Thursday, April 25, 2013

Point-of-View

(SPOILERS: The Others, Rear Window, The Usual Suspects)

For novelists, one of the earliest critical decisions they have to make is what point-of-view the novel will be told from. (I’m using “point-of-view” in the literary sense here, rather than as the technical term for a camera angle shot from a character’s eyes. Hopefully you remember this from English class - first person: "I did it," second person: "You did it," third person: "He did it.")

For most screenwriters, point-of-view is not something we consider much. With a few experimental exceptions, all movies are technically third person point-of-view. The camera acts as an omniscient narrator observing the action. However in practice you can create limited points of view that can have a powerful effect on the film.

The most common form of limited point-of-view attempts to create a first person effect. To achieve this you have one character that is in every scene. The audience doesn’t get to see anything the character doesn’t see. This is usually the main character, but wouldn’t have to be – you could have a viewpoint character observing the story in the same way that Watson narrates the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

There are a few reasons you might do this. First, it creates a strong identification with the character in question. The audience experiences the story as the character does. That’s why thrillers and the more psychological type of horror movies often use this first person approach. It is almost always used in mysteries so that the audience knows exactly what the investigator knows. This allows them to try to solve the mystery before the character.

The classic Rear Window (screenplay by John Michael Hayes) uses this approach. We only see what Jeff sees through his window. We have to piece together the mystery along with him. When Lisa has broken into Thorwald’s apartment and Jeff sees Thorwald return, tremendous tension and suspense are created by locking us in Jeff’s place. We also begin to feel the claustrophobia he is feeling, as we are stuck in the apartment just like him.

For Rear Window the limited point-of-view is part of the thematic and conceptual nature of the story. Occasionally even the logic of the story depends on limiting the point-of-view in this way. For example, The Others (written by Alejandro Amenabar) limits the point-of-view to the character of Grace. Since this is a spooky movie, limiting the point-of-view creates a strong emotional identification with Grace and increases the unease we feel. But it is also critical for the big twist ending. If we saw another character’s point-of-view, we would know what was really going on.

(If you see Oblivion (screenplay by Joseph Kosinki and Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt), out in theaters now, you might consider what point-of-view they use and what affect it has on the story.)

You can also choose to limit point-of-view to a small number of characters. Maybe you’re doing a story about a team of criminals performing a heist and want to limit point-of-view to only the team members. Or maybe you’re writing a romance and want to limit point-of-view to the two lovers to heighten audience identification and focus.

Point-of-View can also be related to other narrative devices such as voiceover and framing stories. Take Goodfellas (screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese). The story is told from the point-of-view of both Henry and Karen Hill, who each have voiceover. This causes us to interpret the action from their perspective. Everything about the movie, from the editing to the cinematography, reinforces this dual point-of-view.

The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie) is a very interesting example. On the surface it does not have a very limited point-of-view, but if you look carefully you’ll realize the movie is mostly from Agent Kujan’s perspective – despite the fact he isn’t in many scenes! But the main storyline is told while Kujan questions Verbal Kint. We’re seeing the story Verbal tells Kujan play out on screen (almost all of the scenes outside of this storyline are Kujan gathering additional information to use in questioning Verbal).

But of course since Verbal is telling the main story, it’s really more from his point-of-view. Look carefully at Verbal’s story, though. He’s not in every scene. He couldn’t really know some of what happens – he would be repeating what other people have told him. Or he’s lying. By telling the main story from Verbal’s point-of-view, the film creates an unreliable narrator (another reason you might choose the first person approach). We, the audience, are hearing the tale along with Kujan and have to decide if we believe it.

To make things more head-spinning, neither Kujan or Verbal are the main character from a structural standpoint. That would be Dean Keaton.

Of course you can always just have a wide, omniscient point-of-view. It’s a lot easier, and some stories won’t benefit by limiting point-of-view. In fact, the majority of movies probably use a third person approach. But it’s good to make this a conscious decision.

In Other News…

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@dougeboch) will probably already be aware that I’ve been working on a book about pitching. Well, here’s the official announcement.

The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Douglas J. Eboch and Ken Aguado will be available in late August.

Ken is a long-time studio executive and producer. In addition to being the former president of both Miller/Boyett Entertainment and Kings Road Entertainment, he has produced several films including The Salton Sea (Warner Bros.) and Sexual Life (Showtime). And of course you all know me! Between us, Ken and I have done hundreds of pitches and Ken has heard thousands, so we think we have something to offer on the matter!

I’ll keep you updated as the release date approaches.

2 comments:

heellisgoa.com said...

I loved the movie THE WRESTLER and am interested to know what POV you believe the film-makers utilized. Was it simply a stylized version of first-person?

And if your book is as good as your blog I'll buy the first copy. Please post if it becomes available for pre-purchase.

Doug Eboch said...

Just from memory, I believe the Wrestler had a first person point of view. I don't think there were any scenes without the main character in them - maybe the camera moved around the strip club or the locker room or arena a bit, but he was always present "in the building" so to speak. I suspect that was done to create stronger identification with the main character and to really take us into his world.

I will definitely be posting more about the book when it becomes available!