Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bradbury, Ellison: Writing for the Screen

Last week I attended the Eaton Science Fiction Conference (which this year was combined with the Science Fiction Research Association conference) in Riverside, California, to present a paper on the screenwriting styles of Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.

The overall conference programme was ridiculously full, with seven simultaneous panels for most of the conference's three days. This is an amazing expansion since my first Eaton in 2008, which just had a single strand of panels.

My paper was part of a panel I had proposed on screenwriting. The paper title was "Screenwriting: Spectacle, Specificity and Speculative Fiction", and my intention was to illuminate the challenge of writing a screenplay for an imagined world, using examples from the scripts of Bradbury and Ellison to show two distinct strategies.

Bradbury tended to write non-technical scripts, resulting in a style of script which looks for all the world like a modern-day "spec script" - although he developed this style as early as the mid-1950s. Ellison, on the other hand, developed his craft in television in the early 1960s, in a time when it was common practice for the scriptwriter to write more or less in a shooting-script format, a style which is generally more prescriptive and more technical in terms of camera directions.

Over time, Bradbury's style became more and more simplified, and his scripts tend to read like very clear short stories. The heavy use of metaphor we often find in his short stories is largely absent, however, as he recognised how important it was to be unambiguous in describing a fantastical world in a screenplay. Ellison, on the other hand, developed a remarkable specificity in his scripts, which makes for some stunning visual concepts which challenge the director and production team to match his vision.

Time permitting, I intend to develop the paper for journal publication.

The other contributors to the panel were Julian Hoxter of San Francisco State University, author of Write What You Don't Know: An Accessible Manual for Screenwriters (New York: Continuum, 2011) and Michael Klein of James Madison University. Julian spoke on the emergence of the "spec script" format and its impact on action in blockbuster movies. Michael spoke on the mythos of Frankenstein as it developed in both Shelley's original novel and its first film adaptation. I learned a lot from both presentations, and appreciated both speakers' contribution to the panel.


Jack Seabrook said...

That sounds like an interesting paper and conference. I hope you'll post it on your site one day so we can read it.

Phil said...

Thanks, Jack. It's all part of my ongoing PhD research/writing, and will see the light of day one way or another. I have a longer version of the paper which I am preparing to send out to academic journals. I'm not going to publish it myself yet, because that might harm its publishability elsewhere.