Setting the Tone with Style
BY DAVID LANDAU
May 8th, 2004
I seem to write a lot about screenplays that break from the norm, or at least defy the standard Fields and McKee status quo. I don't remember how many screenplays have Syd Fields and Robert McKee sold. I'm not saying what they say doesn't hold valuable lessons within. I just wonder why so many of the most respected and acclaimed movies have screenplays that don't fit their molds. Most recently Big Fish, screenplay by John August based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, is a case in point.
August took great liberties with the book (and with Wallace's blessings). Big Fish is exactly what it's title says it is - a Big Fish story. It is a story of modern myths told in a mythical style. August isn't shy about writing in his descriptions little asides to the reader, such as "Is this guy crazy?" (66) and wonderful metaphoric phrases such as "He's the legless cricket left on the anthill."(73) As a matter of fact, barely a page goes by without them.
All of these could easily be cut. It would no doubt lower the page count significantly under the 122 pages it is now. And that is the standard advice from most screenwriting books and seminars who preach, "save it for your novel." They want a lean, clean and concise screenplay. No extra words, no flowery writing. That certainly is a good advice for the beginning writer, who has a tendency to write a screenplay like a short story or a book wit too much description and prose that can't be shown on the screen.
But August is writing a story which virtually requires the flippant style he uses in his screenplay. Big Fish is a simple story about a father and son who don't really connect. But that's positioned almost as the subplot. The main plot is the collection of Big Fish tales the father recites year after year, and the underlying question, how much of myth is based on truth?
Flashback within flashback, tons of voice over narration and a conversational writing style makes the screenplay Big Fish a captivating read. My twelve year old daughter who never saw the film read it from cover to cover and loved it. Now, I'm not trying to imply that studio executives have the mentality of a twelve year old (after all, my daughter is witty and creative). But if August's writing can connect with her than it certainly can connect with a script reader, a development exec, a film producer, a screenplay contest judge, an agent, a director, an actor or any other sort of person who reads scripts. Each of August's little asides and turned phrases speaks volumes. They set the tone, not only in the readers mind, but for the director, for the cast and for the crew.
"She looks like she's been dead for years, but too stubborn to lie down." (14)
"And in the silence that follows, a lot is said. It wasn't the upbeat reply Sandra was hoping for." (19)
"And that's the sad truth. Karl is less a monster that a freak B a giant man, but in the end, just a man" (30)
"ON EDWARD as his heart falls 20 floors." (65)
Each of these could be cut or simplified into clean clear stage directions and descriptions. But that wouldn't be right for this screenplay. This is a film of epic lies which are told with a nod and wink. The screenplay must be written with the same nods and winks that the main character uses to spins his tales. It is a matter of tone, not just setting it but keeping it throughout. It is also a matter of good writing. Good writing makes good reading, and good reading makes good films. Because a lot of people will be working to make that script into a finished film, they all must have the same image in their minds - they all must get a good handle on the tone - the style.
Would this style of writing work for a suspense-thriller? Probably not. It would be the wrong style for the tone. A dark tense story would seem to cry out for short, precise description - almost a staccato style that would better match the feeling of the movie. Big Fish is a lyrical film and thus a lyrical telling style is not just justified, but demanded.
When writing, we have to do more than stay aware of the tone of our story. The style in which we chose to write it can be a great device in communicating and maintaining that tone to any and all who pick up the pages. So we as writers should chose the style in which we tell our tales on paper. The style of the screenplay can imply the style of the finished film. Making a conscious chose and making it work is one of the differences between being an artist and being a craftsmen.
Big Fish " is published by NewMarket Press / Shooting Script series
David Landau is a published, award winning playwright whose work has been produced nationwide. He has written industrial videos and penned numerous screenplays - a few having been optioned, a few finalists in competitions. He teaches screenwriting and electronic filmmaking at Fairleigh Dickenson University and is a member of the Dramatists Guild, Mystery Writers of America and IATSE Local 52 (as a gaffer).