Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Unfashionable screenwriting techniques

In the context of one of the animation projects I’m working on, we’re discussing whether to use voice-over to give the story a kind of satirical “noir” feel. Our discussion is basically: It could work well as a comedic style element, but will it put potential investors off? And I’ve discovered that I’ve internalized a common bias against voice-over without really knowing why.

Flashbacks, voice-overs and dream scenes are frowned upon by most in the film industry these days. The mantra goes like this: These cinematic tools digress from the action. They take the audience out of the movie, disturb the narrative flow of the story. They’ve been used too much. And anyway, there’s always a better way to get the same information or emotion across.

Is any of this true?

Not on TV. Where would Six Feet Under, Medium, Heroes and all the rest of contemporary small-screen magical realism be without a parallel fantasy world?

And there are plenty of box-office hit films that use these techniques beautifully too: What would The Shawshank Redemption be without Morgan Freeman’s voiceover? What would Prince of Tides be without Nick Nolte’s flashbacks? What would Open Range be without Kevin Costner’s nightmare scene?

Nevertheless, the general consensus in movie-land is that these are the exceptions that prove the rule. “Use these tools in a spec script at your peril,” we’re warned. Screenplays are “stories told in pictures and sound,” and the accepted way to draw the audience in and give them insight into the characters, is by having the characters do things in the (fictional) here and now.

Question: Who ever heard of a production company turning down a thrilling, hilarious, or intriguing script because it had a voice-over in it? Or a flashback, or a dream sequence? More than likely, if this is given as a reason for rejecting the script, the basic idea isn’t strong enough to begin with. Because if the idea at the core of a screenplay is great, then the exact details of the writing are of secondary importance.

So will we use the voice-over or not? I think it might just work …


Luke Stewart said...

Lots of famous and successful movies have used these techniques. Little Big Man, Brazil, The English Patient, Blade Runner (although it was against Ridley Scott's wishes).

I think its fashionable to frown on using narration, but I don't think it necessarily detracts from the story. It certainly changes the story however. I don't think its fair to lump narration in the same category with dream sequences. I think they each serve different purposes.

My opinion is that narration won't fix any problems the movie has without narration, and if used as a screen writing band-aid, the script will still be flat.

Raving Dave Herman said...

I completely agree, Luke. The problem is that some readers (be they producers or gatekeepers) don't have enough insight into what makes a great screen story, so they judge scripts on the basis of these "short-cuts."

Best, Dave