But “art for art’s sake” has always been an impossible dream. Not only will the publishers or producers eventually have to sell your story to the public, but you’ll have to sell it to those publishers or producers in the first place. All stories must be inherently marketable. The audience is not going to climb into the ring to wrestle with you; you have to jump over the ropes and pin them down to their seats. So, yes, right from the start, you should ask yourself, What image is going to appear on the cover or poster?
When I write about movies, I like to pull iconic still frames to illustrate my points, but occasionally I notice that even though I’m writing about a great movie, there are no unique or iconic images that tell the story of the movie visually. For example, In a Lonely Place is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it’s always been a hard sell to people who have never heard of it. I searched for stills to illustrate how great the movie was, but all of the imagery is generic. There’s nothing iconic about it.
Marge's pregnancy didn’t have a lot to do with the plot of Fargo, but it created very unique imagery that helped sell the quirkiness of the movie before anyone heard the wonderful dialogue.
The cover of the novel Silence of the Lambs doesn’t show a federal agent interviewing a prisoner, because that’s not a unique image. Luckily, novelist Thomas Harris laced imagery of the death’s-head hawk moth throughout his story. It had little relationship to the story, but it was a great image, so it dominated the book cover and the eventual movie poster.
So how do you create unique imagery?
- You can create unique “set pieces” or locations we haven’t seen before that present unique physical challenges or opportunities.
- You can give characters signature wardrobe choices.
- You can give your characters unique injuries like nosy Jake getting his nose cut open in Chinatown.
- Most of all, you need to create scenes that visualize your conflict rather than just have everybody talk about it.
Rulebook Casefile: Overcoming Liabilities with Unique Imagery in Blue Velvet
For aspiring writers and filmmakers, it’s easy to look at Lynch’s works and say “Why can’t I do that?” Lynch breaks a lot of rules and gets away with it…so doesn’t that mean that those rules were bogus? Surely his accomplishments have not only liberated himself from restrictions but liberated all of us?
The short answer is no. Blue Velvet is the perfect synthesis of two of our previous rules: You have to know your liabilities and assets for an ambitious and/or difficult project, and you have to have unique imagery. Basically, Lynch knows that his subject is rather off-putting and his hero potentially unsympathetic, but he balances that out with a lot of eye-candy: not just the usual sex and violence, but vivid imagery that assists with tone and theme as well.
The list of memorable images in this movie is long:
- First and foremost, there’s the severed ear (looking like an embryo) which becomes even creepier when it’s put in a brown paper lunch bag. Any other evidence of a kidnapping wouldn’t have had as much iconic power.
- The beginning could easily have been lame. On the page, the scene could have been, “Life seems idyllic…but then a man has an aneurism, ruining everything!” but on the screen Lynch make the original the original “idyllic” shots even more disturbing than the attack. The pretty flowers have creepy beetles rooting around beneath, but we find ourselves wanting to flee the too-perfect flowers and take refuge with the beetles.
- The literal fetishization of blue velvet (Frank cuts a piece of it out of her robe and rubs it whenever she turns him on), tied into the song of the same name, makes the title memorable and creepy. The material itself has a creepy sheen to it, creating an illusion of deep, dark mystery.
- Given the villain his own nitrous tank (we never see where he has the tank on him, we just see the nose-hose) is a great creepy detail that we’d never seen before (and gives him a sense of escalating craziness even time he takes a puff).
- And I could go on and on: we haven’t even gotten to Dean Stockwell singing into the repair light, or that amazing first performance!
Rulebook Casefile: Marketable Imagery in Get Out
Back in the day, I had a lot of meetings based on a script I’d written with a mind-control villain, but one problem we had with it was that it had no good trailer/poster imagery. If someone is just talking to you, there are no objects involved. Unless you really want to show spirals in their eyes, it’s hard to look at either controller or controllee and see what’s going on.
