How Guttentag writes for film

Feb. 10, 2012, 2:05 a.m.

Two-time Academy Award-winning writer, producer and director Bill Guttentag spoke Thursday evening about his experience writing for film and television in discussion with Stanford English lecturer Hilton Obenzinger.


The Hume Writing Center and Stanford Continuing Studies sponsored the event as an installment of their “How I Write” conversation series.


Guttentag discussed the difference between writing for the screen and the page. Guttentag, who published his first novel, Boulevard, in 2010, has worked in both mediums, knowing the demands and advantages that come with each.

How Guttentag writes for film
Award-winning writer, producer and director Bill Guttentag spoke to students Thursday evening, as part of the “How I Write” conversation series, sponsored by Hume Writing Center and Stanford Continuing Studies. (IAN GARCIA-DOTY/The Stanford Daily)


In a novel, Guttentag said, one can communicate the contents of a person’s thoughts with far more ease and elegance than through film.


“The thing about film is that you can manipulate time, which is really a gift,” Guttentag said.  “It’s the way they look at each other, how long they hold the look before they say the line of dialogue.”


Guttentag gave the audience a glimpse at the process by showing a page of a screenplay for his upcoming work Knife Fight. He then treated the audience to a brief clip from the film, which will be released later this year.


“Screenplays have to emphasize the external by nature,” Guttentag said.  “You must think, every step of the way, about what is an actable moment.”


The writer and filmmaker also stressed the recursive aspect of screenwriting, noting that every film is written three times: as a screenplay, as the film itself and then in the editing process. There are always aspects to fix and improve, he added.


Sometimes mistakes have proven valuable, Guttentag said, such as when he chose not to correct a historical flub in a line he wrote that was then delivered by actress Eva Mendes, or when he instructed his crew to intentionally let a microphone drop into the frame on a faux-documentary-style project — something his veteran producer amusedly told him he had certainly never seen before.


Guttentag also spoke extensively about the commercial aspect of filmmaking.


“Film is a business, in addition to an art form,” he said.  “It’s not called show show, it’s called show business — nor is it called business business, for that matter.”


Guttentag spoke of a conversation filmed for his recent work Nanking in which translators suddenly cease speaking and begin to cry — and said that the entire crew soon broke down into tears. He said his goal is to somehow capture moments like that and then communicate them to an audience in a theater.


“There’s a universality to it, and that’s what you’re looking for,” he said.


Perhaps the most memorable moment in the conversation was Guttentag’s recollection of a movie he had seen, which featured a talking monkey. At one particularly clunky line, he found himself thinking, “The monkey wouldn’t say that!”


The fact that he had skipped over the impossibility of a monkey speaking at all was, Guttentag said, a testament to the film’s power to immerse the viewer in a different world.

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