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by P.H. Wells

If you talk to enough screenwriters, sooner or later you’re bound to hear this: “A screenplay is a blueprint.”

For what, a multiplex? A mall? Certainly not a movie.

I know something about blueprints. I was designing houses and remodels in the days when people were still drafting with pencils and triangles, and you fed your original drawings into the blueprint machine and out came hot sheets with blue lines, and they smelled of ammonia. One of the nicest compliments I can remember was from an engineer who said I had a “good hand” — a relic of praise that a click-and-drag (CAD) creative will never hear.

Not that I miss typewriters, either.

Old typewriter

Screenplays and blueprints. Sure, they have things in common. You react emotionally to them (“wow”). You question them (“does that belong there?”). You get a sense of scale (“this is big”).

That doesn’t erase the fact that a screenplay is, at best, a strong suggestion of what the final film will look like. A blueprint is a mandate. A house has to conform to what’s on the page. If it doesn’t — well, you have to raise the handrail six inches or lower the roof six inches or chop six inches off the master bath. A blueprint, stamped and approved, is a contract between the architect and the world.

Does that sound like a screenplay?

No child will be at risk by the shortening of a character. No house will shudder from the movement of a block of dialogue. Though it’s not guaranteed, a great script should lay the foundation for a great film (The King’s Speech). You can even get a highly entertaining movie from a middling script (Avatar). It’s flat-out impossible to scrape a beautiful building from an ugly set of plans (the Oregon state capitol).

I say this as one who carves lines of description as if they were mortise and tenon joints.

My perspective began to change when I started editing my first film, Dancing On D-Street. Okay, documentaries are not the same as original features, but I do have a script, written from the transcribed interviews. A roadmap. What I’m doing now is piecing the film together on my iMac, navigating through all this great footage—I say great, because my interview subjects are great and I was fortunate enough to record them.

It’s liberating, this working with images and sound. As a writer, I use language to create pictures in people’s heads. As an editor, I use the pictures themselves. I’m free to nail them together in any way that tells the story. Stories are built. Stories have structure. Maybe that’s where the whole blueprint idea came from.

Given that comparisons are as unavoidable as commercials, I’d like to find something more suitable…

  • Map? I kind of like this one, not just for the travel metaphor but also because it’s my name spelled backwards.
  • Itinerary? Good for both travel and planning ahead, but at five syllables you have to plan ahead to even spell it.
  • Speaking of syllables, how about syllabus? “And the Oscar for Best Syllabus goes to—“

Anyone?

 © 2011 First Straw Films


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