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The Art of Screenwriting: Ingmar Bergman

Mastering the art of scriptwriting requires learning from the finest, and Ingmar Bergman stands out as an essential figure in this pursuit. Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest and most influential film directors in history, Bergman boasts a prolific career with over 60 films and documentaries under his belt–works for which he served as both director and writer, spanning film, television, and more.


Given his impressive body of work, it is evident that Bergman is a formidable source from which to draw valuable insights, particularly in scriptwriting. This installment of The Art of Screenwriting delves into Bergman's prowess, exploring how he crafts narratives and his distinctive Mise-en-scène. Nevertheless, let’s dive into the intricacies of Bergman's writing style!


Photo credit: The Cinema Archives


Ingmar Bergman’s Backstory


Ingmar Bergman was a renowned Swedish film writer and director. He gained international acclaim for notable works such as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence.


Bergman's cinematic artistry is characterized by versatile camerawork and a fragmented narrative style, contributing to his stark portrayal of human loneliness, vulnerability, and torment.


Many of his films have religious overtones. Even in instances where the conflict experienced by his film characters lacks explicit religious context, an exploration of the quest for moral standards of judgment exists. It involves meticulous scrutiny of actions and motives regarding good and evil, right and wrong–a theme that resonates strongly with someone raised in a devoutly religious household.


Another influence during Bergman's formative years was the exposure to religious art, particularly the raw yet vivid depictions of Bible stories and parables adorning rural Swedish churches. These artistic representations fascinated him, instilling a profound interest in the visual presentation of ideas, notably the concept of evil personified in the figure of the Devil.


Distinctive Themes


If we were to sit and analyze Bergman’s catalog, it’d take us all day, considering he’s involved in 60 films and documentaries over almost six decades. In general, Bergman’s works encompass psychology, faith, and relationships. Additionally, his diverse approach ranges from abstract and symbolic to a more realistic style.


By weaving together recurring environments, themes, characters, stylistic devices, and collaborations with specific actors and film crews, Bergman has crafted a distinctive cinematic realm that almost transcends a traditional genre–it's almost a genre in itself.


Many have said that while Alfred Hitchcock embodies the psychological thriller, with occasional forays into other genres, Bergman is the quintessential figure for existential and philosophical relationship dramas despite his ventures into diverse cinematic genres.


Reality vs Art and Free Writing


Bergman's body of work is expansive and diverse, characterized by continually rejuvenating and reimagining old concepts into new narratives. Drawing parallels with playfulness and space, Bergman's creative process allows for freedom within established boundaries.


Bergman was known to have a disciplined approach through his daily writing routine and meticulous choices of writing instruments. He dedicated three hours daily to writing, carefully selecting pens and paper for their roles in shaping his creative process. It’s a matter of sticking to a routine to allow the creative juices to flow.


Furthermore, while not known for comedies, Bergman's humoristic side in his writing is one aspect of his creative work. It’s distinct from the serious tone, demonic presence, or anxiety prevalent in his overall body of work.


Literary Screenplays


Bergman typically develops his scripts through three iterations: an initial handwritten draft, followed by a typed working script, which undergoes subsequent revisions to become the shooting script. There is also a published version, distinct from any script iterations but most similar to the shooting script.


Bergman's approach to screenwriting exemplifies auteurist filmmaking, wherein the director has significant control over the filmmaking process. This freedom eliminates the need to adapt scripts for various readers or create multiple versions with technical instructions.


Unlike conventional filmmaking, Bergman's screenplays undergo fewer revisions between versions, particularly regarding phrasing and stylistic changes. Notably, these aspects have minimal alteration from the initial handwritten script to other versions.


As a result, many have regarded Ingmar Bergman’s scripts as the more literary side of the writing world. While many argue about the necessity of keeping scripts condensed and not reading like a book, that’s not the case when you have a proven auteur in Bergman. That comes with success, but developing a writing style similar to your preference is vital.


My Favorite Bergman Films


The Seventh Seal (1957) - A knight returning to Sweden after the Crusades seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague.


Persona (1966) - A nurse manages a mute actress and finds their personae melding together.


Through a Glass Darkly (1961) - Recently released from a mental hospital, Karin rejoins her emotionally disconnected family in their island home, only to slip from reality as she begins to believe God is visiting her.

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