Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chasing the MacGuffin

(SPOILERS: The Matrix, Inception, Casablanca)

I recently had a request to post about the term “MacGuffin” (sometimes spelled McGuffin) in more detail. I covered this a little bit in my post on the thriller genre. MacGuffins are important in thrillers, but they come into play in many genres.

I define the MacGuffin as the object or goal that the characters' mission is focused on. For example, in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) it is the idea that Cobb and his team are trying to implant in Fischer’s dreams. In Casablanca it is the letters of transit. In Sweet Home Alabama, the divorce papers. In Avatar (written by James Cameron) it’s the goofily named Unobtanium. In The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) it’s the lost groom. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) it’s the Ark of the Covenant

In a lecture at Columbia University, Alfred Hitchcock defined the MacGuffin this way: “It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” Hitchcock believed the more generic the MacGuffin was the better since the audience didn’t really care about it.

George Lucas, on the other hand, thinks the MacGuffin is crucially important. In a Vanity Fair article he said, “the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.”

I side with Hitchcock. It’s not that the MacGuffin can’t be interesting – certainly the MacGuffin in Raiders of the Lost Ark is interesting. But we don’t go see the movie to find out what happens to the Ark of the Covenant. We go to see Indiana Jones quipping his way through daring action set pieces.

Inception tells us what the idea that Cobb must implant is, but do we really care? It could be just about anything and the movie would still work as well. It’s simply a device to get Cobb and Arthur and Ariadne and the others into a dangerous dream world that will test their skills and force their characters to undergo internal change.

On the other hand we maybe care a little more about the groom in The Hangover. He is a person, after all. However he isn’t a person we know well. The characters we really care about are the groomsmen. We care about the groom because he’s their best friend and they’re responsible for him.

That’s the key to a MacGuffin, I think. We only care about it as much as the characters do. We care whether Indiana Jones gets the Ark of the Covenant because HE cares if he gets it. We like him, we’re rooting for him, we want him to succeed. And that makes the object of his quest important to us.

Sometimes the MacGuffin is actually the trigger that forces the character into the story. In Casablanca the letters of transit force Rick into a situation where he has to make a decision. Though the letters of transit are simply a mechanical plot device, the decision over what he’s going to do with them is extremely important. Again, we care because we care about whether Rick will end up with Ilsa or not. If Rick lost the letters but they found another way out of the city we wouldn’t really be concerned with the letters anymore.

I don’t think every movie has a MacGuffin, or at least not one worth identifying as a writer. And sometimes the MacGuffin just sets the story in motion and then fades into the background. Once the war starts in Avatar, does anybody really care about the unobtanium anymore – even the characters?

The important thing from a writing standpoint is not to make your MacGuffin overly complicated. If the scenes start to be all about the MacGuffin and not about the characters and their goals and the obstacles to those goals, then the audience will lose interest.

But that doesn’t mean the MacGuffin is never important. It is often the logical underpinning of the story and can provide the stakes or the ticking clock.

If the guys in The Hangover hadn’t lost the groom then the movie would simply be them trying to remember what they did the night before. Who would care? The fact that they have to find their buddy and get him back home in time for the wedding adds urgency and purpose to their actions.

In the third act of The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski), the MacGuffin is the codes for Zion that the agents are trying to extract from Morpheus’s head (how many of you remembered that?). What we care about, of course, is whether Neo can rescue Morpheus. And Morpheus’s life is really what Neo cares about. But the codes give the rescue urgency.

On a personal note, it’s interesting sometimes how these blog posts intersect my own writing. I’ve recently been struggling with an element of a story I’m trying to break. And while writing this I realized it’s because I was focusing too much on the mechanics of the MacGuffin when I should have been focusing on the antagonist’s motivation.

So don’t get too hung up on your MacGuffin…but make sure your characters do!

Monday, July 26, 2010

To Intend

Recently I was reading one of my student’s feature scripts. I came to a three page scene with two characters out on a date. The dialogue of the scene was very natural. The scene had a purpose in the larger story – this was the point where the two characters’ relationship was deepening, and they were discussing their philosophy on a subject that would come into play later. The whole thing seemed quite realistic.

