Case Study In Place Empire Of The Moon

Empire of the Moon, a short film by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson (1991), is about Paris. The point of view is that of the tourist the tourist coming to Paris, the tourist discovering the mysterious beauty of Paris, its inscrutable quality. In order to capture the mystery of that beauty, the filmmakers use a mixture of documentary images and abstracted images parts of buildings, the light of the moon moving across tree-lined residential areas, the artificial lights of the tourist boats...

Case Study In Structure River Of Things

River of Things, a short film by Katharine and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, is based on four poems by Pablo Neruda. The filmmakers present four odes based on the poems an Ode to Things, an Ode to the Spoon, an Ode to a Bar of Soap, and an Ode to the Table. The film is formally structured by these four odes. Not all are similar in length or tone. Ode to Things, for example, the most naturalistic of the four, is the only one to focus on a relation-ship of a married couple. It is also linear in its...

Case Study in Time

Phil Bertelson's Around the Time is an interview of a black father by his son. What Bertelson is exploring is actually the circumstances of his own birth. This encounter of young adult and middle-aged man is a meeting of two strangers. The conversation triggers the narration by the father of a time a generation earlier, of his relationship with a white woman, and of the racism of the times and the consequent impermanence of interracial relationships. The relationship fails, but the narrator...

Distinct Style

A style is effective when it helps the narrative it is trying to tell. A style is notable when there is an innovative, as opposed to derivative, feel to the energy it injects into the story. The consequence of the latter point is that experimental narrative works best for those who are innovative with their stories. Borrowed styles are obvious, and because the narrative content is often modest, the borrowed style fails to capture the audience it seeks. The consequence is that the shelf life of...

Few Words On The Writing Exercises In This Book

They are intended (1) as aids to freeing perception and imagination, (2) as explorations to be embarked upon without thought of evaluating results in the ordinary way, and (3) as finger exercises, to be used as warm-up for future scriptwriting. In doing them, don't concern yourself with grammar, spelling, or punctuation. To do so may inhibit the flow of images, associations, and vague, floating ideas that are the raw material from which good stories are made. If the work is being done in a...

First Assignment

Write brief descriptions, using the present tense, of two quite different main characters as they go about their lives. Be sure to choose characters that engage you and situations you know something about. End each description with an encounter or incident that would make for a change in the character's situation. Set up one synopsis as if for a short script in which you employ the journey structure, and the other for a screenplay in which you use the ritual occasion. At this point, don't...

Another Story

THE BACKYARD OF A COUNTRY COTTAGE DAY THROUGH THE LIGHT WE SEE THE FRAME OF BRANCHES A SMALL COTTAGE WITH A LARGE PICTURE WINDOW. WE CAN SEE TWO LITTLE GIRLS PERCHED IN THE LOWER CORNER OF THE WINDOW. (whispering, after a long pause) I hate rain . . . 2. INT. LIVING ROOM OF COTTAGE DAY The rain is creating a HYPNOTIC RHYTHM on the roof. Two little girls are sitting on a cushion-padded bench with their elbows on the window sill. The taller girl is about seven years old with long blond hair...

Case Studies in Tone

The tone of the short melodrama is usually realistic. Christian Taylor's The Lady in Waiting and Graham Justice's A Children's Story are each presented realistically. This means recognizable characters in recognizable situations. The result is a dramatic arc for the main character that does not veer from the expected. Having confirmed the expected tone of the genre, it's important to reaffirm that tone in the short film has a wider latitude than does tone in the long-form melodrama. Two...

Case Study in Character

Matt Mailer's The Money Shot chronicles a particular film project. The filmmaker is the central character. He is following two street kids, both teenagers in trouble. The film opens with the male subject confessing to killing people. He is charming but brutal and very candid about what he does. The female subject also lives a marginalized life alienated from her mother, she supports herself by prostitution, and she is a drug user. The filmmaker also interviews the young woman's mother and the...

