Friday, February 27, 2009

Screenwriter, How Image-Centred Are You?

Here’s a lovely quote from On Filmmaking, a collection of legendary director and teacher Alexander Mackendrick’s writings:

It is the job of screenwriter, not the director, to decide whether his film story will be built with images or merely decorated with them.

Touché. Well, he has a good point, right? It’s all very well having strong characters, an intriguing theme and a gripping narrative, but what does it look like?

The other day, while my writing partner and I were struggling to find the right image for a scene we were rewriting, he suddenly remembered something he’d seen fifteen years ago. It was absolutely perfect for our scene, and it had just been sitting in his memory waiting for the right time to pop up and say, “Remember me?” Needless to say, both of us were thrilled and relieved. Suddenly we could write the scene visually, writing it around a powerful image, rather than sticking an image on like a band-aid.

Someone who incorporates this notion of writing from images integrally into his approach is Phil Gladwin, of Screenwriting Goldmine fame. I love the way he encourages screenwriters to make sure the main scenes in a story are firmly based on emotionally-charged pictures rather than conversations, and to visualize every beat in a scene.

But to be this image-centred takes practice. It requires you to deliberately keep your eyes wide open wherever you go, and to consciously take note of detail. It’s what painters are trained to do. Screenwriters also need to be able to “depict” situations and dilemmas, only in words rather than paint.

The same standards apply to images as apply to all other elements of the screenplay: Unless it’s clear to the viewer that you’re deliberately using a cliché to make a point (as in satire, comedy, etc.), go beyond the cliché, subvert it. An image we’ve seen countless times before, whether it’s a location, a piece of action, a situation, or whatever, can be terribly distracting. Whereas a variation of a familiar image, or a completely original image, can be hugely intriguing.

So a useful question to ask yourself over and over while you’re writing, until you no longer have to, because it becomes second nature, is “What does it look like?” Or: “What’s the image here?” Or some other formulation that suits you personally.

As for me, it's half-term and I have an image in my head of my kids sitting downstairs watching a dvd of Cats & Dogs and wondering when their old man is finally going to bring the drinks and snacks he promised about an hour ago …

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why You Need To Entertain In Order To Enlighten

As a screenwriter, the bottom line is you are part of the entertainment industry. However high-brow your subject matter may be, people watch movies in order to have some kind of visceral rather than intellectual experience. They want to be entertained.

Regardless of whether you’re talking about a Hollywood blockbuster or a lo-budget art house film, or even a feature-length documentary, audiences pay to be frightened, amused, romantically stimulated, outraged, and so on, not to get an academic education. They want to be entertained.

A movie can express a moral point of view, pose hypothetical questions, explore historical events, personal relationships, social conventions, and so on. Whether it does so through drama or comedy, the audience only agrees to watch the film in the first place because they expect an engaging, emotional cinematic experience. They want to be entertained.

The word entertainment has had a lot of bad press. It’s mostly equated with superficial distraction. Look at what the dictionaries have to say: “To cause the time to pass pleasantly … to amuse … to divert …” (Webster's). “To amuse, to occupy agreeably,” (Oxford). “To provide amusement for …” (Collins).

But wait, put your judgemental, artistic indignation on hold for a moment and acknowledge a simple fact: The function of entertainment is to direct someone’s attention to something enjoyable. Again, “enjoyable” here refers to the full gamut of emotional cinematic experience, ranging from hilarity to terror. That, on the face of it, is the screenwriter’s job. Write stuff that people want to watch, for whatever reasons they may have.

Of course, the trick is to give the audience something enjoyable to watch, and while they’re not looking, slip in under their radar.

Or if you prefer a more classical metaphor: The job of the screenwriter is to write Trojan horses.

In other words, a film has to be entertaining (in the broadest sense of the term) to earn and maintain the audience’s attention so that you can tell them something that is anything but entertaining.

