WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

VISUALS vs. VISUAL STORYTELLING

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10,000 BC. is a completely silly movie... but much better than it needed to be. It was directed by Roland Emmerich, the guy who had aliens building the pyramids in STARGATE and time travelers zooming around from present day to pyramid time. He's wacky! He mixes up time periods for fun. So in 10,000 BC we get sabertooth tigers and Egyptian Pyramids in the same film... and the same time period. So, of course, the critics noted that it was not historically accurate. Duh!

It's the story of cave dude D'Leh (Steven Strait) who is reluctant to lead his tribe, but when the girl he loves, Evolet, (Camilla Belle from the WHEN A STRANGER CALLS remake) is kidnaped by evil dudes - probably to be sacrificed - he and his worst enemy and a village elder and some tag-along kid team up to get her back. They manage to walk across the world, meeting all kinds of folks from all kinds of time periods - from African tribesmen to Egyptians to, well, an alien dude building pyramids (not Jaye Davidson - which would have been a cool in-joke and cameo). Though this film will never win an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, it was a big hit in the cinemas and topped the DVD rental charts. This film has some big emotional moments... but very little dialogue. The cavemen are fellows of few words, so the story is told using visuals and visual storytelling.

Visual storytelling is using the actions of the characters to tell the story - the way a Buster Keaton silent film does. "Actions" doesn't mean car chases - in fact, cars chasing cars are not really the actions of characters, but the actions of machines. We want to tell the story by having our characters *do things*. And the basic premise of 10,000 BC has our hero searching for his lost love, and when he finds her - organizing a group of other people who have lost loved ones to the kidnappers and sneaking into to Pyramid city to retrieve her (and any others) before they are sacrificed. Though some of this involves *action*, forming the alliances and tracking the kidnaped girl... and even the love story aspects are *actions* - characters doing things - and visual.

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Visuals are "shots" - an amazing image. 10,000 BC has some amazing magical moments - one tribe that has been hit by the kidnappers say that the victims are taken away by "red birds"... and when the "red birds" are revealed, they are boats with beautiful bright red sails that seem to fly across the water. The film contains lots of CGI spectacle stuff and has *scope* - Roland makes films for the big screen - he may not have the talent of David Lean, but he steals lots of shots from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. When characters cross the desert, you get to see the whole damned desert! Beautiful visuals.

Though the directors call the shots - and will probably be responsible for most of the visuals in the film, we are responsible for *visual storytelling* and since we select the locations and many of the elements - we have a hand in those *visuals*. And sometimes, without overtly directing on paper or using camera directions, we can create a strong visual moment.

Describing a house or a salt shaker in your script is not a visual. A good visual creates an image that sticks with the viewer long after the house lights are up. It haunts us. Creating an emotional experience without words. Touching us on a subconscious level to give us an experience stronger than the image itself. We want to use our *visuals* sparingly - and only use the most evocative and powerful images.

In mystery writer Michael Connelly's great novel THE CONCRETE BLONDE, a prostitute's body is thrown into a vat of wet concrete. When the murder is discovered many years later, the body has decomposed... except for the silicon modified breasts which are in perfect condition. This image of the wasted body with unnaturally perfect breasts is haunting. It gives us a glimpse of the victim, who put physical attraction above all else. The image is filled with irony and tragedy, infused with emotion. Years after reading the novel, this image comes back to me with perfect clarity. That's good writing.

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Another memorable image comes from Sidney J. Furie and Rick Natkin's under rated Viet Nam War film THE BOYS IN COMPANY C. Stan Shaw plays a loner: A soldier who believes that depending on the other screw-ups in his platoon will get him killed. While patrolling a rice paddy, Shaw steps on a mine. The moment he takes his foot off the mine, it will blow up, killing all of those around him. "Do not go near that man, leave him alone. He is a dead man." All of the other members of the platoon reluctantly move away, leaving Shaw standing alone in the middle of the rice paddy... Waiting to die.

The lone-man image was also used to great effect in HIGH NOON, where Gary Cooper steps onto the street, and the camera pulls back to show him alone. The streets deserted. The view of him from high overhead, seeming small and powerless, has haunted viewers since the film's initial release.