Case Study in the Role of the Antagonist

Dead Letters Don't Die, by Anais Granofsky and Michael Swanhaus, is a modern fable about hope and hopelessness. The main character, a postal worker, is always hopeful. His boss, the woman he loves from her letters, and the Santa Claus character all represent urban cynicism. They fulfill the role of antagonist, not in the sense that the main character hates them, but rather in terms of the social and psychological attitude they represent. They have given up hope. The plot, the effort to save the...

Cast Study in Plot

Ethan Spigland's Strange Case of Balthazar Hyppolite tells the story of a film archivist who finds some rare film footage by the filmmaker Balthazar Hyppolite. The film predates the numerous technological discoveries that helped create the film industry. Consequently, it is footage of considerable historical importance. The balance of the film is devoted to searching and reconstructing the footage. In the second part of the film, the main character's love interest in a fellow archivist is...

Dialogue And Character

It is in the specific details of dialogue that the writer develops credibility in his characters. Everyone is a member of a family, a community, a country. Speech patterns and phrases are often associated with particular communities. It's not simply a matter of dialect it's also the slang and the level of formality or informality that differs from one community to the next. The writer who has done research will know that. The members of the audience who know people who speak that way will...

Dialogue As Transition

Dialogue can be very useful in providing transitions between scenes. One of the problems the writer faces is the task of collapsing a story that may take place over a long time and in a number of geographical locations into a script less than 30 minutes long. Even the story of one day or one moment, as in the case of Enrico's Incident at Owl Creek, requires transitions to convince us of the dramatic use of time and place in the script. Changes of time and place occur in the original story, An...

Exercise Finding Characters

Go to a public place caf , park, train station, supermarket wherever you can watch someone who might engage you as a possible character without being noticed doing so. (Don't choose anyone you know.) Try to memorize quickly the person's appearance and general style then find a place where you can scribble down a list of items that seem characteristic or revealing about this person. Be as specific as you can where it seems important for instance, not glasses but big tortoise-shell glasses not...

Exercise Using Visual Images

X is your character, whoever he or she may turn out to be. Write down the following paragraph Dusk. Sound of soft rain. Fully dressed, X lies on the bed, gazing up at the ceiling. After a moment, X gets up slowly and crosses to the dresser against the opposite wall. Begin writing, stopping at the end of 10 minutes. Put the page aside without reading it. Take a couple of deep breaths and have a good stretch before going on to the next exercise. The writer director Ingmar Bergman has said in a...

Fifteenth Assignment Writing A First Draft

Consult our examples or the short screenplays in Appendix B for the appropriate format. Then, keeping your portfolio of exercises and assignments nearby and your outline at your elbow, begin writing. Remember that the first draft of any screenplay is an exploration the main thing is to get the story on paper so that you have something to revise. If you find it difficult to work at home, go to a caf if you find the word processor wearisome, go to pen or pencil if you find any or all of the...

For Your Script

First, reread the suggestions for writing story outlines in the previous chapter. Then, using both the results of the last few exercises and your marked-up copy of the original letter, make a bare-bones outline for the screenplay, no more than a page long. Put this away for a day or two while you reflect on the feeling the tone you want the material to express. When you are ready, look over the outline to see if you've taken a step toward introducing the character in his or her situation...

General Characteristics Nonlinearity

The key to experimental narrative is the desire to avoid conventional narrative. Conventional narrative is essentially a character-driven or plot-driven story with a beginning, middle, and end. In conventional narrative, the main character may or may not achieve his or her goal, but the drive to achieve the goal carries us through the story to a resolution. A nonlinear story may eschew a single main character, or a plot, or a resolution, or all of the above. In the experimental narrative, the...

Introduction

This book is primarily intended for film and video students or independent video- and filmmakers who are faced with the necessity of writing a short narrative script. For our purposes, we consider a short film to be one of 30 minutes or less, as films longer than that usually need a secondary, or minor, plot-line to sustain audience interest and, in addition, are much less likely to be eligible for festivals or suitable to be shown as portfolio work. Although our main focus is on the short...

Melodrama Is Adaptable to the Issues of the

One of the most notable qualities about melodrama is how the form can be used to embrace the key social, economic, and political issues of the day. When the downturn of coal mining was a central concern of British society, films such as John Ford's How Green Was My Valley and Carol Reed's The Stars Look Down were produced. Today, sexual abuse and incest, particularly concerning children, is a powerful issue. Films like John Smith's The Boys of St. Vincent, Angelica Huston's Bastard Out of...

