of
a hospital, the audience realize that there is a conflict between what
the main character Wakefield wants to do and what he needs to do.
Wakefield wants to fight drugs on an international scale as a politico-
judicial problem but he needs to tackle the drugs problem at a family
level, i.e. in his own family, and this as a medical healthcare problem.
At that moment, however, Wakefield is not so much unconscious of
his need as entirely unaware of it; he does not experience any inner
conflict. In fact, he is convinced that his daughter is doing as well at
school as at home. It is only forty minutes later when Wakefield dis-
covers his daughter taking drugs in the bathroom that the protagonist
catches up with the level of knowledge of the audience and is con-
fronted with the conflict previously shown to the audience; the con-
flict between his want (to fight drugs on an international scale) and
his need (to fight drugs on a family scale).
A fourth problem is that ‘knowing’ or ‘being conscious’ of a need
that conflicts with a want offers no guarantee of continuous inner dra-
matic conflict in the character. In Casablanca (1942), Rick realizes along
the way that he should hear Ilsa out in order to learn what happened
in Paris, and that inner struggle is dramatized through action (drinking)
and dialogue. However, in Some Like it Hot, Joe knows that he should
not lie to Sugar but he puts this knowledge aside without great difficulty


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until the very end. In The Devil’s Advocate, Kevin Lomax ‘knows’ very 6. Here I adhere to the
common narrato-
well what he should do but after a few seconds he decides not to fol- logical distinction,
low his need and to go for his want by defending the pervert. After generally ignored in
that, the moments of inner conflict are rare even though he runs into screenwriting manuals,
between story (or
an increasing opposition from his need. As the narrative progresses, fabula) understood as
Lomax’s relationship with his religious mother becomes troubled, his the diegetic content
which through some
wife is raped, turns mad and kills herself, and finally Lomax has to act of narration is
commit suicide in order to prevent the antagonist – the Devil himself – represented in a plot
(or sjuzet) understood
from achieving his satanic goal. In Trottier’s (1998) terminology, the as the narrated story.
audience see how Lomax’s inner ‘flaw’ develops into a growing oppo- 7. Obviously not all
sition to his need. It is only at the end of the narrative, when it has narratives present
characters with inner
been shown how the path of his want leads to total loss, that, at least conflicts between
temporarily, the protagonist chooses the path of his need. wants and needs.
For example, in
Finally, if the need is, and remains, unconscious to the charac- one-dimensional hero
ter (as in many gangster movies and crime stories), i.e. if characters stories such as James
find themselves in a dilemma of which one part remains unknown or Bond or Indiana Jones,
the respective wants
unconscious to them, how can there be an inner conflict? The answer and needs coincide.
to that question is simple: there cannot. Still, intuitively screenwriting
manuals recognize a conflict, but to the character that conflict is nei-
ther internal vs. external, nor conscious vs. unconscious. It plays on an
altogether different narrative level.


Some critics already hint at a possible solution to the terminologi-
cal problem. McKee, for example, remarks that while the protago-
nist may be unaware of his subconscious need, the audience sense it
(1997: 138). In a similar way, Trottier signals that whereas the need
may be unconscious, blocked from within by a character flaw, this
character flaw is obvious to the audience (1998: 25). The common
feature that binds the examples mentioned above does not lie in the
conscious or unconscious nature of the character’s want or need, or
in the external or internal nature of it. As we have seen, the conflict
is not always played at the level of the character, that is, at the story
level. However, the conflict does always play at the level of interac-
tion between plot and audience.6 The conflict (if there is one)7 plays
between what a character wants to do and what they should do.
While what the character should or should not do may (or may not)
correspond to a more or less concrete idea within the character at
the story level, what the character needs to do or should do is always
meant to be clear in the hearts and minds of the audience. It is the
audience who judge what a character should or should not do, and
they do that (consciously or unconsciously) on the basis of another
well-known ancient Greek concept called ‘doxa’ (from Plato) or
‘endoxa’ (from Aristotle). Doxa or endoxa refers to the dominant
opinions, norms and values shared by a group of people in a spe-
cific time-space context. Trottier’s ‘flaw’ (1998: 24) already hints at
a moral aspect of the want-need dilemma. If the want deviates from


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8. Another of Frank the reigning endoxa, a moral conflict may arise between the want
Daniel’s concepts (see
Howard 2004: 52ff.)
and the need. If all goes well – that is, if the audience empathize
9. For the sake of clarity with the main character – this conflict may reinforce the ‘hope/fear’8
I need to specify that the audience are experiencing vis-à-vis the protagonist.9 If the
here that the concept
of ‘audience’ refers audience empathize with the main character, they hope that the
to real, empirical protagonist is going to abandon their want and go for their need, but
audiences, not to
imagined ‘implied at the same time they fear that because of reasons such as an inner
readers’ or ‘narratees’ flaw, material profit, etc., the protagonist will choose their want and
as is often the case in thereby lose their need.
structuralist narratology.
If we consider the want-need dilemma as a conflict between the
character and the audience rather than between the character and
herself/himself, this shifts the central focus of the conflict from the
story level to the level of interaction between the plot (as a narrated
story) and the audience. At the story level all kinds of options remain
open: the character may never learn about a conflict between their
want and their need or may learn about it after the audience do, or
they may be informed at the same time as the audience. The character
may be more or less (un)conscious of an inner conflict, feel troubled
by the conflict and act upon it or not. The inner conflict at story level
may play immediately or start only later on.


Does a re-definition of wants and needs solve all possible problems
with respect to dramatic goals? Certainly not, because the concept
of endoxa represents a rather slippery notion which is linked with
another ghost-like idea, the audience. Whereas critics and journal-
ists often like to pretend there are only two types of audiences – the
mass audience and the cinephiles – it is now generally accepted that
there exist many different types of audiences who should be con-
sidered as complex, heterogeneous and ever-changing groups of
Consequently their respective endoxas show not only common
features but also important differences. One may assume therefore
that public expectations about what a character should and should not
do differ accordingly. In other words, redefining the concepts of want
and need as suggested above links the discussion with the interesting
but very complex and quite different problem of audience interpreta-
tion and audience involvement.
Since Plato and Aristotle, scholars in sociology and cultural stud-
ies have of course suggested several mechanisms to describe (en)
doxas in more specific ways. The Greek concept has similarities with
Bakhtin’s theory of ‘heteroglossia’ and Volosinov’s account of ‘mul-
ti-accentuality’ (as in Fiske 1992: 298–299). It also recalls Stanley
Fish’s ‘interpretive communities’ (Fish 1976), Pierre Bourdieu’s study
of taste, ‘field’, ‘capital’ and ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu 1979) and Stuart
Hall’s ‘preferred’, ‘negotiated’ and ‘oppositional’ readings (Hall
1980). What these and other so-called poststructuralist theories have


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in common is the notion that texts do not have one fixed meaning 10. Malicious delight
(trans. the author).
and that different people may ‘read’ texts in different ways – ways 11. See for example
that were not always intended by the writers. Among other fac- Zillmann (1991), Smith
tors, people’s socio-cultural position for example co-determines the (1995), Tan (1996),
Grodal (1997),
interpretation process in different ways (Fiske 1992: 292). In order Coplan (2004), Keen
to illustrate this, Fiske describes an interesting experiment about a (2006) and Keen
group of homeless men who watched the movie Die Hard (1988) on 12. The concept is well
a VCR in their church shelter (1992: 302). These men rarely watched known in structu-
ralist narratology but
television because it generally advocates values such as family life, generally ignored
work and leisure, which are irrelevant to them. Fiske describes how in the world of
these men enthusiastically cheered when the villains destroyed a screenwriters and
screenwriting trainers.
police armoured vehicle and killed a ‘good’ guy, but switched off It refers to the person
the VCR before the end, when the hero and the police force restored to whom the narrator is
law and order and reconfirmed the dominant ideology they so much As the narrator is to be
despised. distinguished from the
Fiske’s anecdote and the aforementioned theories link the discus- flesh and blood writer,
so the narratee must
sion of audience interpretation with that of audience involvement. also not be confused
Instead of rooting for the main character and its dramatic goal, Fiske’s with the flesh and
blood reader/viewer.
viewers experienced what in German is called ‘Schadenfreude’;10 13. See Chatman (1978).
they hoped the protagonist would lose and they turned off the VCR
when he started to win. This also suggests another line of research
that is of interest to this study: the study of narrative empathy and
other types of cognitive-emotional audience engagement with nar-
rative fictions.11 The cognitive-emotional impact of a narrative plays
at different levels. While reading or watching, readers-viewers con-
sciously or unconsciously react to the ways a narrator behaves, the
ways an agent acts at the level of story and the ways the narrator
assigns features to the ‘narratee’.12 Narrators may behave in a sym-
pathetic and agreeable way, but also in sexist, racist, unreliable, and
other ways. These ways may or may not motivate the reader’s or
viewer’s interest in the narrative. As explained above, ‘events’ and
‘existents’13 at the story level may refer to characters wanting things
that are on a par with the reader’s or viewer’s hopes and fears, or
not. And finally the use of any narrator, whether through telling
or showing, not only creates a diegetic world, but also ‘creates’ an
addressee or, in narratological terms, a narratee. The very act of nar-
rating suggests features of a narratee. These features concern what a
narratee does or does not know, likes or dislikes, feels or thinks, etc.
For example, in the novel The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
(1998) the narrating character, Stevens, addresses his narrative to
a ‘you’ in the text, the narratee. When Stevens talks about butler-
ing, he assumes the narratee knows certain things about the subject,
and so does not explain these elements. Stevens also assumes other
items may not be known to the narratee – hence he explains these
things. The same goes for certain assumptions with respect to ‘nor-
mal’ social, political, economical and cultural values or ideas that are
‘taken for granted’ by the narrator. When in Romeo is Bleeding (1993)
the narrating character Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman) is enjoying the


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14. See for example sight through his binoculars of a man having sex with two women,
Lavandier (2005: 43,
45), Iglesias (2005: he addresses the narratee in a direct way:
61ff.), Williams
(2006: 93ff.), etc.
15. See for example Vogler JACK GRIMALDI (V.O.)
(1992) and especially (Chuckles)
Vogler (2007), who
concentrates on the I bet you know what he was thinkin’, don’t ya? You’d have done
story of a hero with a
moral dramatic goal just what he wound up doing, I’ll bet.
and a happy ending.
16. See for example
Armer (1993: 5ff.), Some (actual) viewers of this scene may agree with his supposition
Iglesias (2005: 61ff.), and enjoy the view, others may not.
Lavandier (2005:
44ff.). Even though not all narratives present narratees in such a con-
spicuous way, the examples show that during the actual reading/viewing
process a narratee may partly or entirely correspond with (or differ
from) the actual reader/viewer on an individual as well as a socio-
cultural and political level, in terms of moral and other values, opin-
ions, beliefs, sensibilities, etc. In turn these differences and similarities
may have an impact on different types of empathetic engagement. In
this sense, cognitive narrative studies meet the aforementioned socio-
logical and cultural studies approaches. As Ralf Schneider explains,
‘[the] kind of emotion [that] results from empathy and how intense it
is in each case depends on the recipient’s attitude towards a character,
which is (sic) turn influenced by his or her value system in general’
(Schneider 2005: 136).
Screenwriting manuals do not entirely ignore the problem. Several
authors offer advice with respect to the so-called ‘un-sympathetic’
protagonist and how to increase the chances of obtaining audience
empathy with that character and its goals.14 They suggest turning
this main character into a hero and have him or her meet impossible
challenges; or also assigning ‘positive’ features to the main character
next to the negative ones, and to have other characters in the story
admire the main character; or victimizing this ‘unsympathetic’ main
character and making his or her antagonist(s) even ‘worse’ than (s)
he is, etc. However, most screenwriting manuals focus on audience
empathy with a protagonist and a dramatic goal that corresponds
with what ‘the’ audience would like the main character to do.15 The
re-definition of want and need offered above includes narratives that
contain a character who goes after a goal the audience disagree with.
Why audiences remain interested in watching characters who pursue
something against the audience’s wishes is an interesting question.
Why do audiences continue to watch Scarface (1983)? Or all those
other crime stories and gangster movies for that matter? In order to
experience criminal acts by proxy? Or to wait for that satisfying moment
when the villain finally gets what (s)he deserves?16 The success of
crime stories and gangster movies suggests that a gap between what
a character wants and what an audience feel a character should want
does not necessarily destroy viewer motivation. Fiske’s (1992: 302)
anecdote about the homeless men watching Die Hard on a VCR shows


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at the same time that narratives with conflicting wants and needs hold
some risks, including the risk that the value system of the character
deviates so much from that of the viewer that the viewer abandons the
As suggested at the beginning of this section, these questions
stretch far beyond the limits of a single article. They fit in the even
larger debate about aesthetic pleasure and aesthetic experience.
Audience empathy with one or more characters should be considered
next to other possible viewer motivations for connecting or disconnect-
ing with a narrative. Some viewers may continue watching because of
the choice of actors or actresses, or vice versa. Others may continue
watching because of the music, or the photography or because the
movie was shot in their hometown. Since the point of view adopted
here is that of the screenwriter, the scope should be limited to those
motivations that fall into the working field of the screenwriter.
By way of conclusion, I turn back to the discussion about wants and
needs. It should be clear to screenwriters that they may write conflicts
between what a character wants and what she/he needs according to
an audience. However, to the extent that there is not one homoge-
neous audience, there is not one homogeneous need. What screen-
writers intend does not always translate into what viewers interpret.
One can doubt that the screenwriters of Die Hard intended to write a
conflict between a want and a need with respect to their protagonist
John McClane (Bruce Willis)? And who says that all viewers watching
gangster movies experience a conflict between a want and a need?
What should we think of the huge success of ultra-violent video and
computer games where the dramatic goal of the player-protagonist
consists in murdering as many people as possible as fast as possible?
The links between the value systems of a narrative and those of
a viewer on the one hand, and empathetic viewer engagement on
the other continue to fascinate scholars. Further research will have to
come up with more convincing explanations. The next challenge will
consist in turning those findings into workable writing tools.

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Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis (eds), Culture, Media, Language, London:
Hutchinson, pp. 128–139.
Howard, D. (2004), How to Build a Great Screenplay, New York: St. Martin’s
Keen, S. (2006), ‘A Theory of Narrative Empathy’, in Narrative 14:3, pp. 207–236.
Keen, S. (2007), Empathy and the Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Iglesias, K. (2005), Writing for Emotional Impact, Livermore CA: WingSpan
Ishiguro, Kazuo (1998), The Remains of the Day, New York: Vintage Books.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Wr: Robert Benton, Dir: Robert Benton, US,
105 mins.
Lavandier, Y. (2005), Writing Drama, Cergy Cedex: Le Clown & l’Enfant.
Lucey, P. (1996), Story Sense. Writing Story and Script for Feature Films and
Television, London: McGraw-Hill.
McIlrath, M. (2004), ‘Creative treatments’, ScriptWriter, 17, pp. 34–37.
McIlrath, M. (2006), ‘Beyond Aristotle’, ScriptWriter, 26, pp. 38–42.
McIlrath, M. (2007), ‘Story Patterns’, ScriptWriter, 35, pp. 39–44.
McKee, R. (1997), Story. Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of
Screenwriting, New York: Harper Collins.
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Moonstruck (1987), Wr: John Patrick Shanley, Dir: Norman Jewison, US,
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The protagonist’s dramatic goals, wants and needs

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Scarface (1983), Wr: Oliver Stone, Dir: Brian De Palma, US, 170 mins.
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US, 147 mins.
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Weingrod, Dir: Ivan Reitman, US, 105 mins.
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Screenwriters, Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.
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pp. 34–38.
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Cattrysse, P. (2010), ‘The protagonist’s dramatic goals, wants and needs’,
Journal of Screenwriting 1: 1, pp. 83–97, doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.83/1

Patrick Cattrysse is Head of the Flanders Script Academy (FSA). He is a
researcher and trainer in storytelling and screenwriting at different universities
and film schools, among them the University of Antwerp, the Université Libre
de Bruxelles, Emerson College European Center, the FSA, and the Escuela
Internacional de Cine y Televisión (San Antonio – Cuba). To receive current
information on courses available at the FSA, please email patrick.cattrysse@
telenet.be or visit www.vsa-fsa.org.
Contact: Raamlolaan3, B-3120 Tremelo, België.
E-mail: info@vsa-fsa.org.


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JOSC 1 (1) pp. 99–112 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting | Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.99/1

National Film School, IADT, Dublin

Cyber-Aristotle: towards
a poetics for interactive

Through analysing appropriations of Aristotelian dramatic theory within interactive
interactive digital narratives (Laurel 1991, Hiltunen 2002, Mateas and screenwriting
Stern 2005), this article assesses the merits of Aristotle’s Poetics in pro- poetics
viding a basis for an ‘interactive screenwriting poetics’. From the six com- Aristotle
ponents of tragedy (plot, character, thought, diction, melody, spectacle) to narrative
mimesis and catharsis, these concepts are examined for their value in a architecture
new media context. The hierarchy of the components is challenged and new cyber-drama
formal and material causative relations are explored, using the interactive new media
drama Façade (Mateas and Stern, 2005) as an example. With new dra- digital media
matic configurations emerging (such as spatial plotting and narrative archi-
tecture), the question posed is - to what degree can Aristotelian thought
really aid the interactive screenwriting process? If this approach can not
yield substantial results, what is the alternative?

Irrespective of any new ideas and developments in screenwriting
theory, Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 350 BC) remains the backbone of the


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Jasmina Kallay

1. A webseries is a term most influential guides to the craft of screenwriting. Whether as a

used for a fictional
series that is broadcast foundation from which a screenwriting canon is expanded (e.g. in
online, with episodes Syd Field’s 3-act structure, 1994 passim) or as a loose template for
termed ‘webisodes’, certain dramatic terms (e.g. in Robert McKee’s writing, 1999 pas-
and of a much shorter
duration than usual TV sim), Aristotle’s pronouncements on drama are absorbed by bud-
series episodes (the ding screenwriters even when they are unaware of this theoretical
length varies and is
not preordained, but lineage. In more overt referencing to Aristotle, we have Michael
usually ranges from 2 Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters (2002) and Ari Hiltunen’s
min to 10 min).
Aristotle in Hollywood (2002). So, it is not a surprise that in the still
nascent field of interactive screenwriting Aristotle has also emerged
as a touchstone, with the result that there is a degree of projec-
tion of the Aristotelian dramatic canon even when it is not wholly
It is the aim of this article to present a critical overview of the vari-
ous incorporations of Aristotle’s work within interactive narrative for-
mats, from Brenda Laurel’s groundbreaking model (1991) to Mateas
and Stern’s re-imagining of the very same model (2005). Secondly,
I will be evaluating their potential to serve as a universal ‘interactive
poetics’, meaning – can they serve as a ‘how to’ template for inter-
active screenwriters and generate satisfying interactive drama? In
the process of this appraisal, I will identify aspects of the Poetics that
have been neglected – mimesis and catharsis – which may yield use-
ful additions to the work-in-progress towards a theoretical framework
of interactive screenwriting. The importance of laying the theoretical
groundwork in this area of screenwriting is crucial in order for the
screenwriter to have a clear understanding of the dramatic techniques
and creative processes involved in writing interactive narrative formats
such as computer games, webseries1 or interactive film/drama.
Aristotle-derived screenwriting theory may seem like a natural
starting point for this comparative exploration. However, the ideas
in most of these screenwriting books are too diluted, recycled and
mutated to be able to truly reflect the essentials of the Poetics, and may
therefore be misleading. A case in point is Tierno’s above-cited book
(2002), in which he proceeds to merge peripeteia (reversal of action)
with metabasis (reversal of fortune) and mistakenly assumes that a
tragic ending is a given in a tragedy (Tierno 2002: 75–82, 105–108).
Tierno’s simplistic interpretation of catharsis as emotional purg-
ing is more forgivable, as this has become a widely held reading of
catharsis in most screenwriting manuals. However, his equating of
epic film, in the context of The Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy
(2001, 2002, 2003), with epic poetry (Tierno 2002: 47–54) points to a
superficial identification of a shared adjective in both categories, and
does not take into account Aristotle’s differentiating point regarding
epic poetry and drama: epic poetry does not contain opsis (special
effects). Overall, Tierno’s central assertion that the best screenplays
are driven by one action (action-idea) has translated into his whole
approach to dissecting the Poetics; the idea of Aristotle being relevant
to today’s screenwriters dominates his writing rather than the notion


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Cyber-Aristotle: towards a poetics for interactive screenwriting

of a stringent analysis. The general picture, not the details, seems to 2. Although this debate
is now losing steam,
be the guiding light of this work. for the past ten years
Alternatively, attempts by (non-interactive) screenwriting theorists or so, the crux of it
to cover developments in the new media arena can be equally was that the ludologists
(Gonzalo Frasca,
misguiding, as Hiltunen’s example demonstrates. In Aristotle in Jesper Juul) defended
Hollywood (2002), Ari Hiltunen broadens his industry-perspective the game-play as the
main attraction in a
of the value of classical storytelling to include cyberspace. While game, and minimised
he rightly recognises the inevitable media industry shift towards the importance of the
narrative, whereas the
interactive forms of drama, when analysing specific examples, there narratologists (Janet
is no attempt to provide a new, re-thought Poetics that could be Murray, Marie-Laure
adapted to the new digital media. Instead, Hiltunen presents a Ryan) defended the
story as being key to
superficial reading of the narrative aspects of a game like Doom attracting the gamer
(1993) in order to prove his point regarding the universality of to a game and
motivating the game-
Aristotle’s dictum (Hiltunen 2002: 111–122). The book’s arguments play. Irrespective of
are further weakened by the inclusion of Joseph Campbell’s mono- this debate, however,
myth and Propp’s mathematical organisation of folk tale plots with- one undisputed
development has been
out linking them to Aristotle’s work in a coherent and meaningful the emergence of more
way. There are two points that are significant, though. Firstly, in sophisticated narratives
in games in recent
one chapter, Hiltunen steps away from drama to focus on sport and years.
its mass appeal, and makes the claim that sporting encounters that 3. The terms for these
feature some type of ongoing background story (such as one built six components can
vary from translation to
around two teams’ long-running rivalry) provide greater pleasure translation of Aristotle’s
for the reader/viewer (Hiltunen 2002: 39). Unfortunately, this focus Poetics, however, here
I am quoting the terms
on sport is not tied into the analysis of computer games and so that Brenda Laurel
does not explore the balance between the ludic (gaming) and the uses. While ‘character’
is self-explanatory
narrative aspects, which is one of the key unreconciled aspects of in dramatic terms,
interactive narratives, especially in computer games.2 The second it’s important to note
point relates to Hiltunen’s interpretation of what Aristotle means by that the term action
here refers to plot,
‘proper pleasure’ derived from drama, and Hiltunen distinguishes and ‘thought’ can be
four dimensions that provide pleasure: emotional, moral, intellectual likened to the idea or
premise of a dramatic
and symbolic (Hiltunen 2002: 47). It is to the intellectual dimension piece. Melody
that I will be returning when discussing catharsis, because while and spectacle are
Hiltunen recognises that catharsis can not be fully explained accord- explained in greater
detail within the article.
ing to the Poetics, he does provide useful links between these four 4. Aristotle’s Poetics
dimensions and catharsis. define tragedy in
section 4, ranking them
in section 4.4 – ‘plot is
THE ARISTOTELIAN DRAMATIC MODEL the source...; character
is second [etc.]’
Brenda Laurel’s influential Computers as Theater (1991) was one of the (Aristotle [c.350BC]
first academic works to recognise the potential uses of computer tech- 1996: 12).
nology in drama and creative work, as long as dramatists and artists
rather than computer programmers engaged with the medium. More
significantly, Laurel’s adaptation of Aristotle’s six components of drama
(action, character, thought, language, melody, spectacle),3 while not
without its problems, provides a stimulating basis for exploring Aristotle
in cyber-drama (2003: 565). Laurel begins by establishing the causative
links between the six components. The hierarchy Aristotle imposed
is not accidental,4 and Laurel develops a model from this, governed
by a two-way system of causation: material and formative. A useful


