Yves Lavandier • Screenwriter
by Camillo de Marco
17/07/2009 - Yves Lavandier studied film at Columbia University, New York, between 1983 and 1985. Miloš Forman, František Daniel, Stefan Sharf, Brad Dourif, Larry Engel, Melina Jelinek were among his teachers. During these two years he wrote and directed several shorts. He returned to France in 1985, directed a further short and embarked on a scriptwriting career mainly for television. In addition to his career as scriptwriter, he began to teach screenwriting throughout Europe and published a treatise on the subject, “Writing Drama”, now considered a bible amongst European scriptwriters and playwrights. In August and September 2000, he shot his first feature film as writer-director Yes, But....
Cineuropa: Do you think there exists a European tradition in cinematic narration that enables us to speak of “European cinema”? On the practical front, there are enormous difficulties: the numerous languages and lack of precise agreements on distribution keep many European films from circulating, even to bordering countries.
Yves Lavandier: What you call "cinematic narration" comprises several languages, of which the two main ones are dramatic story telling and film language. I strongly believe there are not thousands of ways to tell a story nor are there thousands of ways to place a camera and edit a series of shots. What varies are not the tools but the subject matters and since there is an infinity of combinations, there is an infinity of stories. The tradition for story telling comes partly from Europe : Greek, Latin, English, Italian, Spanish, French, Scandinavian, Russian, German plays, but also from a wider tradition of narrative. You can trace many fairy tale patterns in China or Africa. The film language has been invented and developed mainly in France, the USA, Russia and Germany. In any case, these languages are universal now. That explains why American and British TV series are so popular worldwide. The better they are written, the more they succeed.
American cinema also has a strong tradition of good writing. But it has a second powerful factor of attraction : the spectacular. When you put in a picture impressive stunts, original settings and costly special effects, you may dazzle people without needing a good story. Since Europe does not have much money, our main chance to make our films circulate is to write them well. It does work. Good Bye Lenin!, Festen, The Lives of Others [trailer, film focus], Life Is Beautiful, The Full Monty, Talk to Her [trailer], to name a few, have done very well outside their own countries. I also enjoyed very much The Green Butchers, Take My Eyes, Brassed Off, Waking Ned, Ferpect Crime, Dear Frankie. The secret is simple: a specific story, grounded into a specific setting and language, and told with universal narrative tools. It does not guarantee you will make a huge hit worldwide because success is a mysterious alchemy. I believe that what makes an idea, a religion or a work of art successful is not how apposite it is, or how perfect, but how much it acts as social glue at a given time. But using properly the tools of screenwriting will guarantee i- you make your point roundly, ii- it can travel and be received anywhere, iii- it can survive the ordeal of time.
Are European producers truly capable of evaluating a script?
No. Well, that's my spontaneous answer. Maybe I should not be so definite regarding cinemas I don't know enough about. At least I can tell you that French producers are not capable of evaluating a script. It's a terrible weakness. And on top of that, they are not willing to hire professional script doctors. After all, their main activity is to gather talents. If they don't know how to evaluate a script, at least they should ask professionals to do it for them. But they don't. First, they fool themselves in believing they are competent to evaluate a script. Second, they hate to make out a cheque. Now, let’s be honest, it isn’t entirely their fault. There are also plenty of writers who are not confident and open enough to welcome script doctoring.
By the way, thank you for using the verb "evaluate" instead of "read". That's one of the tragedies of scriptwriting. Since anyone can read their own mother tongue, people think anyone can read a screenplay. But, contrary to literature, drama is not written to be read. It's written to be incarnated visually, to be watched and listened to. Evaluating a script is a trade. There are rules. It demands competence. Not all people have it. And it can be taught.
Despite the fact that US cinema is undergoing a crisis and for many years has been showing its weakness (such as the lack of strong screenplays ideas), it continues to wield its enormous allure on us Europeans. You yourself studied film in the US, at Columbia University. What do you think of the fact that American gurus such as John Truby or Robert McKee are invited to hold screenwriting lessons for hundreds of students when we have wonderful European screenwriters who could do the same?