More On Behavior Defining Character

In his treatise known as the Poetics, Aristotle defines dramatic action as the movement of spirit or psyche that produces a character's behavior. Film and theatre director Elia Kazan, in his notebook for A Streetcar Named Desire, remarks that finally directing consists of turning psychology into behavior. Substitute the word screenwriting for the word directing, and Kazan's statement would still hold true. A character's desires or needs, that movement of the psyche to which both Aristotle and...

Nineteenth Assignment Getting Feedback

As the saying goes, discretion is often the better part of valor. It is wise not to use family or friends as your first readers unless they are screenwriters or filmmakers themselves. Most people are unfamiliar with screenplays, and do not know how to respond to such bare-bones writing. In some cases, friends and family may be taken aback by what your writing self has come up with. And they are (understandably) often more interested in you than in your script. It makes sense to show them a...

On Revision Substance And Style

First drafts are for learning what your story or book is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge or enhance an idea, to re-form it. The first draft is the most uncertain where you need the guts, the ability to accept the unperfect until it is better.1 What is a draft For our purposes, a draft is a major rewrite of your script. In working on early drafts, try to avoid simply polishing, other than cutting long speeches or monologues. We will consider ways to hone your dialogue...

Plot Is Critical

Consider the plot in hyperdrama as a lengthy journey wherein the main character will encounter many obstacles. The characters may succeed, or they may fail, but in one way or another, they will be transformed by the journey. In the Star Wars trilogy, the galaxy is the path that will take a son into a confrontation with his father. In Excalibur, the journey for Arthur is from a warring, barbaric origin (his birth) to an attempt to establish a just society (Camelot), where nobility and honor will...

Positioning The Character

In most forms of storytelling, there is a variety of options available to the storyteller as to the position of the main character in the story. A third-person position makes the character an observer a second-person position places the character in the role of guide throughout the story finally, the first-person position places the character in the middle of the narrative the story is happening to the character. In prose, poetry, the short story, long pieces of fiction, and plays, all of these...

Ritualized Tone

Just as hyperdrama uses ritualization of the action to create metaphor, experimental narrative uses the organization of the details, aural and visual, to develop a tone that creates metaphor. The tone may be poetic, as in Satyricon it may be beautifully mysterious and menacing, as in The Passenger it may be hallucinatory, as in The Double Life of Veronique it may be epic and inhumane, as in The Round-up. Whichever tone the filmmaker chooses, that tone will tend to have a formal quality that...

Sixth Assignment More On Describing A Character

Read in their entirety the first three student scripts in Appendix B Another Story, Lady In Waiting, and Sleeping Beauties.7 Pay special attention to the way in which characters are described the first time you meet them. After you have read each script, go back to evaluate these descriptions. How well do they function, in light of what you now know of the character's behavior Is there particular information you weren't given about a character that would have been helpful If there is change or...

Some Basic Definitions

What follow are some of the important and widely used terms that we will be using throughout this book Protagonist, meaning main character, is a word that comes from the Greek words for first (protos) and struggler or combatant (agonistes). So the protagonist is the main struggler in the story. The word antagonist comes from the Greek words for against (anti) and, once more, struggler or combatant (agonistes). The antagonist, whether human, man-made, or a force of nature such as a mountain,...

Sources For Storytelling

Whether your goal is a contemporary story, a story specific to a culture, or a more universal story, there are many sources of inspiration, information, or insight for you to draw from. Many writers and teachers of writing believe that the best source is your own experience. Our feeling is that your experience is only one of many sources. Should you choose your own experience for a story, the detailing of the story is clearly less problematic. The problem writers face with their own experience...

Storytelling In The Context Of Film

As we have established, film stories come from many sources. Anthony Green's Pigeon (included in Appendix A) is based on true World War II events. Looking at a number of films, we find stories such as George Miller's Lorenzo's Oil, based on newspaper accounts of real-life events (a parent's search for a scientific cure for her child's illness in spite of the medical establishment's pronouncement that her son is incurable). Other films are based on national figures such as James Hoffa (David...

