In the background …

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I was watching an episode of Silicon Valley the other day (if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out – it’s one of my favourite sitcoms of the moment) and there was this scene in front of a large window.

Behind them, if you were paying attention, Dinesh gets up and heads for the whiteboard. It’s not focussed on, it’s not dwelt on, hell, the window’s hardly in frame … but it’s there. The kind of motion you notice out of the corner of your eye and chuckle because you know exactly what he’s doing and why … but since it happened covertly you feel smug and certain you’re the only one who noticed.

Anyone watching this who didn’t see it will be surprised and laugh when they find out what’s happening (for it was funny in context). If it had been more blatantly done it would be a shitty set up which puts the audience the wrong kind of ahead of the character. It would have made the gag seem obvious and clumsy. It would force you to wait for something you knew was coming.

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But it wasn’t like that. It was subtle. It made me feel clever for noticing. People who didn’t notice will have caught it on a second viewing and marvelled (maybe) at how well thought out it was. A bit like the people who somehow didn’t spot

SPOILER FOR FIGHT CLUB

Tyler Durden appear and disappear on the escalator at the beginning of the film. It’s a huge tip off to his non-existence … but one a lot of people didn’t seem to catch on first viewing.

SPOILER OVER

Second or third time round they see it and are happy as their mental jigsaw click into place.

I love stuff like that. I love stuff you catch on repeat viewings which reinforce what came later. I love Ben Kenobi’s expression in Star Wars when

SPOILER(?) FOR STAR WARS

Luke talks about who his father was.

SPOILER OVER

At the time, that expression meant nothing. After Empire, it means everything … although I don’t think it’s a deliberate thing. I think we’re reading something into an expression which probably just meant Alec Guinness was uncomfortable in his robes. Or had just farted or something.

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Anyway. I love that stuff. I love that it was always there but you just didn’t notice it.

The problem is, how to put that into a script? I don’t really mean ‘How do I write this in a way which will force the director to frame it all properly?’ because any decent director has a conversation with the scriptwriter to determine what they had in mind. The director isn’t obliged to shoot it that way, but they should at least have an understanding of the intention before they choose a different method. Ideally, this is an ongoing conversation throughout development … but sometimes that isn’t possible and a discussion just prior to shooting/pre-production is all there’s time for.

So that’s not the problem. The problem is: how do I convey the same experience to the reader?

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Scripts are a technical document, that’s true … but they should still invoke the same emotional responses as the finished film. Sad bits should be written in a way which makes the reader feel sad. Happy bits should do the opposite. Action scenes should be thrilling and not just “and then they have a fight on a cable car”.

It doesn’t matter if the stunt co-ordinator changes the fight or the location is shifted to a waterwheel. The script can change to reflect that … but in order to get made, it has to thrill someone (or several someones). They have to see in their mind’s eye what the audience will be seeing on screen.

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But if the majority of the audience aren’t supposed to see it, if it’s meant to be hidden until it’s revealed later … well, that’s hard to do in a script.

I’ve tried writing:

IN THE BACKGROUND: Bob pockets the magic dildo of Aramore.

But some readers assume that means it’s a close up of Bob picking it up, looking shifty, and shoving it down his pants. “The dildo twist is too obvious!” they cry, “Everyone will know it’s coming!”

Hmm.

I’ve tried writing:

Whilst Emily punches a marmoset, in the background, just over Emily’s shoulder, Bob surreptitiously steals up the magic dildo.

… with much the same results: they ‘see’ a big old close-up of Bob’s phallus-thieving antics. For some reason, words like ‘surreptitiously’ (as well as being a bugger to spell) seem to invoke a close-up of someone nervously moving their eyes from side to side.

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To be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to describe it really.

If you were paying attention, you might notice Bob stealing the magic dildo?

Whilst the camera focuses on Emily’s marmoset-punching, at the edge of the frame, Bob steals the dildo?

Unseen by all but the most eagle-eyed viewer, Bob grabs the magic dildo and … ?

I think I like that last one best … but it’s still not ideal.

I think part of the problem is there isn’t a good way to do it without breaking the rules of scriptwriting. You might have to draw attention to what the camera’s pointing at, or explain that the audience aren’t really supposed to notice this bit.

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On screen, the audience probably won’t notice because there’s a lot of other things going on for them to focus on. You can add action on the other side of the screen to draw their attention or an unusual prop or a brief burst of nudity or … you know, stuff.

In a well written script, everything on the page is relevant. That’s what frustrating about some badly-written scripts – they contain lots of pointless detail you feel you need to remember … only to find out it’s irrelevant. If it’s mentioned on the page, if the knife and fork on the Brigadier’s dinner table is a lime green, plastic Winnie-the-Pooh set then (hopefully) it has some relevance to the plot or to describing the Brigadier’s character. If it’s irrelevant, why mention it?

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Using the same logic, if the script mentions that Bob pockets the magic dildo, then that magic dildo is probably really important later on and is to be remembered. Just by being on the page, it’s drawing attention to itself. Even when you don’t want it to.

So maybe the way to hide it on the page is the same way you’d hide it on screen? Maybe deliberately clumping a lot of action lines together (say five or six?) and inserting the covert didlo-filching into the middle of the abnormally large block is the way to go?

People do tend to skim read larger blocks of text. Many would possibly miss it. Maybe?

I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for this. If you do, I’d love to hear it.

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I’m sure many wouldn’t – I’m a bit weird about watching the edges of the screen when people are talking. I think it’s because I used to enjoy spotting boom mics. You rarely see them any more.

* If you ever get the chance, stand at the back of an auditorium during a whodunnit or a film with a twist. As the twist looms closer, people lean in. As they get the twist, they lean back. Some people lean back significantly before everyone else. If one or two people lean back before the twist, they look smug – they worked out a brilliant twist because they are brilliant. If the majority of people lean back – they look bored. It’s an obvious, shit twist and now they’re just killing time waiting for the protagonist to catch up with them.

This is 100%, universally true. Except when it’s not.

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Categories: My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “In the background …

  1. David Anderson

    Thanks, Phill. Thought-provoking stuff, as ever. Took me a while to spot those pesky pigs, though! As for your challenge, how about:

    Emily’s having such fun punching the marmoset, she completely fails to notice Bob sneak in behind her, nick and pocket the magic dildo, then silently sneak out again.

    Well, it’s a thought anyway. And you provoked it.

    Cheers,
    Dave.

  2. Pingback: 2015 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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