This month's Cinema and Fiction interviewee is writer, scholar and screenwriting consultant Dr Pauline Kiernan. For more on Pauline, you can visit www.unique-screenwriting.com, http://screenwriting-passion.blogspot.com, and for details on her own screenplays www.paulinekiernan.com.
You have a lot of experience as a Shakespeare scholar. Why did you switch to screenwriting?
Well, I was a playwright before I went to Oxford as a mature student and went on to become a University Lecturer, so I guess in sense it was more a case of switching back to writing drama when I started screenwriting. I still work on Shakespeare, but decided to leave Academia to concentrate on my writing.
What caused you to encourage screenwriters to find unique stories and ways of telling them rather than take the easy option of using a structural approach?
The books – and the classes.
I mean, you’re an award-playing playwright, you’ve written some spec scripts which have been praised quite a lot by people like Norma Heyman of Dangerous Liaisons fame, you’ve spent twenty years in deep relationship with the greatest dramatist of all time, you’ve worked years with A-List theatre directors and actors exploring every nuance, every breath of the greatest plays ever written, and I’m staring at a blank screen, trembling.
My mistake was to believe I’d get to improve my screenwriting by all these books. All those diagrams and prescriptive rules that were bullying me to get my Inciting Incident on page 5. It’s an anxiety industry created by people who cobble together rehashed ‘formulas’, quote Aristotle howlingly, profoundly wrongly and are making a fortune out of inflicting misery and confidence-destroying despair on hapless writers.
They’ve either never written a screenplay in their life, or if they have, they’re popcorn movies no-one’s ever heard of or 1970s TV cop shows. But there’s a very practical reason for pulping these books apart from the material being put to better use, and it’s that if you follow these ‘experts’ what do end up with? No one I know wants to buy tent-pole scripts.
What would you say makes your style of screenwriting and teaching screenwriting more appealing than other approaches?
Not sure I have a style of screenwriting. I tend to get so passionate about an idea I have to follow it. I did experiment with the straitjacket approach, but I always need to just write the character’s story and see how that goes. Your character pretty much tells you how to shape the story. If I have a ‘rule’ at all, it’s to focus on the character’s emotional needs. It’s what’s going on inside her or him that drives the story. I call it Emotional Pull. It must always be in motion, and usually it is, without you have to do the generating.
As for my approach to helping other writers, I think first, I treat the writer as an intelligent human being! I assume the writer is absolutely passionate to tell their story – otherwise what’s the point? (And not writing in the hope of getting Hollywood megabucks). I try to understand why the writer wants to tell this story. Too often this aspect is ignored. I don’t mean an in-depth psychological profile of them, but what’s intriguing them about this story of theirs?
This is why I stress the way I hope to help a writer realise their unique vision. I’m not telling someone how to write. I approach my work with writers the same way I did my Oxford students. I never told them what to think, but I got them to ask the kind of questions of their work and thoughts that would lead them to original thinking. If someone’s sent me a script that’s all over the place, I’m more likely get them thinking about what’s making your character feel this Now? And now? And now? That way the dynamic thrust of the story starts to shape the dramatic arc and you don’t have to keep imposing structure onto the story.
Of course, there are technical constraints but I just find they’re of no use until you let the story grow organically from your imagination.
What one piece of advice would you like to give to new screenwriters?
Don’t let the ‘gurus’ beat you down! With every story, start by creating the emotional world with all your senses. Read 5 scripts a week.
What is one of your favourite screenplays and what makes it so good?
Brokeback Mountain - What makes it so good? In a word: Restraint.
What is something you think people can learn from theatre to improve their screenwriting or filmmaking?
How to let your script breathe. Read Chekhov. Consummate master of Tension>Release
Character: Forget ‘three dimensional’, ‘fully rounded’ – meaningless.
Moral Ambiguity is key. Read Hamlet – at least 65 times.
Tone, Mood, Rhythm, Non-Verbal Subtext To Make Meaning: Read A Streetcar Named Desire, and then watch how Williams’ hot, sensual, erotic world pulses with deep emotion and drenches you in its power.
This year, Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture rather than Avatar. Are you willing to make a call which film you personally think was better and why?
I just wish I could have been immersed in Cameron’s visceral, visual feast and made to think about something as well! Why do these big films have to have cringe-making clichés and simplistic notions about complex issues? The thing cost millions to make – couldn’t they have stretched the budget to a brilliant screenwriter who knows how to explore questions about the human condition with intelligence?
So it’s The Hurt Locker for me. The almost unbearable tension in the scenes was beautifully choreographed, but above all, the non-judgmental take – a welcome change from the political sledgehammer approach of other Iraqi-set films.
Can you share with us anything about what will be in your upcoming screenwriting book?
Well, I’m on a bit of a mission and I’m passionate about this. I’m sticking my head out and expect some howls of derision from the ‘experts’.
But writing a screenplay is an act of the imagination. It’s about nuances and mysteries and facing the unknown. I’ve tried to encourage writers to step back from the narrow constraints of those dead, lifeless labels like Structure, Plot etc.
To try to see the story elements all working together simultaneously, because actually, you don’t write in discrete elements.
If you’re working on structure, you’ll be working on character and so on. If you’re working on character you (should be) working on visuals.
A script certainly requires strict disciplines to shape and hone and perfect the piece. But first, let’s see where this story takes you.
All through the book there are sections called ‘The Workout’ which are for analysing produced scripts, and the reader’s own scripts. The idea is to get the writer to learn for themselves how to develop an outstanding screenplay.
But there are also quite a few sections called ‘Think Outside the Box’ – but I won’t say anymore about them! Wait and see!
Thanks for inviting me, Steve. Great questions that made me think!
Thanks Pauline. I look forward to reading the new book when it comes out.