Despite everything going on this week, I still found time to write a script review! I had been looking forward to this for some time, too, because an extraordinary thing happened. Our good friend, Bob Thielke, found himself so inspired by Jennifer van Sijll's book, Cinematic Storytelling, as well as my articles on Visual Storytelling that he wrote for himself, just as a creative exercise, a nearly dialogue-free screenplay just to practice the art of telling a story through visuals.
How cool is that?
It's called 99 Luft Balloons. It's already become a Top Ten Favorite on TriggerStreet. It's the story of Albert Schaff, a man trapped behind the Berlin Wall who desperately wants to get back to the woman he loves.
It felt so good to write this review and to just talk about some of the unexplored possibilities of visual storytelling. Every screenwriter ought to do this at least once in his/her career. I plan to do so. Even after writing the review, Bob and I have been spitballing visual ideas that could enhance his story. SO much fun! God, I love being a screenwriter.
Anyway, hope you enjoy it.
The Art of Visual Storytelling
What a wonderful tour I've taken inside the creative mind of Bob Thielke. We've seen a priest give up his life for a rebellious sinner in a German concentration camp. We've seen a brilliant scientist betray his family to pursue the ultimate weapon of destruction only to regret it later in life. We've seen two brothers fight for their souls during the Spanish Civil War. And here we have the unforgettable image of a Russian clown attached to hundreds of balloons floating over a great wall along the closed borders of his country to be with the German woman (and daughter) he loves so very dearly. Baby, that's what good, compelling cinema is all about.
A number of things to say about this. I know this was meant to be a creative exercise, and it was originally intended to be a totally silent screenplay so that Bob could focus solely on visuals and telling his story through those visuals. I was surprised to see dialogue, and I guess I'm such a hardcore purist that I wanted to see you go ALL THE WAY, baby! Hehehe... That's quite all right. The dialogue was so minimal that it never detracted from the point of the exercise. Anyway, what makes the image of the brightly-colored clown with his colorful balloons floating over the grey barbed-wired concrete barriers amidst the dark and gloomy backdrop of an economically depressed Russia so memorable is BECAUSE the emphasis is on the visuals in the context of an emotionally-charged story. That's screenwriting at its core, is it not? And once you start thinking this way, you never go back, and your screenplays will be that much better for it.
In fact, I'd like to do this creative exercise myself just to keep my skills sharp. Creative writing exercises are good for the writer's soul. We never do them enough. Billy Wilder did "limbering up writing exercises" every morning of his life by imagining more and more original ways in which a young couple could meet for the first time.
I loved how Bob played with colors like a real artist. We had the gloomy walls of various buildings offset by Marta's bright flowers outside her windows, which is a statement about HER in this world, or at least how she stands out to Albert. The flowers almost bring a sense of new life, comfort, charm, and love in an old dying world. The inside of her bedroom was also colorful and beautiful, like a heavenly oasis. That's what it was to Albert. And then when the borders are closed we're not only robbed of color, but we also dive deep into the even darker gloominess of Russia, which forces us to visually long for Marta as much as Albert longs for her emotionally, until at the end, we, of course, return to the colorful oasis of Marta and her beautiful world. There was also the visual statement about the hospital system in Russia with the circular wards, as if to say that they're spinning their wheels and failing to move forward, and that is contrasted with the cold, imposing, monolithic-looking structures of the very structured Ministry of Labor and Meat Processing Factory. You have the images of Albert trying to stand out with his not well fitting suit amidst crowds of working class poor. The classical music was carefully chosen to complement the mood of the scenes, and I particularly enjoyed the idea of Bach's "Ode to Joy" on Katarina's birthday. There were other examples, but these stood out to me.
Okay, well, here are just a few minor suggestions for you, Bob:
- I know that, for a time, you were struggling to get this script to the 90 page mark, and you could feel that in places. All in all, I think this story would make for a superb short film. Essentially, once Albert goes through that checkpoint, we already know what will happen. We know the border will be closed. We know he'll be cut off from the girl he loves, and (because of the title) he'll probably cross the wall using balloons. Because of all that, I think this story would be more powerful as a short. Beyond that, though, I wondered if Albert might have been goal-less for too long after the border closed and before he got the idea about the balloons? Like, perhaps, he immediately tries to find ways to send messages over the wall to Marta? Or perhaps if Marta knows that Albert has a telescope, she could leave notes or visuals in her window to send messages to Albert? Do you know what I mean? And you could explore a visual motif with Marta's changing window decorations, the various objects, messages, etc?
- I also wonder about the kinds of visuals you could come up with to illustrate the growing frustration or longing in Albert? This makes me think of the famous drink shots of spilled coffee in Carol Reed's "Odd Man Out." A character is undergoing a crisis and sees moments from recent experiences in the bursting bubbles of spilt coffee. At least, I think it was coffee. This idea was used in another way with Jean-Luc Godard's "Two of Three Things I know About Her" in which the swirling foam of a coffee drink represent the conflict of the female protag. And there was, of course, Scorsese's brilliant use of the bubbling water to represent Travis Bickles' own boiling undercurrents, subjectivity, and psychosis in "Taxi Driver."
- You might want to consider, as I've said in other reviews, making a connection between the opening and closing shots. A general view of the city has been done so much that it's downright cliched now and it doesn't make much of a statement about the characters. I'd rather it open and close on Marta's flowers or balloons or anything else.
- I wonder if, at some point, Albert uses his telescope to see that Marta's flowers are withering in order to express her own sadness? Like you create a motif with the flowers. At first they're bright and beautiful, they wither, and in the end, they're bright again? I felt this way about the opening being outside a movie theater. I wonder if there's something else more symbolic that they can do together? They create something or build something or do something that is THEIR thing and you connect that opening thing with a closing thing?
- I wonder if there's a more compelling approach to the moment when the borders are closed? Like, you show Marta discovering that she's pregnant and she's off to tell Albert, and Albert's mother has died and he's off to tell Marta and they both discover that the wall's closed? Or something. I was considering other possibilities, and it might be worth exploring other possibly more compelling ways to punctuate that moment with as much emotion as possible?
- I also wonder if Vassily should reappear in Albert's life somewhere else later in the story? Perhaps Albert drills him for information about the wall, about how long this will last, about ways to get through, etc?
- I had another thought. What if... we are looking through Albert's telescope. It's Albert's POV. And we watch Marta do something, perhaps give birth, and there are overcast skies. It's about to rain, and something emotional happens with Marta and suddenly... the image grows blurrier and blurrier. But it's not because of the rain. We cut back to Albert's apartment and we realize the image grew blurry because of Albert's tears. Hehehe... Just a thought.
- I may have missed this, but at some point, I thought about ways you could designs motifs with numbers and making connections with his number at the Ministry of Labor and like, the buoyancy calculations?
- I wonder if the military guys should run through the streets to follow Albert as he floats through Berlin and there's some creative way he escapes being captured? You could also play with languages. Like say, it's difficult for Albert and Marta to communicate verbally, and while they're separated Albert studies German so that when they're together, he speaks flawlessly to her and it's even good enough to escape capture from soldiers who question them?
In any case, this is such a great exercise, something every screenwriter should do at least once, including myself. But, of course, you can't do this without having studied this first, like Jennifer van Sijll's book, "Cinematic Storytelling," and perhaps studying cinema like the books of David Bordwell (he has a new one out "Poetics in Cinema," which I plan to read). One can also find inspiration in art and other movies. And this exercise makes me wonder how you'll elevate your other scripts and, for example, find visual ways to communicate ideas about Oppie's inner conflicts.
Great job, man.
Friday, November 09, 2007