Category: Film 101


Communication

Roll film.

You’ve just rolled out a hundred page screenplay. Now what? Go out there and start shooting!

But you don’t really believe that. Can you tell me why you don’t believe it?

Because everything in a movie communicates something.

You knew this when you started writing your screenplay; this is why you wrote your screenplay: you had something to say. From this point on, you have to tell the story with pictures. Film is not just words and actions, film is literally a series or pictures. What you want to tell your audience determines what kind of picture you create.

This is confusing, right? The words tell the story, right?

Only very little of it. The words reveal the tip of the iceberg; they hint at what lies below. In order for your audience to understand the iceberg below the surface, you must first understand the iceberg itself. If the screenplay you are trying to film is one you’ve written, then you shouldn’t have too much trouble. If not, then you will have to read the screenplay to determine not only its core ideal, but the ideas behind each scene.

Communication. How do we communicate the story’s idea? We communicate the story’s idea by evoking emotional responses to particular ideas, words, and action from the audience by means of acting, camera angles, lighting, costumes, sound, music, and even set design. The emotional effects of each of these fields must be considered before shooting, and must be planned to achieve that effect which will direct the audience to the film’s ultimate conclusion. Otherwise, the movie will seem incoherent and meaningless.

Remember, film is visual.

Plant a Seed

You’ve got a brilliant idea. Start writing.

Five pages later.

You’ve got nothing left.

What happened? The conflict is good, the central character has a compelling goal, a pressing need, and an unbreakable flaw. Not only that, but the antagonist is superhuman and seems to know the protagonist’s every last weakness. There is a good plot outline, complete with critical events, such as the catalyst and crisis, and the central character learns a powerful lesson in the end: Everything is right.

Why is it so hard to keep writing?

Seeds need good soil.

Your idea is a seed. It is the seed to the most beautiful flower on the earth, or the most productive fruit tree on the planet. It is a complete package, and is capable of coming to fruition. But what does it lack? Soil.

And now I shall reveal the metaphor: the soil is what surrounds your idea.
In order for your idea to grow, you must bring soil to the planting site. Think about your characters. Write about their stories and who they are, what they tend to do, and how they feel about themselves and the people around them. What made them become who they are? Who played an important part in shaping their personality and bringing them up? What were their parents like? What do they want in life? What do they want life to become? What about them are they unaware of?

Next, think about how this could develop throughout your story. It is crucial that the central character noticeably changes. Does he/she change from wanting peace to truth? Does he/she change from wanting to make others please himself/herself to making hard choices for others’ benefit? What vices are uprooted? Do characters become better in the end, or should one get worse? How does the central character learn from what happens to the people around him? from what happens to himself?

What about the world in which the characters live? Are they surrounded by gangs? Wealthy doctors and lawyers? Resentful neighbors or happy families? What goes on that will affect your characters? Does their world change drastically during the story? before it?

Last but not least, what happens during your story, and why does it happen? Do things just happen, or is there a reason for it? Does what happens affect the characters in the story, or does it just happen?

Does everything lead up to the conclusion?

Once you’re satisfied with your soil, plant your story seed. Water it. Incorporate your idea into the soil, not the other way around. Look at the ground and see the flower in the midst of it. When you start writing your script, your idea will have plenty of nutrients.

Screenwriting Notes

Conflict.

The protagonist has two main conflicts, one outer, the other inner.

The outer conflict is often between the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist is usually conscious of this conflict, and support of his/her position often stems from attitudes already formed before the conflict is established. This conflict is often fought over the central character’s goal.

The inner conflict is within the protagonist, and is usually between the protagonist’s need and flaw. Sometimes, this conflict is visualized by a character counseling the protagonist to overcome his/her flaw (Ariadne in Inception, over Cobb’s need to see his real children and his guilt over Mal’s death).

Audiences watch movies to see conflicts resolved. The conflict between the protagonist and antagonist defines what the audience will walk away with from a movie.

 

Writers Have Something to Say

Have you ever got the urge to write, and then promptly proceed to follow that urge and write away? What do you write about?

Could be anything. Could be politics, religion, or what you fed your dog last night. Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t very coherent, was it? Probably not very organized, either.

It also wasn’t very long. A mere point can be made in a sentence, or even one word. Points don’t make up books, plays, or screenplays. Points don’t last for a hundred-plus pages.

Writers have something to say. No, not just words, something beyond that: an idea. Everyone communicates their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Writers communicate their ideas. Ideas can’t be communicated in words, sentences, paragraphs or pages; ideas must be communicated through proofs and arguments.

Communication of ideas are what separate a writer from a rambler. “Rambler” is used here not to denote someone who communicates something other than ideas, but rather one who tries to write without an idea. What does it become? Often something that can be thought of as a “ramble” (or a “rant” when the writer is excessively frustrated).

