Friday, 17 May 2019

Women who wrote Westerns

It is a well-known fact that few women have become directors, that it has overwhelmingly been something for men, that for decades the number of directors who were women could be counted almost on the fingers of your hand. That began to change in the 1970s, and while there are still more men than women on average, things are nowhere near as bad as it was in the 1930s to the 1960s. However, there were many women directors (and even more writers) in the early days of cinema, the early silent period. The two most well-known are Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blaché, and there were many others beside them, in Hollywood and across the world. But the focus for this article is Hollywood. There, Universal Pictures, to name just one studio, had up to nine women under contract as directors in the 1910s. Weber was one of them before she started her own studio. Some were actresses who either also began directing, or had such control over their films that whoever was the director had less say than the star. But then they all disappeared when sound came, with the exception of Dorothy Arzner. That disappearance is an important story. But just because women disappeared as directors does not mean that women disappeared from filmmaking.

Those who follow my writing and my research knows that two American filmmaker I have paid particular attention to are George Sherman and Henry Hathaway. There are many reasons for this, besides me liking their films, and one is that few others have paid much attention to them, especially not to Sherman, so whatever I found out about them I had to do on my own. One thing I noticed was that several of their Westerns were written by women. I did not go any further with it at the time, as my focus was on the directors, but it was obvious that I needed to come back to that. Now I have. Amazingly, hundreds of Westerns during the decades in which they reigned (1930s to the 1960s) were written by women. Women such as Elizabeth Beecher, Adele Buffington, Elizabeth Burbridge, Olive Cooper, Karen DeWolf, Frances Guihan, Patricia Harper, Lillie Hayward, Frances Kavanaugh, Doris Schroeder, Luci Ward, Marguerite Roberts and Leigh Brackett. Almost all these women are unknown today, and they were unknown beyond their peers when they were active too. In this they are like most men who were "only" writers and never became directors. Film history is much like marketing in that respect, almost all attention is given to stars and to directors, with some notable exceptions. This is not unreasonable, directors and stars may be considered the most influential people on set and are the people most likely to shape films and filmmaking, and also those that are most visible for the audience at large. But they are not alone on set and among these other creative individuals you can find many women. Even in Westerns.

Scholars, critics and historians usually try to describe any given genre in a precise way, with definitions that are said to be true for the genre as a whole, but invariably it never is. Most, maybe all, genres are too large and unruly, contain too many films and too many variations for you to be able to say anything about them in general other than the most vague and general statements, something tautologous such as "musicals are films with musical numbers in them". This is certainly the case with Westerns too, of which thousands have been made for over a hundred years, many of which are not even set in the West. Westerns are traditionally considered the height of masculinity, the most male-focused genre, and for this reason alone it is of interest that so many of those who wrote them were women. But it is also worth pointing out that histories and theories about the Western are focused on a small sample-pack, and one that primarily consists of the known masterpieces and classics. They vary a lot among themselves, but they are also in the minority among the large number of Westerns that were made each year. Most of these have never entered the canon and are rarely discussed or acknowledged. But for the average viewer in the 1930s and possible in the 1940s too, these now forgotten films were most likely the kind of Western they would watch, and these would often be written by one or several women. Many of these Westerns were part of series, such as films about the Three Mesquiteers, or the Rough Riders, or Gene Autry's Singing Cowboy, which has also helped ensure that they are almost invisible for critics and historians today.

With so many writers and so many films it will of course not be possible to say more than the bare minimum in a piece such as this one, a book is needed to cover the subject. I know that Luci Ward co-wrote Black Bart, Highwayman (George Sherman 1948) and Karen DeWolf wrote Silver Lode (Allan Dwan 1954) and both films are very interesting, and very good, and on their merits alone I would like to know more about Ward and DeWolf. Leigh Brackett is the most famous one, especially for her partnership with Howard Hawks, writing several of his best films, alone or in collaboration. She is also famous for writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner 1980). Here is some information about a few of the less famous ones:

