THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
Some of you may be wondering if subtlety is even possible in a movie -
I mean, we're talking about a story that's designed for a worldwide mass audience. How can you
be subtle *and* make sure that everyone in the audience gets it? Storytelling is communication -
we are telling our story to the audience - if they don't understand what we're getting at,
we've failed. But does that mean we have to be obvious about it? Of course not! And that's the
challenge - finding ways to get information to the audience without them knowing they are getting
it or without breaking out the sledgehammer to pound that information into their skulls.
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
The audience is always trying to figure out what will happen next. I know this, because I've had
people sitting behind me in the cinema who spent the entire film in discussion of the possible
directions the story might go and did that dude know that his wife was sleeping with his best friend?
Even the dimmest bulb in the audience is trying to put the story together as it unfolds on the screen,
and we can put that to use as writers. Instead of sledge hammering our information, we can parcel out
pieces of information and let the audience put them together.
No one would accuse the ulta-violent HOSTEL of being subtle... but it is. Three guys backpacking through
Europe hear about a luxurious hostel in Eastern Europe where beautiful local girls are willing to do anything
for cute American boys. This hostel isn't listed in any Let's Go Guide, it's a secret. Our three guys go
there and discover it's everything advertized - an old mansion and spa converted into cheap rooms for young
tourists... and the local girls? Amazing! But beneath the veneer something is wrong - the town is filled with
gangs of little kids who will hurt you if you don't bribe them. The hostel has a high turnover - some guests
seem to just disappear. And wealthy businessmen also come to this town for some reason (but not the hot local
girls) - their limos are parked in front of an abandoned factory called the "art gallery".
Okay, we now have most of the pieces to the "art gallery" puzzle. When one of our guys, Josh,
is drugged by a local girl and wakes up handcuffed to a chair in the abandoned factory where a man in a mask
holding a cordless power drill prepares to torture him, we put the whole story together. We know that the
hostel and the local girls and everything else are all part of a trap to get tourist kids here so that
wealthy guys can torture them for fun. There isn't a single line of dialogue about this, it's never
mentioned in the film, the audience figures it out on their own given the pieces parceled out throughout
the film so far... it's "subtle" (until the power drill meets Josh's flesh).
Two other *major* story points are never discussed because they are parceled out to us in pieces that
the audience assembles: The fate of their pal Ole (The King Of Swing) who seemed to split the hostel for
places unknown with a Japanese tourist girl (he sends them a picture of him and the girl from his cell phone -
with a factory smoke stack in background) and how they find the wealthy businessman customers and the various
prices for torturing and killing people (a frightening scene where they confirm that one of the guys - Pax -
is an American is one of the pieces we assemble). Break up the information into components and let the
audience do a little work putting them together.
(HOSTEL is a couple of rewrites away from being a good movie - one *critical* relationship is so
undeveloped that it rings false. Just two little half-page scenes would have made it work!)
The best part of parceling out information like this is that when the audience puts the pieces together and
figures it out, they feel like geniuses... even if they are the dimmest bulbs. But you don't want to be
"too hip for the room" (stand up comedy term) - your script needs to provide all of the pieces necessary.
"Too hip for the room" is when joke gets no laughter from the audience, because they don't get it. The reason
why they don't get it? They don't have some specialized knowledge or experience required to understand the joke.
If you require the audience to know some bit of information, you could be in trouble! You may think that
information is "common knowledge", but you'd be surprised at how uncommon some knowledge is! There are folks on
New Year's Eve who fire guns into the air, apparently unaware that gravity exists. Whatever goes up (bullets)
must come down (and sometimes these guys end up shooting themselves!). That's when your subtlety will
plunge those dim bulbs in the audience into the darkness of confusion. If it's not on the page, it's not
on the stage! Make sure you give the audience *all* of the pieces they need to assemble the story!
Here's something I posted on Facebook a week ago, is it too hip for the room? "The thing I hate about rain in April is that it means more of those danged Pilgrims are gonna land at Plymouth Rock!"
Being subtle is critical when we're dealing with character's emotions. Characters need to react appropriately
to emotional situations - if that reaction is too big (too emotional) then the reaction rings false.
If a character doesn't react at all, the audience will feel like the character is cold and unemotional -
and we don't want that, either. What we want is for the audience (reader) to react in the same way as the
character reacts (or *feels* what the character is feeling).
