Monday, June 1, 2009

How Much Do You Leave Up To The Audience?

I recently heard Dutch director Jean van de Velde explaining from Cannes why he had to make a completely new cut of his recent film Silent Army for the international marketplace. Although the film was marketed as a mainstream, multiplex movie in Holland (partly because its star is a local celebrity), a subtitled Dutch movie released internationally is almost certainly only going to be shown on the art house and festival circuit, whatever its subject matter.

Van De Velde says his first priority was to get rid of the subtitles. Reading is too cerebral an experience for this kind of film, it detracts from the visual impact. So the dialogue was adapted. In addition, the soundtrack had to be rewritten in order to make the film more emotionally obvious.

Now here’s the interesting distinction Van De Velde makes in passing (and I paraphrase):

Art house films like to leave as much as possible up to the audience to fill in, whereas mainstream movies work by spelling out the emotional journey of the main characters in big bold letters.

I think it’s essential to understand this distinction when it comes to screenwriting. If you’re not consistent in this regard, the tone of script can be confusing.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s room for emotional ambivalence in any script, in fact it can be a powerful tool. It can create suspense and tension (i.e., the right kind of confusion). The choice is more about whether to resolve this ambivalence for the audience or leave them to make up their own minds.

It may seem obvious to you which approach is preferable, but the truth is that both options have advantages and drawbacks.

Spelling out the character’s emotions too explicitly can feel stereotypical, clich├ęd, but it’s also a tried and proven way of sweeping the audience along emotionally. It’s just a fact of human nature that we tend to feel what we see characters on the screen feeling, whether that‘s fear, lust, anger, grief, etc. The more intense and unequivocal their emotions, the more we feel too.

At the same time, leaving emotional ambivalence unresolved can feel like a cop-out, a way of avoiding taking a clear stand. However, this kind of openness makes for an extremely personal viewing experience, with different members of the audience interpreting events on the screen in different ways. It creates a strong sense of the film speaking to you as an individual, rather than as a generic human being.

Neither choice is intrinsically better, but you do have to choose. You have to be candid about what kind of creature your script is, what your plans are with it. This choice depends on your own taste, on the realities of marketing and distribution, but also on the degree to which your own position on the subject matter of the film is unequivocal or not. Above all it depends on the simple fact that mainstream movie-going audiences generally want to experience big emotions, and art house audiences generally want a more aesthetic, even intellectual experience.

So how much does your script leave up to the audience?

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