Yvonne De Carlo as Lola Montez in Black Bart

Adele Buffington was probably the most influential of them since she was one of the founders of the Screen Writers Guild and later an anti-communist hunter as aggressive as senator Joe McCarthy. Between 1919 and 1958 she wrote around 150 different films, sometimes under pseudonyms like Jesse Bowers and Colt Remington. She was born in 1900 and worked as an usher for a while before selling her first script in 1919. She was then discovered by Thomas H. Ince, one of the most highly regarded filmmakers at the time, and wrote for him. She was not just writing Westerns, West of Singapore (1933) for example (co-written with Elizabeth Meehan) is set on a ship sailing the waters of where you would expect from the title, and The Keeper of the Bees (1935) is about a soldier returning from the trenches of World War 1, suffering from what is today known as PTSD. But mainly her films were stand-alone Westerns or series such as the films about the U.S. Marshal Nevada Jack McKenzie.

Betty Burbridge was equally prolific and also primarily a Western writer. She wrote some of the films about the Three Mesquiteers and she also wrote many of Gene Autry's films. Her career in film began as an actor, under her full name Elizabeth Burbridge, and in 1917 she began writing scripts. She also had a newspaper column under the pen-name Prudence Penny Jr. When TV had its major breakthrough in the 1950s she transitioned, with Gene Autry, to that format, writing for a handful of Western shows before she retired.

Gene Autry, with whom Burbridge was associated, was one the of the biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s, and his films among the most popular each year. The audience for their films is said to be evenly balanced between men and women, and women did play important parts in them as self-sufficient characters. I am curious about films such as Colorado Sunset (George Sherman 1939), written by Burbridge, Luci Ward and two men, in which the women of the town seem to be in control of things.

Frances Kavanaugh was sometimes referred to as "Cowgirl of the Typewriter". She was born in Texas and lived her early life on the ranch. She wrote many films for Monogram Pictures, and she also helped create the popular hero Cheyenne Davis, aka "Lash" LaRue, dressed in black and carrying a bullwhip. (He was an inspiration for Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford was allegedly trained by Alfred LaRue). She wrote some 35 scripts, and almost all the films she wrote were directed by Robert Emmet Tansey.

Lillie Hayward did, unlike the three mentioned above, combined writing B-Westerns with writing more prestigious films, or at least A-films, including the great noir Western Blood on the Moon (Robert Wise 1948), one of Darryl F. Zanuck's horse films, My Friend Flicka (Harold D. Schuster 1943), and a fine Western directed by Michael Curtiz, The Proud Rebel (1958). At the end of her career she wrote for Disney. She wrote some 80 scripts.

Marguerite Roberts was also a writer of more prestigious films. She was also something of the antithesis to Buffington, as Roberts was a victim of the anti-communism scandal and became one of the blacklisted. She had joined her husband in the American communist party in 1949, when the party was Stalinist, but it seems Roberts was not a revolutionary herself. But she had a progressive touch and wrote Escape (Mervyn LeRoy 1940), one of the few anti-Nazi films made before 1941. She also wrote several Westerns, such as Henry Hathaway's three last ones: 5 Card Stud (1968), True Grit (1969) and Shoot Out (1971). She wrote some 35 scripts.

The argument here is not that women only wrote Westerns; the argument is that it is an interesting fact that so many Westerns were written by women. I wonder if this was the only genre where such a large proportion were written by women. Another argument, which I frequently make, is that even with Hollywood filmmaking, the most heavily researched area of film history, we have still so much to learn and explore. These women and these films do by themselves undermine a lot of conventional history about Hollywood, genres and gender.

A final caveat. Credits for screenwriting are often unreliable. Take The Proud Rebel for example. It was based on a story by James Edward Grant, and written by Joseph Petracca and Lillie Hayward. But to whom should we credit the film? All of them? None of them, in case Curtiz was primarily responsible for the script as well as the direction. Maybe Petracca wrote more or less all of it, and Hayward is credited because Curtiz brought her along as a script doctor (they had worked together before). Or maybe Hayward wrote most of it. I have no idea.

When I said "Darryl F. Zanuck's horse films" above I meant it. He produced or initiated several similar films, such as My Friend Flicka, partly inspired by his love of horses. One fine example is Home in Indiana (Henry Hathaway 1944).

