Screenwriting without typing – The case of Calamari Union

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The first part of this article is a practice-based case study of the making of the film Calamari Union (1985), a Finnish cult classic written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. I was the film editor of this film as well as of several other features and short films by Kaurismäki in the 1980s. From the point of view of screenwriting research, Calamari Union offers a thought-provoking example: it is a feature-length fiction film that was made entirely without a formal screenplay. In the case study I examine the effects of this method in the production and post-production of the film. In the second part of the article I discuss the definitions of a ‘screenplay’ and screenwriting in the context of alternative film-making practices, and the reasons for and consequences of the choice of such practices. I will also briefly visit the question of authorship in cinema and reflect on the birth of stories.

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Today's market is inundated with digital screenwriting tools and apps. From the introduction of formatting software that promised to give writers access to industry standard screenplay layout (Final Draft, Celtx) comes an era in which technologists are seeking to influence screenwriting practice itself (Scrivener, Slugline, Plotbot, StorySkeleton). Although perhaps not as explicit in their claims of success as the plethora of seminars by screenwriting ‘gurus’, digital tools and apps do in some ways promise a range of solutions to everyday screenwriting problems, at the very least by assuring users that they will help manage the logistics that often get in the way of creativity. But what do these digital interventions actually do? Do they shape creative practice, or merely provide tools to format a screenwriter's existing ideas? Do they help the writing process, or the processing of writing? This article examines some of the digital screenwriting tools and apps on the current market, and examines what they offer script development and writing practice. By reflecting on my own involvement in an online screenplay assessment platform, the article also suggests how embracing pedagogical aspects of screenwriting might give digital tools and apps the opportunity to help shape creative practice.
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Writing the script for a documentary film can be problematic. According t some documentary filmmakers, it is not possible at all, because one cannot know beforehand what is going to happen. Nonetheless, a written script is often required to obtain financing for a documentary project. This article deals with different work practices and forms of documentary script. It analyses two case studies: the writer’s own films A Man from the Congo River (2010) and Kusum (2000). The first is the story of an engineer who worked in colonial Congo at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is based on diaries and other historical material, and therefore it was possible to construct a very precise script for the film. Kusum is an observational documentary film following the healing of a young Indian girl. The script was produced prior to production, but during the shooting process many core elements changed, including the main character and storyline. The form and dramaturgy of documentary films are created in the filmmaking process and in dialogue between the filmmaker and real people. A documentary script can be considered a hypothesis about the reality that the filmmaker will encounter via the process of filmmaking. Instead of ‘a screen idea’ we could speak about ‘a documentary idea’.
From the typewriter to the computer, with good old pen and paper in between, screenwriters have experienced a shift in how they physically write their screenplays. Along with this shift has come a plethora of free and paid-for software packages to help with writing a screenplay, such as Final Draft, Celtx, and ScriptSmart. The idea of ‘I’ll have to write it all again’ has changed to an idea of ‘I can erase, re-write and copy and paste in seconds’, and even the formatting take care of itself. Screenwriters today are thus able to spend more time writing and less time typing. The market now is awash with apps for screenwriters, from Scrivener to Slugline to Plotbot to StorySkeleton, and although they do not teach the craft of screenwriting per se, they do provide users with some of the tools needed to plan and write a screenplay.
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As screenwriting continues to establish itself as a discrete discipline in academia, either in alignment with creative writing departments or film and media practice departments, there is a danger that such developments may entrench a distancing of the craft from the cinematic form itself and that such a distancing may ultimately reinforce the screenplay's propensity for dramaturgy and the dramatic, rather than the sensory and experiential of the cinematic. Closely related creative stages in telling cinematic stories include directing and editing and this article seeks to argue, with reference to personal screen practice, that screenwriting, directing and editing are, in fact, three variations of the same thing. The article proposes the notion of the Total Filmmaker who embraces all three aspects of the cinematic storyteller. If the ultimate aim is to create a narrative that fully utilises the unique properties of the cinematic form in telling a story, rather than being dominated by the theatricality of dramatically driven classical narratives, how might one explore the relationship between screenwriting, directing and editing? Can an integrated approach to creating the cinematic blueprint change the way we think of pedagogy and screenwriting?