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Jasmina Kallay

metaphor that Mateas uses for this model takes the building of a house
as its example, and likens the material cause to the building materials
whereas the formal cause would be the architectural drawing of the
house (2004: 23). Applying this to the dramatic context, action (i.e. plot)
becomes the main formative cause, and determines the form (comedy,
tragedy) that the story takes. The formative line of causation thus fol-
lows Aristotle’s six components sequentially in a line from action at
the top, down towards spectacle at the bottom. The material causa-
tive chain builds in the opposite way, in ascending order; from bottom
to top. The basic material out of which the story is told is contained
within the spectacle (or the visual, the mise-en-scène). So, in order
for the story to be told it needs characters, who in turn need diction to
express their thoughts and the aural and visual elements provide the
material means for the drama to unfold. If this is the model from which
successful, satisfying drama is generated, the question Laurel was curi-
ous to explore was whether this same model could prove as fruitful in
generating interactive drama.
Assessing each individual drama component in an interactive
context, Laurel concludes that action is now a collaborative process
between the user and the computer; character is similarly split into the
human and computer correlative; thought influences process in the
computer system as well as shaping the drama, and language com-
prises verbal and non-verbal signs, being any of the available means
of communicating/interacting with the computer (2003: 565). Thus far,
the causative links appear intact in the interactive sphere. However, it
is at the level of melody and spectacle that Laurel modifies the terms
more significantly to allow for a broader understanding of these con-
cepts and in the process the causative clarity comes into question. In
screenwriting terms, melody is understood to denote the aural, from
speech to sound effects and spectacle is understood to be the visual dis-
play, from mise-en-scène to special effects. Laurel herself accepts these
definitions to be the norm (2003: 565). However, Laurel’s premise is
based on the aforementioned model of categories, which are interde-
pendent in both upward and downward directions. Therefore, Laurel
asserts that if melody builds on the material of spectacle (as in what is
seen), then non-diegetic sound can not be included, which does not
make sense (even from a classical or non-interactive screenwriting
point of view). Laurel then goes further and transforms melody into
‘pattern’, which now signifies any sensory pattern that is perceived.
More problematically, spectacle is turned into ‘enactment’, exhibiting
every sensory dimension, ‘visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile, and
potentially all others’ (2003: 565). This widening of spectacle (which by
Aristotle’s admission is the least significant of the six components of
drama) to now mean enactment, is quite illogical. According to Laurel,
enactment encompasses the way the action is represented, meaning
that the modes of interaction now fall under this category. The way
the gamer navigates the gameworld and physically controls his ava-
tar is both kinesthetic and tactile. Yet this interaction surely overlaps


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Cyber-Aristotle: towards a poetics for interactive screenwriting

with action, the first category, which means the clear causative chain is 5. AI–generated dialogue
is commonplace in
broken. Following this line of thought, enactment would hold a higher gaming software,
place in the interactive hierarchy of dramatic building, meaning that whereby artificial
Laurel’s point challenges the ordering of the components, which I intelligence
programming is
will address within the re-imagining of Laurel’s model by Mateas and used to create the
Stern (2005). impression of real
time, spontaneous
Having laid out Laurel’s computer-friendly reading of Aristotle in dialogue. This kind
its theoretical isolation, the natural question is – how does one apply of programming has
its limitations, as it
this? What are the steps from this model to writing a synopsis for a can not sustain itself
computer game or an episode of a webseries? for any long stretches
So far, Laurel’s theory has inspired Michael Mateas and Andrew of conversation
without revealing its
Stern to create Façade (2005), an interactive drama that was computerised origin.
specifically designed with non-gaming and non-technologically 6. A cutscene is the only
cinematic element
aware users in mind. Taking its narrative cue from Edward Albee’s in a game, which is
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962), Façade invites the player to a inserted as a filmed
dinner with his/her ‘old’ friends Trip and Grace, whose marriage sequence within the
game to either explain
has hit a rough patch. Interactions with the couple throughout the some backstory or
night (ranging from the player’s typed sentences, Trip and Grace’s provide motivation for
the next stage of the
AI-generated5 dialogue and displays of affection such as kissing and game. The cutscene
hugging) will affect the future of their marriage. What makes Façade is there to be viewed,
so innovative is its positioning between a game and a webseries not interacted with;
therefore its dialogue is
in the interactive narrative range. The fact that the player enters pre-recorded and can
the narrative universe and participates as a character makes it more not be interrupted by
the gamer.
game-like, as they have the kind of agency games afford, yet the
genre, focussing on relationships, is closer to the webseries scape.
In addition, the AI dialogue is far more sophisticated than common
in-game dialogue (excepting dialogue in cutscene sequences).6
Mateas also summarized the experience of creating Façade and
formulated his theoretical approach in A Preliminary Poetics for
Interactive Drama and Games (2004). Laurel’s re-thinking of Aristotle’s
model serves as the basis for Mateas’ preliminary poetics, with user
agency providing a crucial new component.
The formal cause is now no longer just at the level of the writer’s
envisioning of the plot and how that plan manifests itself down to the
other components; the user’s choice of how to interact/play the story
creates another layer of formal cause - ‘user intention’ - that then
shapes the subsequent components. Equally, the material causes
become ‘material for action’ in the user’s hands. To put it crudely, as
an interactive screenwriter you are no longer just in charge of devis-
ing the plot and creating the characters, you are also responsible for
the user’s actions. This might sound like an impossible task; as if it
were not challenging enough to write a compelling drama, how does
one predict a player’s behaviour and choices? To answer this we must
first address the meaning of agency in this context.
Mateas draws from Janet Murray’s definition of agency (Murray
1997), which she identifies as one of three dimensions of interactivity,
along with immersion and transformation. According to Murray,
agency is not to be mistaken for mere activity, such as the clicking


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Jasmina Kallay

of the mouse or navigating the computer game interface; it is instead

about meaningful action. The gamer needs to feel their actions have
real consequences at the story level and what they do has a real,
tangible, visible impact in the game world. Otherwise, agency becomes
an arbitrary dimension, something to tinker with, such as moving
objects and communicating with non-playing characters (NPCs),
but which ultimately has no deeper meaning. A case in point is the
kind of agency instigated by webseries (e.g. Sofia’s Diary 2007); when
performed from outside the story world (as an observer rather than
participant) the act of agency is limiting and wears its illusory nature
on its cuffs. For instance, when asked to choose which course of action
the protagonist Sofia should take (e.g. go to a party or stay at home
and study) the predictable answer (going to the party, as it is the only
option that is likely to generate interesting drama) demonstrates the
predetermined nature of the plotting and takes away the pleasure of
influencing the story world.
Mateas distinguishes Murray’s approach as phenomenological –
‘describing what it feels like to participate in an interactive story’
(2004: 22, original emphasis) – as opposed to Aristotle’s structural
approach, yet in order for an interactive poetics to be viable in
a practical sense, it has to be able to integrate agency, immersion
and transformation. Of the three interactivity elements identified by
Murray, Mateas focuses on agency, translating Aristotle’s primacy
of action into a primacy of agency. Mateas advises that for the user
to be prompted to take action, ‘the interface must in some sense
“cry out” for the action to be taken’ (2004: 24-25). The technique
to deploy in creating this sort of an interacting lure is the creation
of affordances or constraints. Because constraint has a negative
connotation of limiting the player’s experience, Mateas settles for
the term ‘affordance’. These affordances, which can be as simple as
prompting the user to press a switch in a room, open a drawer, pick
up a book or help an NPC, become the user’s material causes for
the action, or the building material equivalents. The user’s under-
standing of the form, i.e. what is expected of him within the game
world, constitutes the user’s formal cause, which shapes the way
he interacts with the environment. In Mateas’s words, ‘a player will
experience agency when there is a balance between the material and
formal constraints’ (2004: 25).
The addition of agency to the dramatic model is both necessary
and clear, but what is questionable is the role assigned to material
affordances. The setting and objects found within a game world, for
instance, would appear to play a far more important role than that
suggested by the relegated bottom category of enactment (the category
they fit according to Laurel’s revamped spectacle).
In Game Design as Narrative Architecture (2004), Henry Jenkins
rightly points out that in the interactive context of navigable spaces,
spatial development supplants plot development as the main nar-
rative trajectory, and storytellers now become ‘narrative architects’


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Cyber-Aristotle: towards a poetics for interactive screenwriting

(2004: 121). This is a novel way of thinking for someone coming to 7. In the absence of a
universally agreed
this field from ‘traditional’ screenwriting, and offers a useful way of term for viewers/users
entering the mental processes of interactive screenwriting. of interactive content
Jenkins’s concept of narrative architecture underlines the need to (webseries, computer
games, etc), ‘interactor’
reassess the position of setting and objects in the enactment rank. at least denotes a more
Alert to this discrepancy, Tomaszewski and Binsted have critiqued precise nature of the
active participation
both Laurel’s (1991) and Mateas and Stern’s (2005) models in their with the content.
A Reconstructed Neo-Aristotelian Theory of Interactive Narrative (2006).
They point out that objects ‘play an increasingly important aspect of
computer-based interactive drama since they are often the means
through which the player can affect the action’ and go so far to
liken the game world’s objects ‘within the same narrative context as
characters’ (Tomaszewski and Binsted 2006: 3–4). To accommo-
date this difference in status, the authors place ‘setting’ alongside
‘character’ in their table, below ‘action’, after which they reinstate
Aristotle’s notions of object, manner and medium, which replace the
other categories of Laurel and Mateas’ models. However, the authors
do not venture further from their discovery vis-à-vis the setting and
its revised position within the model. They have come up with a
valid new positioning for setting, recognising its significance in both
plotting and character development in an interactive context, but the
full implications of how all the other interrelationships within the
model would now work are not explored.
The relevance of this model, given the modifications and variations
that have been made, is perhaps in question. It is possible that a new
model is needed, a question I will return to in the conclusion.


In the above cited works on interactive screenwriting, it is Aristotle’s six
components of drama that take centre stage, and yet what is notably
absent from these writings is a consideration of Aristotle’s concepts of
mimesis and catharsis, which could open up new perspectives on the
process of interactive screenwriting.
Paul Ricoeur, throughout his extensive work on narrative, reminds
us of the significance of the mimetic quality – mimesis, or imitation of
action, he says, is ‘the very definition he (Aristotle) gives of the nar-
rative’ (Wood 1991: 28). Following on from this claim and picking
up on the active form of the verb employed (mimesis), David Carr
asserts that ‘(n)arrative mimesis for Ricoeur is not reproduction but
production, invention’ (Wood 1991: 170). In this productive context
Ricoeur equates narrative with metaphor as sites of new creation; if
metaphor is ‘the capacity of “seeing as”… the narrative activity of
story-telling opens to us the realm of the “as if”’ (Wood 1991: 171).
Transplanted to an interactive setting this interpretation of mimesis
fits perfectly into the concept of an interactor’s7 behaviour. A gamer
assumes an avatar identity and while negotiating the formal and
material constraints, they are essentially behaving ‘as if’ they were the


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Jasmina Kallay

character. The formal constraint means that the situations the gamer
encounters are preordained, which would place this on a reproduc-
tion rather than production level. However, how the gamer positions
himself vis-à-vis this situation is a production and an invention; it is
something that is unique to each gamer and indeed in each replay.
This is the transformative aspect of interactivity – the infinite variation
that each interaction prompts, unique and never to be repeated.
The ‘as if’ concept also happens to be a currency in cogni-
tive behavioural psychology, courtesy of George Kelly’s research
into corrective behavioural exercises (Kelly 1991), inspired by Otto
Vaihinger’s philosophy based on the same ‘as if’ credo. Kelly found
that by encouraging patients to behave (in a structured and guided
manner) ‘as if’ they were something other than their usual self, he
could help them access new emotional states and unblock emotional
and psychological problems. By prompting an ‘as if’ mode of behav-
iour in an interactive context, it follows that a psycho-emotional
response can be elicited, which becomes relevant when analysing the
possibility of catharsis in interactive narratives.
Aristotle did not fully elucidate the meaning of catharsis, which con-
tinues to cause a certain degree of contradictory interpretations. The
common interpretation, which dominates screenwriting manuals, is
that of purgation in the metaphoric sense, of the build-up of emotions
caused by the dramatic incidents (although this is a point that is
refuted by Aristotelian scholars such as Golden (1992) and Belfiore
(1992)). A less simplistic take on catharsis explains it as the culmination
of the emotions of pity, hope and fear. Its function can be summed
up as a psychotherapeutic release of pent-up negative emotions such
as anger, frustration and stress, which then get released along with
the emotions stirred up as a direct response to the drama. And while
most components of drama have been satisfactorily identified within
interactive narrative formats, catharsis appears resistant to interactive
narrative, and is deemed to be inapplicable by such scholars as Janet
Murray (1997).
In her landmark work on cyber-narratives, Hamlet on the Holodeck
(1997), Murray makes a sweeping statement on the future of digital
narratives; ‘… in order for electronic narrative to mature, it must be
able to encompass tragedy as well’ (Murray 1997: 175). Yet this seems
an insurmountable obstacle, as tragedy necessitates catharsis, and
Murray in the same breath bemoans the impossibility of catharsis ‘in a
medium that resists closure’ (Murray 1997: 175). From this we can glean
that Murray, too, subscribes to the ‘final purge’ version of catharsis,
which would appear contradictory in a medium that invites continuous
re-engagement with the same narrative (e.g. multiple replays). So, is
catharsis impossible as a potential interactive screenwriting ingredient?
Laurel takes up Murray’s third aspect of interactivity, transformation
(in the sense of personal transformation, where the user is changed
emotionally and/or psychologically as a result of interacting), as com-
ing closest to embodying catharsis, but does not elaborate on this


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Cyber-Aristotle: towards a poetics for interactive screenwriting

connection to make a wider-reaching, stand-alone argument on 8. Jenkins explains

micronarrative as ‘the
catharsis (2003: 20). localized incident’
Examining the material causes of catharsis – the emotions of pity, in gaming, a small
hope and fear – raises the question whether interactive narratives such narrative unit (2004:
as games, dramas like Façade or webseries are capable of triggering the
same intensity of emotion that a feature screenwriter hopes to deliver
with his script (and fears he may not be able to). However, according
to Aki Järvinen, emotions are very much part of the gaming experience.
In Understanding Video Games as Emotional Experiences (2009) he argues
that there needs to be greater attention paid to the different emotional
experiences involved in gaming, and calls for more psychology-oriented
research in the field. Järvinen identifies a number of categories of emotional
experiences: prospect-based emotions; fortunes-of-others emotions;
attribution emotions; attraction emotions; well-being emotions; and a
subcategory covering variables affecting intensity of emotions which
spans any modalities not included in the main categories (2009: 90–92).
This classification of emotions is an intriguing proposal; one that mer-
its closer study. For the purposes of this enquiry, however, I suggest
that ‘prospect-based emotions’ are of most relevance to the Aristotelian
line of thought, as they deal with emotions triggered by events. This
might be emotions linked with the achievement of a perceived goal,
for example, and which run the gamut from hope, fear and satisfaction
to shock, surprise and relief. This means that catharsis can not be anti-
thetical to interactive narrative, given that there are emotions involved.
While prospect-based emotions may not be comparable to the emotions
felt during the viewing of a film, a certain kind of catharsis becomes
achievable as a release of the prospect-based emotions occurs. Järvinen
sounds a note of caution about the different responses that vary across
different genres (2009: 90–92). He cites the example of the story-driven
game where the key emotion is providing anticipation of the unknown
outcome (e.g. Myst 1991) as opposed to a sports game where from the
outset the desired outcome is known in complete detail (e.g. Football
Manager 2005). This genre sensitivity could provide an illuminating
path to reduce the, at times, overwhelming complexity of interactive
But firstly a more specific rendition of interactive catharsis is
needed. In addition to Järvinen’s proposals, Jenkins’s theory of
narrative architecture provides a useful concept of the micronarrative8
as the segment that deserves most attention within the interactive
narrative format, whether that is a game level or a webseries episode
(2004: 125). With the absence of a cohesive, time-limited overarching
storyline in many interactive narratives, the closest to structured
narrative (including closure) to which an interactive format comes to is
within the micronarrative. So within a micronarrative ‘mini-cathartic
moments’ can be found, as releases of the prospect-based emotions
when a mini-goal has been achieved and obstacles overcome. Taking
the genre distinction as shaping the type of emotional experience
(which can be read as a formal cause), we could also study individual


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Jasmina Kallay

gaming/webseries/interactive film examples in order to ascertain the

difference in the emotions and the difference in the cathartic moments
(which might be termed cathartic variations). This is not unlike
traditional genre distinctions in film and TV drama (e.g. the emotions
and catharsis in a political thriller differ from those in a romance), and
genre studies may well assist in the study of the still developing digital
media field, where the question of genre is very much a moot point.
Emotions are not the only potential key to unlocking the cathartic
equivalent in interactive narratives. In Aristotle in Hollywood, Hiltunen
identifies ‘the intellectual’ as one of the four dimensions of the ‘proper
pleasure’ derived from drama (Hiltunen 2002: 47). The intellectual in
this interpretation does not refer to ‘high-brow’ cerebral content, but
rather to our ability to cognitively process language and enactment in
order to understand the drama. From this cognitive ability Hiltunen
stretches the point to cover the pleasure derived from deciphering the
mystery of the story, or the intellectual ‘puzzle’. This hypothesis taps
into the work of Leon Golden, whom Elizabeth Belfiore recognises as
the ‘single most influential living authority on Aristotle’ (Belfiore 1992:
1). She credits Golden for spreading the idea of the cognitive/intel-
lectual source of catharsis; ‘he argues… that katharsis is “that moment
of insight which arises out of the audience’s climactic intellectual,
emotional and spiritual enlightenment”’ (Belfiore 1992: 1). Given the
ludic component of games, where mystery and puzzle solving are
often more important than the storyline, the idea of the intellectual
pleasure of solving the puzzle-story as the act that unlocks catharsis is
appealing and deserves consideration in future analyses. However,
Golden’s assessment does not distinguish the cognitive from the
emotional and Belfiore is quick to fill this theoretical imprecision by
suggesting that the two are, in fact, inseparable, although she con-
cedes that there is room for more rigorous theoretical work, and calls
for a closer reading of Aristotle’s psychological works for clues to this
unresolved issue (Belfiore 1992: 3). This echoes Järvinen’s call for
psychology-based studies of gaming (2009: 85).
To sum up, it transpires from the above that experiencing catharsis
in an interactive setting is viable; it may be that it needs to be under-
stood in a less literal manner or rather in a new, expanded meaning.


