Friday, April 23, 2010

Studio Stories X – Becoming that Barbarian at the Gate

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.


The question of using traditional cinematic devices like voice-over (V.O.) narration, flashback, and lengthy dialogue scenes when the narrative demands it is an ongoing issue for screenwriters, especially new or unproduced screenwriters.

The standard “screenwriting expert’s” response has been to tell new writers NOT to use such techniques. Initially the reason given was that they didn’t have the experience and expertise to use such narratively “dangerous” styles (because it was feared scripts could become hackneyed very easily). Later, the “experts” said that new writers’ “spec” scripts should break no rules because it might threaten the sale. And, of course, such “wisdom” resulted in LOTS of material being self-censored to the point that some may well have failed to sell because they were too pat. And most recently, they’ve argued that new writers should break no rules until they have achieved a sale and “earned” such right. Here is where the experts expose themselves: they want new writers to stay “barefoot and pregnant,” to stop being “uppity.” Why? Simple: shepherds need a flock.

I’ve said it before: it’s all a matter of degree. Weak story-craft and the use of “devices” like narration or flashbacks do not go hand-in-hand. There are appropriate uses of any and all techniques available to writers. If audiences are narratively sophisticated enough not to need certain cinematic conventions, then writers can be narratively sophisticated enough to know when those same conventions can yet work. If a story can resonate with audiences and readers but it breaks some guru rule, does anyone honestly think a buyer is going to think twice about it? “We would have bought that script, it had a GREAT story to tell, but that 8-page dialogue scene in the second act killed the deal.” On the other hand, if many or most of the script’s dialogue scenes run well over the thumb-rule limit of 3 pages, then the writer may have a problem. If the script is told almost entirely through narration, or it bounces all over time through excessive flashbacks, then the gatekeepers may have a valid point. Degree. Judgment. Practice. And experience.

I suggest the experts get the Hell out of the way and let the scripts stand or fall as written. If a writer has the commitment and inspiration and craft to turn out a story that, in all other respects, has the mark of a serviceable job done, then that writer has the expertise to well-use such techniques. And if the story would sell without the presence of the stylistic, then it can, in all likelihood, sell with it. Why? Because the first thing that happens to a spec once sold is that it gets re-written. If the order comes down: “Lose the V.O.” said V.O. will get lost. If dialogue drags, dialogue will be cut.

In his interview in Screenwriters’ Masterclass, Edited by Kevin Conroy Scott, Faber & Faber Ltd. 2005, p. 11, Ted Tally described writing The Silence of the Lambs:

Tally – Jodie Foster commented that if we’d had a less sympathetic studio they would have made us cut down those long scenes between Clarice and Lecter, eight-page scenes where they’re just static, two people talking to each other. They wouldn’t have accepted it or understood that it’s the heart of the movie, it’s not just filler waiting for the next action scene.

Scott – Each of those scenes really crackles.

Tally – Well, it’s just great dialogue, and a lot of it is just verbatim from (the novel of) Thomas Harris. It’s like a fencing match, but with sexual overtures. Those things play like they’re theater. I was a little worried that I was giving a director a very difficult job to keep that visually interesting. I was aware that I was dumping a very big slab on him and normally I try to be more sensitive towards a director. But there was no other way to do this. I kept them as short as I could but there was a limit to how much they could be cut.

In writer-director, Cameron Crowe’s book-length interview of writer-director, Billy Wilder, Conversations With Wilder, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, p. 108 - 9, Wilder says:

Who wrote the rules? There are no rules. every picture there is something that would take 6 to 12 pages to explain, and I can do it in 6 to 12 seconds by having a voice-over. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

And later,

Voice-over is good as long as you are not describing what the audience is already seeing.

