A few words from Ingmar Bergman on screenwriting

Ingmar Bergman (r.) and cinematographer Sven Nykvist (l.) in 1960, probably knocking off another masterwork before lunch.

In honor of Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007), who passed away five years ago this Monday: The following is an excerpt from a 1960 magazine article by Bergman. By that point he had already directed something like 20 features, including The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night and Summer with Monika.

“A film for me begins with something very vague — a chance remark or a bit of conversation, a hazy but agreeable event unrelated to any particular situation. It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street.

“These are split-second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, yet leave behind a mood — like pleasant dreams. It is a mental state, not an actual story, but one abounding in fertile associations and images. Most of all, it is a brightly colored thread sticking out of the dark sack of the unconscious. If I begin to wind up this thread, and do so carefully, a complete film will emerge.

“…If this embryonic substance seems to have enough strength to be made into a film, I decide to materialize it. Then comes something very complicated and difficult: the transformation of rhythms, moods, atmosphere, tensions, sequences, tones and scents into words and sentences, into an understandable screenplay.

“This is an almost impossible task.

“The only thing that can be satisfactorily transferred from that original complex of rhythms and moods is the dialogue, and even dialogue is a sensitive substance that may offer resistance. Written dialogue is like a musical score, almost incomprehensible to the average person. Its interpretation demands a technical knack plus a certain kind of imagination and feeling — qualities that are often lacking even among actors.

“One can write dialogue, but how it should be delivered, its rhythm and tempo, what is to take place between the lines — all this must be omitted for practical reasons. A script with that much detail would be unreadable. I try to squeeze instructions as to location, characterization, and atmosphere into my screenplays in understandable terms, but the success of this depends on my writing ability and the perceptiveness of the reader, which are not predictable. …Thus the script is a very imperfect technical basis for a film.

“… the writing of a script is a difficult period but a useful one, for it compels me to prove logically the validity of my ideas.”

Excerpted from “Why I Make Movies,” written by Bergman for Horizon Magazine in 1960. That year Bergman directed The Virgin Spring (a.k.a. Jungfrukällan), winner of a Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival, and winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

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