"Here is the problem: The dumb people aren't gonna get it. And the smart people are going to be offended that you didn't think they were smart enough to get it."
– Sheldon Turner, screenwriter-- Up in the Air; X-Men: First Class
A screenwriting how-to book can be a tricky thing. To say there are certain iron-clad rules to writing a good movie would probably be true. But... those rules can be next to impossible to articulate perfectly into a single easy sentence, paragraph or chapter. A vast majority of the learning must be done by making those tragic mistakes while writing. I mean, you can't possibly expect to learn how to skydive, ride a horse, play the piano or drive a car by simply reading books. Screenwriting is no different.
Thus, the best screenwriting books aim to inflame that thought process, opening dialogue and creating discussion. This is far more helpful that a set of regimented rules. And that is exactly what Neil Landau had in mind. I won't bury the lead: The Screenwriter's Roadmap is an excellent release.
The format occasionally bears resemblance to an interview book. Landau sat down with nearly every major working screenwriter in Hollywood and had that very discussion of story, character and craft. The list is impressive: Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton; The Bourne Identity), Steven Conrad (The Weather Man; The Pursuit of Happyness), Scott Z. Burns (Contagion; The Informant!), Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean; Collateral), Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King; Water for Elephants), Eric Roth (Forrest Gump; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), David S. Goyer (Blade; The Dark Knight trilogy), Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven; Sleepy Hollow) and Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).
The tone is more exploratory than instructional, as Landau prods these screenwriters on nearly every film they've written. He is as eager to hear their answers as we the readers are and-- that excitement comes across. The examples cited range from classics movies to surprisingly recent films. As outcome, the text feels very contemporary which is refreshing if you've ever read anything by Syd Field. (No offense-- just not a Field fan.)
Another problem many books of this type face is that authors seem compelled to compile every thing they have ever learned about the subject into one book, resulting in a read that is far more dense than enjoyable. Sadly, they all want to write the be-all end-all screenwriting book. Landau chooses a different, more casual approach, taking his readers step-by-step through the process of writing a draft. Chapter 1, we start with premise and by chapter 21, we're onto the rewrite. Not every chapter applies to every movie but, every chapter contains something very valuable. It's better when a book does a few things very well, as opposed to trying and failing to do everything.
Landau also includes examples from well-known films to illustrate specific points. But this never feels didactic. He's really just saying these are things you should keep in mind. Take 'em, or leave 'em. In addition to his film/ TV credits (which include the cult 90's classic Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead) Landau teaches screenwriting and producing at UCLA School of Film & Television and, the USC School of Cinematic Arts. It's no wonder this is Landau's third book on the subject.
The Screenwriter's Roadmap is not only extremely informative but, frankly, it's also a genuine page turner. Rarely do you ever sit down with a book like this and find yourself entertained by what you read. Textbook-like objects usually sidestep any opportunities to charm their readers. This is a fantastic new release and a wonderful resource not only for aspiring screenwriters but, for anyone with a serious interest in cinema.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.