Wednesday, March 3, 2010

When Knowing Your Screenplay Inside-Out Can Be A Disadvantage

I recently listened to the director’s commentary on Duplicity, written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Because of his hyphenated position on this movie, he is in a unique position to provide some insight into various choices he made before and while directing his own script. One such choice relates to the opening sequence, which was only added at a very late stage, when it became clear that without it, audiences were confused.

The sequence, which isn’t included in the only pdf version of the screenplay I could locate online, is a piece of backstory featuring the two main characters, a pair of corporate spies played by Clive Owens and Julia Roberts.

Owens comes on to Roberts at a garden party in Dubai. He doesn’t know she’s a spy. She knows he is, but pretends not to know. From the garden we cut to Owens in a deep, drug-induced sleep in a hotel room, while Roberts goes through his personal items and removes a secret file.

From this brief sequence we learn that the world these characters populate is one of deception and double-crossing, in which any tactic is acceptable. We also learn that Julia Roberts is a sophisticated, ruthless operator, and that Clive Owens, although suave and full of self-confidence, is also vulnerable.

During the rest of the film Roberts and Owens, who have meanwhile become a couple, refer to “Dubai” a number of times. Owens refers to the incident with bitterness, while Roberts is annoyed that he won’t just let it go.

Now, the nature of the story is such that you never really know who’s deceiving whom. Plus the structure of the story is a chronological mix of the present and increasingly recent episodes from the past. It’s quite a puzzle, which is the perfect form for a story dealing with people constantly trying to second-guess all the other characters’ intentions.

However, test screenings of the film without the opening sequence showed that repeated references to an incident the audience hadn’t seen, was just too much mystery. So the opening sequence was added.

As Gilroy looked through the rest of the film to see if this addition necessitated any other edits, he realized that the backstory sequence added an entire new layer to the rest of the story. Simply showing up front what the characters refer back to during the rest of the film, adds humour, raises intriguing rather than confusing questions about what the characters really feel, and leaves the suspense intact.

Gilroy was surprised to see the effect of such a seemingly cosmetic change, and his anecdote clearly shows how challenging it is to know how much information and backstory to show and when. It’s crucial to spell enough out for the audience so they understand the story, and leave enough up to their imagination to keep them actively involved.

It’s easy to forget that what may seem obvious to you, because you’ve been living with the characters and the story forever, might be invisible to a completely fresh audience. In this case, I think Gilroy got the balance just right, but only after test audiences had shown him that they needed more information.

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