Basic writing format requires a thesis. This is the unifying idea of a paper. The thesis is introduced, supported, and then concluded. Often, for academic purposes, the supporting points to a thesis will be facts. But for the artistic writer, this thesis will often include subordinate ideas. This is imperative for the screenwriter. Throughout the course of the screenplay, different ideas are introduced, tested, and either proven or disproven in such a manner that the main idea – the thesis – is proved.

Academic writers speak to the brain; artistic writers speak to the soul.

A young man hold a Remington revolver. He points it through a window. Inside the window sits a man at a desk, typing away at a computer.

The young man hesitates.

The man looks out the window.

The young man looks frozen.

What happens next?

This is what the cinema is about; this is what keeps the attention of an audience increasingly plagued by boredom and disinterest. Suspense. Surprise. Intrigue. Entertainment.

But how does the screenwriter determine what will happen next?

The writer can’t. Screenwriters can’t make decisions in a screenplay. They can reason, argue, and plan for certain decisions to be made, but are powerless to make them. The screenwriter can pre-determine every last event in a movie, but cannot make anything happen in it.

Why?

Because characters make decisions. Nothing will work if the character isn’t the one making the decision. Nothing can happen if the character doesn’t do it. Characters are what motivate the world of the movie, not authors. Characters are the ones who learn the lessons, not authors. Characters are who the audience follows, not screenwriters. The audience understands why the character makes the decision, not why the screenwriter wants the decision made. A decision cannot be made unless the character has a reason to make the decision, regardless of what the writer thinks.

We watch movies to see characters make decisions.

Learning to Unlearn

Students are in the process of learning; professionals are also in the process of learning. What? Professionals are professionals because they know everything, right? This is a common mistake made in recent centuries. Obviously, the professional knows more than the student, but it is impossible for them to know everything about their profession; this is common sense, no? Let’s have a new thesis: Students learn, professionals unlearn.

Despite this deeper confusion, we are getting somewhere. All professionals were students at one point in time or another, correct? They all learned what they needed to practice their profession. But, if they stop learning, then society cannot progress, correct? But, also, if they’ve become professionals, then they’ve learned everything there is to know about their profession. So what do they do? They unlearn.

Unlearning means to stop being conscious about what one has learned. When a professor grades a paper, he can obviously tell that it was written by a student. Why? Because the student writes very consciously about the tools and techniques of which he is trying to learn that the most important function is disabled: the ability to be natural.

When a person wishes to remodel something, what must they do first? They must empty the existing decor. This is what students must do to learn correctly, empty their minds of their own preconceived ideas of the profession in question. This will enable them to allow their minds to peacefully absorb the new ideas.
Next, a remodeler will fill the empty room. After the remodeler must assemble the room according to their wishes. But there is a very important principle that must be remembered when doing this.

This principle is that the new furniture must fit naturally with the existing furniture. This is something that cannot be taught. The pre-existing conditions dictate the arrangement of the new furniture; the new furniture is completely at its mercy.

And so it is with the professional. Consciously unlearning textbook material is necessary to subconsciously allow it to fit in with the new surroundings. The student is conscious of his technique; the professional is conscious of his surroundings: technique serves a higher purpose.

This is true of every profession, but especially artistic ones. This is how the profession is advanced, by placing already known material in new surroundings. Film makers do this every day. Each technique is subject to the requirements of the story in which it is being made to serve.

A Good Movie

There seems to be some confusion regarding what we often call a “good movie”. Often, we will say a movie is good, but remark about the bad content of the particular movie. Can a movie be both good and bad?

When addressing the nature of the whole movie, we must always call a movie “bad”, because movies are made by flawed people. It is true that some movies are more worth watching than others, but we must be careful not to say that a movie is completely bad when we only mean that one aspect of the movie’s moral communication is bad. How can a movie communicate both bad and good morality? By means of three separate channels.

The first channel is that of what could be labeled as the atmosphere. This is the face value of what the characters habitually say and do and what we see of the world around them. These are the trivial and least important elements of the movie, as they are only taken in and judged for their intrinsic value. Say, for example, a person walks into a room and says to another person “hello”. This dialog would be an atmospheric element, because it only has the face value of a casual greeting; this is what goes on in the world of the movie on a day-to-day basis.
The atmosphere of a movie never changes; the morals revealed by the atmosphere are always apparent, and are the least important by the standards of the movie.

The next channel is that of the theme. The theme of the movie is readily apparent to the audience. It is the moral confirmation of the goal of the protagonist; he/she possesses this confirmation throughout the movie, and will always be correct in this regard, because the audience sympathizes with the protagonist.
The theme of the movie never changes; the theme is always apparent, and is the prioritizing of the goal as the most important moral by the standards of the movie.

