People scream. They scramble for the exits. A railway engine steams straight at them. The Lumière Brothers’ first ever shot may have offered an accurate and animated representation of the real: what mattered more was that it startled the living daylights out of those attending. Cinema is a fairground attraction. Unlike theatre or dance, it doesn’t work if the audience remains just dutifully mesmerized. Films want to holler and laugh. They roar with anger and stutter with fear. Surprise is the name of the game. The late great Jean-Claude Carrière describes a screenwriter’s task, as she or he ploughs through a storyline scene by scene as returning again and again to a single question: what would be fun now?
Meaning is a disaster. Platform algorithms have decided we only care about thematic content. Well, we Script Savages want to yell, “Film is not just a didactic medium!” We watch a movie, firstly to enjoy a collective experience (as long as theatres survive); secondly, to dive into a highly sensory universe that triggers nearly all of our senses. Finally, we also want to be teleported into a filmmaker’s personal view on the world. Watching a movie is more like listening to music than anything else: good filmmaking is founded upon creating a range of rhythmical and emotional and aesthetic movements.
Facts are two a penny. Opinions come cheap. How a story is told matters more than what the story says. Credibility is not necessarily realistic. Experiments with form offer ironic pleasure. Laughing dinosaurs. Video art. Flashback. First person narrative. Musicals. Scratched negatives. All forms are interesting. The crime is not to play with form at all.
This is not about that dramatic observation, made usually about artists who were morally bankrupt, yet made great art. I am thinking more about the banal and unavoidable condition of all film makers: sooner or later, these persons who play power games to achieve their goals, who dictate the rules of the film set, manipulate to achieve their goals and adapt by perpetually compromising, are going to be perceived as bad people. Many end up having this opinion about themselves. It comes with the fact that making cinema is a collective endeavor. Painters paint, musicians play or sing, poets create in solitude. Only film makers are performing their creative act in front of a live audience, exposed to systematic judgement. The only part of the process where a film maker is alone happens when the story is imagined. It is the only time when no role-play and no social skills are needed. It gives the film-maker the chance to be honest and, to the future film, a chance to be good.
“I’m working!” screenwriters shout down the stairs as they pummel the keys, hitting deadline after deadline. Solitary writing can be a reassuringly time-consuming, yet deceptive consolation. The connection between page and screen so often gets lost. Character, scene, dialogue are just words. Workshops are intrinsically collective, and so a neat place to remember, well, future realities beyond the words: the curve of an actor’s belly; the texture of light on children playing; a scream off-screen; the thudding tension of a post-produced bass line… The words a writer makes need to become the amphetamine that will drive cinematographers and actors, production designers and costume people, picture editors and sound mixers to surpass themselves in the building of a world that cannot be real except in our dreams. So forget the page, remember the screen. Screenplays dissolve in the movie once it’s made. Their rhythms are oral and visual.
Screenwriting books offer a lot of rules to provide a safe environment for beginners – “recipes” on how to structure a movie. These create confusion in screenwriters minds. They block creativity and generate an obsessively mathematical way of dealing with plot points distributed across a predetermined number of acts (acts belong in the theater). Better focus on how the passing of time (hours, days, seasons) can be used simply as a means of dividing a story. Better deconstruct space into a handful of specific locations, to which characters, plot or emotions may be assigned to. Better, finally, devise the story as series of emotional movements.
Writing is bliss. Making the movie – not so much. Sure, actors do a good job, the production team is responsive, locations are appropriate and the cinematographer captures well the scene. It’s almost how you imagined it, you feel like saying. Is it, though? When you wrote those dialogue lines, were those the characters you really had in mind? Was that their voice, or the pace of delivery? Was there any team fidgeting outside the camera frame, waiting for you to say „action” or „stop”? Was there a camera at all? Was that the true distance between the objects? I think reality is the compromise of our imagination. The things you make happen are unique, in the sense that they are nothing more than how they are. Meanwhile, Inside your head, each scene, each face, each view – they all exist simultaneously in all their versions, like in some sort of quantum state. In a way, when compared to the endless potential of a script that is being developed, the resulting film is as melancholically disappointing as a frozen image of the past.
Movie characters need to be larger than life. That much we know. Good stories are about extraordinary events. And when writer/directors believe their job is to reproduce the familiar, rather than exacerbate the unfamiliar, effective entertainment and great art rarely occur. But why? Because yarns need to strike the imagination, marshalling mermaids and monsters, cigar-smoking bosses and cowboys to break our hearts like Johnny Guitar. Making people larger than life is generous: it’s funny, it’s scary, it offers a worldview. Well, wait a minute. Characters that are smaller than life are just as good. It’s not that the ordinary doesn’t make good cinema. It’s that for the ordinary to be good, it needs to be seen real close. The magic is in making the familiar suddenly unfamiliar by enlarging perceptive detail. Seeing what we know in a new light is just as amusing as discovering what we don’t. Think Kelly Reichardt.
Lev Kuleshov’s famous experiment established the complexity of picture juxtaposition. New meaning is offered. Feelings and emotions may arise in the the audience that no actor has expressed. A screenwriter’s job, it follows, is not just to design her or his main characters’ emotional journey, but to deal with it scene by scene, moment by moment: bridging emotional continuity or breaking it while introducing time lapses, changing locations or inserting new action… This is the exciting game we play with the audience’s own feelings.