ALT SCRIPT: 5 Things Screenwriters Can Learn From Banksy

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image courtesy of chis devers https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdevers/ on a creative common license

image courtesy of chis devers https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdevers/ on a creative common license

There are some people out there, you may be one of them, who are inspired by quotations. There are others out there, like me, who physically gag when someone trots out a platitude. So, there is a certain amount of irony involved in this article, simply because it is based on five quotes which are attributed to the street artist Banksy. The reason I’m doing this is because I believe there is a lot that screenwriters and filmmakers can learn from Banksy’s attitude to creativity and also the business of creativity. Of course, I’m not the only person who finds quotations annoying because the first quote attributed to Banksy is as follows:

“One Original Thought is worth 1000 Meaningless Quotes.” Banksy

Lesson Two: One Original Thought

If ever there was an industry in need of even one original thought it is the film industry. Pretty much everything anyone will ever tell you about the film industry is built on the premise that we can uncover the secrets of success by reverse engineering past movies. This mentality, of relating what’s new to what’s been done before even seeps into the world of pitching. There is a common form of verbal pitch that goes, “My new film is a sort of Barton Fink meets Legally Blonde,” or perhaps “This film is Dark Knight meets Shawshank Redemption. It’s about a vigilante who is locked in a prison and is forced to work with his greatest adversary to escape and clear both their names.” This is an acceptable and sometimes effective form of pitching, simply because it allows people to imagine your film based on past successes. It is, however, a formula for understanding film development that relies on writers only creating films based on reheating or reimagining old ideas. The mere fact that your film can so easily relate to existing movies shows how little originality is involved in it.

This isn’t the only place the industry does this. The concept of genre is a way of creating easily definable categories for movies. Genre is a useful marketing tool, but guess what, it’s also a way of making sure that films conform to recognisable forms of storytelling and well-worn tropes.

Even the way screenwriting is taught, the holy “rules” of storytelling, is drawn from past forms and existing stories. We teach writers how to spot these patterns by forcing them to analyse old films from the point of view of the rules we want them to apply. It doesn’t matter that the artist who created the film didn’t apply these rules in the creative process, all that seems to matter is that we can impose a particular way of looking at a film onto that film.

Given that the most visible and financially successful sectors of the industry are driven by reheating, rebooting, reimagining and doing what’s been done before, what is the point of an original thought? That’s a good question. A question that is best understood by looking to the present and future rather than to the past.

We are now at a point in cinema history where pretty much anyone in the western world has the capability to shoot, edit and distribute a movie globally. Not only can they do this, they can afford to do this from their own pocket. Although top end moviemaking continues to be hellishly expensive, the bottom end of the budget range is as close to zero as it is currently possible to get. I reckon, these days, $1,000 is a reasonable budget for a feature film. This decrease in the costs of movie production matters because the only reason for constantly churning out formulaic movies is economic. If you need to make back $25M, then you can’t afford to take a lot of risks. You need predictable results. Once you remove the need for massive economic success there is no need for screenwriters and filmmakers to feel fettered by the past. If ever there was a time in cinema history for original ideas, it is now.

“The time of getting fame for your name on its own is over. Artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Any fame is a by-product of making something that means something. You don’t go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.” Banksy

Lesson Two: Success is a By-Product

My personal experience is as follows. Every time I have made a film simply because I had an idea I believed in and wanted to pursue, it has been successful. Every time I have written a script or made a film in order to further my career, it has resulted in utter misery. The projects that have earned me the most money, won awards and given me the most satisfaction have always been my personal projects. Despite this, I have constantly persuaded myself that I should abandon my personal projects in favour of whatever looks like the best career path at the time.

I know that I am not the only screenwriter or filmmaker to fall into this trap. Far too many of us believe that we are just one seminar, film festival, one more “how to” article away from breaking into the big time. But, at those festivals, at those seminars, in those articles, we will be advised that careers can only be built by conforming to what the market already knows will work. We are encouraged to write with the market in mind, instead of writing what we care about and believe in. Filmmakers are encouraged to make marketable, genre movies rather than creating the films they truly want to.

This kind of approach is problematic. Problematic, mainly because it is only through artistic innovation that we discover what can be done. Nobody knows whether the film you have in your head will be a commercial success or a failure until it’s given a chance to connect with audiences. By far the biggest problem with the film industry, as it exists today, is the constant need of everyone in the creative process to second guess the market. Films are rejected before they even start, just because everyone believes they know what the secret of commercial success is. The irony of this is that the understanding of what can be a commercial success shifts whenever a new film performs in an unexpected way.

