Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Film Is Entertainment… Revisited

One of the many inspirational reminders I have pinned on the wall in my work space, is a simple little sentence: Film Is Entertainment. I originally put it there because I wanted to prevent myself from taking my material too seriously. I might also have pinned up a picture of a bucket of popcorn (in fact I might still do that). However, the sad truth is, that even an index card on the wall becomes invisible after a while.

Fortunately, I was recently prompted to become mindful of this seemingly trivial little aphorism again, by Erik Bork over at Flying Wrestler. Erik has compiled his own set of screenwriting principles, one of which is that a screenplay has to be entertaining. In his words:

… that which makes us feel more alive in some way – fascinated, amused, scared, passionate, moved, inspired, etc.

Duh-uh… you may say. To which I would retort: Easier said than done. Witness the hundreds of thousands of screenplays that end up on the slush pile every year all around the world. And if I’m honest, until Mr. Bork invited me to think again about what “entertaining” really means, I kind of automatically associated it with lo-brow, superficial and essentially not worth the effort. Or, more specifically, not worth the effort of an ├╝ber-intellectual like me.

Whaddya mean, snobbery?!

But here’s the rub: A movie can be entertaining and meaningful. Or perhaps… should be? If I reflect for a moment on what entertains me, it almost always has to with suspense and tension. Regardless of genre. Anything from Laurel and Hardy to Woody Allen, what draws me into a film is being emotionally invested in what’s going to happen next.

It’s not the philosophical or moral theme running through the story that keeps me watching. That’s what sets me thinking, after I’ve seen the film.

What distracts me most while watching a movie, is boredom. Which is perhaps the opposite of entertainment. I get bored when I’ve seen it all before, or when there’s no real mystery or surprise in what I’m watching, when it’s too predictable. In other words, when my mind is not actively engaged by what’s going on onscreen.

The same goes for screenplays. Perhaps entertaining screenwriting requires a delicate balance between spelling it out and leaving enough up to the audience to fill in by themselves. Because as long as your mind is actively trying to figure out what’s going to happen next, you’re entertained, right?

In fact, until further notice, that’s going to be my working definition of entertaining screenwriting: Writing that creates an emotional investment in what’s going to happen next by suggesting enough but also leaving enough to the audience’s imagination.

Not much operational value there, I admit. But it’s a start.

Anyway, I’m off with the kids to see Alvin and the Chipmunks 2. Followed tomorrow evening by Avatar, 3D Imax. See if I can’t glean some important lessons on entertainment while munching some popcorn…

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why The Audience Likes To Know Stuff Characters Don’t

I often dip into a book while my PC boots up. It’s one of those rituals writers have. To this end I always have three or four tomes lying around on my desk. The other day I was browsing through Directing The Story, by Francis Glebas, when I happened on his chapter on Dramatic Irony.

Glebas starts the chapter by reminding the reader that it makes a big difference whether the audience or the character receives information first, and that it’s up to the filmmaker to determine this. A classic example is the intercut between people in an elevator and a fraying elevator cable. They’re oblivious, but you, the audience are not. It doesn’t much matter what’s going on inside the elevator, the suspense is there because of what these people don’t know.

All of which triggered an instant rewrite in my head of a sequence in a spec script I’m working on.

The situation, in brief: It’s the summer of 1945, we’re in Holland, the second world war has just ended, and a young Jewish boy who has been in hiding on an isolated farm, is about to be reunited with his mother, who has returned from the hell of the concentration camps.

Initially I had the foster parents, the couple who had been hiding the boy, preparing him for the reunion with his mother, to whom we cut away as she makes her way towards the farm. Then, after having my brain jolted by the above-mentioned read, I wondered: Wouldn’t it be more dramatic if the boy doesn’t know his mother is on her way to pick him up, but we, the audience, do?

So I rewrote the sequence in order to explore this possibility, and lo and behold, it now has much more tension and suspense. And the reason is simple, as Glebas puts it:

The audience can be ahead of what the characters know, creating tension from watching characters do something that may not be the right choice for them.

In this case the foster parents, convinced that the boy’s biological parents have both been killed, are about to go ahead with their plan to have him baptized and then formally adopt him. The fact that this isn’t the right choice for the boy is made all the more dramatic by the fact that we intercut with scenes of the mother trying to locate her son’s whereabouts and then physically approaching the farm.

It’s because the human brain is constantly working out what to expect on the basis of previous experience, that dramatic irony works so well. You, the audience, can’t help but feel for the character who is working on the wrong hypothesis, as it were. If only they knew what you know, then they would do the right thing!

If I’d left the sequence as it was, it would have been much flatter and less suspenseful. And if I hadn’t browsed Glebas’s book I wouldn’t have thought to make this change. And if I didn’t have this ritual of dipping into books while my PC boots up, I wouldn’t have browsed Glebas. Which is all rather Zen, actually, when you come to think of it…

So what information can you take away from one of your characters to make a sequence more exciting to watch?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Don’t Look Up, Don’t Look Down… WTF?!

Had my nose firmly planted in Your Screenplay Sucks which by now one is of my favourite books to dip into during attacks of FDSD (Final Draft Stress Disorder, as described in DSM-IV).

In tip 67 the Akers guy, as he likes to call himself, warns against rewriting while writing. Sure, he says, start your writing session by going over what you wrote the previous day, but whatever you do, don’t go back any further and start tinkering with earlier scenes or, God forbid, the beginning.

Going back will reveal hitherto unseen problems. Going back will jack up your angst. Because your script will be revealed to be inadequate, imperfect, and not Zaillian-esque, going back tends to be monumentally depressing. So depressing that you may just decide it’s better to — give up and start another script. Do not play into this sucker’s game.

Holy pitchforks… when I read this I felt myself blushing and trying to slide unobtrusively under my desk. I confess: I’ve done this. I have abandoned screenplays after twenty pages and started on new ones precisely because I went back and began to doubt the entire premise of the script. I know what this man is talking about. It’s horrible but true!

Then I realized it’s a bit like mountain climbing. (Hey, I’m a screenwriter, I have imagination, remember?) Like, there you are, halfway up Everest, and even though you know in the back of your head that you’ve come a long way and there’s still a long way to go, these are not helpful thoughts right there on the rock face. You look down, you’re going to feel dizzy. You look up… you might let go. So what you need to do is concentrate on what you’re doing right now. The next step, or in the case of a screenplay: the next beat, the next scene.

It’s a thing you hear big-shot screenwriter’s say a lot: Get the first draft finished without thinking too much. (Check out Andrew Stanton’s quote there in the left margin…) And yet, it often feels counter-intuitive, or risky perhaps. What if something I’m writing here isn’t consistent with something that happened ten pages back? What if this scene throws up an unforeseen new twist? And so on. But the simple fact is, that these are often issues you can only deal with once the first draft is there on your desk, in all its ragged and unproducable glory.

Perhaps this should be my New Year’s resolution for 2010: Don’t look up and don’t look down, just get the fuck on with the writing.