I have been debating what to write as my first blog post for awhile; originally I wanted to explore my creative process, which has radically developed over the last few years, and could be of use to you all. However, yesterdays ‘incident’ was quite illuminating to me, so I think it’s a good place to start.
I am in my final semester of Music Technology (MuTECH) at the QLD Conservatorium. For the last two years, I have been completing screenwriting electives for short films and TV with mixed success. Coming from novel writing, I think BIG with my ideas. I have so many things I like to throw into my stories— and short films can't handle it.
No, the trick to short films is taking a simple idea, and executing it in a powerful way. And this semester, I tried really hard to do just that. I took my idea and fleshed it out into what could be a gorgeous film. I used my new white board to plot every scene, accenting what the purpose was, where the conflict evolved, and what emotional shift occurred in every break. I made sure I had foreshadowing, character development, and twists and turns.
I went hard-core with this. And on one level I achieved what I wanted—a kind of Australian Jane Austen meets Susperia concoction. And this story wasn’t bad. Actually, if I was to shoot it, I reckon it would be something quite beautiful and would work on a few levels. But I had forgotten something. Well, to be more accurate, I had been lazy with something.
Yesterday we had an ‘artist in residence’ from the Czech Republic come in to speak with us. His name was Jan Fleischer and he currently works at FAMU International (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), and has written numerous films, and worked as a screen editor, too, in the past (notably, Dirty Pretty Things).
We opened the lesson by watching the 1965 film, Intimate Lighting (Intimni Osvetleni) by Ivan Passer (The Firemen’s Ball). A very Czech film according to Fleischer for reasons I will explain later. We then progressed to an Q & A, then eventually, we were presented the opportunity to propose our short films to him.
I was last, and I failed. I always struggle talking about my stories out loud. I don’t practice the dreaded elevator pitch near enough, and when I got to talking about my scene break down, things kind of fell apart. This story is supposed to be visual, and include a lot of subtle things, and trying to get all this out verbally was becoming bit of a mess.
(There's a reason why 'tonal shorts' are so popular. Don't explain, show them the idea!)
Close to the end when I was talking about how this presence watching my main character LYRA (13) was actually the dead mother’s spirit (audience POV), he stopped me.
My story was no good. It was far too showy with too many ‘tricks’. I had symbolic music, underwater shots, conflict, breaking the fourth wall, magic, plague— I had everything, except what was most important.
The Human Heart
Don’t get me wrong— I’m actually kind of okay at writing characters. And the ones in this short were far from undeveloped. But that wasn’t the problem.
Just like most of Hollywood’s big budget movies, and recent books I’ve read, I had forgotten the human element. It’s not enough to just give emotions to these characters, and make them react as humans. It’s not enough to give them quirks, and faults, and goals, without seeing all of this in a human light.
In my short, while I had ‘emotive scenes’, I didn’t actually show my characters just being themselves in a dormant state without there being obvious ulterior motives (plot, plot, plot). Therefore, when I got into the more heavy stuff, there was little relevant contrast for the audience to draw upon to really get inside the head of the character. aka. I had been too caught up in plot, and trying to figure out how my characters would push the plot, and mould it, that I didn't spend enough time letting them be, well, them. Shocking, I know.
Quentin Tarantino is fantastic at showing the dormant and active characters in his films. And in this educational youtube video about Tarantino’s character development, Darren Foley, shares this advice he received:
“Know who your characters are when alone & know who they are presenting themselves to be around others.”
Think the whole Superman (real identity) vs Clark Kent (cover) thing, but on a more subtle level.
By showing us the dormant state of someone’s personality, we get an intimate insight into their vulnerabilities, relationships with others, and true desires. These stems will then (usually) blow up when conflict heightens all the drama further down the track.
But you have to go that step further. Who are these characters when the camera turns off? How do they waste time? What are their daily mistakes (cause lets admit it, we all fail on a daily basis at something)? What about yourself? Who are you with your family, vs by yourself, vs with friends, vs at work etc. ?
Our analysis film, Intimate Lighting, gets to the core of Fleischer’s belief in ‘human storytelling’. The whole film is just about two friends reuniting after a long period of time, discovering how they have changed, how their friendship dynamic has changed, and finally getting drunk together and receiving a massive hangover the next day. It’s a beautiful film, and the whole thing is just humans being humans-- very Czech.
[one of the extraordinary things about this film, as well, was the fact it was created during the communist Soviet Union reign where most films were propaganda— definitely not about ordinary humans. But apparently it seemed cheap and harmless, so it was passed.]
