I can’t remember who said it first. But it was said that a screenplay is only ever half a piece of art. If that. It cannot be a complete statement, because it is animated and changed by acting, cinematography, sound, economics and direction. This is only right and correct, of course, as making a film is a massively collaborative act. The nature of screenwriting, too, is that the original voice is rarely the last voice the film speaks with. One might wonder why 97% of the screenwriting community bother writing them any more. They can only ever be scaffolding, and very few are ever made. And, with US cinema ticket sales at a low not seen since 1995, and writers running with open arms towards television, and Marvel and DC releasing their film production schedules for years in advance, much of the near-future output of American cinema is mathematically predictable.
I have, however, been endlessly fascinated by Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for THE COUNSELOR. Any number of people will tell you it’s a bad screenplay for any number of technical, classical and structural reasons. And yet, it stands as a complete statement, in and of itself. Perhaps that’s why Ridley Scott apparently found it so hard to film, unable to save himself from treading on its fingers and speaking over its words.
Only McCarthy, of course, could offer a screenplay like that. (Although JC Chandor’s abbreviated screenplay for ALL IS LOST, by its largely silent nature, is also odd in its way.) And it was published as a book, joining McCarthy’s canon. It’s a fluke.
All that said: the book makes me wonder. Film is still loved, as a concept, for its central affordance: to depict a transformational experience in two hours-ish, and, right from the start, to show things that have never been seen before. Literary fiction has flirted, many times, with forms that resemble screenplays. It’s easy to daydream about some (final!) phase in popular cinema. I might even just be imagining some new iteration of the early relationship between film and theatre, I don’t know. (I write these first thing in the morning, remember!) Maybe I’m just sitting in front of a stack of WGA screeners, wishing for better films.
THE COUNSELOR makes me think about literary screenwriting, for the first time in years: in, I suppose, the way a beginning screenwriter must. It’s nice to think about more things like that, before the word “film” becomes inextricably redefined as “theme park preview” and everything else is seen on home screens.
(Thinking out loud. Still assembling a thought.)
(written 3 Jan 2015, recovered from morning.computer)