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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

But - Why?

Once in awhile we get them at The Script Department. And at competitions and production companies too. Grand Guignol, slasher, gorenography scripts. I remember reading one in particular, years ago when I worked for another script coverage service, that made me physically ill. I told my boss - don't ever assign a script like that to me again. I felt violated. As if by reading this awful stuff, my mind had been invaded by the nightmares of a twisted writer. Thanks for that. Thanks for letting me get a peek into your world. And what did I get in return? An insight? An amazing twist? No. Just images that will take me weeks if not months to erase from my mind.

Now, it would seem as if the era of gorenography is well and truly over. But you still see the scripts, now and again. And they are so off-putting that even readers cringe. Which is saying a lot. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to shock a reader. But it's not shock so much as total revulsion. And it's pretty darn hard to assess the box office potential, theme and craft of a script when you want to puke your guts out while reading it. And, as chance would have it, one of my readers was assigned a script recently that gave her the same feeling. How could she cover a script when she felt physically ill reading it? Well - it's hard.

But the number one question to ask the writer when reading a script like this is: Why? What does it mean? What are you really saying here? And who is your audience? After the shock, after the horror, after the needing to barf behind the theater - what will audiences take away from this experience? What new insights will they have?

Now, I know that this topic applies to only .5% of the screenwriting population because scripts of this nature are few and far between. Thank goodness. But the larger lesson still applies - why? Why are you telling this story? What will audiences take away from it? After the explosions, after the romantic encounter, why are you telling this story? What is your contribution to the story telling tradition?

Audiences, and cave people gathered around a fire before them, simply want to be entertained. They want to take their minds off of their own lives for two hours. But they have a deeper need as well. They want to feel. We need to feel. Dread, hope, anger, love - that's why we go to the movies.

So whether you're writing drama, romcom, sci-fi or horror - what is your audience getting in the way of entertainment and feeling? Not YOU - the audience. Now, we know that you need to feel the same emotions yourself as you write the script but you have to bear in mind that you are, at the end of the day, creating a product meant to interact with an audience. So take a step back from your script and ask - how and why is this entertaining...not to you but to millions of movie-goers?

And if you are writing something deeply shocking, doubly so you must ask - why? What is the meaning of this material? Being shocking is easy. Being violent is easy. Stirring up primal feelings is easy. We all fear being murdered. We all want to throw up when we see someone being dismembered. But - why?

In GOODFELLAS the opening scene - a man being stabbed in the trunk of a car - is fairly shocking. But as the story begins to unfold, we learn about the world within which this type of violence exists and why. It isn't violence for violence's sake - it is grounded in time, place and character. Pesci is a loose cannon. And he will ultimately pay for that. Even in the world of brutal mob violence, there is a code and there are consequences.

THE STRANGERS is actually a pretty good movie, and the bottom line was that there was no reason for the events that took place. When asked why the attackers were targeting the doomed couple, they say "because you were home." Which is a very memorable - and awful - moment. And while THE STRANGERS is a very scary and somewhat upsetting movie, it didn't cross the line of out-and-out tendon snapping, organ pulsing, brain matter spattering. I took away an insight into disconnect, chaos and random violence. To me, THE STRANGERS speaks to that basic fear we all have that as ordered as our own lives are, random violence still lurks. But again, this was not pure gorenography, either.

Readers are just people. People with families, pets and rent to pay. If what you've written is an orgy of blood spatters and shock value so off-putting that the reader gives the script back and says nope, I won't read this - Houston, you got quite a problem. Because readers are the gatekeepers. Yes, they have specialized skills and have read hundreds if not thousands of scripts but think of readers as Every Audience Member. And if you can't get past a reader, you're sunk.

So pull it back, tone it down or at minimum answer the big question: Why? What are audiences going to feel beyond terror and revulsion? Alfred Hitchcock knew that real, primal fear comes from what you do NOT see. A bomb ticking under the table of a group of unaware diners is a thousand times scarier than a person coming straight at a character with a knife. Dread is much more potent than simply watching something play out. If we wanted to see a body dismembered, we'd sign up for an anatomy class.

Write what you will, write what you care about, but check in with yourself and make sure you aren't writing something shocking just to be shocking. Because the shock factor alone will not be enough to hide poor character development, weak structure, lack of theme or anything else.

Once the reader has regained some equilibrium and decided against lunch for a couple more hours, he or she is going to ask: How does this material comment on humanity? What does it reveal about us? What is entertaining about this? How will audiences react? If a reader can't stomach your script, then the exec in charge won't be able to either.

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Anthony Peterson said...

"Why" is actually the most important question. The more extreme the violence the more responsibility rests on the writer to answer that question.

Chaia Milstein said...

Ugh, yes. I read one such script last year for a competition and had to offer a half-page of notes on it. Beneath all the violence - including sexual violence committed against multiple women and then callously discussed in great detail - there was absolutely nothing: no story, no characters. There was, however, a lot on top of it, i.e. my vomit. PASS.

PJ McIlvaine said...

Talk about a vomit draft!

Test said...

First time poster to this site and before I get into my comment, I wanted to say this is one of the better screenwriting blogs I've been to. Good posts on the craft and the trade w/o too much distraction like other blogs, and a great posting rate (not too much, not too little) I don't want to sound like I'm sucking up, but I feeling the blogosphere should be an excellent resource for screenwriters, and there is a lot of junk to sift through. This site rises above the rest, and I take time out to let people know someone appreciates it.

On to my comment. My writing partner and I have recently finished a screenplay we'll be submitting to Nicholl this month, and it is very graphically violent, including sexual assault at the end. The difference, i hope, is the question why.

Our script is, to not describe the premise, about torture. And for anyone following the news this week, the importance of this topic is self evident.

I agree with this post 100%. The problems with many of the movie today is that they are empty, "torture porn" as they have been called. If you don't have a "why" to your film, it's unacceptable. not having characters or a story, that's just mind-boggingly. We knew going in for our script to work our characters and story wouldn't have to be just good, they'd have to be spectacular. Extreme violence is, like it or not, an inhibitor for most people.

Julie Gray said...

@Test - thank you, glad you enjoy The Rouge Wave. xo