WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

DRAMATIZING EMOTIONS


A great movie makes you feel. It puts you right in the shoes of the protagonist so that his story becomes your story. His emotions become your emotions. But when we are writing a screenplay we can only use things we can see and things we can hear... and emotions are things that exist in out hearts and minds. How do we translate that edgy feeling of a world in chaos or complex emotions like the fear that we are losing our sense of self to the big screen?

Through dramatization.

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Ronald Harwood's THE PIANIST is based on the true story of Polish piano virtuoso Wladyslaw Szpilman's fight for survival during World War 2. As a member of a respected, affluent Jewish family of musicians and scholars, Szpilman's life was one of order. He was the greatest pianist in all of Poland, and knew it. The Nazis are a political problem which doesn't concern him.

In order to show the feelings of chaos and unpredictability that the war brings, Harwood and director Polanski create a metaphor - the war outside Szpilman's life bursts through. In the first scene Szpliman (Adrien Brody) is playing the piano in a radio sound booth - sound technician treating him with the proper amount of awe and respect. Then the sound of an explosion interrupts his playing... loud enough to be heard through the sound proof walls. He ignores the sound and continues playing. A bomb hits the building - exploding right through the window and spraying him with glass and debris. The war has broken into Szpilman's world.

From that point on, many scenes feature Szpilman standing near windows. He may be in conversation with his mother about dinner or a chat with his father (Frank Finlay) about the British and French entering the war against Germany... with his back to a window... and we EXPECT a bomb to explode and spray him with debris. The script takes something as simple as a window and turns it into something to fear - there's a war in the world outside that window, and it can blast into the room and kill you at any time. The fear of war has been dramatized - turned into an action that we can see. By using the window as a symbol a sense of dread is created in almost every scene. Whenever Szpilman is near a window we expect the war to burst through. We feel the fear that the protagonist feels.

The cool thing about that technique is that the audience becomes paranoid of windows AFTER THE FILM IS OVER. They take the emotions of the movie home with them because you have infused an everyday object with fear.

When the Nazis invade Poland all of the Jews are told to pack their things, then moved into the Warsaw ghetto. Szpilman's family leave their life of luxury behind and move into a cramped apartment. Eventually the Jews are herded to the train station where they will be sent to concentration camps... and Szpilman manages to escape. He spends the rest of the story hiding from the Nazis in war-torn Warsaw.

How do you show something as complex as Szpilman's longing to play the piano? His fear that the longer he is on the run, the more of his identity he loses. Playing the piano is the very essence of his character, the thing that defines him. But when he's on the run, hunted by Nazis, hiding out... how do you show that he longs to play the piano... but can't? The script has him meeting with underground who will hide him in an abandoned flat. If he's discovered he will be killed by the German occupying army. As he hides in the flat, he hears someone playing the piano in the apartment next door (the walls are very thin) and smiles. He puts his head against the wall to better hear the piano playing. It's his ecstasy. But he has no piano, he can't play it himself. The situation dramatizes what's going on inside him - it shows us how much he misses playing the piano. It takes emotions and makes them palpable and "real" by dramatizing them. Creating a conflict we can see and hear.

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When his contact in the underground is captured, he is moved to another apartment - this one in the heart of German occupied territory directly across the street from German army headquarters. The next door neighbors who are not sympathetic, so he must be very quiet. In the corner of the room - a beautiful upright piano.

A situation is created where he has a piano - the thing he most desires, the very thing that defines who he is - and can't play it. He keeps walking past the piano, trying not to look at it... temptation that could prove fatal. But he can't help but look. He can't help but sit on the piano seat - adjust it to his height. Opening the keyboard cover and admire the keys. Suspense builds because we know he wants to play, but we know if he plays he will be captured and killed. The longing to play the piano inside the hero has been dramatized so that we can FEEL his struggle. The struggle goes from emotional (within hero) to physical (the piano - we can see it) to emotional (within the audience).

In a strange way THE PIANIST is very similar to Bill Broyles' CASTAWAY, except instead of cheating by creating a volleyball for the protagonist to spout exposition to, Harwood and Polanski dramatize the emotions of the protagonist so that we can feel what he feels. Complex emotions are turned into situations, choices, symbols, and visual information that transfer emotions without the need for processing clunky exposition from words into emotions (or the need of a volleyball).

Dramatizing is a way to turn emotions or thoughts into actions that the audience can experience... which transfers the emotions and thoughts to them. You need to make those emotions and thoughts physical and dramatic. There needs to be a struggle that we can see. In this case we have the piano which makes the struggle physical. He just can't help but be drawn to it. He fights his urge to sit down and play the piano (we can see that) but the urge is too strong. He sits at the keyboard, fingers hovering over the keys... then we hear him playing! The audience gasps (if it weren't an art house they'd probably be screaming at the screen). They know he has made a major mistake... but they understand how he could make the mistake because they've seen the struggle.. They've felt what he feels. It was dramatized.

Because we only have sight and sound to tell our story, every emotion must be turned into something that we can see or hear (or both). We must dramatize the emotions by creating a physical struggle based on a choice (Szpilman's choice to play the piano and be captured or ignore the piano and lose his identity as The Pianist). Emotions are the elements of great scripts... but if you don't find a way to SHOW the emotion, the audience can never know the emotion.


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