It just didn’t seem dramatic.

The problem was there was no conflict in the scene. I debated for a while how to give the note. The “bad teacher” suggestion would have been: “have the characters argue about something.” But then the conflict could end up feeling forced and irrelevant to the story, and it might work against the larger purpose of showing these characters falling in love.

This is actually a common problem in a romantic story. Happy people are kind of boring, frankly. But you need to show the characters falling in love. So what do you do?

A better approach would be to introduce some kind of outside conflict. An annoying waiter, perhaps, or a food allergy. Then let the philosophical discussion fall into the background. Since the script in question was a romantic comedy this might work okay.

But I think a more sophisticated approach would be to inject conflict on a subtextual level using the characters’ intentions.

You know that old cliché about actors asking, “what’s my motivation?” Today they usually ask about their intention. But it’s the same basic question: why am I doing this? And it’s valid.

Actors phrase their intentions as “to” verbs. You can use the same technique as a writer. If you find a scene that feels dramatically flat, try giving your characters stronger intentions. Some intentions that might fit in a dinner date scene would be:

  • To seduce
  • To test
  • To get control
  • To confess
  • To hide (a secret)
  • To prove my maturity
  • To make him work for it
  • To stall
  • To impress
  • To tease

You don’t have to pick intentions that are diametrically opposed to get conflict, and you don’t have to make the conflict overt to have drama. These people are on a date and you want them to end up liking each other. But you can pick intentions that are different enough that they will force the characters to deal with the gap in an interesting way.

Consider what kind of scene you might write if you picked the intentions “to seduce” for her and “to confess” for him. Or maybe “to get control” for him and “to test” for her. Voices never have to rise, nobody has to get angry…but the conversation no longer seems so casual.

Now let’s get a little more complicated by adding adjustments to the intention.

You can add an emotional modifier to the intention, such as “fear” or “excitement” or “confidence” or “disgust.” So now it can become “to seduce, with anxiety.” Note that I’m not talking about anxiety as a technique used to seduce, but rather an emotion the seducer is feeling. Imagine the difference between “to stall, with disgust” and “to stall, with lust.”

Now before we go too far here, I’m not sure it’s very helpful to start consciously sticking intentions and adjustments on every line of every scene. In fact, it might prevent you from letting the dialogue flow naturally out of your imagination and result in stilted conversations.

But it may be worth thinking about each character’s overall intention and emotion in a given scene before you start typing. And it can certainly be useful to explore these elements during rewriting when you have a scene that feels flat.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Non-Chronological Narrative

(SPOILERS: Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Inception – though I’ll give you plenty of warning in case you haven’t seen them.)

The stories of most movies unfold in a chronological fashion. Oh sure, sometimes there are flashbacks or framing stories, and sometimes the framing stories can get pretty complex. But usually the scenes in the primary story arc are done in chronological order.

A handful of movies, however, play with the chronology of their story. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan seem to particularly enjoy rearranging narrative time.

Though movies like Pulp Fiction, Usual Suspects and Memento break with sequential narrative, all still fit into the three-act structural paradigm. In fact, it may be more important than ever to have a strong structural spine when you’re messing with your story’s time line.

The most important thing to identify is the Main Tension (which I’m now calling the Dramatic Question) of the movie. This will give you your catalyst and resolution and tell you – and the audience – what the scope and boundaries of the story are.

If you fail to spell out a clear dramatic question early in the movie and then answer that in a resolution near the end, then you will probably either lose audience interest when your narrative thrust becomes confused or have an ending that is anti-climactic and unsatisfying. Or both.

The other elements of structure should still fall at about the same place in the running time of the movie. This may even be a reason to fracture narrative time – to maintain the emotional arc of the story where one doesn’t fit naturally. That can be particularly useful in a historical piece where the true events don’t line up into a neat structure.

Non-chronological movies require complex plotting, often at the expense of emotion. As such they tend to engage the intellect a lot more than the heart. This is similar to the mystery genre, which may be why so many of these kinds of movies are crime stories with a strong mystery at the core.