In the progressive refinements of the Aristotelian model referred to
above, the components continue to be displayed in a linear, cause-
and-effect chain, which perhaps shows a reluctance to abandon this
pre-digital way of thinking. What if the spectacle/enactment rela-
tionship with the other components is not the only one that needs
re-examining? If spectacle/enactment can be seen in the same category
as character (as Tomaszewski and Binsted argue), then enactment’s
relationship to all the other components changes automatically. The
same logic can be successfully applied to pattern. If we look at


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Cyber-Aristotle: towards a poetics for interactive screenwriting

cyberspace and its networked, multiple connectivity, or the rhizome

model (i.e. a model with multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit
points, much like the root system in nature, where the concept is
taken from) - which is frequently cited in digital domains as a typical
example of non-hierarchical interconnectivity - then perhaps this is
our cue for a re-thinking of the Aristotelian model. What if we looked
at the six components of tragedy without any hierarchical conditions
If we look at Laurel’s (1991) and Mateas’ (2005) models without
the restrictive ascending and descending hierarchy of one-directional
material and formal causes, we may discover which interconnections
can be made outside of the up-down model. I accept that the likelihood
is that not all of the elements will turn out to be formally or materi-
ally linked to each other, but this ‘networked’ model would contribute
to a more radical re-thinking of how to engage with Aristotle in an
interactive narrative mode. However, it would be a stretch to claim
that this networked model could provide the necessary foundation for
an ‘interactive poetics’. The altered perspective of a network intercon-
nectivity could well spark off some new ideas, but it would be unlikely
to yield a comprehensive model for interactive screenwriting.
What appears to be by far the most common trait running through
all the different approaches to Aristotle analysed here is the degree
of modification employed within each aspect of the Poetics. Rather
than showing us an updated re-imagining of dramatic concepts,
what emerges, in fact, is a set of new dramatic configurations. And
the more these new configurations (e.g. enactment, spatial plotting,
setting as affordance, setting as narrative architecture, micronarrative)
are explored, the clearer it becomes that they bear little resemblance
to the Aristotelian categories to which they are attempting to cor-
relate. While it is not my aim to minimise the worth of the theories
discussed above, because they provide interesting insights into inter-
active drama, it does appear that Aristotle’s model, as the basis for
an interactive screenwriting poetics, is a problematic one. What this
comparative study demonstrates is a tendency for commentators to
start off with a familiar, fixed theoretical point in order to explore the
unknown; but then the process begins to resemble an explorer’s chart-
ing of new territory with a faulty compass. For a while the possession
of the (faulty) compass provides some comfort but eventually new
bearings and patterns manifest and there’s no longer the need to hold
on to the functionless and archaic navigational aid. Let Aristotle be a
valuable setting-off point, but there should be more caution before
embracing him as an actual foundation for interactive screenwriting.
Mateas may have progressed along such lines, starting with Laurel’s
re-conception of Aristotelian drama, but one of the most significant
findings he makes regarding material affordances has little to do with
Aristotle, and everything to do with the unique traits of interactive
narrative theory, such as agency and spatial navigation. Rather than
being concerned about where spatial affordances fit within the dramatic


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Jasmina Kallay

hierarchy (such as whether it is alongside character, or at the top of

the table) in a forced attempt to mirror the Poetics model, we should
accept that Aristotelian thinking may only illuminate minor aspects
of interactive drama, and can not lead us to a self-contained interac-
tive poetics. Instead, we need to start with the theoretical concepts of
digital media and recognise the significant distinctions between the
different interactive narrative formats.
For instance, the idea of narrative architecture or spatial plotting is
a novel one for someone coming from classical screenwriting, where
the focus on setting and objects is minimal by comparison (unless
they have particular bearing on plot/character). Yet, revealing that the
importance of an object may supersede the importance of character
means little as a stand-alone statement, and as shown in the context of
a networked structure, hierarchy ceases to be meaningful in the cyber-
world. What is more exciting is the inverse relationship between dram-
atizing a situation and tagging it to an object. To clarify: an interactive
screenwriter surveys the interactive dramatic space as full of dramatic
triggers. Nearly every object or NPC will have a dramatic function.
So the writer plans the dramatic beats, then searches for the object
that corresponds the best to that scenario to set the interaction off. In
Façade, it could be something as banal as a wedding photo or answer-
ing machine that initiates a plausible domestic rupture. Neither plot
nor character can be revealed until the user interacts with the space.
Then, when most of the desired dramatic situations have been spa-
tially assigned, there is the issue of prioritising the revelations. Apart
from programming, which can cleverly disable certain triggers until a
specific development/discovery has been made, what plays a key role
in the interactive screenwriting process is psychological awareness of
how a user is likely to interact, and presenting the setting in such a
way as to accentuate the affordances, so that the interaction is natural
and organic to the story world rather than force-fitted to the writer’s
conceived idea of the plot. Cognitive behavioural psychology is a use-
ful tool in this respect, as well as knowing the genre expectations. At
this stage of interactive story planning the Poetics approach feels like
a distant echo.
This overview of the key writings connecting Aristotle’s Poetics
with interactive drama models will hopefully serve to stimulate fur-
ther research, because it seems undeniable that some form of an
interactive poetics is the next step in the normatization of interactive
narratives. The desire to experience stories has not changed with new
media; only the mode of receiving them has. And even neophytes
who may be suspicious of the genuine narrative possibilities in inter-
active formats may need to retrain, as the transmedia phenomenon
is already establishing itself as the industry norm. Classically trained
screenwriters are likely to need to adapt to the cross-platform fre-
netic traffic: studios are using interactive viral marketing to promote
films (e.g. The Dark Knight 2008); TV series are expanding their sto-
rylines and character activity to inhabit an online interactive presence


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Cyber-Aristotle: towards a poetics for interactive screenwriting

(e.g. Lost 2004-present and Spooks 2002-2009); film and TV narratives

are taking their inspiration from the gaming world (e.g. Lost 2004-
present, Run Lola Run 1998); there are films-to-games and games-
to-films adaptations (e.g. The Godfather 1972, Max Payne 2008,) and
there are webseries turning into TV series (In the Motherhood 2007).
As interactivity permeates mass media, we need an in-depth and
coherent grasp of all its facets to equip a new generation of screen-
writers to move us and entertain us.

Aristotle ([c.350BC] 1996), Poetics. Translated with an introduction and notes by
Malcolm Heath. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.
Belfiore, Elizabeth (1992), ‘Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis’, Bryn
Mawr Classical Review 4: 1 http://hegel.lib.ncsu.edu/stacks/serials/bmcr/
bmcr-v4n01-belfiore-aristotle. Accessed 5 January 2009.
The Dark Knight (2008), Wr: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, Dir:
Christopher Nolan. USA/UK, 152 mins.
Doom (1993-), PC/Xbox, Designers: John Romero, Sandy Petersen and Tom
Hall, id Software.
Field, Syd (1994), Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, New York: Dell
Trade Paperback.
Football Manager (2005-), PC/Xbox, Designer: Kevin Toms, Sports Interactive.
The Godfather (1972), Wr: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, Dir: Francis Ford
Coppola. USA, 175 mins.
Halliwell, Stephen (1987), The Poetics of Aristotle, London: University of North
Carolina Press.
Hiltunen, Ari (2002), Aristotle in Hollywood: The Anatomy of Successful
Storytelling, Bristol: Intellect Books.
In the Motherhood (2007), Cr: Alexandra Rushfield, Jennifer Konner; Mindshare
for Science + Fiction; cca 6 mins x eps. Webseries.
Järvinen, A. (2009), ‘Understanding Video Games as Emotional Experiences’,
in Perron, B. & Wolf, M.J.P. (eds), The Video Game Theory Reader 2, New
York: Routledge, pp. 85–108.
Jenkins, H. (2004), ‘Game Design as Narrative Architecture’, in Wardrip-Fruin,
N. & Harrigan, P. (eds), First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and
Game, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 118–130.
Kelly, George A. (1991), The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume One; A
Theory of personality, London: Routledge.
Laurel, Brenda (1991), Computers as Theater, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley
Laurel, Brenda (2003), ‘The Six Elements and the Causal Relations Among
Them’, in Wardrip-Fruin, N. & Montfort N. (eds), The New Media Reader,
Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, pp. 563–571.
Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Wrs: Fran Walsh, Philippa
Boyens, Peter Jackson, Dir: Peter Jackson. USA/New Zealand/Germany,
179 mins.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Wrs: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens,
Stephen Sinclair, Peter Jackson, Dir: Peter Jackson. USA/New Zealand,
178 mins.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), Wrs: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens,
Peter Jackson, Dir: Peter Jackson. Germany/New Zealand/USA, 201 mins.
Lost (2004-present), Cr: J.J. Abrams, ABC; 42 mins x eps.


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Jasmina Kallay

Mateas, Michael (2004), ‘A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and

Games’, in Wardrip-Fruin, N. & Harrigan, P. (eds), First Person: New
Media as Story, Performance and Game, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,
pp. 19–33.
Mateas, Michael and Stern, Andreas (2005), Façade, www.interactivestory.net.
Accessed 15 June 2007.
Max Payne (2008), Wr: Beau Thorne, Sam Lake, Dir: John Moore. USA,
100 mins.
McKee, Robert (1999), Story, London: Methuen.
Murray, Janet H. (1997), Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in
Cyberspace, New York: The Free Press.
Myst (1991), PC, Designers: Robyn and Rand Miller, Cyan Worlds.
Run Lola Run (1998), Wr/Dir: Tom Tykwer. Germany, 81 mins.
Sofia’s Diary (2007), Cr: Nuno Bernardo, Bebo; cca 3 mins x eps. Webseries.
Spooks (2002-) Cr: David Wolstencroft; UK, Kudos for BBC; 50 mins x eps.
Tierno, Michael (2002), Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters: Storytelling Secrets
from the Greatest Mind in Western Civilization, New York: Hyperion.
Tomaszewski, Zach and Binsted, Kim (2006), A Reconstructed Neo-Aristotelian
Theory of Interactive Narrative, http://www2.hawaii.edu/~ztomasze/argax/
pubs/2006-TomaszewskiBinsted-Drama.pdf. Accessed 22 February 2009.
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Harrigan, Pat (ed.) (2004), First Person, New Media
as Story, Performance and Game, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Wood, David (1991), On Paul Ricoeur, Narrative and Interpretation, London:

Kallay, J (2010), ‘Cyber-Aristotle: towards a poetics for interactive screenwriting’,
Journal of Screenwriting 1: 1, pp. 99–112, doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.99/1

Jasmina Kallay is a Lecturer at the National Film School (IADT), Dublin, and is
in the final stages of completing her PhD in Interactive Screenwriting at UCD.
Jasmina regularly contributes to film and digital media publications and confer-
ences. Apart from her academic output, Jasmina also works as a freelance script
consultant and editor for a number of broadcasting and production companies
in Ireland and the UK.
Contact: National Film School, IADT, Dublin.
E-mail: jasmina.kallay@iadt.ie


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JOSC 1 (1) pp. 113–129 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting | Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.113/1

University of Art and Design, Helsinki

Tonino Guerra: the

screenwriter as a
narrative technician or
as a poet of images?
Authorship and method
in the writer–director

The article focuses on the ‘invisible role’ of the screenwriter and makes Tonino Guerra
observations about the screenwriter’s part in the process of writing a screen- Michelangelo
play together with a director. By studying the two examples of the collabo- Antonioni
ration between the screenwriter and poet Tonino Guerra with the directors Andrei Tarkovsky
Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky, the intention is to follow screenwriting
the ways in which authorship is both constituted and shared in such a liai- authorship
son. I observe how the craft of the screenwriter is understood in relation writer-director-
to the different aspects of his task. By focusing on the case study around relationship


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Riikka Pelo

the writing of the film Nostalghia/Nostalgia (1983), I also consider how

responsibility in developing these aspects is shared between screenwriter
and director during different phases of a screenwriting process: in gathering
ideas, sketching, building the story structure, writing drafts, rewriting and
completing the final draft.


In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Il Deserto Rosso/The Red Desert (1964) a
little boy surprises his mother, Giuliana, as he argues that one plus one
equals one. The son proves his statement by showing how a drop of blue
liquid dissolves into another, making them one great drop together. A
similar event takes place in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia/Nostalgia
(1983) when the main characters, the Russian composer Gorchakov and
Domenico, the village madman, have a long discussion in Domenico’s
house while listening to Beethoven. In cajoling Gorchakov into sharing
his own radical intentions, Domenico demonstrates how two drops of
olive oil form one bigger drop, not two. The calculation, 1+1 = 1 is even
written on Domenico’s wall as a manifesto.
The actions of the child in The Red Desert and the madman in Nostalgia
could be significant points of departure for interpreting the visual poetics
of both films and the original world-views of the directors, as metaphors
for an inseparable union of different abstract matters such as human
intentions or dimensions of time. The mathematical calculation on
Domenico’s wall could also be seen as Tarkovsky’s tribute to Antonioni,
as there was great artistic appreciation shared between the Italian and
Russian auteurs (Tarkovsky 1989: 145). However, the crucial thing con-
necting Tarkovsky’s late masterpiece to Antonioni’s early one is not just
the cinematic brotherhood of the directors, or the fact that Tarkovsky’s
film was both shot and produced in Italy. A more significant common
denominator is the screenwriter Tonino Guerra, an Italian poet who
wrote the screenplay for both films together with each director.
Could the philosophical calculation also be seen as Guerra’s own
signature in the texture of these two films? On the basis of this, would
it also be possible to go on retracing the handwriting of the screenwriter
in the shadows of the directors’ more visible approach? This question,
however, is a challenging one to contextualize, since the screenwriter’s
work has very rarely been acknowledged as an independent craft worthy
of studying by itself – not to mention the authorship of the screenwriter.
Research into film seldom considers the contribution of a screenwriter,
and even more rarely when discussing the works of such masters of
cinematic language as Antonioni or Tarkovsky, or other famous auteurs
such as Federico Fellini or Francois Truffaut. Neglecting such questions
as those of theme, poetics or style emerging from the contribution of a
screenwriter and focusing instead on those arising from the director’s
oeuvre derives partly from the myth of the writer-director, the concept
of an auteur director who writes as well as directs his own screenplays.
This myth was created along with the rise of the French New Wave,


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Tonino Guerra: the screenwriter as a narrative technician or as a poet of images?

presented in film journals such as Les Cahiers du Cinéma and in the writ-
ings of Alexander Astruc (Astruc 1968 [1948]: 17–23).
The auteur philosophy emphasized the director’s creative domi-
nance of all the phases of cinematic creation. It also questioned the
importance of text, the screenplay, as an origin or an inherent part
of a film. Jean-Luc Godard’s pronouncements on getting rid of the
script may have had a great impact on the neglect of the screenwriter,
even though he later admitted that he too had written manuscripts
like all the others (Godard 1984: 229–30). As a result of the auteur
philosophy, the screenwriter became an ‘invisible ghost’, hiding but
still nonetheless working in the shadows of film production.
In Andrei Tarkovsky’s artistic work the ideals of auteur philosophy
were strongly present. Although Tarkovsky held poets and novelists
in high esteem, he did not value screenwriting very much, not even as
a profession in itself. The screenplay was not to be compared to litera-
ture either; it was a creative laboratory, in itself fated to die in the film.
For him the director was the poet, the composer, the author.
However, as with Tarkovsky, the text did continue to serve as the
basis for fiction film in the era of the New Wave. Yet there were also
variations in how the labour of writing was divided or shared. Only
a few directors, like Ingmar Bergman and Pier Paolo Pasolini, ful-
filled the double-duty position of writer-director and wrote their own
screenplays. Godard often based his screenplays on other texts, nov-
els and short stories, and especially later on in his career he worked
extensively with screenwriters. Many auteur directors like Federico
Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Francois Truffaut wrote with a
partner or team. In the tradition of European film-making, from the
era of Italian neo-realism in the 1940s and 1950s to the French New
Wave in the 1960s and later, the names of several screenwriters come
up alongside famous directors. The Italian writer Suso Cecchi d’Amico
began her career in the 1940s and went on to work with Vittorio De
Sica and Luchino Visconti. In France, the writer Jean-Claude Carrière
worked with Jacques Tati and Luis Buñuel; Jean Gruault worked with
auteurs such as Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette;
and Gérard Brách wrote many of Roman Polanski’s films. Novelist
Marguerite Duras created screenplays for and with Alain Resnais
while directing her own films; and in the USSR, Aleksandr Misharin
collaborated with Tarkovsky for over twenty years, starting with the
film Zerkalo/The Mirror (1974).
One of the most recognized of these often-unacknowledged
European screenwriters is Tonino Guerra. His contribution as a writer
varied significantly depending on the film production he was involved
in. Very often he co-wrote with the director, as was the case with the
screenplays for Antonioni’s The Red Desert (1964) and Tarkovsky’s
Nostalgia (1983). In spite of his remarkable contribution to film, in
most of his cinematographic work Guerra was characterized as an
inventor of stories or as a technician of narrative structures but rarely
as a screenwriter in the sense of an author (Pellizzari 2004: 228).


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Riikka Pelo

1. A tetralogy is ‘any In this article my aim is to focus on the invisible role of the screen-
set of four related
dramas’ (OED, 1968). writer and to make observations on the screenwriter’s role in the proc-
Contemporary ess of writing a screenplay together with a director. By studying the
critics pointed to the two examples of Tonino Guerra’s collaboration as a writer – the life-
similarities of these
three from the 1960s. long collaboration with Antonioni and the one-off collaboration with
Il Deserto Rosso/The Tarkovsky – my intention is to follow the ways in which authorship is
Red Desert (1983)
was later seen by both constituted and shared in such liaisons. I observe how the craft
others such as Seymour of the screenwriter is understood in relation to the different aspects of
Chatman as similar in
theme, plot structure
his task, here especially in creating the theme and the idea, the narra-
and character type tive structure and the cinematic image for a screenplay. I compare how
(Chatman 1985: 51). these issues are defined by the directors and by the writers themselves.
By focusing on the case study around the writing of the film Nostalgia,
I also consider how responsibility in developing these aspects is shared
between screenwriter and director during different phases of a screen-
writing process: in gathering ideas, sketching, building the story struc-
ture, writing drafts, rewriting and completing the final draft.
Theoretical discussion on the status of the screenplay as an inde-
pendent work in its own right, as compared to a complete film or to
a play or a literary work (e.g. a novel) will be left aside here, although
it would also be a significant topic in any consideration of the screen-
writer’s authorship. Instead the emphasis is here on the practice-
oriented perspective of the artists and in the processes and methods
of creating a screenplay.
With this study, my aim is also to give an optional view to tradi-
tional research on the screenwriter’s work, which typically explores the
subject from the perspective of American industrial film production. In
that context the respective roles of the writer and director are gener-
ally seen as separate entities with independent responsibilities in the
production line, the writer being in charge of the storyline, the dramatic
structure and the dialogue, whereas the visual imagery of the film is
entirely the director’s responsibility (see, for example, Stempel 2000;
Norman 2007). In studying the work of Tonino Guerra my question is
whether these different elements of the narrative whole can be seen
as separate entities or responsibilities defining the writer’s task, or
does the example of his work suggest another way of looking at the
writer–director relationship?
Very little has been documented of the professional relationship
between Guerra and Antonioni, even though Guerra is credited as
writer of the screenplay for most of Antonioni’s films. I shall mainly
follow Lorenzo Pellizzari’s short monograph on Guerra’s work, in
which he also tries to define Guerra’s personal poetic and narra-
tive style, recognizable in many Italian films (Pellizzari 2004: 40–109,
218–40). In addition, I will pay attention to several scattered notions
on the nature of Guerra and Antonioni’s relationship as presented
in different interviews and screenplay introductions from the early
1960s, when the first three of Antonioni’s so-called ‘Great Tetralogy’,1
the films L’Avventura/The Adventure (1960), La Notte/Night (1961) and
L’Eclisse/Eclipse (1962) were produced.


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The professional relationship between Guerra and Tarkovsky, on

the other hand, is more accessible for study. For example, Tarkovsky’s
published diaries, Time within Time: The Diaries 1970–1986 (1994),
describe the working process on Nostalgia’s screenplay in great detail.
It also reveals the intimate story of a friendship between two artists
who appreciate and trust each other’s work. As the director’s diaries
are one of the very rare available sources on Guerra’s actual work, the
process is still documented largely from the perspective of the director
only and, if not leaving the writer in the shadows, it does not really
allow Guerra to present his authentic voice. Another valuable source
for deciphering the screenwriter’s contribution is the documentary
film Tempo di viaggio/Voyage in Time (1983), a visual diary of writing
Nostalgia directed by Guerra and Tarkovsky together. That source
does not offer Guerra’s pure point of view either, but it does give a
more equal presentation of their cooperation as it involves many of
their discussions around the creation of the screenplay.


Tonino Guerra was born in Santarcangelo di Romagna, Italy in 1920.
He had debuted as a poet before starting his career as a screenwriter
and is still one of the most acclaimed living poets in Italy. His first
screenplay was for Giuseppe de Santis’s Uomini e lupi/Men and Wolves
(1956), but it was the three films he wrote at the beginning of the 1960s
together with Michelangelo Antonioni and a team of other writers,
The Adventure, Night and Eclipse, that helped establish a formidable
reputation as a screenwriter. At the same time, these films made him a
kind of ‘brand’ connected to Antonioni (Pellizzari 2004: 224–26).
Despite his collaboration with Antonioni, however, Guerra worked
with many different directors in Italy and internationally; from Francesco
Rosi and the Taviani brothers to Andy Warhol and Theo Angelopoulos.
Later in his career he has often been recruited as a screenwriter especially
to give his name and touch, his poetic signature, to a film production
(Machiavelli 2004: 243). As a result, he has more than one hundred films
credited to his name and has gained three Oscar nominations: for the
screenplays for Casanova ‘70 (1965), Blow-up (1966) and Amarcord (1973).
Guerra’s role as writer appears to differ according to the director in
question. For example, the auteur Greek director Theo Angelopoulos
compared Guerra (who was his co-writer) to a devil’s advocate or to
a psychoanalyst who challenges a director’s subjective approach and
vision, and supports him in finding it (Angelopoulos 2001: 140–45).
Conversely, in writing the screenplay for Amarcord Guerra shared a
deeply personal autobiographical approach with the director Federico
Fellini, who had spent his childhood in the same Apennine village
as Guerra. Guerra also stated later, referring to the screenplay for
Amarcord, that he did not know or remember whether there were
more of his or of Fellini’s memories in the film (Burke 2002: 157).


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2. The term ‘cinema In spite of his large filmography, Guerra has been treated as a
of alienation’
was first used in footnote to European film history – if even that. Yet The Encyclopedia
Italian film reviews of Italian Literary Studies in turn acknowledges him as the greatest
of Michelangelo Italian screenwriter, ‘playing an essential role in shaping Italian cin-
Antonioni’s films, which
dealt with individual ema’ (Marrone and Puppa 2006: 905–06). Leonardo Pellizzari, the
experiences of writer of a monograph on Guerra, brings up the same argument and
alienation caused by
modern industralization defines him as an invisible thread tying together the different nar-
and technology. rative approaches in Italian cinema. Guerra did contribute widely to
Later in Italy it also
came to mean
Italian cinema, from creating the post-neo-realistic ‘cinema of alien-
other post-neo-realist ation’2 to developing the commedia all’Italiana.3 Pellizzari also claims
cinema influenced that Guerra deserves the status of an original author, the creator and
by Antonioni’s films
(Pellizzari 2004: developer of cinematic storytelling, in stead of being defined as a
220–28). mere technician working on the narrative inventions of the great
3. ‘Commedia all’Italiana’
refers to another
auteurs (Pellizzari 2004: 218–21).
approach in Italian From the 1960s, in film reviews and cinema studies Guerra was
post-neo-realist cinema already recognized as a writer with his own approach and bracketed
presenting the subject
of social malaise together with Antonioni as one of the creators of the ‘cinema of alien-
and contradictions of ation’. In particular Guerra has been credited with introducing the
culture in the rapid
transformation of ‘irrational component’ to new Italian film (Pellizzari 2004: 224–25). The
Italian society, through Red Desert powerfully exemplifies both these tendencies in the story
comedy but with of Giuliana, the neurotic Ravenna housewife suffering the trauma of
a cynical sense of
humour. For example, attempted suicide, who is agonized by modern industrial life and her
films by Mario own paralysed marital life.
Monicelli represent the
classic example of the Both Guerra and Antonioni were also held equally responsible
genre, closely linked for the disintegration of cinematic narrative typical of the films of the
to the old commedia
dell’arte (Bondanella
Great Tetralogy, soon to be widely imitated in Italian and European
2001: 145). cinema (Pellizzari 2004: 224–25). Though in most later research mini-
4. In his book Story, malist and open-ended narrative structures with causal disturbances
Substance, Structure,
Style and the Principles are often categorized as representing the inheritance of Antonioni’s
of Screenwriting, 1960s approach (e.g. Chatman 1985: 73–82), Italian scholars Niccolo
Robert McKee presents
three variations of the
Machiavelli and Pellizzari are also willing to credit Guerra with having
plot, one of them being invented this whole new narrative style (Machiavelli 2004: 243).
a mini-plot. Contrary to Guerra himself has asserted that his signature as a writer in a film
an archplot, which has
an active protagonist can be traced from its sense of poetry, be it poetic images or qualities
and is dominant in of the structure. ‘In everything I make, all I am doing is diluting a little
Hollywood films,
a mini-plot is often poetry. I think I’ve always given a bit of poetry to all the directors I have
based on the internal worked with,’ he has stated, in retrospect (Machiavelli 2004: 241). But
conflicts of a passive how did this ‘diluting’ happen? How did Guerra work with the direc-
protagonist and tends
to have an open tors and by what means was he able to bring his personal approach to
ending. McKee refers the work of auteurs like Antonioni and Tarkovsky?
to Antonioni’s works as
examples of a mini-plot
(McKee 1997: 45).
The starting point for Antonioni and Guerra’s collaboration (which
lasted for over fifty years) was The Adventure, the well-known mini-
plot4 film which they co-wrote with Elio Bartolini in 1959. This film
also marked a turnaround in Antonioni’s style, when his earlier neo-
realism and social exploration gave way to a more reticent narrative


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Tonino Guerra: the screenwriter as a narrative technician or as a poet of images?

revealing the fragile inner landscape of the modern neurotic psyche. The
Red Desert (1964) was another turning point in Antonioni’s career as it
was his first film in colour. The way he used colour as a poetically expres-
sive element in the film made him one of the inventors of cinematic col-
our according to Seymour Chatman (Chatman and Duncan 2004: 91).
In Antonioni’s oeuvre the visual images, colour, setting or land-
scape dominate. In his films ‘words are only a comment, a background
to the image’, as Guerra put it early on in his career, and he describes
how, in the process of realizing a screenplay Antonioni ‘wants to
destroy in the word what it retains of literary suggestion in order to
give it value as cinematographic suggestion’ (Rohdie 1990: 76). Guerra
has also presented his own intention as a poet and a screenwriter as
primarily to create images: ‘everything I write [...] is full of images. My
writing is in its essence of images. And my poems always contained
cinema even before I worked in it’ (Machiavelli 2004: 241).
Nevertheless, as translating words to cinematographic images is
actively pursued by Antonioni as well as Guerra, the significance of
words, via the screenplay, is not denied in the process of creating a
story. Guerra explains how in their collaborative work,

In the first sketches for the screenplay everything is entrusted to

words. We rework things, change lengthy dialogue and along the
way get ourselves accustomed to the way a particular character
speaks. Then very slowly the words fall away and gestures begin
to take their place, movements of the character [...] visual marks
on which the story of the film more and more begins to rest.
(Rohdie 1990: 76)

Guerra’s description obviously underlines the essentially shared, col-

laborative nature of creating a screenplay: ‘we rework’, ‘we get accus-
tomed to’ the characters’ speech, and so forth. On the other hand,
it also presents the dominance of the director’s cinematographic
intention in the process as a whole. The director with his hunger for
cinematic images is the driving force, the leader of the process; the
screenwriters are his humble servants with only their inadequate let-
ters, their secondary words at their disposal.
Although the young Guerra himself refers to the function of words
in creating a story for a film as secondary (as generally emphasized in
the auteur philosophy), he still underlines the necessity of this liter-
ary exploration, done in the medium of words before translating them
into images. Guerra’s characterization of screenwriting, then, could be
outlined as follows: without the literary exploration of the world and
the characters of the story, the cinematic images and the relationship
between them would not be deciphered with the accuracy with which
they are subsequently revealed. Without the writer’s literary work
the meaning and the significance of images could not be developed
either, even if words eventually fall away and give way to images, let-
ting them exist in their own right.


