Monday, December 28, 2009

The Auteurs Behind the Guy... Behind the Guy – Part 2

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In the last post I offered some techniques toward getting information across in screenplays by other means than the obvious ones such as explicit direction and/or technical jargon. Such methods alienate the other contributors on the film. But, perhaps even worse, they reduce a script’s readability. This is because they pull the reader out of a deeper immersion in the narrative. Yet, writers need to tell us their movie. Not some recipe for a movie, but, as closely as can be rendered on the page, the experience of the movie, itself. I am not referring to writing every detail within the universe revealed by the eventual film. I mean writing a written version of the movie as it should play, the movie in the writer’s head.

So writers need to get across their vision of the movie that the script represents. It’s not good enough to write it in some style-neutral (or style-neutered) manner, wherein they just indicate the dialogue and action in such an antiseptic way that there is no point-of-view. As I’ve said, filling a script with CUT TOs and DISSOLVEs and EXTREME CLOSE UPs and BEATs and DOLLY BACKs and RACK FOCUS and PAN UP and TRACK LEFT, etc., etc. makes it a tough read. Fine-grained set and character descriptions make it far worse. So I suggest writers show us the images they see in their head.

In my screenplay, The Sleep of Reason, a prequel to the original Stoker story of Dracula, I tell Renfield’s story. I had always wondered how, in the original novel, the vampire, still aboard ship, having never set foot in England, was able to know and communicate with the lunatic, Renfield, aged 52, and locked away in the madhouse. I theorized that they had met before, long ago, when Renfield was a sane young man. But then, the question of how Renfield escaped the fate of the undead arose. There lies a tale, I felt.

So, I divined it: Renfield, a young solicitor, meets and saves the life of a young American woman. They fall in love, and, against his father’s wishes, they marry. Renfield’s family cuts him off. Heading to the continent for their honeymoon, they embark on a “back-country” tour of Europe on-the-cheap. Somewhere in Romania, they take a room at an Inn. The journey, up to this point, has been growing ever-more romantic.

It is a warm night, and Elsbeth goes to the windows, opens them, and stands, looking at the view:

A winding, rushing stream on the opposite side of the road stretches into the gathering darkness with black silhouettes of the huge Carpathian mountain peaks looming endlessly beyond.

(calling out to the night)
Hello night... Hello Romania...
Hello Carpathians. I want to see
all of you. I invite the moon, 
the wind, all of Transylvania
all of your magic, to join us 
tonight, right here in our room 
at this quaint little inn. Come 
to us, be with us. We want to 
see and know and experience... 
Renfield watches her, amused. He can’t help smiling at her innocent enthusiasm.

Rising, he moves to their door.

I’m going down to get some pipe
tobacco from the Inn-Keeper. 
I’ll return straight-away. You’re
not to leave with either the wind
or Transylvania because I’ve my 
own plans for you.

She just laughs, enjoying a sudden strong breeze as it blows the curtains inward, sending her blond curls flying.


Renfield exits the room and closes the door, the SOUND of the LOCK turning in the door.

With the dark shape of the Inn surrounding her, Elsbeth stands at the window, looking out. And, downward, seen through the front window of the floor below, Renfield comes down the stairs, steps up to the desk, and speaks to the Inn-Keeper.

Renfield is handed a pack of tobacco, and he pays with a coin, waving off any change.

Renfield turns and heads back up the stairs.

Above, at their room’s window, the curtains now hang outside the sill. Elsbeth is no longer at the window.

As Renfield re-enters, using his key, he sees that she is now gone, the window open and empty where she stood.

He calls for her, looks about the room, and then at the key, still in his hand.

He moves to their window, a small figure peering out, looking for his bride. But she is gone.

He remains there, framed in the little Inn’s window, a tiny figure seeming to shrink even smaller, alone and helpless, a victim of forces beyond his ken.

As the village goes to sleep around the Inn, the streets now empty and darkening, he moves about the amber-lit room, then back to the window, again and again, peering out, into the same darkness which has begun to fill his soul.

I wanted to convey a feeling of intensifying loss: First surprise; then shock and fear; followed by a sense of utter helplessness, utter despair. The idea I had was to describe the action in such a way that it suggested a single initial shot.

So, we are outside, some distance back, looking in. Elsbeth is at the window, surrounded by the Inn. But, looking down, we can see the action of Renfield below her, too. When we look back up at the window, she is now gone. All in a single shot. Then Renfield enters, sees she is gone, looks for her, comes to the open window and gazes out, into the dark night.

The last three paragraphs then convey an increasingly wider view of the same shot, Renfield in the window, a small, lost figure, surrounded by the frame of the open window. Renfield in the window, surrounded by the little Inn. Renfield in the window, the sleeping town around him. All of this was told without a camera direction, without a PAN or CUT TO. Instead, it directed the reader/viewer’s eye, what they would see, and as each paragraph transitioned to the next, this was greater and greater real estate. It conveyed my vision of the event.

The second example is from my screenplay, The Jupe. This is a haunted house story set in an old movie palace. A family, on the run from killers, is hidden in a small town by U.S. Marshals. The father is given a job in a theater chain in Kansas City, but first he is asked to learn movie exhibition by re-opening an old movie theater in a small town as a revival house. So the family begins the process of re-vitalizing the Jupiter theater. But they are living in fear, knowing their pursuers are hunting them. And their fear awakens something worse in the Jupiter theater, itself. They have two kids, one of whom is an 8-year old girl, studying the violin in a Suzuki program. The entity awakening in the theater feeds on fear, and over time it begins to physically manifest. In this scene, the daughter, C.C., practices her violin.  


Alone, C.C. practices her violin.

The large room encloses her. She plays around a musical phrase.

Gradually, her playing becomes sparer, of fewer notes, and slower. Almost obsessively, she repeats the phrase... carefully... empha­tically.

She sits in her chair, her legs crossed before her, her jaw grimly set in a dark scowl.

The musical phrase has changed, now. It has distorted, become a brooding, animal sound, a low moan. The notes are there, but the pitch and length of time they are held has become dif­ferent, almost bizarre.

Her hand works the bow, her fingers the strings, as her small frame remains eerily motionless.

C.C.’s eyes are cold, now, her head tilted to keep the violin to her chin. She seems to eye US, staring right at US, but seeing someone, something--else. Her expression is almost menacing, matching the angry tones from the instrument.

Rock steady, her eyes impale US, STARING RIGHT THROUGH US.

The idea here was to do the scene in a single shot, one that begins across the room and gradually moves in on C.C. until it finishes on her eyes, staring straight at the viewer. It was intended to chill us, as her playing, simultaneously, has taken on a distorted, menacing quality, supporting the eerie tension built by the visual. Again, there were no technical directions. And yet, the scene was directed for the eye in the action descriptions. Each paragraph moves us incrementally closer to her. This is almost subliminal, as it merely tells us what is seen, but in nearly each case that is less than the paragraph before it.

Now the director may well ignore all of this. But with such techniques, a vision is put across, and in a way that is readable and supports the tone of the story. As persuasion for a view of the story, it is far more effective than filling the script with jargon and minutia.

The quote of these posts was by artist, Jackson Pollock: “I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.” It means rendering the thing not some once-removed aspect about the thing. If they see the film you tell them, they just may make it. #


Lee A. Matthias

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