Monday, March 13, 2017

MOONLIGHT and Screenplay Rules

Each year I read one or both of the screenwriting Oscar winners. The theory is, in doing so, I'll learn how to write better screenplays and help others do the same.  In this case the learning from MOONLIGHT (Best Adaptation) was two fold.

I watched the movie on iTunes, then found the PDF shooting script HERE. The challenge I knew was to discover how Barry Jenkins wrote something that was so interior in scope, and was so silent. While there is some action and dialogue, the interior emotional tension is thick.

A screenplay is suppose to describe what is SHOWN and HEARD on screen, without TELLING us what the character is THINKING. The screenwriter describes the setting, the props, the posture, the bodily response, and when all of that is done rightly, then we give the writer permission to tell us what is actually going on inside the mind.

The adage is, learn to do it well, and then you can break the rules. Here's an excerpt from the third act. There are somethings here, expertly done, but they break the rules. Can you identify the rule breakers? (I use the term "rule breakers" with derision. )

This starts on page 79.
  1. We watch the children at play a moment longer. We’ve seen none of these kids before, we’ll see none of them again. 
    A final beat of this, then... 
    A door closed -- Black’s car parked deep in the corner of this parking lot, in the farthest back corner away from street light, obscured by low-hanging shade trees.  
    The diner is away from us, across the parking lot. Black takes it in a moment, pulls on a fresh shirt. 
    He’s moving, crossing the parking lot at an easy clip. It’s quiet out, a few passing cars to Black’s left running north on Biscayne Boulevard, no foot traffic -- can hear the SOUND of his footfalls on the pavement. 
    As he nears the threshold of this diner, takes the handle on the entry... 
    CLOSE ON: an old school bell, the sound of it jingling as the door it’s affixed to parts. 
    And right away, the sound of music, something old, soft, and lilting (think Aretha Franklin’s One Step Ahead). 
    Black scanning this room, his view of the place a clue for us: this is definitely the same diner we saw Kevin working in during the earlier phone call. 
    All the details are there, the old-school register, vintage chairs and table-tops. And in the corner, that old school jukebox blessing us with Aretha. 
    ...on the move now, crosses the diner with eyes down and ahead of him. There’s a counter lined with stools, directly opposite the staging station and adjacent the register. 
    Black eases up to the counter, places his cell atop it and takes a seat. 
    No one stirs at Black’s movement, no one watches. Looking about the place again, we notice the other patrons: a quartet of college girls in a corner booth shoring up for a night on the town, an elderly gentleman sitting to himself, staring into a cup of mild coffee. 
    As Black watches the elderly gentleman... 
                    VOICE (O.S.)                                        (moving)                                            Be right with you. 
    A figure moving past, carrying an urn over to the old man, sets a new cup down and pours a fresh coffee, scoops up the old cup as he moves on. 
    As he crosses to the girls, we see him better: it’s Kevin. 
    We watch as he speaks to them; can’t hear any of it but from the feel of it, very jovial, Kevin is good at this work. 
    A beat of watching Kevin here, isolated bits of him from Black’s perspective: Kevin’s lips as he speaks, the hand he rests to his neck instinctively.
    Finished with the girls, Kevin turns back toward the counter, hands full with their spent dishes. As he approaches, he looks right at Black, right at us... 
                    KEVIN                                                (moving)
              Be right with you, boss, just                           let me get this out the way.
    ...and moves past. 
    Somehow, Kevin has not noticed him. 
    Something lodged in Black’s throat, without thinking places his hand there: Am I breathing? 
    He must be, he’d better be: those dishes discarded somewhere in the back and... here comes Kevin. 
             How you doin’ tonight, what                            can I get you?
    Kevin flipping through a stained note-pad, hasn’t bothered to look up yet. As he does, his eyes settle on Black’s. 
    Kevin watching this man. And Black watching back, the two of them silently holding each other’s gaze, pure curiosity. 
Here's what I noticed throughout the script, but I'll restrict my examples to the passage above.

1. The tone and mood of MOONLIGHT is expertly included in the visual descriptions. The setting, the lights, the movement (all visual), are also metaphors for what the audience should be feeling. We're not TOLD how the audience should feel, but phrases like those underlined SHOW us.
  • "Black's car parked deep in the corner of this parking lot..." 
  • "the farthest back corner away from street light, obscured by low-hanging shade trees."
  • "...away from us, across the parking lot..."
  • " foot traffic -- can hear the SOUND of his footfalls on the pavement."
  • "...the sound of music, something old, soft, and lilting..."
  • "...with eyes down..."
  • "...staring into a cup of mild coffee..."
But the "rules" tell us that we should never use past tense verbs, present participles, break the fourth wall, use adverbs or gerunds. And all of those "errors" are used extensively throughout the MOONLIGHT script. Can you see them in the bulleted list above? Here are a few more.