Jordan Peele had a similar problem with Get Out. Once Chris is being prepped for surgery, there’s all sorts of sci-fi imagery, but that’s all spoilers. If you limit yourself to imagery before the twist, what do you have? Ultimately, they settled on a good image (predicated on a great lead performance): Chris freaking out with a tear running down his face. We’re not sure he’s been hypnotized, but clearly someone is doing something to him, maybe to his mind.
But before they settled on that image, they played around with a few more. There’s one image that the production company Blumhouse insisted on putting in the trailer despite the fact that it had already been cut from the movie. Originally, Chris spent more time in the Sunken Place, and took his lighter out of his pocket (which doesn’t make sense to me). It illuminated a skeleton-deer lunging at him. Says Peele in the Deleted Scenes commentary:
- This deer was—they used it in the trailer, and full transparency, I requested that they didn’t, but they felt that it would help entice the audience, the horror audience, and it worked, so kudos to them. I knew some people would be disappointed when they don’t see this deer, but also kind of knew they wouldn’t be disappointed was because the main reason I cut this was because it didn’t look good. I would have to put more money into it, effects wise, and it didn’t seem essential to tell the story. It might be a losing battle.
When you write a movie you need to think of the poster or trailer, and when you write a book you need to think of the cover. You need imagery that shows your genre in a unique and appealing way. Tomorrow, we’ll look at another image they used to promote the movie that was mostly cut from the movie itself, and which exemplifies another rule.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. It’s interesting: not really, but they came up with an absolutely brilliant poster image that somehow captured the concept
Oh hell yes: eggs, face huggers, the alien, etc…
NO. Not really. Just a lot of great clothes. Maybe him driving alongside her with the cello, a little bit.
YES. The picture book.
YES. A proud black sheriff on a horse.
YES. many: the ear, the blue velvet, the robins, the weird heart attack, the beetles, the nitrous, etc…
The Bourne Identity
Sort of: the body in the water, the unique fighting style, the car chase with the beat-up car.
YES. An unhappy bridal party with attitude.
YES. the bar, Sam, the airport finale.
YES. The cut-up nose.
NO. Not really. Promotional images were somewhat generic. Maybe the tiger in the cage. This was a real problem for the movie: it looked generic.
Do the Right Thing
YES. The street chalk, the radio station, the direct address framing, etc.
NO. Not really.
NO. Not really. This is frequently a problem with dramas.
YES. The ice palace, the fractals, etc.
YES. The one-armed man, the waterfall, the train, etc.
YES. It’s tricky, because almost all of the horror imagery is a spoiler. Ultimately, they cleverly found a way to promote it by just showing him crying while hypnotized, but Blumhouse also insisted on including in the first trailer a lame shot Peele had cut from the actual movie, showing a skeleton deer in the sunken place, and Peele reluctantly agreed. They also included a knight’s helmet on the poster that was mostly cut from the movie.
Somewhat with the groundhog, although it’s hard to visualize the predicament itself. The alarm clock to a certain extent. From looking at various awkward DVD covers, it’s clear that they never really found a compelling image to summarize the concept.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. Vikings fighting dragons. Catlike dragons.
In a Lonely Place
NO. That’s a problem. It has no noir imagery.
YES. Very much so.
NO. Again, just slightly with the colored hair in catholic school. So not really.
YES. The five babies, the bounty hunter, the prison escape, etc.
YES. Max and his clubs. Max with his bees. The blazer and red hat.
YES. the three bridge crossings. (We’ve seen them in documentaries, of course, but they come to life here as they couldn’t there.)
YES. Very much so: the blood, the big wheel, the the face through the door, the all work and no plays sheets, the hedge maze.
YES. Vineyards, noses in wine glasses.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. The death’s head moth, the pit, the face mask
YES. That opening spaceship! Darth Vader. The two moons. The light saber, the Death Star, etc.
YES. many: a monkey funeral (Wilder told his cinematographer to “use the standard monkey funeral set-up”), a silent vamp turned into a vampire, essentially. The backlot, etc.