There should be a blu-ray double-feature of Ophüls's Lola Montès (1955) and Black Bart.

While I have found no books about the topic of this article, here are related ones that were useful:

Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood by Lizzie Francke

The Silent Feminists: America's First Women Directors by Anthony Slide

Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, edited by Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight

Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, edited by Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson

And Columbia University's website Women Film Pioneers Project:

Friday, 3 May 2019

The Nun's Story (1959)

In an earlier post about late style and last films I mentioned Fred Zinnemann and The Nun’s Story (1959). Since it is such an exceptional film I want to discuss it more.

It is about Gabrielle van der Mal, a Belgian woman who in 1930 decides to enter a convent and to try to become a nun. The process of being introduced into the life of the convent, of becoming a nun, is the focus of the first section of the film. The film begins with her saying goodbye to her siblings and then her father drives her to the convent. After they too have said goodbye she, together with several other young women, are taken through a door which is then locked behind them. They have now moved from a secular space to a religious space, a space which is almost treated as if it was a prison. From the closing of that door, which happens eleven minutes into the film, follows 35 minutes of all the procedures that a woman has to go through in order to become a nun. First they change clothes, then there is an introductory prayer and then the schooling begins. Learning how to be silent and use specific signs in order to communicate, learning obedience to the bell, how to write down imperfections, learning how to achieve complete detachment from their former life, learning how to walk, getting the hair cut, and moving from one set of clothes to another, as the women go from postulate to novice and from novice to nun. Finally, after several years, Gabrielle van der Mal has moved through all of these stages and is welcomed into the congregation and given her name as a nun, Sister Luke. Then the Reverend Mother tells her that ‘Tomorrow you will leave for the School of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp.’ and by that scene the first part of the film is over, around one third of the length of the film. (The second part is about her life as a nun, first in Belgium and then in the Congo, filmed on location and those locations include an actual leper colony.)

This first part, which is concentrated on procedure, is also to a large extent silent. There is hardly any dialogue, and the music come only in a few brief spurts. It is not completely impersonal; on a few occasions it is shown how Gabrielle fails to follow the rules. She might be late, or walk too fast, or being unwilling to leave a patient when the bell tolls, even though she must. So the interior struggle which is at core of the film is there from the start. But in this first part it is not the focus, it is the rituals themselves that are in focus.

This is also true for the very last sequence of the film, in which Sister Luke returns to being Gabrielle van der Mal. She has asked to be allowed to quit and permission has been granted. In the end she walks into a room with Reverend Mother and a representative from the Archbishop. She is asked to sign a document (three copies of it) and then she is to walk into an empty room where her old clothes are. She changes clothes, removes her religious symbols and insignia and the she rings on a bell. A door opens and she walks out of the door and away. There is no music and the camera dispassionately observes as she walks further and further away from the door, moving from the religious space back into the secular. She eventually turns right, after a slight hesitation, and the words ‘The End’ appears. It is a sequence, and ending, of rare perfection; emotionally and artistically.


To return to the first part of the film; it was not in the book the film is based on, written by Kathryn Hulme and based on the experiences of a friend of hers (Robert Anderson wrote the fine script), and neither is it something that enhances the telling of the story (which on a basic level is about a woman who becomes a nun and then finds it is too difficult and quits). Yet it is exactly this section, and later, similar ones, that makes the film what it is, and is what specifically signals that it is a film directed by Zinnemann. Gabrielle van der Mal has to make a profound decision, whether to be true to her conscience or to remain where she is and not cause any trouble, so that recurring theme of Zinnemann is present, but it is the style of which the film is told that is most explicitly Zinnemannian. The long sequence on the procedure by which one becomes a nun, before Sister Luke’s interior battle begins, is not for the sake of storytelling but for the sake of an investigation into the heart of the convent, and the rituals that the nuns perform. This is a key aspect of Zinnemann's art, wanting to know, and wanting to show, how something is done. It forms a link to his early documentaries. But the film could also be discussed as transcendental, in Paul Schrader's sense.

