Fellini’s Screenplay

Forgive me if I get this story wrong; it’s probably apocryphal anyway. It’s about the great director Federico Fellini and his screenplay for La Dolce Vita (1960).

The original producer/financier was Dino de Laurentiis. Apparently, Dino put up the money based entirely on Fellini’s genius. He had no idea what the movie was going to be about.

Pre-production began. Dino started getting nervous. Charges were mounting up, the budget was escalating. He asked Fellini if he could see the screenplay, just to get an idea of how expensive the project was going to be. Fellini kept putting him off with one excuse or another. Finally, Dino (I can’t remember how, maybe through a friend other than Fellini) got his hands on the screenplay.

A normal movie script is between 90 and 120 pages. Fellini’s was eight. And it had no words. It was just a collection of sketches and doodles, comprehensible to Fellini and nobody else.

Dino bailed. Fellini had to find other ways of financing the production.

Federico Fellini 1920-1993

A couple of weeks ago, I chanced upon a video interview with Fellini. He wasn’t talking about La Dolce Vita specifically, just his “creative process” as a filmmaker. If you’ve never seen video of Fellini, he’s incredibly charming and funny. But there’s no way to pin him down. He’s like liquid mercury. And he speaks good English with a delightful Italian accent. 

“Why should I know in advance,” he said, “where I am going? If I travel from New York to San Francisco by car, do I want to know that I will meet so-and-so in Topeka and we will do such-and-such? No! That is not life! It is not fun! Yes, I want to know I am going to San Francisco … and maybe that I will stop in St. Louis or Omaha. But I don’t want to know who I will meet or what I will do.”

I just watched La Dolce Vita (for probably the twentieth time) a few nights ago. It is GREAT. From start to finish, it’s deep and charming and visual and poignant, with unforgettable scene after unforgettable scene. The film holds up completely, even after sixty-four years.

So if you’re working on a screenplay and all you’ve got are eight pages of doodles, don’t worry. You may be sitting on a work of genius.

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30 Comments

  1. Wendy Aridela on May 29, 2024 at 2:01 am

    What a great story! Thanks for that!

  2. Heather on May 29, 2024 at 2:11 am

    Thanks for your encouragement
    keep on moving forward

  3. Tolis on May 29, 2024 at 2:40 am

    Thank you so much dear Steve.

    Gods, my post was erased so I write it again.

    First I wrote you that from the trailer I felt that this movie is rigorous, invigorating, and a must see.

    Then I wrote you that I identify with Fellini. Because I also have my own way completely as it seems. It may be silly, langsam, untested. But it is my very own gift, and I’m proud for that. It’s me.

    In following our way, what I theoritically believe is that we must hunt for perfection doing that. Anything else may perhaps most surely fall apart, because a work that is not commercially oriented has edges that may be so many and so rough, that only perfection can then bring them to a normal for the audience state.

    Perfection and Freedom strongly bound? Hmm!

    Only the end will show. And even then there is the major factor of Luck, and that should not be taken for granted whether for positive or negative.

  4. Garry on May 29, 2024 at 2:56 am

    Fantastic post Steve. Thank you for that. As Orwell one said, ‘ Art, like wild animals, cannot be bred in caoptivity’.

  5. Hubert Grealish on May 29, 2024 at 3:10 am

    Great reminded to forget the ‘format’ sometimes for the ‘plan’ and to visualize it more, feel it out. FELL-INI even, to play with that more!

    It reminds me also of Stphen King who says regarding notes and stories, he says if an idea is good enough it’ll hang around long enough. nice.

    Permission to share and repost via my friends’ aimed wee mailer ( hube.substack.com ) with a plug of course.

    Thank you!

  6. Hubert Grealish on May 29, 2024 at 3:13 am

    doh! *FEEL-ini rather!

  7. Gregory on May 29, 2024 at 4:33 am

    Just what I needed, Steven. My “script” is about 7-8 doodles too.

  8. Stan Hustad on May 29, 2024 at 4:35 am

    Good work Steve and of course it’s me Stan the radio man. You are certainly a good writer and are on the verge of greatness. I’ll continue to challenge you that in the booking business today you will also have to be in the broadcasting business starting now.

    Here is my challenge to you and in front of your dear friends. Take this article and turn it in to a spoken word conversation. And do it on a video so that we can even experience not only your words but your body language your energy and your personality and then find three of your favorite scenes from LoDolce that characterize and demonstrate what you’re talking about.

    Then tell us why they are your favorite.

    I guarantee you we would all be interested in not only reading you but hearing from you!

    Remember we are all in the business of steering the mind, moving the spirit within and even touching the heart.

    Deep affection and appreciation to you

    Stan

  9. Jackie on May 29, 2024 at 6:26 am

    Two thumbs up for those of us who wander and are not lost!

  10. Erika Warner on May 29, 2024 at 7:42 am

    This is so sweet . Thank you for supporting us. Thank you for believing in us .

  11. Daniel Colon on May 29, 2024 at 7:49 am

    Beautiful. I think there’s something very valuable in the act of pushing through, or even embracing, the unknown–sometimes I find my best paintings are the ones that kept me in the dark the longest.

