I’m attempting to turn a short story of mine into a screenplay for a short film. Having difficulty getting the tone right for the opening. In brief, a man is walking along a path he travelled as a child, as he does so his past slowly opens up within him – cue, segue into flashback. In the short story it’s all told via a narrator: "I walked along the desolate lane, the tree stump was still there’, etc. I’m having great difficulty in conveying this opening sequence before the flashback in a way that I feel works (there is no-one else around, so no dialogue). The two approaches I’ve considered are:
1. The character moving through the landscape with a v/o conveying his thoughts;
2. The character moving through the landscape and addressing the camera – breaking the fourth wall.
Neither is great in bridging the gap between his external and internal world (I know this could be considered a fundamental problem with film in general).
Any thoughts on a better way?
Or clips that you could point me to that may have utliised above approaches in interesting ways?
Do you really have time for a flashback in a short film, or is it absolutely necessary to the story?
Absolutely necessary. There are three sections: the present time, the flashback, then the return to the present (the present, sort of, bookends the flashback). All take place within the same space, but different time (for the flashback) and the knowledge the protagonist recalls (and therefore the audience) from his reliving of the flashback impacts upon the final section (and the audience’s perception of the protagonist).
Sorry to sound abstruse; hope that makes some sense.
Go watch Wild Strawberries.
No, wrestle with it yourself, Lermentov. You sound like you have a clear vision of what you want to do. Putting it to screenplay form is always difficult. Now is not the time to be looking at the work of others for ideas or inspiration. And I think a non-linear short film can work well. Have you any idea how long the short film might be? Remember, short films can run for over one half hour. I think that’s plenty of time for a flashback.
I didn’t say for ideas and inspiration.
“Having difficulty getting the tone right for the opening. In brief, a man is walking along a path he traveled as a child, as he does so his past slowly opens up within him”
I don’t know of any film that pulls this off as well as Wild Strawberries. I think it would help him (filming it at least).
Thanks for the tips guys. I will certainly look at Wild Strawberries again. In terms of length, it will run from 10-12 minutes – so economy is a sine qua non. Although, there is essentially just one location.
sounds like your guy needs to fall through the looking glass. How you do it your call. Maybe use either an action (ex., man drawing with stick in the dust to boy holding stick he’s just dragged through the dust) or a thing (man staring at tree stump to boy jumping off tree stump). I don’t know anything about your story so those may be screwy ideas.
Also, I suspect the v/o is going to work better than breaking the fourth wall. To do the latter, your guy needs to face the audience, while to dive through the looking glass he needs to be facing it (unless he’s gonna do a backflip).
Thoughts worth what you paid for them.
Some good ideas Apachecadillac and I think I agree with you about the v/o working better than breaching fourth wall.
In terms of the other section, you come up with some clever ideas for some kind of match-cut to engineer the flashback. That isn’t as much a problem, I’m clear on how that will be achieved. It was just the very opening and how I delineate character and motivation to an audience when they’re all ostensibly in the character’s head.
Thanks for the input though.
How about POV shots from the (adult) protagonist’s point of view, but what he sees is himself as a kid?
Then let the adult drop out for a minute or two to convey the scene, and then get back to him with a cut to the adult.
Repeat as needed.
Without knowing anything about your short story it is a little difficult to offer much in the way of suggestions that may be right for you, especially since it sounds like you are just writing a screenplay and not intending to film it yourself. That poses a more interesting problem in that it sounds like some of the issues could be resolved on a more visual than auditory level. That is to say, I’m wondering if you aren’t being too literal in your translation from story to script. If we can see a man walking along a desolate path, having a voiceover repeating that fact to us may be more explicit than you need, unless the voice is attempting to set a tone or is going to reveal attitude that would not be visually representable in the characters demeanor or actions otherwise.
Some questions; Are there going to be more characters than just the one person? I mean is the crux of the story about him sharing his thoughts? If so, is this story being told a good one for film, or more to the point, why do you think this is a story that should be filmed or is well-suited to film? Something that works on the page may not translate well to the screen, or need to be filmed if it is already a success in its current form.
Will the person go back sufficiently far in time that he would be played by either two different people or in more/less make-up or would he remain unchanging during his flashback even if the world around him is in the earlier era? The decisions on that may open some more visual ideas on how to portray the passage of time, or give a better idea of the possible limits on your conception.
What is the mood of the peace? Voiceovers or direct address each would provide a different tone or mood, as would any option and that should be considered within the general tone you are looking to set as well.
