Thursday 12. December 2019

Notes on Story from "On Filmmaking" by Alexander Mackendrick

Below is a transcript of the most important paragraphs (chapter on STORY) from Alexander Mckendrick’s “On Filmmaking”. The content of this book is as valuable for the filmmaker as air, food and water is for each of us. The text below served me as a good reference when I got lost in the writing process, so I’m sharing it here too. This is a book that you should EAT!

“Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost on the viewer”  

What we say inside of our heads is private, and by putting it into words and addressing it to others we often rationalize and even distort our original impulses and intentions. The best lines of film dialogue are sometimes those in which the real meanings lie between the words, where the spoken lines mask the true and unadulterated feelings of the speaker. Such emotions are often visible to the camera, just as they are to an observant human being, because the spoken words frame those revealing and fleeting moments that take place just before the character speaks or as an impulsive non-verbal reaction to what has just been said, seen by the film editor, for example, in shots containing perhaps a barely visible shift of focus in the eyes, a speech. 

One of the tasks of the director as he transfers a screenplay to the medium of the moving-image-with-sound is almost to forget what the characters are saying and reimagine their behavior as being mute, so that all thoughts, feelings and impulses are conveyed to the audience through sound and vision – without speech.

In this sense the dialogue of a well-constructed film will enrich the visuals – it is never merely an extension of what is already obvious to observant audiences. Cinema can be at its most interesting and forceful when images play against the literal sense of the dialogue. When what is spoken by the screen actor acts as counterpoint to what is being seen by the audience, dialogue is able to express much more than the literal meaning of the words and so has extra force. In such cases, the uniqueness of the cinematic medium is most apparent. Through this sometimes extremely subtle juxtaposition of words and images, the writer and the director are able to focus attention on the rhythm of a scene’s subtext. By doing so, and by making use of the fact that the camera is able to relate things to audiences subliminally rather than literally, it is possible to tell more than one story at once. 

Just as a cartoonist can tell a story in sequential images of action without captions, so a film-maker can imagine a scene told in the pure language of the cinema, a language invented before the birth of sync sound. Nevertheless, to translate certain concepts into cinematic forms comprehensible without words, the student may actually have to unlearn habits of verbal thought and return to patterns that are in some ways more primitive. This can be a ruthless learning experience, requiring elimination of our habits of talking in generalities, of failing to be specific and concrete, and of intellectual concepts.

“What is story or don’t put into a script things that the camera cannot photograph in action”

The tale about the stork (told to a child who has never even seen such a bird) is believable. He or she can handle it, while said stuff about fertility is unacceptable because it raises a lot more unanswered questions. Incomprehensible, it becomes implausible and unbelievable. The child, with its limited experience and simplistic comprehension of life, is trying to make coherent sense out of profound mysteries, and needs any explanations to be satisfying at the level of his or her understanding. While the stork story is usable, the biological data must wait till the child can cope with it. One can argue, therefore, that such a tale - like the myths of prehistoric times - functions as a poetic explanation of concepts that are beyond the limited intellectual capacities of the listeners to deal with.  This may be how Claude Lévi-Strauss says that ‘art lies halfway between scientific knowledge and magical or mystical thought’. A myth, it is said, is the verbal equivalent of a rite that serves the same archaic need: to help the primitive mind take hold of a mystery. Stories, even in the contemporary context of mass entertainment, would seem to be successful when they, too, fulfil such a need, something audiences need not even be aware of.

One of the essential components of drams is tension. It is a tension in the imagination of the audience that leads to feelings of curiosity, suspense and apprehension. Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty’. A good director, therefore, is always asking himself certain fundamental factors and questions:

- What is the audience thinking? (…in relation to what just happened)

- What might or might not happen next?

- Is the audience approving, disapproving, fearing or hoping?

- Don’t put into a script things that the camera cannot photograph in action

- Passivity in a character is a real danger to dramatic values. A scene of  

  something ‘not happening’ will usually be undramatic unless it is presented    

  in active terms.

- Protagonist = the person who initiates the struggle

- Dramatic tension requires an element of conflict. Not necessarily a matter
  of what happens, but how it happens.

- In many cases when something is about to happen but for some reason is  

  prevented from taking place, the non-happening can become dramatic.  

- A narrative is driven by character progression or the audience’s
  understanding of him/her.

A dramatic character is definable only in relation to other characters or situations that involve tension. A dramatic scene is usually one in which something happens: an incident or an event takes place, the situation between the characters is different at the end of the scene from what it was at the beginning. When on-screen characters are frustrated, bored or alienated, the situation is not yet dramatic. A bored character becomes dramatically interesting only in the context of the possibility of some escape from his frustration, when his state of mind becomes a catalyst for positive story action.

In a well-told story, every fictional character functions within a network or nexus, a cat’s cradle of character interactions. Certain characteristics of the protagonist and antagonist are revealed of the only through relationships with each other or with circumstances (either external or internal) and events played out in action and reaction. Under the pressure of situation, conflict, clashes of will or story tension, the ideas that lie behind a story’s themes cease to be merely abstract and become people actually doing things to each other or reacting to the action. As has been already and produce visible reactions in others. This is the essence of drama. 

"Who does what with which to whom and why?" 

In any project that you have already worked on or that you have scripted and might be planning to make, can you answer these questions? It helps if you can be as specific as possible:

1) How many characters are there in your story? Select three that can be considered as principles. Drama normally involves a conflict between people; therefore you need at least two characters. Often it is suability of a triangular relationship, a bind evolving a central figure who is pulled in opposite directions by two others. 

2) Who is your point of view character? Sometimes it can be difficult to decide between who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist. Though occasionally there are stories in which the audience is not invited to feel identification with any one of the characters, it is far more common to have a figure who represents the viewpoint of the story and who has a final 'objective' of some kind. Ask yourself: by the end of the story what does this character want to achieve? What is required is a character intention that will produce a dramatic action, a visible result on screen. 

3) Can you define what obstacles there might be to this objective? Can you also identify some other character who is a personification of these obstacles? Such a character is the antagonist whose dramatic function is to create conflict with the central figure (though importantly this does not necessarily imply we have less sympathy with the antagonist than with the protagonist). There is conflict within all well-defined protagonists, and many characters who seem tame when it comes to extroverted action will have clearly defined introverted tensions brought into the open at times by the antagonist for the audience to observe.

4) How does conflict lead to crisis? What is at stake for the main characters? Is there a confrontation scene? In a well-constructed story the audience is held in expectation of what is called an obligatory scene brought about by one or more reversal. Note that the obligatory scene, usually the denouement of a story, classically expresses the theme. It is an expression of the story's central moral, the point expressed as a generalization as seen in character-in-action: "Who does what with which to whom and why?" 

Text, photos and graphics are taken from "On Filmmaking". (buy it!)