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Writing and Selling Crime Film Screenplays
By Karen Lee Street
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2013 Karen Lee Street
All rights reserved.
This is not a book on film genre theory. Its aim is not to debate the difference between a film style, mode, technique and genre or to attempt to establish rules that define crime sub-genres. It has a very simple goal: to present a user-friendly approach to writing and developing crime genre screenplays that address audience expectations without sacrificing originality.
My own fascination with the crime genre started fairly early as my grandfather was a pulp fiction writer whose stories were published in Dime Mystery Magazine, Black Mask and Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine. He gave me impromptu lessons on how to write crime fiction as he sat behind his Smith Corona, haloed in smoke from his ever-present 'writing cigar'. I have also written crime genre novels, but it's primarily my two decades of script development experience as a development executive, freelance script editor, and script evaluator for major film funding bodies in Europe and North America that prompted my interest in finding a useful way to approach 'writing the crime' in screenplay form. This work has entailed reading thousands of scripts, some very good, some very bad, most in need of further development.
FROM DIAGNOSIS TO SCRIPT DOCTORING: THE FIRST PAN-EUROPEAN SCRIPT ANALYSIS SERVICE
It's one thing to critique a script and write a report about why that draft isn't working; quite different skills are required to actually figure out how to improve that script. The most practical experience I gained in 'script doctoring' was during my time as Head of Development at the European Script Fund and European Media Development Agency, where my role was to facilitate the development of all funded projects from selection to production. 'ESF' was the largest feature film development agency in Europe and is now the development funding arm of the MEDIA Programme, European Commission. We co-developed film and television projects from 18 countries by most of the key players in the European film industry, including Oscar-nominated and winning films such as Farinelli, Daens, Children of Nature, All Things Fair, Poussières de Vie, Journey of Hope, A Chef in Love and acclaimed features including Breaking the Waves, Orlando, Elizabeth, Rob Roy, Naked, Carla's Song, Toto le Héros, Hilary and Jackie, The Cement Garden and Live Flesh. I joined the company at its inception in January 1989 and set up the script submission evaluation system. It quickly became clear that common script weaknesses prevented projects from attracting initial development funding. It also became clear that many funded companies did not spend enough time on script development and either the project failed to secure production finance or went into production before the script was ready. I discovered that screenwriters are too frequently given script notes that are difficult to follow or that focus on minor problems rather than the bigger issues. This is exacerbated if the writer is receiving notes – often contradictory – from several people. To help counter this confusing process, I created the first pan-European script analysis service so that every funded writer and producer received detailed written feedback on their submitted script in a consistent, coherent format. These very detailed script analysis reports had a simple but effective structure designed to help the writer address the bigger issues first rather than getting muddled up in less important detail.
FATAL FLAWS AND GENRE CONFUSION
The script analysis service was hugely popular and helped to emphasise the importance of script development in the European film industry. And as we funded and analysed more scripts – over a thousand projects during my tenure – the most fundamental and 'fatal' script problems became apparent:
An unclear concept (what is this story really about?)
A promising idea overcome by cliché
A writer and producer with different visions for the project, resulting in a weakened story
Looking more specifically at genre, script readers often labelled a project's genre as 'drama' on the report form, even if the screenwriter claimed it was a thriller, love story or mystery. Why? Because the reader couldn't identify the genre. Conversely, the genre might have been clear to the reader, but the script was considered derivative and therefore boring. So how does a screenwriter write a crime genre film with a recognisable identity without descending into cliché? That was the key question that prompted the research behind this book.
WHAT KIND OF STORY IS THIS?
One of the first problems a writer faces when setting out to write a crime screenplay is defining the nature of the beast. If you list five crime films and then do a search to see how they are categorised on various websites, most are assigned to several genres. For example, Scarface is defined as: crime, gangster and film noir (Howard Hawks's version) or action-adventure (Brian de Palma's version).