Forgive me if those are obvious questions, but they seem rather essential to getting at what you want.
POV is an answer Claus if it wasn’t that there are certain aspects of the protagonist’s physiognomy that need to be seen clearly by the audience.
Thanks so much for such a detailed response Greg (great selection of films on your profile BTW), especially as I was being intentionally vague.
In terms of the v/o I agree we don’t need the narrator to tell us the landscape is desolate. However, an audience needs to know certain expositional pieces of information: the protagonist is visiting a place that holds memories for him, that something terrifying happened to him in this place and that he is returning now – as a much older adult – to try to ascertain if these things really did happen to him, or if he has embellished them and exaggerated to such a degree that they no longer bear any relevance to what actually happened.
He is a child in the flashback (10 yrs-ish) although the landscape will have changed very little as it’s rural.
The tone is dark with a sense of slow foreboding a la MR James.
Some things I might consider then given those circumstances; On the plus side, a voiceover wouldn’t be tonally out of place since they are often associated with dark detective-like stories, this of course is also a bit of a problem since it may seem a little bit old hat, but could be overcome if the voice reflects something approximating a real internal dialogue, that is to say more fragmented, less fully developed thoughts, and a general aspect of uncertainty and self-doubt leaving the audience somewhat vague on verbal particulars and more giving them a hint of what the connections are. That way the v/o isn’t redundant to the visuals but instead perhaps clues them into a growing awareness of the significance of them. Being too verbose or forthcoming with information might take away from the filmic aspect of the work, or lead towards a character unbelievability.
Going with a direct address to the camera however would require the opposite I would think, I strong persona development for the character and a more certain use of language on your part. The character would have to be interesting enough in his use of language for the audience to want to be addressed by him, as well as giving some indication of a certain mental instability/shakiness that could pass the address off as an appeal to bear witness or provide comfort to the protagonist. Addressing the camera without some sort of emotional requirement from the audience can lead to real problems and unintentional comedic effect since direct contact in that manner is both fraught with potential for failure and more generally used in comedies or as a way to set the character as an ironic counter-figure to their own story. Somethings like the Tell-tale Heart have put it to more horrific use, but then the speaker’s reliability or sanity is in some question so the audience is called on to judge the events rather than to strictly sympathize. The advantage would be that it is an impressive and memorable device when used well as opposed to the more frequent and obvious v/o strategy.
Other ideas that might be worth considering would be aural flashbacks preceding a full-immersion into the past, that is we could see the character reacting to sounds that have no business in the present time, things we would hear and connect to him starting to experience his past intensifying before fully giving in to the flashback, this technique could be used with a shift in film techniques to signify a difference in time. Commonly that’s done by going from b/w to color or the other way around, or a blur or mist or something, which again might lead to a problem with it feeling cliched, but it also has an advantage of familiarity which leaves the audience in a comfortable place.
A similar technique is to do as Nicholas Roeg did and add visual flashes of the past that may not immediately make sense, but become increasing clear as the story goes along. This way can be more visually stimulating and add an element of surprise or a desire to fit the pieces together for the audience and increase the amount of attention paid to the events happening onscreen, but it too could become unclear easily, or lapse into cliche if not handled well. Keeping in mind that even a basically unchanging landscape can be shown to be from a different time just by having two different times of day or year and the effects that would have on nature or lighting should be enough to signal the split.
You could also have more of a technological fix where the character is recording the events for later use, thus making the narration part of the experience, this method has become somewhat popular in recent years, and could be seen as derivative, but it does provide a way to narrate while avoiding the audience.
And finally, finally!, one could have the older character and the younger character interact, making a dialogue between them that represents the interior dialogue. The younger character then would be, in a way, at the bidding of the older version of himself, both able to address the older character as well as being forced to participate in the events he remembers. It’s not as frequently used as the other techniques, but does seem to happen once in a while, particularly in short films where the device doesn’t become overburdened and when the protagonist’s journey would allow the two versions of himself to maintain a tighter bond than is often possible in longer works. The advantages to that are that it does seem to increase the sense of the uncanny, which can heighten the audience response to negative events, especially since the younger version of himself can seem more at risk due to the discordance between having two versions of him on screen, that is to say, I think the audience can feel a deeper sense of danger for the young version since its tricky to hold both identifications in ones head at the same time, that he is the same character as the older one. Which means the audience can forget that he obviously lives through these events since we see him as older, and that slight disconnect can be used to advantage if one is putting the character into physical peril. Of course a lying or somewhat crazed main character can add twists to this device as well as some of the others by dint of his unreliable nature.
