Friday, July 16, 2010

A Slight Case of Visual Storytelling

| by Justin Thomas |

Want to hear the best feedback I ever received about a screenplay I wrote? Oh, I know you do, so here goes:

“I think if tightened to about thirty minutes the story might make a better radio play.”

That’s totally a compliment if I had attempted to write a thirty-two minute radio play, but after writing a two-hour screenplay, I didn’t take it as a compliment and ran away from my desk crying. It led to an afternoon of soul searching where I decided I wanted to be anything else from a Park Ranger to a botanist. Then, if I remember correctly, I might have spent the evening with a malted beverage and I finally came back around the next day.

What did the comment mean?

First and foremost, that particular attempt at writing a screenplay was a complete and utter failure because a radio play is missing the key element that makes a movie a movie: visuals. Strip away all the other problems with the screenplay, which the reviewer accurately sniffed out, and what was left wasn’t a movie. In its brutality the comment was pointing me to where I needed to go if I truly wanted to be a writer of movies because I wasn’t there at the time.

Somewhere along the line I read a quote from Hitchcock but haven’t been able to find it since, and it goes something like, “anything told to the audience is lost on the audience.” It’s a more elegant way of saying “show, don’t tell” and what it actually does for the audience. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the characters spend the majority of the movie explaining something to other characters. The exposition never ends. I haven’t seen the movie in years and while I can tell you a few cool visuals, I cannot tell you a single thing about the complexities of the plot because they were all told to me. It is as precise an example of my remedial understanding of Hitchcock’s idea as I can give.

This week I went through four movies and three of the four all have examples of a visual telling a story that a line of dialogue wouldn’t do service. In American Graffiti, John gets pulled over by a cop and they have a little conversation before the cop gives him a ticket; John hands it to Carol and tells her to file it in the glove compartment and when she opens it we learn a lot about John because it’s full of tickets. We learn that he’s always getting pulled over and the conversation just heard was one of many. We learn that he has no interest in obeying the law because he hasn’t paid them. We learn that he’s so disinterested in the tickets he can’t even be troubled to throw them away. Yes, it’s a joke and a good one, but it’s also a visual telling us a story about John. Carol could have said, “wow, you’re a real hardass bad boy because you always get these tickets and never pay, you must have a real problem with the law,” or some snappier variation of the idea, but it’s unnecessary because the visual did the work.

Lex Luthor sends his henchmen to get a Russian rocket in Superman Returns. They do their job and come back but there’s clearly been a problem because their van is riddled with bullet holes. Lex says something like, “trouble?” and a henchman, not Kal Penn because he didn’t have a single line, responds with, “you should see the other guy.” That bullet-riddled van tells a great story about the trouble the henchmen had when they got the Russian Rocket, cutting the need for an unnecessary scene and keeping the movie going. Would it have been a great scene? Maybe, but in my mind it’s better than what they could have shown me just as the shark in Jaws was always scarier when it wasn’t shown.

There are two insanely long shots in Shaun of the Dead where Shaun walks from his flat to the shop. In the first, we see the world as it is before Z Day: there’s a kid outside his flat kicking around a soccer ball, there’s a jogger, there’s a car outside the shop and there’s a beggar with a dog when Shaun makes his way home. All are normal. None have been bitten. The next morning, Z Day, Shaun goes back to the shop and everything has changed. The kid still kicks the soccer ball but he’s a zombie. The beggar walks pretty well as he did before but he’s looking for brains, not money. There’s a hole smashed through the windshield of the car and the jogger doesn’t jog past but sprints past because he’s being chased. These are all stories in and of themselves – how did these things happen, what were those moments when they changed like that we get to imagine – and they serve a purpose in telling Shaun’s story. The world has changed. They aren’t silent moments because Shaun does have a line or two, but the lines punctuate the visuals.

I don’t get Kevin Smith. Never have, never will. I don’t find him to be funny and I don’t care for his filmed conversations, which are different than movies. Dialogue in a Kevin Smith movie all sounds like different characters speaking for Kevin Smith in different voices. I cannot give you a single visual from a single Kevin Smith movie that I remember for its beauty or for what it did to provide information or drive forward the story. There are many, many people who disagree with me and among his fans might be some that say, “Kevin Smith writes incredible dialogue.” To that I shrug my shoulders and say our subjective opinions will never match, but objectively, even conceding he might be good at writing his dialogue, he doesn’t make particularly strong visual movies. Please argue the toss and give one example, give me one example, because I can’t remember them.

Writers of good dialogue can be good visual storytellers and Billy Wilder and The Apartment illustrate how this can happen. Baxter has a key, we frequently see the key, and we see the lengths to which he must go to get the key to the people using his apartment for their ring-a-ding-dings. When Sheldrake confronts him we see it, the figurative key unlocking his future, and we finally see a key at the end when Baxter becomes a mensch. The key is the movie’s road map. Want another example? His bowler hat. Once he started his climb he bought the hat because it showed status. He wore it on Christmas Eve to illustrate he might be a powerful junior executive but he’s a powerful junior executive who’s alone. When he quits, he ditches the bowler to visually show he’s ditching his pursuit. Little things, but those little things are there and they tell visual stories or give visual cues and are from a writer better known for his dialogue.

It seems the pendulum has swung from visual storytelling to filming dialogue with action sequences that look cool with at least one thing blowing up. A way to test it is watch on mute a movie unknown to you and see whether you can follow the story or watch on mute a movie known to you and see what else you learn. Yes, it’s a generalization, but visual storytelling seems to be a lost art and filming dialogue doesn’t fully realize the potential of the medium.

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