Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Alfred Hitchcock Discusses Screenwriting

North By Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The legendary film director and ‘master of suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock shared his knowledge on film production in the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. His discussion was first published in 1965 as part of a larger entry on motion pictures written by a collection of experts. A captivating read, Hitchcock’s text offers insights on the different stages of filmmaking, the history of cinema, and the relation between a film’s technical and budgetary aspects and its fundamental purpose, telling stories through images. 

The following excerpt is from Hitchcock’s discussion of the craft and role of the screenplay. Hitchcock warns against the temptation for screenwriters of overusing the physical mobility afforded by the camera: ‘It is wrong,’ Hitchcock writes, ‘to suppose, as is all too commonly the case, that the screen of the motion picture lies in the fact that the camera can roam abroad, can go out of the room, for example, to show a taxi arriving. This is not necessarily an advantage and it can so easily be merely dull.’ Hitchcock also admonishes Hollywood to remember the distinct nature of the cinematic form and be true to it, instead of making films as if they were simply the transposition of a novel or a stage play onto film.

By far the greater majority of full-length films are fiction films. The fiction film is created from a screenplay, and all the resources and techniques of the cinema are directed toward the successful realization on the screen of the screenplay. Any treatment of motion-picture production will naturally and logically begin, therefore, with a discussion of the screenplay.

The screenplay, which is sometimes known, also, as the scenario or film script, resembles the blueprint of the architect. It is the verbal design of the finished film. In studios where films are made in great numbers, and under industrial conditions, the writer prepares the screenplay under the supervision of a producer, who represents the budgetary and box-office concerns of the front office, and who may be responsible for several scripts simultaneously. Under ideal conditions, the screenplay is prepared by the writer in collaboration with the director. This practice, long the custom in Europe, has become more common in the United States with the increase of independent production. Indeed, not infrequently, the writer may also be the director.

Strangers On A Train (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
In its progress toward completion, the screenplay normally passes through certain stages; these stages have been established over the years and depend on the working habits of those engaged in writing it. The practice of these years has come to establish three main stages: (1) the outline; (2) the treatment; (3) the screenplay. The outline, as the term implies, gives the essence of the action or story and may present either an original idea or, more usually, one derived from a successful stage play or novel. The outline is then built up into the treatment. This is a prose narrative, written in the present tense, in greater or less detail, that reads like a description of what will finally appear on the screen. This treatment is broken down into screenplay form, which, like its stage counterpart, sets out the dialogue, describes the movements and reactions of the actors and at the same time gives the breakdown of the individual scenes, with some indication of the role, in each scene, of the camera and the sound. It likewise serves as a guide to the various technical departments: to the art department for the sets, to the casting department for the actors, to the costume department, to makeup, to the music department, and so on.

The writer, who should be as skilled in the dialogue of images as of words, must have the capacity to anticipate, visually and in detail, the finished film. The detailed screenplay, prepared ahead, not only saves time and money in production but also enables the director to hold securely to the unity of form and to the cinematic structure of the action, while leaving him free to work intimately and concentratedly with the actors.

Unlike the screenplays of today, the first scripts had no dramatic form, being merely lists of proposed scenes, and their content when filmed was strung together in the order listed. Anything that called for further explanation was covered in a title.

Step by step, as the form and scope of the film developed, the screenplay grew more and more detailed. The pioneer of these detailed screenplays was Thomas Ince, whose remarkable capacity for visualizing the finally edited film made a detailed script possible. In contrast were the talents of D.W. Griffith, who contributed more than almost any other single individual to the establishment of the technique of filmmaking, and who never used a script.

Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
By the early 1920s, the writer was meticulously indicating every shot, whereas today, when the scenarist writes less in images and gives more attention to dialogue, leaving the choice of images to the director, the tendency is to confine the script to the master scenes, so called because they are key scenes, covering whole sections of the action, as distinct from individual camera shots. This practice also follows on the increasingly common use of the novelist to adapt his own books; he is likely to be unfamiliar with the process of detailed dramatic and cinematic development. The dramatist, on the other hand, called onto adapt his play, is usually found to be more naturally disposed to do the work effectively. However, the scenarist is faced with a more difficult task than the dramatist. While the latter is, indeed, called upon to sustain the interest of an audience for three acts, these acts are broken up by intervals during which the audience can relax. The screenwriter is faced with the task of holding the attention of the audience for an uninterrupted two hours or longer. He must so grip their attention that they will stay on, held from scene to scene, till the climax is reached. Thus it is that, because screenwriting must build the action continuously, the stage dramatist, used to the building of successive climaxes, will tend to make a better film scenarist.