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However, counter to the New Wave film philosophy, which strives

to create the independent language of cinema by rejecting its textual
and theatrical base in dramatic scenarios, Guerra’s description reveals
that in practice fictional film is not as much of an immediate image-
based medium as, for example, painting. Essentially it needs another
medium, the text, to be what it is, even if the medium of film appears
to reject such text.
If translating words into images is the prime intention of the director
in the process of making a film, what, then, is the intention of the writer?
Is it more related to developing the characters’ psychology and the whole
fictional world as the basis, the ground from which visual imagery can
arise? Or is it, rather, in creating a structure for the story, the arrangement
of the scenes and events and the flow of images? Or is his or her main
task simply to put the director’s vision into words, like a secretary, denied
of all intention, creativity and authorship? This was perhaps the worst
definition of a screenwriter during the New Wave period – and perhaps
quite close to Antonioni’s own attitude towards his writers.
Antonioni, for his part, mentions Guerra in a preface to his 1960s
screenplays, crediting him and his other co-writers in a patronizing
way as being ‘useful and functional assistants in the construction of
narrative’, and Guerra especially as ‘a perfect technician of the nar-
rative’ (Antonioni 1963: x). Later Antonioni even invented a precise
term to describe the narrative skill of Guerra, ‘technically sweet’; a
phrase originally applied to the inventor of the atom bomb, J. Robert
Oppenheimer, but here meaning the ability to make the story stand on
its own feet by creating the right structure for it (Antonioni 2007: 28–32;
Pellizzari 2004: 233). When talking about working with other directors,
the young Guerra himself also denied his own authorship, admitting
that his role and expertise often lay in the technical arrangement of
a story – ‘I must say that I mostly collaborated on the structure of
the narrative. I made an effort to contribute to the structure, a very
important element of the film, but the rest is less interesting to me’
(Pellizzari 2004: 230).
Both of these definitions describe the screenwriter more as a dram-
aturge or an editor, a technically oriented outsider who can arrange a
sensible order for any project with his dramatic skill. As a result, the
director is considered the real author of the screenplay, the one who
has dreamed up or invented the original fictional world, its themes
and characters. But in spite of the opinions presented above, is the
structure to be seen only as something separate and technical, a sec-
ondary arrangement not organically tied with the thematic or visual
contents of the story as well?
Even Pellizzari argues that Guerra’s originality as a storyteller lies
in his structural approach and talent (Pellizzari 2004: 224–33). But this
skill is revealed most strongly in the narrative strategies, presenting
the ways in which the insecure nature of reality is experienced and
reinvented through the narrative construction of a film. These issues
are strongly present in Antonioni’s Great Tetralogy; in playing with


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Tonino Guerra: the screenwriter as a narrative technician or as a poet of images?

fiction and truth, appearance and substance, truth and lies appear
as part of its themes so they also motivate the narrative structures,
creating a new kind of, perhaps irrational, causality. Pellizzari (2004)
points out that certain of Guerra’s qualities also specifically intensi-
fied Antonioni’s narrative style present in the Great Tetralogy. He sees
Guerra’s contribution as being especially in the way the films move
from the conventional dramatic line of presentation to a more seg-
mentally and structurally oriented – yet playful and open – way of
constructing a story (Pellizzari 2004: 225).
In a later comment, the older Guerra considers the dramaturgical
structure of a film in a more intuitive and artistic way: ‘the structure is
something musical. It is like an electrocardiogram that appears to me
at a certain point and allows me, so to say, to feel whether the story has
its own rhythm, homogeneity and sonority’ (Machiavelli 2004: 248).
The sensitive metaphor with which he speaks of the structure as the
heart of the story itself suggests a concept of screenwriting similar to
a composer working with his vocal or instrumental material, or to that
of a poet absorbed in the materiality of his medium, and not as a tech-
nician only working out a vision of the great artist.
Even though Guerra and Antonioni’s professional relationship was
at the time defined in hierarchical terms of master and assistant, at least
in public, questions still arise about the division of their tasks. Namely,
is a screenwriter only ever able to work on the structure without at the
same time intervening or developing the images – the visual, organic
and moving material of the film? Are they not both, the image and the
narrative structure, dependent on each other as well as the essential
part of the screen idea as both sides of the coin, growing and develop-
ing out of each other’s structure, itself a more organic problem of com-
position than simply the order of the scenes? By looking at Guerra’s
collaborative work with Tarkovsky on the screenplay of Nostalgia as a
case study, would it be it possible to decipher a different, more organic
and perhaps equal way of dividing and sharing the work of creating
cinematic narrative?


For Andrei Tarkovsky too, the notion of the auteur was imperative.
In his case the auteur philosophy did not mean merely controlling all
aspects of production, starting from the screenplay, but keeping hold
of the central idea, ‘the concept around which the future film would
be woven’ (Synesssios 1999: xv). As pointed out by Natasha Synessios
in her introduction to Tarkovsky’s Collected Screenplays, his task was ‘to
transform this idea into cinema, keeping it as pure and as close to the
original impulse as possible’ (Synessios 1999: xv). Like the New Wave
directors, Tarkovsky also believed in the immediacy of the cinematic
image as; ‘the supreme embodiment of the absolute and the boundless,
surpassing the senseless word’ (Synessios 1999: xv). The screenplay, the
scenario, was just a point of departure for the future film, a first step in


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5. Most references to the externaliation of images born in the stillness of the director’s inner
Tarkovsky’s diary are
taken from the Finnish self (Synessios 1999: xv).
edition (1989). English Synessios notes that, like many earlier auteurs, Tarkovsky often
translation is by the worked with co-writers, even with novelists such as the Russian
science-fiction writers the Strugatski brothers, but involved himself
heavily in the process as the main author of the screenplay. In a collab-
oration of this sort he usually discussed the work with his writers inten-
sively, after which they would put themes, dialogues and scenes into
writing. Usually he read the results, discussed it with them and asked
them to revise and edit it, progressing in a piecemeal fashion. Even
though he did part of the rewriting himself, it was usually the writer
who made the changes and solved the problems, until Tarkovsky
felt it was his own script. As a true auteur, he maintained control all
the way through the screenwriting process and always had the final
word (Synessios 1999: xvi–xix).
However, in his collaboration with Guerra on the film Nostalgia
(1983), Tarkovsky’s auteurist attitude does not appear as strong and
hierarchical as, for instance, in his other collaborations. On the con-
trary, the professional relationship seems to be based on the possibil-
ity of opening up a creative writing space for two authors with their
original ideas and poetic and visual imagination. The fact that Guerra
was a poet was also one reason why Tarkovsky (himself the son of a
poet) ended up working with him, something which can be deduced
from a quote from Goethe in Tarkovsky’s diary,5 written while he was
working intensively with Guerra; ‘the one who wants to understand
the poet must go to the poet’ (Tarkovsky 1989: 183).
Nostalgia is a film about the contradictory emotional life of a
Russian intellectual abroad, and of his meeting with an Italian mad-
man who has locked his family in their home for seven years because
of his fear of the impending end of the world. As the film deals with
the director Andrei Tarkovsky’s personal ‘state of suffering far away
from my home country’ (as Pellizarri quotes from Tarkovsky’s state-
ment to the film’s Italian investors), it also explores ‘the nostalgia
for a world without borderlines, a world that each of us so often
imagines existing or that could exist’, as Guerra crystallizes his own
intention for writing the film (Pellizzari 2004: 238). The hero of the
story, the poet Andrei Gorchakov, states this same longing in one
of his lines too, including both sides in his character: Tarkovsky’s
subjectivity on the one hand and the poet Guerra’s humanism on
the other.
While considering Guerra’s contribution to Nostalgia to be author-
ship in its own right, Lorenzo Pellizzari posits that the film works on
two separate levels revealing the personal thematic intention of both
authors. There is Tarkovsky’s self-absorbed level of inner torment and
a more confident level of discovering the reality, mastered by Guerra.
He suggests that the film’s visionary and hallucinatory aspects could
be ascribed to Tarkovsky, and that the humanity found in all its quo-
tidian matters is Guerra’s (Pellizzari 2004: 238). Following Pellizzari’s


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Tonino Guerra: the screenwriter as a narrative technician or as a poet of images?

division, it is certainly possible to analyse Guerra’s personal artistic

style and contribution in the texture of the final film of Nostalgia in a
detailed way, and to identify his hand in the characters, the dialogue,
its structure and images. But would this reveal more about the nature
of authorship in the practice of screenwriting itself? What is inter-
esting here is not the final work or its interpretations but the proc-
ess of writing itself, and of discovering how the creation and actual
work was shared between these authors. Moreover, whose intentions
dominated and drove the creative process forward? And what role did
Guerra occupy, as writer, which enabled him to pursue his intentions
through the collaborative process?
Interestingly, the initial idea for the film Nostalgia did not come
from Tarkovsky himself but from Guerra, who visited him for the
first time in Moscow in January 1976. His intention was to invite
Tarkovsky to direct a film in Italy with the support of the Italian
national broadcasting company RAI. The project was named imme-
diately; Journey through Italy, a story of a Russian man in a foreign
country (Synessios 1999: 465–66).
When Guerra went to Moscow for the second time at the end of
1978, the real creative collaboration of the two started. Initial images
and scattered fragments that emerged during their discussions were
immediately captured in Tarkovsky’s notebook: ‘a story of cultivat-
ing a flower bed which changes into being ugly’, a black brook, a
quarrel in a house, a wife with tears in her eyes as though someone
dear to her had died (but after all it was just about the dishes), rain,
water on the terrace (Tarkovsky 1989: 191–96). But it was not until
April 1979 that Tarkovsky was finally able to travel to Italy for a short
trip, during which Guerra guided him around the Italian country-
side. The new founding idea for the film – the story of a man who
has locked up his family for several years to save them from the end
of the world – was, however, invented together during the pair’s
telephone discussions after Tarkovsky’s trip. A sketch of this story,
developed together, was written by Tarkovsky in Moscow. They now
called it ‘Il Fine del Mondo’, the End of the World story.
This original version included many of the significant elements
that ended up in the final film: the main characters, the protagonist
Gorchakov, the translator Eugenia and the madman Domenico, as
well as Tarkovsky’s autobiographical moment of a family watching the
moon rising, which starts and ends the final film as well as lending
structure and motivating the flow of the images throughout. As such,
the image of a nostalgic moment of a family reunion preserving the
personal emotions of the director could be interpreted as the origi-
nal idea of the auteur, the emotionally strong core image born in the
depths of the auteur’s mind. But yet, was that also the primary idea on
which the whole film was to be built and developed? On the contrary,
as documents from the working process, the two diaries (Guerra &
Tarkovsky 1983; Tarkovsky 1989) show much more was to come; other
foundational ideas were needed and examined before the final narrative


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could be constructed – even though the original image had been fixed
and set in its correct place in the narrative structure of the film.
A key issue was to find a motive for the hero’s travels. On Tarkovsky’s
return to Rome in July 1979 – having by then found a new name for the
film, Nostalgia – he and Guerra left immediately for a journey through
Italy, seeking inspiration. They did not so much seek the hero’s motives
in a dramatic sense but in a poetic and symbolic one, as Tarkovsky
emphasized in his diary. Test shootings and a visual diary, later cut
together as the film Voyage in Time (1983), also fed the writing process;
fragmentary ideas inspired by the landscape and Giotto’s paintings, and
sketches for important scenes that would occur later, were all registered
in Tarkovsky’s notebook. He also writes of how they would constantly
‘invent a lot together’ (Tarkovsky 1989: 213–18).
Both sources, Tarkovsky’s written diary (1989) as well as their
visual one Voyage in Time (1983), reveal how the dramatic motives of
the hero seemed almost something to be avoided by both collaborators
for a long time. They knew only some absurd details, about such things
as Gorchakov’s hands and his wet feet, as well as of his interest in
architecture. They wanted him to encounter the characters from the
‘End of the World’ story outline, but there was as yet no motive for
Domenico’s death. Throughout this process of development the agony
of the auteur as well as the hesitation of the dramatist continued, as
they felt they did not have a basic idea. The overall concept of the film
was missing. The inability to be alone in the beauty of Italy was not
yet an idea. They had to search for more ideas (Guerra & Tarkovsky
1983; Tarkovsky, 1989: 219).
In studying these discussions it also becomes obvious how their
roles of auteur and dramatist, visual thinker and storyteller, vision-
ary and devil’s advocate were not something essentially defined and
unchanging but roles that shifted between the two co-authors. And
yet neither of them was ready to compromise their ideas or their
work. They ‘demanded a lot’ from each other and from themselves,
as Guerra states in the documentary film (1983). What Voyage in Time
shows very clearly is how both of them were becoming the driving
creative forces in propelling the work forward. For the intention to
create a poetic film about a Russian meeting an Italian was becoming
a very intense issue for both of them – full of personal intentions. As
a result, the idea of only the director having dominance and control
over the key personal idea and developing it in his own artistic direc-
tion dissolved into a shared process of invention and creation.
After their Italian travels the new version of the screenplay was
reworked separately by the two of them in Michelangelo Antonioni’s
house in Sardinia. This was a literary document, a novella-like script in
the Russian way (Synessios 1999: xiv). In diary entries from this period
(Tarkovsky 1989: 219–21), the shared nature of the labour of writing
becomes clear too; first Tarkovsky wrote the scenes they had discussed
together, then Guerra translated and rewrote them and finally Lora,
Guerra’s wife, translated them back into Russian for Tarkovsky. ‘I will


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Tonino Guerra: the screenwriter as a narrative technician or as a poet of images?

definitely edit the final version myself,’ Tarkovsky now stated in his 6. Noted from Internet
Movie Database,
notebook, revealing that he truly wanted to retain ultimate control as http://www.imdb.
a true auteur. com, accessed 2 July
The structure of the story in this version followed the course of 2009.

Gorchakov’s journeys – as their own journeying experience together

would have silently slipped into its constitution. When this version
of the manuscript was ready, Tarkovsky and Guerra resumed their
travels and found a place where the story and the whole film was to
be located, the medieval spa village of Bagno-Vignoni. The original
journeying structure of the story was now broken altogether and
the material restructured. As the film of their visual diary, Voyage in
Time (1983), reveals, they decided to focus on Gorchakov’s meeting
with the madman, Domenico, which now took place at the end of
Gorchakov’s journey. By the end of August 1979 a draft written by
Tarkovsky on the basis of their discussions was ready, and he then
went back to filming another project. Guerra continued writing the
draft for one more week, after which the version was sent to Italian
and Soviet film funders (Tarkovsky 1989: 222–34).
The following spring Tarkovsky returned to Rome, where they
started to rewrite the script again. However, now the Italian inves-
tors demanded that the budget be slashed as well as the screenplay’s
length. Tarkovsky and Guerra were forced to start the story again with
only a few core elements, most of them already in the original first
version of the screenplay: ‘1. Madman and the horses. 2. Madonna
del Parto sequence. 3. Bagno-Vigno sequence with illness, dream and
the bicycle. 4. Beginning in the Hotel Palma.’ The director’s autobio-
graphical memory scene of the family bathed in moonlight, as part
of the hero’s own nostalgic memories, was now to be the end of the
whole story (Tarkovsky 1989: 281–83).
From now on, Tarkovsky’s notes emphasize the aesthetics and the
cinematography of the future film. Judging by the diary, it now seems
that he was not working with the actual screenplay anymore, whereas
Guerra was at the time doing the heavy work of writing the script as
well as working with the overall shape and structure of the story. This
he continued doing until the final version of the screenplay was com-
pleted at the end of May 1980. At the same time Tarkovsky’s Stalker
won a special prize from the Ecumenical jury in Cannes,6 which was
enough to attract a producer and enough money to realize the film
(Tarkovsky 1989: 284–96).
Just over a year later, in July 1981, the contract with the Soviet and
Italian producers and investors was finally made and filming com-
menced the following October. Tarkovsky wrote the shooting script
by himself, with notes regarding locations, scenes, parentheses, types
of shot and with the actual dialogue. This was the Soviet way, and it
also explains the major differences between the published screenplay
version (Tarkovsky 1999: 471–503) and the film itself. Guerra went on
working with another auteur – Fellini – on his new film E la Nave Va/
And the Ship Sails On (1983). In August 1981, on the last pages of his


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diary, Tarkovsky tries to recall the screenplay of Nostalgia again. He

remembers just three things, core images arisen and created from the
depths of two poetic minds through an intensely shared, intentional
but, more importantly, the equal process of writing: ‘1. Madonna del
Parto. 2. Lobby of the hotel. 3. Room without window. A dream.’
(Tarkovsky 1989: 340).


In considering Guerra’s personal work on the basis of Tarkovsky’s dia-
ries and the film Voyage in Time (1983), many questions arise and many
are left unanswered. For example, does all that material reveal anything
about the ways of writing that were typical to him? How did he make his
own creative work possible with auteurs like Antonioni and Tarkovsky?
What was the method of writing and creativity specific to Guerra in the
challenging conditions in which he worked? And how were the image
and the word, the narrative and the structure, all considered in relation
to each other and dealt with in the practice of his work?
The director’s diary, as such, is not the place to find detailed answers
concerning Guerra’s own work. Instead, in an interview conducted by
Guerra for an Italian film magazine during their period of collaboration
Guerra asks Tarkovsky to describe his visions in detail (Guerra 1979:
166–70), and this may give a clue to his personal method: ‘Would you
be willing to tell me the end of the film, shot by shot, as if I were a
blind man?’ he asks (Guerra 1979: 169). In Voyage in Time too, Guerra
keeps on asking detailed questions, demanding descriptions, digging
deeper into the images that arose, along with Tarkovsky’s and his own
impressions during the journey. This method brings to mind the defi-
nition by Greek director Angelopoulos mentioned above, of Guerra as
the psychoanalyst or the confessor to his own story. If the screenwriter
is seen as such a confessor and a mediator to another person’s hid-
den vision, one of the most important skills for him would then be to
know professionally, like an analyst, how to relieve and challenge the
buried, unconscious images of another person. If we assume that this
was his method with Tarkovsky too, all the exploration here shows,
however, that Guerra, in the guise of ‘devil’s advocate’, also needed to
expose himself personally and culturally for the sake of the characters
and the fictional world of the film, and not just to remain the passive
recipient of another man’s visions.
For Nostalgia the ‘analytic process’ of gathering and sketching mate-
rial happened at first primarily over the telephone between Italy and
Soviet Russia. Later it was replaced by personal travel, which now
appears as a methodical journey, an exploration of the themes and
materials of the film as well. Travelling also gave Guerra another stance
to be adopted in his role as a co-writer. He was the guide, as Virgil was
to Dante, the one who knew where they were going and where they
wanted to go and should go. He was giving space for Tarkovsky’s own
ideas and images, as affected by Italy, to rise into the process at their


JOSC_1.1_5_art_Pelo_113-130.indd 126 8/22/09 5:32:37 PM

Tonino Guerra: the screenwriter as a narrative technician or as a poet of images?

own pace. Thus he seemed to be the driving force of the project during
this time, propelling both of them forwards like a quasi-producer.
In addition to the roles of the analyst and the guide, there is yet one
side of Guerra’s expertise as a screenwriter fully at work in the writing
of Nostalgia, as it was in the screenplays of Antonioni too; his work
with structure and cinematic images in the medium of words. Some of
the elemental images of the film arose as expressions of Tarkovsky’s
inner self, from sketches written in his diary many years before. To
make a complete narrative stand on its feet, a wider and more sig-
nificantly defined flow of ideas, themes and images was needed. Most
importantly, it required the poetic, dramatic and narrative skills of a
professional, Antonioni’s ‘technical sweetness’ mentioned above, for
the dynamic relationship of the story to be constructed.
What counts in the task of the screenwriter the most is what to
make out of all the material brought up by these or any other methods
and, most importantly, how to build them into meaningful constella-
tions, structural and syntactic units and a moving image narrative, into
a ‘language’ of cinema, without shattering the often very abstract and
fragile core ideas and the mystery involved in their creation.
To conclude, the authorship here should be considered not in terms
of a personal signature, but more according to the mathematics of the
child and the madman as they appear in Guerra’s oeuvre; as one plus
one equals one, so Guerra and Tarkovsky’s work constitutes a whole
in which one is inseparable from the other. Even though Tarkovsky
can be seen as the ‘auteur of auteurs’, he nonetheless allowed Guerra
to be a poet in the practice of screenwriting. Thus he makes Guerra a
creator, not just serving Tarkovsky, but rather conceiving the story and
the visual and poetic world of the film. Furthermore, what their liaison
suggests is that, at its best, collaborative screenwriting – the shared
authorship between a writer and a director on a screenplay – can be
an organic and intimate thinking process shared between two creative
minds, arising from the specificity of the film’s visual vocabulary, and
its conditions and possibilities.

