- 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.
- Characters should never apologize to each other, as in this example from The Black Swan. Movies must always escalate.
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.
- This one I don’t always agree with, because sometimes these things are necessary to dramatize internal states, but it’s still a good general rule: Movies are always in present tense.
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.
- One way to avoid over-length screenplays to remember that a two hour movie should have one hour’s worth of plot. In this scene I analyzed from “Breaking Bad”, they cut down on time by combining four big melodramatic beats into one small understated scene.
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.
- The only reason you need to cut something is “It comes right out.” And directors cuts are rarely better.
Up next: Rules 11-20...