Sequences must never peter out but must carry the action forward, much as the car of a ratchet railway is carried forward, cog by cog. This is not to say that film is either theatre or novel. Its nearest parallel is the short story, which is as a rule concerned to sustain one idea and ends when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve. A novel may be read at intervals and with interruptions; a play has breaks between the acts; but the short story is rarely put down and in this it resembles the film, which makes a unique demand for uninterrupted attention upon its audience. This unique demand explains the need for a steady development of a plot and the creation of gripping situations arising out of the plot, all of which must be presented, above all, with visual skill. The alternative is interminable dialogue, which must inevitably send a cinema audience to sleep. The most powerful means of gripping attention is suspense. It can be either the suspense inherent in a situation or the suspense that has the audience asking, ‘What will happen next?’ It is indeed vital that they should ask themselves this question. Suspense is created by the process of giving the audience information that the character in the scene does not have. In The Wages of Fear, for example, the audience knew that the truck being driven over dangerous ground contained dynamite. This moved the question from, ‘What will happen next?’ to, ‘Will it happen next?’ What happens next is a question concerned with the behaviour of characters in given circumstances.

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
In the theatre, the performance of the actor carries the audience along. Thus dialogue and ideas suffice. This is not so in the motion picture. The broad structural elements of the story on the screen must be cloaked in atmosphere and character and, finally, in dialogue. If it is strong enough, the basic structure, with its inherent developments, will suffice to take care of the emotions of the audience, provided the element represented by the question ‘What happens next?’ is present. Often a successful play fails to make a successful film because this element is missing.

It is a temptation in adapting stage plays for the screenwriter to use the wider resources of the cinema, that is to say, to go outside, to follow the actor offstage. On Broadway, the action of the play may take place in one room. The scenarist, however, feels free to open up the set, to go outside more often than not. This is wrong. It is better to stay with the play. The action was structurally related by the playwright to three walls and the proscenium arch. It may well be, for example, that much of his drama depends on the question, ‘Who is at the door?’ This effect is ruined if the camera goes outside the room. It dissipates the dramatic tension. The departure from the more or less straightforward photographing of plays came with the growth of techniques proper to film, and the most significant of these occurred when Griffith took the camera and moved it in from its position at the proscenium arch, where Georges Méliès had placed it, to a close-up of the actor. The next step came when, improving on the earlier attempts of Edwin S. Porter and others, Griffith began to set the strips of film together in a sequence and rhythm that came to be known as montage; it took the action outside the confines of time and space, even as they apply to the theatre.

The stage play provides the screenwriter with a certain basic dramatic structure that may call, in adaptation, for little more than the dividing up of its scenes into a number of shorter scenes. The novel, on the other hand, is not structurally dramatic in the sense in which the word is applied to stage or screen. Therefore, in adapting a novel that is entirely compounded of words, the screenwriter must completely forget them and ask himself what the novel is about. All else – including characters and locale – is momentarily put aside. When this basic question has been answered, the writer starts to build up the story again.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The screenwriter does not have the same leisure as the novelist to build up his characters. He must do this side by side with the unfolding of the first part of the narrative. However, by way of compensation, he has other resources not available to the novelist or the dramatist, in particular the use of things. This is one of the ingredients of true cinema. To put things together visually; to tell the story visually; to embody the action in the juxtaposition of images that have their own specific language and emotional impact – that is cinema. Thus, it is possible to be cinematic in the confined space of a telephone booth. The writer places a couple in the booth. Their hands, he reveals, are touching; their lips meet; the pressure of one against the other unhooks the receiver. Now the operator can hear what passes between them. A step forward in the unfolding of the drama has been taken. When the audience sees such things on the screen, it will derive from these images the equivalent of the words in the novel, or of the expositional dialogue of the stage. Thus the screenwriter is no more limited by the booth than is the novelist. Hence it is wrong to suppose, as is all too commonly the case, that the strength of the motion picture lies in the fact that the camera can roam abroad, can go out of the room, for example, to show a taxi arriving. This is not necessarily an advantage and it can so easily be merely dull.

Things, then, are as important as actors to the writer. They can richly illustrate character. For example, a man may hold a knife in a very strange way. If the audience is looking for a murderer, it may conclude from this that this is the man they are after, misjudging an idiosyncrasy of his character. The skilled writer will know how to make effective use of such things. He will not fall into the uncinematic habit of relying too much on the dialogue. This is what happened on the appearance of sound. Filmmakers went to the other extreme. They filmed stage plays straight. Some indeed there are who believe that the day the talking picture arrived the art of the motion picture, as applied to the fiction film, died and passed to other kinds of film.

The truth is that with the triumph of dialogue, the motion picture has been stabilized as theatre. The mobility of the camera does nothing to alter this fact. Even though the camera may move along the sidewalk, it is still theatre. The characters sit in taxis and talk. They sit in automobiles and make love, and talk continuously. One result of this is a loss of cinematic style. Another is the loss of fantasy. Dialogue was introduced because it is realistic. The consequence was a loss of the art of reproducing life entirely in pictures. Yet the compromise arrived at, although made in the cause of realism, is not really true to life. Therefore the skilled writer will separate the two elements. If it is to be a dialogue scene, then he will make it one. If it is not, then he will make it visual, and he will always rely more on the visual than on dialogue. Sometimes he will have to decide between the two; namely, if the scene is to end with a visual statement, or with a line of dialogue. Whatever the choice made at the actual staging of the action, it must be one to hold the audience...


– Excerpt from ‘Alfred Hitchcock on film production (motion picture)’.  In the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1973).