Let’s take a quick look at a few films with non-chronological narrative:

Memento (screenplay by Christopher Nolan)

Memento’s main storyline occurs in reverse. There’s also a forward moving storyline (the scenes in black and white) intercut with the main plot. But Memento ends up having a fairly traditional three-act structure. The main character is Leonard. The dramatic question is “can he find the man who killed his wife.” The catalyst is when we learn that this is his mission and the resolution is when we find out the answer. Though the scenes fall in reverse order, the act breaks, midpoint, etc. all appear in order to the audience.

The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie)

The Usual Suspects has a much more complex storyline as well as a large ensemble of major characters. The main character of the ensemble is Dean Keaton – he’s the guy with the problem at the catalyst. He wants to go straight but he’s been forced to commit this crime. So the dramatic question becomes, “can Keaton escape his life of crime?”

Interestingly, we learn the answer right up front. We see that Keaton will end up being shot by Keyser Sose. So the dramatic question for the audience then becomes “who killed Keaton” or more specifically, “who is Keyser Sose?”

The movie has a framing story – Agent Kujan questioning Verbal – but ultimately this framing story will also be where we get the answer to that crucial question. So in a way we’re cutting back and forth from the climax of the movie to the events leading up to it. The other structural beats fit into the chronological progression of the past storyline where we see Keaton get drawn into then try to extract himself from the mission.

Pulp Fiction (written by Quentin Tarantino)

Pulp Fiction is a real tough one. It has three major interlinked storylines, each with their own main characters and three act beats, intercut in non-chronological ways. With these kind of multi-storyline movies you, the writer, need to pick the storyline that will structure your movie. The beats of that storyline become the spine on which the other storylines are attached.

What holds Pulp Fiction together is the Vincent and Jules storyline. We begin (after the brief Pumpkin/Honey Bunny prologue) and end with their experiences recovering the briefcase. This storyline binds the movie into a cohesive whole for the audience.

What makes Pulp Fiction particularly challenging is that the other storylines are not intercut in chronological order. We even see Vincent die in one of them! Pulp Fiction uses multiple unusual narrative devices to tell its story.

Inception (written by Christopher Nolan)

Since Inception just came out, I thought I would close by mentioning the section where the team of dream infiltrators split into different dream “levels” creating three parallel timelines moving at different speeds. This is not actually non-chronological narrative. Time is moving forward in a direct linear fashion. We just have the equivalent of three locations where things happen at different speeds. But time itself only moves forward.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Flashbacks vs. Framing Stories

(SPOILERS: Saving Private Ryan, Casablanca, The Notebook)

I've been talking a lot about narrative devices lately – techniques we use to tell stories on film. Today I want to discuss two related narrative devices: flashbacks and framing stories.

You probably already know what a flashback is. In case you haven't heard the term "framing story," it describes scenes that surround the primary story, often in the present for a story told in the past. For example, Saving Private Ryan (written by Robert Rodat) has a framing story – we see Ryan in the present day going to visit the gravesite of Captain Miller in France. The Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman) also has a framing story – the grandfather reading the book to his sick grandson. In Saving Private Ryan the framing story literally frames the movie – appearing only at the beginning and end. In The Princess Bride, we move back and forth from the framing story to the main story in the book the grandfather is reading.

What differentiates a framing story from a flashback is where the main dramatic story of the movie takes place. If the main story is in the past, then everything in the present is a framing story. If the main story is in the present, then what takes place in the past is flashback.

It's important to understand where your main story is taking place. This is the story the audience really cares about. Everything in a framing story or flashback serves only to illuminate the main story in some way. Thus you must be careful not to spend too much time in the flashback or framing story. If you do, the audience will eventually grow bored waiting for you to return to the stuff they're really interested in.

Note that not every jump back in time constitutes a flashback as I’m defining it. Sometimes, for example, we might have an opening scene that’s set in the distant past – some bit of history that sets up important information for the present day storyline, as in The Mummy (story by Stephen Sommers and Lloyd Fonvielle & Kevin Jarre, screenplay by Stephen Sommers) or Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe). Those are really prologues, not flashbacks.