The Comic Character

The comic character and the tragic character are essentially mirror versions of one another. The comic character is, however, more flexible, in that the writer can employ irony through the character. The comic character will also allow you a range of feeling much broader than the tragic character will allow. For example, you can present the comic character as a clown who reflects on his or her behavior, or as a fool who can reflect on the behavior of those around him or her as well. Although...

The Current Situation

In North America, the short film continues to be an apprenticeship form. This means that it is predominantly viewed as a portfolio piece. Although festivals, cable television sales, and increasingly commercially sponsored competitions offer the young short filmmaker the opportunity to recoup some of his or her costs. Purely from an economic viewpoint, the short film is best viewed as an investment in the 'filmmaker's professional development. The lack of commercial potential remains the...

The Digital Video Movement

The technology advance of digital video offers a new opportunity for makers of the short film. Essentially, the technology will not contribute directly to the writing of a short film, but it will enable the writer-filmmaker to view the writing process as more malleable. To be specific, the fact that the writer can use digital video an inexpensive recording format to work with actors and to try out scenes, implies that such work, whether improvisational or scripted, can enhance the actual...

The Dramatic Arc

Beyond the course of the relationship, there is no clear dramatic arc. The young girl also explores a relationship with a male classmate. They are attracted to one another and arrange a tryst but are reprimanded by an adult. He may be a policeman, but he seems more like a truant officer. Neither the young girl nor the classmate is in any case capable of moving the relationship away from the link of school work to a future. The Japanese tourist, who calls himself Tokyo, also progresses along the...

The Evolution Of The Short Film

At the outset of film being created as an art, all films were short. Indeed, until 1913, all films were 15 minutes long or less. Only after the Italian film epics had influenced D. W. Griffith to produce Judith of Bethulia did the longer form come to be the norm. Although feature film eventually became the predominant form, comedy shorts, from Mack Sennett to the Bowery Boys, were produced until the success of television in the 1950s. Serialized films were also essentially shorts, characterized...

The Fable

Fable, a term most used in the sense of a short story devised to convey some useful moral lesson, but often carrying with it associations of the marvelous or the mythical, and frequently employing animals as characters. Famous examples include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and George Orwell's Animal Farm.1 If your idea is best presented with the elements of moral lessons, the mythical, and animal characters, the fable can transport your idea from the realistic to the fantastic. Although...

The Importance Of Seeking Creative Solutions

It is very easy for writers to rely on mechanical solutions to narrative problems. Transforming an idea into a script means attending to dramatic principles and forms however, too often the writer unwittingly falls into the trap of taking the path of least resistance the mechanically correct rather than the creatively desirable dramatic solution. In essence, avoiding mechanical solutions means keeping your awareness of, excitement about, and commitment to the original idea in the forefront....

The Lady In Waiting

EARLY MORNING All is quiet as the first rays of sunlight hit FORTLEY MANOR. At the front gate is a large sign which reads Bartle and Johnson of London announce the sale of Fortley Manor, an extensive country estate. Across the bottom is plastered SOLD. Large rooms lie empty of furniture, everything is spartan and clean, and nothing moves save the morning light that gradually increases throughout the building. A distant RUSTLING is heard. A pair of woman's hands sifts through...

The Main Character and His Goal

Oscar is a young boy born at the end of World War I in the contested Baltic area of Danzig. Part German and part Polish, the zone is neither and both. These national tensions are represented in Oscar's paternity. His mother loves two men, one Polish and the other German. One of the two is his real father, but Oscar doesn't know which. Growing up in this confused familial and national environment, Oscar decides at age three to stop growing. He only gives up this goal after the end of World War...

The Mockumentary

Ever since This Is Spinal Tap, student films about performance, filmmaking, writing, and music have relied on the hybrid form loosely called the mock-umentary. This is a form that both evokes realism and pokes fun at it. Not quite as intense as the satire, the mockumentary criticizes gently the subject of the film, which is often the media as it interacts with, and often creates, a star. In this sense, the mockumentary is a self-reflexive and self-critical form, as the mock in the word...