How you achieve this? The same way painters, musicians, composers and all other creative artists do, by mastering existing techniques in order to be able to subvert them. For the screenwriter that means getting a good understanding of what makes films entertaining: Genre conventions, pacing, structure and all the other “technical” aspects of screenwriting.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that mastering the “entertaining” part of screenwriting is just as important as getting the “enlightening” aspect right.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why You Should Take The Time To Get Your Facts Right

My writing partner and I recently locked horns over a scene involving a character who is visited by a police detective in the aftermath of a fire-bomb attack on his house.

The dramatic function of the scene is to show the character in denial about the extent to which his own actions have provoked the attack. The scene turns when we show him rejecting the veiled advice of the detective to change his behaviour. Straightforward enough, right?


Our difference of opinion arose when we began filling in the background of the scene and the dialogue. My writing partner felt uncomfortable because neither of us knows precisely what the police protocols are for this kind of incident. How many police officers would be present? Do detectives arrive on the scene? Forensic experts? Do they seal off the road? Are reporters allowed access to the victims?

In other words, there was a lot we didn’t know.

Now we’ve already done extensive research for many other scenes in this script, so I’m absolutely not opposed to it in principle. But somehow when it came to this scene I felt it wasn’t necessary. I felt that what we did know about the scene was enough. The essence of the scene is the exchange between the two characters, and I felt we could write the scene without referring to any specific police procedures.

I have great respect for my writing partner’s eye for detail, so I deferred to his intuition. He called someone who is familiar with police procedures. We got our facts straight, and in retrospect I’m glad we did, even though it took a couple of days. Because although the essence of the scene is the same—the same emotional beats, the same references to theme, the same narrative information—it’s a better scene because we wrote it confidently, without having to avoid or hide anything.

Perhaps just as importantly, I realized that I was simply being impatient. I just wanted to get on with the writing rather than wait for more information.

Will the audience or the reader notice the difference? I think so. The difference, in the end, is in details such as passing references to police protocol, which give the scene authenticity. Also, knowing the boundaries of the detective character’s brief as a police officer made it easier to write him as a real person. Otherwise we would have ended up with a 2-D, stereotypical police detective. A clone of all the American detectives in raincoats we’ve all seen a few times too many.

So even if it takes longer, getting your facts right can make for far more convincing and confident writing. It’s worth the effort.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Why Screenwriters Need To Pay Attention To Attention

Veteran Disney storyboard artist Francis Glebas, packs a huge amount of information about visual storytelling in his wonderful new book Directing The Story. He goes into great detail about all the key principles that contribute to clear and dramatic storytelling, all of which he illustrates with copious storyboard examples from a variety of films.

One principle particularly struck me, and this is the principle of deliberately and methodically directing the viewer’s attention in order to affect their emotions. This is perhaps par for the course for directors, but for screenwriters, who often focus more on the “what” of the story rather than the “how” of its realization, it can be enormously helpful too.

Whether you’re writing a first draft or a final one, it’s important to have a clear image in your mind of the beat or scene you’re writing. Once you see the scene in your mind’s eye, you’re able to choose how to describe it on the page. With the aim of creating a specific emotional effect.

If you imagine (or draw) the scene you’re writing in storyboard form, what does the viewer see first? What doesn't the viewer see? How many different ways can you think of showing exactly the same beat? What is the difference between these different executions in terms of affecting one emotion or another? It’s the same principle regardless of genre.

Of course, you don’t want to start filling the script with explicit camera angles. It makes the script hard to read, and apart from that it’s the director’s job. However, even just thinking about which visual element of the scene best compliments the character’s action or contrasts the dialogue in an interesting way, or creates suspense or humour … the mere act of imagining seeing the same action from different perspectives, can greatly clarify your understanding of what the scene is about and what it needs.

And it all comes down to directing or diverting the viewer’s attention in order to create a specific emotional effect and to avoid boredom or confusion.

In contrast to directors, screenwriters don’t have to be specific about the technicalities of camera angles, composition, lenses, lighting and so on. However, suggesting these elements when they serve to heighten the emotion of the story, is definitely an option.

As Glebas puts it:

A story is like a giant knot that we have to unravel and show the audience how all the pieces connect in a linear way and then tie it all back up for them at the end. It’s not about creating the drawings as much as deciding which images should be shown and when.

Happy visualizing!