And New York Times correspondent, Sharon Waxman, in her book, Rebels on the Backlot, HarperCollins, 2005, pp. 175-6, had this to say about voice-over narration:

[Screenwriter, Jim] Uhls had worked from a draft (of Fight Club) written by Ross Bell that had no voice-over, following a Hollywood rule that voice-overs were hackneyed and trite. [Director, David] Fincher disagreed, saying the humor in the movie came from the narrator’s voice, and put the voice-over back in. Apparently several other cutting-edge filmmakers agreed, because the long-abandoned device also showed up in American Beauty, the elegantly tortured film by another voice of the new generation of filmmakers, Sam Mendes. In that film it was Kevin Spacey, already dead, who narrated. (In the years that followed, voice-over again became an acceptable, even common device, with Charlie Kaufman finally poking fun at the ironclad Hollywood “rule” in Adaptation, in which his self-referential character Charles Kaufman sits in Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminar. While Kaufman’s thoughts are heard in voice-over, McKee is shouting that only an idiot would use voice-over as a device in a movie.)

To all the writers out there who have struggled year in and year out attempting to write screenplays that fit what the gurus and experts proclaim selling scripts must be: 
Ignore the experts. Write to your passion. Tell your stories effectively, and any “old” way that does the job. Become that story’s champion. Become that gatekeeper’s “barbarian” at that gate, and breach those walls.  # 
Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post: 
If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door.
--- Milton Berle

Thursday, April 15, 2010

People Will Talk V – David Lean & The Last Bus

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.


Director, David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago), was interviewed by Gerald Pratley for the CBC:

Pratley -’s so discouraging that a film opens, it runs four hours, or three and a half or whatever it is, and then we hear these stories starting that somebody at the studio has decided to take out ten minutes and someone else is going to take out ten minutes...

Lean - Well, I’ll tell you... I have a certain amount of sympathy because it’s a question... it all boils down to the last bus. If the film is four hours long, they have to go in at seven o’clock, which is a bit early to be out by eleven and perhaps the last bus goes at five minutes to eleven. And so they beg to cut it down. And then, of course the critics, I think, have had a great influence here because they get pretty bored, I suppose. They see too many films, and they always complain about the length of films. Any film over two hours you’re liable to get a kick for it. And I think that’s the danger of every artist.

--– Interviews with Film Directors, by Andrew Sarris, The Bobbs-Merrill Co., p. 320.

I’d comment, but I’ve got to catch a bus. # 
Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:
I think people remember pictures, not dialogue. That's why I like pictures.
---David Lean

Friday, April 9, 2010

Next Year at Marienbad: Films with “The Complexity of Thought”

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.


Having gone on record preferring films with ideas, complexity, and ambiguity that challenges viewers even as they entertain them, I find the comments below both fascinating and prescient. I believe filmed narrative will eventually transcend its current preoccupation with depicting impossibilities and absurdities to the exclusion of almost all else. After all, how many different ways can you blow something up, or get wasted and have sex? Even the DC and Marvel Comics pantheons have limited populations suitable for adaptation to movies. And, if I’m wrong, well, that faith still gets me through.

In Interviews With Film Directors, Edited by Andrew Sarris, The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967, pp. 439 - 46, director Alain Resnais, in speaking of his remarkably seminal film, Last Year At Marienbad, discussed his approach to its conception and style of discourse:

For me the film is an attempt, still very crude and primitive, to approach the complexity of thought and its mechanism. But I stress the fact that this is only a tiny step forward by comparison with what we should be able to do someday. I find that as soon as we delve into the Unconscious, an emotion may be born...  I believe that, in life, we don’t think chronologically, that our decisions never correspond to an ordered logic. All of us have ‘clouds,’ things which determine us but which are not a logical succession of acts arranged in perfect sequence. I am interested in exploring that universe, from the point of view of truth, if not of morality. (Italics mine)

“I am interested in exploring that universe (thought), from the point of view of truth, if not of morality.” It seems to me that standard Hollywood movie narrative, believe it or not, is all about Resnais’ “morality.” Today’s films, perhaps more than those of earlier periods, seem obsessed with morality questions. Everything from Iron Man to The Hangover to The Hurt Locker has, as a pivotal element, ethical conflict dispensed from a moral viewpoint. Resnais prefers truth to morality. Why? Perhaps because truth is constant, while morality is relative.

For example, you (China) see yourself in a world with threatening political systems all around you. But you have an advantage: you have a much greater population of peasant workers who can out-compete the rest of the world. But you know you need to maximize that or be transcended by your closest competitor (India) who is populous, too. So you compel your population to produce fewer girls because males form the predominant industrial work-force. A kind of state-genocidal imperative becomes patriotic, a moral choice made for the long-term good at the expense of half its children.