Similarly, sometimes a movie will start with an exciting bit of action and then flash back to show how we got there, such as in Mission: Impossible III (written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams). Again, this is not really a flashback by my definition, but rather a flash forward used to tease the audience. It’s a perfectly acceptable device, but bears more relationship to the purpose of a prologue than the usual uses for flashbacks.


Like voiceover, flashbacks are considered by some to be a weak device. And like voiceover I think this is because flashbacks are often used badly, not because the device itself is somehow inferior. Flashbacks are almost by definition expository and thus have many of the same challenges as good exposition. They also have an inherent advantage in conveying exposition in that they can be dramatic scenes in and of themselves…as long as the writer makes them dramatic, of course.

Consider the flashback in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), when Rick remembers his time in Paris with Ilsa. It takes us away from the main story line for an awfully long time. But by the time we see it we're very curious about what happened back in Paris to make Rick so angry at Ilsa. Like with any expository scene, placing it when the audience is craving the information makes it more palatable. And the scenes themselves with the invading German army, Ilsa's mysterious past, and the final heartbreaking moment at the train station are dramatic in their own right.

Movies like Signs (written by M. Night Shyamalan) and I Am Legend (screenplay Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman) use flashbacks to reveal how their characters got to be the way they are. This more or less works, but these scenes never feel that interesting. I think that’s because they don’t reveal anything particularly surprising or relevant to the outcome of the primary story. It’s mostly character development and for that I think flashback is kind of a weak device.

Though admittedly Casablanca also tells us how Rick got to be the way he is, we learn something about him that we didn’t know – that he wasn’t always such a tough guy. The character information in the Signs and I Am Legend flashbacks is largely established in other ways in the main story line. And in Casablanca we also get information in the flashback that will be important for the outcome of the main story.

The TV show Lost used flashbacks to reveal character very effectively in the early seasons. But in those cases again we were learning things about the characters that were usually both unexpected and relevant to the main storyline happening on the island. By the later seasons (when we start to have flash forwards and flash “sideways”) we are no longer really looking at flashbacks. At this point they’ve become stories told out of chronological order.

Framing Stories

Framing stories are a potentially powerful device, but one fraught with risk. I think the framing story in Saving Private Ryan is the weakest part of the movie, and I'm certainly not alone. The Bridges of Madison County (screenplay by Richard LaGravenese) also has a cringe-worthy framing story that detracts rather than adds to the primary story. If we don't sense a relevant purpose for the framing story then it simply annoys us when it takes us away from the main action.

Sometimes the framing story is just a way to introduce a narrator for the main story. We learn that what we're going to hear is one person's perspective on the events. Edward Scissorhands (story by Tim Burton & Caroline Thompson, screenplay by Caroline Thompson) opens with Kim, as an old lady, telling her granddaughter why it snows. We then go back in time to when Kim was a teenager for the main story, only returning to the framing story at the very end for a nice tag. The framing story provides sweet bookends to the movie and gives it a fairy tale quality.

More interesting are framing stories that have their own conflict and structure. The Notebook (adaptation by Jan Sardi, screenplay by Jeremy Leven) is a good example. The main story line is in the past, the tale of the rocky romance between Noah and Allie. In the framing story an old man tells an old woman this story. We learn, of course, that these are Noah and Allie and that Allie has Alzheimer's disease. It adds incredible poignancy to the main story and serves as a profound punctuation mark on the romance of the main story line.

Citizen Kane (screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles) also works in this way. The main story is of course Kane's life, but it's framed by a reporter's search for the meaning of Kane's last words. This cleverly allows the main story to be told by a series of narrators in interviews with the reporter. (These may appear to be flashbacks, but remember our definition: the main story of Citizen Kane is in the past.) The framing story is a device to structure the way the narrative is told.

So how do you know when to use these devices? Usually if you find yourself writing a long monologue of someone telling a story from the past you should consider using a flashback. But if you find yourself writing a lot of flashbacks in a script, you might want to rethink your story. If what happened in the past is so important, maybe what happens in the present isn't interesting enough. Maybe you ought to be telling the back-story as your main story!

You should consider using a framing story for: 1) bookends to present the audience with a narrator, 2) thematic or emotional context for a story in the past, or 3) a device to structure past events. But be cautious…make sure your framing story is actually adding something worthwhile to the movie.

