Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Question.

Every coherent screenplay answers one question. Not every coherent screenplay answers the same question. (That's the mistake of the Hero's Journey and such--that every film is the same film.) But each coherent screenplay answers its own question, the question which it forms, poses, insists upon and manipulates.
  • The Question exists in the minds of the audience. It gets there by insinuation, outright statement, and the audience's past experiences.
  • Each scene poses a partial or temporary answer to The Question.
  • The Question might get modified by each scene. Each scene can ramify, modify, inflect The Question.
  • The Question gets satisfyingly (richly, complexly but clearly) answered by the end of the film.
I wrote some time ago about misleading the audience--in a productive way--by getting them to concentrate on the wrong question. But I should have started with a clearer discussion of The Question. So that's what this is.

It's easy to find clear examples of The Question. Jaws (1975) is one.

In the first scene of Jaws, we find there is a dangerous man-eating shark. From there, there is a single question in the minds of the audience.

Can the town stop the shark?

Sometimes it becomes:
Can the town avoid the problem?
Can they minimize the problem?

These are clearly terrible ideas. We know it because we've watched the shark at work. But the powers that be in the town favor wishful thinking. We have the pleasure (and dread) of knowing how wrong they likely are.

Sometimes The Question becomes:

Who can help the town stop the shark?
Is it the Crusty Old Salt? The snotty urban scientist guy? The City Cop?

Least likely seems to be the City Cop.

For a good stretch of the film, we wonder:

Can these three get along well enough for long enough to stop the shark?

Many enjoyable scenes were built to help us find the answer to this is a partial "yes." These men can eventually get along. But that's not the same thing as being able to stop the shark.

When we realize how big and awful the shark is--when the special effects worked for a change and we finally see the thing clearly--the answer starts looking more like "no."
  • The shark's bigger than the boat.
  • The shark can think.
  • The shark is strong.
Again, some very nice scenes are built to show these things--not to have the characters debate about them--and thus to address The Question. More and more events point to "no."
  • The scientist gets trapped in his clever underwater cage.
  • The Old Salt turns out to be no better than Captain Ahab--caught in his eternal quest for vengeance.
Then lo and behold, it's the City Cop, the one who's so uncomfortable in a small town and in the water who manages the job through wits and nerve. City Boy Makes Good.

Jaws is an action movie. This in part means that the question must be very clear and answered by visible risky actions. There's a spare poetry to this genre; whereas in a play by Shaw, the question might be:

Can a well-trained poor flower girl fool a bunch of snobs?

This doesn't depend upon visibly risky actions. It depends upon training, comportment, decorum, judgment. And probably the bigger question of Pygmalian is:

Can you change someone's social class--meaning
her appearance, performance and values?

You can take the girl out of the flower market, but can you take the flower market out of the girl? Can you remove her insistence upon the values of romantic love, monogamy and private property (which Shaw found so laughable)?

Here you can see how language, argument, behavior and emotion all come together to make Shaw so thrilling and subtle to watch--and so hard to perform well.

Back to movies proper, Sunset Boulevard is not Shaw, but it's still a bit trickier than an action film.
  • First there are two protagonists, a washed-up writer and a reclusive aging star.
  • Second, if we pay attention, we know at the beginning that the writer will be killed.
The Question starts as:

Can this screenwriter make a living in Hollywood?

(Many people are still trying to answer this question.)

Then it becomes:

Can the aging star make her "return" (aka comeback) to the silver screen?

This is actually the dominant question. The writer gets hired to help the star do this. And truly we know from the get-go that the writer cannot make a go of it, because he ends up floating dead in a swimming pool. If we inflect the writer's Question

Can this writer--charming, possessed of faded good looks,
a good talker--make an honorable living in Hollywood?

Clearly, the movie answers this question in the negative.

For most of the movie, it seems that the answer to the question "Can the aging star make a comeback?" is "no." But the film is ironic (among other reasons) because she does make a comeback--in a way.

One could also say that since we know the writer won't make a go of his Hollywood life, that The Question is:

What stops this writer from making good?

And the answer is: the very thing that was supposed to save him--this aging star and her job offer. Which suggests The Question is about Norma, and not about Joe.

But if you go through every scene in Sunset Boulevard, every scene answers or inflects the Norma Question. The Joe Question is subordinate and therefore always feeds into the Norma Question. The two questions are yoked together.

And this makes it a coherent movie: not its setting or characters or theme, but the thing the audience wants to find out.

The Question is not the actions. It's not what the characters do. But it's what the doing's and saying's decide.

All of which suggests the following.
  • Your feature screenplay must have a Question.
  • Every scene must relate to The Question.
  • Every scene must inflect The Question, make the answer seem to be "no" or "yes," this or that.
  • Anything that does not somehow address The Question and its answers does not belong.
This is tough advice. It does not feel "creative." Certainly "creativity," many people think, means doing whatever you like. But creativity is stricter than that. Creativity is its own master, the particular master that is yours and that is specific to each created thing. This master demands:

Be exactly what you are, and nothing else.

And obeying this dictum is anything but a whim.

--Edward R. O'Neill

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