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Q&A, pt2: Yves Lavandier on Script Reading, Gurus & Philosophy

In the book you reference Claude Berri who asks “How many producers know how to read?” What is the “proper” way to read a script in your view and why do you suppose so many scripts are not read this way by producers?

Imagine that to create a symphony, you need an awful lot of money. Imagine that composers send their music sheets to decision-makers in order to raise funding. Can you imagine that the “readers” don’t know how to decipher a score? That they don’t know how to read music notes? That they don’t hear music when they read a score? It would be unbelievable. Well, that’s basically what happens in cinema, especially in continental Europe. “Script readers” think they can read a script because they can read their mother tongue. When you read a script you should not only be able to decipher the signs you should also be able to perceive what’s behind the words. I’m not only talking about sights and sounds. I’m also talking about the feelings created (or not) by the characterisation and the structure. It’s a trade that should not be left to friends and cousins. The “proper” way to read a script is first to learn how to do it. And one of the necessary ways to learn is to know writing from the inside. You don’t need to be a great writer but at least know what it is. See the best sport coaches. They all have been players themselves. That said, I devoted a whole chapter to the issue of reading drama. I think it can be of some help to the decision-makers. It’s like all human activities: it can be taught and there are a few rules to consider.

What is your opinion of so-called “Gurus” like Robert McKee and Syd Field? Why do you suppose their works are so often celebrated AND despised?

That’s a tricky question. I would not want to appear to place myself above the scrimmage. I’d rather talk about the authors who inspired me. Such as Edward Mabley (with “Dramatic construction”), George Bernard Shaw (with his prefaces), Walter Kerr (with “Tragedy and comedy” and “The silent clowns”) and Bruno Bettelheim (with “The Uses of Enchantment”).

If I insist.

If you insist, Syd Field is much too simplistic and dogmatic to my taste. As I explain in my book, I don’t understand his definition of the three acts. I’ve never been to one of Robert McKee’s lecture. It’s too expensive and I’m not big on shows. But I’ve read his book “Story”. There are excellent insights in it. I may not agree with everything, I may find that it’s not rigorous enough here and there (on dramatic irony, for instance) but basically, McKee is a great believer in story well told. We are fellow theorists. I just wish Field, Seger and McKee were also fellow scriptwriters. If they had written a lot of screenplays themselves, it would show in their books.

Do you know who make the most money during gold rush eras? The people who sell pickaxes. If Syd Field had digged a bit, he would know that a 30-minute long third act does not work. Field’s theory on the three acts works so poorly that people felt obliged to invent a fourth act called the “epilogue”.

I’m not afraid of rules. But I love rules as much as I love exceptions. I think rules should be supple enough. The exceptions are there to enrich the rules.

Screenwriting gurus are celebrated because people crave for rules, even sometimes recipes. They are despised because they are too influential. Syd Field’s theory on the three acts is too clumsily obvious in too many American movies since 1979. It’s a bore. I think people should read scriptwriting treatises, including mine, with some distance. Take what rings a bell, leave the rest. And read more than one. And write, write, write. And have your work read by all kind of people. And read again scriptwriting treatises. And write, write, write.

You make many references to philosophical works like Antigone in the book. How useful is a philosophical education to writing a script in your view?

When I quote “Antigone” I refer to Sophocles’ play, not to the myth. The play itself has a philosophical flavor because it deals with important issues such as personal and divine law versus state law.

Maybe a philosophical education is not necessary to write a script. But I think a philosophical view is necessary to write a treatise like mine. I do not think it is enough simply to say that “such and such a phenomenon occurs in drama, therefore I consider it to be a rule.” I prefer to say that “such and such a phenomenon occurs in drama, I wonder why, and if I find that there is a sound and logical reason for this, I consider it to be a rule.” The stronger the justification, the more likely the mechanism is to be valid and useful. That is why I often question the principles and regularly refer to philosophical texts such as Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle”, Paul Watzlawick’s “How Real is Real” or Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment”.

Simplicity is often an issue for early drafts and for newer writers in particular, it seems simplicity of story is hard to achieve. Why do you think we pile so much into our drafts without realising we have “enough”?

I’d say it’s a lack of confidence. It’s very tough to be simple. It’s very tough to take only one cow and milk it to the maximum. Not only it demands creativity but also it has to do with facing your own self. When you’re facing a key scene of your work, a scene in which you bare your soul, it’s very tempting to beat the bush around and not get down to the task in hand. It’s even more tempting to go beating aroung other bushes, that is to create other characters, other subplots, other cows.

“Story is king”: how much do you agree or disagree with this statement and why?

Story is king to me and to many people in the world but not to everyone. Although I believe all human beings need narratives. Even Jean-Luc Godard admitted that he needs structured stories. “I like plots. I’m like anyone else, I need them,“ he said. The lives of even anti-narrative writers are aristotelian. Now I respect other people’s tastes. If a spectator tells me he enjoys Michael Snow’s or Patrick Bokanowski’s movies and I feel he’s authentic, it’s not a pose, I won’t argue. What bugs me is when a spectator does not understand that most of the pleasure and emotions he got from a narrative feature film comes from the script (particularly the structure and the characterisation) and not the camera techniques.

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