2. We're told: Don't break the fourth wall. Yet, the MOONLIGHT script includes the audience/reader a great deal.
  • "We watch..." 
  • "We've seen..."
  • "We see..."
  • "...he looks...right at us..."
  • "...we notice..."
3. We're told: Avoid adverbs, present participles, and gerunds. Yet, they're everywhere. 
  • "scanning the room..."
  • "blessing us with Aretha."
  • "Looking about the place..."
  • "an elderly gentlemen sitting to himself, staring into a cup..."
  • "As Black watches the elderly gentleman..."
  • "...watching Kevin..."
  • "Kevin watching this man. And Black watching back. The two of them silently holding each other's gaze..."
4. We're told: Only describe what can be seen, and never say what the characters are thinking:
  • "..but from the feel of it, very jovial..."
  • "...Something lodged in Black's throat, without thinking places his hand there: Am I breathing?"
  • "He must be, he'd better be..."
NOW, this is NO CRITICISM of BARRY JENKINS. The screenplay reads easily, visually, and most of the writing is PRESENT ACTIVE. But to communicate this interior sense of emotions, the gerunds, the adverbs, and the other things work wonderfully. 

Yes, you might argue that this is an example of learning to follow the rules so you can break them. But here's what's different about Jenkin's situation. He had written and directed a bunch of shorts, but this was only his second full length movie, and his first, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, was something he directed for $13,000 and no studio readers were involved. Add to that, Plan B executives (Brad Pitt) had seen Medicine for Melancholy and liked it and wanted to work with Jenkins, so with Plan B behind him,  they persuaded a A24, new distributor, to get behind Moonlight as their first feature to finance and distribute.  (Jenkins also said in an interview I watched from a Netherlands film festival, that the OSCARS SO WHITE protest from 2015, heightened awareness of movies by black artists.) So, Jenkins was not in a situation where the grammar or the format was ever an issue. His previous work and his connections spoke louder than the grammar of his screenplay. In other words, the executed work is what's important, not the screenplay's grammar.


This is further reinforced when voting occurs for the Best Screenplay categories. It was clear to me (having lived it numerous times) that no common Hollywood reader had ever read Jenkin's screenplay without being told by their boss, first, "We're going to make this movie." Of course, I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet MOONLIGHT was never subjected to the anonymous eyes of a first tier reader. Had it been, I'm sure it would have been immediately rejected. But yet, like a Quentin Taratino script, it wins an Oscar. (And, PLEASE, do not tell me that Quentin Taratino has learned how to write a script so he can break the rules. If you've ever, ever seen a Taratino script you would know by page 2 he never learned the rules in the first place.)

Yesterday, I wrote four screenwriters I know in Hollywood, all who have worked on many films that were produced and two who are Academy members. I asked if those voting for the BEST SCREENWRITING categories actually read the scripts they're sent. The answers came back: "Probably not," and "Usually, no." What they do is watch the finished movie and infer what the screenplay was like. 

So, I'll say this I have in past posts. If you're a screenwriter that wants to waste your time, heave your screenplays at the anonymous studio blockade, and see them bounce off into the rubbish pile. They may be Oscar winners, but 90% of the readers in Hollywood wouldn't recognize it as such. Readers generally are not going to take the time to understand your story, but find fault out of a personal bias or tell you to follow the rules. For the rest of you, who want to get your screenplays made....ignore the obsessive format and grammatical rules, and find someone to help you make the story into a film.


BlueFox94 said...

It's spelled "Quentin Tarantino" with an E, not "Quintin".
Great article!

Stanley D. Williams said...

BlueFox94: Thanks, fixed it.

FunnyLadyInRed said...

"...drug invested part of Miami."??
Or, did you mean 'drug infested'?

Otherwise, there was some fairly good instructional thought process.

Stanley D. Williams said...

FunnyLadyInRed: With a handle like that you really ought to grace us with a picture. Ah, you've discovered my hallmark. Even with proofreaders I am terrible at the level of detail required to spell correctly. BUT, having said that, "invested" is kind of an interesting term for the milieu in which our characters find themselves. Yes, I did mean "infested" ....the "v" and "f" are adjacent on the keyboard. But there was a lot of investing going on. Thanks for the comment. sw