On Writing A Screenplay About A Writer

In the Guardian, British docu maker John Brownlow tells about the tricky business of writing a screenplay about Sylvia Plath, one of the most fought-over writers of the modern era. With duelling critics, conflicting biographies, testy literary estates controlling the rights to Plath’s and Ted Hughes’ poetry, and an ending even Hollywood can’t spin, it sounds like an impossible task. Oh, and “there had to be humor.” Humor and a head in the oven.
Brownlow ended up completely re-researching Plath’s and Hughes’ stories to find a bearable story, and, after realizing the couple didn’t “speak in verse” with each other, he says, “[I] cut dialogue and if I couldn’t cut it I made it as banal as I could, while ensuring the situations were dramatic.”
His writing war story is long, maybe not really of general interest, but if you write, you won’t want to miss it. Two good lessons: 1) Brownlow is a huge fan of treatments and outlines and the discipline they impose on the writer’s story, and 2) he wants to direct.
Interestingly, I just rewatched Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris on DVD, and in his commentary (with the deeply shallow James Cameron), he talks about cutting and cutting dialogue, too, in order to reveal the characters’ emotional subtexts. From what he says, I think he greatly improved the movie (which I liked better the second time, btw). Soderbergh tells people if they don’t like the pacing of the first ten minutes, they should leave, “because it’s not getting any better.”