A Director’s Approach

Following my post on SYRIANA writer/director Stephen Gaghan, I came across an interesting discussion on the necessity of rigorous structuring vs. a more liberal, visual approach to screenwriting.

Jim Mercurio makes the following point about Gaghan’s comments in the notorious CS podcast: “Gaghan’s comments are showing that he is evolving from a screenwriter into a filmmaker. “

With ‘filmmaker’, he undoubtedly means ‘director’ and with his quote he hits the nail on the head. However, Mercurio makes it sound as if this is a natural evolution, when he goes on to explain how his own latest script too is told with transitions. All of a sudden Gaghan is fashionable, and screenwriters are re-inventing Tolstoy. Now let’s not forget the following facts:

1. Tolstoy was a novelist
2. Gaghan is NOT a meanstream screenwriter
3. Transitions do not stand in the way of proper story structuring

What everybody seems to be missing in this discussion is that transitions play on a shot level, or at best on a scene level. Story structure goes way beyond that. Whatever Mercurio may think, a screenplay written solely from transitions will most likely end up in the same tiny niche market as KOYAANISQATSI.


The same day I stumbled on the discussion above, I heard writer/director Michael Mann’s commentary on the Restored Director’s Cut of MANHUNTER.

Mann’s comments focus mainly on the parallel psychology of the serial murderer and the cop, besides a few killer anecdotes about production nightmares. My favourite: the airplane scene with the little girl freaking out over Will Graham’s bloody crime scene photos. The only way to shoot this was to book the entire film crew on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Orlando without informing the airline of their plans, keeping all equipment as hand luggage. Mid flight suddenly these hundred or so people got out of their seats and started filming. No need to say that Mann could kiss his United air miles goodbye.

But let’s skip to the last few minutes of the commentary in which Michael Mann summarises his approach to filmmaking. “Film is made in the editing room. In the writing and in the director’s preparation you’re planning what you’re gonna do in the editing room.” He then refers to the Russian theory of montage from the 1920’s, which was followed by the Brits in the next decade (and used later to great commercial success by Alfred Hitchcock a.o.).

I don’t want to get too theoretical here, but anybody with a real interest in the effect of montage, should really do some reading on Lev Kuleshov and what is still known as the Kuleshov Effect. Using this, I could easily build a case to prove that transitions are structure. I’ll spare you that one for now. But isn’t it remarkable that seventy years apart, two Russians were telling the world about transitions in their respective art forms?

To conclude: Mercurio is right when he says that Gaghan writes like a filmmaker. Like Michael Mann, he is already thinking of what he will do in the editing room and therefore writes his story from scene transitions rather than starting from an overall dramatic arc. This approach to script writing is indeed in many ways similar to that of Hitchcock or Mann but I am sure those last two went through far less drafts than Gaghan.

BTW: Don’t rush out to get Manhunter from HMV or Amazon.com: unfortunately Mann’s commentary only features on a rare DVD which has been out of print for a while, which limits your options largely to eBay. But as a bonus from OZZYWOOD, you can download the last four minutes of Michael Mann’s director’s commentary here.

LOOSE ENDS: The First Act Monolith

Recently I watched BRUBAKER, not knowing anything about this 1980 drama directed by Stuart Rosenberg. If you haven’t seen the film but are planning to do so in the near future, don’t read on as I will spoil the pleasure (and surprise).

The film strays from the traditional structure mainly because of its offbeat First Act. For the life of me, I could not detect an Inciting Incident, nor any significant protagonist characterisation. Instead we witness from Robert Redford’s detainee character’s POV how the most appalling injustice and brutality is inflicted relentlessly upon the inmates.

Over thirty minutes into the movie, Redford’s character identifies himself as the new warden and announces in the same scene that he wants to force through some serious reform. Finally we have our 1st Act Turning Point. I am still trying to understand why the warden’s identity was kept hidden from the audience all along. Apart from a sudden surprise, it doesn’t add a thing. The use of dramatic irony (i.e.: the audience knows, but the other characters don’t) would have been much more powerful and it would have allowed for the badly needed character development.

Leading US critic Roger Ebert wrote about this film: “There’s no room for the spontaneity of real human personalities caught in real situations. That’s especially annoying with the character of Brubaker himself, played well but within a frustratingly narrow range by Robert Redford. “

Redford’s performance is rock solid given the material. BRUBAKER’s real problem is its flawed structure: half an hour into the movie, we have run out of screentime to sufficiently set up the protagonist’s character and potential internal conflicts. Redford didn’t have anything to work with, which makes Ebert’s comment rather unfair.

What the screenwriters did achieve quite well though, is the setup of antagonists and external obstacles in the way of the protagonist’s objective. Perhaps this explains why the film did work for me.

It still beats me though why BRUBAKER was nominated for Best Screenplay back in 1980. Perhaps it was a fluke. In my view, this theory gains strength when we look at co-writer W.D. Richter’s latest work: STEALTH…

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