#PhonePhill – Conversation #10: Jay Sutherland

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This #PhonePhill didn’t begin life as a #PhonePhill. It started out as a random phone call about a script.

But I’ll get to that, first, some background.

Jay is an actor. Here he is starring in a feature film:

And here he is pissed up and armed:

I’ve known Jay for an awful long time … without really knowing him. He’s my younger brother’s best friend’s younger brother. A few years ago he got in touch about maybe writing a script together. We had a chat, found some common ground and words flowed from there.

That script never got made, which is a shame because it’s really good … or rather, it was quite good. I’ve just made it really good by tweaking two things … but that’s another story and shall be told another time.

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Since the two tweaks had struck me, I’d been meaning to ring Jay and tell him about them … but he rang me first to talk over a new project he’s writing. It’s a good project and hopefully you’ll get to see it one day.

Being primarily an actor rather than a writer, Jay had a couple of writerly things he wanted to run by me – specifically, how to introduce a complex backstory in the opening minute or so.

People keep telling him not to use voice over or news reports because it’s against the rules.

spider rules

This is, of course, utter bollocks.

What they mean to say is “Don’t use voice over or news reports badly“.

That last word is vitally important.

Voice over in films can be fantastic.

News reports can be a superbly quick way of getting across lots of information.

They’re incredibly useful tools which, unfortunately, are incredibly easy to misuse.

So how should they be used?

Well … so here’s the thing. I hate giving advice. I hate laying down the law and saying “this is the way to do it!”

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… because it probably isn’t.

The problem with all script advice is someone, somewhere has broken it and created something wonderful. Every time I think I’ve taught myself a rule … I realise I’ve been ignoring all this other evidence to the contrary.

Humans are like that, we remember the evidence which backs up our conclusions, ignoring that which contradicts it instead of basing our conclusions on all the evidence. It’s just the way we’re wired.

So I apologise in advance if what I’m about to say is total bullshit.

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I think (but can’t be certain) that voice over works best when it’s either present tense or very, very brief. As in a few introductory lines and then disappears until the end of the movie.

Why?

Well, because I think if it’s all past tense then it makes what you’re watching feel like information you need to know before the story starts. If that past tense voice over goes on for the whole film … I spend the whole film waiting for the story to start.

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After an hour of waiting for the story to start, I get a little bored – come on! Hurry up!

Present tense voice over gets around that problem by seeming to be the voice overer’s inner thoughts. And even then, I think that only works if the character’s inner thoughts contradict or add additional information to what we’re seeing on screen.

Except when it doesn’t. I can see it being amusing to have a voice over explaining exactly what the character is about to say. But maybe not all the time?

Or maybe do. If it works.

Jay and I love voice over in films. Both of us (sorry) prefer the film noir version of Blade Runner (sorry) to the director’s cut (so sorry).

Which, now I think about it, may all be in past tense.

So’s Goodfellas’ voice over. That’s awesome too.

See what I mean about ‘rules’?

The other thing, the news report thing … well, to me, the problem with that is it’s not the protagonist talking. It’s a third party, explaining to you what’s happening in the background or last week or somewhere else.

A little of that is fine. A lot … well it just keeps me from connecting emotionally with the protagonist.

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Except when it doesn’t.

Used well, you get to see how the news affects the protagonist. If she’s watching the news, for example. Or maybe we get snippets of news reports interspersed/playing over the protagonist going about tasks which reflect/contrast with what’s going on in her life.

Something like that.

Again, I’m fairly certain there are films which blow this ill-thought-out theory out of the water.

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The good thing is, this kind of meandering musing was exactly the kind of food for thought Jay was looking for. And it struck me that this was exactly the kind of phone call #PhonePhill works well as – a reconnecting with an old acquaintance whilst chatting about random (occasionally writing-related) stuff.

So I’ve retconned this conversation as #PhonePhill #10. If you’d like to be #11 (assuming I haven’t already had #11 whilst you’ve been reading this) then get in touch. I want to talk to you, whoever you are, old friend or new, about whatever the hell you fancy.

Come on, #PhonePhill

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Categories: #PhonePhill, Industry Musings, My Way | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “#PhonePhill – Conversation #10: Jay Sutherland

  1. Pingback: 2015 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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