dinsdag 1 september 2009

Column treatment

Proper Treatment Screenwriting Column 37 by Terry Rossio

There is no way to write an effective treatment... yet there are effective techniques that should be used to write them. The main notes you'll receive on your treatment will be concern over the elements that aren't there. Often the treatment becomes a way to present your best ideas in the poorest possible forum

Some things just make no sense. This is especially true if you work in Hollywood. No other business provides so many opportunities for the double-take, the jaw-drop, the stunned-into-silence look of disbelief. As your resolute reporter, it's often my task to provide descriptions of utterly senseless behavior. It's tricky. Because to describe, one must first understand. Yet it is the nature of the senseless that no understanding can be reached, no clarity achieved. Still, I continue on, churning out words, trudging through the nonsense... And so we come to the subject of treatments. Writing treatments in Hollywood. And already, we're lost. I would like to tell you that up is down, right is wrong, good is bad, long is short -- but I can't, because that stuff makes sense. I'm tempted to say, 'Writing treatments is like designing a film by hiring six million monkeys to tear out pages of an encyclopedia, then you put the pages through a paper-shredder, randomly grab whatever intact lines are left, sing them in Italian to a Spanish deaf-mute, and then make story decisions with the guy via conference call.' But no... compared to writing treatments, that makes sense, too. There is no understanding. Only truth. And here's the big one: You will write reams of treatments in your stay in Hollywood. And not a single word of any of them will be of any value to anyone. And still, you'll have to do them anyway. I know that doesn't make sense. It never will. As I said, these days, short of understanding, we just go for truth. So here's another: There is no way to write an effective treatment... yet there are effective techniques that should be used to write them. Nonsense, again, I know. But I suppose we ought to take a stab at this one. Why can't an effective treatment be written?

Six reasons spring to mind:

1. Your treatment won't get read. Bad enough that an executive will take a meeting having not read the script, or having only skimmed the coverage. You would think that a seven-page treatment wouldn't be too much of a time imposition. But it will happen... as you endure a meeting where basic story points are not generally known, it suddenly hits you -- they didn't read what you sent them. Insult to injury: this does not mean that the very same executive who didn't read the first treatment will be at all shy about asking you to write another.

2. Your treatment will be misinterpreted.

Often the biggest problem with a script is simply that it is not yet a movie. The screenplay is hard enough -- after all, you're expected to convey an experience that will eventually be created by hundreds of technicians, with spectacular effects, using trained actors and musicians, with the advantage of exciting locations and the professionalism that comes with tens of millions of dollars spent -- all with just a few black squiggles on white paper. It takes an imaginative, thoughtful reader to visualize a finished film from a screenplay -- that's a rare ability right there. To go one step removed again and try to get the same effect from a treatment -- oh, brother. That opens up even more room for misinterpretation -- and where there's room for misinterpretation, a vacuum will rush in (or something like that).

3. Your treatment will be considered incomplete.

This one comes with a money-back guarantee. The main notes you'll receive on your treatment will reflect concern over the elements that aren't there. If you focused on character, the plot will be deemed 'unclear.' If you focused on plot, the characterizations will be considered 'thin.' If you managed to get both character and story in there, there will be complaints about tone, or a lack of clear theme. (Remember, you've only got about seven pages.) If you try to include every little detail, you'll end up writing a twenty-page treatment that will be considered 'dense,' 'in need of simplification' and 'lacking in clever dialog, acting and cinematography.'

4. Your treatment will be taken literally.

So they get the treatment, and panic sets in. This is the movie that they're going to make and release? Oh, no! You can talk to them all you like about 'filling out the story' in the writing and 'finding better solutions' as you move ahead and that much of it is 'placeholder in nature.' But when an exec sees something written down, they react like it's carved in stone. (Until it comes times to give their notes, of course.) Often the treatment becomes a way to present your best ideas in the poorest possible forum. You give away all your reveals, your best plot turns, all of your surprises. It's a chance for them to say 'no' to solutions not because they're bad, but because they're not fully developed. To write a treatment is often an exercise in outlining the stuff that won't ever be in the movie. Do enough treatments, and there will be nothing left for you to write, because everything you like, all your first instincts, will be put off-limits.

5. Your treatment will become a political weapon, and the writing process will be delayed.

Of course, all this wrangling over the story takes time. They will insist to you that they need the treatment because of imminent deadlines and terrible time constraints -- "Just let us see where you're headed." They'll always promise to not respond, but that promise goes out the window the minute they read it and all of a sudden "have some concerns." So you find yourself attending more meetings over what the next treatment will be. Which, of course, will delay the writing, delay the movie, and make it all the more imperative that the next treatment be done as quickly as possible, and the cycle begins anew. (As an aside, this is exactly similar to a writer turning in 'pages.' Producers always say, "When can we see pages?" But if you give them the first part of the script, guess what, you'll be having a meeting to 'fix' that stuff before the rest of it is ever done.) The worst version of the treatment delay effect comes when there are a number of producers and development execs involved, and they can't agree on the story amongst themselves. The treatment gives them a nearly irresistible opportunity to meddle -- and to jockey for position. The treatment -- along with the writer -- becomes a ping-pong ball, bouncing around until all the most plausible story solutions have rendered politically unacceptable by some camp. Meanwhile, the writer's enthusiasm is drained. It does happen.

Working on the animated feature ANTZ, co-screenwriter Todd Alcott executed and submitted 28 different treatments for the studio over a period of months. They would have kept asking for more, until the executive, Nina Jacobson, put a stop to it, and simply demanded that the writer be allowed to write.


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