Not quite Canadian, not quite literary… here are my writings on books about film for Sound on Sight.

Screen Plays: How 25 Screenplays Made it to a Theatre Near You – For Better or Worse

David S. Cohen, HarperCollins 2008.

From the onset, Screen Plays looks like promising reading material for screenwriters and others interested in how screenplays make it from paper to screen. Cohen’s credits are respectable, and the promise of “valuable insider access to the back lots and board rooms” is tantalizing. The book covers some pretty good ground: from blockbusters such as Gladiator, to Indiewood hits such as Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to more controversial films such as Happiness and A Dirty Shame, it picks up a decent selection of interesting films that appeal to a broad demographic. In other words, he knows what he’s doing.

Screen Plays is easy to navigate, and offers juicy little tidbits from the mouths of actors, directors, and screenwriters. The writing is simple and concise, the obvious fruit of an experienced reporter. Cohen’s knowledge of the film industry is established in the introduction, and remains fairly evident throughout. He knows who to turn to at crucial moments during the book for an intriguing quote, or behind-the-scenes anecdote. Bouncing between those involved in production and screenwriting for information on the creation process, he fulfills his word and takes us from the idea to the finished product.

To begin with, Cohen builds the history of each screenplay, so we get a sense of what the writer was drawing inspiration from and aiming for before they (the heads of production, directors, and whatever corporate monsters might lie behind Hollywood hits) took over. That said, everyone gives credit where it’s due, taking the blame for setbacks, and giving nods to those responsible for success. It all seems incredibly chivalrous. That’s ok. They are the ones who have to continue to work in the industry, after all. Still, there is a definite split between the intentions of the writers and everybody else. This is, I imagine, the point of the book. The message seems to be: “You want to be a screenwriter? Beware.”

The successes – and there are great successes – make it worthwhile. Lost in Translation, for example, gives an account of how a film described by the writer/ director as “it’s two people; nothing happens” can not only make it to the big screen, but also create quite a media stir. That’s pretty inspirational for those with artistic/off-beat/European-influenced sensibilities. Of course, that director happens to be Sofia Coppola, daughter of film-icon Francis-Ford Coppola. Nevermind. Still, there is inspiration to be drawn from those like Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty. His ability to take a clip from a newspaper scandal, channel his experience toiling away at an unstimulating job, and turn it into a powerful Academy Award winner is remarkable. And then there’s the wacky world of John Waters, where religion and sex collide in a cult whose twelfth disciple is expected to invent a new sex act.

There are a lot of interesting facts to be picked up from Screen Plays. Whether it be trivia or history, OCD or mythology, Cohen does his homework and provides information that helps to piece together these windows into the screenwriting world. Anyone interested in screenwriting will take a lot from these glimpses into the different layers and levels of writing for film. One thing Screen Plays is not, however, is a how-to book. It’s more of a how did book – how did this project get from A to Z, how did this writer approach his subject, how did the studios react to this particular idea. Nowhere is there an outline for success, or a pattern to be duplicated.

So while Screen Plays might fail to offer ground-breaking tactics for success or reveal highly guarded secrets of screenwriters, it does offer a healthy dose of reality, at least within the realm of those with produced credits and some sort of audience. Consider it screenwriting 101, and, at the very least, use the figures and facts provided to compare budgets, credits, and gross in what sometimes seems an impenetrable industry. Marianne Perron, 2009.

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