That's an excellent question! I think there are many reasons for it. First, I want to say that the two theorists you are mentioning, John Truby and Robert McKee, have a lot of good things to say. I don't always agree with their theories but they are definitely stimulating. Second, they have devised a very effective show. Somehow simplistic but effective. It's the easy way out for many decision-makers : sit in their classes for three days and believe they've understood it all. Do you know who became the most rich during the gold rush era? The pickaxe sellers. Truby and McKee are great pickaxe sellers. And many people are fooled. Again, I'm not saying that what they deliver is untrue or useless. On the contrary. I'm just saying it's not enough to learn story telling. It's one thing to understand three days of theory, it's another thing to learn how to evaluate a script or converse wisely with a writer. It takes time, skill and practice.
Aren't you a pickaxe seller yourself ?
Of course. And a gold digger too. I’m also a screenwriter and a director. But, as a pickaxe seller I don’t think I am as shrewd as others. Because I keep telling people it's not easy to use my pickaxes, as effective as they are, and it mainly depends on what you have in your concession. I’d rather favour hope over illusion. I don't tell the decision-makers: "come sit in my class and you'll be legit". A third reason for the situation you exposed might be that no man is a prophet in his own country. A fourth that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. A fifth that we trust the Americans more in terms of story telling than the Europeans. I understand this latter position. When you watch most French films, you are not inclined to think a Frenchman can teach you how to tell a story. All this would be of little importance if the American gurus were open to other cultures. But they keep on quoting American films, always the same ones. There is a lot to learn from an Iranian movie like Where's the Friend's Home? or the great Italian comedies from the 60s and 70s. I am very grateful to William Archer, Walter Kerr, Lajos Egri and Edward Mabley who opened my mind to theatrical examples. And also to Frantisek Daniel who taught me screenwriting in the USA with his Czech sensibility.
Can you make a good film by saving on the screenplay? Mark McIlrath wrote of your book Writing Drama: "If everyone knew the contents of this book, we'd be producing better scripts and better films, with less time and money wasted, and many fewer frustrated writers, producers and, most of all, spectators". David Mamet says that most producers consider professional screenwriters thieves.
I rather think it's the other way around. Considering the little amount of money that is put into screenwriting and script doctoring, especially in continental Europe, most screenwriters consider producers thieves. And sometimes even frauds. What Mark McIlrath said of Writing Drama is very nice but please don't take my book for a magic wand. It's a matter of statistics. Also, what counts in his quote is the word "knew". When Eugene O'Neill stated that the only ones who can successfully break the rules are the people who know them he was referring not to those who know them and understand them simply in theory, having read a good book or followed a McKee seminar, he was referring to those who know them in practice. Now to go back to the first part of your question, I think capitalizing on the screenplay is the best bet. Provided you are into narrative cinema. If you are into experimental cinema, obviously, the script as a story telling tool is not a major issue. To capitalize on the screenplay will not guarantee a masterpiece or/and a hit every time. But it is the best bet. Producers should be better investors.
What do you think of film schools, and in general of how scriptwriting is taught, in Europe? Should cultural institutions invest more in screenplay development?
Twenty-five years ago, there were a few people in Europe who would pretend you cannot teach screenwriting. Very funny. Screenwriting was the only human activity known on Earth that could not be taught. Or that needed not to be taught. That's probably why so many people tried to make it in the movies. At last a trade which you don't have to spend years learning! Today we know: screenwriting is like any other human activity. It can be taught and there are rules. It's not argued about anymore. We have also understood that there are different ways of learning, conscious and unconscious, and that school might be a wise option, although not the only one. Screenwriting is taught more today in Europe than it was twenty-five years ago. And it’s great.
Of course, the rejection of rules is not dead. It has muted into another form of resistance, namely a fear of uniformity. The argument runs as follows: there are indeed rules and they can be taught—since you insist—but they are harmful as they are bound to lead to a conveyor-belt production process of works that all look the same. It has to be admitted that a certain uniformity can be detected, particularly in movies made in Hollywood, but I am by no means convinced that this is due to the greater importance attributed to the screenplay over the past 25 years. If a degree of uniformity has indeed arisen, this is more probably due to the lack of daring displayed by certain decision-makers and the lack of creativity and personality among certain screenwriters. Giving the screenplay its proper due can also lead to works such as Festen, No Man's Land or The Lives of Others. How can we speak of uniformity faced with films such as these?
