Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 3 2021
Screenplay The Box by Alexander Gordon Smith
Jennifer Oey: Producer, Researcher
Steve Philipson: Director, The Box (2014) 3 mins 25 seconds
Martin Tease: Director, The Box (2014) 2 mins 51 seconds
Emily Payne: Director,The Box (2014) 3 mins 32 seconds
Jennifer Oey: Director, The Box (2014) 2 mins 15 seconds
Tania Freimuth: Director,Burrows Road (2014) 5 mins 40 seconds
This collection of five films was produced as an exploration of filmmaking as research for my PhD thesis entitled, Practicing Adaptation: One Screenplay, Five Films. My intention with this thesis was to examine the relationship between a screenplay and the films made from it. This project tested the hypothesis that a film based on an original (not adapted from an existing text) screenplay is an adaptation of this screenplay. In order to investigate the potential range of adaptations that occur during the process of film production, I commissioned a short screenplay which was made into a film five times, by five different production teams, each entirely independent of one another. Utilising these films as my primary set of data, I engaged in comparative analysis of the screenplay to the five films and of each of the five films to one another. My framework for analysis is grounded in adaptation studies, which has engaged in close comparative analysis of novel to film, but has not made significant inquiry into the discrete phase of adaptation between screenplay and film. Additionally, I argue that an investigation into the relationship between written and filmed creative work is ideally conducted by engaging with practice and practitioners. My thesis is therefore comprised of duel written and filmed components. As such, the screenplay may be of interest in this case, despite this being a ‘film’ submission and therefore also provided.
PEER REVIEW 1
The submission’s enquiry is into ‘the hypothesis that a film based on an original (not adapted from an existing text) screenplay is an adaptation of this screenplay’. This is a contentious proposition, and the submission would benefit from acknowledging this and opening the subject for debate: what is the difference between a director’s interpretation of a script written for the screen, and an adaptation? Arguably, the term ‘adaptation’ implies that a completed artwork, an existing text, is changed in order to transform it into a second art form. In cinema, the dominant form of adaptation has been from literary sources and the theatre, with graphic novels and games being more recent sources of cinematic adaptation. A film’s screenplay, however, is a different originating work: the fact that it is almost always written with the express purpose that it will be reinterpreted during the creative process of production, means that it is difficult to use the same terminology as other forms of adaptation. A screenwriter’s intention is that the work exists as the first stage of a creative process. Can film production as a creative activity be described as the adaptation of the original screenplay? Or is it the completion of the intended film, through a collective act of interpretation? What if the screenwriter is the director: does she adapt her own work during the production, or complete it? A very loose parallel is the work of a figurative painter, whose first creative work is frequently the creation of a line drawing that will then be overpainted in the subsequent development of the piece. Is the painting an adaptation of that line drawing, or simply the completion of the intended artwork?
One Screenplay, Five Films presents an interesting exploration of alternative forms of creative interpretation of a script. It successfully illustrates the huge range of creative possibilities inherent within a screenplay. As such, it is a stimulating submission.
How does the submission expose practice as research?
The submission states a clear question which is explored in the alternative films derived from the screenplay. The presentation and juxtaposition of the five films is innovative, stimulating comparison in a range of discourses. Innovation of form within the film texts is not the purpose of this enquiry, which concentrates attention on the malleability of the original screenplay.
The submission is contextualised in the field of adaptation and screenwriting studies. The controversy that it raises is a valuable debate in the field.
I am concerned about the lack of depth of insight. The film industry has always been aware that the choice of director leads to a particular interpretation of a screenplay, and that a different director would create a very different film from the same source. The history of remakes serves as a good investigation of this, with Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) an eloquent exploration of this theme. However, I think that the submission’s close juxtaposition of alternative short film texts is a useful addition to this debate, as it succinctly provides the viewer with an opportunity to consider these issues.
PEER REVIEW 2
The collection of five diverse films that underpin the PhD thesis Practicing Adaptation: One Screenplay, Five Films, that this submission is comprised of, are based on the script The Box. The role a screenplay plays in filmmaking and creative collaboration is a complex one that can, at times, be fraught. This submission, the creative interpretation of a screenplay by five different directors, explores the realisation of a short film screenplay onto the screen in an unexpected way. The process of commissioning the script effectively removes the writer from the production of the films in a way more commonly seen in a television drama series model. This appears to have allowed the directors the space and freedom to create an omnibus of five very different films. For a writer there is often a strong desire for the film that they have imagined in their head and produced as a screenplay, to be realised on screen by the director. Depending on the level of creative collaboration between the two this, to some extent, will occur. This submission is interesting as it explores the relationship between the written word and the film on screen with the writer apparently absent from the process. The choice to commission a script, for the purpose of this research project, has seemingly removed any collaboration between the writer and director in a way that is uncommon in independent filmmaking. As evidenced by the films this has allowed the five directors to interpret the script in very wide-ranging ways. The openness of the script – the lack of specifics as far as age, relationship or any personal details about the two characters, has resulted in five very different works. The films range from intimate performance-based interpretations, as seen in the works by Steve Philipson and Tania Friemuth’s, to Emily Payne’s energetic film, which feels like an episode of a police drama (which is in no means a negative review of the work), to a psychological exploration of the script through a single actor in Martin Tease’s film, to a charming animation with puppets in Jennifer Oey’s short.
