The Print that Film Forgets: Script Over Celluloid

“Film is a writer’s medium, not a director’s medium.” ––Bill Boyle

As a kid, one of my favorite hobbies besides writing poetry and drawing was reading comic books. I had started back in 1988, and by the mid-nineties, I was a full-fledged collector, but I wasn’t bagging and boarding my books to preserve their future monetary value, but rather to keep in full flavor the wonderful stories they contained. Like corking a bottle of wine with an aerating pourer.

The series that brought me back home.

I took some time off from collecting during every child’s inevitable “I’m too old for this stuff” years. This was made easier because comic book stores I’d frequented started shutting their doors. It was during my first trip to California in my early twenties when I picked up the hobby again because of writer Jeph Loeb, artist Jim Lee, and Batman: Hush, which made me dust off the cowls and capes I’d locked away in my boarded up Bat-cave years earlier. However, I immediately noticed a striking difference between the comic books of today and those I’d grown up with in the eighties and nineties: Now, there were less words and more images on the pages.

A Silver Age issue of The Flash with a balanced ratio of words/images.
A page from The Flash #9 (April 2011) with more pictures than words.

Today, I’m no collector, though I have a substantial collection of Silver and Bronze Age comics in a chest and a few boxes full of Modern Age books. I follow only two titles with passion––Vertigo’s American Vampire, which has some of the best comic writing I’ve read in a long while, and The Flash (ever since DC Comics massacred its continuity, the Scarlet Speedster’s the only one I can keep up with without going bankrupt!)––and I read Freedom Fighters only because I enjoyed the two recent mini-series so much; the ongoing series feels like overkill. But even in these titles, there are more panels without speech bubbles and captions than there are words to develop a deeper story.

So are words becoming obsolete? Of course not. Our visually-inclined society demands faster information, and a picture’s worth a––well, you know the old cliché.

Recently, this year I finally read two of the greatest works of not only comic book literature, but of literature in general––Batman: The Long Halloween by the inimitable Dynamic Duo of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Both are excellent reads, but it took me much longer to get through Watchmen because Moore is a true craftsman of the written word, painstakingly making every one count, and just like in a short story by Ray Bradbury, those words don’t only get a story across, but they offer moments of depth, clarity, insight, and yes, an occasional “put the book down for a minute” appreciation of Moore’s diction. Loeb, on the other hand, a masterful storyteller in his own right, chooses perhaps not to focus on the words themselves, but highlights events and plot, and rightly so; while the story of The Long Halloween is nowhere near as literary as Watchman, it is certainly a much more compelling read; I couldn’t put the darn thing down!

I deal with this issue of words over image a lot in my own screenwriting and filmmaking. Alain Aguilar, my best friend and DP on my films, most recently Cerise, and I have brief, heated discussions because he, like most people, believe that film is a visual medium. And I agree. But without someone to craft the words that tell the story, all you’ve really got at the end of the day is some pretty visuals; put it together in Final Cut and you’ve got an experimental film which may or may not be entertaining and may or may not even tell a cohesive story that will resonate with an audience, except perhaps at the MoMA. Moving images are vehicles to get a well-developed (and thus well-written) story across more effectively. Yes, you need a driver for that vehicle, the director, but you also need a well-constructed engine crafted by a writer who understands how the gears and circuits of story work.

A filmmaker whom I have a particular issue with in this sense is Michel Gondry. As many of you may know, my favorite film of all time is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a brilliant piece of cinema from script to score. But when I saw Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, I was bored. I didn’t care about the main character (“Stop whining” and “Grow up!” were two phrases I kept repeating in my mind and eventually aloud) or his story despite all the interesting visuals Gondry used. Be Kind, Rewind was a better attempt, though the balance between art and entertainment seemed askew, which made the film too preachy by the end. And I won’t even try my hand at The Green Hornet.

Why was Eternal Sunshine such an impacting film? Simple: It was written by Charlie Kaufman. Gondry’s just not a writer, he’s a director. He can visualize great writing, but his own lacks that depth and cohesion, I feel.

When I attended Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles back in 2009, I took at seminar with Bill Boyle called “The Visual Mindscape” which was all about how to tell a story visually as a screenwriter because, as he stated at the seminar’s beginning, “Film is a writer’s medium, not a director’s medium” (and all the would-be directors exited in single file!) By showing scenes and script excerpts from films like The Godfather, Five Easy Pieces, and Quills, he demonstrated that what we read is what we see on screen, as if there were really only one way for the director to have shot the scene, which corresponded perfectly to the diction, mood and tone of the screenplay itself. He also mentioned how words can sometimes spoil the grandeur of a visually telling scene, citing various examples from Planet of the Apes (the Charlton Heston version, of course). The writer’s job is to know when words are an amplifier or an adulterant to a scene.

Many filmmakers today seem to focus their attention on innovation (how a film is shot, what camera to use, what editing style to try), but what suffers most is story. I’m noticing more and more of us are looking less and less at the blueprint of the film, the one aspect that will ultimately get the ideas across from first minute to Fin. The words we pen will ultimately dictate what camera we should use, hand-held or Hitchcock, Eisenstein or MTV editing and answer the other myriad questions so as to enhance the story rather than detract from it.

We don’t all have to be Alan Moores or Charlie Kaufmans, but we all do have to tell compelling stories, and that starts in Final Draft, not Final Cut.

Thoughts? Comments? Post them below. I’d love to hear your opinions.

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