Dissertation Pathway: Screenwriting
Project Title: Redfield
For my dissertation project this year I opted to take the screenwriting pathway to write a thirty five page screenplay based on my own original idea. My screenplay will be a television pilot script instead of a short film script that is set in the fictional county of Redfield, Texas in the year 1907. This period is the decline of the American Old West where the frontier lifestyle is dying out and is being slowly replaced by new technologies such as automobiles, machine guns and oil rigging projects. Obviously the genre for my dissertation project is a Western so I have elected to focus on the film theory of genre criticism to analyse and discuss the informed choices that have gone into my project thus far. Furthermore I will also briefly touch upon feminist film theory in relation to one of the female characters in my script and the film theory of realism and how that relates to the historical realism in which has informed my creative decisions when researching for and writing my screenplay.
One of the reasons why I chose to write a Western was because the visual iconography and narrative tropes commonly associated with the genre are immediately recognisable to a mass audience. This is a notion Etherington-Wright and Doughty acknowledge in their book (2011:27) in which they talk about how the visual imagery of a film poster in marketing alone can communicate volumes to the audience about what type of genre the film poster they are looking at is advertising. The visual iconography present in my script that one can immediately associate with the Western are rifles, horses, sheriffs and deputies, outlaws, saloons, bank robberies, violence and ranches to name but a few. Even though I think that this strong imagery will help to fully establish that the setting of my story is a Western, visual iconography isn’t the only way in which an audience can identify different genres.
Ed Buscombe argues that describing the Western genre is more than just being able to identify it’s visual iconography as that isn’t the definitive thing of what Westerns are about (1995:15) and that the visual conventions just provide a context in which to tell certain types of stories. This is true in the sense that a film’s narrative is also another way of identifying what genre a film, or in my case television series, falls into. Many genres have typical formulaic plots that immediately tell you what genre the film you’re watching could fall into. Etherington-Wright and Doughty (2011:23) touch upon this in relation to the typical formulaic plots prevalent in musicals and horror films. For my dissertation, I’ve taken several tropes commonly found in Westerns such as the revenge scenario, bank robberies, and bounty hunting and used them as plot devices to help me tell a larger story about the decline of the American frontier and the advent of modernisation.
Westerns are also well known for their singular focus on masculinity and on male heroes. For my pilot script, I did not want to just focus on male characters as I also wanted to explore female characters and women’s identity in the Old West too. In her essay, Sarah Berry-Flint describes women as representing “civilisation in the classic western” and that their roles within any given classic western story must be marginal (2003:31). In my script however I elected to write a female character that has her own degree of agency and her own narrative arc to follow in her hunt for an outlaw who killed her mother. I think in today’s cultural climate, where there is the debate in Hollywood around diversity and gender pay equality, having a multi-layered female character in a genre which has been traditionally male-centric would add a degree of contemporary relevance to my story.
In relation to realism, André Bazin endorses Westerns as an idealised version of historical reality (1972:142) and that even though most Westerns are hardly historically accurate, the myth behind Western stories have existed in American folklore since before the dawn of cinema, adding a sense of cultural realism so to speak. Realism has always been on my mind when writing my screenplay as I did not want my story to be a highly stylised and unrealistic take on a Western, like films such as Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012) or Wild Wild West (Sonnenfield, 1999), both films which take the Western genre and deliver a fresh take on it with different elements. Instead I wanted my screenplay to evoke a grounded approach to the Western mythos, similar to the hit television show Deadwood.
This involved extensive research into how people in Texas spoke, the socio-economic status of various professions of society, the legal proceedings back then involving bounty hunting as well as the different weapons, tools and modes of transportation available in 1907 among other things. This comprehensive research I felt was necessary in order to tell my story with the degree of grounded realism that I wanted.
In my endeavours to achieve a sense of realism in my script I came across an issue early on in my writing process with the language of my characters. I had elected to use some of the vernacular that was spoken during the period in which my script was set but was also using language used in contemporary society that people today would instantly recognise and as a result I had a conflict of cadence in the way in which my characters spoke. To rectify this I elected to rewrite all of my character’s dialogue so that the language largely reflects how people speak today as I feel that would be more accessible to a contemporary audience. As a result my script could fall under the scope of being a revisionist western in the sense that it is historically accurate in some parts and not in others. This was an approach that was adopted by Deadwood in which David Milch, the show’s creator, opted to write his characters using current day profanity rather than the type of profanity actually used by Americans in 1876, mainly because the actual profanity they used wouldn’t carry the same impact on audiences that current day profanity would have (Nunberg, 2008).
In conclusion, there have been several film theories that have informed my choices in regards to my approach to writing my pilot script for my dissertation and I feel that by paying particular attention to how each of them can influence my story creatively, it has helped me develop my script into something stronger.
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Bazin, A. 1972. “The Western or the American Film Par Excellence.” In What is Cinema? Vol. II. Ed. Hugh Gray. Berkeley. University of California Press.
Buscombe, E. 1995. “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema.” In Film Genre Reader II. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Deadwood: The Ultimate Collection. (2007) [DVD]. Paramount Home Entertainment.
Django Unchained, 2012 [Film] Directed by Quentin Tarantino. USA. The Weinstein Company.
Etherington-Wright, C and Doughty, R. 2011. Understanding Film Theory: Theoretical and Critical Perspectives. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Miller, T. and Stam, R. (eds.) 2003 A Companion to Film Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Nichols, B. 1976 Movies and Methods: Vol I. Berkeley. University of California Press.
Nunberg, G. 2008 The Language of Blogs. Available at: http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/deadwood.html (Accessed 28 February 2016)
Wild Wild West, 1999 [Film] Directed by Barry Sonnenfield. USA. Warner Bros.