Weaving A Different Magic, Part 2

The obsession with the “rules of screenwriting” that I described in two previous blog posts (this one and this one), can be expected, of course, in books about screenwriting by screenwriters. This reflects a natural and understandable tendency on the part of screenwriters to think of their work as the primary basis of film. But this is a little myopic on the part of the writers, as if the final movie is simply a translation of their work into a different medium.

The screenplay is only one element that goes into a movie, and is no more determinative of the power of the final movie than other elements, like the acting, the cinematography, or the director’s style and choices. Filmmaking as an art is not about accurately translating the story of the screenplay to the screen. It’s about using the screenplay as one element among others to create a separate and new work of art that can certainly have different and greater artistic goals than the screenplay’s narrative.

The non-narrative aspects of the film experience are as important to the art of film as the story. We must always think about the experience of the audience, what emotional or mental states the audience goes through, the journey they go on, which as Werner Herzog pointed out, is different from the journey the characters go on. This is created as much by the style of the film, which involves the director’s, cinematographer’s and actors’ choices, as by the script.

Screenwriters often forget this, and too often when screenwriters get a chance to direct, their movies are stylistically unimaginative, workmanlike, competent, with the focus on a straightforward, classical re-imagining of their script to the screen.

We also see this almost-exclusive focus on story in a lot of film criticism, as Matt Zoller Seitz talked about in a recent blog post. Seitz observes how most current film criticism avoids talk of style or form and focuses instead mostly on issues of narrative, plot and characters (with occasional nods to good acting or beautiful cinematography).

But, as Seitz insists, the art of movies is as much about how a story is told as the story itself. The style, the filmmaking, is what makes it a movie, and not a novel, or a play, an opera, or a dance, all equally viable forms in which to tell a story.

Is the editing fragmented or languorous? The camera in motion or static? The lighting naturalistic or stylized? The color palette vivid or subdued? Why is this shot held so long? Why is that scene shot from that particular angle? And how do all these choices affect the mood or contribute to the communication of a point of view?

I don’t want to denigrate the need for a great script as part of any great movie, but don’t be misled into thinking that relating a narrative is the only and ultimate objective of filmmaking. It is conjuring an experience for the audience that is the ultimate objective, and in creating that experience, narrative is only one element, no more important than all the others.



Weaving A Different Magic

I saw Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood over the weekend. In case you don’t know about this film, it tells the story of a fictional boy’s life from the time he is six years old to eighteen. The unusual thing about the film is that it was shot with the same actors over 12 years, so in the course of the 2 hour and 45 minute film, we watch the actor playing Mason age from a young child to a young adult. We also watch all the other actors age around him.

It’s a remarkable work of art, for so many reasons, but I want to talk about it in relationship to the so-called “rules” of good screenwriting.

In a previous post, I talked about how good drama involves working toward a goal against obstacles, but also how, other than that, the standard rules of a good screenplay are artistically limiting. (By the ”standard rules,” I mean, put simply, that in a good screenplay, the protagonist must have both an overarching goal and some growth that needs to be achieved. The obstacles the protagonist faces are such that the he or she must achieve that growth in order to successfully reach the goal).

Most every how-to-write- a-screenplay book buys into this notion, and even people like John August and Craig Mazin, who in their Scriptnotes podcast are usually pretty insightful about screenwriting, subscribe to it.

But, as I stressed in that previous post, this is only one type of story among many that you can tell in film, and I encourage every one to use their imagination, honesty, and life experience to free themselves to the possibilities of other stories.

This is what Linklater does in Boyhood. There is no over-arching goal providing the main thrust of this movie. In individual sequences and scenes through the course of young Mason’s life, there are goals to be achieved, but what provides the forward thrust of the film isn’t any overarching goal, but the cinematic magic of seeing Mason grow up before our eyes. That provides a sense of wonder and melancholy and even spiritual wisdom that is far removed from the usual goals of traditional, mainstream screenplays.

If that same script had been filmed with different actors playing Mason at different ages, that magic would have been lost, and the script would seem mediocre, but this doesn’t mean the script is lacking anything that would have made it better. As with Russian Ark (a 90 minute film shot in one continuous take), the means of creation becomes as vital to the power of the film as anything. And creating some kind of overarching goal for Mason would have diminished the impact and truthfulness of the film, which remains honest to the rhythms of a young boy’s life.

That is real magic, and it reminds us that film can accomplish many different things and tell many type of stories. Don’t let you imagination be limited by the rules others set for us!



Looking For a Producer

Kim Logo

I’ve begun pre-production on my new film, Kim. It’s a sci-fi psychological thriller.

Logline: A young woman suffering from amnesia must discern reality from fantasy and piece together the puzzle of her past, or lose her true identity forever.

We’re currently looking for a Producer to help shepherd the pre-production process. The Producer should have experience with micro-budget (under 200K) feature film production (or be ready to move up to it) and should also be familiar with innovative ideas for social media promotion, fundraising, and distribution. Immediate needs include developing a budget, a business plan and a fundraising plan.

Interested candidates should contact me via this website.