A few days ago, I was sharing with a friend of mine that I had been facing the blank screen on my computer for several days wondering what I was going to say when I receive this award. I confided to her that I really didn’t know what to say. And I’m the one who always says the hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write. Well, in this case, I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I knew I wanted to thank all the members of the American Screenwriting Association for honoring me. I wanted to thank all my family, all my friends, especially my wonderful wife Aviva, who have been such a wonderful support for me for this evening.
She looked at me. I looked at her. “Is that it?” she asked. “Is that really it?” Well, I said, I wanted to thank all my students who trained me so well. And my mentors, I added, those people who supported me with their dedication to their art, their vision and their craft.
Specifically, I was referring to Jean Renoir, the great French film director, my mentor, who sat me down one day and told me in no uncertain terms that “the future is film.” Listening to his words was the first step, and his advice and support were like a beacon in the night sky guiding me onto the path I somehow knew I always wanted to follow.
“Who else?” she asked. I told her about Michaelangelo Antonioni. Studying his films was an education as I began to see that the art of screenwriting is finding places where silence works better than words. The characters and situations in his films showed me the emotional strengths and weaknesses of a character can be better stated by what is not said than what is said. And, a few years later, when I first started writing my own screenplays, I hung out with Sam Peckinpah for one wonderful summer while he was writing The Wild Bunch. Sam openly shared his ideas about what it takes to build a story and write a screenplay.
My friend thought I should say that and I agreed, because to receive an award like this, you have to receive a lot of help along the way and I wanted to acknowledge that. Everything exists in relationship to something else.
The discussion with my friend showed me I really had a lot to say. When I first started to explore this uncharted landscape of the screenplay, I had no idea what I was doing, what I wanted to do, or even what I was looking for. It was like a personal journey of discovery, trying to make sense of an art form that seemed more a mystery than anything else. When I reflect on those early years, I clearly see there was only one question I wanted to answer: What makes a good screenplay? During my writing experience, my reading experience and my teaching experience, that was the one question I kept asking myself. What makes a good screenplay? What is its nature? What does it look like, and what do you have to do to write a good screenplay?
Renoir taught me that art and the movies do not have to exist in separate categories. “Qu’est que ce La Cinema,” he would ask. What is Film? As I studied his great films, I thought about his words, and I began to see that film is like a conduit to reveal the truth about who we are; film can be a medium to inspire and uplift people to see other points of view, to share individual insights about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.
My first book Screenplay was inspired by Renoir’s statement that a movie should be like an act of revolution. Because I feel the screenwriter should take responsibility for stimulating the audience into action; to think, to feel, to passionately inspire others. And I truly believe that the mission of the young filmmaker is to pave the way for the future. All of us sitting here really embody that future. We have the imagination, we have the tools, we have the skills, and we know the craft, but do we have the courage and the strength to bring our own personal vision into the world?
This is a very exciting time in film. I like to say that we’re in the middle of an evolution/revolution. The state of digital and computer graphic technology will ultimately shape the visual medium in the years to come. Future generations will find new ways of taking these images and weaving them into the experience of their own personal vision.
Already, the form of the screenplay is changing: films like Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, The Usual Suspects, Magnolia and, more recently, Memento are presenting new ways of telling stories. I firmly believe the screenwriter will engage his or her characters in a way that will get closer to the fabric of the inner experience, exploring the mindscape of dramatic action in a more novelistic, nonlinear way. No longer will the lack of technology get in the way of the expressing the storyteller’s personal vision. Each new generation builds upon the knowledge and visual insights of the previous one, and so the flame is passed.
When I was writing my new book, Going to the Movies, I had to ask myself what I really wanted to accomplish in my writing and teaching. And the answer I came up was this: I wanted filmmakers to make good movies, great movies, movies that would serve and inspire audiences to find their common humanity. Since the beginning of my career, I’ve always known future technologies would emerge, there would be new, more advanced ways of telling stories with pictures. But if people understand what makes a good story and what makes a good movie, it would be of value to both filmmakers and audience alike. When people tell me I discovered the form of the modern screenplay, I tell them this form of storytelling has been around since Aristotle. I simply uncovered what was already there, gave it a name, and illustrated how it worked in contemporary movies.
Over the years, understanding the purpose and function of dramatic structure has become the focus of debate. The discussion rages between conventional and unconventional methods of storytelling. I find that good because it leads to conversations of discovery, a new starting point for evolution and change. The basic structure of the screenplay will not change, only the way the story is put together will change. And if this leads to new ways of telling stories that will inspire and uplift humanity, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. As Paul Thomas Anderson says in Magnolia, “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.”
Today, when I sit in a darkened theater, I’m sustained with an unbridled hope and optimism. I don’t know whether I’m looking for answers to my own questions about life, or whether I’m silently giving thanks that I’m not up there on that monster screen confronting the struggles and challenges I’m seeing. Yet, in those reflected images, I may glean an insight, an awareness, that might enhance the personal meaning of my life.
It was Joseph Conrad who wrote, “My task is to make you hear, to make you feel and, above all, to make you see. That is all, and it is everything.”
So, when I look back over the ground I’ve covered, the trails I’ve traversed, I’ve come to understand that it’s not the destination that’s important; it’s the journey itself that is both the goal and the purpose.
Like the Oracle in The Matrix, I believe the silver screen is a mirror, reflecting our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams, our successes, our failures. Going to the movies is an ongoing journey, for those dancing shadows of light are simply a reflection of our lives, where the end might be the beginning, and the beginning, the end.
Just like in the movies.