|"Your hair's not visual enough."|
I was struck by the question. The very fact that I was writing it as a screenplay made it visual! Or so I thought. He followed up my silence with, "What makes it a movie?"
They're the same question.
I tell my students that they're writing a film, not a radio play. You must keep it interesting to watch, first and foremost.
Sounds obvious? It's astonishing how many scenes, even in popular films, violate this basic tenet. It turns out, not every story is visual.
A lightsaber duel is visual. Two characters having a long conversation over dinner is not. A husband walking in on his wife having an affair in their children's bedroom is visual. A character sitting and thinking isn't. Popeye Doyle's chase scene in The French Connection (or just about any chase scene) is visual. A character standing across the desk from his boss and talking is not.
Here's my definition: a visual scene invests you by virtue of what you see onscreen. Great dialogue doesn't make a scene visual. Even an unusual setting, alone, won't make a scene visual (though it helps, especially if it's integrated with the action). Why can this scene not be a radio play? Having solid answers to that question is the first step.
Films are made of scenes. Guess what happens if you don't pump enough visual action into your scenes? The film stops being visual, as a whole. It becomes that radio play I cautioned you against.
I recently saw Enough Said, James Gandolfini's final film. While well-acted on his part, the greater film struck me as one of the least visual works I had seen in recent memory. There were no less than a half-dozen (that I can immediately recall) scenes of characters sitting around, talking, and eating. Just shooting the breeze. What made the settings interesting? What made the conversations have to take place inside of these restaurants or back patios? Why did the characters have to be sitting and eating in the first place? They didn't. They were just truck stops for exposition. They stuck out as if the filmmaker was saying, "Let's take a break from the story for a moment and catch our breath with a bit of character development."
If the film is remembered for anything other than Gandolfini, it'll assuredly be for the scenes that took place outside of the restaurants, outside of the let's-laugh-over-guacamole-on-the-patio scenes. And that shouldn't be. Your whole film should be memorable. Every scene of Jurassic Park, every scene of Captain Phillips, and every scene of American Hustle, for example, is visual. Something happens in each scene. Each scene has a defining action. You're able to sum up what happened in each scene in a word!
|More than a way to sit - a way to threaten.|
I did a similar exercise with a colleague's script just last week. He showed me a scene with the protagonist sitting at a restaurant table and reminiscing with his family. When I asked the writer what the scene's defining action was, he said, "Remembering." That wont work. Imagine telling your audience, "Now we're going to watch a scene about a character remembering." Is it fun to watch someone remember something? Not nearly as engaging as it is watching a threat. Keep it visual. Keep it a film. Visual scenes are the scenes you should be writing.