The Nun’s Story is the first film that is made in Zinnemann’s late style, in which the narrative moves slowly and is interspersed with contemplative images of trees, statues, clouds and such. That is a change from the more brisk and efficient style of storytelling that Zinnemann used earlier, but which had begun to loosen up over time. The Nun’s Story is 150 minutes, longer than any of his earlier films except Oklahoma! (1955), a musical which do not really count here as it is so different in many ways. These later films are longer and slower but not because they contain more information or events but because they are told in a different style, more contemplative; a style which from now on would be his usual one. This stage in Zinnemann's oeuvre is rarely discussed but it is one of the great treasures of world cinema.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Easter break and future plans

I decided to allow myself an Easter break, partly to have some vacation and partly to think ahead of what I might want to do here on the blog.

The primary focus for now is Anatole Litvak, whom I am exploring and researching. There will also be some attention later on to Ida Lupino and Muriel Box; and Hollywood financial and box office developments in the 1970s.

These are all topics that have been brewing for a while and now I want to take them further, and see what I end up with. I will hopefully do something on the unmade films of Hasse Ekman as well, but whether that finds its way to the blog remains to be seen. And I have promised Self-Styled Siren to write something about Mauritz Stiller without Garbo. When I do it will definitely end up here.

I would also like to do something on Australian films prior to its New Wave in the 1970s, maybe in connection with the late films of Michael Powell. Check in here two weeks from now and see what I will begin with!

Friday, 5 April 2019

The Pillow Book (1996)

As a fresh, young cinephile in the early 1990s I was convinced that Peter Greenaway was where the art of cinema peaked. The late 1980s/early 1990s was a special time in British cinema, with Derek Jarman, Ken Loach, Neil Jordan, Mike Leigh, James Ivory, Gillies MacKinnon, Greenaway and others doing steady work. Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I (1987) and Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983) should also be mentioned, and Sally Potter's Orlando (1992). Into that I grew up, calm in my peculiar understanding of Greenaway's pre-eminence. What I based this understanding on is unclear because I had not seen any of his films, that came later and then I was somewhat underwhelmed by them. But one I really liked, The Pillow Book (1996), and I decided to return to it this week. I find is as dazzling and marvellous now as when I first saw it. (I also really like Nightwatching (2007), Greenaway's film about Rembrandt.)

The arc of Greenaway's career moves from being an art student to making documentaries for Central Office of Information (COI), a part of the British government, and then in 1980 to make his first feature film, the massive undertaking The Falls. While he has the very distinct appearance and voice of an Englishman his filmmaking has since then usually been global in outlook and theme, and there is a strong Dutch connection. The Pillow Book is set in Japan and Hong Kong and inspired by a 10th century book called The Pillow Book, a collection of essays, poems, thoughts and impressions by Sei Shōnagon, who was a court lady in Kyoto. The film though is set mainly in 1997 (so it is set in the future with regard to when it was made).

The main character in the film is Nagiko, played by Vivian Wu. She is a woman addicted to calligraphy, especially calligraphy written on her own body, and is in search of someone who will be as good a calligrapher as a lover. Such a person is hard to find, and she looks both in Japan and Hong Kong, where she gets a job at a fashion house. She befriends an English guy, Jerome, played by Ewan McGregor, who works for a book publisher. He is also the publisher's lover but Nagiko and Jerome become lovers just the same, and writers on each other's skin, before jealousy tear them apart.

As usual with Greenaway, it is not the story that is the important part of the film. It is about ideas and about art, about looking and creating, about texture, about desire of various kinds, about sex and death and the naked body. In an interview when the film was released, Greenaway said "French intellectuals have criticized the film, saying The Pillow Book is not a film, it is a CD-Rom. I could think of no higher compliment." and this refers to the style of the film. There are layers of texts, screens, quotes and calligraphy; the dialogue involves at least four different languages (Japanese, Chinese, English and French); it changes from colour to black and white and back again; the frame changes in size and scope from one scene to another; still images and moving images appear simultaneously in the frame; and music, words and images complement or contradict each other all the time, creating something that aims to be uniquely cinematic, at least as Greenaway conceives of it. He is usually dismissive of conventional filmmaking as being insufficiently cinematic, and has named Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais 1961) as a rare example of what he wants to see in film, something completely abstract and removed from written text. The cinematographer of Marienbad, Sacha Vierny, also shot Pillow Book and several of Greenaway's other films. We do not have to accept Greenaway's narrow idea of what is good or what is cinematic, but instead take great pleasure in experiencing how he puts all of his ideas into this film and creates an incredibly rich, provocative and beautiful conceptual work, a sort of narrative collage. It is a film to be experienced rather than talked about.

