Author of Writing Drama


Who were you targeting when you wrote Writing Drama?
Mainly playwrights and scriptwriters. But also those involved in the dramatic arts: actors, directors, producers, etc. I wanted it to be very accessible, so I think it can interest anyone looking for a better grasp of theatre, cinema or comics, and how these relate to life.

The book's emphasis is on using synthetic models.
That's right. I examine works by major scriptwriters and playwrights without being elitist––Anton Chekhov gets the same treatment as Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel––and I try to answer three questions: What do dramatic works consist of? Why is this so? How does one go about writing them?

You cite around 1,400 works: plays, operas, feature films, short films, sketches, TV shows, comic books. That's colossal.
Yes, it may seem like a lot. It just happened that way. I didn't hold back. And I also wanted to offer readers a journey into the full dramatic repertoire. That being said, it is mainly 100 works that keep coming up. And I highly urge readers to get to know a minimum of these works before reading Writing Drama (see full list). It makes the journey all the more enriching.

Sometimes you even refer to the circus.
I love the circus. It's a place where the dramatic arts can flourish, and not just in clown sketches.

You start off by citing Molière, who maintains in The Critique of The School for Wives that no play is more consistent than The School for Wives. And at the end you go about proving it with a detailed analysis of the play. This can't be by chance.
No, of course not. It's actually a nod to Molière's ideas. But the decision to use The School for Wives for the dramatic analyses stemmed from other reasons. I was looking for a work to complement North By Northwest, i.e. a non English-speaking play with comedy, characterisation and exposition, in addition to being a renowned classic. The School for Wives fulfilled all of these conditions perfectly. This play also happened to create a stir in 1663 and inspired Molière to write two works on dramatic aesthetics: The Critique of The School for Wives and L'Impromptu de Versailles.

How did Writing Drama come about?
From 1983 to 1985, I studied film at Columbia University, New York. I learned a great deal, especially on scriptwriting and directing. I also made several short films there. I returned to France in the summer of 1985, where I began working as a scriptwriter. In 1987 I set up some writing workshops. Of course, I focused on getting the participants to write, but I also included a small theoretical section. My students soon asked me to put it in writing. This led to a 12-page handout. The very first spark of Writing Drama! I still have it. But it's only when the handout grew to 100 pages that I considered writing a book. Writing Drama is thus the fruit of my film studies, teaching experiences, scriptwriting, as well as a good twenty years of cultural exposure.

From your examples, one gets the sense that you come from film rather than from theatre. You cite major works, but there isn't much on contemporary theatre from, let's say, 1950 onwards.
That's not quite right. Amadeus, Waiting for Godot, Roberto Zucco and For No Good Reason are among the 77 reference works. And I cite examples of other contemporary plays on an ad hoc basis, such as The Workshop, The Empire Builders, Celimene and the Cardinal, Le Chant de la Baleine Abandonnée, Crusades, Elvire Jouvet 40, Kadouma's Island, Rhinoceros and Betrayal. I also discuss certain works at length: No Exit, Death of a Salesman, The Life of Galileo. These plays, while not strictly contemporary, are very modern. Moreover, I've written several plays, mostly for puppet theatre, and I've directed plays as well. And I even acted as the Messenger in a New York production of Jean Anouilh's Antigone. So I know about theatre as a spectator and as an artist. I'll admit, however, that I deal mostly with film and that I go to the cinema more often than to the theatre. I also get the sense that film, despite its youth, has more scope than theatre for playing with mechanisms of dramatic narrative. Maybe that's why you got that impression.

Then let's say that there isn't much on recent experimental theatre.
That's true. I've already heard that criticism, but there isn't much on experimental film either. And this has nothing to do with dates. The Bald Soprano, which is from 1950, is more experimental that Roberto Zucco, written forty years later. I explain the reasons for these boundaries in the preface. Writing Drama isn't a dramatic arts encyclopaedia, it's a book on how to tell a simple story with a beginning, middle and end. And between us, that's already a damn hard thing to do. People who think that it's better to know the rules before breaking them might find my book useful. Others will do as they wish.