I’m sure there are other ways to do this as well, but these are some ways this kind of thing has been handled in the past by different filmmakers, so they may provide some help.
My one piece of advice is don’t be afraid to challenge the audience a bit. You don’t need to spell everything out too clearly right away. Audiences are very good at piecing together stories if the information comes together in the end, with a short film, the audiences memories won’t be stretched at all, so don’t worry about withholding information or only slowly revealing the relationships of the characters if that can help you come to grips with the form of how you want this to proceed.
Anyway, good luck with the project, and if I think of any other ways such a thing has been done, or if I have some freak brainstorm on another way it could be done, I’ll be sure to mention it.
Thanks once again Greg for an expansive, considered response.
I think you make some interesting points about breaking the front wall, although I agree it would be tricky to realise and could easily look clunky and unconvincing. Tom Jones and Alfie did a fair job of pulling it off though.
In terms of the flashback, you outline a range of approaches that are certainly food for thought. The idea of meeting oneself is particularly engaging. Off the top of my head I can’t think of a film that actually utilised such an approach although I’m sure I’ve seen it done.
I like the idea of a flashback not being obvious and seamlessly intertwining itself within the general patina of the film. So no black and white or grainy film stock limning the change in time. If I remember correctly Audition used this to great effect, constantly keeping its audience off balance leaving them unsure as to if there had been a change in time.
Yeah, I’m sorry for listing some of the more blatantly obvious techniques, but I know when I’m intently focused on trying to make something work, I sometimes forget some really obvious things in an attempt to do it the way I want, so I thought I’d try to not make any assumptions on what you have and haven’t thought of on the off-chance it might provide a spark in your endeavor.
I can’t think of a specific film example at the moment illustrating the addressing oneself notion either although I’m sure I’ve seen it used in various forms, sometimes just as a visual, maybe like A Christmas Carol, other times more interaction on a dreamlike or fantastic level, but I’m sure I’ve seen a more direct interaction somewhere, or I think I’m sure I have anyway.
I’m with you on the not so obvious front, audiences are pretty used to rather oblique strategies for dealing with time by now so going for whatever suits your purposes without worrying about comprehension problems should work fine.
The direct address technique is an interesting one and I like it a lot when done well, but it does leave an impression that the protagonist needs to address an audience for some reason, like the examples you cited or A Clockwork Orange, and some others, there is either something vaguely defensive about it or a bit in your face, sort of spitting in the audiences eye in the technique. The same can sometimes be said about v/os, but there is such a varied history that it isn’t so definitive. A lot of v/o usage doesn’t really have much rhyme or reason at all. I just watched a film the other day that begins with a voice over from someone who dies part way through the film leaving you to wonder what the point of view being expressed was intended to be, but its easy to lose track of such things in a full-length film, so a lot of times that isn’t commented on.
Or there was the corpse v/o in Sunset Boulevard!
In terms of the address to camera, I also think it lends itself to humour rather well (via the ‘ironic counter-figure’ you mentioned). I’m not sure how well one would evoke a portentous tone using such a technique.
Anyway, Greg thanks so much for your valuable input and interest and I’ll keep you updated on how it’s going.
Robley, so he watches “Wild Strawberries” per your recommendation, and what will he gets out of it?
Ideas and inspiration.
“I didn’t say for ideas and inspiration.”
But it’s what you meant in context.
I don’t know of any film that pulls this off as well as Wild Strawberries. I think it would help him (filming it at least)"
Yeah, Robley, that’s called ideas and inspiration.
Just like when I recommend people writing a screenplay to see this film or that film. So they can get an IDEA of how a good screenplay can function. Or they can read a screenplay in printed form.
It’s just that for me personally, if I were so far along into developing an idea, I’d probably go the rest of the way alone.
I’d prefer you just never speak to me on this forum. You would be number 1 on my ignore list.
I was asking about the need for flashback because every book I’ve read about screenwriting says to stay away from them, but I know there are exceptions to the rule and I’ve learned that everything one needs to know about screenwriting aren’t taught in those books. In any case, I think Scorsese handles time and pacing quite well in his movies. Not flashbacks per se, but shifts in time (e.g. Goodfellas). Not to mention he’s also mastered the voice-over technique.
two movements: present time and then flash back to end