Sunday, October 09, 2005

I'm not a fiction writer. I'm barely a fiction reader. For ten years, I never opened a novel. So when I decided to try my hand at scriptwriting, I expected a challenge. A blank piece of paper is a serious thing, and it's easier to tell a story than to make one up.

I decided to begin with dialogue. It's the first thing I hear as a viewer; and as a musician and composer, it's the natural start. The rhythms flow, even where I don't yet see the story. I know where I want to hit; I know where I hear anticipations and syncopations. I feel the cadences. The story, I'll find.

In real life, people speak myriad ways. You wouldn't confuse a Brooklyn Jew with an Alabama redneck or a homeboy from South Central. A writer could break his neck trying to contort himself around the dialects heard over a lunch counter. So I asked myself, Do I want to sound authentic? Is that the reputation I want?

The simplest way to answer what I want for myself was to examine what I admire in others. If you scalpel the lines from Oleanna and toss them in a hat, you'd never be able to determine, from style alone, which were spoken by a 20-year-old student and which belonged to a 40-something professor. But they all scream David Mamet. Ditto for Aaron Sorkin's scripts from The West Wing: Every line bleeds Sorkin, but a married woman speaks no differently from a college freshman. And then there are my roots. Brookmeyer shapes his lines carefully, deliberately, and every one sounds like him. But he doesn't write trombone lines for trombones and trumpet lines for trumpets. He writes music, and it's his own.

The most fun book I ever read was The Big Sleep. I'd be lying if I claimed the plot was ingenious or the characters compelling; but reading as a writer, every line slid like butter. It's old stuff, stuff slung by Bogart and Bergman and Gable and Bacall. On any list of writers I admire, whose dialogue I'd emulate, Raymond Chandler ranks alongside Mamet. And when he writes a speech, it's gold no matter whose glove it lands in.

So I decided: No, I'm not aiming for authenticity. I'm not scripting a documentary. I could give a damn, somebody thinks I wrote the real McCoy. What I want is a stamp, a consistent measure by which my pen becomes recognizable. I hear Bill Evans from the moment he lifts a hammer -- Miles, from the first press of a valve. What I want: a drawer slams, a heel clicks on the sidewalk -- someone says, "I know that sound."


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