Both flashbacks and framing stories are forms of non-chronological storytelling. There are other kinds of non-chronological narrative devices besides these. Movies like The Usual Suspects or Memento are not using flashbacks and framing stories so much as breaking down the linear story chronology altogether. (Though within its non-chronological story structure Memento does have some traditional flashbacks to the murder of Leonard’s wife.)

There are plenty of other things to discuss with non-chronological storytelling. And those things will probably become topics of future posts!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Making Time for Inspiration

I haven’t written an original spec* script in almost two years. There are a variety of reasons – the first half of this year I’ve been occupied with a writing assignment. Early last year I revised an older spec that my agent had thought might be right for the market at that time. Then the market for specs collapsed for most of last year and since I have plenty of writing samples, there didn’t seem to be much point in starting a new one.

But after I finished my assignment a few weeks ago I talked to my agent about positive signs in the marketplace and we decided it might be time for me to do another spec. So about two weeks ago I had lunch with my agent and another agent at the agency (who works more in TV) to discuss potential projects. I brought half a dozen loglines** with me.

Both agents got really excited by a feature idea I’ve wanted to write for years. I haven’t tackled it before now because it’s in a genre that I’m not known for, and because it would be a big, expensive movie. So I was pretty jazzed that they went for that one.

Then I sat down to try to outline it. As usually happens at this stage I discovered I haven’t figured out nearly as much of the story as I thought. Mainly, I didn’t have a good handle on the main character’s emotional journey. So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on other stuff hoping that inspiration will come to me.

Guess what? That head-in-the-sand, wait-for-inspiration approach almost never works.

Yesterday I had an epiphany. I thought of a whole new reason the character gets involved in the story and suddenly everything opened up. And the situation in which the epiphany came to me got me thinking.

I had to take my car in for some routine service. While I was waiting I went to a coffee shop with a legal pad and pen. I started jotting down ideas for the main character – all kinds of stuff, some of it contradictory, some of it crazy, just to see where it would take me. About half an hour later I had my “Eureka” moment.

In today’s world with our smart phones and laptops we never waste a minute. But (and I’m certainly not the first to notice this) we are also constantly distracted. We don’t get time to reflect and let our mind wander…unless we make the time. I had my epiphany because I made the time for it.

There were distractions at the coffee shop – music playing, the cute girl sitting across from me – but nothing to really draw my focus. I could make notes on my pad, but I couldn’t check my email or surf the web or play solitaire. And in that vacuum my imagination finally got to work.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not some anti-tech nut. I love my DVR and iPod. And the Internet has been a tremendous boon to screenwriters from a research standpoint. No more maintaining shelves of reference books or running off to the library for several hours to find some obscure piece of information. With a few keystrokes you have what you need and can get right back to writing.

But we work in a creative field and it’s important to let ourselves be creative.

When I’m stuck on a story point or scene the surest way to get the solution is to go for a walk around the block. Also, I’ve noticed many of my biggest breakthroughs seem to come in the shower.

Both locations lack much in the way of intellectual stimulation. And I think some mild physical activity like walking or shampooing helps. It occupies the left brain just enough that the right brain is free to play.

I’ve heard other writers say they go for a drive when they get stuck, but a walk is healthier and better for the environment. So if you’re stuck on a story point, turn the cell phone off, leave the iPod behind, and take a little stroll with your imagination.

*Spec script – A script written speculatively, meaning no buyer in place. You try to sell it after it’s done. This is an increasingly rare occurrence these days. Most specs end up serving as writing samples or calling cards.

**Logline – A one or two sentence description of the concept of a movie.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Voice-Over Dos and Don’ts

Last post I discussed the desirability of having strong character voice in your voice-over. Today I’m going to discuss some other aspects of writing good voice-over, and some ways I’ve seen it used badly.

Sometimes I’ll be reading a scene from a student or a script from an amateur and suddenly, without warning, there will be a single line of voice-over all by its lonesome. It’s jarring and takes me out of the flow of the scene. You’ll notice you never see this in studio features. That’s because good filmmakers know they have to set up the technique for the audience.

