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Thursday, 1 January 2015

Cinema: how breaking the rules can work


For a creative industry, the movie business can be extremely conservative. From the time I became interested in writing for the screen, I was frequently told "you can't do that", often without any rational explanation. It seemed to be a simple case of rules being passed down as the received wisdom from one generation of writers to another without a recognition that these rules are often there to be broken.

One of the first things I was frequently told was that it was wrong to have a one-sided telephone conversation, because that would mean the audience would not be able to understand what was going on. In many cases, yes. But not necessarily so. These people have obviously not heard the hilarious telephone conversations that took place in the excellent American TV series, Hill Street Blues, between Detective Belker and his interfering and possessive mother. We never heard her side of the conversation, but we always got the drift because of the way he responded.

Another instruction I was given was that as the cinema and TV are visual, I must keep changing scenes, so that boredom doesn't set in with the audience. Reasonable advice, but again not necessarily so. Further, I was told that in structuring a film and drafting the scenes, I should insert the dialogue last, and the dialogue must be kept to the absolute minimum. Above all, the dialogue must not tell the audience what it can see for itself. In other words, "show; don't tell". That is good advice in most screenplays, but again not necessarily so.

This leads me on to heap praise on the British feature film Locke, which I have only just seen. This is a brilliant movie, but I wonder how difficult it must have been to pitch to producers and financiers: "So this is a story about a guy who is supposed to be pouring cement, but is going through a marriage-wrecking emotional crisis. He is the only person we see in the film as he drives along a motorway at night, constantly on his mobile/cell phone to workmates, family and his pregnant former one-night stand." Not a grabber, you must admit, but the end result is an outstanding film with a stream of flawless dialogue and never a dull moment. It is arguable the most wonderful, imaginative rule-breaking film I have seen in the past year.

Finally, back to the rigid advice often handed out to those hoping to become screenwriters. Your must-read is William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade. His message is "Nobody [in Hollywood] knows anything".  Just keep that in mind next time someone tells you what you can and cannot do in screenwriting. 

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