Flying

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 4 2022

Flying: screenplay: first act

Flying: novel excerpt

Charles de Salis: Author
Title of work: Flying
Year: 2020

RESEARCH STATEMENT

My research explores the adaptation of a novel employing modernist tropes into a film screenplay, questioning the validity of the traditional, hierarchical source/palimpsest model of the adaptive process. The source work – my draft novel, Flying – employs the techniques that make the modernist novel challenging for screen narrative, including shifting internal realities, dreams, fluid frames of reference, dreams, stream of consciousness, interior monologue, multiple points of view, non-linear subjective and linear objective time. The project began as a conventional adaptation of a novel into screenplay but developed into a more complex, iterative process driven by the unifying factor of a single creator. The core issue in the adaptation of any modernist or post-modernist novel for the screen lies in the essential interiority of the source work. Although George Bluestone argues that film “cannot render thought, for the moment thought is externalised, it is no longer thought” (Bluestone [1957] 2003, 48), I concur with Sarah Kozloff that thought can be translated for the screen through syncretic counterpoint of narration and image (Kozloff 1988).

When this paradigm was applied to adapting the interior monologue and stream of consciousness passages of the novel, the use of syncretic narration for more than one character produced an unsustainable crowding of the screenplay’s limited temporal narrative space. The necessity of restricting syncretic narration to a single character had significant consequences for the translative process, tethering the screenplay to a single protagonist, whereas the focus in the novel was more diffuse. The reduction to the exteriority of all but one of the novel’s characters created, by corollary, a vertical mainplot/subplot hierarchy, simultaneously eliding the content of the novel relevant to the screenplay.

The subsequent necessity of externalising for the screenplay what were, in the novel, interiorised thought processes, was addressed by the creation of a new character, Ali, who was so successful, in my view, that I decided that she should be added to the novel. Furthermore, structural analysis of the novel undertaken to establish the structure of the screenplay revealed problems in the prose narrative to which the screenplay suggested solutions. Consequently, I rewrote the original source novel; the screenplay first act accompanying this statement is an adaptation of the rewrite. This creatively reflexive intertextual process directly reflects Andre Bazin’s hypothesis of a future where the work would not be seen as “a novel out of which a play and a film had been ‘made’, but rather a single work reflected in three art forms, all equal” (Bazin [1958] 2000, 26).

The relevance of this creative model is demonstrated in the close ties between screen narrative and prose narrative. Screen industry researcher Stephen Follows found that 51% of the 2000 best performing box office films from 1994 to 2013 were adaptations, and his research infers that over 40% of those adaptations were sourced from novels and short fiction (Follows 2014). My research suggests that narrative creators have much to gain, creatively and commercially, by developing their texts through a paradigm of reflexive intertextuality integrating the prose and dramatic forms.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bazin, Andre. 2000. “Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest.” In Film Adaption, edited by James Naremore, 19-27. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Bluestone, George. 1957. 2003. Novels into film. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Kozloff, Sarah. 1988. Invisible storytellers: voice-over narration in American fiction film. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Follows, Stephen. 2014. “What are the highest-grossing movie adaptations?”. Stephen Follows – Film Industry Data and Education. https://stephenfollows.com/highest-grossing-movie-adaptations/.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

As the author of both the novel and the screenplay, Charles de Salis uses the creative practice of adapting his modernist novel for the screen to examine the influence of adaptation on both the source material and the screenplay. It is an interesting decision to adapt a modernist, ‘writerly’ text, one that Naremore (2014, 37) suggests is “explicitly designed to resist being reduced to anything not themselves” and as such effectively provokes discussion of adaptation processes.  This peer review is positioned as a response to that provocation, acknowledging that adaptation itself has been disputed as a practice since early adaptations of literary texts into film.

The researcher’s original purpose in adapting his novel was to question adaptive processes that valorize the source material.  De Salis observes that a common challenge in adapting modernist literature for the screen lies in externalizing the interior thoughts of characters.  Being the sole creator of both works afforded the writer a unique perspective to observe the necessary changes required to facilitate this process. In executing the “surgical art” (Abbott 2002, 108) of contracting the novel, the writer chose to limit the vocalization of interior thoughts to a single protagonist. This subtraction led to the addition of a new character. De Salis suggests this new character emerged from a need to externalize interior thought processes though how this is performed or why other existing characters were unable to perform the role afforded by the new character is unclear. This is an interesting creative choice that is worth noting in the research statement as it speaks to the economies that screenwriting form can bring through the role characters perform in service of the story.