The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of the most successful theatre plays (2008) in recent years in Flanders. The film adaptation (2012) by Felix Van Groeningen was even more successful. Nevertheless, theatre play, screenplay and the final film differ considerably. This essay aims to reconstruct the genetic evolution of the screen idea from stage play to script to film. It tries to elucidate the dramaturgical choices made by the playwrights, screenwriters and last but in this case certainly not least, the editor, and how this influenced a shift from the tragic (play) towards the melodramatic (film). The adaptation thus can be described as what Jacques Rancière has called a ‘thwarted fable’.
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In 1930s Finland the new medium of the sound film was regarded as an essential part of modern culture. After the advent of sound, the domestic film industry flourished and the development of the national cinema became the subject of a lively debate in popular film magazines. A large part of this discussion was centred on the screenplay. The choice of suitable subject matter and important themes were investigated, as were the special requirements of the craft for the writer. In this article I explore how screenwriting and the screenwriter were constantly defined and redefined in public discussion in film magazines during the decade and how this discussion influenced the formation of the identity of the screenwriting profession.
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This article aims to contribute to contemporary debates about screenwriting as a process of developing the screen idea; about the ways in which formatting conventions from an earlier era of cinema may restrict innovation in screenwriting; and about shifting practices of screenwriting in a digital era in which images and sound play a potentially more significant role. Additionally, it questions the use of terms such as blueprint to describe the relationship between the screenplay and the proposed film that it represents. 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.
The aesthetic independence of an artwork is usually defined by the direct relationship between the viewer and the artwork. The screenplay, however, is actualized for the viewer only via cinematic performance. Therefore, we should ask how the viewer experiences the performance and to what extent this experience is created by the contribution of the screenplay, and especially which elements are realized in the presentation and contribute to building up the performance for the viewer to experience.The approach I am leaning on, and through which I am hoping to gain new insights into the aesthetic independence, is dramaturgical and thus practice-based. The common hermeneutic approach in artistic research usually defines what the artworks are and how they exist in our world as cultural phenomena. Through the dramaturgical approach I explore how the screenplay functions within the presentational process.I discuss the contribution of the screenplay as a literary artwork by asking how the literary characteristics of the screenplay appear in a film and their function in the performance. I also explore the screenplay's contribution from the viewer's point of view. Here I am not leaning on the perception theories; instead I am using my own observation of the cinematic performance. Lastly, I discuss the dramaturgical process as an interpretive continuum that leads from the screenwriter to the viewer.
One of the most interesting trends in recent independent cinema has been for film-makers to avoid using traditional screenplays in making their films. Not only have emerging film-makers associated with the so-called mumblecore movement, such as Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz and Ronald Bronstein, veered away from depending on conventionally written screenplays, but other critically acclaimed films, including The Pool (Smith, 2008) and Ballast (Hammer, 2008), have as well. Indeed, some of the most notable American indie film-makers Gus Van Sant, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch have employed alternative strategies to the screenplay in such recent films as Elephant (2003), Inland Empire (2006), and The Limits of Control (2009). What is behind these developments and why has the conventional screenplay been under attack? What are the aesthetic benefits of choosing not to rely on a traditional script? Is this a completely new phenomenon or has the industrial screenplay always been an obstacle? I explore these issues by looking at three major strategies that indie film-makers have used in place of the traditional screenplay: improvisation, psychodrama and visual storytelling. Finally, I argue that for current independent film-makers in the United States of America these methods provide an appropriate model for a practice that is attempting to create a truly viable alternative to Hollywood cinema.
This paper takes the concept of the screen idea (as outlined by Philip Parker 1998) and uses it to mean ‘any notion of a potential screenwork held by one or more people, whether or not it is possible to describe it on paper or by other means’, and whether or not that notion has a conventional shape. This concept leads towards a clearer understanding of the process of screenwriting, which in turn helps consideration of what is being evaluated when looking at the products of that practice. The screen idea is the essence of the future screenwork that is discussed and negotiated by those involved in reading and developing the screenplay and associated documents; it is shared, clarified and changed through a collective process. This concept of the screen idea is developed with reference to the work of Roland Barthes in order to clarify the influence of norms and assumptions used during that process that may otherwise be hidden or unacknowledged. The process of script development has been explored in the CILECT conference ‘Triangle 2’ (Ross 2001), and this article takes two of these projects to examine how the screen idea is ‘rewritten’ by the collective process. In these examples it is not possible to attribute single authorship in the face of this dynamic and complex process of creating meaning. The underlying normative drive for a readerly text is made according to assumed, though often unacknowledged and unquestioned criteria.
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