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WRITER HONES ART OF CINEMATIC LANGUAGE

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It's been a pretty good year for screenwriter Richard LaGravenese.

Pretty good? It's been great.LaGravenese earned critical kudos earlier this summer for his screenplay adaptions for "The Bridges of Madison County" and "A Little Princess," either of which could land him an Oscar nomination.

Now he's represented by the Diane Keaton-directed "Unstrung Heroes," a story of a boy who moves in with his eccentric uncles when his mother becomes seriously ill.

Unlike many screenwriters, LaGravenese doesn't spend time grousing when his precious words don't always make it to the screen.

"Making movies is a director's medium, " he said in a telephone interview from his New York home. "What they need is what I want to do."

In the case of "Heroes" that meant first collaborating with director Beeban Kidron ("To Wong Foo"), who originally headed the project at Fox, and then going through the process all over again when it was snapped up by Disney and given to Keaton as her feature directing debut.

"The fact is that I learn a great deal from directors," LaGravenese said. "After my first draft, Beeban asked me to be more inventive. She felt I was being too faithful to the book and needed to find a more cinematic voice. Which is true - my first drafts tend to be fairly reverential to the original source. But then you realize the problems of a film are different than those of a novel, so you begin creating."

Keaton put her own spin on the story.

"She couldn't help but re-create as a director what she does an actress," LaGravenese said. "That meant more humor, more eccentricity. She urged me to come up with new ideas not in the book which would satisfy the audience. The subplot about the two crazy uncles' war against their landlord was strengthened under Diane's direction. By emphasizing this feud, it gave that section of the film a narrative spine the book didn't have."

Also created by LaGravenese at Keaton's request was a subplot about the young protagonist's campaign for student body president.

LaGravenese has written original screenplays too and says each presents its own challenges.

"It's six of one, half a dozen of the other," he said. "When you're adapting a book or play you have a safety net. There's a story already there. But the problem is that it's a book and must be turned into a cinematic expression. You have to find a personal motivation and point to the story. I have to ask myself why I want to write this movie based on this book. You have to understand that.

"An original screenplay, on the other hand, is all about your point of view. Anything goes. But you don't have an already proven story. You're on your own."

When he began writing the "Madison County" screenplay, LaGravenese said, Steven Spiel-berg was planning on directing, Clint Eastwood was only mildly interested in starring and Meryl Streep wasn't involved.

"I wrote my first draft with no particular actors in mind. There had already been several drafts by other writers that hadn't worked, so I read the book and decided that instead of being told from the points of view of both Robert and Francesca, the movie should be her story.

"Also, I thought it was important that the lovers fight so there would be a tension that isn't in the book. And Robert had to have flaws. In the novel he's too one-dimension, too perfect. It seemed to me that his man-of-the-world philosophy could be interpreted as a fear of intimacy."

Once Eastwood signed on as both director and star, more rewrites were in order.

"Clint helped me with the rewrites, but once filming started he wasn't the sort of director who needed the writer around. He felt confident.

"On the other hand, some directors like having the writer at hand to make changes. That's OK, too. I only want to hang around where I'm wanted."

Though he's been in the business for more than a decade, La-Gra-ven-ese said he's still learning.

"Every day I discover something new about the power of pauses and silences. They can carry the story. As a writer I want to stress words, but I'm learning how not to. Cinematic language is more visual than verbal."

Next month Barbra Streisand will direct and star in LaGravenese's screenplay "The Mirror Has Two Faces." And after that the writer says he'll make his own directing debut.