The process of adaptation appears to have created a dialogue between the literary and cinematic forms in which the screenplay also offered solutions to creative problems within the novel, prompting a rewrite of the novel and subsequent screenplay. This research contributes to knowledge about creative writing processes in which writers can benefit from what de Salis terms ‘reflexive intertextual process’ which introduces a circularity to the iterative development of both novel and screenplay. However, this does not appear to be the whole story.  De Salis has already written a produced screenplay for a short film of the same name, Flying (1996) which appears to be based on the same source material and same characters included in this submission. It is difficult to ascertain what came first as the copyright on the novel extract accompanying this submission is 2020. The creative artefact submitted as creative practice as research, the first act of a feature-length dramatic screenplay titled Flying, is also dated 2020. This introduces questions about the iterative process outlined in the research statement that need to be clarified.

At 40 pages, the creative submission is a long first act and the lengthy prose descriptions suggest it leans heavily on the original novel. There are opportunities for greater economy in the big print and for the writer to draw more on the strength of the screenplay form, as opposed to the novel, particularly in relation to the typical reader of the screenplay. As Margot Nash suggests, “[d]eveloping a screenplay involves finding the right words to evoke the images and sounds that unfold the story. However, there is also the work of removing some of those words in order to create gaps, or spaces within the text so that others might respond imaginatively” (Nash 2013, 155).  For example, removing Emma’s voice over from the opening scene, and I would argue many others, allows room for the creative contribution of production designer, director, composer and cinematographer in realizing the writer’s vision. Creating this space encourages the reader to identify the subtext in action through mise en scène and movement of the frame. Perhaps this reflects my own preference for screenplays to embrace the audio-visual context underpinning their form rather than aspire to their literary cousins.  This is a provocation that speaks to the tension between writerly and readerly texts in adaptation and how the process of adaptation might contribute to scholarly debates about the screenplay form. Locating this research within those debates suggests an additional contribution to knowledge that perhaps the writer has already considered but is outside the scope of this submission?

REFERENCES

Abbott, H. Porter. 2002. The Cambridge introduction to narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Naremore, James. 2014. An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema. University of California Press. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt5hjh91

Nash, Margot. 2013. “Unknown spaces and uncertainty in film development.” Journal of Screenwriting, 4(2), 149–162. https://doi.org/10.1386/josc.4.2.149_1

 

PEER REVIEW 2

This screenplay is an interesting and relevant contribution to screenwriting practice research in its iterative approach to adaptation, and its creative expression of the writer’s methods. The outcome, a screenplay excerpt that has been informed by the redrafted source material as part of a reflexive, intertextual process, has the potential to demonstrate disruptions to conventional understandings of adaptation, beyond the simple translation of a story from one form and medium to another. The submission is particularly of interest to screenwriting research in its exploration of the expression of character interiority for the screen.

The screenplay excerpt demonstrates a command of screenwriting techniques and conventions, and the potential to subvert the same. It carries traces of the source work (the screenwriter’s own novel) in ways that can be understood as pushing at the edges of what is possible in a screenplay, using novelistic techniques. The submission would be improved by a revision of the screenplay that makes some clear editorial choices about which of the novelistic traces consciously challenge screenwriting conventions, and which are stowaways from the source work in its various iterations. The creative work has the potential to further demonstrate how all elements of scene text (sluglines or scene headings, big print or action/direction, dialogue) can be extended by the adaptation process without compromising the reader’s experience of sound and vision. The submission would also benefit from a revision of the research statement that makes clearer how the methodological approach contributes to screenwriting practice research and theories of adaptation.

The screenplay itself does not transparently expose evidence of the issue explored, but this can be easily understood when experienced in the context of the research statement. While the creative work largely stays close to convention in terms of screenplay format and presentation, there is evidence of innovation in elements of the form, in particular, the big print; such innovations could be pushed even further. The artistic and theoretical fields in which this work is contextualised can only be understood in tandem with the research statement, but it could be argued that these have informed the experience of consuming the work in ways that do not necessarily need to be made explicit within the work (and, to do so, would compromise the integrity of the work as a creative outcome). The screenplay has the potential to embody new knowledge and interpretation of screenwriting practice and adaptation theory as the iterative process continues. The research statement provides a good background and case for the significance of the practice as research, with more detail needed on the specifics of its contribution to the fields in which it is situated, and in particular what the screenwriting is doing specifically to translate ‘thought’ for the screen.

 

PRACTITIONER RESPONSE

Can I first express my appreciation for the suggestions and insights offered by the peer reviewers, and to Kath Dooley for engaging me in this deeply rewarding and constructive process.  This work forms part of a current PhD project with Griffith University and engagement with the peer reviews has suggested avenues for exploration in my ongoing research.

