The Indie Chronicles: Eisenstein Einstein
a blogumn by R.B. Ripley
As you may recall, I’ve been working on muscling a short film into production for the past three months. Everyone around this town always says that getting the money is the hardest part of producing any film. Well, I got the money (well, about 88% of what we need) and that was EASY compared to scheduling. And permits. And catering. And hiring keys… and… and…
Don’t get me wrong, deciding to direct this short film has been an amazing experience. I tell everyone who will listen that the best thing I ever did as a writer was finally screw up the courage to direct something for the screen. EVERY writer should have to do this with a 1-page scene before they’re allowed to write anything longer than one page. In all the books I’ve read, all the time I spent in class earning that MFA, all the articles I’ve read and other writer’s I’ve heard speak – none of these, or even the combination of these have proved nearly as valuable as having to sit down with a script and simultaneously look at it through the eyes of producer, director, costume designer, sound designer, editor, production designer, hair and makeup artist and actor. THAT is how this writer learned to really see the elements of a script really work (or don’t work!) together.
But alas, schedules conflicted and we’ve rescheduled the shoot for three weeks hence. And this has given me time to reflect on the project in the larger context of what I’ve learned and am learning about storytelling in general and more specifically, storytelling for the screen.
What I’ve been preoccupied with over the course of the past two years is WHY people engage in certain movies and not others. I am not interested in rehashing clichéd, combative reasoning – studio vs. indie film, the summer blockbuster vs. important actor portraying a real-life person drama – just the basic notion of why, in general, one movie engages an audience and another does not.
Of course, subject is one thing, but again, you can have two movies about the same subject and… you get what I mean. So let’s assume that the topic is one of interest. And that the functional basics of cinematic storytelling – proper lighting, framing, good sound and color, etc. are being practiced. What’s left?
Style. Flair. Panache. The artistry.
It’s ther mercurial element that so many of us love to talk about, to debate, because not only is it ultimately indefinable, it’s unquantifiable and totally subjective. No one will ever prove that Quentin Tarantino or Alfred Hitchcock were right or wrong. But hey, everything about our industry is highly subjective, even the accounting. So, assuming that sound basics of cinematic storytelling are being practiced, the remaining choices are about style and taste. I have learned that if one cannot accept that basic fact, one should change careers. Accounting, perhaps. Oh, wait…
So, I came to the hypothesis that “artistry,” if you will, matters very little in terms of an audience’s ability to engage in a film. “Style” is nice to have, but not actually necessary. Its icing on the cake. It provides a quick rush, but fades quickly. (see Michael Bay’s oeuvre). So if style isn’t necessary to engage an audience, what is neceesary the audience to be asked to engage – demand that they engage. How does a filmmaker demand an audience engage?
When I started work on this short film, I used my own experience as a reference point. What films stick out in my memory as those that demanded I engage in them? A bunch came to mind so I sat and watched ten, a variety of genres spanning from 1940 to 2008. The one common characteristic I found?
The films activated my brain. Ergo, good films are not a passive activity.
Watching each of these films, I noted two important things:
First that I was thinking about things. Not about proving great mathematical theories, but about why a character did what they did, what they might do, or when the other shoe was going to drop.
The second important note I made was that many of the answers were supplied by… me! Based on what I saw, I “filled in the blank.”
What’s really impressive is that I wasn’t even aware that there was a blank until I stopped and went back two or three times. What was at work, I learned (thank you David Mamet) is Sergei Eisenstein’s basic montage theory: if you put two, unrelated images side by side (the question) the audience will create a third image (the answer).
For instance: You first see an image of a hand knocking on a door. Immediately followed by another image of a woman reading a book and she looks up. As an audience, we automatically understand that the woman is somewhere in the house and the knocking has disturbed her. That’s filling in the gap. There’s no camera move or special effect needed.
No “artistry” necessary.
Don’t infer that I am against artistry. I am not. Cinema is the perfect medium for it because it is moving pictures. Hard to get more “artistic” than that, right? But what’s so beneficial about trying to understand how some movies engage an audience and others just carry them along for the ride, is that this concept is what all films are based on. And that kind of learning can only help.
So, this is what’s being referred to when we writers are told to “trust the audience.” Be ruthless and be responsible to the audience. They’ve paid money to see a story. Not unnecessary imagery.