There are a couple ways to do this. First, like introducing a fantasy element into your story world, if you’re going to use voice-over as a consistent narrative device you want to introduce it early. In the early part of the movie the audience is figuring out what the rules of your world are, and that includes narrative devices.

Movies like Goodfellas (screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese) or Forrest Gump (screenplay by Eric Roth) really rely on the voice-over as an integral part of their storytelling. And both use voice-over in the first few minutes and then with regularity throughout.

Even movies like Raising Arizona (written by Ethan & Joel Coen) or American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) that use voice-over more sparingly both open with it in the first sequence to acclimate the audience to it.

There are other occasions when you want voice-over but are not using it as a consistent narrative device. One would be when someone in the movie is telling a story. You might use a flashback to keep things visual. The flashback might have voice-over narration where the rest of the movie doesn’t. This works because we usually see the character start to tell the story and then dissolve into the flashback. We understand this new storytelling technique is just a temporary narrative device because it's set up by the context of the story.

A similar temporary device is one I mentioned last time: a narrated prologue to introduce the audience to the world of the movie. Examples include the first Lord of the Rings movie (screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson) or The Mummy (story by Stephen Sommers and Lloyd Fonvielle & Kevin Jarre; screenplay by Stephen Sommers). Again, the audience understands that this is separate from the main storyline. Plus, a prologue, by definition, comes at the beginning of the movie!

When a single line of voice-over comes out of the blue in a script or scene it’s usually because the writer wanted the audience to know some piece of information and voice-over was the easiest way to convey it. Well in this case easy isn’t better; it’s lazy and jarring.

Another important rule: don’t just tell us what we’re seeing on screen. Voice-over is an inherently distancing device. If you’re going to tell me what I can see for myself then I’d rather you just shut up already. Plus, if you’re doing this, you’re wasting the potential of the narrative device.

Voice-over is particularly useful to give us a character’s point of view and/or to create irony. In the first case, if the character’s point of view is obvious from the events on screen then it’s probably not interesting. Showing Joe passed out among a pile of beer cans and having his wife say, “Joe was drunk,” in voice-over is not very enlightening. If the character illuminates the events on screen in some way then I might actually care what their perspective is.

You can also get either dramatic or comedic irony when what the voice-over says is contradictory to what the action is. If we see Joe lying in the pile of cans and his wife says, in voice-over, “Joe was the most sophisticated guy I ever met,” we have irony – and a reason for the voice-over.

Consider this scene in the script for the recent movie Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick):


Rule #3 - Double Tap.

A WOMAN stands on a city street, steely-eyed, resolute, holding a pistol with two hands. We hear rapid FOOTFALLS approaching her.

Superimposed onscreen: A TITLE: 3. Double Tap

The footsteps belong to a big female ZOMBIE, who RUSHES straight AT the woman. The woman PLUGS the zombie in the chest with a bullet. The zombie FACE-PLANTS and lies motionless.

Gun still raised, the woman approaches the zombie to test with her foot whether it’s dead.

You’ve just shot a zombie. You think it’s dead, you’re trying to save bullets... unh-uh. Two more shots. One to the head makes ninety-nine percent sure. One more to the head makes a hundred. It’s known as a Double Tap.

The woman doesn’t follow Flagstaff’s advice. She NUDGES the zombie’s leg. It keeps its eyes CLOSED, like a little girl who's pretending to be asleep when her parents arrive home after a night out.

There’s no use saving for the next zombie when this one’s about to...

The woman turns away, and the zombie slyly PEEKS at her. It LUNGES and BITES VICIOUSLY into her ACHILLES TENDON.

...give you a season-ending injury.

See how the voice-over adds to the information on screen? We don’t need Flagstaff to say something like, “this woman thinks kicking the zombie will tell her if it’s really dead.” We can see that. What we do need is to understand Flagstaff’s pragmatic, organized, rule-based approach to living in a zombie infested world.

The scene is also planting this specific rule which will payoff later. The bad version would be to see Flagstaff giving the double tap as he describes it. Doing it this way allows for a greater density of information - both visual and voice-over.

And as a bonus we get character and humor.

