Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Alert – Screen Plays by David S. Cohen

I recently had the great pleasure of reading David S. Cohen’s Screen Plays, which analyzes the paths that 25 recent, yet quite different screenplays took from first draft to screen. While Screen Plays addresses the on and off-set struggles to bring the 25 select screenplays to fruition, detailing the process of getting producers, actors, directors, and studios attached, the central figure in every account is always the screenwriter(s) working on the project. Cohen, an entertainment reporter for both Variety and Script magazine, knows firsthand what writers go through when trying to bring their work to the screen – he spent time as a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

If nothing else, Screen Plays should be hailed as a work of encouragement for emerging writers everywhere. The 25 writers and writing teams profiled often had to battle through studio changeover, a slew of actors and directors getting attached and unattached, and numerous turnarounds in order to stay on their projects and get their movies made. There are a handful of examples of writers that didn’t give up and bore the fruits of their persistence in this book. However, Screen Plays is more than just a proverbial encouraging pat on the back, more than just a reminder of what can come true for those of us who are dedicated to and willing to put work in toward this odd profession.

Though he covers material as diverse as the wildly successful and high-grossing Gladiator to the under-the-radar, largely unknown The Caveman’s Valentine (a novel to screen adaptation that I think I was one of ten people who saw), Cohen manages to weave a coherent narrative throughout the twenty-five case studies. I have to admit how pleasantly surprised I was to see Cohen weave the experience of one writer detailed in the opening chapters of the book into those of another scribe dealing, for example, with completely different material and a much smaller budget later on toward the end of the book. Cohen contrasts the experiences of successful, A-list writers David Franzoni (Gladiator) and David Beinoff (Troy) with those of one-time spec king Shane Black as he tried to sell Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. What is most interesting in that comparison is how Black abdicated his throne out of disgust for Hollywood, while Franzoni and Beinoff each used their rising status to accomplish what other writers might have never been able to pull off – the high-budget, historical epic. Any writer with hopes of what little bit of power a screenwriter is entitled to in Hollywood will take the comparison and career paths of those three writers to heart, studying them and, hopefully, one day being able to apply the best strategy to his or her own career.

The range of scripts, approaches, and writers that Cohen covers is admirable, a sign of true dedication to creating a wide-reaching image of the industry from a writer’s point of view. In addition to the above mentioned scripts, in little over 300 pages, Cohen manages to paint coherent pictures of the successes and failures of collaborations (Mona Lisa Smile, Witness, and Monster’s Ball to name a few), indie-pictures that made a big splash (Lost in Translation), those that didn’t (A Dirty Shame), foreign films (Hero), and adaptations (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Hours, and Evening). He’s not afraid to say when the noble efforts of a writer failed to make a good movie (Random Hearts). And he writes about the movies, gets the writers to open up about them in such a way that while reading, I felt an overwhelming to re-watch the movies in question (American Beauty).

Screen Plays is a great look into the life and work of a working screenwriter. The scribes interviewed are exceedingly honest about what the process of adapting a book, working with a partner, losing a project, or seeing a movie flop or suffer the fate of bad reviews was like. It would behoove any aspiring writer to read this. Learn how to protect your work, or if you’ll be able to. Read about what faith in a project can do and how to get (most) of what you like about a script onto the screen. Experience vicariously what it’s like to be told your picture won’t get a release because of content, or how your masterpiece is way too long and pricey. Find out which battles you’ll have to fight, and which you probably shouldn’t. Screen Plays deserves a spot on any screenwriter’s bookshelf.

Screen Plays
David S. Cohen
342 pages
Harper Paperbacks

Before you rush out to buy Screen Plays, email The Screenwriters League. We have five promotional copies of David S. Cohen’s book to give away on a first-come, first-serve basis. To claim your copy, email
info@screenwritersleague.com with “Screen Plays” in the subject heading. Include your name and shipping address. And be sure to subscribe to The Screenwriters League so that you can be notified first about future promotions and giveaways.