A frequent problem is characters who show too much emotion, to the point of seeming false. Too much
swearing or crying or jumping up and down on Oprah's sofa *wasn't* what the audience would do in that situation
and was probably too much for the situation. No one would really jump up and down on Oprah's sofa just because
they were in love - that's trying too hard to sell the emotion. Real emotions don't have to be SOLD.
Push the emotions too hard and they will backfire on you! You want your characters to react the way the
average audience member IN THAT SITUATION would react (except toned down a little) if they were THAT CHARACTER.
If a cop is crying at a crime scene, that's just wrong. If the victim's mom is crying, that's probably okay.
You don't want characters to OVER REACT - that makes it melodramatic. That's why a script needs to be real
emotions toned down a little - you need a bit of Emotional Subtelty.
Take the emotions we expect in that situation and dial them down just a little bit. The screen is so big,
the actors are so huge on that screen, that we NEED to tone it down a touch!
Sometimes the problem may be that characters are too OTN (on the nose) - they don't have any shading,
and end up obvious. The mom crying at the kid's murder scene is so plain, it's boring. The emotions makes sense,
but they're just overused - and that removes any possible subtlety. Maybe it would be more interesting if the
Mom isn't crying, but talking to the dead kid about where they're going on vacation next month. That rings true
because we understand the Mom doesn't want to believe her kid is dead... and can be a really emotional scene on screen.
Better than the cry scene because it not only "feels real" it's also not the obvious way to write that scene.
Don't use the OBVIOUS scene or emotion when you can do something interesting (and more real than the obvious thing).
Think about how different people use different methods to deal with painful situations... and how this may be a
way to show character, too. Your script ends up more subtle *and* more interesting... and maybe even *more* emotional!
Another issue that often leads to melodramatic scenes is when the characters *aren't* involved in the story
emotionally - they're just bystanders. That makes any emotions they display seem out of place. The problem here
may be that the protagonist isn't really part of the story - the writer has chosen the wrong protagonist.
That Halle Berry in a nuthouse movie - GOTHIKA - often seems overly dramatic because she's haunted because of
something *her husband* did... and she really isn't involved. Why wasn't the husband the one who was haunted?
While watching the film, I kept thinking "This isn't her problem, so why is she even in this movie?"
And why does she *care*? Why is she so emotional over something that really only matters to the dead character
and her husband? If the protagonist should be a supporting character, and they seem like little more than an
outsider to the story, all of their emotions seem completely out of place... and not the least bit subtle.
Crying or laughing or swearing or jumping on a sofa over stuff that shouldn't really be that big a deal to them.
DON'T MENTION IT!
One of the most powerful scenes in Susannah Grant's ERIN BROCKOVICH has Julia
Roberts talking to a little girl who is dying of cancer from drinking contaminated water.
Instead of acknowledging that the little girl is dying (and dissipating the scene's
power), Brockovich goes out of her way NOT to bring it up in conversation. The more
she doesn't talk about cancer, the more "magnetic" it becomes.
The little girl is bald from chemo and has dark circles under her eyes, but Brockovich
teases her about boys. The tone of her dialogue is light, but she isn't fooling anyone...
including the little girl. Everyone knows this little girl will NEVER break boy's hearts.
She'll be dead before she's old enough for that. It's a big tragic scene, but not played
as a tragic scene. The dialogue is funny. Still, when the little girl smiles it breaks your
heart. You know she's only doing it to be kind to Brockovich. Because the little girl's
condition is never mentioned in dialogue, it becomes even more powerful.
Sometimes you want the *situation* to create the emotions in the audience and have the character not
show those emotions. This is a form of "some assembly required" where the audience puts together what
the character is feeling... so you don't have to show those feelings on screen. It goes back to that
Frank Capra quote: "I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries." Subtelty is
often creating the situation where the audience cries... but your character is fighting back those tears.
Your Screenplay Checklist:
1) Instead of giving the audience all of the information at once, parcel it out and let them put the pieces together.
2) What are the pieces that add up to that conclusion?
3) Do you have the correct protagonist?
4) How would the average person react in that situation? How would the specific character react?
5) Are the reactions too obvious? What is the unusual but logical reaction (character specific)?
6) Would it be more powerful if the character avoided reacting (and let the audience react for them)?
Film may not be a particularly subtle medium, but the last thing you want your script to be is
obvious and heavy handed. Find the ways to make sure you aren't using a sledge hammer to drive
your point or story or the emotions of your story home. Let the audience do a little work, or
find a different emotion for a scene or don't mention the obvious. You can be subtle in a screenplay!
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