Friday, November 09, 2007

The Completely Visual Screenplay

Hey guys,

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.



Joshua James said...

Firstly, this isn't a comment on the script, which I havent' read but I'm sure it's good, if you liked it. So congratulations to the author on that . . .

Now then . . .

You know, MM, I recall you made the same challenge to me at some point, which was to write a movie without dialogue . . . and actually, I've done that with a short screenplay already . . . and I am pretty sure I could do a full length script WITHOUT dialogue, I'm just not sure it would be worth the effort, on my part, simply to prove a point.

And I just wondered why this is thought to be better than a film WITH dialogue . . .

I wanted to engage you in the discussion at that time, but I got swamped, so I'll drop it in on you. now

When the industry began, all movies done without dialogue, silent movies, as we all know . . .

You get a guy being chased or chasing after someone and you've got the beginnings of a silent movie . . . add some cement trucks, some bad guys, a damsel in distress and some feisty kids on skateboards and there you go . . . you got a film that's all action and no dialogue.

(as an aside, I remember when Stallone's CLIFFHANGER came out and my then girlfriend, a Chinese film student, pointed out that we could have watched the whole film WITHOUT anyone speaking and still followed it . . . it would have been just as good . . . not that it was good to begin with, but it wouldn't have lacked for the non-talking . . . actually, with Stallone, it may have improved . . . but I've digressed).

One issue is, how will it read?

Quite a few readers, producers and directors don't even read action lines . . . they read the dialogue most of the time, and depend on the characters to give them a sense of place, time and action . . . I'm not saying its right, I'm just saying that's how many do it.

A screenplay without dialogue would also be hard to guage timewise for action . . . it wouldn't be one page equals one minute, right?

And lastly, dialogue gets dumped on a lot because a lot of bad writers write a lot of bad dialogue, it's true, but I don't think that the solution is to simply not write dialogue.

I think a bigger challenge would be to write a movie with a small number of characters in one room (or one enclosed space) and STILL have it involving and engaging, still have first act tags and third act discoveries . . . THROUGH CHARACTER . . . like LIFEBOAT or 12 ANGRY MEN . . .

I think THAT would be a larger challenge for a writer. To construct characters who, as themselves, are discoveries, what they reveal about themselves unwillingly . . . the key is in making characters who live and breathe . . .

Most dialogue that sucks comes from writers who don't think about characters as people, therefore what they say doesn't ring true or even necessary . . . and that's the problem, I think.

So the focus should be on creating people who look, sound and feel real . . . put them in a room for ninety minutes and then you'll know . . . if they bore you, they'll bore me, and that's the problem, right?

Okay, I know it's about making movies visual . . . which always felt like a bit of an oxymoron, because we're watching it, therefore by its very nature, it's already visual, right?

But I get what you're saying . . .

The idea that movies are more visual than books or plays is, to me, kind of a bit of a dodge . . . there isn't anything you can do in a film that one cannot do book or a play . . .

And most of the time, they're just stunts without a decent story . . . I thought Eternal Sunshine had some fucking awesome visual tricks within it (and it did, when the house fell apart in his memory) but what stuck with us on that story is the people within, trying and failing to forget they love each other.

On the other hand, that Russian Arc movie (the title escapes me) that was shot, the whole thing, in one single take for ninety minutes, no one can really remember anything about it, except that it was a stunt and it got boring after fifteen minutes of the same trick over and over.

Okay, I'm ranting and hijacking your thread.

But here's another challenge . . . can you tell a visually stimulating cinematic story that takes place in JUST ONE ROOM? With the same characters?

There you go . . . heh-heh.

Damn, I just got up, I'm sorry for the long rant. Edit it if needed.

Unknown said...

First off- thanks for the good words MM! This was a good exercise for me, and really challenged me to find other ways to get my points across.

It's not anything I'd ever expect to sell, but I kept imagining that Johnny Depp could do some great stuff with my character of Albert.

Regarding your comments JJ, I'd say 60 percent of my script took place in one apartment, but he spent a lot of time looking out on the outside world, so it wasn't really a single location. I think you could have a movie set in a single room if there was enough conflict within that room. For one, Breakfast Club came very close to that and they could have easily kept the story to that library. I'm sure you're familiar with a play called "Copenhagen" that features a conversation between Niels Bohr and Walter Heisenberg, where Heisenberg is trying to justify his involvement in nucelar weapon research for the nazi's to his old friend; and at the same time trying to solicit Bohr's help despite Bohr's overwhelming objectionst to the development of an atomic bomb by the nazi's. It's a compelling and conflict ridden conversation that I think would play beautifully on screen and in one room.

Joshua James said...

I know Copenhagen, great play . . .