Amarcord (1973), Wrs: Federico Fellini, Tonino Guerra, Dir: Federico Fellini,
Italy, 127 min.
Angelopoulos, Theodo-ros and Fainaru, Dan (2001), Angelopoulos Theo:
Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Antonioni, Michelangelo (1963), Screenplays of Antonioni, New York: Orion
—— (2007), ‘Mitä olen halunnut sanoa’, Filmihullu, 6, pp. 28–32.
Astruc, Alexandre (1968 [1948]), ‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La
Camera-Stylo’, in Peter Graham (ed.), The New Wave: Critical Landmarks,
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, pp. 17–23. (Orig.‘Du stylo à la caméra et de
la caméra au stylo’, in L’Écran Française, March 1948).
Bondanella, Peter E. (2001), Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present,
London: Continuum.


JOSC_1.1_5_art_Pelo_113-130.indd 127 8/22/09 5:32:37 PM

Riikka Pelo

Blow-up (1966), Wrs: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Julio Cortázar,

Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/UK, 111 min.
Burke, Frank (2002), Federico Fellini: Contemporary Perspectives, Toronto:
University of Toronto Press.
Casanova ‘70 (1965), Wrs: Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Tonino Guerra, Agenore
Incrocci, Mario Monicelli et. al., Dir: Mario Monicelli, Italy, 113 min.
Chatman, Seymour (1985), Antonioni, Or the Surface of the World, Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Chatman, Seymour and Duncan, Paul (eds) (2004), Michelangelo Antonioni:
The Investigation, Köln: Taschen.
Godard, Jean-Luc (1984), Elokuva Godardin mukaan (ed. Sakari Toiviainen),
Helsinki: Love-kirjat.
Guerra, Tonino (1979), ‘Tarkovsky at the Mirror’, Panorama, 676: 3, http://
Guerra-1979.html. Accessed 25 May 2009.
Il Deserto Rosso/The Red Desert (1964), Wrs: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino
Guerra, Dr: Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 120 min.
La Notte/Night (1961), Wrs: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, Tonino
Guerra, Dir: Michelangelo Antionioni, Italy, 122 min.
L’Avventura/The Adventure (1960), Wrs: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino
Guerra, Elio Bartolini, Dr: Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 145 min.
L’Eclisse/Eclipse (1962), Wrs: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio
Bartolini, Ottiero Ottieri, Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 118 min.
McKee, Robert (1997), Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of
Screenwriting, New York: Regan Books.
Machiavelli, Niccolo (2004), ‘Il pericoloso filo rosso delle cose Tonino Guerra
e l(ad)oggi’, in Giacomo Martini (ed.), Tonino Guerra, Modena: Regione
Emilia-Romagna, pp. 242–60.
Marrone, Gaetana and Puppa, Paolo (2006), Encyclopedia of Italian Literary
Studies, Raton: CRC Press.
Nostalghia/Nostalgia (1983), Wrs: Tonino Guerra, Andrei Tarkovsky, Dir:
Andrei Tarkovsky, Italy/Soviet Union, 125 min.
Norman, Mark (2007), What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting,
New York: Random House.
Pellizzari, Lorenzo (2004), ‘Un filo rosso per il cinema italiano’, in Giacomo
Martini (ed.), Tonino Guerra, Modena: Regione Emilia-Romagna, pp. 218–40.
Rohdie, Sam (1990), Antonioni, London: British Film Institute.
Stempel, Tom (2000), Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American
Film, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Synessios, Natasha (1999), ‘Introduction’, in Andrei Tarkovsky, Collected
Screenplays (trans. and eds William Powell and Natasha Synessios),
London: Faber and Faber.
Tarkovski, Andrei (1989), Martyrologia (kotimaassa): päiväkirjat 1970–1981
(ed. Larisa Tarkovskaja, trans. Kari Klemelä), Helsinki: Mabuse.
—— (1994), Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970–1986 (trans. Kitty Hunter-
Blair), London: Faber and Faber.
—— (1999), Collected Screenplays (trans. and eds William Powell and Natasha
Synessios), London: Faber and Faber.
Tempo di viaggio/Voyage in Time (1983), Wrs: Tonino Guerra, Andrei Tarkovsky,
Dirs: Tonino Guerra, Andrei Tarkovsky, Italy, 62 min.


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Tonino Guerra: the screenwriter as a narrative technician or as a poet of images?

Uomini e lupi/Men and Wolves (1956), Wrs: Giuseppe de Santis, Tonino Guerra,
Ivo Petrilli, Elio Petri, Tullio Pinelli, Cesare Zavattini, Dir: Giuseppe de
Santis, Italy, 94 min.
Zerkalo/The Mirror (1974), Wrs: Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Misharin, Dir:
Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 106 min.

Pelo, R. (2010), ‘Tonino Guerra: the screenwriter as a narrative technician or as a
poet of images? Authorship and method in the writer–director relationship’,
Journal of Screenwriting 1: 1, pp. 113–129, doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.113/1

Riikka Pelo is a Finnish novelist and a screenwriter currently working on
her Ph.D. by practice in screenwriting in the University of Art and Design,
Helsinki. Her novel, The Heaven-Bearer, will be published in English by The
Twisted Spoon Press (Czech Republic/USA) in 2010.
Contact: University of Art and Design, Helsinki, Finland.
E-mail: rpelo@taik.fi


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JOSC_1.1_5_art_Pelo_113-130.indd 130 8/26/09 11:13:10 AM

JOSC 1 (1) pp. 131–148 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting | Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.131/1

University of Stirling

Creating Authorship?
Lindsay Anderson and
David Sherwin’s
collaboration on
If.... (1968)

This article draws upon the research currently undertaken for my doctoral authorship
thesis and is meant to act as a complementary study of Lindsay Anderson collaboration
and David Sherwin’s partnership on If…. (1968), following Charles David Sherwin
Drazin’s 2008 article for the Journal of British Cinema and Television, Lindsay Anderson
‘If… before If…’. Charles Drazin (2008: 318) highlights the idea of a sequence 5
‘creative dynamic’ underlying the working partnership between Lindsay script to screen
Anderson and David Sherwin on If…., as well as in the subsequent projects transition
they developed together. The following article aims to uncover the nature process of
of the creative dynamic suggested by Drazin’s article by looking at both the equivalence
personal and the artistic dimensions that the working relationship assumed. François Truffaut
The aim is to highlight the distinctiveness of their collaboration in the cin- ‘une certaine
ema; the article will show that in the course of this collaborative work they tendance du
realized their artistic potential through an exchange of expertise, and that cinéma français’


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Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard

1. The title for the film is their collaboration helped to bring about an alternative approach to the con-
If…., with four ellipsis
dots, not three. See
ventional opposition between screenwriter and director, especially when it
Lindsay Anderson comes to claiming authorship over a film.
(2004a, 2004b) and
Mark Sinker (2004: 14).

The following article explores the nature of the working relationship
between the film director Lindsay Anderson and the screenwriter David
Sherwin during the screenwriting and production phases of the feature
film If.... (1968).1 The objective is to highlight the distinctive nature of
their director-screenwriter partnership by unravelling the existence of
a dynamic that their respective artistic potentials made possible. The

Figure 1: Lindsay Anderson and David Sherwin during the shooting of

If.... (1968). Courtesy: Lindsay Anderson Archive, University of Stirling.


JOSC 1.1_5_art_Gourdin-Sangouard_131-148.indd 132 8/22/09 5:29:58 PM

Creating Authorship?

background to the article originates from my own Ph.D. research which

focuses upon the cinema authorship of Lindsay Anderson; it also aims
to offer a complementary reading of Charles Drazin’s own insight into
what he regards as ‘one of the British cinema’s most significant
writer-director partnerships’ (2008: 318). The article will further relate
the dynamic underpinning of Anderson and Sherwin’s work on If....
to Anderson’s own view of the film-making process.
During his days as the editor of the cinema journal Sequence,
Lindsay Anderson argued for the need to acknowledge the proc-
ess of film-making as the ‘[…] almost miraculous fusion of many
and various creative elements’ (Anderson 1948: 199). This proved a
clear departure from the approach that his French counterparts in the
Cahiers du Cinéma were to privilege, from the mid-1950s, and which
for him denied the true nature of film-making; ‘a basic weakness in
most French writing on the cinema… seems to be this extraordinary
unawareness of the fact that films have to be written before they can
be directed’ (Anderson 1955: 255). For Anderson, the French journal’s
reviewing practice of American cinema overlooked the reality of the
studio system, one in which the director has little latitude in terms
of creative input, as scenarios are often imposed upon them by pro-
ducers. However, Anderson’s systematic review of the artistic role
which each – screenwriter, director, producer – assumes within the
film-making process illustrates his belief in the existence of a crea-
tive exchange and thereby reasserts his particular brand of author-
ship; ‘analytical criticism, discussion of [the] filmmaker’s personality,
is impossible if a good half of the constituent elements of each film is
simply ignored’ (Anderson 1955: 255).
The following article will place this claim in the context of Anderson’s
first feature film involving an original script as well as a close working
partnership before, during and after filming.


The story of the collaboration between Lindsay Anderson and David
Sherwin is one that deserves more than a mere acknowledgement
within the history of British cinema, as it spans a nearly thirty-year
period. The two men were formally introduced at a London Soho pub,
the ‘Pillars of Hercules’, in July 1966: Seth Holt, a director and pro-
ducer as well as a personal friend of Lindsay Anderson, had arranged
a meeting with the intention of convincing Anderson to direct an
original script written by two young aspiring screenwriters, with Holt
as producer (2004b: 108). Crusaders was the brainchild of two school
friends, David Sherwin and John Howlett, who had set out to fic-
tionalize their days at Tonbridge School in Kent. By the time Lindsay
Anderson met the two friends, their hopes to ever see the script real-
ized onscreen were running low. Their story – a chronicle of the strug-
gle for power and the resulting revolt against the daily abuses taking


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Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard

2. See David Sherwin’s 5 place within the confines of a fictional English public school2 – had, in
May 1960 entry: ‘the
only experience we’ve Sherwin’s words, generally been met with moral outrage and outright
got is that Nazi condemnation.3 David Sherwin’s published diaries (1997) and more
camp – Tonbridge – recently Charles Drazin’s account of If....’s genesis (Drazin 2008: 321–
our schooldays!’ /[John
Howlett] ‘it’s never 324), highlight the connections between the adverse feelings which
been done. Not the the original script generated and the context in which it was presented
real truth. The torture!
The keen types!’ to potential producers. Drazin’s article in particular outlines what he
(Sherwin 1997: 2). perceived to be the lack of artistic vision and ambition that charac-
3. See Lindsay Anderson:
‘They had been
terized the British cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s (Drazin
working on the draft 2008). Quoting his own interview with Geoffrey Nowell-Smith,
for some years, and Drazin contrasts the inertia afflicting the British cinema scene with the
in various drafts had
submitted it to such then blooming French New Wave that was, in his opinion, taking the
people as Nicholas medium into uncharted territories of new-found cinematic creativ-
Ray… and the British
producer Ian Dalrymple
ity with films such as François Truffaut’s Les Quatre-Cents Coups/400
(who had told them Blows or Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle/Breathless – both 1959
they both deserved to (Drazin 2008: 326).4
be beaten)’ (Anderson
2004b: 108). Also By the time the script – still entitled Crusaders – reached Lindsay
David Sherwin noted Anderson in 1966, two film directors are cited as having expressed an
on 21 May 1960
‘[Lord Brabourne] interest in the story (Sherwin 1997: 3–10, Anderson 2004b: 108). In both
is straightforward. cases, however, they decided against directing it themselves; Nicholas
Crusaders is the most Ray, the director of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) whom David Sherwin
evil and perverted
script he’s ever read’ and John Howlett greatly admired, turned down the project on the
(Sherwin 1997: 4). grounds of his American heritage, which he believed disqualified him
4. See also Penelope
Houston: ‘France for the task. Similarly, the second director to react positively to the
probably has a script, Seth Holt, also felt that his lack of a first-hand experience of the
rather higher share
of enlightened
investors than Britain
or America, men
prepared to take risks
on a creative rather
than a commercial
reputation’ (Houston
1963: 87). Also,
‘looking across the
Channel … France
and Italy have their
defiantly young
directors, as unafraid
of making mistakes
as they are of making
pictures; and Britain’s
cinema by contrast
looks scared of cutting
loose, of appearing
immature or juvenile’
(Houston 1963: 113).

Figure 2: Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell on the set of If....

(1968). Courtesy: Lindsay Anderson Archive, University of Stirling.


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Creating Authorship?

Figure 3: Anderson and Sherwin consult their scripts, while shooting If....
(1968). Courtesy: Lindsay Anderson Archive, University of Stirling.

English public school system proved too much of an obstacle for him
to produce a film that would do justice to the script (Anderson 2004b:
108). Both David Sherwin’s diaries (1997) and Lindsay Anderson’s
own recollection (2004b: 108) privilege the personal dimension in
the decision-making process of these directors, while the industrial
context might just as equally have accounted for Nicholas Ray’s and
Seth Holt’s unwillingness to see the project through. Sherwin’s entry,
detailing his first meeting with the American director, is illustrative of
the tone which characterizes the screenwriter’s records for the gen-
esis of the film; a tendency to turn the context in which film-making
practice was operating in Britain at the time into a critique of his own
personal struggle over artistic creation:

[Nicholas] Ray stares quizzically at me… ‘Well, why don’t they

want to make your…’ – a long Ray pause – ‘film’? I explain
Lord Brabourne’s reaction. ‘It’s England’. Ray tells me he is too
American to make the film himself, but I have a great future in
Hollywood. God, I think, I’m almost there.
(Sherwin 1997: 8)

Within the context of this article the quote also allegorises the
connection between the personal and the artistic sides of Lindsay
Anderson’s and David Sherwin’s lives. Their respective frustration
at a system which was only just opening up to more socially rel-
evant and challenging themes for screen adaptation is but another


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Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard

5. See Robert Murphy manifestation of the duality which was to inform their working
(1992: 102–14),
and in particular; partnership. Robert Murphy (1992) provides a useful account of the
‘Complaints about structural and economic changes that were affecting the British cin-
Rank and ABC’s ema industry in the course of the 1960s. If the Rank Organization
domination of the
industry led Edward and Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) had a de facto
Heath… to refer the monopoly on the British cinematic production and distribution
“Supply of Films to
the British Cinema” until as late as the mid-1960s,5 cracks in the system had started to
to the Monopolies emerge in the early 1960s with a string of unexpected critical and
Commission. Their
report, finally delivered
public successes achieved by independent productions.6 Saturday
in October 1966, Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960), for instance, which
proved to be a Seth Holt had edited, managed to overcome the hurdles of a hos-
clear and incisive
indictment of the tile film trade, gaining critical and public acclaim which further
monopoly influence enabled Tony Richardson’s newly created Woodfall film company
exerted by the two big
corporations’ (Murphy
to achieve financial viability (Murphy 1992: 21). Of note, Albert
1997: 106–107). Finney, the lead in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was to
6. See also Roger become the producer of If…. with his own film and theatre com-
Manvell (1966:
116–133). pany, Memorial, taking the project on board in June 1967 (Sherwin
7. Lindsay Anderson 1997: 18). Lindsay Anderson had himself been given the chance
commented ‘we
were not writing on to direct his first feature film at the suggestion of Karel Reisz, who
commission, had no acted as a producer on This Sporting Life (1963). It could be argued
‘development deal’, that Lindsay Anderson merely continued with David Sherwin
and so felt beholden
to nobody, and quite the tradition of artistic exchange, started in the wake of the Free
unaffected by any Cinema initiative, whereby respective areas of expertise were both
prejudices except our
own. In this way If…. used and promoted with the objective of furthering a common
was well and truly in vision for the cinema.7 In this respect David Sherwin describes
the tradition of “Free
Cinema”’ (2004b:
the conditions which led him to work with Lindsay Anderson as a
110). personal and artistic epiphany (Sherwin 1997: 11). Charles Drazin
8. David Sherwin: ‘With (2008) also stresses this sense of artistic recognition – ‘a mutual
this mutual flash of
understanding my and flash of understanding’8 – which was to herald a lifelong intellec-
Lindsay’s destinies tual, artistic and emotionally-charged collaboration of which If....
change…’ (Sherwin
1997: 11).
(1968) captures the essence.
9. David Sherwin recalls
in one of his diary
entries how the title for FROM CRUSADERS TO IF…. :9 UNRAVELLING THE
the film came about
Lindsay Anderson was
using his old school – If this ‘stroke of divine providence’ (Drazin 2008: 329) translated into
Cheltenham College – an opportunity for the script to become a film, it also led Sherwin to a
as one of the shooting profound reassessment of his professional skills in view of Anderson’s
locations. As Anderson
feared the reaction of outright dissatisfaction10 with the draft submitted to him. As Drazin’s
the headmaster, should interview with Sherwin indicates, a self-confessed teacher/student
he read the actual
Crusaders script, a working relationship soon asserted itself (Drazin 2008). It appears that
fake script was sent the young screenwriter accepted the terms of their working partner-
instead. The title for
this fake, from Rudyard
ship as a necessary and even integral part of a tacit learning curve.
Kipling’s poem If, was Lindsay Anderson’s own view of the early stages of their collaboration
suggested by Albert certainly suggests that his intervention brought about a complete re-
Finney’s secretary,
Daphne Hunter, and appraisal of the existing draft: ’David Sherwin and I took Crusaders to
Sherwin decided to pieces, invented new characters, new incidents and a new structure’
keep it afterwards for
(Anderson 2004b: 109).


JOSC 1.1_5_art_Gourdin-Sangouard_131-148.indd 136 8/22/09 5:30:01 PM

Creating Authorship?

This idea of a new departure for the script finds further confir- the film itself. Mark
Sinker highlights the fact
mation in Anderson’s mention of the subsequent decisions by John that Lindsay Anderson
Howlett and Seth Holt to withdraw from the project entirely (2004b: leaves room for doubt
109–10, 113). An interesting pattern then develops between the two as to whom – himself
or Sherwin – Daphne
men, as suggested in the Drazin article (2008: 331), from this initial Hunter suggested the
hierarchical structure in their approach to their craft; the screenwriter use of the poem title
(Sinker 2004: 18). See
locates his own strength in his capacity for imagination, but also pro- also Anderson (2004b:
fesses a need for containment which he believed the director’s pro- 110).
10. ‘After reading it,
claimed synthetic and analytical skills provided.11 Lindsay Anderson though, I found myself
also appears to accept his role as the more experienced practitioner. disappointed. It was
The letter which he wrote to Sherwin from Poland in November 196612 certainly appealing
in an anarchic, even
illustrates the point fully: poetic way, but I felt
there was a naivety
about it, which…
You have (excuse me writing like a school report) a fecundity of made me feel that
imagination, but it seems to operate rather without organic sense, it could only be
directed by the authors
like a series of prose poems: or jottings for a script. Sometimes a themselves’ (Anderson
whole idea is valuable, sometimes a couple of lines, sometimes 2004b: 108).
nothing. 11. Charles Drazin:
‘Anderson […]
(Anderson 2004a: 171) possessed a formidable
sense of structure and
the analytical ability
Not surprisingly, David Sherwin’s entries recording the redrafting to push a dramatic
process betray a high degree of emotional turmoil. Between July situation to its logical
conclusion’ (Drazin
1966 and June 1967 Sherwin’s mood seems to oscillate between 2008: 331).
extremes of exultation and depression. In his published diaries, two 12. Anderson spent three
entries, one for December 1966 immediately followed by one for months in Warsaw
between October
Spring 1967, are an indication of the emotional strain experienced and December 1966
by the screenwriter: to direct a Polish
production of John
Osborne’s Inadmissible
December 1966: I get so carried away by this letter that I produce Evidence, with Tadeusz
a script which is complete rubbish. Lomnicki in the leading
role. While in Poland,
Christmas Eve 1966: Lindsay tells me the script is awful. I have on the suggestion of
the director of the
failed. ‘Go away and write simply. Remember Georg Buechner,’ Documentary Studio,
he says. Anderson also filmed
a documentary about
Spring 1967: [...] finish the new draft in April. In trepidation I the Warsaw Dramatic
Academy, which he
post it off to Lindsay. He rings me at the crack of dawn to say called Raz, Dwa,
it’s brilliant. Trzy/The Singing
(Sherwin 1997: 15)

What is noteworthy, however, is the positive light which both Sherwin

and his editor on those same diaries, Charles Drazin, cast upon the
same period. Drazin regards their collaboration as an ‘organic relation-
ship of two equal collaborators’ (Drazin 2008: 331). Sherwin similarly
adopts the view that their working relationship produced a ‘creative
dynamic’, which he defines as a process akin to a ‘Thesis’, ‘Antithesis’,
‘Synthesis’ approach (Drazin 2008: 331). In so arguing, however,
Sherwin also opens up the possibility of a more negative approach to
their collaboration. If no feeling of resentment permeates the narrative


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Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard

13. Lindsay Anderson: of his published diaries – merely the sense of an emotionally-driven
‘David Sherwin arrives
early morning – well creative spirit in need of critical support – the recent interview which
10.00: but I am he granted Charles Drazin (2008) appears to undermine, ever so
not up… the idea slightly, this view of their collaboration. For instance, Sherwin recalls
of getting down to
discussing Crusaders, his attempts to regain control over the drafting process and his subse-
rewrites, etc. is quent strategy of privileging afternoons for their working sessions – in
really alarming and
distasteful’ (Anderson all likelihood due to Lindsay Anderson’s self-proclaimed aversion to
2004a: 177). working in the morning:13

[Sherwin set out to learn] how to trigger Anderson’s sub-

conscious: ‘The best thing I found – it was no good in the morn-
ings, but in the afternoon he quite liked whisky – I would give
him half a glass of whisky every half an hour until by the end of
the evening [Anderson] was firing with creative thoughts’.
(Drazin 2008: 332)

It is tempting to argue that the only way for this young screenwriter
to ever see his script transposed onto the screen was to agree to a
tacit denial of his artistic impulses. David Sherwin betrays an apparent
desire to redress the balance: ‘Anderson was a containing influence
for a highly inventive mind… Sherwin recalled the warning that the
director would often issue during their work together: ‘David, bread as
well as jam. And you’re too much jam’ (in Drazin 2008: 331).
In these circumstances the dual dimension underpinning the col-
laborators’ working dynamic would point to the precarious position
in which a screenwriter finds himself, whenever allowing the direc-
tor to become involved in the drafting process. Instead of the fruitful
collaboration which Sherwin appears keen to emphasize, a struggle
for creative dominance (for which Anderson’s and Sherwin’s respec-
tive set of artistic skills would provide a metaphor) asserts itself. An
entry in Sherwin’s diaries, from around the same time as Anderson’s
remarks quoted above, encapsulates this idea of a contrary pull, and
is to the detriment of the screenwriter. On 15 May 1967 Anderson
pronounces the draft to be complete. Sherwin says, ‘Our draft of
Crusaders is finished. Lindsay is pleased…’. However, the following
morning Sherwin finds himself in a state of panic: ‘The script is rub-
bish’ (Sherwin 1997: 17). What is interesting about Sherwin’s out-
burst is that it seems to act as a question mark over his claim of the
authorship of the script. In this regard, his published diaries do not
make any mention of the redrafting that subsequently took place at
Lindsay Anderson’s flat in London, but an account of this is found in
Anderson’s diaries (2004a: 177–80).
Charles Drazin (2008) contributes his own approach to the issue
of who could rightfully claim the authorship of the final script in
assimilating script and filmed version. Instead of establishing a clear
divide between the author of the written script and the director of
the film, Drazin reinforces the idea of a common artistic goal which
would have been attained through a collaborative effort throughout.


