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The first page of Todd Field’s screenplay for Tár made the rounds on Twitter over the weekend. It has the look and feel of a 30-year-old script. Confident and masterful, but tough to read. You have to be patient with it. It demands your concentration.
The response from many was the predictable, “See! There are no rules! Just be good!”
And then, from others, especially those of us who have been in the business a while, was, “Yes. Of course. But no.”
“He’s Todd Field, he can get away with it.” “This screenplay didn’t go through the same steps of development!”
All the silliness that this common debate usually entails.
I have been working and teaching for a long time, and there is something about the creative spirit that wants to know and embrace the exception. I don’t know why. But we just want to feel like we’re different. That we’re special. It’s just how we’re built.
It’s understandable. It takes a lot of chutzpah to pursue this path, and sometimes we must manufacture a little fortitude to do it.
It’s just not the wisest choice early on.
Yes, it’s true. There are no “rules.” Everyone knows that. We really do. But like everything else, there are best practices. There are guidelines, and there are principles.
Conventional screenwriting advice is usually about making your job easier. It’s about making what is already a difficult job a little less so.
It is usually hard-earned lessons from people who have been in the business for some time, and it’s what they have learned over those years.
This advice will help you make the script easier to read. It will show you how to write with energy and confidence rather than with passivity and indecisiveness. It will show you how to lean on story structure for dramatic momentum rather than relying on yourself to be brilliant on every page. And it can show you how to evoke the strongest emotional response from a character’s journey.
Yes, there is bad advice out there. And even good advice that may not apply to what you’re trying to do in the moment, and it CAN be difficult sometimes to know the difference. But you must figure it out.
Like so much in life, screenwriting is often a mental battle with yourself.
Telling a good story well is difficult. You will likely fail at it, especially early on. It’s why so few people are paid to do it.
So in the early stages of your career, why not make choices that are going to make that job a little easier?
Especially when the alternative is to dig your heels in and insist what you create is always good enough. Now, maybe it is. Hooray for you! That’s awesome. But I warn you, people often confuse laziness with artistry. They confuse their ego with integrity.
I know this, because I’ve been there. I’ve been the guy shooting himself in the foot, insisting that he was right and that he would do it “his way.”
It didn’t work out well for me. And I was already in the right rooms, with the right people.
My best advice is to clearly define the story you want to tell, and then figure out the best way to tell it. It sounds simple, but there is a great deal of friction along the way. Time, effort, humility, confidence, distractions, road blocks, you name it. It takes a great deal of resilience to push a project to the end.
There is no reason to hobble yourself or your work by refusing to get better. By refusing to learn. There is no reason to scoff at conventional wisdom for the sake of it. Being “right” will be of no comfort when no one wants to buy your screenplay. The existence of Todd Field’s work will not help you with the dramatic momentum in yours.
Be teachable. And remain so. It is the quickest path forward in this business.
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