The moral deals with the part of himself/herself that the protagonist must give up to satisfy the justification of the theme in order to reach the goal. In most successful movies, the protagonist is flawed. This flaw is usually an undue attachment to a behavioral trait; a means perceived to be needed for personal satisfaction or defense. The moral is the law of the movie, and is implied, like a thesis for a paper.
The protagonist’s understanding of the moral is incomplete until his/her moment of realization; the moral is only seen through the eyes of the central character, defines the chief measure to be taken in order to reach the goal, and is the final conclusion of the viewer.

To illustrate these three channels, consider a mother searching for her lost child. The mother divorced her husband some time ago, and rejects the ex-husband’s desire for reconciliation because of her unforgiveness. The mother only has one child, will find her at all costs. She begins searching for her child, but is overly suspicious of truckers. So, the mother will not ask a trucker concerning the whereabouts of her child. Instead, her inquiry includes every last US citizen within a hundred miles of her hometown. No one can tell the mother anything, so she is forced to return home. But, before she reaches her front door, a trucker approaches her with her child’s watch. The trucker has an idea where the child is, and offers to take the mother there. The mother agrees. Along the way, the mother learns that the trucker is divorced. His ex-wife left for another man, and the trucker is unwilling to forgive her. The mother shares her own dilemma, and encourages the trucker to continue to do justice to his ex and not forgive her. In the end, they find the child, and the mother admits to her child that this trucker wasn’t such a bad one after all, but that her ex-husband still deserves to be in the doghouse.
The unforgiveness of the mother is included in the atmosphere, and conveys that taking justice into one’s own hands is morally good. However, this is of minimal importance in the movie, because it has nothing to do with the central character’s main goal or with what she learns while trying to reach her goal.
The main goal of the mother is to find her child. The audience will emotionally justify the morality of her goal because they will sympathize with her loss of her only child. The theme of the movie is about the importance of regaining loss.
Along the way, the mother is forced to choose between keeping her attachment to undue suspicion of truckers or doing what it takes to find her lost child. We are given the closest insight to the moral when the mother admits to her child that she had to give up her suspicion. The moral could be summed up as: “Trusting people leads to an open world, but suspicion incarcerates the world”. Often, the moral is open to interpretation within a limited range.

In this example, we see that three different morals are communicated in three different ways, ending with the last as the most important. However, we often seem to only notice the morals communicated through the atmosphere and not those that we are being subconsciously lead to accept. Perhaps it is true that bad morals are communicated on the surface, but the true gem lies in the ocean.

A Note on Acting

Film is visual.

Perhaps an argument could be made that even screenplays are visual, but that might be stretching it. Rather, visual is the strength of the film medium, and this applies not only to the special effects department, or even just to the screenwriter; the visual strength of film applies to the actor themselves.

It is my personal advice to beginning directors and actors to be aware of how a particular medium affects what non-scripted actions a character performs, how they speak, and even how they think.

The illusion of film lies in the visual. Even the heart of the film – which is the story – will be revealed through visual means. This does affect acting. How? Because the visual must appear real enough to create the illusion. This means that what a character says is often not as important as what they do. This is important for actors and directors to remember. Characters may say many things, but sometimes they mean something more or different from what they say. This is called subtext. Subtext is when a character says one thing, but underneath there is a different meaning. Often, this meaning will drive the emotional plot in relation to the inner conflict, which is often between their specific need and flaw. Actions often help the audience see through the words into the subtext, into the heart of the movie.

Film is all about something natural, something real. It has the power to take something forgotten in reality and place it in the proper perspective. This enables the viewer to strive for something greater than the face value of the senses.

A Book or a Screenplay?

What’s the difference between someone saying to her husband “John, we’re making ourselves sick by eating chocolate everyday” and..

–      –     –

Emily looks at the empty wrapper on the table. John walks into the dinning room with a box of chocolates. Emily’s face turns sour. John stops and studies her face. “John, we’re making ourselves sick.”

A Few Quick Scriptwriting Tips

Just a few things that really seem to work with dialogue:

1: Start 90% of your dialogue without contractions, such as “but”, “and”, or “however”. “Well” and “also” should be avoided when starting new dialogue. An example of how rare the word “also” is used is the script to “Return of the King”, where it only occurs once throughout the entire script.

2: Eliminate afterthoughts that could be punctuated with semi-colons. State everything only once in a line and in one phrasing (dramatic reasons and character traits may override this, of course).

3: When shortening dialogue, try eliminating unnecessary prepositional phrases.

4: Overall, less is more. Let much of the dialogue go unspoken.

Just a few things that I have learned the hard way.

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