One also gets the sense that you don't idolise anyone. Even Hitchcock, whom you admire, is subject to some reservations. Or Some Like It Hot.
Yes, or Le Cid, Tartuffe, Hamlet and lots more. I believe there are no untouchable works or writers. I realise this can make people squirm. Many buffs tend to set up a shrine and cling to it. Then they go out on a limb to justify it all, weaknesses included, and forbid anyone to touch their holy space. Thank goodness that artworks are not perfect. But some of them, even those in shrines, could do with more consistency. I think it's healthy not to be locked inside a shrine or subject to the terrorism of "specialists", but rather to be (intellectually) free to express reservations about "classics".

Do you ever cite works or writers in order to keep everyone happy?
No, never. The repertoire is teeming with eloquent examples, so I can afford to cite the works I like.

Writing Drama, then, is a subjective book.
Of course! How could it be anything else? I think that when reading Writing Drama, you'll learn as much about me as about narrative mechanisms. On the importance I give to childhood, emotions, humour and personal development. On my need for meaning and structure, which borders on neurosis. That's why I invite readers to extract whatever helps or speaks to them and to drop the rest. Readers that scare me the most aren't those who hate my book, but those who love it unconditionally, without any character or critical thinking. In fact, this is true for all books and systems. That being said, people who hate it without having read it––which does occur––aren't high up on my list either.

Is your readership evenly distributed between film and theatre professionals?
I don't think so. For one, my readership also includes amateurs and professionals in the field of comic books. Film and television probably carry most of the weight, for several reasons: it reaches a wider audience and holds more fascination than theatre. It may be a shame but that's how it is. Mind you, I'd be delighted if Writing Drama could allow film-lovers and comic-lovers to discover Sophocles, Henrik Ibsen or Bertolt Brecht. Because there is extraordinary wealth and humanity in the theatrical repertoire.

In your book, you often use expressions like "even if", "that being said", "nevertheless", "on the other hand".
Quite true. It must be my schizo streak [laughs]. As a matter of fact, I love convictions, whether my own or others', but I'm terrified of certainties. So when I take a clear-cut stance, I often look at counterexamples, aspects that will qualify the idea, make it a little less simplistic. In my opinion, however, the only way to make something complex is by starting off on a univocal basis. Otherwise, it gets complicated rather than complex. Which is actually how dramatic works should be written. By starting out with a simple basis.

Writing Drama has already sold 13,000 copies in the French edition. It's been translated into Italian and Spanish, and now an English translation is coming out. Did you expect such success?
For several years I'd been noticing that the handout, which later became Writing Drama, was appreciated and helpful. So I believed in its long lasting value. That being said, sometimes I'm wrong. I also thought that Yes, But... would work out, but its success was rather limited!

What do you think triggered Writing Drama's success?
Word of mouth, mostly.

Many English books already exist on the subjects of playwriting and scriptwriting. What does your book offer that's different? What justifies its place on the English speaking market?
In the first place, I did not write my book as a response to the existent literature. It started out as a synopsis of works by Aristotle (Poetics), Edward Mabley (Dramatic Construction), Bruno Bettelheim (The Uses of Enchantment), Walter Kerr (Tragedy and Comedy) and topics I'd studied at Columbia University. It evolved over the years, along with my own cultural and emotional growth. And this is what readers will encounter in Writing Drama and perhaps nowhere else. It is a doorway into 25 centuries of theatre, into other cinematic cultures (French, Italian, Japanese, Iranian, etc.), into comic books and into the oral tradition of fairy tales. I also tried to put forth rather flexible rules, and to avoid being dogmatic. The tighter the rule, the more exceptions there are. At the end of the day, I'm quite proud of having made some "discoveries" about comedy, characterisation, fractal structure, and above all about dramatic irony and preparation.

