Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kurosawa on Screenwriting

The photo above is from Ran. Isn’t that a fabulous image?

Of all the directors in the history of cinema, I’d rank
Akira Kurosawa somewhere at the top of my list. One could argue persuasively that no filmmaker has created more masterpieces than Kurosawa.

Patrick Garson wrote, “Analysing any film by Akira Kurosawa is a joy. The sense of care, placement and thought lying behind every shot is an unspoken guarantee that nothing on screen is accidental.” I couldn’t agree more, as I had once analyzed Ikiru, which broke my heart.

We are also reminded by
Dan Harper that, “Despite his unarguable success, Kurosawa was, in fact, one of the greatest risk-taking filmmakers in the history of international film (many of those risks, I might add, didn’t pay off). Every one of his world-renowned films was either preceded or followed by a film more experimental in form or more difficult. You can even argue that some of his greatest successes (Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai) were enormous risks for Kurosawa’s career – the ones that did pay off…”

Of course, Kurosawa was heavily involved in the screenwriting of his films with a handful of writers he used throughout his career. So this begs the question: what did the renowned risk-taker, ground-breaker, and masterpiece-maker, have to say about screenwriting?

These quotes come to us from Akira Kurosawa’s book,
Something Like an Autobiography. Hope you enjoy them.

With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this.’

In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things. You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.’

A good structure for a screenplay is that of the symphony, with its three or four movements and differing tempos. Or one can use the Noh play
with its three-part structure: jo (introduction), ha (destruction) and kyu (haste). If you devote yourself fully to Noh and gain something good from this, it will emerge naturally in your films. The Noh is a truly unique art form that exists nowhere else in the world. I think the Kabuki, which imitates it, is a sterile flower. But in a screenplay, I think the symphonic structure is the easiest for the people of today to understand.’

Something that you should take particular notice of is the fact that the best scripts have very few explanatory passages. Adding explanation to the descriptive passages of a screenplay is the most dangerous trap you can fall into. It’s easy to explain the psychological state of a character at a particular moment, but it’s very difficult to describe it through the delicate nuances of action and dialogue. Yet it is not impossible. A great deal about this can be learned from the study of the great plays, and I believe the “hard-boiled” detective novels can also be very instructive.’

I began writing scripts with two other people around 1940. Up until then I wrote alone, and found that I had no difficulties. But in writing alone there is a danger that your interpretation of another human being will suffer from one-sidedness. If you write with two other people about that human being, you get at least three different viewpoints on him, and you can discuss the points on which you disagree. Also, the director has a natural tendency to nudge the hero and the plot along into a pattern that is the easiest one for him to direct. By writing with about two other people, you can avoid this danger also.’

I‘ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing. For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book. I write down my reactions and what particularly moves me. I have stacks and stacks of these college notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthourgh. Even for single lines of dialogue I have taken hints from these notebooks. So what I want to say is, don’t read books while lying down in bed.’

A novel and a screenplay are entirely different things. The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay without using narration.’

Characters in a film have their own existence. The filmmaker has no freedom. If he insists on his authority and is allowed to manipulate his characters like puppets, the film loses its vitality.’

At some point in the writing of every script I feel like giving the whole thing up. From my many experiences of writing screenplays, however, I have learned something: If I hold fast in the face of this blankness and despair, adopting the tactic of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect, who glared at the wall that stood in his way until his legs became useless, a path will open up.’

Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. Perhaps you can write only one page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script. I began in this spirit, with a target of one page a day. There was nothing I could do about the nights I had to work till dawn, but when I had time to sleep, even after crawling into bed I would turn out two or three pages. Oddly enough, when I put my mind to writing, it came more easily than I had thought it would, and I wrote quite a few scripts.’


Salva Rubio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Salva Rubio said...

Than you for the article, MM. I find Kurosawa so unique and original... but at the same time he's truly one of the universal classics, which means he understood the true language of image and words. Not a lot of people know it!

That's why he's so important, while at the same time, so few people seem to borrow from him.

In a time of flashy editing, plot twists and impossible shots, he brings us the serene violence and harsh tranquillity of Shakespeare, Zola and Unamuno -all in one.

I also love the way he credits his writers- and how he gives proper value to the difficulty of the task.

