Friday, March 20, 2009

On The Evolution Of Reversals By Natural Selection

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, writer-director Tony Gilroy, of Michael Clayton fame, amongst other things, comments on the problem that audiences have become accustomed to “… an aesthetic of disorientation.”

Lots of mainstream movies now routinely play around with chronology and use sophisticated cutting in order to maintain suspense. Audiences catch on quickly though, forcing filmmakers to push the creative envelope again and again.

Take for example the wonderful tv drama Damages. I’m well hooked on the second series, although I have to admit, my attention is waning. And here’s why:

The series is all about deception, mistrust, and backstabbing, so it constantly has to reveal new, surprising information to remain suspenseful. Otherwise it would just be another trite (albeit stunningly acted) linear, legal drama. Although the series meets this challenge pretty impressively, I’m beginning to become immune to the following scene:

We see someone in a parked car, in profile, looking troubled. This is a character we’ve been following and have built up some sympathy for, as they’ve been portrayed as something of an underdog or a victim. Then we pull out and discover … shock-horror … one of the bad guys is sitting next to them in the car, and they’re in cahoots.

Sure, this increases our understanding of the character, perhaps we suddenly understand their moral dilemma, or their corruptness. The device certainly moves the story along, and it worked really well for me the first few times I saw it. However, now whenever I see anyone in a parked car looking troubled, I’m out of the narrative. I’m playing: “Guess the treachery” with myself, because the scene has been overplayed, it’s become predictable.

The essence of a good reversal, is its unpredictability. The more a reversal subverts the audience’s expectations (based on what’s preceded the reversal onscreen), the more effective it is. But surprise isn’t sufficient in itself. The surprise has to change the stakes in some way, in order to really hold the audience’s interest. Even better than merely changing the audience’s expectation of what is to come, is doing so while undermining their assumptions about what they’ve already seen.

One great way to achieve this, is what Tony Gilroy does a few times in the movie Michael Clayton. He deploys a ballsy combination of non-chronological editing and repetition. We see the same short scene twice at very different moments in the film. The first time might be a flash forward, or the second time a flashback. Either way, because of what we’ve witnessed in between, our interpretation of the film so far changes drastically when we see the scene for the second time.

It’s precisely this realization that we were fooled the first time we saw the scene, which is such a great “reversal” sensation. It’s strange that it’s so pleasurable to realize you’ve been hoodwinked, but that’s what it boils down to. The audience craves this sensation of been fooled.

Unfortunately, every time they are fooled they become a little harder to fool.

And so reversals evolve …

(Thanks to Andy Conway at Shooting People for pointing out the article!)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Quantum Mechanics of Screenwriting

A slightly mind-boggling but fascinating article in the latest edition of Scientific American, discusses the intensely counter-intuitive, quantum mechanical concept of nonlocality. Elementary particles can influence each other instantaneously, even across galaxies, without there being any physical connection between them, either direct or indirect.

This notion has been an anomaly for physicists ever since Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity. In fact, Einstein called this nonlocality “spooky,” and presumed it was something that would eventually be explained within the realms of conventional physics. Instead, nonlocality hasn’t gone away, on the contrary, it has made a comeback and is challenging some of our most basic intuitions about how reality works.

What’s all this got to do with screenwriting, you may ask? Ah, well, I’m not sure, you see. But it’s something like this quote from aforementioned article puts it:

“… combining quantum mechanics and special relativity requires that we give up another of our primordial convictions. We believe that everything there is to say about the world can in principle be put into the form of a narrative, or story. Or, in more precise and technical terms: everything there is to say can be packed into an infinite set of propositions of the form "at t1 this is the exact physical condition of the world" and "at t2 that is the exact physical condition of the world," and so on. But the phenomenon of quantum-mechanical entanglement and the spacetime geometry of special relativity—taken together—imply that the physical history of the world is infinitely too rich for that.”

No matter how well-versed you are in screenwriting “techniques,” regardless of how clear your understanding is of concepts such as story structure, character arc, theme, subtext, visual writing and so on, at some point you have to allow for the fact that … shit happens.

Whereas, what the audience wants (or is it the investors?) is a good yarn, with all the loose ends neatly tied up and the emotional drama satisfactorily resolved. Because we want our “primordial conviction” that reality is fundamentally logical, physical, comprehensible and so on, reinforced.

So are we, as screenwriters, simply helping to maintain this illusion? And what would a screenplay look like in which the story deals with the illusion that life is a neat, linear narrative, with cause followed by effect, and effect becoming the new cause, etc.?

There’s a great idea for a film somewhere in that question, I’m sure of it … But for now, I need a drink to numb my baffled mind.