Greenaway however does like to talk, and the quote above is from an interesting interview he did for BOMB Magazine. You can read it all here.


Greenaway's filmmaking career has been interspersed with art installations, paintings, operas and other kinds of art works and in some ways it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of him together with artists like David Hockney or Lucian Freud than with other filmmakers. But we need not create these boundaries between the arts. The Pillow Book is a film which breaks down all boundaries between arts, cultures, texts, images, times, languages and bodies, and that should be an inspiration. In a way, as the world today seems to be increasingly about walls, barriers, tribalism and intolerance, there is something refreshingly politically radical in Greenaway's project here.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Screenwriting manuals and three-act structures

When it comes to screenwriting manuals the rule "if you've read one, you've read them all" is close to being true, especially since 1979 when Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting was first published. (And later revised and updated regularly until 1995.) There had been manuals before Field but he opened the floodgates, as it coincided with general changes in filmmaking praxis in Hollywood (to which most of these manuals are aimed) that made it easier for outsiders to sell their scripts. Almost all screenwriting manuals that have been published after Field are saying more or less the same as Field does in his book. This includes such books as David Trottier's The Screenwriter's Bible: a Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting and Selling Your Script (1994, last edition 2014); Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1998); Neill D. Hicks's Screenwriting 101: The Essential Craft of Feature Film Writing (1999); Michael Tierno's Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters (2002); David Howard's How to Build a Great Screenplay (2004) and Writing Movies: a Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School (2008). Some are better and some are worse than Field in terms of how they say what they say, but they are close to interchangeable with regards to what they say. The films discussed are the same, the advice given is the same, the terminology likewise and almost all adhere to the basic three-act structure. All name-check Aristotle and Joseph Campbell.

Field is often criticised for the three-act structure which he popularised and made almost ubiquitous. It is sometimes claimed he invented it but that is not the case, it had been around for decades, if not centuries. William Archer discussed it in his book Play-Writing (1912) for what might be the first time in the modern era. (See end note.) Some think the three-act structure might be relevant for mainstream blockbusters but not other kinds of films, or that the structure is even the opposite of art, which is supposedly free from all rules and structures. But this is not Field's view.

Field describes the three acts for a two-hour film like this: act 1 should be the first 30 minutes and end with a turning point, act 2 is the following 60 minutes and also ends with a turning point and act 3 is the last 30 minutes. According to him, this is the basis (or, in his word, "paradigm") for all forms of storytelling, not just mainstream blockbusters. In his book he speaks of how Jean Renoir mentored him, he speaks of his friendship with Sam Peckinpah, and how they both inspired him, and he is as happy using the films of Michelangelo Antonioni as examples for how to create characters and story as he is of using Rocky (John G. Avildsen 1976) or The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer 1995). Field further claims that even our lives follow this structure. Unfortunately, he is unconvincing. "Birth? Life? Death? Isn't that a beginning, middle, and end?" he says (p. 29). It is, but how is this comparable to a film, unless he had been arguing that the three acts of a film are the opening shot, the film and the last shot (or end credits)? A more accurate comparison with life would be childhood, adulthood, and retirement, or something like that. But best would be not to place the three-act structure on life at all. Field then says "Spring, summer, fall, and winter - isn't that a beginning, middle, and end?" No, it is not. It is a circular event, with no end and no beginning. And it is four acts, not three. "Morning, afternoon, and evening. It's always the same, but different." He seems to have forgotten night. I will say more on three-act structures further down but suffice to say now that Field's book is surprisingly underwhelming in its structure and arguments, considering its fame, and a good editor would have removed the many repetitions and redundancies that fill the book. He has his moments but there are other manuals that are better, both in terms of the writing and of the richness of the examples.