The Parallels In Documentary

The documentary shares with the short film its noncommercial history. Consequently, each uses a broader band of actual and potential material. In part it also characterizes each as a less expensive and thus more available form of expression. The two forms also share an important goal the deep desire to say something, to affect their audience. That conviction to affect the audience is enabled by the relationship each form has to voice. As mentioned earlier, the link of the short film to metaphor...

The Reliance on Pattern

What is required when plot and character are downplayed is a style that invites involvement from the audience, that creates a pattern substituting for the functions of plot and character. In Exotica, we follow each of the five characters through a gradual revelation of their sexual confusion and the sources of their despair. In Sink or Swim, the pattern is literary chapters unfolding chronologically. In Natural Born Killers, the pattern is the frequent references to television. Pattern is the...

The Role Of Insight

When you and I discover something about a person, a place, a time, something we never knew or had forgotten, we experience an insight. Just as your main character should experience insight about him or herself through experiences in the script, so too should the audience members gain insight about themselves. All of us want to learn all the time. It's the great payoff from reading or viewing stories. When they are very good, they teach us, as all positive...

The Shape Of This Book

We have structured this book into four sections, the first dealing with the underlying fundamental characteristics of the short screenplay the second moving the writer from the fundamentals to strategies for storytelling, visualization, dramatization, character, and dialogue the third dealing with forming the story and the last pointing out future directions. Since the process of writing the short film should be an organic one, we begin with the idea and move the writer through the various...

Three Visual Openings

What follows are detailed accounts of the openings of three short films regarded as classics. Each uses little or no dialogue and no voice-over, although their sound tracks play important roles in establishing mood and tone. Note that these are not excerpts from the screenplays but simply descriptions of scenes from the finished films. In Incident at Owl Creek (Robert Enrico, 1962), the following sign is prominently placed on a burnt tree trunk CAUGHT INTERFERING WITH THE RAILROAD BRIDGES...

When Appearances Are Deceptive

In one of his aphorisms, Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright and dandy, turned a general belief upside down by suggesting, It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. We laugh at this deft reversal of what is commonly held to be true, and we may even agree that it makes a kind of topsy-turvy sense. However, if you reflect upon it, the witticism also makes straightforward sense in life, people unconsciously give themselves away all the time. What is revealed to the acute observer...

Who Is the Protagonist

Before considering this question, it is important to note once more that most short films or tapes work best with a single protagonist there simply is not enough time for an audience to identify with more than one. The exception is with certain kinds of comedy slapstick, parody, or satire, for example where a writer may not want the audience to identify with the main character but to maintain a psychological distance from all the characters. (Think of how one views W. C. Fields, the Marx...

Short Short Screenplays

New to this edition we have included three short screenplays that are 8 minutes long or less. A great deal of feedback prompted us to pose the question, How long is a short film Our point in including these three screenplays is to suggest a wider view of the short screenplay. In fact, screenplays in this category can run as short as 90, 60, or even 30 seconds. However, since we wanted to focus on the apprentice-early filmmaker categories, we excluded the commercial. Of the three screenplays,...

The Opportunity For Renewal

Who would have thought that Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, who began their careers as student filmmakers, would return to the short film mid-career BMW hired each filmmaker to make a short film about his car that would be shown on its website. The films have been so successful that at least one has been released in select cinemas and the series is available for purchase on DVD. Scorsese had returned earlier to the short form to make the Michael Jackson music video Bad for the album 'Thriller....

The Catalytic Event

Oscar's birth is the catalytic event of the narrative. In the birth canal, he appears already fully formed, with knowing eyes, the same size he will be when he makes his fateful decision to stop growing. He is thus presented at birth with a sense of seeing and knowing that one does not associate with a newborn child. This presentation makes credible the act of will that marks the end of his growth. It also positions Oscar as the perennial observer rather than participant in the events that...

Case Study In Tone Eclipse

Jason Ruscio's Eclipse 1995 is a short film that provides a powerful experience in tone. Set in an unspecified time and place, the only live character is a young boy, age 12 or 13. Through the course of the narrative, there are a series of flashbacks that tell us he is the sole survivor of a massacre. His mother was killed by soldiers. Now, as he surveys the farm where he lived, he sits by the pit where his mother died and finds a dead soldier. Holding the soldier's gun, he fantasizes about...

