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Naked Screenwriting

UCLA classmate Francis Coppola returned to the campus to visit Screenwriting 434. This excerpt comes from Lew Hunter’s forthcoming “Naked Screenwriting: 22 Academy Award Winning Screenwriters bare their hearts and souls to you.”

Lew: Is structure different today in the way you write vis-á-vis when you were starting out?
Lew with Francis Coppola

Francis: There are profound differences. In my experience, I’ve worked on lots of scripts between writing a screenplay you’re adapting from some other source, or rewriting a screenplay someone else has written.

Basically working from something else to writing original work. Very different. The latter is very interesting discussion because it’s really ultimately about writing.... be it screenplay, short story, novella, or novel. In terms of adapting a screenplay, what I was doing at Seven Arts; you read the original work, you try to get it to fill you with sensations and emotions, then you put them out in a different form. You use what you know about storytelling in the cinematic form. The visuals tell you much, much more than just descriptions. The ultimate memorable stuff comes from dramaturgy and how the behavior of the characters let you learn about them.

Oh, I know a funny story that demonstrates this. There’s a little girl where I live in San Francisco. I think she’s seven. She’s a genius. Really a genius. Her parents say she gets into fights with other kids because she knows all this stuff and she doesn’t abide like other kinds of intelligence. I said, “Well, drop her off with me and I’ll play with her for two or three hours.” So she comes over. She’s a nice, little girl. Finally she tells me she wants to write a screenplay. So I said, “Fine.” So she says to me, “It’s called ‘Adventure of Mozambique.’ And she dictates to me, “The little girls go, the Arabs are in the car, they’re following him” and so and so. And I realized that most of what I would do is say to her, “But how are we going to show the audience that?” She would say, “You know, they have bags of stolen gold.” I said, “Well, how do they know what’s in the bags?” So she says, “We’ll write ‘Money’ on it.” I realized that in trying to translate this little child genius into a screenwriter, the issue was always, “Well, how are you going to get that across without just saying it?”

Robert Rosen (Dean of the UCLA Theatre-Film-Television Department): But how do you write about what it’s going to look like, and so you can be sparse on the dialogue?

Francis: A screenplay is the most horrible reading experience that has yet been devised. By contrast, reading a short story is a pleasure. You have to keep that in mind and really help the reader. So many times I’m reading a script and I’m 30 pages in and say, now who is this? And I’m going back looking for the name. You want the experience of reading a story even though it’s going to end up as a movie. You want it to be like the experience of seeing it as much as you can, if you can. Strive for that. The punchline on the little girl is when we get to the part where she says, “And then they run into a copses of trees.” I said, “A what?” She says, “A copses of trees.” I said, “There’s no such word as copses.” She says, “Of course there is. Like a gander of geese or a pride of lions. A copses of trees.” I said, “I'm getting a dictionary.” Sure enough, there it is, ‘a copses of trees.’ That was my little screenwriter.

Write to show in a script. Cinema is language. The screenwriter knows and understands that language and knows the best way is to show things to the audience to get them to feel. And the best way to get them to feel is with the interaction of great characters or the value of great action sequence with lots of cutting and stuff. You start to be savvy as to what the film language is. Today there is pretty much a unified script language. And most movies, and Godard said, “If you cut the titles off them, you wouldn’t know who made them.” Some of the best people you can see their style. But generally, movies are turning into this kind of product. What I’m interested in these days, is the idea of writing that reaches into your feelings, your intuitions. Write something that in some way makes us all understand things like the relationship of men and women. The effects of family being scattered all over. Whatever. Something that really can help you understand life, or participate, or get emotional. That to me has to come from original writing. Writing from your heart, your soul.