Saturday, September 11, 2010

Day 156: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”

After the first 26 pages of Robert Rodat’s screenplay for Saving Private Ryan (that’s 26 minutes, at least, of Stephen Spielberg’s screentime intensity) we finally get off Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, on the 6th day of June, 1944. We leave the beachhead assault, now indelibly printed on our minds and psyches, for a War Department building, back in Washington, two days later.

The big print in the screenplay tells that “the sound of clattering machine-gun fire segues to that of clattering typewriters”. We get a close-up of the telegram in a typewriter, which reads “We regret to inform you...killed in action...heroic service...”. The camera tracks to another typewriter typing the same thing “...killed in action...” and then another typewriter “...heroic action...” until the camera cranes up “ reveal row upon row upon row of sombre clerks typing out this same horrible message, over and over again. There is no small talk. This is the paperwork of death.”

We cut to one clerk, “...older than the others, sad-eyed, she adds a sheet of paper to a large pile in her out-box. She then pulls out a file. Reads, finds something troubling. Quickly shuffles through some other papers. Finds what she’s looking for. Rises from her desk and hurries out of the office.”

“Seen through a glass wall. The clerk speaks to a young lieutenant who is visibly shaken by what he is being told. He motions to the clerk to follow and he strides out of the office with the clerk on his heels.”

So the scene continues with the lieutenant and clerk going to a captain and then the three of them going further up the chain to a Colonel, where we and he learn that three men - Thomas, Peter and Daniel Ryan - have all been killed in action in the last three weeks. The young captain addresses his colonel thus: “The three men are brothers, sir. I’ve just learned that this afternoon their mother’s getting all three telegrams.”

Here’s the big print, verbatim, for what follows: “FARM COUNTRY, MANSFIELD, OHIO. A black car drives along a dirt road, a cloud of dust rising behind. Passing through an endless expanse of ripening corn. It turns onto another road marked by a big metal mailbox with the name RYAN painted on the side. A white farmhouse. A barn. A stand of trees. Cornfields as far as the eye can see. IN THE YARD. A tire swing. A bushel basket nailed to the barn over a dirt basketball court. A porch swing, sits empty. Moves slightly. A FLAG IN THE WINDOW displays four blue stars each representing a family member in the armed service. MARGARET RYAN, steps out. Around sixty. Her face shows the lines of a life of hard work and motherhood. She wipes her hands on her apron and looks out across the fields. Far in the distance she sees the dust rising behind the black car. She watches the car get closer, then sees it turn towards her house. She starts to grow uneasy. As the black car approaches, her breath comes hard. She reaches out and steadies herself on the porch post. The car pulls up to the house. She sees three men get out. When she sees that one of the men is wearing a clerical collar, her legs give way and she sinks down onto the porch.”

We all know that what follows is the knowledge that there is a fourth Ryan brother (Matt Damon) out there, behind enemy lines, and so the order is sent out to bring him back safely and immediately. Robert Rodat’s idea came to him when he saw a monument dedicated to four men all killed in the American Civil War, the Niland brothers.

Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) is plucked from the aftermath of Omaha Beach and, with a hand-picked group of men serving under him, is sent to bring Ryan back, alive. So begins the film Saving Private Ryan, a story in which Stephen Spielberg explores the qusetion of whether it’s possible to behave with “decency” in war.

Day #156 Tip: Honing our ‘big print’ skills
I can only think or two war films that I’ve ever seen that, in one way or another, do not romanticise war: Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) and Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. That’s not to say that I haven’t seen many, many other “great” war films, I have, but even though the motivation and intention behind these others may have been honourable, the romanticism of war is there. But this is a discussion for another time and diverts me from my intention.

Writing the “big print”, “screen directions” or “stage directions” is an art form in itself. I encourage you to download the script of Saving Private Ryan and read the directions laid out the way that they should be laid out in screenplay format. Then watch the film scene and see what the actors, the director and the film’s other craftspeople brought to this blueprint of Robert Rodat’s. See how they all collaborated to produce this finely wrought sequence. Do it with other films too.

I find the honing of my writing skills in creating the big print, an ongoing process of learning; always aiming to become pithier and tighter in this facet of my screenwriting, writing less yet saying more and as always, leaving room for others to bring their skills to the piece.

I feel compelled to add a footnote that it has not escaped my notice that, completely by accident, I find myself reflecting on the dreadful toll of “war” on such a date as today’s.

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