DIY guides to script-writing are Hollywood's parasites. But is advice on high-concept cinema or indie auteurism of any use to the budding scriptwriter, asksLee Marshall
Unlike the film industry, the grey whale has been with us for 30 million years. Still, the two ungainly beasts have a few things in common. They both live on, or off, the Western seaboard of North America. And they both attract freeloaders. One of the whale's guests, the grey whale barnacle, attaches itself to its host and uses the current generated by the swimming mammal to filter plankton.
Screenwriting manuals and seminars are Hollywood's grey whale barnacles. Which is not to say they're evil parasites, as while the barnacles do not provide any benefits for the whale, they don't hurt them either.
Similarly, the thriving tertiary sector of screenplay tutorials, both live and printed, does not kill the beast it hitches a ride on, but it doesn't do it much good either.
Most of these inspirational tomes appeal to the misconception that there is money to be made from writing scripts. Pitched towards the mainstream, manuals encourage writers towards the sort of hero-driven story Hollywood supposedly laps up. Only a tiny fraction give any time to independent or arthouse cinema.
One of the few that does is a new book by US film professor JJ Murphy, Me And You And Memento And Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work. Unlike many cinema academics, Murphy is also a film-maker, though his experimental shorts tend to be confined to the gallery circuit. He's also a champion of US independent cinema.
Murphy's book is not a manual in the 'top 10 tips' sense - it's an academic study with practical implications. The book, Murphy writes, looks to argue that the US independent film has 'developed a distinct approach to film-making, centring on new conceptions of cinematic storytelling'.
I have few problems with Murphy's readings of the 12 US indie films he chooses as touchstones. What bugs me is the fact Murphy never points out the paradox that on each film in his sample, the director has also written the screenplay.
I took a screenwriting course on which one of the visiting tutors was Jeff Rush, co-author of the first non-Hollywood writing manual, Alternative Screenwriting: Writing Beyond The Rules. He was an inspiring teacher but the films on which he commented (Vera Drake, Elephant and Bad Education) were all auteurial products, and financed as such: in other words, they weren't practical examples for budding scriptwriters with no interest in directing.
It's a great irony that, while industry figures lament the lack of original scriptwriting voices, the films produced - with few exceptions - tell new writers to play it safe. It's not the writers' fault: Hollywood apparently has room for only one wacky scribe at a time, and Charlie Kaufman (pictured above) fills the position.
Outside of Hollywood, 'alternative' screenwriters fare no better. In Europe, even writers of the calibre of Peter Morgan or Anders Thomas Jensen stick, by-and-large, to the three-act paradigm.
Until the industry really commits to challenging new writing, books like JJ Murphy's are destined to remain curios. For now, starry-eyed writer plankton are always going to be attracted to those brash barnacles who tell them the inciting incident must come on page three.