He seems to me that he implies imply that cinema is rather a literary than visual medium, an uneven balance where, like in all grand masterpieces, those two concepts go hand in hand.

Mystery Man said...

SS - Great comments. I loved the fact that he studied great literature and wrote notebooks. That's fabulous. His two films on Shakespeare (Ran and Throne of Blood) have inspired me to read Harold Bloom's book, "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human." I'm not even 200 pages into it, and I'm absolutely in love with this book and will blog about soon. Kurosawa inspires so much in me, ya know? Hope you're well.


William said...

Genius. Thanks for sharing. Now I have to see the Kurosawa catalog all over again.

Mystery Man said...

I'm almost through watching ALL of his films. I pop in a DVD. I expect a masterpiece. And I'm never disappointed. And then afterwards, there are so many images and scenes and emotions that linger in my mind and cry out to be watched again...


Thor Augenblick said...

Thanks for sharing this. It's nice to hear one of the great directors credit the writing as being so important. It seems so many films fall short in the story department, and try to grab the viewer with action instead of a truly compelling story.

Love the blog.

Unknown said...

So putting this concept of Noh into play as a structural component of screen writing, do you see the ka (haste) as an acceleration of the previous disordering in the second half or as a haste to restore order?

See, I can ask a serious question from time to time!

Joe said...

Thanks for the article MM. Ever since I saw Seven Samurai Kurosawa has been my favorite director. I just rewatched Redbeard a few days ago and it's amazing how he can create such classic movies with incredible stories and beautiful direction.

It's also great to know that a master like Kurosawa stood on the shoulders of giants as well.

Rashomon - Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Ikiru - Leo Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilyich)
Redbeard - Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Humiliated and Insulted)
The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ran, Throne Of Blood - William Shakespeare
High and Low - Evan Hunter

Matt said...

Great article and quotes. I'm woefully uninformed regarding Kurosawa. Maybe it's time to change that.

The link on the Noh plays is pretty great stuff too.

Christian H. said...

Aaah, the language of cinema. Espoused by many, captured by some, mastered by few. I've seen some of Kurosawa's work and find it to be well-laid out, with the right amount of humor, drama and action.

I love what he said about characters. That's exactly how I feel. Of course, I'm writing the characters but I don't EVER do what I would do.

I like to do something similar when I watch films or read scripts. I'm a four act student but his qualitative definition is the same as Aristotle's.

Too many writers are stuck in the "guru mentality" expecting that adherence to screenwriting tricks will create good cinema.

Characters and situations create good cinema. Kurosawa's characters are all archetypal versions of their respective personality types, whether they be cruel or heroic or giving or selfish.

The protagonist should just be in more scenes not better ones. I see very few "newbie" scripts that follow that "rule."

And then there are the "friends diss friends" types that was started by Good Will Hunting - except that the filmed version was a rewrite.

Anyway, I don't want to rant for hours.

Unknown said...

Nice to see someone as great as Kurosawa respect screenwriters so much. Without the script there is no movie! Now if they would only give ALL screenwriters a minimum of 10 percent of the back-end and merchandising.

One day...

Sandford Tuey

Joshua James said...

Kurasawa also gets writing credit on the Voight / Eric Roberts film Runaway Train, an original concept of his ... and you know what? It's a pretty damned good movie.

Great stuff, dude.

Mystery Man said...

Thor – Thanks, man.

Bob – Uhh, disordering? Did I get that right? Do I get a prize?

Joe – The fact that Kurosawa stood on the shoulders of giants is probably my favorite aspect about him. Love that list. Thanks so much for you.

Matt – You’re in for a treat, man. He’ll change you.

Christian – Yes, a lot of writers are stuck in that “guru mentality.” I’ve been reading Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.” Shakespeare didn’t have sympathetic protags with goals the audience can root for.

Sandford – Yeah, if you want big dollars, you’ll have to step up to producing or directing.

JJ – Did he really? I didn’t know that.


Joshua James said...

Yeah, it was based on an original screenplay by Kurosawa ... they updated it (and made it American) and you know what? It's a fine movie, to boot (I believe Voight and Roberts both got nominated for it) ... if you haven't seen it, check it out.

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