As I said, the advice these books give are more or less the same. Writing Movies for example has this to say: 
Once you know the most important conflict of a scene, you can apply a key screenwriting technique: Enter a scene late and leave it early. Start the scene not when the conflict is brewing on the horizon, but - bam! - right when it's staring us in the face, maybe even when it has already reached fever pitch. End the scene as soon as that conflict has been resolved, and not a moment later. (p. 165, italics in original)
Trottier and others (including William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983)) say the exact same thing and it can be good advice. But not as a rule. Only when it improves a scene. Sometimes it is the build-up in the scene that makes the scene. This is one of the things that is frustrating with these books, the certainty with which things are said. "This is how you must do." or "In all films this is how it is done." But they are usually wrong in their firm proclamations. McKee is especially keen on nailing down opinions. He says for example that every scene should change something for the characters or, to quote, and with his italics, "No scene that doesn't turn. This is our ideal." (p. 36) This is not how scenes or films work. There are many kinds of scenes, some involve changes for the characters and some do not. There are comic interludes, there are pauses after something dramatic has happened, there are scenes of characters relaxing, scenes when vital information for the audience is given but without changing anything for the characters, and so on. Such scenes "do not turn" and nor should they.

One common criticism against books like these is that they are only relevant for mainstream commercialism and are unrelated to art, but anybody can benefit from a good manual and even non-commercial "high-art" films often follow some basic structure like the ones discussed in many of these books. Unless you are a wunderkind it is good to start with a solid foundation instead of being all over the place; to follow a certain structure so you have something to lean on. But the better the writer you are, the better you are of knowing when a rule is good or when it is diminishing your scene. In general, any book that says "This is how you must do it." is not as good or helpful as a book that says, as one of the writers in Writing Movies does, "In the final analysis, it's not fidelity to the 'rules' that makes a film great. Greatness comes when a film finds its true path." (p. 63) Personally I think this quote from Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City is good advice: "Why is it that putting a tie around a man's neck is sometimes even sexier than taking it off?" The point is that sometimes doing it one way is the best thing to do, sometimes doing the opposite is the best thing to do.

Another fundamental mistake almost all manuals make is that they mentioned some very successful films, describe the scripts of these films, and then argue that a script with such a structure and character development and story arcs and such is what will become a box office success. But that is not true. If you look at very unsuccessful films you will find they can have the same structure and character development and arcs but since those films had bad direction, or were miscast, or were released at an unfortunate time, or had terrible dialogue, or dodgy special effects, or ludicrous twists or some other things, they failed miserably. The script in itself is never ever enough for a film to be a hit, or even good, however slavishly it follows a template, and it is irresponsible to make such a claim. It is doing a disservice to the aspiring writers too. Well-written films are not necessarily successful at the box office, which these books often claim that you will be after having read them. Neither the Transformers films nor the superhero films that are drawing the masses to the cinema would be taught in these classes as examples of great writing. But since that is where the cash is, students might be better off engaging in bad writing to get ahead in life. I do not mean to be cynical, I only want to point out that these books pretend that great writing equals success even though there is no obvious correlation between great writing and great box office success. It was for example not Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder 1950) or All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1950) that were the most successful films of 1950. The big hit of the year was Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille 1949), which had more to do with biblical mayhem and Hedy Lamarr in tight, revealing outfits than great writing.


Almost all manuals are pretty insistent on the importance of the three-act structure, David Howard in How to Build a Great Screenplay says that "a story must have three parts, three acts." (p. 255) and adds for emphasis: "the story must, by definition, still adhere to a three-act underpinning." (p. 256) I find this incomprehensible. Sure, all films have a beginning, middle and end, but if that is all that is meant by three-act structure it is so banal and obvious there is no need to say it and it has no effect on the actual telling of the story. All individual sentences have a beginning, middle and end, so by that definition even this sentence has a three-act structure. But you do not teach school kids how to write by drilling into them that all sentences have a three-act structure because it would not be helpful for them.