But Resnais is interested in telling his truths at the speed and manner of thought. He likens it not as extruded through the standard Hollywood narrative’s toothpaste tube, in a linear progression, cause to effect. Rather he sees thought as a cloud within which the mind apparently wanders, making sense of it (or not) as it will. Dreams always seem more reasonable to us while dreaming them than they do when we are awake and recalling them. Resnais wants his films to be dreams. To get at truths we otherwise might never realize. 


For MARIENBAD, we (Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet) made a complete chronology on graph paper. And we always said before beginning any scene with the actors: ‘This scene follows, on the level of the montage, such and such a scene, but in terms of its degree of reality, it follows another scene which will appear much later in the film.’ Moreover, very often, I would film a bit from the preceding scene, in order to work from the continuity and not from the cue itself. Of course, this chronology was established once the scenario (the script) was finished. For example, all costume changes naturally correspond to different pieces of time. This is certainly not the key to the film, if indeed there is one. But it is true that we could re-edit the film so as to restore the chronological order of the scenes. We might imagine, for example, that the film extends over a week, or at least that everything which is in the present takes from Sunday to Sunday inclusive. Which doesn’t keep Robbe-Grillet from saying: ‘Perhaps it happens in five minutes.’ This is consistent with the dilation of time in dreams, insofar as we understand the mechanism of dreams.

Alain Robbe-Grillet adds:

Very curiously, the people who reproach MARIENBAD for being ‘contrived’ are those who accept as spontaneous works which respect fixed rules of contrivance, recipes, norms. And these people reason as if there were a previously existent reality and as if it were no more than a question of finding the forms which would make a good understanding of the story available to the public.
At another point in the interview, Resnais adds:

One must know to what extent one can share one’s subjective reality with ‘everyone,’ in the sense that we all have two eyes, hair, a thought, etc. One arrives quite naturally at the notion of a planetary Unconscious.


When I see a film, I am more interested in the play of feelings than in the characters. I think we could arrive at a Cinema without psychologically definite characters, in which the feelings would have free play in the way that, in a contemporary canvas, the play of forms becomes stronger than the anecdote.

I found Last Year at Marienbad, itself, to be boring. I could not relate to the characters. I didn’t care what their issues were. But I found its narrative approach fascinating and worthy of use in cases where the events were compelling. Imagine a favorite film in which the emotional stakes are both universal and powerful, told instead in this manner. Imagine characters we cared about, loose in Resnais’ filmic world. These would rival, if not equal, our own dreams, our own nightmares. And they would compel us and intrigue us to re-visit again and again. #


Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

I want to know what happens next, not what happened Last Year at Marienbad.
---I.A.L. Diamond

Thursday, April 1, 2010

People Will Talk IV - James Cameron on Endings

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 his interview in American Screenwriters, Edited by Karl Schanzer & Thomas Lee Wright, Avon, 1993, p. 65, screenwriter and director, James Cameron said this about satisfying endings:

A screenplay can be running along great, and all the dramatics are working very well, and then it has an ambivalent ending, or maybe the studio tacked on a different ending. For me, any ending that could go different ways is the wrong kind of ending. There should be one true and proper ending that’s satisfying to the audience.
And in another interview in A Cut Above, Michael Singer, Lone Eagle, 1998, p. 34 – 5, Cameron said:

When I walk out of a theater these days, fifty percent of the time I don’t know what the movie was about. And I don’t like that feeling. For my own personal taste, I like to have a certain clarity of intention. I think you have to have something to hope for. When you watch a football game, you’re cheering for your team to make a touchdown. And for an audience to invest themselves in a film, I think they have to understand what the ground rules are. I also see a lot of films these days that don’t have an ending. They have great characters, set pieces that are fun, but the endings seem to be modular—they could have done it differently. The best films, to me, are the ones that can have only one ending. When I hear people shooting different endings for a movie I say, “God, how can you do that?” For me the ending comes first and then you write backwards, and all the threads converge on that. And when it happens, there’s a rightness about it that resonates through the rest of the film.
'nuff said. #


Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.
---Harold Fricklestein