Did directing your first feature film (Yes, But...) change your outlook on dramatic writing?
Not really, since I'd already done scriptwriting and directing (short films as well as puppet theatre) before I wrote Writing Drama, so it's not as if I went straight from theory to practice. Directing Yes, But... confirmed things that I already knew from my experience with short films. For example, the passage from text to image and to the actors' embodiment alters how the script is perceived. It can lead to rewriting every step of the way, from preparation and shooting, right down to mixing. I discuss this in the annotated script edition of Yes, But... which describes, among other things, the rewriting process that resulted from the shooting and editing (NB. Only for French-speaking readers) .

You say that judging others, even constructively, never put you at ease.
Yes, because judging others means placing yourself in a superior position. Which is the world turned upside down! The way I see it, those who produce meaning, enjoyment and emotions, even if they flop, are far above those who sit in judgements. I'm fully aware that artists who ask the public to sample their work lay themselves open to criticism, that's the rule of the game. But nevertheless, the judge's position makes me uncomfortable, and I prefer the writer's position which seems to me, paradoxically, more humble. That's why I strive to be constructive and enthusiastic in Writing Drama rather than indulge in moody criticism.

You also said that with Yes, But... you tried applying the lessons given in Writing Drama but that this was easier said than done.
Yes, that's no scoop. Even if my scripts contain some of the flaws I denounce in my book, I think that I respect most of the rules. In any case, I try. I do know that writing Writing Drama and running workshops have helped me become a better writer of drama, or at least not quite so bad. There's no question about it. And most of all, I keep on learning. Right now I'm learning a great deal on how to characterise, and on methodology. I believe more and more in altered states of consciousness. Not just to sharpen self-awareness, but also to get rid of writer's block. When I'm stuck on a scene or looking for a specific idea, instead of fixating I'll go out for a jog. The answer often comes by itself, while I'm out running.

What do you think failed in the script of Yes, But... that might shock the author of Writing Drama?
I have a hunch that several things failed, but it's hard to be objective about your own baby. It's easier to doctor other people's work! Unfortunately, I haven't read anything to give me more insight… I think I failed in characterising the mother. I didn't love her enough, understand her enough, take her seriously enough. Instead, I wanted to make fun of her. I thought it was to avoid slipping into pathos, to keep things light. But in retrospect, I realise that I was actually settling some old scores. And that's not a good idea in dramatic writing. You really have to love and forgive all your characters. This didn't make things easy on actress Alix de Konopka, and I'm really grateful to her for giving me as much as she did.

What else?
I'm not against the film's didactic aspect. It's not an easy form and it didn't appeal to everyone, but it was the initial choice. In fact, some people don't see it as a disadvantage, but rather as part of the film's originality. And I'm actually quite proud of starting with an illustrated lecture and ending with a three-minute love scene, wordless, where all that matters is meaning, gestures, images and music.

It's interesting to note that in the original script, this scene takes up three lines.
Yes, it evolved throughout shooting, with Emilie Dequenne's input. Nevertheless, it was down on paper before being filmed. Getting back to your question, maybe one of the script's major flaws is its lack of surprise. I do so much preparing and structuring that I end up with something that flows but never really takes off. It's like a perverse effect of my structuring tendency. Regarding Yes, But... Jacques Audiard said to me " it's well written, but for Christ's sake loosen up, fart a little! " I'm going to try and fart for the next one. [laughs]

And where do you think you succeeded?
That's no easier than the last question. According to teenagers, I managed to capture their universe. And according to psychotherapists, I managed to give an accurate portrayal of therapy. That's not too bad for a start. Richard Fisch, Director of the Brief Therapy Center in Palo Alto, thought that Gérard Jugnot was a real shrink (see the Guest Book)! What thrilled me was seeing how the film made people smile or laugh. Of course when I was writing it, I had fun coming up with gags and comic situations. But after spending years writing and then another year doing the film, I sort of forgot what could have been funny. At the first screenings, the audience reminded me that there was humour in it. The high point was at the Richmond French Film Festival, where the film was shown in a huge theatre with 1,400 seats filled to the brim. The audience laughed and clapped throughout the film. For someone who holds comedy to be the noblest and toughest of all genres, it was a nice reward. On top of that, watching your film in a sea of laughter is like an ecstasy trip with no side effects. It's magical.