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Creating Authorship?

He declares, for instance, ‘the film was an example of the key crea- 14. ‘I stare at the story
tors in effect pooling their authorship through shared values. If.... was in Variety, not quite
believing that it is true:
neither Anderson’s film nor Sherwin’s film; it was their film’ (Drazin SHERWIN WINS
2008: 333, original emphasis). BRITISH WRITERS’
This compromise position, which Drazin seems to privilege, finds (Sherwin 1997: 26).
its manifestation in the tone of the interviews at the time of the
film’s release and the subsequent publication of the script in 1969. In
an interview for The Observer in December 1968, Lindsay Anderson
clearly attributes all decisions in terms of narrative and style to both
Sherwin and himself (Anderson 1968: 114). Similarly, in the ‘Notes
for a Preface’ to the published script of If…., the director discusses
the background to the storyline as well as any decision pertaining to
style or any meaning to be inferred from their working partnership
(Anderson 1969: 120–3). Furthermore, given that Anderson’s sub-
sequent two feature films as well as an unrealized sequel to If….
were scripted by David Sherwin as well, the picture of a particularly
productive and mutually beneficial partnership would appear most
convincing. David Sherwin does not seem intent on directly claim-
ing the authorship of the script for himself. In his published dia-
ries he refers to ‘our script’, or talks about his ‘contribution to If….’
(Sherwin 1997: 17, 23). The closest he comes to proclaiming the
script as his own creation is his mention of the British Writers’ Guild
Award, which he won for the 1968 Best British Original Screenplay
(Sherwin 1997: 26).14
It follows that Charles Drazin’s article (2008) convincingly high-
lights the emotional dimension underlying Lindsay Anderson and
David Sherwin’s collaboration on the drafting process by offer-
ing a detailed insight into their working pattern and writing rituals.
However, the question of assigning the final authorship of the script
remains open as Drazin grants each partner’s input equal importance.
Within the present context this proves useful as it provides a starting
point from which to investigate conventional notions of authorship in
a cinematic context.


David Sherwin contributes the following diary entry the day before
the filming is due to start:

The night before shooting starts at Cheltenham College. Lindsay

calls me round to his flat in Greencroft Gardens. He admits to
me point-blank that he’s terrified. Lost. He doesn’t even know
where he’s going to put the camera. We drink a whisky and lis-
ten to The Beach Boys one last time before the battle begins.
(Sherwin 1997: 21)

This entry is significant in two ways: first, it establishes the emo-

tional bond which is an intrinsic component of their collaboration


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15. Entries in April and on the film. Second, it hints at their ability to transcend the usual
May 1967 note: ‘We
settle into a routine… boundaries between each other’s assumed areas of expertise. This
Lindsay insists on two would in turn suggest the existence of an interchangeable dynamic
walks a day… then between the two – a dynamic which lies at the heart of their artistic
along the stony beach
and into – JOY! – a drive. Sherwin here writes himself into the role of dominant part-
wonderful seaside ner, referring to Anderson by his first name and further recounting
pub called the
“Broadmark”. Here in their meeting that night by simply using the third person pronoun,
the public bar we play and thereby asserting his control over the situation. Of note, Mark
the jukebox and listen
to the Beach Boys. If
Sinker (2004: 62–3) regards the sequence in which the three main
I’ve been a good protagonists in If…. are whipped as evidence of an underlying S&M
writer, Lindsay allows motif, for which the public school’s etiquette works as an allegory.
me a second glass of
barley wine’ (Sherwin He further argues that this reading would account for Mick Travis’s
1997: 16). subsequent rebellion as in S&M practice “[…] the bottom is run-
ning [the] scene” (Sinker 2004: 63). With regard to the present argu-
ment highlighting the degree of emotional dependency displayed in
turn by both Anderson and Sherwin, it is tempting to regard the
sequence in the film as a fictional re-creation of their own artistic
process; in other words, the apparent teacher/student relation that
had established itself during the drafting process is indicative of a
pre-established hierarchy necessary to the production of the story
but by no means impervious to change and/or challenge.
Here, the recourse to a drink and some music mentioned by
Sherwin functions as a much-needed reprieve from having to face
the consequences of their artistic endeavour. A ritual has established
itself between the two partners; whoever happens to find himself
exposed to outside scrutiny can rely upon the emotional comfort
and temporary leadership granted by the other. Both Anderson’s
and Sherwin’s diaries support this view by providing examples of
the same pattern repeating itself on numerous occasions. In the case
of If….’s pre-production and filming stages, David Sherwin’s diary
entries, referring to his stay at Lindsay Anderson’s family cottage,
mirror the account of Anderson’s breakdown on the eve of shoot-
ing.15 Similarly, Anderson documents his location-scouting trip to
Charterhouse, at the end of which he reports Sherwin experiencing
his own anxiety attack:

As we left, David announced himself as feeling quite ill and

intimidated by the whole experience… we recovered a bit with
teas and a Kit-Kat and records on the juke box in a chara caff on
the road home…
(Anderson 2004a: 185)

The working pattern between the two men also provides an illustration
of the human dimension underpinning the coming-into-existence of
the script. It further lends legitimacy to Anderson’s vision of the film-
making process as a fusion of many and various creative elements; the
script becomes an intrinsic part of the production of the film. Neither
a compilation of filming guidelines for the director, nor the transposition


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Creating Authorship?

of a novel, the script is the product of a creative dynamic which, in 16. ’I work practically
without a shooting
turn, makes the film possible. script; all I prepare
Two episodes further illustrate the relevance of the dynamic that is the dialogue […]
underpins Anderson and Sherwin’s partnership. The first involves You can’t put the
best moments of a
the writing stage: the second, the passage from script to screen. film down in a script’
In 1994 Lindsay Anderson recalled a key instance of a scene ‘which (Truffaut in Manvell
1966: 69).
seem[ed] entirely right within the film but which [was] not in the 17. See for instance Louis
original script’ at the start of filming (2004b: 117). The scene in ques- Marcorelles: ‘The
credits of A Bout de
tion occurs straight after the sequence during which the three main Souffle list François
protagonists and friends – Mick, Johnny and Wallace – go through Truffaut as screenwriter
the ritualistic flogging by the school’s prefects. Anderson reports and Claude Chabrol
as “artistic supervisor”;
that he did not think that the scene ‘worked’ as scripted, so instead but this was done
he relied upon his intuition and devised an entirely new scene. For for the benefit of the
technicians’ union and,
the director the new scene, showing Mick shooting darts at a col- in fact… Truffaut’s
lage of newspaper cuttings, ‘solved the transition after the beating’ contribution was the
(Anderson 2004b: 117). discovery of a news
snippet which became
The background to the filming of this unscripted scene reinforces the starting point of the
Lindsay Anderson’s distinctive championing of the existence of crea- plot. A Bout de Souffle
is therefore a genuine
tive elements at the heart of the film-making process. Anderson’s film d’auteur – more
account, justifying the suppression of one scene and its substitu- so than either Les
tion by another conceived by the director himself, initially seems to Quatre-Cents Coups
or Hiroshima, Mon
echo François Truffaut’s own directorial practice on Les Quatre-Cents Amour, to which the
Coups/ 400 Blows (1959), a film which has often been cited along- screenwriters made
powerful contributions’
side Anderson’s If.... for their common homage to Jean Vigo’s Zéro (Marcorelles
de Conduite/Zero for Conduct (1933). Roger Manvell quotes Truffaut 1960: 84).
as advocating a directorial practice liberated from the constraints of a
written script and thereby opening up fully the cinematic potential of
a film (Manvell 1966: 69).16 While the French New Wave representa-
tives are keen to suggest that a gradual dismissal of the screenwriter’s
input ought to operate when moving from the page to the screen,17
the collage scene constitutes another manifestation of the dynamic
underlying Anderson and Sherwin’s collaboration; this visual token
illustrates the process of equivalence that supersedes any traditional
definition of authorship. Lindsay Anderson provides an illustration of
this process of equivalence such as it applies to the two men’s work-
ing pattern and, in this instance, to the collage scene:

[A]s the script developed we were consciously determined not to

appear to be reflecting, in journalistic style, upon the revolution-
ary student action in France or in America. That was one reason
why […] we eliminated all the fashionable iconography of revolt
from the walls of the boys’ studies.
(Anderson 2004b: 109)

Anderson’s comment highlights the extent to which the development

of the script and its transposition to the screen function interdepend-
ently from each other. The decision to take out a scripted scene from the
film does not constitute a challenge to the validity of the screenwriter’s


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Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard

18. ‘It is only when you work. Instead, the main protagonist ‘firing darts into the collages
make [the film], you
write it, you film it, broaden[s] the impact’ intended by the film (Anderson 2004b: 118),
you edit it that all and reaffirms the collaborative dimension of the pair’s work because,
the creative process as Sherwin explains, ‘we worked through the night, arranging the
sets in, and that you
reach a conclusion pictures in different patterns on the floor, until finally we have highly
which is the film per charged collages for our heroes’ (Sherwin 1997: 23).
se’ (Anderson 1969,
trans. the author). This mention in Sherwin’s diaries of the collage scene assumes
19. The notebooks further significance when seen in parallel with an incident that took
themselves are held in
the Lindsay Anderson
place barely a month beforehand. David Sherwin was present for
Collections, Stirling the shooting of the sequence showing the three friends carrying out
University. their punishment for killing the chaplain. Just as the camera was
supposed to start rolling, Lindsay Anderson started reproaching
Sherwin for not having written one single line of dialogue between
the protagonists from that place in the story until the very end of the
film. At that point Anderson appears to forego all claim of author-
ship over the script and instead castigates his screenwriter for his
alleged laziness. Sherwin’s rebuke – ‘It’s called poetry, Lindsay –
the poetry of cinema’ (Sherwin 1997: 23) – undermines the tradi-
tional notion of authorship being limited to particular stages of the
film-making process. A more fluid definition takes precedence: one
which acknowledges the area of expertise of each person involved
in the film-making process, while at the same time emphasizing the
existence of a continuous exchange inherent to that same process.
Sherwin’s active contribution to the preparation for the scene, which
had come into existence as a result of directorial involvement, puts
forward the interdependence of both. This dynamic sheds a new
light upon the claim of the authorship over the script, which involves
a process of equivalence.
There is no journal or shooting diary of the film itself; as far as
we know, Lindsay Anderson did not keep a record of his day-to-
day experience of shooting If….. Anderson did, though, give a sig-
nificant number of interviews at the time of If….’s release in 1968, as
well as on the occasion of the film’s presentation at the 1969 Cannes
International Film Festival. These interviews suggest that Anderson,
the director, goes beyond the normal and expected practice of mar-
keting a film: it brings out Anderson’s view of his function as a direc-
tor or, in other words, how this function translated into the practice
of film-making. For instance, in a 1969 interview to a French cinema
journal, Jeune Cinéma, Anderson defines his role as film director as
an integral part of the creative process underpinning film-making, as
opposed to being the film’s sole or main originator: ‘c’est quand on le
fait, qu’on l’écrit, qu’on le tourne, qu’on fait le montage que s’opère
tout le processus créateur et au bout on arrive à une conclusion qui est
le film’ (Anderson 1969: 9).18
Anderson’s published diaries provide another example of his view;
the editor, Paul Sutton, notes the presence in Anderson’s notebooks
of a mock interview featuring both the questions and the answers
(2004a: 193).19 One of the mock questions outlines the relevance of the


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Creating Authorship?

film to the trends and concerns of 1960s’ youth. Lindsay Anderson’s

corresponding answer is consistent with the interviews the director
gave at the time of the film’s release in which he would emphasize the
film’s claim to thematic and stylistic universality. In other words, both
the storyline and the adopted filming style would illustrate the princi-
ple of Dr Johnson’s ‘grandeur of generality’ (Anderson 1968: 113); the
core example, which underpins the director’s argument here, involves
a systematic reference – with varying degrees of openness – to the col-
lage artwork episode. Anderson’s consistent use of the personal pro-
noun ‘we’ to explain the rationale behind the selection process of each
photograph and/or any item relating to the students’ possessions and
surroundings, implies a direct correlation between the written inten-
tion present in the script and its visual realization onscreen. In other
words, a scene became a reality as the result of a process whereby the
role of the director and that of the screenwriter assume a function of
equivalence. This function of equivalence happens when the directo-
rial decision originates an unscripted scene, but which only becomes
‘filmable’ through the intervention of the screenwriter, who acts both
intellectually as cognisant of the script and literally by taking over the
role of the art department.
Another example of this notion of correspondence between
script and screen or, in other words, between the screenwriter’s
wording and the director’s visualization in the case of Anderson
and Sherwin’s collaboration, involves the so-called episode of the
‘Chaplain-in-the-Drawer’. We learn about the genesis of this oft-
commented-upon scene in David Sherwin’s diaries. During the
working holiday in April and May 1967 at Lindsay Anderson’s family
cottage, Sherwin reports the circumstances that saw the birth of one
of the key scenes in If….:

It happens like this. I am lying on the floor with a pad and

Lindsay is walking around the large wardrobe. We are running
through the scene where the Crusaders are being ‘punished’ by
the Headmaster for ‘murdering’ the Chaplain. And I blurt out:
‘Cut from the screaming Chaplain… to the Headmaster… Now,
Lindsay, at this moment the Headmaster slides open the large
chest of drawers and there is the Chaplain! He sits up and the
Crusaders each shake his hand one by one. Then the Chaplain
lies down and the Headmaster shuts the drawer…
(Sherwin 1997: 17)

For anyone who has seen the film, the correspondence between
script and screen is striking. In terms of the dynamics operating
between the screenwriter’s and the director’s respective practice, it
provides an example of this idea of equivalence that constitutes a
key feature of their partnership. It also brings further confirmation
that Lindsay Anderson and David Sherwin’s working collabora-
tion on If…. challenges the traditional notions of authorship within


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Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard

20. Reprinted in Lindsay the film-making process; through the director’s and screenwriter’s
Anderson (2004b:
194–199). open acknowledgment and sustained exchange with the constitu-
tive stages of the film-making process, a more fluid understanding
as to who is making/writing/ creating the film becomes possi-
ble. When Anderson, as a director, defends his choice of literally
‘putting the Chaplain in the Drawer’ (Anderson 2004b: 118), he
provides evidence of the dialectic which he places at the heart of
his artistic practice; ‘I used to throw myself against reality out of
which I can create something – but to create that reality is very
hard for me. I only seem able to work through some kind of dialec-
tic’ (Anderson 2004a: 174).


In 1976 Gore Vidal launched his own attack on the auteur theory by
dismissing the centrality of the director’s role within the film-making
process. He contends that the director is ‘expendable’ as ‘there are
thousands of movie technicians who can do what a director is sup-
posed to do… they actually do his work behind the camera and in
the cutter’s room’ (Vidal 1976: 148). He argued instead for the pri-
macy of the screenwriter’s role, going as far as proclaiming that ‘there
is no film without a written script’ (Vidal 1976: 148). As mentioned
previously, in an article for Sequence,20 Lindsay Anderson promoted
an all-encompassing view of the film-making process, whereby each
constitutive phase was granted its full relevance and significance – ‘to
form something new, something individual, a whole greater than its
parts’ (Anderson 1948: 199). His article provides an overview of the
constitutive stages of a film, assessing the contribution of each and
attempting to set up a possible hierarchy to determine their relation to
one another within the film-making process. His view of the screen-
writer’s role is particularly insightful as it reaffirms the centrality of the
script while maintaining the idea of an integrated process. Anderson
believes that any weaknesses in the script will damage the film, no
matter how skilled the director might be; but conversely, the script
does not exist in its own right as a novel or a play might. In other
words, the quality of a film – aesthetically or thematically – stems
from the skilful negotiation between the written and the visual, ‘for it
is under the director’s guidance that the film is created, transformed
from the inadequately expressed idea of the script to a living sequence
of sound and images’ (Anderson 1948: 198).
Anderson’s use of the term ‘inadequate’, to qualify the writ-
ten word before its transcription onto the screen, recalls François
Truffaut’s attack upon the French Tradition de Qualité which he
attributed to screenwriter-director partnerships such as the one
embodied by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (Truffaut 1954: 224–36).
In his influential 1954 essay in Cahiers du Cinéma, ‘Une Certaine
Tendance du Cinéma Français’, Truffaut denounced the practice
known as the process of equivalence or ‘invention without betrayal’


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Creating Authorship?

(Truffaut 1954: 226). This refers to transformation between media, 21. See David Gerstner
whereby in screen adaptations of pre-existing novels or plays, some and Janet Staiger
(2003: 3–25) and
scenes would be deemed un-filmable. Truffaut believed instead Virginia Wright-
in the potential for an ‘auteur’s cinema’ (Truffaut 1954: 234), that Wexman (2003: 1–18)
for instance, for recent
is, a practice of film-making which would acknowledge the true overviews of the debate
potential of the medium. Using Robert Bresson’s bold inclusion of surrounding the issue of
authorship in film.
a supposedly un-filmable scene in his adaptation of le Journal d’un
Curé de Campagne/Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Truffaut advo-
cates the need for transcending the boundaries which ‘scenarists,
directors and litérateurs’ have imposed upon film-making (Truffaut
1954: 234). Within our present context, it proves tempting to shed
a new light upon a seminal text that is commonly regarded as the
manifesto of the Politique des Auteurs, which was to champion
the centrality of the director’s role in the film-making process and
the study of film.21 It is worth noting that, in that same article,
Truffaut resorts to screenwriting practice to illustrate the short-
comings of the ‘scenarists and metteurs-en-scène of the “Tradition
of Quality”’; he argues that (screen)writing comedy is the ulti-
mate test for identifying the true men of the cinema (1954: 234).
In other words, Truffaut might also have intuited the interdepend-
ence of screenwriting and film directing but subsequently failed to
investigate the connection any further, as his later contributions
to Cahiers du Cinéma tend to suggest. Lindsay Anderson’s vision
for the role of the director in the film-making process would here
provide the missing connection by highlighting the centrality of the
latter’s role while simultaneously arguing for the need of a creative
trigger. In other words, Truffaut’s reference to the writing of com-
edy as a way of testing the cinematic potential of ‘true men of the
cinema’, would echo Anderson’s view of the ‘form versus content’
debate in the cinema. For Anderson contrary to what is happening
‘in the other arts [that display many] facets of the same personality,
in the cinema we have a varying number of artists – each perhaps
with a slightly different conception of the work they are combining
to create (Anderson 1948: 198). In that same article for Sequence,
Anderson further argues in favour of regarding the director’s role
as essential, making possible the ‘fusion’ of the creative elements
in the film. He also simultaneously proclaims the director’s reliance
and dependence upon the other members of the filming crew – ‘he
cannot stand alone’ (Anderson 1948: 199). This is a view which
Lindsay Anderson reaffirmed throughout his career as a film critic
(e.g. 1955: 255–256; 262; 271–276), and which his working collabo-
ration with David Sherwin on If…. exemplified. In ‘Notes For A
Preface’ (Anderson 2004b: 120), Anderson acknowledges the auto-
biographical undertones that pervade the film, but urges audience
and critics alike to look at it in more general terms. The way in
which the personal (both Anderson and Sherwin attended a public
school) and the artistic intersect in If…., parallels the way in which
the context of the late 1960s that surrounded the film’s release – that


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Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard

22. See Lindsay Anderson of ‘youthful dissidence and revolt’ (Anderson 2004b: 108) – inter-
(2004b: 118).
sected with the film’s script. It provides the metaphor for their
working dynamic just as the parallels between lived experience
and social context fed into the film – at the pre-production, pro-
duction and exhibition stages. In that sense, their collaboration on
If…. transcends the conventional boundaries of authorship within
the film-making process. The intrusion into each other’s area of
expertise does not signify a denial of authorship; instead, it signals
a constant interchange of creative practice. Just as film functions
as a metaphor for society but not merely as a reflection upon cur-
rent events,22 Lindsay Anderson and David Sherwin’s collaboration
illustrates the possibility in film of:

…a complex series of relationships, susceptible to so many

changes of emphasis… But one constant truth emerges – that the
evolution of a whole and consistent film demands a rare, almost
miraculous fusion of many and various creative elements.
(Anderson 1948: 199)

The author gratefully acknowledges Professor John Izod’s input at
the drafting stage as well as Karl Magee’s and Kathryn Mackenzie’s
assistance with the archival material.