Double Indemnity: crime, film noir, thriller
LA Confidential: crime, mystery, film noir, police drama
Ocean's Eleven: crime, thriller, heist film
The Shawshank Redemption: crime, prison drama, buddy movie
If there is so much disagreement about how to categorise a produced feature film, how easy is it to define the genre, and indeed sub-genre, at script stage? And yet, this is what is often demanded by producers and funders who state they are looking for a gangster, heist or detective film, a prison or police drama, film noir, neo-noir, or a serial killer story. A starting point is to understand the conventions an audience (and therefore a producer) expects from a sub-genre. The next stage is to decide which conventions to adhere to and which might be subverted to bring something fresh to the genre. Very basically, if the crime genre is 'cake' and its sub-genres are types of cake, how many ingredients can you alter before you end up with bread or pie or dumplings? The goal is to write a script that is recognisable as a crime genre piece, but with new elements that make it exciting to read.
CRIME FILM BASICS, SHARPENING SKILLS, LEARNING FROM THE PROS
The crime sub-genres that will be considered in this book are: detective, police, film noir, gangster, heist, prison and serial killer. A brief historical overview of the sub-genre's development will be presented, as will its key conventions. These should provoke a light-bulb moment of recognition when considering classic crime genre films we know and love and may prompt the reader to think of other conventions. Examples will be provided that show how the creative use of genre conventions resulted in exciting rather than derivative cinema. (And there will be spoilers if you haven't seen some of the films. Repeat: there will be spoilers.)
A number of writing exercises will be included to help generate ideas, familiarise the writer with key crime genre story patterns, sharpen skills, and kick-start script revision. It's worth sticking to a strict time limit when undertaking a writing exercise, as writing at speed can stop self-censoring, help shift writer's block, and (from my experience of running writers' workshops) result in some great story ideas. Many of these exercises also work well as team writing endeavours that writers and filmmakers of every level seem to find enjoyable and thought-provoking.
In the final chapters, I'll sum up key points to consider before sending a crime film script (or any script!) to producers, co- producers or funders. Included in that section are the script pet peeves and some helpful advice from film industry readers, the 'threshold guardians' who first read your project. Following that are some short interviews with industry insiders – produced writers, script editors, crime film consultants, producers and heads of production funds – who share their thoughts on crime films, the types of projects they like, and why.
WHY THESE CRIMES AND NOT OTHERS?
This book is an introduction to the crime genre that should help a screenwriter understand various crime sub-genre conventions and get them thinking about how to use them creatively. There are other sub-genres not covered in this book that often deal with crimes, such as legal dramas, thrillers, social issue and espionage films, but these have their own distinct tropes. To paraphrase SS Van Dine's nineteenth rule from 'Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories' (September 1928, American Magazine), the motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong to a different genre such as war story or espionage thriller. The crime genre should feature personal crimes that reflect the audience's everyday experiences and give them a certain outlet for their own repressed desires and emotions. In other words, the audience gains pleasure from being as clever as the sleuth, as rebellious as the gangster, or as daring as the prisoner planning an escape, and there is, perhaps, more than a touch of wish fulfilment when the viewer participates in a really cracking crime movie.CHAPTER 2
THE MODUS OPERANDI: AN APPROACH TO GENRE FOR SCREENWRITERS
Writers are as willing as anyone to debate a genre's defining tropes, but can crime sub-genres be so easily defined and, more importantly, so easily written by simply ticking all the boxes? Must modern gangster films adhere to the same conventions established by their earliest predecessors or have gangster films evolved?
Filmmaking is a modern art compared to literature or theatre, and the complexity, scope and ways of communicating film stories are linked to the evolution of the technology needed to make films – and costs to produce them. The earliest films were simple experiments with the moving image and records of real events such as the Lumière Brothers' 1895 film of workers leaving their factory. La Fée aux Choux, probably the first narrative short film, was made in 1896 by Alice Guy-Blaché and, until 1913, all films were 'one-reelers' – a reel held 1,000 feet of film and played for 11–17 minutes, depending on projection speed. They were typically shot in one take with no editing; the stories were correspondingly simple. Experimentation with trick photography and editing encouraged more creativity in storytelling. The production of longer narratives such as Giovanni Patrone's Cabiria (1914) and, later that year, DW Griffith's 61-minute Judith of Bethulia allowed for more complex stories. DW Griffith went on to help establish techniques such as the use of close-ups, cross-cutting, the flashback, and fade-in/fade-out to enhance storytelling.