The Zombieland scene wouldn’t be the same scene without the voice-over. And that’s actually a pretty good test…if you can cut the voice-over out of the scene or film and you don’t lose anything significant, then you probably shouldn’t have written it in the first place.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Voice-Over – A Weak Device?

(SPOILERS: Blade Runner, Goodfellas)

There are those who claim using voice-over in a movie is a weak device (Robert McKee, for example, as famously satirized in Adaptation, screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufman). Personally, I disagree. To defend my stance I would simply point to such great movies as Goodfellas (screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese) and Raising Arizona (written by Ethan & Joel Coen). I cannot imagine how either of them could have been improved by removing the voice-over.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of bad voice-over. The most notorious is probably Blade Runner (screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples). But why did it fail so badly? Blade Runner is a combination of noir and sci-fi, and thus feels like a natural for voice-over, noir movies being particularly known for the device. It seems to me the reason the voice-over doesn’t work is because the content of the voice-over is bad.

Let’s look at a couple examples from the film:

I didn't know whether Leon gave Holden a legit address. But it was the only lead I had, so I checked it out. Whatever was in the bathtub was not human. Replicants don't have scales. And family photos? Replicants didn't have families either.

The report would be routine retirement of a replicant which didn't make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back. There it was again. Feeling, in myself. For her, for Rachael.

Now compare to the first chunk of voice-over in Goodfellas:

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after-school job, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there I belonged. To me it meant being somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies. They weren't like anyone else. They did whatever they wanted. They'd double-park in front of the hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.

Notice how the Deckard’s voice-over is dry and expository, while Henry’s voice-over crackles with character? Of course, Henry’s is also somewhat expository but we barely notice because it’s revealing his character at the same time.

One of the artistically valid reasons to use voice-over is to tell a story from a particular character’s perspective. To do that the voice-over needs to have a strong sense of the character’s voice. Goodfellas flips between Henry and Karen’s voice-over and each is strong and distinctive.

Voice-over is lazy when it’s used to simply explain things to the audience. Which is how it feels in Blade Runner. Moreover, in Blade Runner it explains things that don’t really need explaining – a fact proved by how effective the movie played in later releases without the voice-over. Cut the voice-over out of Goodfellas and it wouldn’t make any sense at all.

Other movies like Dune (screenplay by David Lynch) or the 1948 Joan of Arc (screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Andrew Solt) have bad voice-over because the movie was cut down for length and the voice-over was added to bridge the gaps. But again, it’s not the technique itself that’s bad; it’s the way it’s used. The real problem was the (alleged) need to hack apart the movie in the first place.

I think the lesson is that voice-over is a good device when it’s an integral part of the style and structure of the movie and a bad device when it’s a crutch to help with exposition or to fix other problems in the film.

There is one place expository voice-over seems to work: at the very beginning of the film to set up the world of the story. This is most common in sci-fi films and historical films. These are often actually just audio versions of title cards like the opening scroll in Star Wars (written by George Lucas). Another variation is a narrated prologue such as that done in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (screenplay by Linda Woolverton) or the first Lord of the Rings movie (screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson).

It may in fact be lazy to use these devices to open your movie. But it’s also an effective short cut to tell the audience what they need to know, especially if they’re entering an unfamiliar world. Every once in a while we’re better off taking the lazy short cut than spending a lot of screen time on a more elegant approach. This works best at the beginning of a movie before we’ve settled into the storyline, as long as you keep it brief and punchy (The Lord of the Rings prologue is a little long for my taste). Once the story gets going, constant interruption by an expository narrator is distracting.

So having a strong “voice” in your voice-over is important. Does that mean those movies with an omniscient narrator – one who’s not a character in the movie, like Vicky Christina Barcelona (written by Woody Allen) – have bad voice-over?

Not necessarily, but I do think it’s harder to pull this off. You lose one of the primary reasons for doing voice-over in the first place – to get inside a character’s head. You might be able to give your omniscient narrator some personality, of course, but generally the effect is literary, not filmic. The omniscient narrator most often works when it is used to create a kind of “fairy tale” feeling that fits the tone of the film.

I’m going to continue to look at using voice over effectively in upcoming posts, along with some other narrative devices like flashback and framing stories.