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Ryan, (ed.) (2004), Never Apologise: The Collected Writings, London: Plexus,
pp. 194–199.
Anderson, Lindsay (1955), ‘Positif and Cahiers du Cinéma’, Sight and Sound,
January–March, in P. Ryan, (ed.) (2004), Never Apologise: The Collected
Writings, London: Plexus, pp. 255–256.
Anderson, Lindsay (1968), ‘School to Screen’, The Observer, December, in P.
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taire’, Jeune Cinéma, Revue Mensuelle de la Fédération Jean Vigo des Ciné-
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Houston, Penelope (1963), The Contemporary Cinema, Harmondsworth:

Penguin Books Ltd.
If…. (1968), Wr: David Sherwin, Dir: Lindsay Anderson, UK, 111 mins.
Journal d’Un Curé de Campagne/Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Wr: Georges
Bernanos and Robert Bresson, Dir: Robert Bresson, France, 111 mins.
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Truffaut, Dir: François Truffaut, France, 95 mins.
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Sight & Sound, 29:2, pp. 84–85.
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David Sherwin’s collaboration on If.... (1968)’, Journal of Screenwriting 1: 1,
pp. 131–148, doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.131/1

Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard, M. Phil, is a doctoral candidate at Stirling
University and part of the AHRC-funded project ‘The Cinema Authorship of
Lindsay Anderson’. She has contributed a number of conference papers and
articles to the project – one of which ‘Music/Industry/Politics: Alan Price’s
roles in O Lucky Man!’ will be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing,
as part of a study of Culture and Society in 1970s Britain. She taught film,
media and French language and culture, as a lecturer at The Robert Gordon
University, Aberdeen (2004/7) and as a teaching assistant at the University of


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Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard

Aberdeen (2000/6). Her research interests also include the area of media and
education, with presentations and a workshop at IAMCR 2006 and ECREA
(2007 European Media and Communication Doctoral Summer School).
‘The Cinema Authorship of Lindsay Anderson’ is an AHRC-funded project
at the University of Stirling. The Principal Investigator is Professor John Izod,
with Karl Magee as Senior Archivist and Co-investigator, Kathryn Mackenzie
as Archivist and Research Assistant, and Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard.
Contact: The University of Stirling, Dept of Film, Media & Journalism, Office
J13, Pathfoot Building, FK9 4LA.
Tel: +44 (0)1786 466227
E-mail: isabelle.gourdin-sangouard@stir.ac.uk


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JOSC 1 (1) pp. 149–173 Intellect Limited 2010

Journal of Screenwriting | Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.149/1

University of Greenwich

Screenwriting strategies
in Marguerite Duras’s
script for Hiroshima,
Mon Amour (1960)

The published ‘scénario et dialogues’ (Duras 1960) (Figure 1) of the film screenwriting
Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) feature precise technical specifications of Marguerite Duras
sound and image and more novelistic passages, all of which create an emotional Hiroshima,
resonance that has been left to the director to translate into images. This article Mon Amour
explores Marguerite Duras’s text as a particular example of how the written script
component of the screen idea (Macdonald 2004a) might function on the page memory
and as part of a dialogue with the director. It also examines the way that the narrative
script’s concern with problematizing and drawing attention to the process of rep-
resentation makes it a palpable and controlling presence in the resulting film.

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) was a collaboration between the writer
Marguerite Duras, as script writer, and Alan Resnais, as director.
A co-production between France and Japan, the original aim of the


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Rosamund Davies

Figure 1: Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour published by

Gallimard (1960).

film was to address the subject of the nuclear bomb and the tragedy of
Hiroshima. Duras and Resnais approached this from an unusual angle,
centring the narrative on a fictional present day love affair between
a Frenchwoman and a Japanese man, set in Hiroshima, rather than
undertaking a documentary examination of the facts. Subsequent
critical analysis of the film has most often focused on the way that,


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

by taking this approach, the film problematizes memory, history and 1. My translation. All
translations from the
indeed representation itself. An early analysis by Pingaud, reprinted French, other than of
from an original paper given in 1960 (Pingaud [1960] 2002), is typical the script for Hiroshima,
in this respect. Pingaud states that the central character of the film is Mon Amour, are my
own. The original
in fact time, rather than the human beings who live through it, and French is ‘la condition
that the film presents memory paradoxically as a process of forget- désespérée, désolante,
de la vie même’.
ting (l’oubli), a state which is portrayed in the film as ‘the hopeless, 2. Throughout this article,
wretched condition of life itself’ ([1960] 2002: 72).1 Pingaud points out I refer both to the
original French script
that both the bombing of Hiroshima and the other central narrative by Duras (1960), and
of the film, which concerns a young Frenchwoman’s love affair with to the 1966 translation
a German soldier and its aftermath, are presented as ‘images d’oubli’ by Richard Seaver.
When a quote from
([1960] 2002: 70). Here he underlines the fact that these events are the script is given in
not so much memories for the characters as gaps in their memory. The English it is taken from
Seaver’s translation,
film repeatedly emphasizes the fact that the bombing of Hiroshima, at unless otherwise
which neither of the characters was present, can only be experienced indicated. Any original
by them second-hand: through the physical remnants of buildings French text (from Duras
or other quoted French
and other artefacts that survived the blast, through the documen- sources) is given in the
tary footage of survivors, and through monuments and reconstruc- footnotes, unless my
comments refer directly
tions. Conversely, the Frenchwoman’s direct experience during World to the original French,
War II is buried so deep in her memory that, at the beginning of the in which case French
film, she cannot properly access or articulate it. Rather it interrupts and English translation
are quoted together
the film narrative as an unexplained visual flashback and through an within the article.
aural motif; the name of the town ‘Nevers’ where she lived, which 3. ‘Impossible de parler
is repeated and lingered on as a word many times by the characters Tout ce qu’on peut
before its narrative significance is revealed. faire c’est de parler
de l’impossibilité de
More recently Gronhovd and VanderWolk write that in Hiroshima, parler de HIROSHIMA’
Mon Amour the cinematic form lends itself to the portrayal of memory (Duras 1960: 2).
as ‘an agent of disjunction’ (1992: 125), which can open up ontological
investigation, but cannot answer epistemological questions, because
‘there exists in Hiroshima no ontological grounding from which epis-
temological questions can take shape’ (1992: 121).
What is being underlined in these readings is the fact that the
film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, in its insistence on the inseparability of
memory from forgetting, sets out in a certain respect to represent
the unrepresentable. This interpretation echoes the words of Duras
in her synopsis for the film, in which she states that it is ‘impossible
to talk about Hiroshima. All one can do is talk about the impos-
sibility of talking about Hiroshima’2 (Duras 1966: 10).3 Her script for
Hiroshima, Mon Amour then takes on the paradoxical project of say-
ing the unsayable.
Pingaud ([1960] 2002: 74) also highlights the way that the
Frenchwoman’s story unfolds in the film in a form that is similar to
that of a psychoanalytical cure. Her visit to Hiroshima acts as a cat-
alyst for involuntary memories from her past in France. These start
to interrupt and disrupt the present day narrative, until her Japanese
lover takes the role of the psychoanalyst and helps her to finally tell
in full the story of her love affair with a German soldier in occupied
France. This aspect has also been picked up by more recent theorists,


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Rosamund Davies

4. The published text who have expanded more fully on the film as an example of trauma
for Hiroshima, Mon
Amour (Duras, 1960) narrative. Caruth (whose understanding of trauma resonates with
is subtitled ‘scénario et Pingaud’s analysis of memory/forgetting within the film) writes that
dialogues’. This is in ‘the enigmatic language of untold stories – of experiences not yet
line with the standard
credit accorded to completely grasped – that resonates, throughout the film’ is in fact ‘a
the writer on French new mode of seeing and of listening – a seeing and a listening from
films, for which the
translation in English the site of trauma’ (Caruth 1996: 56).
would most typically My own research has been undertaken in the light of these existing
be ‘screenplay’, as
indeed would be
readings of the film, which I take as a starting point for my own work.
the translation for This article examines the script and associated documents written by
‘scénario’ alone. This Duras, presenting a close analysis of the way that the written text
absence of perfectly
matching terms in develops the themes and produces the effects commented on above.4
French and English is
further complicated
script does not conform DOCUMENTS
to the standard
industry formats of My examination of the written text in relation to the completed film
the American and UK
film industries of the
work also raises some questions about the nature of the collaboration
period. Given these between Duras as writer and Resnais as director and it will probably
various slippages be helpful at this point to establish the context of this collaboration, of
between terms, I have
opted to use the word which there were three main stages. The first stage, completed in the
‘script’ (which has a spring of 1958, before Resnais went to Japan to shoot the scenes set in
looser application than
‘screenplay’) to refer
Tokyo, resulted in the writing of an initial scenario as well as character
to the main script that profiles and other supporting documents. The second stage consisted
is included alongside of a concentrated period, in July and August of 1958, in which Duras
‘synopsis’ and
‘appendices’ in the and Resnais worked in parallel: Duras writing scenes for the Tokyo
published volume. shoot and sending them to Resnais for him to commit to celluloid a
short while later. According to Adler ([1998] 2000: 221), this intense
process was a two-way exchange, which also encompassed dialogue
rewrites. The third stage was completed after the main shoot in Japan
was finished, but prior to the shooting of the scenes set in Nevers,
France in December 1958. Duras wrote additional notes relating to
these scenes, which were collected in the published version of the
script as a series of appendices to the main script. According to Duras
(1960: 107) Resnais asked her to provide this material not as a script
but in the form of ‘commentaries’, as if she was responding to a view-
ing of scenes that had already been filmed.
In addition to the main script and the appendices, the published
edition of the ‘scénario et dialogues’ for Hiroshima, Mon Amour also
includes a synopsis, with which the volume begins. Before going on to
a more detailed analysis, I will first give an overview of the character-
istic features of each of these documents.

The synopsis both summarizes the film’s narrative and themes and
specifies in some detail how the film should be interpreted. Having
stated the impossibility of speaking of the bombing of Hiroshima, it
goes on to identify one of the film’s major aims as being to ‘to have


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

done with the description of horror by horror’5 (Duras 1966: 10). 5. ‘en finir avec la
description de l’horreur
Duras puts forward the proposition that, instead of simply attempting par l’horreur’ (Duras
to represent the horror of Hiroshima head on, it would be much more 1960: 3).
powerful to tell a love story in which the characters’ stories become 6. Here Seaver is picking
up on Duras’s stated
so entangled with the story of Hiroshima that it would be impossible intention that the love
to distinguish one from the other. Through this process, the experi- affair between the
Frenchwoman and the
ence of Hiroshima will in a sense be relived, rather than simply rep- Japanese becomes
resented. Adler seems to provide some background on this, when she indistinguishable from
the story of Hiroshima.
states that the departure point for Resnais and Duras, in developing A slightly more literal
the story for Hiroshima, Mon Amour, was to ask ‘Have our lives been translation of the
changed by the horror of the dropping of the bomb?’ (Adler [1998] original French might
be ‘it is as if the
2000: 219). Throughout the synopsis, Duras explicitly makes equiva- atrocity of a woman’s
lent the horror experienced by the Frenchwoman, branded a collab- head being shorn
in Nevers and the
orator in post-occupation France, and the horror of Hiroshima. She atrocity of Hiroshima
ends the synopsis by stating that the lovers exist for each other only were EXACTLY the
through the names of the places that they come from – Nevers, France same’. However,
this would not give
and Hiroshima. Her final comment is that ‘C’est, comme si le désas- the connotations
tre d’une femme tondue à NEVERS et le désastre de HIROSHIMA se of dialogue and
interaction that are
répondaient EXACTEMENT. Elle lui dira: “Hiroshima, c’est ton nom” suggested by the
’(Duras 1960: 10). (This is not translated literally in the English trans- French verb ‘se
lation by Richard Seaver, but interpreted as follows, ‘It is as though, répondre’, which can
mean both ‘to answer
through them, all of Hiroshima was in love with all of Nevers.6 She each other’ and ‘to
says to him: “Hiroshima, that’s your name”’) (Duras 1966: 15). match’ or ‘harmonize’.
7. ‘le monstre dévorateur
fait peur, il est comme
tenu à distance et
THE SCRIPT dépossédé de ses
pouvoirs au profit du
Detailed explication of the intending meaning or effect of the film also texte...’
features in the script itself. Hiroshima, Mon Amour was the first film script 8. My translation. This
opening line is omitted
that Duras wrote and, as Borgomano (1985) has written, it represents from the 1966
perhaps her unfamiliarity with and suspicion of the form. Borgomano’s translation. Here
Duras refers to the
view is that Duras attempts, through the use of detailed descriptions and iconic photograph of
stage directions, to anchor control of the film in the written text: ‘it is as the mushroom cloud
though the scary, all-devouring monster [i.e. the cinema] is kept at arm’s produced by the 1954
atom bomb test that
length and deprived of its powers, which are given instead to the text...’ was carried out by
(1985: 39).7 Thus, for the opening sequence of the film, Duras writes a the American military
on Bikini Island in
very detailed description, in which she specifies the opening image to be the Pacific Ocean.
that of the ‘infamous “mushroom” of BIKINI’ (Duras 1960: 15),8 followed The image is clearly
by a second image of two torsos in an embrace, framed so as to cut the meant to stand for the
earlier bomb that was
bodies off at the neck and hips and ‘as if drenched with ashes, rain, dew dropped on Hiroshima.
or sweat (whichever is preferred)’ (Duras 1966: 17). Duras then goes on
to specify that the main thing is that this image should ‘produce a violent,
conflicting feeling of freshness and desire’ (1966: 17).
If Duras was seeking here to anchor control of the film in the
written text, as Borgomano suggests, then the attempt was arguably
not successful, as the specific image of the mushroom cloud was
omitted from the film itself. But in fact her directions also contain
a degree of ambiguity and openness to interpretation. It is not clear
whether the phrase ‘whichever is preferred’ (‘comme on veut’) refers


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Rosamund Davies

9. Later on in the film, to the interpretation that the audience might have, or to the directo-
as Duras notes in the
text, Resnais creates rial interpretation that Resnais might make. Resnais in fact appears
a similar plurality of to have preferred to give himself, and the audience, all the choices
interpretations when on offer, rather than settle for one. In the film itself he cuts together
he responds to a
choice of alternative four different identically framed shots, one after the other, which
lines of dialogue feature in turn ash, rain, dew and sweat, in the order listed by Duras
offered by Duras by
including all of them, (Figure 2a, b, c, d).9
one after the other It is possible moreover to interpret the development of the screen
(Duras 1960: 64).
10. Also mentioned by
idea from page to screen other than as a struggle for control between
Duras as a participant writer and director. In her introduction to the published script, Duras
in these discussions comments that the script was the product of almost daily discussions
is Gerard Jarlot,
who is credited as with Resnais.10 This must have affected the precision with which she
literary advisor on the describes and gives directions for certain scenes in the script, since
film. Jarlot, who was
Duras’s lover during
they were the culmination of these discussions. It seems likely that
this period, was what Duras is offering in these passages is a further articulation on the
subsequently co-writer page of ideas that had already taken shape in discussion. These ideas,
with Duras on the
script for Une Aussi taken one step further in their articulation on the page, were further
Longue Absence/A developed by Resnais in the shooting and editing of the final screen
Long Absence (1966
[1961]) and the work.
film adaptation of Duras’s style of writing within the main script and associated docu-
Moderato Cantabile/ ments must thus equally be a result of the fact that this is not a specu-
Seven Days...Seven
Nights (1960). lative script, obliged to leave plenty of room for an, as yet, unknown
director to occupy. Rather, it constitutes a very specific and individual
collaboration and dialogue with the film’s director Alan Resnais.

The particular nature of the close collaboration between writer and
director is suggested not only by the level of detail and prescription, but
also by the stylistic aspect of the work. In the appendices in particu-
lar, Duras provides passages of text that variously suggest or prescribe
an emotional resonance, for which it is left entirely to the director
to find a visual expression. In the synopsis and script these passages
tend towards a rather bald prescription of effects, as with the opening
statement about the importance of provoking desire in the viewer.
However in the appendices, written for the final shoot in Nevers, the
style often becomes novelistic, and suggestive rather than prescriptive.
Thus the appendices begin with the following passage on the subject
of the death of the German soldier:

Il sont tous les deux, à égalité en proie à cet événement: sa mort

à lui.
Il n’y a aucune colère ni chez l’un ni chez l’autre. Il n’y a que le
regret mortel de leur amour.
Même douleur. Même sang. Mêmes larmes.
L’absurdité de la guerre, mise à nue, plane sur leurs corps
On pourrait la croire morte tellement elle se meurt de sa mort à lui.
(Duras 1960: 108)


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

Figure 2a: Ash. Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais © 1959 Argos

Figure 2b: Rain. Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais © 1959 Argos


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Rosamund Davies

Figure 2c: Dew. Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais © 1959 Argos

Figure 2d: Sweat. Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais © 1959 Argos


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

Seaver’s translation renders this passage as follows: 11. My translation. This

passage was left out
of the 1966 English
Both of them, equally, are possessed by this event: his death. translation: ‘un certain
Neither of them is angry. They are only inconsolably sorry about nombre de choses
abandonées du film’.
their love.
The same pain. Same blood. Same tears.
The absurdity of war, laid bare, hovers over their blurred bodies.
One might believe her dead, so completely has his death drained
all life from her.
(Duras 1966: 83)

The translation is not able to render the full effect of Duras’s original
text. It loses the rhythms, cadences and alliterations of the original
lines and the particular emphasis created by the reinforcement of the
possessive in ‘sa mort à lui’, for which there is no obvious English
equivalent. However it does make clear the level of abstraction and
description of inner emotions that Duras brings to the passage, for
which there is no obvious visual translation.
The three parts of the ‘scénario et dialogues’: the synopsis, the script
and the appendices, thus provide three different examples of how the
written component of what Macdonald has termed the screen idea
(Macdonald 2004a) might function both on the page and as part of a
dialogue with the director. While the three elements of the published
text would seem to relate to the three different stages in Duras’s and
Resnais’s collaboration outlined above, they cannot be precisely equated
without a far more extensive examination of the original sources. Duras
states in the introduction to the script, for example, that she has kept in
it ‘much of what was left out of the film’11(Duras 1960: 11). So the script
is not a transcript of the film, it is very much an original work by Duras,
as exemplified by her stage directions. At the same time, it has evidently
undergone further revision prior to publication.
A reading of the three documents does however appear to offer
some clues on the nature of the collaboration between writer and
director on Hiroshima, Mon Amour and can perhaps raise some more
general questions about the relationship between writer and director
in the development of the screen idea, as I will now go on to explore.


In Script Culture and the American Screenplay, in which Kevin Boon sets
out to elucidate and give a higher profile to the script as an element
of the screenwork, Boon suggests that one of the reasons for the rela-
tive lack of profile that a script has, compared to the completed film,
is that the film, in visually making present what in the script must
be supplied by the reader’s imagination, overshadows and seems to
make the original script redundant (2008: 29). Furthermore, Boon
goes on to point out, the high value placed on the material immediacy
and presence of the image by influential critics and practitioners such


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Rosamund Davies

12. ‘une voix d’homme, as Truffaut (1954) and Bazin (1957, 1967) has led, in part, to a corre-
mate et calme,
récitative’ (Duras sponding devaluing of the script’s contribution to cinematic discourse
1960: 16). (2008: 31).
13. ‘tu n’as rien vu à What is striking in the film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, however, as
Hiroshima. Rien.’
(Duras 1960: 16). introduced in the discussion above, is the extent to which the image
refuses to offer a viewing experience of plenitude and immediacy.
The same lack, the same gap between representation and meaning
that, as Boon points out, must be filled in by the reader’s interpreta-
tion of the pages of the script, is, in this case, maintained in the cel-
luloid frames of the film. As Willis explains (1987: 35), this is clearly
apparent in the opening sequence, where the viewer is presented
with the disorienting shot of two torsos locked in an embrace. The
depicted activity is ambiguous – the bodies might either be in the throes
of death or of lovemaking. Willis comments that the desire (speci-
fied by Duras in the script) that the image provokes, is in fact the
desire to see, to ‘obtain mastery of the image through its identifi-
cation of a representable object’ (1987: 35). However, the framing
and staging of the image frustrates this desire at the same time as
it provokes it.
Furthermore, the accompanying soundtrack seems to specifi-
cally deny the possibility of any such mastery. The opening speech
of the film, which plays out over the above mentioned image, is
delivered, as Duras specifies in the script, by ‘a man’s voice, flat
and calm, as if reciting’12 (Duras 1966: 17), who announces ‘You
saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing’13 (1966: 17). An off-screen
conversation then continues, as a woman’s voice (‘Elle/She’) enters
into a dialogue with the man’s (‘Lui/He’), in which she reports on
various places and artefacts she has seen which relate to the atom
bomb at Hiroshima, while the man’s voice continues to deny that
she has seen anything. As the conversation continues, documen-
tary and dramatic reconstruction footage of scenes of Hiroshima
are intercut with the opening image.
As Duras specifies in the script, this dialogue is recited as a kind of
duet by the actors, rather than spoken as a conversation. It instigates
a trancelike, incantatory mood. It also offers some practical clues as to
how to interpret the opening image, suggesting to the reader of the
script and viewer of the film that the image of the torsos must some-
how relate to what happened at Hiroshima. As the opening sequence
continues, it is equally through the off-screen dialogue that a sense
of the story begins to unfold. The woman continues to insist that she
has seen everything at Hiroshima: the exhibits documenting the bomb
in the museum; the news footage of the injured; and the devastated
town. Meanwhile the man’s voice equally forcefully insists that she
has seen nothing and knows nothing of Hiroshima. This conversation
is overtly scripted, in the sense that it is not naturalistic language, but
operates through the cadences and rhythms of poetry. The woman’s
first line echoes the structure and rhythm of the man’s but substitutes
‘rien’ (nothing) with ‘tout’ (everything) in a combination of repetition


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

and opposition that is characteristic of much of this opening section 14. My translation : ‘faute
d’autre chose’. Seaver
of dialogue: has ‘for want of
something else’ (Duras
HE: You saw nothing in Lui: Tu n’as rien vu à 1966: 18).
Hiroshima. Nothing... Hiroshima. Rien…
SHE: I saw everything. Everything. Elle: J’ai tout vu. Tout.
(Duras 1966: 17, original emphasis) (Duras 1960: 16)

However, even as the woman insists that she has seen everything,
she seems also to concur with the man that what she has seen can-
not possibly represent what really happened. She describes how
the photographs and the reconstructions at the museum are there
‘for want of anything else’,14 and states that her conviction that
she will never forget what she has seen at Hiroshima is an illusion
(Duras 1960: 18).
The use of dialogue in this opening section and throughout the script
suggests that, although it is ‘impossible to talk about Hiroshima’, para-
doxically ‘the impossibility of speech generates an obsessional effort to
speak...’ (Willis 1987: 35). The characters address their subjects (of the
horror of the atom bomb at Hiroshima, and later of the woman’s expe-
rience of first love and loss in the French town of Nevers) again and
again in a circular way. The rhythms of repetition and redundancy in the
dialogue dramatize the simultaneous necessity, urgency and impossibil-
ity of narrating these experiences, of telling these stories. Furthermore,
‘Elle’s’ narration in voiceover and its contradiction by ‘Lui’ puts the
emphasis on imagination and interpretation as crucial elements in the
acts of looking, knowing and remembering. The role of testimony in
creating history (which in French is the same word as it is for story, ‘his-
toire’) is established as a central concern of the script.