The ending scene of this movie really put it all into a nutshell.
Nursing a hangover, the two friends with their families stand around the dining table outside, and wait for their thick, creamy drinks to slide down the cups into their mouth. And that’s it. We don’t even get to see their symphony concert that was set up in the very beginning. All we got was about 70 minutes of humans being humans in a range of hilarious scenes that often included chickens.
Does this mean, Hollywood today is wrong? No. It’s just different, but I do believe this 'human element' something we need to get back into our block buster films.
For an example, look at all the latest Superhero movies saturating our market— is there anything human about them, that reflects real life? Not really. There is rarely intimate scenes in these movies, where we get a glimpse of a character in their dormant state, that aren’t for feel grabs.
Lets take a look at Jurassic Park.
I enjoyed this movie quite a bit despite a lot of downfalls (come on, that ending battle was epic. When the spoiler happened, I saw it coming, but damn it made me a happy-chappy!)
But one thing that bugged me a lot, was the obvious use of an emotional device to try and give us an intimate moment with the kids. I’m talking about the out of the blue, sudden declaration that the kids parent’s were getting a divorce. It linked with nothing else, and just sat there as an obvious feels grab. It may be linked to the upcoming sequel, but it was not done well at all and really, I was like:
I'm talking things like What We do in the Shadows (2015), and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), where we are only given one segment of the character's lives, instead of a chaotic, plot packed, extravaganza. And because of this, we are able to share really intimate moments with these characters.
In Only Lovers Left Alive, the scene where Adam and Eve (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) are just sleeping together really struck a chord with me. There is something so personal, and raw about the way they curl up together that speaks volumes about their relationship.
But to be truthful, when I started thinking about natural human interaction and dormant states, the Japanese film animation director Mamoru Hosoda came to mind.
Hosoda is a brilliant storyteller for me because he always creates such a strong sense of family in his works, and it’s this human element that really balances out the fantasy in his movies, and makes them so moving and relevant.
For an example, in Summer Wars, one scene that sticks with me is when the little kids are just running around naked.
It was this memory that jogged an idea to help my story, too.
Fleischer didn’t take enjoyment out of brutally ripping my story apart in front of everyone; and I can still picture the helpless smiles he flashed me at odd moments to try and soften the blows. But the difference between me, and a lot of others, is the fact I can take constructive criticism and love it.
I only wished I wasn't so hungry that it was distracting, and that he didn't have to leave so suddenly afterwards, so I could have asked for more advice. But that was the situation, and as soon as he left, I chugged down heaps of water to try and shut up my stomach, and began typing furiously on my tablet. I needed to get anything and everything down that came to me. However, it was when I found myself pondering on the bus, heading home a bit later, that the scene from Summer Wars came to mind, and with it, an old memory:
My sister and I, about five and three, outside in the scorching Australian heat, butt-naked in make-shift pools. I'm talking, colourful plastic buckets that would now only be up to my knee, and we were squatting in them while our nanny hosed us down. Good times. And there was something about this image that struck me. Suddenly I was wondering, instead of starting with a generic, plot pushing scene—which would have been absolutely stunning (obviously)—why didn’t I start with something really human such as this?
In today’s films, everyone is so concerned with being dark and gritty, that they forget human nature, by default, is often quite amusing; especially Australian culture is full of colorful characters that particularly shine in those dark hours. But we seemed to have replaced natural human interaction, with maybe that one funny character who cracks a wise joke and moves on. And not all of them are able to come close to Nathan from Misfits, which means it usually doesn’t work. Sorry.
(We also need to appreciate the 'dormant' states of the characters above as well.
And that scene, is just a transition to the next plot break)
I don’t know. Imitating real life is hard. It’s easier to give characters set arcs driven by plot, instead of really exploring their nature, and that of the environment surrounding them.
To be honest, I feel like I need to start keeping another journal on me, just to document the strange, and whacky, funny things that happen to me, my friends, and my family, on a daily basis. True life, after all, is always the best inspiration.
What I'm trying to say. Maybe.
I’m sorry if that was a little bit of a ramble. But if you want a cookie-cutter example of what I’m talking about in a mainstream instance, I think Modern Family is a prime example.
People being people doing people things with people conflict.
Now imagine, if those people were suddenly thrust into a zombie apocalypse, or if Phil decided to be a superhero one day. It brings something more, don't you think?
I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.