Thursday, December 08, 2011

Mackendrick's Rules, Part 1: Rules 1-10

On Sunday, we discussed The Man in the White Suit, by writer-director Alexander Mackendrick. He later became a revered film professor, and published a great book called On Filmmaking. Commenter J.S. found a list of 41 Mackendrick truisms online, so I
ll spend a few days discussing how these rules line up to what I
’ve said here before...

1. Movies SHOW ... and then TELL. A true movie is likely to be 60% to 80% comprehensible if the dialogue is in a foreign language.

  • One of my cheesy guilty-pleasure TV shows was Jericho, about a town in Kansas after an unexplained nuclear strike, but it had its problems…The townspeople eventually found out that they had a pivotal place in postwar America because the town had a salt mine.They spent two seasons defending the mine from attackers, but we never saw a situation in which the townspeople or anyone else needed salt.The writers had clearly read in a book somewhere that salt would be vital after an apocalypse, so they had the characters tell this fact to they audience, but they never bothered to show us why.

2. PROPS are the director's key to the design of 'incidental business': unspoken suggestions for behavior that can prevent 'theatricality'.

  • I’ve talked about this how characters need token objects and how you need situations or character traits that put objects in their hands, and how every scene needs literal give and take of objects. Also see my piece here on The Apartment talks about the how the passing of the handmirror from person to person allows us to understand how they’re feeling without saying it out loud.
  • In The Man in the White Suit, imagine if they had just talked about the new textile process? The titular suit gives us a far more powerful representation of what it can do (never get dirty), what it means for Guinness (makes him stand out) and what it actually does to him (makes him a target, with people literally trying to rip his invention off his back).

3. A character in isolation is hard to make dramatic. Drama usually involves CONFLICT. If the conflict is internal, then the dramatist needs to personify it through the clash with other individuals.

  • Opposition creates meaning. It’s essential that one actual human being be opposed to what your hero is trying to do. Imagine Jaws without the mayor...A decision only becomes heroic in comparison to a less heroic action—even moreso if that less-heroic action is also somewhat justified. Sheriff Brody’s rejection of the mayor’s legitimate concern in favor of a greater good makes him seem all the more heroic. If the whole town shared the desire to kill the shark, then killing it wouldn’t be especially heroic, just necessary.

4. Self pity in a character does not evoke sympathy.

  • As I discussed here, Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything is pursuing a ridiculous goal (to be kickboxing champion) but that’s more sympathetic than if he had no goal at all. For that matter Alec Guiness's character in Mackendrick’s Man in the White Suit epitomizes this: he gets discouraged, but keeps plunging relentlessly forward regardless.

5. BEWARE OF SYMPATHY between characters. That is the END of drama.

6. BEWARE OF FLASHBACKS, DREAM SEQUENCES and VISIONS. In narrative/dramatic material these tend to weaken the dramatic tension. They are more suited to 'lyric' material.

7. Screenplays are not written; they are RE-WRITTEN and RE-WRITTEN and RE-WRITTEN.

  • I touched on this in How to Write a Screenplay, but I’ll come back at some point with a series specifically on How to Revise.

8. Screenplays come in three sizes: LONG, TOO LONG and MUCH TOO LONG.

9. Student films come in three sizes: TOO LONG, MUCH TOO LONG and VERY MUCH TOO LONG.

  • So very true. As I mentioned here, sitting through a fifteen-minute short film is just as hard as sitting through a four-hour feature. If you want to see terrible short films, go to any film school’s year-end festival. If you want to see great short films, watch any commercial break in primetime. Those guys can make you cry with a 30 second diamond commercial. Even better yet, watch this one-second film festival. That’s how long it takes to move somebody, if you know what you’re doing:

10. If it can be cut out, then CUT IT OUT. Everything non-essential that you can eliminate strengthens what's left.

Up next: Rules 11-20...


Anonymous said...

My art teacher used to tell us "When in doubt, leave it out." (This was in a course in Drawing Flowers in Colored Pencil.)

Jill Rasmussen said...

re: film length and shorts. Ever seen Madagascar's Penguin's Christmas? It's about 11 min and absolutely brilliant, IMHO. Every line and scene...my 3 yr. old laughs his ass off, as do I.

Matt Bird said...

I haven't. My daughter is going to enter the movie-watching age in a year or two, so I'm sure I'll see everything animated soon. Shorts based on features have a much easier job, of course, because we already care about the characters.

Jill Rasmussen said...

This is true -- everybody loves those penguins so they already had a captive audience.

j.s. said...

The new film of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is like a case study in applying these rules, especially 2 and 6. I'm hugely impressed by the ruthless economy of the storytelling and the ways the writers and director found to translate a complex literary narrative into something that works in the cinema -- especially the moments when they decided to pull back a bit and go against the rules.

About the economy of animation, especially the really good stuff like old Looney Tunes and the Pixar films: a big part of it, is, I think that they have to do everything from scratch. You'd think live action writer/directors would have a little more respect for the time and talent of their real humans cast & crew and that would be enough to shame or scare most of them into telling better stories, but there's something about the process of starting with nothing, not even real actors in front of a green screen -- but the void itself and making up every last detail that seems to impress upon animators a certain economy of expression.

Jill Rasmussen said...

Very much looking forward to seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. My husband read the book some time ago so I'll be interested to hear his take on the novel-to-script transition.

re: animation. I watch A LOT of pixar and dreamworks movies because I have kids, and I am amazed every time how perfectly executed these films are. Every scene and line is tied into theme and character. I mean EVERY word, it is so precise. Those films really apply the rules.