The Wall Will Tell You: The Forensics of Screenwriting (Web Exclusive)
by Hampton Fancher. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 70 pp., 2019. Paperback: $14.99.
Reviewed by Jackson Arn
“I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs! You shall hear from me the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner, in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No indeed! but I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment.” Those words, spoken by Socrates shortly before the Athenians lost all patience with him, seem like a fittingly bombastic way to begin a review of Hampton Fancher’s seventy-page, Beckett/Rilke/Descartes-quoting treatise The Wall Will Tell You: The Forensics of Screenwriting.
“Art doesn’t explain,” The Wall assures us, “it demonstrates.” Rather than doing either, Fancher has compiled hundreds of short, semiconversational sayings, mostly his own but a handful drawn from the Great Books. Some of his sayings are baffling (“Language is secondary. But it also isn’t.”). Some are indisputably true (“Characters have opinions.”). On the whole, they’re less platitudinous than the duly ornamented phrases of the typical screenwriting bible, possibly because they’re not required to cohere into much of a thesis. This book is the latest addition to a tiny, glittering group of filmmaking guides, including Hitchcock/Truffaut and Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, which are endlessly readable and quotable and which teach the aspiring filmmakers who buy them very, very little about how to make an actual movie.
Fancher isn’t Hitchcock or Truffaut or Bresson, but he’s accomplished enough to make his opinions worth seeking out. For many cinephiles, he earned a free pass for life by co-writing the screenplay for Blade Runner. To one side of that towering achievement you’ll find a vast, clattering catalogue of parts in B-movies and TV shows (a zombie in The Brain Eaters, two unrelated characters on Rawhide, and so on), to the other, a spotty résumé as a writer and director (The Mighty Quinn, The Minus Man, Blade Runner 2049). You’d be forgiven for thinking that the original Blade Runner represents his sole brush with greatness—then again, how many of us help create something great even once?
Were Fancher merely a successful screenwriter, he might have penned a straightforward how-to guide, as useful, and useless, as the hundreds you can buy at Barnes & Noble. An intimidating bunch, to be sure: Advanced Screenwriting: Taking Your Writing to the Academy Award Level by Linda Seger; Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made by Richard Krevolin; Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways To Make It Great by William M. Akers; Save The Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (it is an ironclad law that screenwriting guides must have stupid subtitles).
What these tomes generally share, beyond their subject matter, is the ability to make moth-eaten advice sound specific and groundbreaking. The title of Snyder’s book, inspired by the scene in Alien where Sigourney Weaver…saves a cat, sums up his big idea: that movies need relatable protagonists who pet cute animals, say nice things to kids, etc. (a point once so widely accepted that “pat the dog scene” remains a bit of Hollywood screenwriter slang). One of Snyder’s favorite examples of his argument is the second Tomb Raider movie, which underperformed, apparently, because the writers didn’t bother convincing audiences to root for the main character. Yes, that was the problem with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—The Cradle of Life: Lara Croft wasn’t nice enough. (Inversely, a screenwriting bible as witty as William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood Screenwriting is worth reading precisely to the extent that you don’t interpret it as a literal how-to guide—not for nothing is “Nobody knows anything” that book’s most famous line.)
In any case, Fancher is no ordinary, Angelina Jolie-vehicle-penning screenwriter. Judging from Escapes, Michael Almereyda’s recent biographical documentary, his real talent is talking. A professional flamenco dancer at fifteen, husband of Sue Lyon at twenty-five, blessed with a six foot three stature, and a penetrating, watchmaker’s gaze, Fancher is a semifictional creature in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway or Orson Welles: the kind of tireless self-mythologizer who lives a charmed life, knows how to make it sound even more charming than it is, and inevitably ends up in Hollywood. In interviews, he’s perfected the art of the off-kilter anecdote. “That man,” he told a journalist, referencing a photograph of Nelson Mandela that hangs in his closet, “was born…on the eighteenth…of Ju-ly…That means something, doesn’t it? Jesus Christ, born Christmas Day, right? Right? Now, when was Hampton Fancher born? Eighteenth…of July.”
Your ability to derive pleasure from this sort of thing—The Wall’s brick and mortar—is, I think, directly proportional to your familiarity with the man himself. Having never met Fancher, I find his pronouncements mildly intriguing at best, mildly annoying at worst. On the other hand, Jonathan Lethem, a Fancherite from way back and the author of The Wall’s introduction, gushes, “Hampton Fancher is one of my favorite human beings.” Fair enough, though it’s hard to find much humanity in, “One key to narrative is the dynamic of struggle. Something has to have happened, or [sic] about to happen.” That’s from The Wall’s third section, “Wheels.” The fourth, “Heroes and Villains,” makes the following suggestion: “Find the dignity in every character. Invest them with conviction. Opposing convictions, silent or loud, opposite temperaments. Hassle, big or small, creates interest.” Say what you will, this is more interesting advice about how to write characters than you’ll find in Save The Cat!
“Forget the jelly, concentrate on the toast,” Fancher insists, in what may be the most surprising, and telling, passage in The Wall; “Don’t try for sublime. Bauhaus as opposed to baroque.” Bold words from the co-writer of Blade Runner, a film whose mise en scène is practically the definition of baroque in the sense he means here. Fancher’s original script was rejected by Ridley Scott for devoting too much time to interior drama and too little to noirish, retrofuturist Los Angeles, which, as any SF fan can tell you, turned out to be Blade Runner’s most fascinating character. Shakespeare couldn’t have penned a more exquisite irony: Fancher’s reputation as a screenwriting guru depends almost entirely on his involvement in this one film, whose greatness largely depended on its other creators ignoring Fancher’s screenwriting advice!
But perhaps close reading short passages from The Wall isn’t the proper way to experience it. The real subject of Fancher’s book is Fancher himself, his extratextual mystique holding the endless koans and aphorisms in one harebrained piece. If Save The Cat! sits at one pole of the screenwriting bible genre—literal, pseudoscientific, obsessed with rules and formulas and beats—The Wall represents the other: wishy-washily Zen, structured around a wise leader. At its best, the book reads like something Fancher would tell you at four in the morning over half a joint; at worst, like something Fancher wrote in half a day to capitalize on the Blade Runner sequel by conning would-be screenwriters into believing that he understands the reasons for his own success. “The reason screenplays are usually so bad,” he writes, “is because of myopia.” I can think of at least one other explanation.
Jackson Arn lives in Brooklyn, and his writing has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Lapham’s Quarterly.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3