As an ardent advocate of scriptwriting, was it natural for you to go on to directing?
Why not? These skills are different, but not incompatible. When you write something personal, it's quite natural to want to turn it into images. The opposite direction, from directing to writing, seems less obvious. Even if in France, they go right ahead!... I have some scriptwriter friends who can't imagine directing a crew and prefer to keep writing scripts. I understand but I think they're making a mistake. All scriptwriters should at least do a short film, just to get a taste of directing. If, like me, you also relish working with actors or putting a puzzle together on the editing table, then go for it.

Do you think your book has influenced European cinema?
Quite honestly, I have no idea. Some people say so. It seems a hard thing to assess. Nowadays, scripts receive more attention than they did twenty years ago. For example, the idea that scriptwriting can be taught and governed by basic principles is hardly subject to discussion anymore (I talk about this in the preface). But thanks to whom, thanks to what? I think it takes time for a book to influence its contemporaries. Understanding isn't the same as implementing. The former is easy, the latter can take a whole lifetime. In other words, reading a book on dramatic writing, whatever the book, isn't enough to become a good writer of drama or a good script doctor. In fact, this is true of all treatises and all subjects. If one merely had to read Thomas Gordon or Françoise Dolto in order to take proper care of a child!…

Nevertheless, that's what many decision-makers think. They've read your book and consider themselves capable of evaluating a script.
That's just laziness and bogus. If you read my book without in-depth knowledge of the works cited and without testing the contents against experience, you'll only walk away with a tiny part. The information won't be turned into knowledge. It can even create havoc because there's a chance you'll remember the main thrust but forget the nuances.

What should writers do when decision-makers hold up Writing Drama as the authoritative word?
They should thoroughly grasp (in the sense of know-how) the nuances of their art. They should be able to tell decision-makers: "OK, Lavandier (or Jean-Marie Roth or Robert McKee or whoever) says that, but if you turn the page you'll see a nuance, a counterexample; it's not as simplistic as you think."

What are your wildest dreams?
As the author of Writing Drama, it would be to help different cultures convey profound and personal ideas in an entertaining way. And thereby resist the all-American trend.

How does one resist American cinema?
Schematically, a work of art consists of two elements: an idea and its translation. An idea is rich only if it is personal. This condition is not sufficient, but it is obviously necessary. That is why I favour local and regional projects that deal with specific issues. The translation, however, has to be universal. Otherwise a Swedish writer will never manage to touch an Argentinean audience and even worse, might not even touch a Swedish audience that doesn't have the same sensibility, isn't in the same club.

What exactly is a universal and effective translation?
It is a translation that draws on the common stock of humanity. It shows up in various narrative forms, across continents and centuries. It is what the Americans learned to do so well, inspired by European theatre, even if the content is often less profound. For almost twenty years now I've been advocating two basic standpoints: i) the Americans' expertise is not their exclusive property. It is thousands of years old and appears in theatre and oral traditions. Any human being can learn it and use it; ii) knowledge and mastery of this expertise allows one to respect the writer's spirit, their creative spontaneity and their cultural specificity. Without losing sight of this sensibility, it is possible to create works that are entertaining as well as profound––not incompatible!––, that can charm fellow citizens, that can travel and have more to say than most American films. These are the tools I try to set out in Writing Drama.

And your wildest dream as a filmmaker?
To have a career like Charles Chaplin's, to move and entertain millions of people over a long period.

Not bad!
Well, you asked for my wildest dreams. But in fact––there's another "but"!––, the things I work at the most aren't professional. I wouldn't exchange a harmonious relationship with my wife and kids for all of Chaplin's genius and success. Of course, if you tell me I can have both, I'll sign right here… Mr. Mephistopheles [laughter].

Interviewed and edited by Patrice Saint-Omer
(translated by Natalie Lithwick)

To order Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama, click here

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