These days we can do anythting on stage that one can do in a movie . . . there's even a stage production of POINT BREAK, which I never got to see but it supposed to kick ass.

I have nothing against cutting unnecessary words, be they dialogue or other . . .

My point is simply that we cannot forget character is above spectacle in Aristotle's Poetics . . .

Laura Deerfield said...

"I just wondered why this is thought to be better than a film WITH dialogue"

I don't think it is necessarily thought to be better. The idea of the exercise is to develop one's skills at using visuals to tell a story. The result may or may not be better. Many writers simply don't think of how much an image can express in and of itself.

By focusing on one aspect of the medium, you will find more ways to interpret and utilize it, and thus enrich your visual vocabulary.

Better? Not necessarily.

"there isn't anything you can do in a film that one cannot do book or a play"

I disagree there.

In a play, you can't direct the eye and hold on an image in the same way as on film. You can't focus on a coin on the ground, or on an actress's eyes.

A woman sitting at her vanity, brushing her hair. In a play you can highlight her with lights - you may even put a wall with a window in front of her and frame her... but it gets trickier when you are talking about, say, watching her from the house across the street. Or noticing that she picked up the red lipstick instead of the pink, and showing the choice so that you can understand it to be significant. Or that the hairpin she is using is the one that another character was wearing earlier in the story.

You can't edit images and thus control what an audience sees in the same way. There is a difference between seeing two characters speaking and reacting, and between cutting from one's speech to the other's reaction.

Certainly most action movies can be understood more or less without understanding the dialogue... this is actually something that some studios strive for, because it means they can market the movies in Asia without worrying about subtitles. But telling a story well, creating nuanced characters, revealing motivations and internal conflicts, without relying on them explaining it verbally is a worthy challenge.

I also think that the limited location, limited character idea is worthwhile - but why not write a play? Not saying such a story has to be a play but certainly there should be something about a screenplay which makes film the best medium for the story.

(I won't even comment on the things you can't do in a book that you can do in screen, because it's such an entirely different experience - reading versus watching... Peter Greenaway is a director whose work immediately comes to mind when I think of strongly visual films that would resist interpretation in a literary form.)

Mystery Man said...

Josh, this article was not about dialogue but visual storytelling, which is just one aspect of many about screenwriting / filmmaking. I can't believe you've just twisted this entire discussion away from visual storytelling to talk about dialogue. Are you so weak when it comes to thinking visually that the best thing you can contribute to this discussion is "wah-wah-wah, dialogue gets dumped on, and screw visual storytelling, because a bigger challenge would be to lock a few characters in an enclosed space and let them talk endlesly for 120 pages." Are you kidding me?

A screenplay is not 120 pages of dialogue. Period. You should know the difference between a play and a screenplay. And these (few) readers and executives who you believe only read dialogue will sure as hell put down your script if it has NOTHING BUT dialogue.

Let's face it. Your comments are not really about the craft, they're about you. They're about your total unwillingness to step out of your playwright comfort zone, quit leaning on this weak crutch of excessive dialogue in screenplays, and embrace visual storytelling. Despite what you think, this is a sensational creative exercise that everyone should try at least once.


Joshua James said...


I humbly accept the zen slap offered and nod in thanks . . .

Laura Deerfield said...

Anyone who hasn't seen Kieslowski's Blue should watch it as an example of a film that uses dialogue sparingly and relies on visuals to build a complex and rich story.

Mim said...

Rats. I missed the knock-down, drag-out.

Bob has always had a good eye for visuals. His image of the drop of blood and the broken plate in Trinity is very powerful.

One of the things that struck me about screenplays when I first got into them was how visual writing can be used to inspire the cameraman.

I'm not talking camera angles. The cinematographer probably has enough skill and experience to figure out when to use a close-up or a head-shot. But visual description that can make a visual artist begin thinking of palette, of light and shadow, of how to use reflective surfaces, and perhaps how to juxtapose characters to compare and contrast them.

In my Cape Fear breakdown, I pointed out how in the first meeting between Cady and Sam, one is standing and one is sitting in a car. Next time they meet, their positions are reversed, yet Cady maintains his position of power.

If you go back to where it all started, who decided to pose the characters like that? It was the writer. Or it should have been the writer.

As writers, we have the power to make these kinds of choices and thus influence the course of our story.

Laura Deerfield said...

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass..." ~ Anton Chekhov

Mystery Man said...

Ya know, I'm very sorry, Josh. I really am. I was WAY too harsh.


Karim said...

MM! Hitchcock agrees with you! Woo!

Great interview.

Mystery Man said...

I love it! I had seen that before, but I think I'll post it on my blog as part of my Unproduced Hitch series.


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