But even though it is sometimes simplified as "beginning, middle and end," three-act structure means something else, and when you say that each act has a specific dramatic and narrative function, and that the beginning, middle and end must have certain specified lengths, then it stops being a basic rule and instead becomes something subjective and arbitrary and not something that is "by definition" true. Those who are keen on the three-act structure often divides the second act in two halves, which seems to me to turn it into two acts and the three-act structure becomes a four-act structure. If you pay attention you will also notice that the books are not in agreement on what those acts consists of and how long they are. Field's paradigm which I described above is the most well-known:

Act 1: the first 30 minutes
Act 2: the following 60 minutes
Act 3: the last 30 minutes

McKee has this setup:

Inciting Incident after 1 min
Act 1: climax after 30 min
Act 2: climax after 100 min
Act 3: climax after 118 min
Fade Out: the last two min.

That is ridiculously precise. But at the same time McKee says that different films are divided into varying numbers of acts. As an example, he says that Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell 1994) has five acts.

How is this helpful for screenwriters? What are they supposed to do with these acts when they are so arbitrary and negotiable? It is such a loose concept that I am not at all certain it serves a purpose.

I re-watched Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg 1993) and by writing down the time whenever something shifted in the film, for us and the characters, I came down with what can be called three acts, like this:

Act 1: first 22 minutes, introducing the main characters.
Act 2: the next 38 minutes, introducing the dinosaurs and beginning the tour, everything still calm.
Act 3: the following 60 minutes, from the moment the T-Rex attacks the humans in the two cars and until the moment the T-Rex attacks again but this time saves the humans. That is 60 minutes of perpetual motion and basic survival.
Coda: the last two minutes of calm.

You can find a three-act structure there yes, but not at all in the way any of the manuals would tell you to arrange it. This is not a flaw in the film, it is a flaw in the manuals.

We can compare it to Bergman's Persona (1966), which is usually regarded as the antithesis of a conventional narrative film. It is 80 minutes long and, after the prologue, the first act is at the hospital. After 20 minutes they leave for the beach house and Act II begins. In the middle of the film, 41 minutes, the nurse Alma reads the letter from Elisabet and the dynamics of the film change, so that would be the plot point that divides the second act into two halves. After 57 minutes Elisabet watch a haunting photo from Nazi Germany and there is a fade-out to black. Then Act III begins, when Alma and Elisabet blend into one, and after 80 minutes Alma leaves and the film ends. That is three acts in accordance with Field's paradigm: the first act 1/4 of the film, the second act 2/4 (in two neat halves), and the third one the last 1/4. From this perspective, Persona has a more conventional structure than Jurassic Park but I doubt whether something meaningful is learned from this.

In short, you can look for three acts if you wish but do not confuse an arbitrary structure with objective rules and, while there is nothing wrong with having three acts, you do not need them.

One exception to the three-act structure consensus is John Truby in The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (2007). He claims the three-act structure ruins films and is responsible for why many films are badly written. But all the films he talks about in his book as examples of great writings are the same films that all three-act structure guys also celebrate as great writing. Truby might be disagreeing about the terminology but he still says the same things about the same films as all the others. However, instead of the three-act structure he is suggesting a different approach, and this approach is related to the title of the book. 22 steps. Considering how important you would think that they are it is somewhat surprising that they do not appear until page 268 but in any case, here they are:

1) Self-revelation, need, and desire
2) Ghost and story world
3) Weakness and need
4) Inciting incident
5) Desire
6) Ally or allies
7) Opponent and/or mystery
8) Fake-ally opponent
9) First revelation and decision: changed desire and motive
10) Plan
11) Opponent's plan and main counterattack
12) Drive
13) Attack by ally
14) Apparent defeat
15) Second revelation and decision: obsessive drive, changed desire and motive
16) Audience revelation
17) Third revelation and decision
18) Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
19) Battle
20) Self-revelation
21) Moral decision
22) New equilibrium

If you are wondering if it is true that all stories have these arbitrary steps, Truby says no. Some stories have as few as seven and some as many as 60 steps. Again, how is this helpful? That list is also a good example of how macho and gung-ho many of these books are. Those 22 steps look more like a PowerPoint presentation at Pentagon than a sensible guide for writing a romantic comedy. There is a strain of thinking within some of these manuals and among these "gurus" that has an unpleasant vibe to it, combined by all the talk of "the hero's journey", "the avenging angel" and other mythical stuff, which inevitably excite fanboys and online and offline extremists.