When it comes to predicting the commercial success of film, my personal preference is to assume that every film will fail and to plan accordingly. Providing I can make movies without risking my house or my car payments, as long as there is food on the table, then it’s entirely reasonable to gather resources, ask help from talented friends and to make sure everyone knows that we’re working for the love of it. In fact, my personal preference is to make films you can literally give away for nothing; films that have zero commercial expectation. You’d be amazed how your creative life can be transformed in positive and life-firming ways if you decide to take the business out of “show business.”

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Banksy

Lesson Three: Of Course They Hate Your Work

If you wanted to create a mantra for 99.9% of the film industry it would be the opposite of “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” By far my biggest criticism of current film and TV output is how tediously predictable it is. I shouldn’t be able to watch the first ten minutes of a new movie or new TV series and be able to nail all of the plot twists and payoffs. The truth of the matter is, I can and do make very precise and very accurate predictions about this every single day. It’s not because I am some kind of script writing savant. It’s just that films and TV are mind-numbingly predictable. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw something that genuinely took me by surprise. I also can’t remember the last time a movie made me actually think about my beliefs or presented me with a new idea.

So, it sounds like both the form and content of available, mainstream films is monotonous. If you compare the predictability of form and content in film with other forms of storytelling, like the novel, for instance, film always comes off as the poor relation. When novelists offer up new ideas and use new narrative forms, they can’t wait to tell you about the uniqueness of their ideas. Just this week, I was listening to a novelist talk about his first novel. He made a point of explaining why he had rejected existing narrative forms and how he had made that rejection the central part of his novel.

This was the novel that launched his career and that established him as a serious and talented novelist. Like most novelists, he started his career by wanting to show what was unique and special about his writing. He was proud of all the ways in which his work was different from other people’s. He was proud of the way he was exploring new ways of telling stories. And, here’s the kicker, his novel was a best seller. Audiences were prepared to take the journey with him. This willingness to write and create stories that upset the conventional, which make an individual creative statement, these are the stories worth writing and making. The fact that investors and the industry aren’t interested in funding them should be a badge of honour, a signpost that you’re going in the right direction. If you’re not making work that terrifies producers, sales agents and distributors you’re probably not trying hard enough.

“All artists are willing to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared to learn to draw?” Banksy

Lesson Four: You’re Probably Learning the Wrong Things

This year I taught myself to draw. I taught myself by watching a couple of tutorials and doing twenty figure drawings a day. Simply by working at it I got pretty good fairly fast. However, when my life got hectic, and I didn’t have the energy to draw every day, my skills fell away rapidly. Over the summer, I’m going to reacquire and build on my skills. I know lots of writers who think that writing every day will turn them into good screenwriters. Personally, I don’t think that writing alone creates good screenwriters. Not in the same way that writing and making does.

The biggest problem with an un-produced script is that it will never have to survive the harsh light of production. In your head, the dialogue will always be amazing, providing you never have to suffer the humiliation of listening to an actor reading it out loud. The same is true of your scenes. Movies change dramatically when they are produced. Weaknesses in the story really start to show up when you have to sit and edit a film together. Lacklustre writing transforms into hilariously naff performances when actors are forced to create a character out of a string of clichés and vague reheating of previous shows.

As screenwriters, we’re not learning how to write. As screenwriters, we’re supposed to be learning how to visualise and communicate the plan for movies. This isn’t about writing, in the classical sense of the word, it is about the ability to communicate in the language of cinema. The problem for all of us is, like all languages, you only learn it by using it. In my opinion, a screenwriter who can’t edit actual footage will never be able to truly write something interesting. My version of Banky’s quote is “All screenwriters are prepared to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared to learn the language of cinema?”

“Nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful people with talent, leave the house before you find something worth staying in for. ” Banksy

Lesson Five: Stop Reading This and Go Make Something

Why are you reading this? You’re an artist. Go write something. Go make something. More importantly than that, make something you really care about, because if you care enough to make it other people will care enough to watch it. This isn’t to say that having artistic integrity is a magic button that will create a massive career for you. What it means is that it’s better to make one good film for an audience of three people than it is to make a mediocre piece of crap for an audience of millions… and anyway, Hollywood already does that job.

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