So, yes, cultural institutions should invest more in screenplay development. Screenwriting is our only chance to reclaim the storytelling agenda from the Americans, to take control of the stories through which we confront and interpret our own reality, instead of using Hollywood ones. When will politicians and decision-makers understand that? When will they see the obvious, that fiction is an extraordinary cultural agent? Not only the writers should be trained but the people who teach writing should be adequately trained. Also the people who choose should be trained. In Europe, there are numerous boards and commissions who choose which projects or which writers should be funded. Unfortunately, their members evaluate scripts mainly with their gut feelings. If you are a producer and you are going to spend 2 years of your personal life on a project, gut feeling and subjectivity are OK. You need to fall in love with the project. But if you just spend three hours on a script and you have a momentary right of life and death over it, you should use more objective methods than your gut feelings. Or else have the honesty not to sit in the board.
What advice can you give to the many young people who write to Cineuropa.org for information on where to begin a screenwriting career?
I would advise them to write, go to school, write, read a few good screenwriting books, write, go to the movies, write, read great screenplays and above all write. Then I would advise them to rewrite. We all know the famous motto: writing is rewriting. Nothing can be truer. You may know that the Frenchman Nicolas Boileau wrote in 1674 : "Make haste slowly; do not be discouraged, but return to the work frequently. Rewrite it again and again, sometimes adding, often slimming down." The Europeans knew the rules before the Americans appropriated them. Thirdly, I would advise young writers to have their scripts read. This is paramount. Even if not all readers are good script doctors, far from it, a writer needs external feedback. To summarize: write, learn the rules, rewrite and have your writing read.
And to producers ? To script doctors ?
To producers, I would say: Learn the screenwriting trade from inside. If you want to coach tennis players, you need to know how it feels to hit the ball. Nobody is asking you to be a great player, just to know the rules in practice and not only in theory. Or else hire script doctors. Not a fellow producer or a director friend of yours, a real, professional script doctor. To script doctors, I would give several pieces of advice: 1. write scripts; 2. see the text as a work in progress, imagine the oak behind the acorn; 3. make a clear distinction in yourself, when approaching a script, between symptoms, diagnosis and prescription; 4. accentuate the positive. Before receiving something to chew over, a writer needs to hear he’s got good teeth.
Your book is a veritable goldmine. It not only includes theories, advice and information, it is also a book on film passion. Filmgoers should also read it, to better understand the films they see. Addicted to television, audiences often demand the same rhythms and standards of TV series. Do screenwriters have to comply with these changes?
Thank you for your kind words on Writing Drama. Although a book like mine strips the magic of narrative, I think it can be read by anyone interested in film and not only professionals. I have often been asked whether a spectator can continue to enjoy plays, films or comic books with freshness of vision once he knows all the tricks and techniques of drama. The answer is a very categorical Yes, he can. When I first saw Life Is Beautiful I laughed and was moved to tears, and only afterwards, after I had fully experienced it, did I realise that it had marvellous payoffs. When I see the ending of City Lights again even for the 15th time I never fail to be moved. However much my head tells me that such and such a scene is the resolution of a dramatic irony, my heart is wrung and I cry. However, it is highly likely that an understanding of narrative techniques makes the spectator more demanding, harder to please. When a piece of drama works, it affects all spectators in much the same way. When it doesn’t work, the trained eye is better able to identify and understand its weaknesses.
The quality of Anglo-Saxon TV series is obviously another challenge for screenwriters. It's a challenge set by fellow screenwriters. If not for the talent of David Chase, Marc Cherry or Matt Groening, we would not be ashamed of our own continental TV fictions. I would not call the advent of well-written TV series a change. It's rather an invitation to write better. It does not mean that film writers have to adopt the speed of 24 or Desperate Housewives. In TV, writers, producers and broadcasters are very much afraid of the remote control. In film, from the moment people are in the theatre, we have a bit of time to grab them into a nice story. We can pause once in a while. We can add subtleties to the narrative. Maybe I should not say that. Writers will think they don't need to improve.