Passion for the Screenplay Goes Beyond the Classroom

If you ask any of my students they will tell you that championing the literary worth of the screenplay is my lifelong passion. But it wasn’t until the Creative Writing Department came to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP) conference in March of 2012 on their 50th tour that I thought to actually assemble a panel on the subject, and take my passion out of the classroom and into a more public forum.

The AWP conference happens once a year and features five days of panels, readings, and a giant book fair representing small presses, publishers and writing programs. Last year was my first time attending. After being in the audience for a disappointing screenplay panel with opinions that seemed to perpetuate the notion that screenwriting is some “other” type of writing, one that is restrictive and mechanical, I made up my mind that the screenplay needed better representation. So I decided to get to work on putting together a proposal that AWP would have to accept for the 2013 conference in Boston.

Along with preparing the panel’s content and description for the proposal, I had to find panelists that felt as strongly as I did about screenplays as literature. I contacted screenwriting friends and began to email every screenwriting professor I could find at universities across the country. I also sent an email to author and professor at Penn State, Kevin Alexander Boon, whom I had admired greatly but had never met. His book, "Script Culture and the American Screenplay," was the first resource I found that argued for the screenplay as literature, and a book I used in my own classes. To my delight, Kevin was the first to accept, and it was then I knew that this panel would have a good shot.

I soon found myself with three more great panelists, including Elisabeth Nonas, screenwriting professor and cinema program director at Ithaca College, and Emerson screenwriting professor Diane Lake, whose credits include the screenplay for the film "Frida." And lastly, television writer and professor at Ithaca, Julie Blumberg, who wrote for JJ Abram’s first show, "Felicity."

Of the 1,308 proposals that were submitted last May, our panel, "The Misunderstood Genre: Where Do Screenplays Fit in the Literary World," was one of the 516 that were accepted. Almost exactly one year to the minute that I’d made the decision to propose a panel, I found myself in front of the microphone with a full audience ready to hear our arguments and thoughts on both the craft and literary worth of the screenplay. 

Boon started with an explanation on some of the reasons why the screenplay has not been considered a literary text. “They’ve been dismissed for a long, long time. They’d say it’s an interstitial document and it’s only there until the film is made and then it’s worthless and you throw it away.” Which only made him think of Shakespeare. “Wasn’t that like Shakespeare? Yet I spent many a semester studying Shakespeare…studying every word even though we didn’t really have an original document there.” He went on to point out that all of the arguments against screenplays as literature are arguments you could make about a novel or a play, both types of texts you find in an English classroom. “From a standpoint of what is literature - literature is writing…so the question is not what is literature, but what is good literature?”

Julie Blumberg added, “Before Henry Fielding crafted what the canon recognizes as the first novel, there was periodical literature that came out on a regular basis. A novel wasn’t published all together; you would buy a periodical and read chapters and then you would wait for the next chapter. I feel very strongly that series television is the periodical literature of today.” She added, “We forget that literature was originally popular entertainment…Shakespeare was popular entertainment for all classes of society.”

Our discussion then went on to talk about some of the ways in which screenwriters handle literary and cinematic elements, including point of view, juxtaposition and metaphor. Metaphor is a particularly important tool for the screenwriter, as film is a visually-driven medium. Diane Lake talked about a metaphorical motif used in "Frida" where an image from the artist’s life would dissolve into one of her paintings to visually show how her life was reflected in her art. This cinematic technique was hailed by critics as a brilliant choice of director Julie Taymor. “Of course,” Diane told us, “it’s all in the script. I wrote all of that.” She then described exactly the moment in her writing process as she was staring at a silk dress hanging across the room from her when she came up with the idea to transition from Frida looking at one of her own dresses to her painting "My Dress Hangs There."

Speaking more about the way a screenwriter can indeed infer specific cinematic techniques into their screenplay, but have to do it in a literary way, Elisabeth Nonas read an example from the screenplay for "Dangerous Liasons" by Christopher Hampton to point out how specific camera shots can be inferred. She explained, “The thing that language can do in a screenplay is show us exactly what we would see and hear up on the screen. Using paragraphs to suggest different shots and using language to focus our attention on details rather than saying ‘close-up’ or ‘extreme close-up.’ Those terms…really just get in the way.”

The last few minutes of the panel we took questions from the audience, talking more about crafting dialogue, about economy of language, and weighing in on the standardized structure that one can find in any “how-to write a screenplay” book. Soon our time was up, and the panelists were flooded with excited students, writers and other professors wanting to talk more about the ideas we just barely got to touch on. For me, the highlight was then, when several people came up to say “Thank you. This was the best panel I’ve been to at the conference.” Spreading my passion for the screenplay beyond the Interlochen classroom: mission accomplished.

Lesley Alicia Tye (IAA 90-93) is an instructor of Creative Writing and Motion Picture Arts for the Academy and instructor of Screenwriting at Interlochen Arts Camp.