Another Example Of Screenplay Shorthand

Screenwriter Robert Towne has a distinctive, ironic, and rather leisurely descriptive style. Nonetheless, he condenses a great deal of information into a few lines on this first page of a late draft of Chinatown. The script opens with close-ups of a series of snapshots of a man and woman making love. These visuals are accompanied by the sound of anguished moans and a male voice crying out, Oh, no At this point, we cut to the following scene CURLY drops the photos on Gittes' desk. Curly towers...

Using Sound As Metaphor

The sound of a ticking clock in a scene may be simply part of ambient sound, or, as in High Noon, serve as a metaphor for the passage of time, bringing the hero inexorably closer to a showdown he does not want. Sometimes the long wail of a locomotive reminds us that our character lives near railroad tracks sometimes it serves as a metaphor for a character's yearnings to escape the confines of his or her life. Sound used as metaphor can create a whole dimension of meaning not immediately...

Exercise Dialogue As Action

Write down the following dialogue, in format or not, as you choose. As soon as you have the lines on paper, begin writing further lines, or even physical actions of the characters, as fast as you can, without worrying about exposition or concerning yourself as to whether or not any of it makes sense. Write for 10 minutes and stop. Immediately afterward, ask your characters the questions from Exercise 2 see page 29 and write down the answers. The answers will establish the context for your...

Examples Of The Journey Structure

Two award-winning student shorts from New York University that use this structure to very different ends are Going to Work in the Morning from Brooklyn, written and directed by Phillip Messina, and Champion, written and directed by Jeffrey D. Brown. Going to Work in the Morning from Brooklyn tells the story of a man who absolutely does not want to go to work, although he knows he must. We follow him in his anguished, comical struggle to get out of bed, into a suit and tie, out the door, and...

Examples From Student Scripts

Here is a description of the protagonist of Christian Taylor's Lady in Waiting, a ritual occasion script, the first time we see her INT. A sticker is placed on the box which reads AUCTION. There is a sigh from the owner of the hands, MISS PEACH. Miss Peach is a grey-haired, formal-looking woman in her late fifties. She sits awkwardly on a suitcase in the middle of the dining room, which is bare of furniture Miss Peach is conservatively dressed in a drab woolen coat and unassuming hat.5 Beyond...

The Ritual Occasion

The ritual occasion is another general shaping form, but it is less open-ended than the journey. Using this shape emphasizes a particular happening. It also has implications, particularly for the character either the character will achieve greatly or fail greatly in the course of the event. One of the benefits of using the ritual occasion as a shaping device is that it concentrates the drama of the story, creating a useful intensity and a natural rise to the story. Once you determine how you...

Case Study In Character Sleeping Beauties

In Karyn Kusama's Sleeping Beauties reprinted in Appendix B , two adolescent sisters prepare for bed. They smoke a cigarette and share a fantasy about a young man on a motorbike who will come and take them away. They go to sleep. They hold hands, thereby acknowledging the love between them. Such a motorcycle rider actually does appear, and the dominant sister decides that the more modest sister should join him. She does so. The one who is left behind feels abandoned. Her sister returns. They...

The Process Of Visualization

The first step in visualization is to consider the way you tell your story. We suggest that telling a story in the present is more effective than a retrospective approach. Presenting a story so that it seems to be occurring as we are watching it, gives the story immediacy and energy and puts the writer in the strongest position to direct the way the story will take place. Telling the story retrospectively means telling it in the past tense, therefore making it more distant. Telling the story in...

Dialogue As Dramatic Action Text Subtext And Context

In art, as in life, gesture and speech have to be seen or heard in context in order to be fully understood. Someone may say, Come in, and close the door after you, in a manner that implies a request for privacy, suggests wonderful things to follow, or threatens your physical well-being. In order to grasp the subtext of a particular line or gesture in any script the text that is, in order to grasp its underlying or implicit meaning we need to place it in proper context, to examine that line or...