Did you see the film Adaptation with Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper in 2002? It was sort-of based on an article called The Orchid Thief that appeared in The New Yorker in January 1995, for which journalist Susan Orlean won a Pulitzer Prize.
By the end of the 1990s Charlie Kaufmann was the hottest
screenwriter in town. In 1994, as freelancers do, he had written a speculative script called Being John Malkovich which was turned down by many until it reached director and producer Spike Jonze. It earned an Academy Award nomination and won a BAFTA, and led to Charlie being offered the job of adapting the book, which is about an eccentric man who stole orchids from a protected swamp.
So he was signed up and then he froze. What could he possibly do with a quirky but one-hundred-percent true story that most people already knew? Do you remember what he did? It amounted to the high-wire act with triple-back-somersault of screenwriting.
But what is screenwriting? Before 1920, when films were just a few minutes long, the director, whose ideas were being put onto film, kept everything in his head while the crew hovered, waiting for him to tell them what to do next. Then, in the mid-1920s, films reached about twelve minutes, with actors, and scene and lighting changes and other complexities, more than a director/story-maker-cameraman could contain in his head without delegating, and this led to someone writing a document called a photoplay.
That was Hollywood. Quietly, in 1906, on the other side of the world, where people hadn’t known that a film of twelve minutes was long enough to require a formal plan, a small group of friends in Melbourne made the world’s first full-length feature film - The Story of the Kelly Gang. It was mostly shot at somebody’s house in Heidelberg, and the Victorian government lent them a train, probably at Mitcham. Director Sam Crews worked without a scenario, and pieced the story together as he went along according to W.J. Lincoln, pioneer Australian director. Pretty damaged, but full of lively action, fire, bullets and death, you can see it on YouTube. And no, nothing wrong with the sound - there isn’t any.
It would have benefited from a formal script because after its release in 1906 bits were added to the film as it went around the country. But at that time there weren’t any 'How To' books for people who wanted to get into the moving picture business by way of the pen.
How to Write Photoplays by Anita Loos and John Emerson was published in 1920 as a guide to ‘the aspiring photo playwright.’ They enticed people to consider writing as a ‘practical’ and ‘lucrative’ profession. All a writer would need, they said, apart from watching lots of films, was a typewriter, a dictionary and a thesaurus.
It was the start of a century of freelancing and, apart from the fact that a very eminent collection of directors including Orson Wells, George Lucas and the Coen brothers are their own screenwriters, the pattern has hardly changed. Hope-filled people people write scripts that are sent around and, mostly, rejected. Writer James Schamus (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) was recently quoted as saying, “When you have finished a screenplay, you have created approximately 124 pages of begging for money and attention.”
Scripts not snatched up right away end up on the Black List to die though, surprisingly, quite a lot are later brought to life. Raiders of the Lost Ark was one, so was The Kings Speech.
The Jazz Singer is a 1927 American musical drama film directed by Alan Crosland. It is the first feature-length motion picture with not only a synchronised recorded music score but also lip-synchronous singing. and speech in several isolated sequences. The script-writer was Alfred A. Cohn (March 26, 1880 – February 3, 1951) who, at the first Academy Awards in 1929, was nominated for, but did not win, an award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
After that films with dialogue and sound effects started being made. Increasing complexity of story-telling meant that much more than a photoplay was needed and so people wrote what were called scenarios, or film scripts, or screenplays, and lots of them also wrote ‘How To’ books. There are hundreds. Among the best-sellers are Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men) and Robert McKee’s prodigious output. Now a celebrity screenwriting guru who runs big seminars and online courses, he brought his Story Seminar to Sydney and Melbourne in 2011. He makes it seem very easy.
Back to Charlie Kaufman. He, a brilliant, slightly mystical intellectual , was so daunted by the task of turning The Orchid Thief into a film that he became crippled by writer’s block. And then he used his writer’s block, plus the complex difficulty of dealing with a non-fiction book, plus Robert McKee’s screen-writing-for-dummies approach as part of the script, and heartily satirised himself and the whole screenwriting business.
Nicholas Cage plays Charlie with full big-eyed, stubbled angst, and also plays Donald, his rather dim but practical twin brother who is hardly daunted and thinks anyone can write a screenplay. Donald is full of secondhand ideas for the story including having a multiple personality serial killer who eats body parts. McKee is wildly sent-up for his quick-fix recipes, and poor tortured Charlie realises that he has written himself into his own screenplay.
The outcome is terrific. Susan Orleans’s story is well told but there is also plenty of absurd send up of the whole screenwriting mystique, including a Ned Kelly-like shootout at the end. Like the end-of-story cliché that Shakespeare started, superfluous characters are neatly wiped at the end.
The script was nominated for an Academy Award and won a BAFTA. It then freed Charlie Kaufmann to write Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - incredibly complex, wittily intellectual, much more his kind of thing.
Amazingly it didn’t end up on the Black List.