IF IT CAN BE WRITTEN OR THOUGHT, IT CAN BE FILMED
Stanley Kubrick ranks - in the estimation of many - amongst the greatest filmmakers of all time, a genius who fused popular genres with philosophical auteur cinema to create lasting masterpieces that have influenced our cultural discourse and understanding of our world.
The title of this essay is my favorite quote of the American writer-director-producer who chose to live as a recluse in England, a mantra of sorts that I can return to and in which I find new and different meaning and inspiration time and again.
When I first came across the quote I spent a lot time behind the camera as a director of television commercials and independent films. I read it as a call to innovate and find cinematic solutions to whatever is narrated on the page or envisioned in the filmmaker’s mind. For Kubrick was as much a storyteller as a cinematic inventor.
The examples are plentiful. For THE SHINING Stanley Kubrick lead a team to come up with the steadicam, the revolutionary device that freed filmmaking from technical restraints in a way that occurred - in my understanding - only two other times in the history of cinema. First, when sound recording on location became possible and the standard (in the 1950s) and second with the arrival of drone filmmaking and the use of lightweight cameras over the last decade.
For BARRY LYNDON Kubrick caused lenses to be developed by NASA that would allow cameras to register scenes on film just by candle light - with the result that we for the first time experienced what life in a pre-electrified world must have felt like.
And for 2001 SPACE ODYSSEY, some forty years ahead of today’s digital age, in which VFX are de rigeur for any story told on the screen, Kubrick evolved and changed the art of visual effects from simple aesthetic tools to essential elements of narrative.
As a faithful student I tried to follow Kubrick's ‘it-can-be-filmed’ command in my career. For example, when - with the help of innovative DOPs and crews - we rigged, in the pre-digital, pre-lightweight remote camera era, shots that from today’s vantage point seem ridiculous complicated and sometimes even outright dangerous. With kids on iphones making stunning videos and finding images, angles and situations hereto unseen, some of what we did feels quaint. We almost killed ourselves for THAT? But if Kubrick had not thought of the steadicam we would have never seen ‘THE SHINING’ the way he saw it.
As technological innovation continues and I spent more time writing and thinking about writing for the screen, I read the quote anew and it unveils more and different meanings.
'If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed.
If only a handful of Kubrick’s contemporary filmmakers used, adapted or topped his innovations (Scorsese, Cameron, Lucas, Tarkowsky, Lynch), even less writers heeded his call. What was written was mostly what, in the mind of Hollywood writers, could be filmed. Which was even less than what standard Hollywood directors actually could film had they been given other ideas. Instead the majority of writers in the age of Kubrick gave to their directors mostly this: dialog that stars could deliver, good, great or bad, between naps in their trailers, filmed in easily controllable environments. Dialog that often was not how people talk or behave.
Today, technologically, if not economically, filmmaking for screens big or small is as freed from restraints as it ever was, able to serve any imagination. Which brings me to my point. For it is easy to forget - especially for screenwriters - the reverse truth in Kubrick’s quote.
‘If it isn’t written, it won’t be filmed.’
Has film writing really embraced what is possible to do on the screen today?
Or are there many unnecessary limitations and censors in the heads of writers, sold as genre rules or conceits?
Working with other writers I realize this becomes especially important in the development of spec scripts, in which the writers are essentially also the director and need to deliver something that captures the imagination of the readers. One writer I’m working with kept saying, when proposed a more visual, more visceral, more engaging idea: ‘Yes - I thought of that. But I imagine it would be too difficult to shoot.’
So, fellow writers, familiarize yourself with what can be filmed, heed the call of the great Stanley Kubrick and understand it from the writer’s perspective.