The importance given to the dialogue, and its performative and poetic
qualities, thus establishes it from the outset as a structuring and mate-
rial presence in the film. This has the effect of explicitly highlighting
rather than hiding the existence of the script, since dialogue is the ele-
ment of the screenplay that is the uncontested domain of the writer.
Dialogue is also a privileged element of Duras’s novels, and accord-
ing to Adler ([1998] 2000) it was in fact an initial dialogue written by
Duras that convinced Resnais she was the right person to undertake
the script for his film. Some of the most memorable aspects of the film
are the particular qualities of the actor’s voices as they speak the lines,
and the rhythmic patterns of repetition and opposition within the dia-
logue, through which some of the film’s central themes are developed.
As mentioned above, these effects are not created purely by the actors’
performance but are embedded in the script, which also gives precise
instructions as to how the lines should be spoken. The place names


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Rosamund Davies

15. ‘Se-connaître-à- ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Nevers’ take on a significance in the script through
Hiroshima. C’est pas
tous les jours’ (Duras their constant repetition, and through the lingering emphasis that is
1960: 36). put on them by ‘Elle’ and ‘Lui’ who – the script goes on to reveal –
16. ‘lentement, avec une are two lovers; a Frenchwoman and a Japanese man, who have just
sorte de “délectation
des mots” (Duras met in Hiroshima. Having taken a shower with her lover, ‘Elle’ says
1960: 36). to him ‘To-meet-in-Hiroshima. It doesn’t happen every day’15 (Duras
17. ‘c’est à Nevers que
j’ai été la plus jeune 1966: 32). The syllables ‘to-meet-in-Hiroshima’ appear to form a
de toute ma vie’ (Duras newly coined word, signifying a unique experience. Duras specifies in
1960: 42).
18. ‘les lieux tels que nous
the script that the words are spoken ‘slowly, as though savouring the
pourrions les voir, mais words’16 (1966: 32). Similarly, when ‘Lui’ repeats the name of the town
tels que nous ne les Nevers, where ‘Elle’ grew up, he lingers over the word. Afterwards she
avons pas vus. C’est
en quelque sorte une tells him that ‘In Nevers I was younger than I’ve ever been’17 (1966: 36)
vision dérivée…’ and he echoes her words, ‘Young-in-Ne-vers’: again dwelling on the
rhythm and intonation, so that it is the sound and not the meaning of
the words that is emphasized. Thus Duras introduces a level of mate-
riality into the dialogue, which rivals that of the image. It takes on
many of the characteristics of music and starts to signify at a level that
is sensory, rather than semantic.
However, despite the importance of the dialogue to the themes,
tone and style of the film, it is not only through dialogue that Duras’s
script dramatizes its subject. Duras also employs other tools available
to the screenwriter, such as narrative structure, action and description.
The opening section of the script, which functions as a kind of overture
or prologue introducing the central themes and figures of the film, is
as specific about the images as it is about the dialogue, orchestrating a
very precise juxtaposition of the two. For example, an ironic counter-
point is set up between a paraphrasing of Hersey’s (1946) journalistic
account of wildflowers springing up in the ashes of Hiroshima, spo-
ken by ‘Elle’, and images of children injured in the blast, with which it
is juxtaposed (Duras 1960: 21). Then, when ‘Elle’ talks about how she
had the illusion that she would never forget Hiroshima, just as in love
one has the illusion that one can never forget, Duras specifies that the
accompanying image will be that of an eye being removed by surgical
tongs (1960: 22). The image of the physical removal of the organ of
sight thus frames, with some violence, the dialogue’s evocation of love
as an image of blindness.
The internal oppositions that Duras creates within both image and
dialogue and the repeated counterpoint she engineers between the
two, leave the reader in no doubt that representation itself is being
called into question. It is clear that the specified fragments of docu-
mentary and dramatic reconstruction that Duras refers to are not
meant to represent straightforwardly what happened at Hiroshima.
In fact they are there precisely to enact the impossibility of making
present the reality of the experience. According to Pingaud, docu-
mentary is the most fragile form of memory, because it functions as
a substitute for direct, first person experience, showing us ‘places that
we can see, but which we have not seen. It is a derivative kind of
vision...’18 (Pingaud [1960] 2002: 71).


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

This opening sequence of the script thus employs a careful juxta- 19. ‘comme toi, moi aussi
j’ai essayé de lutter
position of voiceover dialogue and description of images, in order to de toutes mes forces
problematize representation and the power of the documentary image contre l’oubli. Comme
to document or represent reality in any direct, unmediated or complete toi j’ai oublié’ (Duras
1960: 24).
way. It also underlines the intense investment of the central charac- 20. ‘écoute-moi. Je
ters in this problem of memory and representation, both through sais encore. Ça
recommençera.’ (Duras
the stylistic devices it employs and through an explicit statement of 1960: 25).
the theme, as when ‘Elle’ says ‘Like you, I too have tried with all my 21. ‘C’est la ville du
monde... à laquelle,
might not to forget. Like you, I forgot’ 19 (Duras 1966: 23). The wider la nuit, je rêve le
question of history as a collective rather than an individual concern is plus. En même temps
also introduced when Elle says, of the events that have taken place at que c’est la chose du
monde à laquelle je
Hiroshima, ‘Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin all over pense le moins’ (Duras
again’20 (Duras 1966: 24). This suggests that, despite the monuments 1960: 43).
and the peace films, the lessons of Hiroshima too will ultimately be
forgotten, and so repeated.
As well as providing a powerful and original example of the
way that a particular tone and mood can be established through
the juxtaposition of dialogue and image and through a particu-
lar approach to the dialogue, this opening sequence of the script
also provides quite detailed exposition concerning the bombing of
Hiroshima and its aftermath. Duras integrates into the voiceover
precise data on the number of dead and injured, on the tempera-
ture reached by the blast and information about the effects of the
radioactive fallout. However the stylistic effects discussed above –
the incantatory nature of the dialogue, and the fragmentary structure
in which the events are not recounted in order and in which image
functions in counterpoint with dialogue rather than in parallel –
work to obscure the extent of the information imparted. The reader
has a sense of a narrative that doesn’t quite make sense, that has
gaps and cannot fully be grasped. Thus Duras manages to impart
background information that needs to be known while simultane-
ously establishing a mood of not knowing: this produces the sense
of the impossibility of speaking of Hiroshima that she states in the
After the opening sequence, the visual treatment moves to a
more conventional mise-en-scène in which action and dialogue are
integrated within the bodies of the two main characters as part of a
dramatized scene. There is not the same carefully contrived coun-
terpoint between word and image that characterizes the opening
sequence. However, Duras uses other strategies to disrupt the
coherence and logic of the visual narrative. Oppositions and para-
doxes continue to operate at the level of the dialogue; for exam-
ple when ‘Elle’ says of herself that she lies and she tells the truth
(Duras 1960: 41), or that Nevers ‘is the city in the world... I dream
about most often at night. And at the same time it’s the thing I
think about the least.’21 (Duras 1966: 36). Meanwhile, at the level
of the image, Duras starts to introduce the disruptive presence
of flashbacks. The first and most notorious of these is when the


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Rosamund Davies

22. ‘il apparaît brutalement Frenchwoman is looking at the hands of the Japanese man asleep
à la place du
Japonais, le corps on the bed and suddenly sees in his place a different body, ‘the
d’un jeune homme, body of a young man, lying in the same position but in a posture
mais mortuaire’ (Duras of death’22 (1966: 30). This sudden, as yet unexplained, interrup-
1960: 33–34).
23. This term, from literary tion of the woman’s early life in Nevers is a foretaste of how the
theory, refers to the story of Nevers will later disturb and briefly invade the present day
practice of putting a
frame within a frame, Hiroshima narrative.
i.e. an image within Until this point in the script is reached, when the story of Nevers
an image, a story
within a story etc.
will take over the narrative, the love story between the Frenchwoman
24. ‘Elle a eu à Nevers and the Japanese man is scripted by Duras in such a way as to sub-
un amour de jeunesse ject it to continuous interruptions and barriers. After the first scene
allemand’ (Duras
1960: 90). in the hotel bedroom, a scene follows in which they have to shout at
each other over noisy traffic outside the hotel. Following this, when
he tracks her down to the set of the documentary film in which she
plays the part of a nurse, their conversation is interrupted repeatedly
by crew and cast who push past them as they participate in a peace
parade that is being shot as part of the documentary film. Thus, as the
lovers are physically interrupted by the action, their story is disrupted
by the intrusion of another narrative – that of the documentary that
is being filmed: a mise en abyme23 which further undermines the film’s
central narrative.
Further confusion and obscuring techniques are introduced
later on in the script, through a destabilising of subject positions.
When the Frenchwoman finally recounts the story of Nevers to the
Japanese man, he starts to speak to her from the subject position of
her dead German lover. Then later, back in her hotel room, ‘Elle’
first talks to herself, referring to herself in the third person, saying
‘in Nevers she had a German love when she was young’24 (Duras
1966: 72), then addresses her own reflection in the mirror as if she
is speaking to her former lover (Figure 3). Thus, through action and
dialogue the experiences of ‘Elle’ and ‘Lui’ are continually linked,
compared and contrasted; but the role that each plays in the oth-
er’s story and the role that each story has in the other’s experience
keeps changing. The relations between them are close but never
These same shifting relations characterize the overall narrative
structure of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which works simultaneously
towards a final linking of the Frenchwoman and the Japanese man
through their mutual traumatic experiences of the war, and of their
final separation as the Frenchwoman returns to France. It is also
revealed that the bombing of Hiroshima, which propelled the Japanese
man into trauma, occurred just at the moment that the Frenchwoman
left the trauma of Nevers behind. Furthermore, on a national level,
Hiroshima marked the beginning of a story of suffering and horror for
the Japanese, just as it marked an end to it for the French. This para-
doxical resolution at the level of plot is consistent with the oppositions
and contrapuntal relationships that structure the development of both
character and theme.


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

Figure 3: ‘Elle’ addresses her own reflection in the mirror. Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais ©
1959 Argos Films.


As Caruth (1996) and Willis (1987) point out, the structure of Hiroshima,
Mon Amour functions in a similar way to the structures of trauma and
of hysteria. Victims of trauma, whether the survivors of the atom bomb
at Hiroshima or the Frenchwoman in the film who sees her lover die
in her arms, find themselves unable to move on from the traumatic
experience, partly because they are unable to comprehend it. The
actual moment of the bombing of Hiroshima was an event that would
be impossible for anyone to experience directly and in full. Eyewitness
accounts testify to being blinded, to coming to consciousness some
time later. Similarly the Frenchwoman relates how, despite the fact
that she remained locked in an embrace with her lover until and after
he had died of a gun-shot wound, she was unable to identify the exact
moment at which he passed from life into death. This inability to pin-
point the exact moment at which the experience took place – along
with the enormity, and the impossibility of actually surviving, of living
past the horror of such an event – traps the traumatized subject in a
cycle of repetition as he or she seeks to finally access and make sense
of what remains essentially a missed experience.


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Rosamund Davies

As previously noted, repetition is a central structuring principle of

Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Furthermore, as Willis points out, the film struc-
tures the experience of trauma through a hysterical aesthetic, which
Willis defines as ‘a disturbance of narration... a failure of translation from
image and fantasy to discourse’ (1987: 35). The structure of hysteria oper-
ates in a similar way to that of trauma, in that it represents a failure to
bring into consciousness, to access one’s own experience, which remains
at the level of the unconscious. The hysteric thus enacts through bodily
symptoms what he or she is unable to narrate through language. Indeed
hysterical symptoms can be expressions of traumatic experience.
The development of feminist theory and criticism in the 1970s saw a
development of the concept of hysteria as a specifically female discourse.
An influential overview of this strand of feminist thought is given by Elaine
Showalter in The Female Malady (1987). Showalter pinpoints the way that
feminist readings of Freud’s case studies of female hysterics defined their
behaviour as ‘signifying through the body... the protest that social condi-
tions made unspeakable...’ (Showalter 1987: 157). Showalter also points
out the way that this discourse was adopted by some feminists, such as
Hélène Cixous, as a particular female aesthetic that could be employed
as a creative tool, ‘a kind of female language that opposes the rigid struc-
tures of male discourse and thought’ (Showalter 1987: 160). Subsequent
readings of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, such as that of Willis (1987), have
drawn on this idea of a hysterical aesthetic in their analysis of the film.
Although Duras’s script predates this development in feminist theory and
could not be seen as intentionally adopting the kind of female discourse it
identifies, Duras’s creative strategies for saying the unsayable position her
script in similar territory. So too does the orchestration of the telling of
the story of Nevers into a kind of psychoanalytical talking cure facilitated
by the Japanese man, which results in a climactic moment in which the
Frenchwoman appears to lose control of herself and her Japanese lover/
analyst slaps her back into consciousness and rationality.
The hysterical aesthetic can be seen at work in the script in the
way that the story of Hiroshima and the story of the Frenchwoman’s
love affair with the German soldier are related in fragments, through
contradictory juxtapositions, which fail to cohere into a single com-
prehensible unity. Through both dialogue and image, the script cir-
cles repeatedly around what happened at Nevers in the same way as
it does with the events at Hiroshima; it highlights their importance,
while at the same time suggesting that what actually happened can-
not be spoken or represented directly.
As Gronhovd and VanderWolk (1992: 135) and Caruth (1996: 52)
have pointed out, the script suggests in fact that true remembering
may only be possible at the level of the body – through the hysteri-
cal symptom or the incorporation of the lost object into the self. The
involuntary memory of the flashback, the woman’s assertion that she
could not tell the difference between her dying lover’s body and her
own, and the shifts in subject positions that occur within the triangle
of ‘Elle’ ‘Lui’ and the German lover all enact this type of physical


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

memory. So too does the material quality of the dialogue; the sen-
sory repetition of names, and perhaps most strikingly, the apparent
collapse of identity at the end of the film where ‘Elle’ asserts that
Hiroshima is indeed his name and ‘Lui’ replies that hers is Nevers.
The very physical presence that characterizes the dialogue becomes
in the end just as much a signifier of absence. The characters, who
seem to seek in the material qualities of the words ‘Hiroshima’ and
‘Nevers’ a meaning and a reality that could make these place names
somehow embody their experience, appear in this final scene to
be replaced themselves by the words that hold them in thrall. The
repetitive structures of the narrative suggest just as forcefully that
this kind of physical, unarticulated memory traps the subject in an
endless cycle of repetition, as they continue to try to access and
finally live the missed event.
The cure for trauma and hysteria that is offered by Freudian psy-
choanalysis is that of the talking cure, of narrative. The psychoana-
lyst helps the hysterical or traumatized patient to access their issues
through language, and to tell the story of what happened to them,
establishing a logical chain of cause and effect. Once the experience is
brought into consciousness in this way, it loses its emotional invest-
ment and the symptoms disappear. However, in Hiroshima, Mon
Amour this would-be cure – the creation of a logical narrative – is also
problematized, precisely because of the loss of emotional investment
that it entails. The official version of the story of Hiroshima is pre-
sented from the outset as a narrative to be questioned and dismantled,
while the Frenchwoman experiences her ‘cure’ as a betrayal of her
lover, and as an experience of loss. Addressing her lover through her
own reflection in the mirror she laments that he was not quite dead,
until she told his story:

You were not yet quite dead. Tu n’étais pas tout à fait mort.
I told our story. J’ai raconté notre histoire.
I was unfaithful to you Je t’ai trompé ce soir avec cet
tonight with this stranger. inconnu.
I told our story. J’ai raconté notre histoire.
It was, you see, a story that Elle était, vois-tu racontable
could be told.
... Regarde moi comme je
(Duras 1966: 72)
(Duras 1960: 90)

The dialogue, such a powerful carrier of meaning throughout the film

and so central to its tone and feel, here calls into question its own
validity as testimony. It is the telling of the story, rather than the new
romantic liaison, that emerges here as the betrayal, as if telling his story
is what has finally killed him. The ability to articulate her memory in


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Rosamund Davies

words paradoxically means that the woman is beginning to be able to

forget her love.
In the script of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, dialogue, image, action
and narrative structure thus all work to elaborate the central concern
that once the trauma of memory is ‘cured’, and is articulated in lan-
guage or image, it is in some profound way lost or betrayed. As soon
as the memory becomes part of ‘the sight and understanding of a
larger history’ (Caruth 1996: 31) the reality of the lived experience is
denied – whether represented by a textual narrative, a visual record-
ing, or an object. In each case the real, which cannot be directly rep-
resented, is replaced with a screen (Willis 1987) that can only stand
in for it. Thus remembering is always a kind of forgetting. This is the
central paradox around which all the other paradoxical and opposi-
tional relations in the script are structured.


Besides dialogue, image and narrative structure, description and stage
directions are other crucial elements of the script, employed by Duras
to give a sense on the page of what the tone and style of the film
should be on screen.
According to Adler, Resnais was particularly interested in Duras
as a writer because he ‘saw Duras as an author who had tone’ (Adler
[1998] 2000: 219) and this is certainly a notable feature of her script.
Duras makes precise use of adverbs and adjectives to suggest a visual
or dramatic treatment. Immediately after the opening image of the
film, the action moves to a hospital, in which (Duras specifies) the
woman who speaks on the soundtrack will not appear on screen. Only
the hospital, with its corridors, its stairs and its patients will be shown,
‘dans le dédain suprême de la caméra’ (Duras 1960: 17) (‘the camera
coldly objective’ according to Seaver’s translation) (Duras 1966: 18).
Both in the use of the word ‘dédain’ (‘disdain’) and in her grouping
together of architectural features and human subjects in an undiffer-
entiated list, Duras’s text makes clear the extent to which the image
is intended to have the effect of objectifying and distancing what it
shows. Later, at the end of the opening section of the script, Duras
specifies that, having remained off screen up until that moment, the
woman’s face should appear ‘très brutalement’ in the frame. In French,
the word ‘brutalement’ has the meaning of both ‘suddenly’ and ‘bru-
tally’ and Duras exploits this latter connotation by countering it with
its opposite later on in the sentence, where she describes the woman
as ‘tender’; ‘très brutalement, le visage de la femme apparaît très ten-
dre, tendu vers le visage de l’homme’ (Duras 1960: 27). (Seaver trans-
lates this as ‘with exaggerated suddenness the woman’s face appears,
filled with tenderness, turned towards the man’s’) (Duras 1966: 25). In
these ways, as in every aspect of the script, Duras employs the use of
opposition and paradox to elicit a complex and conflicted interpreta-
tion from the reader.


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

Duras’s stage directions also frequently specify the effect that 25.‘quelque part en France,
vers la fin de l’après-
an image should produce without giving an indication of how this midi, un certain jour,
might be achieved visually, as when she states that the opening un soldat allemand
image should provoke mixed emotions including desire. This is an traverse une place de
province. Même la
approach that is particularly apparent in the appendices which, writ- guerre est quotidienne’
ten at Resnais’s request as ‘commentaries’, are much more novelistic (Duras 1960: 109).
in style and tone. They take much further the approach that Duras commonly means
also takes in the main script of suggesting an emotional resonance ‘daily’: as in ‘daily
life’. Seaver translates
for a scene, rather than a precise visual treatment. One such example it here, as ‘boring’,
is when Duras writes ‘late one afternoon a German soldier crosses a but it could equally be
square somewhere in the provinces of France. Even war is boring’25 ‘everyday’, ‘routine’
(Duras 1966 : 84). It is notable that the sense of an apparent every-
dayness, striking in its very banality (even war has become just part
of the daily routine), that is communicated by the narrative voice
of Duras’s text, is also conveyed visually by the scene that Resnais
shoots (Figure 4). This more novelistic narrative voice marks Duras’s
text out most obviously from mainstream screenplay conventions. It
is perhaps this aspect (and the way that the final screenwork inter-
prets it) that reflects most clearly the particular context of close and

Figure 4: ‘Late one afternoon a German soldier crosses a square somewhere in the provinces of
France.’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais © 1959 Argos Films.


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Rosamund Davies

intense collaboration in which the script was written and the film
shot and edited.


Hiroshima, Mon Amour was a creative departure for both Duras and
Resnais. Duras was well known primarily as a novelist, and this was
her first film script, while Resnais’s career up until then had been as a
documentary maker. This might in part explain the extent and depth
of their collaboration, in which the relative inexperience of each might
perhaps have made both particularly open to the skills and knowledge
brought by the other to the development of the screen idea.
Resnais’s directorial interpretation of the tone of Duras’s writing is
evident in scenes such as the early hospital sequence, mentioned above,
when Duras’s evocation of ‘le dédain suprême de la caméra’ (Duras
1960: 17) finds a visual equivalent in the tracking shots through the hos-
pital corridors, which create visually the sense of haughty detachment
that Duras’s words suggest (Figure 5). Furthermore, during the Tokyo

Figure 5: A tracking shot through the hospital corridors. Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais
© 1959 Argos Films.


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Screenwriting strategies in Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)

shoot, Resnais apparently requested audio recordings of Duras reading 26. ‘la jambe relevée,
dans le désir’ (Duras
the dialogue, so that he could reproduce, in the visual sequences and 1960: 73).
with the actors, the same rhythms produced by Duras’s voice (Adler 27. ‘Le blé est à ses portes.
[1998] 2000: 219). La forêt est à ses
fenêtres. La nuit, des
However, when Duras specifies in the script that the opening chouettes en arrivent
image must provoke desire, or when, in the appendices, she highlights jusque dans les jardins’
(Duras 1960: 112).
the banality of war, or states that the garden from which the German
soldier was shot was as good for the purpose as any other garden and
was chosen entirely randomly, more of a leap of imagination would
seem to be required by the director if he is to attempt to realize this
on screen. Indeed the garden that Resnais chooses for this point in
the story is in fact quite distinctive, featuring an ornate, wrought iron
viewing-platform, shot from below. Contrary to the specification in
the script, this image in the film is not unremarkable and ordinary but
striking, even before its significance in the story is revealed.
Since Duras’s voice as a writer was such an important aspect
for Resnais during the main shoot, it is interesting to note how his
approach seems to have developed for the second shoot in France. For
this final stage in the collaboration, Resnais appears to have modified
and developed his way of working and to have gone further in his use
of Duras’s text as a starting point, as a source of ideas and motifs and
as a back story, rather than as a script in any conventional sense.
The relationship between Duras’s text and the scenes of Nevers that
exist in the film is thus more complex than that which exists between
the script and the rest of the film. This complexity is partly because the
story of Nevers actually exists in three different written versions; the
scenes that are included in the original script, Duras’s later ‘commen-
taries’ on each individual scene, and finally a monologue (also in the
appendices) which is written in the voice of the Frenchwoman. Here
the woman recounts her story in chronological order (the only time
the story is told chronologically). None of these three versions per-
fectly coincide. Each includes scenes and information that are absent
from the others. The story is different each time in its telling. Resnais’s
filmed version then supplies a fourth version, which takes from each
of the other three and adds further elements, while leaving much
out. Somet