Saturday, July 19, 2008


Just watched Lantana again. It's a tremendous Australian film starring Anthony Lapaglia. The plot revolves around the disappearance of a woman and how it reverberates through the lives of everyone from the detectives to her husband to her clients. It's one of those smart films we're always complaining don't get made anymore.

I like to watch movies a couple times. Even if I don't enjoy a film the second time, I get to learn something from it. It struck me halfway through that Lantana almost had to be based on a play. The characters all seem to be hanging out in the wings, ready to walk on stage in combinations you hadn't considered. There's an economy to it that allows you to believe that the cop's wife's shrink might run across his mistress's awkward fascination one night. And there's an awful lot of what I call 'pearly' dialogue: dialogue that's been worked and reworked until it shines with its own light. You see it in plays more than movies. Both the unlikely combinations and the unnatural pearliness of the dialogue can turn a viewer off in a movie. But the writer Andrew Bovell (who did in fact base the script on a play of his own) turns both to his advantage.

Not a lot of scripts really survive the transition from stage to screen. The two arts are much more different than they appear. One big difference, among many, is the audience. We too often assume movie audiences aren't that smart. We play down to them. We give them too much of a hand in understanding exactly how we want them to see the action. Genius can work there too, of course -- I've certainly marveled at it in this blog. But there's something incredibly refreshing about a playwright who intelligently and respectfully retunes his devices to work for film.

One thing to always watch for in ensemble pieces is transitions. Andrew Bovell does them remarkably well. You'll watch a scene coming to a head, a character coming to an unavoidable decision. And then you cut out and over to a new scene, and you see the *results* of that decision. The writer is employing dramatic lift -- and the audience lifts with him. The writer employs metonymy. One character walks alone at the end of a scene, her high heels clicking against the concrete. The next scene begins with a woman in heels walking down a road. Nothing said -- and everything explained. The audience naturally and unconsciously compares and contrasts the two characters. What affinity is there? Now the action is taking place in the viewer's head as much as anywhere.

We talk so much about drawing viewers in. Pages and pages are written about it. I've lectured about it. But when you get right down to it, it's really the simple, practical choices that come out of our *own* absorption in our work. Writers right now, all over the world, are overwriting scenes to express an affinity between two characters in opposite scenes. Don't be one of them. Stop, listen, remember why you're writing. And never assume the audience is dumber than you are.

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