Scarlett O'Hara is a lone woman in GONE WITH THE WIND, crossing through an ocean of Confederate dead and wounded in the freight yards of Atlanta, looking for the doctor. As she passes the wounded, they reach out for her, but she ignores them. Batting away hands when they grab her. Again, the camera pulls high overhead... Exposing the Confederate flag, tattered, waving in the cannon smoke.

Some other images which linger long after the closing credits:

When Godfrey Tearle lifts his hand to expose a missing little finger, and we know he's the villain in THE 39 STEPS.

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Paul Newman and Robert Redford taking that jump into the river in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.

Jimmy Stewart looking from window to window in the darkness after hearing a scream in REAR WINDOW.

The rooftop dance in front of the giant Coca-Cola sign in STRICTLY BALLROOM.

Another great dance scene can be found in WITNESS.

Michael Caine forces a rusty nail into his palm to stop from being brainwashed in THE IPCRESS FILE.

The bicycles flying across the sky in E.T.

The rotting apple from ROBIN AND MARIAN.

Donald Sutherland, body pierced by a half dozen pitchforks, tries to escape an angry mob in 1900.

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The drop of water turning the photograph red, which seems to predict the drowning of the protagonist's five year old daughter in DON'T LOOK NOW (and predict the protagonist's death, as well).

The cross cut sequence with Lee Marvin marching down an airport hallway to meet... His wife, whose heart pounds in rhythm with Marvin's shoes, from POINT BLANK.

The short film THE RED BALLOON, which is a series of amazing images, topped off by the shot of the balloon flying high above the city.

The great flashback from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST where we learn the significance of Charles Bronson's harmonica.

Any Busby Berkeley dance number, especially the wacky and opulant ones from 42nd STREET.

The frightening torture scene where a young and sexy Cloris Leachman is stripped naked by the villains... and then they grab a pair of pliers, from KISS ME DEADLY.

Giant crosses created strong visual moments in Sam Fuller's THE BIG RED ONE and Dean Reisner's DIRTY HARRY.

The hat blowing away in the Coen Brother's MILLER'S CROSSING.

A moth plastered against a window by falling rain in William Goldman's MARATHON MAN.

The windmill in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, with it's massive sails which catch the breeze one way, then move in the opposite direction.

In fact, I could fill several pages with strong images and sequences from Hitchcock films. From Beaky being pushed off the cliff in SUSPICION to the cigarette lighter just out of reach in the storm drain from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Though Hitchcock as a director deserves some credit for putting these images on film, it should be noted that they came directly from the pages of the screenplays. From NORTH BY NORTHWEST:

 
* * *

EXT. SECLUDED ROAD - A FEW MINUTES LATER

A lovely wooded glen securely hidden from the main 
road that cuts through the Black Hills. The Mt. Rushmore 
Monument can be seen in the distance through the trees.

Thornhill and Eve regard each other uncertainly as she 
starts moving toward him.

In a way, they are meeting for the first time. After 
all that Eve has done to Thornhill, and he has said to her, 
neither can be certain of the others' true feelings. It 
is a time for uneasiness, caution, and tentative probing. 
Eventually giving way to what has always been apparent: 
the fact that they do like each other more than somewhat.

A moment of silence. They move closer.

* * *

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This is a very strong moment from the film, a purely visual moment, and it began as words on a page written by Ernest Lehman.

In William Goldman's "Adventures In The Screen Trade", he quotes Rosalind Russell as saying, "Do you know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments that they can remember, and they'll leave the theater happy."

These visual moments, whether they be single images or sequences of images, are one of the most important elements of your screenplay... And one of the most ignored by screenwriters. Far too many screenwriters believe that the visual part of the film belongs to the director. But the director can only interpret what's on the page. If your script doesn't contain strong visual images which create an emotional response in the audience, the best a director can do is to add a peripheral, unrelated image, which doesn't come from the story or characters. Hollow images which will not emotionally move the audience.

Film is a collaborative medium, but that collaboration begins with our scripts. If we have not written strong, emotionally charged visuals in our screenplays, it's doubtful that those "moments" necessary for a happy audience will end up in the film. And our films will ultimately fail.

The success of your screenplay hinges not only on plotting, characterization, and dialogue; but on your ability to create strong visuals which haunt the audience long after the house lights have removed the shadows from the screen. Visual "moments" which touch a chord with the viewer. A half dozen of those moments, and you've got yourself a movie... which will move the audience.



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