This project, ugh. Someday I will go to the RWA convention and find other writers to talk to about back story. At the moment I am talking to myself (that is, to the Internet via this blog) and today I’ll be talking about a screenplay.
When I started writing the novel that became THE GHOST OF CARLOS GARDEL, the one thing I was sure of was that it was about some of my characters making a movie. During the course of writing it, I needed to conceive of that movie in considerable detail. (And then of course A FEW KISSES AGO happened. That latest novel has a sub-plot about the movie, which required yet more detail.) Only a few scenes of the movie are described in those novels in any detail, but the Thing Itself exists very thoroughly in the minds of the characters making the movie.
And, me being me, that meant the Thing Itself began to exist very thoroughly in my mind. It changed a lot - as the novel did - from the point of first conception. I was thinking about it and to a lesser degree talking about it for a year, after all. But the screenplay was always simply back story to the novel, until it wasn’t.
It isn’t anymore. It is complete, and I’ve sent it in for copyright registration. Very soon I’ll register it with the Writers Guild, which is kind of an essential step to make sure that I’m on record as the author, so that when I reach out to people I know and say ‘hey I know you make movies about dance, do you want to take a look at this’ they cannot simply walk off with it and say they wrote it (this happens occasionally).
The screenplay is also, of course, titled THE GHOST OF CARLOS GARDEL. One cannot copyright a title, nor can one trademark a single title. Thus I can use the same title for novel and for screenplay. The screenplay is about five actors involved in a stage play about Carlos Gardel and his collaborators. It’s a musical, because Gardel was an early star of Argentine tango, and his music drives the conflict (all psychological) in the story. I know exactly who I would cast in three of the five main parts, as well as in an important small role - the only role for a woman, which (to quote my character Tanith Salazar) chaps my ass, but it is what it is..
What’s different about a screenplay and a novel? SO MANY THINGS. For starters, a novel is expected to convey not simply a story, but a strong sense of place (setting). Most novels (all of the ones I like) must also convey a strong sense of character. We must get to know the people carrying the story. In a screenplay, you will see the characters; it is the actor’s role to convey the character. Most of the movies I like don’t have a narrator. The character isn’t telling the audience about herself. She is showing, through speech and action.
The essential parts of a movie scene are: WHO are we watching; WHAT are they doing; WHERE are they doing it; HOW are they doing it; and what do we HEAR while they are doing it. WHY is actually not essential - it’s something that should (in my opinion, which is what you get because this is my blog) be revealed through the speech and the action unfolding in a given scene and subsequently.
Sometimes there is no WHY. When I was thinking about this post, I was thinking about one of the episodes in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Dreams.’ A man (who) is walking (what) down a deserted street that passes under a footbridge (where). He looks depressed or anxious or weary (how). And we (hear) a barking, snarling dog. That’s all we hear. We don’t see the dog at first. Only its voice, which immediately gives us a sense of threat. There’s this horrible suspense all the way through, even after we see the dog under the bridge, because OMG it sounds like it’s going to tear the guy’s throat out. It doesn’t. The episode ends. It was SCARY AS F**K.
Thus for example the opening scene of THE GHOST OF CARLOS GARDEL is a wide shot of a large group of people (WHO); dancing (WHAT); on a bridge (WHERE); in modern dress, not choreographed, in the golden hour (HOW); and the scene is scored with an a cappella version, sung by many voices, of ‘Mi Buenos Aires Querido’ (what we HEAR).
It’s one paragraph. That’s all the director and cinematographer need in order to decide exactly how they want to stage it. I added minimal detail, like what sort of couples are dancing. In my world, it’s all sorts - M/M, M/F, F/F - and with the broadest possible ethnic diversity, because the movie is about (among other things) the universal seductiveness of Argentine tango. One might suggest what bridge, in what city. If it were being filmed here in L.A., I’d nominate the Sixth Street Viaduct. It’s a beautiful structure in a blighted area, which gives it a lot of subtext as well as context.
In film, it’s always a good idea to let scenery speak for itself. I would be vastly annoyed by - for example - a narrator explaining to me the symbolism of bridges. The filmmaker should be aware of it, however. She should also be aware that what’s really important in this moment is the music. It’s one of Gardel’s greatest hits; you will hear it in almost any stage show with tango. The fact that it is sung a cappella (and in my version, by a hundred untrained voices, as if people on the street were suddenly compelled to sing it) is an important point explicated later in the film.
And I said, in the script, ‘aerial shot’ - but the director might decide, let’s use tracking shots alongside and through the mob of dancers, or let’s use tight shots of each couple and fade or cut from one to another, or let’s do all those things together. Decisions like that are a function of money, which is a function of time: the more different takes of a scene, the longer you have to film, and the more complex the editing will be, and the more the scene ultimately costs. Nowadays you can do an aerial take with a GoPro on a drone: guerrilla filmmaking. All this could be stated in the screenplay, but how that scene is filmed is less important than why. The why doesn’t depend on the how, in other words.
The next scene introduces the five main characters. Again it tells us where they are, who they are, what they are doing, and how they are doing it. We are left to discover WHY from what they say and do in this and subsequent scenes. We also hear another song, one which happens to have a lyric that resonates through the film.
That scene also tells us we are never going to learn who these men really are. We get only the names of their roles in the stage play at the heart of the movie. Those roles are all real people. We will see quite a few scenes from the play, which is itself a historical musical, in dress rehearsal. The rest of the movie is about how the actors are relating to the play, to the music, to their characters. How they are coping with it (not always well). How they are helping each other.
It’s not a big-budget action film, obviously, or even a big-budget musical. The whole thing could probably be done for less than the cost of two episodes of ‘Fosse/Verdon.’
Two of the parts (Francisco Fiorentino and Edmundo Rivero) could be played by any young-ish Latino who can a) sing b) dance c) play the guitar. In my dream cast, the sole female role goes to Roselyn Sanchez. The other three parts are Jose Razzano (Antonio Banderas, please); Alfredo Le Pera (John Leguizamo, please); and Carlos Gardel (Lin-Manuel Miranda, please).
The point of writing the thing really wasn’t so that I would have a blog post with a celebrity call-out. It was because I needed to be able to see the movie in order to write the novel. Back story, ugh.