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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Making a Personal Connection

Last night I went to a free screening of The History Boys. I may write up a review later, or tomorrow, but I want to write about something that came to me while I was watching it. But first, a 3-second review.

Good, not great. Very good acting and interesting characters, but too "stagey" and unfocused.

That being said, there was one scene that really moved me. In it, an older teacher and one of his students are meeting independently. Both are gay, and have encountered obstacles and problems to varying degrees because of this, weighing them both down with a real sadness.

In there scene, they are discussing a poem (I think by Hardy, if I remember correctly). The acting performances, in particular, made this a particularly moving scene, due to the intensely sad subtext and emotion that ran beneath the entire scene -- both characters trying to keep their sadness suppressed and put on a public "happy face." And yet, both characters knew exactly what was going on in the scene.

The teacher then mentioned something about how amazing it is when you read a piece of literature that you feel connects so perfectly with you that it almost feels as if it was written about you. And then you realize that it was written by someone who never knew you, and perhaps even died years or centuries before you came into existence. How odd that can feel.

What went through my mind at that point was a memory of seeing a movie on TV a couple of years ago. Don't ask me what it was called, because I have no concrete memories of it. In fact, it was a pretty crappy (and clearly forgettable) film. But due to a number of aspects in the storyline, I intensely associated with the main character, and his sadness. There were just a number of specific things in his life at the time that felt as if they were ripped from my life at the time. And the film nearly moved me to tears. I felt kind of silly at the time, not because I was (Heavens to Betsy...) tearing up in a movie. Rather it was because it was such a bad movie that did it to me!

Now, however, I think about the power that movies (and any art, really) have to connect with people. That gives us a tremendous responsibility, in addition to opportunity. But most importantly it makes me wonder how best to harness that power.

What is it that we can put into our screenplays that will connect with an audience on a personal level? How was it that the Hardy poem moved those characters in The History Boys? Why did that crappy anonymous movie affect me so strongly?

Of course, part of the answer stems from realism. But I think a good portion of it also has to do with specificity and details -- something I'm sure I've written about before, and which actually creates the verisimilitude we seek to create. One of the things the teacher in that movie scene pointed out was the way the poet gave the subject (a dead soldier) a name, making him into an individual, a person. Detail.

In my class at the Expo about writing active sequences I point out another similar example of this in the screenplay for Saving Private Ryan. During the opening Battle of Normandy sequence, we meet a young soldier who interacts with Tom Hanks' character. The script identifies him as "Delancey." By the end of the scene, Delancey is dead. No character in the film ever addresses him by name, but by giving him a name in the screenplay, screenwriter Robert Rodat makes the reader feel his death that much more emotionally. He isn't just some anonymous soldier who loses his life. He is Delancey. A human being, with a name and identity.

Another example. In the current issue of scr(i)pt magazine there is an interview with Pedro Almodovar. In it, he discusses his screenwriting process specifically, rather than his directing (for which he has been more examined and recognized). The interviewer asks him about a small line in All About My Mother where a character mentions something in passing about forging Chagalls. A small detail that Almodovar took (and altered a bit) from an actual experience he had. And it makes the character (and the film) a bit more real.

I'm sure there's more that helps a film form a personal connection with an audience, but genuine details are always a great starting point!

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