The reviews include a number of suggestions regarding the revision of my research statement, and I have attempted to address these in the revised statement as well as in this response.  The project has undergone an extended gestation process.  As the first report notes, I wrote and directed a short film, Flying, in 1998, drawing on the same core material, which at the time was an experimental 40 pages that I began writing as a feature film treatment.  The film was a Best Short Film finalist at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards in 1999, and actor Rose McIver (who was then 9 and has gone on to a successful professional acting career) was nominated for Outstanding Contribution to a Short Film.  The original source material, drawing on my experience of my mother’s death from cancer, was strongly autobiographical, and I switched from film treatment to novel because the writing naturally took that form in the creative process. Thus, from the outset, quite organically, the project took an intertextual form. A full draft of the novel was in place by 2006, but I wasn’t happy with the work.  There were problems with character, narrative and structure but financial pressures and the scale of the work that needed to be done led me to shelve the novel.   In 2015 I made an adaptation of the draft novel the centrepiece of a proposed Master of Visual Arts.  In the intervening period, however, I had undergone extensive script and story development training with generous support from Screen Australia through the Arista and Script Factory programs, had worked extensively as script and story assessor for Screen Queensland and Screen Tasmania and as a script editor or story consultant on a series of produced and unproduced feature film projects.  This experience was invaluable in adapting the novel into a screenplay, which necessarily involved deconstructing the novel and directly addressing the problems with the text. On the basis of this work, I extensively rewrote the novel, part of which involved the reduction of autobiographical elements to thematic traces in the new work, a process which was crucial to the reconception of the narrative.  This is the draft of the novel presented in the excerpt here; the screenplay excerpt is the draft developed from this latest version of the novel.

The reports raise several issues regarding the screenplay, all of them valid. Being the writer of both novel and screenplay allows for a unique exploration of the intertextualities of the two narrative forms, but also, I have discovered, the considerable hinderance of the creator’s emotional attachment to the material.  Being ruthless in elision is far less complicated when dealing with another writer’s work.

The literary style of the “big print” – or action/description as I prefer to call it – in the screenplay is, however, more than an effect of emotional connection; it has also been a conscious choice.  My intention is to challenge the more mechanical, commercial model of the screenplay that strips the text back to a kind of barebones functionality.  As a text, a screenplay performs different roles at different stages of the development process.   The first reader of the script in an industry context is usually a potential producer, then – once that individual or company is attached – the core creative contributors to any film: director, actors, cinematographer, and production designer.  For these collaborative practitioners, a fully realised imagining of the film narrative is crucial to communicating the creator’s vision for the film – a vision which in turn forms the basis for their own creative work on the film.  Furthermore, I argue that the conventional screenplay model tends to underwrite the interiority of performance, which is of direct relevance to the adaptation of the modernist novel.  My experience directing actors suggests that an understanding of interiority is central to informing performance; if that interiority is absent from the screenplay, then it must be created in the rehearsal space.  The project will also be read by potential investors (including funding agency panels) and early in my career I was given some invaluable advice by an experienced producer, who had also worked for a funding agency:  Don’t ask them to imagine anything; make sure it’s all on the page.

Later in the development continuum, when the creative decisions about directorial approach, production design and cinematographic style have been finalised and the rehearsal process is established, then the screenplay no longer requires its descriptive functionality.  Those elements are then stripped out, and the screenplay becomes an element of the production schedule.   The mechanistic view of the script as an unadorned, purely functional text, I suggest, derives in part from the relative opacity of the script development process; the screenplays that can be sourced online are, from my reading, generally production scripts or transcriptions of the finished film.  There is no way of knowing what the early drafts contained as text.

This is a first draft of the first act of the screenplay, and I acknowledge that the first act needs to come back to no more than 35 pages in the next draft.  The suggestion of a revision of the screenplay that removes elements transposed from the novel in favour of those that challenge screenwriting conventions is a logical progression of the development process.  I agree that this separation has not been adequately considered in the draft screenplay, reflecting the already noted problems I have experienced through my emotional connection to the more expansive prose narrative of the novel.    Whether the screenplay draft was “finished” enough to present in the public sphere was a question I considered before submitting, but I believe the constructive response from the reviewers has vindicated the decision to proceed.  Certainly, in subsequent drafts, the accepted boundaries of the screenplay form will be pushed harder than I have done in this draft, and not only in action/description.  The presentation of syncretic narration on the page in a conventional screenplay form encounters the problem of being unable to demonstrate the syncretic process through the unity of language, mise en scéne, and interpretive function of the frame that the finished film accomplishes a natural function of the medium. For the next draft, I am proposing a spatial arrangement of syncretic elements on the page as a written simulacrum for the simultaneity of film.

I respectfully disagree with the suggestion that removing Emma’s voice from the first scene (and others) would allow space for other creative dimensions of visual storytelling to realise the writer’s intention.  As expressed in my research statement, my adaptive intention as the writer of the novel is to find a translative equivalence for thought in the multi-trace medium of film. Without the interplay of narrational dialogue and semiosis, translative equivalence for a stream of consciousness or interior monologue cannot be achieved. I agree that the technique should not be overused, and a re-reading of this first draft suggests that the device would benefit from being used more sparingly. I am not seeking to aspire to prose literacy in the screenplay, which suggests a hierarchical valuing of the novel over the film that I reject. My concern is purely the translative modalities of moving between a modernist prose novel and a screenplay interpretation of the same narrative.