While Truby is vague about those 22 steps (the title of his book is rather misleading) he is unequivocal about these seven:

1 Weakness and need
2 Desire
3 Opponent
4 Plan
5 Battle
6 Self-revelation
7 New equilibrium

All good stories have them he claims. But this is not the case. Not at all. He just made them up, and since nobody knows about them unless they have read his book and since he has not exactly studied all stories ever told, it would be a miracle if he was right. It is not even clear whether the few films he uses in his book as examples have these seven steps that allegedly all good stories (and therefore all good films) have. Take the first and, for Truby, most important one, "Weakness and need". This is how he defines it, on pages 40-41:
From the very beginning of the story, your hero has one or more great weaknesses that are holding him back. Something is missing within him that is so profound, it is ruining his life. /.../ The need is what the hero must fulfil within himself in order to have a better life. It usually involves overcoming his weaknesses and changing, or growing, in some way.
This need is something the hero must be unaware of until the end of the film. ("If he is already cognizant of what he needs, the story is over.") One of the most well-known and successful heroes in contemporary culture is James Bond. What is his weakness and what is his need? Martinis? How about Indiana Jones? Sure, Indy is afraid of snakes, but this is not ruining his life and he is aware of this weakness from the beginning. Truby provides Clarice Sterling in Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme 1991) as an example. But what weakness has she got that is ruining her life, and what need does she discover in the very end? She has her bad memories from childhood, the screaming lambs, but they are not a weakness ruining her life and she is aware of them long before the end. Some heroes, if by hero we simply mean main character, have such a weakness as Truby defines it, but whether they do or not have nothing to do with the quality of the writing but with the aims and needs of the individual script. It is not an essential aspect of storytelling.


These screenwriting manuals are like self-help books, or books about losing weight, and about as helpful. I do not think they have ruined cinema but I do not think they have done any good either. Sure, some who have read these books, or attended a "guru's" masterclass, have written some successful films afterwards but that is not proof of anything. Thousands of people have engaged with these theories and it is probably a statistical certainty that a few of these readers/students will become successful, regardless of the quality of the books and classes.

There is a scene in Paris When It Sizzles (Richard Quine 1964) which parodies cliched Hollywood screenwriting. These screenwriting manuals remind me of that scene, only they are not meant to be parodies. They take themselves seriously. Quine had better sense.

I have taught film writing and script development and I am not saying you cannot teach it. There are good and helpful things of a more general kind for a teacher to say and do. Usually though it is when working together with the students as they are writing a script that teaching is helpful, not by nailing down rules on the blackboard.

If you want to write a script you should write a compelling story with interesting characters. If you cannot do that I am not sure any manual can help you because they are not able to give you talent or imagination. They can only, at best, help you get started and, should you be stuck, help with some inspiration in the moment. They will not make you able to write a good or successful script, whatever they might claim on the back cover. The feeling I get after having read so many manuals over the years is that many are written by hucksters who cannot write themselves but are eager to earn a quick buck by fooling aspiring writers into buying their books and/or signing up for their workshops. The worst of them is Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! (2005), which I have discussed in an earlier article here. It is bewildering and absurd. But a few might be useful and the best I have read is David Howard's How to Build a Great Screenplay. It is by no means perfect but it is the most well-written and he covers more areas and is clearer and more vivid and helpful than any of the others I know. It is not a quick read, not a collection of bullet points, but 400 pages and you have to read it thoroughly and take notes. But if you are not prepared to do the necessary work then maybe you are not prepared to be a screenwriter.

In Play-Writing, Archer wrote: "Taken in its simplicity, this principle would indicate the three-act division as the ideal scheme for a play. As a matter of fact, many of the best modern plays in all languages fall into three acts /.../ many old plays which are nominally in five acts really fall into a triple rhythm and might better have been divided into three." (p. 106)

The most popular films to discuss in these manuals are Casablanca (Michael Curtiz 1942), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill 1969), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola 1972), Chinatown (Roman Polanski 1974), Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott 1991) and American Beauty (Sam Mendes 1999). Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988) and The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont 1994) are also popular.