More insight from the Well

Mysterymanonfilm had a discussion recently questioning the rigid following of the so called 'rules' that the pundits like McKee preach so vehemently. I found this passage from Wells Root and thought it was a point very well made.

"Remember Shaw's unbreakable rule. For this and all following chapters there is no unbreakable rule.

This three-act design principle is never a rigid structure. It is a generalized framework, elastic and flexible. Almost every great story you can think of will reveal striking variations. Originality lies in creative distinctions. The beginning, the middle, and the end is a concept to start with. Where you go with it is a measure of your creative imagination.

In fact, a number of filmmakers, critics, and intellectuals reject the three-act design. Flatly. Indignantly. They say, among other things, that the tidy, packaged quality of the beginning, the middle, and the end is superficial. It is too patent a manufacture. In life things never happen that way.

Indeed they don't. "No one has ever seen," said Picasso, "a natural work of art." In any field of art, ancient or modern.

In films you start with a concept. You develop it in any manner within your reach and competence. No divine rulebook limits any writer, or director, or producer's game plan. Bergman, Resnais, Antonioni, Kubrick, Fellini, Altman, Cassavetes have as much right to freeborn story flights as Disney has to fantasyland.

The one thing the writer and director must do is to communicate with an audience. Without that audience to watch, listen, applaud, be inspired, or perhaps throw eggs, you have nothing but shadows dancing in an empty barn. How you communicate is nobody's business but your own. But you had damn well better do it in a fashion that will summon bodies to the barn.

Ultramodern, unstructured story design has an erratic record for bringing bodies to the barn. It is even condemned as nonstorytelling —aimless, confusing, and self-indulgent. Modern landmark films have emerged, nevertheless, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour, L'Avventura, Last Year at Marienbad, and 81/2, and many more.

For such films and their makers, there is a devoted audience. Perhaps not in the multimillions, but in loyal and sufficient numbers to sustain their dreams. With the vivid addition of a box-office smash now and then, like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Radical technique films are as essential to our industry's progress as research is to medicine. They represent the experimental labs where adventurous minds are seeking new dramatic dimension. Allow me to simplify it totally. D. W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation) was one of the earliest experimenters. In those bygone days, camera angles were almost exclusively medium or longer shots. Working with his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, Griffith, that wild-eyed radical, conventionalized a startling technique. He called it a close-up.

Techniques of today's modernists will seem equally commonplace fifty years from now. By 2030 new radicals will have appeared who will patronize Resnais, Fellini, and our avant-garde as stuffy conservatives.

In the long view, story structure has some kinship to building a house. Architectural inventions in this century have been wild and inspiring. But houses that people will pay for and inhabit still must provide shelter, light, privacy, and facilities for heat and water. The basics.

Worldwide audiences demand corresponding basics in storytelling. Since the craft arose thousands of years ago, listeners have been absorbed by a Prince and a dragon. The dragon captures the Princess. The Prince slays the dragon, and lays the Princess. The audience goes home enchanted.

If that be primitive, make the most of it. The structure of Star Wars and thousands of the favorite stories, plays, and films of the ages are —in their essentials —just that primitive. Often the primitive in an art becomes the perennial."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mark, thanks so much for this post on Wells Root. See my comment on your previous post for how I first encountered him. The best.

There are numerous competitions and funds for screenwriting that require the "traditional" approach of Outline, Treatment and Draft - which is understandable since there has to be some kind of uniform standard for the submissions to be judged or adjudicated on an equal footing. But it is a flawed approach which seeks to define the creative process and thus limits what potential may lie in the artists seeking to be heard. All too often these structured halls of judgement are as constrictive and narrow-minded in their opinions of the finished works which cross their desks - further limiting what is possible or deemed "acceptable".

Structure, discipline, and form are all requirements of any craft - but as you have pointed out: rules are meant to be broken.

I once had a mentor tell me: "Learn the rules first - and THEN break them." Which made a lot of sense. The "rules", such as they are, for telling a story are not difficult to learn.

Writing and storytelling is as "plastic" a medium as sculpture or painting or music. As the audience becomes more adept at accepting and understanding new sights, sounds and tales the creators have an ever expanding horizon of possibilities to follow.

The bulk of effort by writers today seems to be applied to making the established and accepted structures work. And yet the best and most lauded writing is that which consistently breaks those bounds.

Wells Root is acknowledged, by those who know of him, as a wise master of the craft and art of screenwriting. He needs to be tossed around more often.