Here my research encounters the limits of being restricted to the first two of the three elements of the process of novel, screenplay, and film. While the novel is a complete, self-sufficient work, the screenplay is part of the larger creation of the finished film and by definition incomplete. The screenplay seeks to suggest, to approximate, what the film will become.  How accurately it anticipates the film in terms of the presentation of the text and to what degree the screenplay expresses the interiority of the characters are functions of the objective externality of screen narrative and the subjective judgement of the writer. There is no doubt that this draft, the two are, at times, in conflict, and it is the tension between the two that I will attempt to resolve in the next draft of the screenplay.

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT

My research explores the adaptation of a novel employing modernist tropes into a feature film screenplay, questioning the validity of the traditional, hierarchical source/palimpsest model of the adaptive process.  Adaptation of the modernist novel for cinema is poorly represented in scholarly discourse on adaptation, perhaps in part because modernist novels are less sought after by the film industry than more exteriorised, plot-driven works that are both more amenable to adaptation and more likely to bring a commercially attractive reader base with them. My draft novel, Flying, the original source work for my adaptation, employs the techniques that make the modernist novel challenging for screen narrative, including shifting internal realities, dreams, fluid frames of reference, dreams, stream of consciousness, interior monologue, multiple points of view, non-linear subjective time and linear objective time. The project began as a conventional adaptation of a partly written novel into a short film, Flying (de Salis 1998), which was a finalist in Best Short film at the New Zealand Film Awards.  The novel was completed to draft form in 2006, but the current cycle of work began in 2015, and what began as a conventional adaptation of the draft novel developed into a more complex iterative process driven by the unifying factor of a single creator.

The core issue in the adaptation of any modernist or post-modernist novel for the screen lies in the essential interiority of the source work. Although George Bluestone argues that film “cannot render thought, for the moment thought is externalised, it is no longer thought” (Bluestone [1957] 2003, 48), I concur with Sarah Kozloff that thought can be translated for the screen through syncretic counterpoint of narration and image (Kozloff 1988). When this paradigm was applied to adapting the interior monologue and stream of consciousness passages of the novel, the use of syncretic narration for more than one character produced an unsustainable crowding of the screenplay’s temporal narrative space. The necessity of restricting syncretic narration to a single character produced significant consequences for the translative process, tethering the screenplay to a single protagonist (Emma), whereas the focus in the novel is more diffuse. The reduction to the exteriority of all but one of the novel’s characters created, by corollary, a vertical mainplot/subplot hierarchy, eliding the interiorised content no longer relevant to the screenplay.

The subsequent necessity of externalising Josie’s rich interior world was addressed by the creation of an empathetic and conflicted confidante character, her aunt, Ali, who proved to be such a positive addition that I decided that she should be added to the novel. Furthermore, structural analysis of the novel undertaken to establish the structure of the screenplay revealed problems in the prose narrative to which the screenplay suggested solutions. Consequently, I rewrote the original source novel and, subsequently, the screenplay. This creatively reflexive intertextual process directly reflects Andre Bazin’s hypothesis of a future where the work would not be seen as “a novel out of which a play and a film had been ‘made’, but rather a single work reflected in three art forms, all equal” (Bazin [1958] 2000, 26). The key to adaptation, Bazin argues, is the “equivalence of meaning of the forms [sic]” (Bazin [1958] 2000, 20).

Interpreting adaptation as a process of translative equivalence between narrative forms necessarily engages with the contentious issue of fidelity in adaptation. Although the concept of fidelity has been widely critiqued as inadequate or discredited by pre-eminent theorists such as Robert Stam (2005) and Linda Hutcheon (2013), my research suggests that fidelity is central to adaptation practice and should be interrogated rather than dismissed because it is difficult to define. The issue of fidelity reflects a wider dissonance between the scholarly discussion of adaptation and its practice by adaptive writers, a division exacerbated by the domination of theoretical discourse by scholars without direct experience of the adaptive process while scholarly commentary by adaptation practitioners is relatively scarce. By working through a creative practice-led research process, my aim is to unite theory and practice, building a constructive dialogue between two worlds that have much to offer each other.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bazin, Andre. 2000. “Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest.” In Film Adaption, edited by James Naremore, 19-27. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Bluestone, George. 1957. 2003. Novels into film. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

De Salis, Charles. 1998. Flying. New Zealand: Rocket Pictures Limited.

Hutcheon, Linda. 2013. A theory of adaptation. New York: Routledge.

Kozloff, Sarah. 1988. Invisible storytellers: voice-over narration in American fiction film. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stam, Robert. 2005. Literature through film: realism, magic, and the art of adaptation. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Pub.

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