Friday, February 6, 2009

Slumming (a love of film)

I've never felt any particular inclination to write a screenplay, but I still find film interesting as a writer (and viewer, of course). Because, while the medium is different, the basic task of storytelling is the same, or at least very similar. And I think if you look at the rise of film in the last century you'll see how film techniques have influenced fiction writing. The pre-eminence of "show" for one, not to mention things like jump cuts and changes in ideas about narrative pace (such as increased narrative focus on account of the short attention span of the modern reader/viewer - or the perceived short attention span, at least).

What got me thinking about this was seeing Slumdog Millionaire a couple days ago. A fine film, and interestingly constructed. How it handles time in relation to the construction of scene and story is quite fascinating, and something quite translatable to fiction I think. It's about creating a frame for a story that allows a unity between different times and storylines. The story could easily have been told in chronological order, and it would still have been fine. But much of its magic is in how the stories are braided together, how they're juxtaposed and interrelated. Tension and climax (and mystery) are heightened by the form of the narrative, by the storytelling choices. Its structure allows it a sort of integrity that it might lack otherwise, an interwined notion of the relationship between certain actions. The theme is reinforced (almost created, really) through narrative technique.

I like that about films, that I can immediately see a relation between a story's structure and its perception by a viewer. It's concrete and easily absorbed in a short movie. Flow and its relation to structure and form is quickly discerned, whereas in fiction the process is often longer, more subtle, lying a little more beneath the surface, and often you see it more clearly looking back than you do while immersed in it. Film offers (at least for me) an easier apprehension of narrative technique, and so it often spurs some interesting thoughts for my fiction writing. It's a sort of cross-pollination, really. I'm a very visual person, too, so that may be part of it. I'm stimulated by images, and so the manipulation of images through the narrative structures of film often inspires me, gets me thinking.

Perhaps I'm odd this way, I don't know, but I'm often quite creatively inspired by technique, by craft elements. I'll find something intriguing about a POV idea, or a narrative framework, or a chronological structure... and it will lead me to a character, an idea, a story. Oddly backward, perhaps, and yet this happens a lot with me. Film, with its sensory immediacy, is often a good spur. I like the idea of the camera... a director has to decide on camera angles and placement, about what might be the best way to "see" the story. These decisions thus shape the experience of that story. And the same goes for fiction. What are you going to show? And why show it? And how? These choices, these technical opportunities, often create stories for me.

One of my stories is from the POV of a television set. The simple technique of this viewpoint shaped the story for me. What, and how much, does the television see? The action, and the dramatic conflict of the story, is shaped by the nature of this viewpoint, of the angle of the "camera".

Film, to me, offers a sort of interesting visual shortcut to narrative techiniques for fiction. I like the mental cues to the framing of scene and story, as it helps me find a sort of visual identity for what I want to show the reader.

Does anyone else find this? What films or shows do you find interesting in a story sense, and how have they impacted you as a writer? Or is it other mediums, such as art or music? How do they translate into the process of story making?


Wanu said...

Hey, Ink. I can relate to a lot of those feelings about films. I think they are very streamlined, the plot certainly is highlighted, and foreshadowing and set-up are usually done with panache. Sometimes, I've seen a ten second cut-away scene used to develop the plot.

I find film fascinating, but the creation of a film is quite different than that of a novel.

The big difference is that, as novelists, we're on our own. A movie takes birth as a pitched idea, which then gets a bit of backing, or perhaps as a screenplay.

Once a major production company has rights over that idea, or screenplay, then a whole bunch of other screenwriters, who are industry-savvy, give it a going over.

Then, the director and producer put their own spins on it.

And finally, the actors make waves about what their character would and wouldn't do.

There's constant adjustment, and it really is 'alchemical' - the changes come from all over the place, and from each direction there is basically expert commentary.

The end products can be a little formulaic, sometimes, but that's true of novels too (didn't someone say there were only twelve different types of story in existence, and that all novels are different takes on one of those twelve ideas? I dunno if that's true, but there are analyses like that knocking around).

I love films, I tend to watch the director's commentaries and that, and I pick up loads of storytelling advice from those. I've learned that all four hundred pages of the original Moulin Rouge screenplay were extensively re-written after the project was green lighted and contract signed.

