Monday, January 27, 2014

The Visual Makes the Film

"Your hair's not visual enough."
Recently, I discussed a feature script I was writing with a talented fellow screenwriter friend who's also a contributing writer for Script Magazine. After discussing my premise ("A young man, hoping to break out of his drought-stricken town, must stop his brother, in league with a major agricultural concern, from bleeding the town's water supply dry."), he asked, "What makes it visual?"

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've been taught to think of such a thing as "trailer moments." What are the scenes, the actions, that will make someone want to see your film, all else being equal? Can you assign a defining verb to each of your scenes? Here's a hint: if "talk" or "think" is the defining verb, then go back to the drawing board. Sure, characters can talk during a scene. The point is that there needs to be something else going on under the dialogue. A threat, for example. In American Beauty, Lester Burnham is told that he has to write out a job description for himself or else risk losing his corporate middle-management position. The scene takes place in an office, with Lester sitting on the wrong side of the desk from an efficiency expert. They're sitting and talking, but there's an implied threat: do this or be fired. It's more than just sitting and talking.

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.


  1. And this is why we have nothing on screen any more than brainless action movies.

    1. When more screen time is given over to spectacle, rather than good storytelling and character development, then "brainless" films can certainly result.

      However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that there's nothing on screen anymore except for them. I'd check out 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, American Hustle, and Captain Phillips as examples of films that are both visual and yet character-driven.