Although I have been critiquing films for many years I have never had a desire to write screenplays or direct. It is easier to find what’s right or wrong with an existing movie than to go through the complex throes of creating one. That said, I found it valuable to read Joe Gilford’s tough-love book filled with advice to the aspiring screenwriter, with its imaginative title “Why Does the Screenwriter Cross the Road?”
Gilford is a professor in the film department of New York University. He is a script consultant and he has written his own screenplays, including two for films in the works, “Kalimantan” and “Moonbounce.” He has also written plays, including the exceptionally strong “Finks,” about the red-scare blacklist and its human and political consequences. (See Search, then Theater for my review.) Gilford grew up in a noted and highly respected theater family. His father was the renowned actor Jack Gilford and his mother was actress Madeline Lee.
Gilford has plenty to say about the art of writing screenplays and he dispenses his advice in a lucid, informative style, shooting straight from the hip. His mode is to be stimulating as he leads a reader through the process without mincing any words about how tough it is to succeed. But he doesn’t want to discourage either, insistent on the would-be screenwriter following his or her dream and perfecting an idea no matter how discouraging the road may become and how easy it will be to succumb to temptations that will result in going off track.
Gilford makes startling statements that aim for effect. For example, he throws out the idea that film is not a visual medium. What he means, as I interpret him, is that even though we are looking at the visuals on screen, at the heart is the basic need to tell a story. One may be achieving it in a visual way, but without enticing storytelling, a film won’t amount to much. He doesn’t write in platitudes but defines elements that make a good story, and throughout he cites examples from a great number of films, of which he has extensive knowledge.
The author makes the point that structure has similar demands no matter the subject of a film. He also stresses the need for following a protagonist through a course of trying to get to a goal or solve a problem in life, whatever that goal or problem may be. The book is filled with this sort of practical advice from beginning a screenplay, completing it effectively through all the always necessary re-writes and then taking the steps to get the film made.
The reader will find such chapter headings as “Screenplays Are Not Written—They’re Built,” “Why Is the Story So Important to Your Hero?” and “If You Don’t Believe This Story, Who Will?” The book comes across as an excellent guide because of the comprehensiveness and clarity with which Gilford breaks down all the various elements. With his admirably frank style of writing (he could at times be a bit less pontificating) he manages to both make certain one committed to writing a screenplay is aware of all the pitfalls, yet at the same time to instill the courage and confidence necessary to inspire the person to forge ahead, complete the task and not give up or make the mistakes warned against.
One gleans the impression that Gilford knows what he is talking about. “Why Does the Screenwriter Cross the Road? and Other Screenwriting Secrets” is a valuable read and guide that would be a most useful text for screenwriting courses at film schools everywhere. Michael Wiese Productions. $24.95 U.S. A; $25.95 Canada. Reviewed June 2, 2015.