That's cutting it a bit fine, but I think some of the early material was pretty shoddy (including a seven minute scene between Christian and his father to establish back story before Christian even set off for France).

Yeah, they make the same kinds of decisions over story telling that we do, but there are a lot more people involved with the creative process. Not to mention budgetary decisions about which of the proposed scenes are feasible etc.

We don't have budgetary constraints. If we want dramatic CG monsters disintegrating every thirty seconds, and to wipe out ten Mercs and fifty tanks in the opening scene, then we can just pen them in! I guess that's one of our big advantages.

Where we're really up against it, is in producing world-class stories, while having only a limited number of corner-men, as it were.

We wanna be the champs, hit that bestseller list, but it is absolutely down to us, on our own, to get this done.

Sobering, perhaps, but also very freeing. Good reason to learn as much as you can about storytelling, too.

Ink said...

Funny, you actually predicted my next post... I was just going to write about "Bonus Features". I'm actually kind of fascinated by those peaks into how a director puts out a movie. While the medium, and some of the techniques, are different, many of the storytelling decisions are the same.

What made me think about this was seeing some bonus features for one of my favourite films, The Usual Suspects. It was interesting hearing the director and film editor talk about cutting and keeping scenes, developing characters, and creating certain effects through the structuring of scenes.

I also loved the Lord of the Rings features, partly because of their encylcopaedic munificence and partly because Peter Jackson loves not just the story but the process of achieving story... and he likes to talk about it. That man loves to talk shop. And so it's fascinating to see every detail so carefully laid out, the thought behind it.

And you're totally right about the group vs. individual difference between the two. Film is collaborative... each creative person has their own say, adds their own details. But each of those details is the responsibility of the author in a novel. If you want that sense of worn elegance by having beautiful but frayed stitching... you only have your words to evoke that. You can't fall back on the craftsmanship of someone else.

As a novelist you're alone with the words. And, yes, totally freeing and totally constricting. It's up to you. That smorgasboard of decisions is yours alone. But I think it's interesting to see that process of story-making laid out by a film director and his people, because there are a lot of correlations.

I particularly like the editing process. They shoot all this film, lots of scenes, lots of events and objects... and then you have to fit it together. What stays and what goes? Do you need to film some "pickups" and get some things you missed the first time around? It's pretty similar to how a writer has to stop and look objectively at his own story. What stays and what goes? And what's missing? It's interesting to see how others decide what suits a story and what in the end, and no matter how brilliant in and of itself, is superfluous.

Anyone have a suggestion of a particularly good bonus feature that breaks down the creation process?

Wanu said...

Tristan & Isolde! The guy who wrote the screenplay is on the commentary for that. It's very interesting. That's an absolute recommendation - both to watch the film, and to listen to the commentary. The writer does most of the talking, and they cover much of the creative process and how things were changed. He put a lot into the project, basically crafting a story from several different versions of this near mythical tale.

Moulin Rouge, too, there's a lot of good stuff on that commentary.

For fun, the Blade films come with good commentary.

Gladiator is, obviously, quite a long one, but very entertaining. Russell Crowe relates a tale about the early days of production: Joaquin Phoenix needed to be angry in a scene, and he asked Russell to insult him and such to get him in the mood, to which Crowe responded, 'Just do some acting, you maggot!"

They point out some of the mistakes, too, and there really is a scene in which someone in the background is wearing jeans. I think it's Ridley Scott who gives the commentary along with Russell Crowe, and they both go mad about the guy in the jeans.

It's pretty good.

I thought Fight Club had a good commenatary, too, because Brad Pitt talks about the make up of the film. Interestingly, he says of people who say 'I guessed it, ahead of time' that they're lying - the film isn't constructed like a mystery, it doesn't dangle clues and invite speculation. The misdirection is quite deliberate, so he's not impressed with people who claim to have figured it out.

I was disappointed with the commentary on Equilibrium. The film was excellent, so I expected some really insightful stuff, but those guys didn't deliver.

Otherwise... I'm a commentary junkie, there's always something interesting.