Screenwriting and The Dreadful Weight of Truth

Art, Picasso tells us, is the lie that tells the greater truth.

Screenwriters need to learn how to lie through their teeth.

As a screenwriting educator and script doctor I have seen more scripts brought down by a writer’s wrongheaded devotion to some idealized, romanticized, self-conscious, narcissistic, pie-in-the-sky notion of The Truth.

In script consultation sessions on and off the UCLA campus, I often find myself asking something like, “Why is this character hemming and hawing, starting and stopping, meandering, beating around the bush?”

The answer I commonly get is, “That’s the way people really talk.”

What’s wrong with the way people really talk? Two things. First, the way people really talk is available for free in the street. Nobody has to hire a babysitter, drive to a theater and poke around (and pay) for a parking place, not to mention buying a ticket.

Worse still, the way people really talk is boring. “Hi, how you doing?” “Pretty good. You?” “Not too bad.” “That’s nice.” “Is it hot enough for you today?” “I’ve got to get over to the market for a quart of milk.” “My mother went to New Jersey yesterday.”

Our only rule at UCLA’s screenwriting program: Don’t Be Boring.

Not only dialogue but other aspects of scripts are suffocated by this foolish devotion to some sort of factual, historical forthrightness. Remember, history is only high-story or his-story.


At the most recent Oscar presentations (at the time of this writing about three months ago) there was some controversy regarding the fudging of historical facts in Tony Kushner’s and (UCLA screenwriting MFA graduate) Eric Roth’s screenplay for Lincoln. The film fudged on the votes regarding the Emancipation Proclamation among the Connecticut congressional delegation. Likewise, the script for Best Picture winner Argo took broad liberties with the actual events surrounding the rescue of the American hostages during the Iranian revolution of 1979. The movie depicts a last-minute chase down the runway as the escape plane takes off.

Am I bothered when screenwriters play fast and loose with the so-called facts?

I am not.

When I’m hungry and crave a tuna fish sandwich, I don’t go to the hardware store. Likewise, when I seek historical facts, I don’t go to the movie theater. I’ll get rotten history and a lame movie.

To believe that objective Truth even merely exists represents the height of arrogance.

Beginners asks the reader to imagine an empty box car on a train with a table at dead center on which sits a lamp with twin lenses, one aimed at the rear of the car, the other at the front.

The front and back doors are controlled by photolytic switches; that is, when a light shines upon them, they open.

Outside the train, from the perspective of an embankment alongside the track, an observer sees something quite different from another observer riding inside the car. For the observer in the car, when the lamp is lit, the front and rear doors open simultaneously. For the observer on the embankment, however, the doors open not simultaneously but sequentially. With the front door running away from the beam of light, and the rear door racing toward it, the back door opens just a little sooner than front door.

That difference main seem trivial. The front door starts to open just slightly after the rear door. In fact, however, the difference is huge. Simultaneity is, after all, not merely different from but the opposite of sequentiality. Things happening one after the other are the opposite of things happening at the same time. Aren’t opposites the greatest kinds of differences?

Most significantly, this is not a metaphor, not an optical illusion or some sort of trick. It could be verified with ultra-high speed cameras, which actually exist; they are used by the military to analyze ballistics.

The question arises: What’s happening here? Are the doors opening simultaneously or are they opening sequentially?

The answer is: Yes. The doors open simultaneously or they are open sequentially depending upon who’s looking and from where.

Reactionary talk show radio hosts will cite me as one more pointy-headed college professor claiming that everybody has his own truth and that there are no timeless principles, no eternal verities we can believe.

Is there nothing we can agree upon? There is, for example, substantial disagreement regarding the assassination of President Kennedy. The official government version holds that a lone gunman was the culprit. Others argue there was a conspiracy ordered by Fidel Castro and carried out by Cuban secret agents. Still others say it was an American security entity such as the C.I.A. Could it be that Israel did it? Isn’t there always some lunatic body of opinion that holds Israel responsible for everything, from the Kennedy assassination to the Dodgers’ wretched season last year?

Can we not at the very least agree, however, that JFK was murdered on September 22, 1963?

An article in The New Yorker examined this notion. Sept, as in September, means seven. Think septuagenarian or septet. Oct, as in October, means eight. Think octopus or octogenarian. November derives from nine. December (think decimal, decade) is ten. Yet these are not the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months but the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. How did that come to be?

The answer is that some suck-up to Caesar two thousand years ago convinced him that there should be two months honoring him. That is where July (Julio, or Julius) comes from and August is for august, that is: Caesar Augustus.

And what about 1963? Jews and Maya and Chinese and other cultures have different numbers for that year.

Even the mere citation of a date engages controversies, therefore, that are political, cultural, religious, intellectual, and ideological.

The Contrivance of the Cinema evolution

Movies are fake. In many ways they are the most false enterprise in all of creation. What is more manipulated, arranged, rearranged, shuffled, reshuffled, juggled and re-juggled than a movie? What plays faster and looser with time and space and than a motion picture? Movies don’t even move. Everyone knows that a movie is really a hundred thousand still images projected in rapid succession.

But there is something that is entirely true about movies, and that is the emotion, the feelings experienced by the audience. If one is frightened in a scary movie, one is truly frightened. If one grieves at a tear jerker, the tears are real, as is the grief.

The circumstances are fake but the emotion is one hundred percent authentic.

That is the kind of authenticity, and the manner of truth, screenwriters should seek.

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