The common element to be found in all the films is the way in which the directors, to varying degrees, felt free to disregard the body text/action lines in the script. The worlds and on-screen stories created by the directors based on the script were not limited by the writer’s suggestions of net curtains, ticking clocks or a continuous time frame.
The submission successfully explores the “relationship between a screenplay and the films made from it” and effectively investigates the adaptation of a screenplay onto the screen which is a very different creative process to that of adapting a novel or play. It also brings up several questions, especially about how the directors and creative teams were selected. Given the films were produced within a university, I would have liked to have known if the filmmakers were students or colleagues, what information about the script they were given, the role of the scriptwriter – if any, the extent to which the producer played a creative producer role, and how the directors and their teams worked independently of each other. Were the directors from different years or cohorts, undergraduates or post-graduates, was this a class exercise or a major work for them? Also, did the analysis investigate creativity and the way in which the directors interpreted the texts?
REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT
This collection of five films was produced as an exploration of filmmaking as research for my PhD thesis entitled, Practicing Adaptation: One Screenplay, Five Films. My intention with this dual written and filmed thesis was to examine the relationship between a screenplay and the films made from it. This project tested the hypothesis that a film based on an original (not adapted from an existing text) screenplay is an adaptation of this screenplay. My primary research question was: What is the relationship between a finished film and its screenplay?
My use of the term ‘adaptation’ acknowledges potential variances in its applied definition and also adaptation studies scholars’ tendency to examine the possible utility of a variety of alternate terms to encompass the processes of ‘making’ a book into a film. Brian McFarlane, for example, makes a distinction between ‘adaptation’ and ‘transfer’ (1996). As Anna Rossholm does in her examination of Ingmar Bergman’s notebooks, I employ the term adaptation in a ‘broad sense’ that implies movement from one creative work to another (2013).
In order to investigate the potential range of adaptations that occur during the process of film production, I commissioned a short screenplay which was made into a film five times, by five different production teams, each entirely independent of one another. I commissioned the directors myself — one was a fellow PhD student, and all are professional filmmakers — and they, in turn, chose their production teams. The completed films comprised the data I used to engage in comparative analysis of the screenplay to the five films and of each of the five films to one another. In adaptation studies, there have been attempts to address who the adapter is, such as in Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation, for example, and to what extent the collaborative nature of film might impede the ability to make such a distinction, but there is no significant body of work that looks solely at the adaptations that might occur from original screenplay to screen. This is where this study intervenes. In this study, I am not interested in determining when and by whom each perceived adaptation was made, but that adaptation occurred and what this reveals.
The screenplay is often referred to as a ‘blueprint’, a term that has been cause for debate. Ridley Scott says that “what one gets in blueprint or screenplay is hopefully a good story or a thrilling story or a sentimental story, well told. After the blueprint, things are wide open for interpretations”(Greenberger 1982, 61). If the filmmaking process is necessarily an adaptation from one medium to another, then a comparative analysis of the five films to both the screenplay and to one another should reveal both the variety of contributions made across each production and feasibly give way to an assessment of the relationship between the script and the film based on it.
It is my intention that this inquiry stimulates debate in adaptation studies, generates interest in film practitioners, and validates the potential value in film academia engaging rigorously and directly with practice and practitioners.
McFarlane, Brian. 1996. Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Rossholm, Anna Sofia. 2013. “Auto-Adaptation and the Movement of Writing across Media: Ingmar Bergman’s Notebooks,” in Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions, edited by Jørgen Bruhn, Anne Gjelsvik, and Eirik Frisvold Hanssen, 2013-22. London: Bloomsbury.
Hutcheon, Linda. 2013. A Theory of Adaptation, London; New York: Routledge.
Greenberger, Robert. 1982. “Ridley Scott: A Talk with the Director of Blade Runner, Sure to Be One of the Brightest Spots in This Summer’s Film Offerings.” Starlog, 60, 1. <https://ia600603.us.archive.org/10/items/starlog_magazine-060/060.pdf>.
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