Friday, February 22, 2008

Writing the Frame

There's a lovely conundrum at the base of screenwriting -- writing for a visual medium. Your words don't make it to the ultimate audience. But your story does. Most aspects of good screenwriting relate back to this basic issue sooner or later. I remember with near grief a script I wrote coverage for. The writer was clearly under the influence of 20th century American poetry, circa The Sins of Kalamazoo.

Yes, Kalamazoo is a spot on the map
And the passenger trains stop there
And the factory smokestacks smoke
And the grocery stores are open Saturday nights
And the streets are free for citizens who vote
And inhabitants counted in the census.
Saturday night is the big night.
Listen with your ears on a Saturday night in Kalamazoo
And say to yourself: I hear America, I hear, what do I hear?

-- Carl Sandberg, "The Sins of Kalamazoo"

The writer had a true gift for poetic description, and I spent half the script in awe of it. The other half I pictured a cranky production designer complaining, "What the %$#@&% am I supposed to do with this?!"

The writer as a good poet, but he didn't understand the paradox of screenwriting.

There IS a place where screenwriting does come around and meet poetry again, and most screenwriters give it short shrift. There's an economy of images and description that determines if both are successful. There's metonymy -- using associations to convey meaning. There are resonances, and building conflicts and dynamics that work in the audience's mind, and not just on the page. There are beats, and rhythm, and voice. Both open up a structure that's greater than the sum of its parts.

How does a screenwriter achieve this in their script? One way is to write your frame.

Take this still from Children of Men:

There are many very carefully composed shots in this movie. Clive Owen is often at the center of the shot -- framed very precisely by the controlling elements of the script -- be they the commuters in the coffee shop, or a room papered over with news headlines, or a man escorting a woman and a baby through a sea of soldiers who'd been trying to kill him minutes ago.

The protagonists are surrounded by everything they're fighting against. The writer knows that the baby has come to symbolize hope. We know well that the soldiers are fighting for the fascist state. The audience has a profound reaction to this scene, because it more or less expresses the hope at the heart of the whole movie.

Now, many of you are probably objecting that the composition of the shots is the job of the director, the DP, the production designer. It's the job of everyone but the screenwriter, in a way, right?

Wrong. While there is a cardinal rule (especially in spec scripts) not to call the shots, you do in fact want to SUGGEST the shots. You want to inspire the next stage of creation. You want to put the idea in the reader's mind. You want the director saying, "I know exactly how to shoot that."

How do you do that?

Compose the picture of contrasts. USE the props that tell the story. Instead of worrying about lines of dialogue, worry about the thousand words the picture is worth. Compose all the elements in your head so they're as all working together to express the controlling idea.

This all goes back to the Fractal Theory of Screenwriting I was talking about earlier. When you know your structure, it starts to pervade everything. The structure within the beats starts to recapitulate the overall structure. The on-screen actions start to have more of a resonance with the main action of the script. There's a kind of ecstasy in this kind of writing -- it all ascends to something greater than you planned.

We all know how a photograph or a painting can tell a story. There's power in bringing your knowledge about the story to a micro level. Beyond that, there's a joy in finding a new and fertile level for expressing yourself. Write the frame. Compose the picture.

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