As advances in technology and technique inspired more complex ways of presenting a narrative, there was a ready-made supply of stories to adapt to the screen from literary and theatrical sources, including tales of highwaymen, murders, mysteries, and early detective stories. Publishers of periodicals had been publishing stories by 'type' for years. For example, Street & Smith Publications in New York City, founded in 1855, was one of the largest publishers of pulp fiction, dime novels and comic books in America, their low cost making them accessible to a wide audience. Street & Smith targeted fans of specific genres with periodicals such as Sea Stories Magazine, Do and Dare Weekly, Mystery Story Magazine, All-Sports Library, Love Story Magazine, True Western Stories and Bowery Boy Weekly. They changed their titles frequently to satisfy the tastes of their readership.
The successful writing and selling of genre stories through periodicals and paperback novels paved the way for the film genre stories and influenced the evolution of genre conventions. This is a key point. Genres evolve and continue to evolve – they are not static structures that stifle a writer's creativity as some 'anti-genre' writers seem to think. A useful approach to genre for screenwriters is outlined in Louis Giannetti's Understanding Movies, which focuses on the evolution of genre through four stages: primitive, classical, revisionist and parody; these genre progressions are inevitably linked to filmmakers' endeavours to use conventions creatively and to address changes in society and audience expectations.
Once a genre is established and progresses to the classical stage, it does not revert back to the primitive stage, but classical stage genre films are made concurrently with revisionist or parody films. A revisionist genre film may subvert certain conventions to surprise the viewer, but the genre recipe is not radically altered or there is risk of audience disappointment. New sub-genres sometimes arise from the revisionist stage of a genre, progressing from their own primitive to classical stage when specific conventions are established. A genre is ripe for parody as soon as its conventions are well known to an audience and playful manipulation of genre tropes makes the viewer feel clever for recognising these 'in-jokes'.
Ultimately, this four-stage approach emphasises that genres evolve through the creativity of filmmakers and a genre's popularity with audiences. Genre tropes provide a useful framework for telling a particular type of story, but should not straitjacket a screenwriter into scripting overly derivative, clichéd screenplays.CHAPTER 3
JUDGE AND JURY: GENRE, PUBLIC TASTE AND CENSORSHIP
The motion pictures, which are the most popular of modern arts for the masses, have their moral quality from the intention of the minds which produce them and from their effects on the moral lives and reactions of their audiences. This gives them a most important morality.(The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930)
Why do we think of Hollywood when we talk about genre films? European filmmakers have made movies that deal with crime and criminals since the inception of cinema, but the sheer output of Hollywood studios was fundamental to the creation of genre pictures. When a studio had a commercial hit, it tended to produce numerous variations of the same story, hoping to replicate that success. In other words, public taste was key in establishing many genre conventions and film story paradigms. For example, boy might meet girl, lose girl, and win girl back because the audience wanted a happy ending to their romances, but what of the crime story? Crime is not meant to pay, so can stories about breaking the law end well for the criminal or show the bad guy in a sympathetic light? A brief overview of how the crime genre developed, particularly in Hollywood, should give some insight into how specific crime sub-genre conventions evolved from their primitive to classical, revisionist and parody stages.
ESTABLISHING THE CRIME SCENE: EARLY PULP AND PRIMITIVE STAGE GENRE FILMS
Some of the first films made were crime films, which is hardly surprising given that the battle between the 'good guy' and the 'bad guy' has appealed to audiences since the earliest stories were told, written down, and performed. European directors, whether working in Europe or Hollywood, contributed significantly to the evolution of the crime genre, most particularly with short film serials, many of which were based on popular 'pulp fiction' of the day. At the forefront of the explosion in European pulp fiction at the beginning of the twentieth century was German publisher Eichler. Adolf Eichler first bought translation rights to Street & Smith's Buffalo Bill stories; when these proved to be best-sellers in Germany, he bought the rights to their Nick Carter character in 1906 and began publishing weekly crime stories. The Nick Carter detective stories were even more popular than the Westerns. Other publishers jumped on the pulp bandwagon, releasing Maurice Leblanc's tales of gentleman thief Arsène Lupin; Léon Sazie's master criminal Zigomar; and Fantômas, the 'Genius of Crime', by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. The public revelled in the adventures of these wily and seductive criminals and, due to their popularity, all became the protagonists of short film serials, beginning with Zigomar in 1908. These serials helped establish the symbiotic relationship between popular literature and film that continues to influence the development of genre films.
Excerpted from Writing and Selling Crime Film Screenplays by Karen Lee Street. Copyright © 2013 Karen Lee Street. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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