    • Susanne Dejanovich on May 29, 2024 at 9:18 pm

      I love what you said Daniel; about embracing the unknown.
      I enjoy everyone’s comments here and am grateful to Stephen .

  12. Michael Werner Esser on May 29, 2024 at 8:00 am

    I had the opportunity to be on the set of Fellini’s last film, La Voce della Luna (The Voice of the Moon), at Cinecitta, Rome’s famous studio complex. It was a hot summer afternoon, just after noon, everyone was tired and exhausted from the heat and the sumptuous meal they had just consumed. Then Fellini entered the studio, in his trademark black coat, and it was as if he had brought a magic wand. The heaviness disappeared like a low blanket of clouds blown away by a fresh breeze, everyone woke up like in a fairy tale where a spell is lifted from the enchanted castle. He brought the film, the story, and within seconds it was in everyone’s heart and mind, and when shooting began, the crew worked as if by magic, driven by a shared understanding of what they were doing, and you could read joy and commitment on everyone’s faces.

    • Kathy on May 29, 2024 at 8:05 am

      Michael, 💜💜💜!!!

  13. Kathy on May 29, 2024 at 8:03 am

    Ohhh my gosh, thank you. Thank you for giving me license to give myself license. The notion that ideas are clear to me in doodles and poems and that they express what might be formed in another medium; to not let go of what I feel inspired by, no matter how fragmented; to believe in myself. Thank you for sharing this inspired story 🍃🌸🍃

  14. Johne Cook on May 29, 2024 at 8:39 am

    As a writer with ADHD, this resonates with me.

  15. Kat on May 29, 2024 at 8:56 am

    “Fellini’s Screenplay” sounds like a great title for a book!
    I never sketch before painting, maybe a small doodle. I want the energy in the work itself and to have a conversation with it as I go. The strategic mind wants to prepare, the creative mind wants to fly. Thanks for you post Steven.

  16. Michaela on May 29, 2024 at 9:04 am

    I am again and again so glad I found my way here and I love seeing your emails in my inbox.

  17. Aaron C on May 29, 2024 at 9:26 am

    I’m not going to call myself a genius, but I remember in college I had to submit a treatment for a screenplay, and the professor told me “I don’t see how you make a script out of this – there’s really not much here.” I eventually submitted the script and when I got it back, the professor gave me an A and had marked a few notes and said when I was done with the script he wanted to put it in the collection for budding filmmakers to grab from if they needed something for a final project.

    I noted that I had some other things I’d like to change as well, but “I’ll get it back to you straight away.” Then my bent for perfectionism and procrastination took over and I never did submit it. It’s sitting in a box in my basement somewhere… For the last 35 years.

  18. LauraLee Pritt on May 29, 2024 at 9:57 am

    Love this!

  19. Danny T on May 29, 2024 at 10:45 am

    I was lost for so long. Resistance kicked my ass real early I hid for decades behind false and easy identites from the darkest( criminal)to the brightess! ( Religion). By grace I happened to stumble on 70 years. I didn’t get the girl,I never found my soul mate. But I did find my muse. At the center of my being. It beckons,” No ones vision is quite the same. To express what you see And feel,That’s a right ! Right? I was lost for so long

  20. Fernando Bérdi on May 29, 2024 at 12:40 pm

    Bravíssimo!
    É isso aí, Steven. O bom roteiro tem alma. E alma não tem tamanho.

  21. Patricia Madson on May 29, 2024 at 3:09 pm

    Yes, his advice is exactly what an improvisor does, except she doesn’t need to have a destination (San Francisco) in mind. She sets out to discover where she is and what is next will appear. And thank you for the movie tip. Time to watch again.
    Cheers and hugs
    Patricia

  22. Ed lovern I on May 30, 2024 at 3:53 pm

    Just lost my response. But at 87, that’s not unusual. Your message today brought back memories of my working with four true geniuses at JWalter Thompson back in 1972.
    I feel that I know you well, enjoy your deli posts, and still pay close attention. After almost 70 years of writing for pay, I am now trying to write a play. Someday, I would really enjoy meeting and talking with you. Ed Lovern

  23. Jesse on May 30, 2024 at 4:21 pm

    Thank you! 🙏

  24. Ed Lovern on May 31, 2024 at 7:16 pm

    Thank you for another great morning! It’s now a day later; you remind me of my my working with four geniuses at Jay Thompson and 1961. I will. I am now 88 now 87., J finished writing my first play. I’ve been writing for a living, since I was 15, but I’m still learning and enjoying life and you every day. Thanks.

    • Ed Lovern on May 31, 2024 at 7:20 pm

      That was supposed to be J Walter Thompson NY

  25. Sean Crawford on June 1, 2024 at 10:27 pm

    Once I was giving a small group seminar when someone burst out to me, “I just realized: You’re an oral learner. My LD (learning disabled) kids talk like you.” My boss had also said that about me. I’m still not sure what that means, but I won’t be against anyone preparing a script without a print bias.

    For formal speeches I found it worked best to composing by saying different versions out until I liked what I had, then write down what I said, (point form) then start editing on paper from there.

    So yes, for preparing a script I could imagine someone using point form and doodles.

    Meanwhile, a certain successful fiction writer dictates as he walks and then has his words transcribed, as he is successful enough to afford a typist.

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