Week 3: The Director’s Vision (may not match the writer’s)

I discovered something fascinating recently while I was watching the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet. As an aspiring screenwriter I have always been aware of the director’s potential to alter the tone of what was written and this film presented me with a brilliant example.

Up until watching this film my only other exposure to the play was Baz Luhrmann’s film version. Of course Mr. Luhrmann took huge creative liberties by updating the film to a more modern time and transforming the feuding families into gun slinging gangsters. However, my main interest lies in the pivotal scenes where Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo enter into mortal combat.

While Baz Luhrmann’s version is distinctive in that the battle takes place with guns and cars rather than swords, his tone is similar to what I expected after reading the scene. Mercutio and Tybalt aggressively attack one another and Tybalt takes advantage of Romeo’s interference delivering the fatal blow (gunshot in this instance) to Mercutio. Soon after, Romeo kills Tybalt in a rage of vengeance. Each assailant is intent on killing his adversary.

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Zeffirelli takes a totally different track. In his film Mercutio and Tybalt’s fight seems more of a fool hardy skirmish between two young bucks vying for alpha status. The killing of Mercutio appears to be a tragic accident that occurred during the confusion of Romeo’s intervening. Tybalt even has the opportunity to finish off Mercutio at one stage and reneges allowing him to rejoin the fight.

Romeo’s revenge duel with Tybalt, although begun in anger, still does not seem to be intent on the death of his foe. The fatal blow is struck when Tybalt falls on Romeo’s sword and both seem quite shocked. Zeffirelli appears to have taken the young age of the boys into account in his version. Yes, their families are involved in a bitter feud and they must fight and exude machismo, but killing is not something that is done lightly. It is most likely that the sword fights would have ceased at a savage cut. Once blood was shed a victor could be announced.

The lesson for me is this: If you are writing a script or screenplay never get too attached to it exactly as you imagine it. Performance is a collaborative effort and once all the artists have had their input (Directors, actors, musicians and so on) it will very probably be quite different from your original imagining. Hopefully it will be enhanced. Not even The Bard is immune.