by Penny Jackson
Dialogue is what separates a screenplay from a play. I learned that lesson the difficult way when I took my first screenplay class in Los Angeles. There were two playwrights in the class, me and a lovely woman named Natalie, and the rest were screenplay writers. The teacher picked on the playwrights. “NO MONOLOGUES IN SCREENPLAYS!” he would yell at us when we submitted our scripts. “THERE IS WAY TOO MUCH DIALOGUE HERE LADIES! MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS SHUT UP AND USE THE CAMERA!!”
That was two years ago. Last April I had the opportunity to co-write a short screenplay with Melissa Skirboll who is also a playwright, screenplay writer and film director. We were adapting a short story of mine that was published in a literary magazine. At first, I wanted it to read as a play with dialogue and stage directions. Melissa and my film editor Evan Metzold showed me that many of my words could be visual images caught by the camera. Still, as a playwright, I was resistant. Okay, I was jealous of the camera. I wanted my words to rule the film, not a lens.
Well after at least twenty drafts, I learned I had to give up ownership. Yes, the story and the dialogue were important, but so were the images. We have one beautiful shot of the Manhattan skyline and a silent interaction between two characters and a rabbit at the end. The playwright in me would have shouted: speak at the end of the film! but the silence is so lovely and fills in so many gaps. Our film was a semi-finalist in a very competitive international film festival. And I’m proud to say that we were an all-female team from director, cinematographer, producer, assistant director and writers.
I asked fellow screenplay writers what they thought was a major difference between plays and screenplays. One mentioned that FENCES which works so beautifully in theater was just too talky on film and lost some of its dynamic power. With film it’s more what you see than what you say. Naomi McDougall Jones, one of my favorite female screenwriters, described the difference so poetically: “One of the things I love about screenwriting is the level of nuance and subtly you have available. I always think about the fact that an image of a teacup breaking, if lit right, with the right music underneath could be the moment of greatest drama, the turning point of your movie. “
I am currently preparing my play THE BATTLES OF RICHMOND HILL for a production at HERE Center for the Arts this April. And I have to admit I feel much more comfortable writing the script and working the director and actors. I don’t have to worry about sound or color or what cameras to use or which angle. I also don’t have to feed the crew which to me was one of the most intimidating parts of filmmaking. Try finding a restaurant opened at 11:30 in downtown Manhattan for a crew with so many food preferences. You don’t have to feed your crew in theater, and you can have regular hours. We shot MY DINNER WITH SCHWARTZEY from 3AM to 4PM for two day because the bar which was our setting had to get back to work by 4:30 pm. At least with theater there are regular hours.
I love a stage and how you can fill it with movement and words. Every single line of dialogue counts. In a film, if one line of dialogue isn’t perfect, the camera can cover it. A good editor can even make a bad performance good. You can’t hide in theater.
And then there’s the audience. I always say that an actor in a film doesn’t care if you’re laughing or crying. To me, to be applauding along with Mark Rylance dancing on stage is one of my greatest theatrical experiences.
But… I keep returning to but. Theater is ephemeral. Film is final. My play will last for twelve performances and unless someone publishes it the work will vanish. My words for MY DINNER WILL SCHWARTZEY will not disappear and we hope to continue to submit it to festivals for at least another year.
Will I write another screenplay? Maybe. I’m still nervous that my words will always be secondary to the cinematographer. The film editor. There are films I see at film festivals that are almost wordless. They can be powerful and provocative but the playwright in me desperately misses people speaking. Will I write another play? Absolutely yes.
I am a playwright who lives in New York City. My play, I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT, was chosen as one of the best plays produced in an off off Broadway theater. My play, SAFE, was produced at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Other plays have been produced in New York, Chicago and Seattle. I am a member of The Dramatists Guild and The League of Professional Theater Women.