Saturday, January 28, 2012

Two Kinds of Questions

Watching a movie, the viewer undoubtedly considers many questions. 

  • How much longer will this thing last?
  • Should I get my free popcorn refill?
  • Did that actress have work done?
  • How much money was wasted on this mess?

Not all of these are deeply related to the screenplay of the film. Some of them we can't worry about.  Indeed, only the first two have something to do with the screenwriter. 

  • If the audience is waiting for the movie to end, you haven't done a good job of keeping them interested.
  • If they are waiting for an uneventful spot, you at least managed to convince them to sit tight through one bucket of popcorn.

Other questions the writer should care about deeply. Take Sunset Boulevard. Two things the viewer might wonder are:

  • Will Joe and Norma sell their screenplay?
  • Is Joe a good person?

These are two quite different kinds of questions. The first is about plot and has a definite answer. The answer will likely be revealed--with time. If not, the audience will be pretty confused.

The second question is about character--and there is more than one answer. How good or bad a person Joe is will likely be revealed as well, but what the audience thinks about it is quite separate.

We could label these questions:

plot vs. character
facts vs. values
closed vs. open.

And there are two kinds of movies. One kind of movie never seriously poses the second kind of question. The other makes this kind of question central.

The first kind of movie assume there is a clear moral code that can be relied on to manipulate audience responses. This moral code is made up of beliefs like:

  • People who kick dogs are bad.
  • People who cheat on their wives are bad.
  • Murder is never right.
  • Shooting an unarmed man is a terrible thing to do.
  • People are either good or bad.

Wilder is the kind of screenwriter who didn't rely on beliefs like this. He doesn't so much manipulate the audience to have a definite moral response: Wilder pushes the audience to think for themselves.

  • Joe is taking advantage of a crazy older lady.
  • Joe is basically sleeping a woman for money.
  • Joe knows Norma will never get what she wants.
  • Joe is two-timing Norma.
  • Joe is romancing someone else's best gal.

In many ways, Joe is not a nice person. But Joe is the protagonist. We have some interest in whether or not Joe will succeed on his many half-thought-out projects. 

But Joe is charming. Joe is witty. Joe sees humor even in sad situations. Joe is handsome. Joe is played by William Holden--and so Joe carries with him all of Holden's rather considerable charm.

Wilder presents Joe as having an urgent career problem, gives Joe a clever if not-very-moral solution, and then continues to add unsavory behavior after unsavory behavior. Wilder tests the audience. It's as if he's continually asking: "Now do you like him? What about now? Okay, how about now?"

It thus seems like a smart thing as a writer to remember that not all your moral questions about the characters need be answered simply and clearly. Some can be thrown in the laps of the audience, where, if you are both skillful and lucky, they will keep the audience from getting that extra bucket of popcorn.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thoughts on Writing Dialogue

What do we talk about when we talk? I mean in life, not just in movies.

To be schematic, we talk about three things.

1. Actions. What we're doing. We make plans. We argue. We decide. We describe what will happen. We talk about how things worked out in the past.

2. Feelings. I liked this. I didn't like that. I love him. I hate her. When this happened, I was disappointed. When that happened I was surprised.