Nine times out of ten, when I tell someone I’m writing a film script, they instantly ask: “What’s it about?” This question has become the bane of my existence as a filmmaker. No one ever asks, “Who’s it about?”
Most people are conditioned to think that movies are primarily stories. At a recent party, I suggested that a film can be something other than a story. Aghast, a visual effects editor shot up in his seat and challenged, “What else would it be?”
When one crafts a “story,” the most important element is it’s plot, i.e., a sequence of events with a beginning, middle and an end. And to make it entertaining, which is often the point, there needs to be conflict with twists and turns along the way. Inevitably, other elements simply become a device utilized for the story. Characters become no different from the cars they drive or the music they listen to. They are mainly there to propel the plot forward and make it interesting.
In the audio commentary of a critically acclaimed American film, the writer/director blatantly admits that he killed off a character because he needed a “device” to move the story forward. I can’t begin to express the disgust and anger I felt by that comment. Humans are sacred, whether in flesh or in fiction. To kill one off for the sake of story is murder, plain and simple.
My approach is entirely different. I often begin with a human being in a particular situation. I then brainstorm who they are and what their situation is. My primary goal is to explore this person, rather than concoct a story. Writing in a stream of consciousness way, I meditate on the person, allowing them to determine what they do or not do. This organically leads to more circumstances and more characters. It is the character, the living being, who paves their own way, not me.
As a filmmaker, John Cassavetes is a great inspiration to me. His first film, Shadows (1959), was groundbreaking in both content and methodology. He states:
An excerpt from Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001) by Ray Carney
Here’s a rare clip of John Cassavetes in a television interview. He begins by talking about his film Opening Night (1977), which follows the life of a stage actress. After a couple minutes, he gets fired up and rants about movies and Hollywood. There is text in the middle of the screen, but it’s worth watching!