Tuesday, February 17, 2009

WALTER HILL: SCREENWRITER

Another writer shamelessly omitted from my Top 25...

At his best, Hill remains not only an exhilerating filmmaker (48 HOURS, UNDISPUTED, HARD TIMES) but also a peerless writer of tough, action-oriented screenplays (HARD TIMES, THE WARRIORS, THE DRIVER, Peckinpah's THE GETAWAY).

Shane Black cites him as a huge influence. Take one look at their screenplays and you'll know exactly what Black is talking about.

It was from Hill that Black co-opted the terse "action-stacking" technique that make his screenplays so muscular and fun to breeze through.

Action stacking is lean, stripped-down writing intended primarily for speed. It is fragmentary. Verb-heavy. Designed to yank your eyeball directly down the page in short explosive bursts of stacatto prose. Example...

David types.
Half-drunk.
Fingers flying over keys.
Lips dangling a Lucky Strike.
The telephone RINGS.

You could say it owes a great debt to Western Union. It's telagrammatic. Mostly free of articles, adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions. Just noun, verb. Noun, verb.

Like the writing equivalent of working a speedbag.

Thanks to Shane Black's script for the original LETHAL WEAPON (1987), a lot of writers are employing this technique now, but sparingly, and usually only for action scenes. I first encountered it in Hill and David Giler's rewrite of ALIEN, but Hill says he didn't pioneer the style. The true innovator, according to Hill, is screenwriter Alexander Jacobs, who wrote his script for the John Boorman thriller POINT BLANK (which I would love to get hold of) in this fashion way back in 1967.

But Hill claims he took Jacobs style and refined it; made it his own.

Hill only wrote a few scripts entirely in this manner (HARD TIMES, THE WARRIORS, THE DRIVER), mostly in the mid to late-1970's, but one of my goals at some point is to write my own spec screenplay in pure, unadulterated "Hill-speak."

Or rather, take Walter Hill's technique and refine it; make it my own.

4 comments:

  1. Great post. I stumbled on your blog by accident...and was surprised to see you've been stealth blogging for a month now. Well, now the secret is out buddy.

    Lee

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post. I stumbled on your blog by accident...and was surprised to see you've been stealth blogging for a month now. Well, now the secret is out buddy.

    Lee

    ReplyDelete
  3. Walter Hill is one of the greats. I worked on several of his films as a stand-in back in the day, and then had the good fortune to have him direct one of my pilots.

    He is amazing to be around, and his stories of the 70's are classic.

    Re: the stacking issue - since the Black era of the 80's, followed by the Tarantino/Avary era, there now seems to be a bit of a negative blowback to that style of writing - if you're not already established as a major name.

    It's seen as being dated, because it got so much hype over the last 20 years. At least that's what I hear from execs and agents on the dubject. Who knows?

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  4. Hey Paul --

    Dear God. I envy anybody who even KNOWS Walter Hill, let alone got to see him direct one of their scripts. Way to go, dude! What was the project?

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