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Performance Season: Potion making - the development of a script

With the forthcoming release of the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, performance writing is opening its doors to fans of the wizarding world. So how do a writer’s words make the journey from page to screen? We spoke to a few experts from the world of film, TV and academia to find out…

‘You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making,’ Professor Snape told Harry and his classmates in their first Potions lesson.

He might be giving it his sneering, frighten-the-first-years best, but we can’t disagree with Snape – creating a potion is a very exact art. Add the right ingredients at the right time in the right way and, like Harry with the aid of the Half-Blood Prince, you could create a Draught of Living Death. Get it wrong, and you might end up like post-Polyjuice Hermione, sat in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom with a face like a cat. Oh, and a tail too.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Careful mixing is also key to the development of a script. With a novel, it’s pretty much an author writing alone for a reader. Bringing a world to life on screen is very different. It’s the responsibility of a whole host of creatives, not always starting with the writer and hardly ever ending with them. A book might have one or two editors to shape its contents – a script’s creative life will involve dozens of people, from producers to directors to actors to composers to animators to designers… you get the picture.

Scripts begin life in a variety of ways. In film, often a writer might be commissioned to produce a treatment – almost a short story that summarises what it will be about – for the producer and others to review. So from the outset, it is common for screenwriters to be working with a number of collaborators.

How a treatment then develops varies from project to project. If a writer is working on their own original screenplay the creative journey might be similar to that of developing a novel, with lots of independent working, research and development of characters. But every screenwriter, whether they are constantly collaborating or working alone, has to be aware of the wider team and conscious of practicalities in a way a novelist doesn’t. Among other things, ‘A writer always has to bear in mind where the film or TV show could be made,’ as screenwriting lecturer Helen Jacey says.

And, of course, creating a screenplay is very different from writing a novel, because it is meant to be interpreted. ‘You’re not writing for an audience, you’re writing for a team to create something for an audience,’ says Rachel Marsh, a postgraduate researcher and lecturer in creative writing.

TV screenwriter Rob Williams agrees. ‘With a script, you’re keenly aware that you’re writing a blueprint, something that will be interpreted by your collaborators.’

Every collaboration is different, but typically a screenwriter might receive feedback on early drafts from the script’s commissioner – usually the producer – and perhaps from the film studio and agents of the various parties. Often, the level of input might step up a gear when a film finds its director, who will look particularly at how a writer’s words might be turned into action. As Helen Jacey explains, ‘A director will give notes until the shooting script – the approved version – is finalised.’

The shooting script is the version of a screenplay that becomes the finished film, or at least the closest thing to it, because unlike a novel, a script never really stops evolving. A film then has to be cast, designed, and ultimately, made. So, like the teenage Snape scribbling asides in his copy of Advanced Potion-Making, a screenwriter will be subject to the notes and experiences of the wider creative team – the actors and designers and animators and musicians and crew members whose task it is to take the words and make them work.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

For this reason, film scripts tend to follow a series of rules. ‘There has to be an industry-wide common language,’ says Rob Williams. ‘In a novel, you can tear up the rules, but you can’t do that with a script because it’s not helpful in terms of making it – and a script is written to be made.’

So what are these rules? Rachel Marsh refers to the three-part plot. ‘Usually, a typical screenplay sits in a three-act structure that is very based on timing. It’s often formatted so that one written page of a screenplay might equal one minute of screen time, so the shooting script for a full-length film will be something like 120 minutes, and 120 pages.’ So, act one sets up the action, then in act two, you will have some sort of confrontation, and in act three there’s a resolution – in other words, there is usually a beginning, a middle and an end.

It is unusual for a film not to follow the three-act structure, although of course there are always ways to break the rules (particularly if you are creating a series of, say, five films… what do you have in store for us, Newt Scamander?). This is why, for Rachel, it can be tricky to faithfully adapt a novel to the big screen.

‘Think about a novel which may have eight turning points, but in a film you only have room for two. The first thing you would have to do there is look at how you manoeuvre the novel into this structure.’

You only have to look at the existing Harry Potter films to realise this. The novels are so tightly plotted that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows became a film in two parts, and yet there are always things that will have to be left out.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1

Then there are the many things a script has to do. ‘I think there’s a perception that as a screenwriter, you just write what people say,’ Rob says. It’s much more than that. Think about the action-driven set-pieces in the Harry Potter stories – when Ron and Harry fly Mr Weasley’s bewitched Ford Anglia in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for example, or the Battle of Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows. Those scenes wouldn’t be anything on screen if it weren’t for the work of the wider creative team – the designers and animators for whom the descriptive elements in a script are the tools with which they start their own work.

The number of plot points in a novel can often mean they work well being remade into TV series rather than films. ‘You quite quickly move beyond the original source material,’ Rob says of working on TV adaptations of existing novels. ‘If you try and slavishly stick to a text, you can pretty quickly lose the sense of what it is… it can be the enemy of adaptation.’

Jacob, Newt and Tina with the magical case.
Jacob, Newt and Tina with the magical case.

Fantastic Beasts, while not an adaptation, is inspired by a text that will be familiar to readers: one of Harry’s Hogwarts textbooks. But where the previous Harry Potter films explored a world that many of us had already imagined, Fantastic Beasts moves far away from that source material and delves into an era of the wizarding world about which we know very little.

There is another very significant reason why Fantastic Beasts is different to the Harry Potter movies: the fact that the screenwriter in question is J.K. Rowling herself. And while she was involved in the original films, the development of Fantastic Beasts is a different beast altogether…

So if we can’t join Harry in his Potions class, getting our hands on magical performance texts like the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them screenplay is probably the closest we will come to studying this exact art and very subtle science.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is out 18 November.

You can read Part Two of our performance series series, the Dark Art of Script-writing, by clicking here.

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