Friday, February 26, 2010

Rules and Regulations

The sparks were flying last night as we screeners lobbied, discussed and argued over whether or not particular films were any good. Perfect time for a reminder that mine is not the only voice in the room – so if you think I'm full of it, you're not alone and chances are your opinion is well represented in the screening room.

To the movies:

Can we have a moratorium on slow piano and/or guitar music in short films - solo chello, too, while we're at it? Sure, sometimes it's exactly the right thing – but those are rare and ruined by the thousands of bad usages that we just need to stop for a few years until it becomes new again.

We had a film last night with a nice dramatic moment that had no music, then just as one of the screeners said, "Great that they had the courage not to put music over that," in came the slow piano plunking out random notes and chords. "Spoke too soon," we all said.

I don't know what the composers are thinking with this stuff. Insomniacs would pay good money for a CD of the soundtracks we're exposed to every week. When I was at North Carolina School of the Arts I talked to a musician about how some classical music concerts just puts me to sleep. "That's fine," he said. "It's a perfect human reaction, especially if it's a lullaby."

Well, people, movies are not meant to be lullabies. Your objective should not be to put your paying audience to sleep. This is especially true if you have a slowly paced scene. Slow music over it, under it, or anywhere around it is going to bring everything to a halt.

This brings me to another one of my rules I like to keep in mind when writing, directing, etc.

THE 180-DEGREE RULE: If you are working on something dark, make sure you read through to find the light. If you're working on something slow, find the natural fast rhythm. If you've got a great melody, find the base notes. If it's a drama, find the humor. If it's a comedy, find the pathos. In nearly every case, if choice A works, then Opposite-A will also work. You don't always have to go with it, but you should know it's there.

If you're really good, you can use this to find what musicians call "implied notes." These are notes that aren't played, but the listener thinks they hear. That look behind an actor's eyes that says there is drama behind his humor. The smile on a character's face that punches through the tears. When you see these in great performances, they aren't accidents. They are a well-placed application of the 180-degree rule.

I've also been considering a new rule. It's a work-in-progress so maybe you guys can discuss it here. I call it, EARN YOUR DRAMA.

So many films start heavy and go down from there. You get the feeling watching them that the actors woke up that morning thinking, "I'm going to work in a drama, so I must be serious and stern all day." I picture the crew sinking into deep depression as the shooting goes, until finally the boom operator can't hold her arms over her head for the emotional weight on her shoulders.

And it doesn't work. From the first frame of the movie, we don't care about these people who do nothing but wallow around with a weight on their shoulders. Just once, I'd like to see a character with a heavy emotional load tap dance in the opening scene, you know? Of course, in a short, you have to get right to the action, but if you know you're making a drama remember, you're going to have to earn it. Start us off with something light, something normal, even if it's just for a second (literally). Then you can come down on that character with an emotional ton of bricks and we'll be right there to help lift the burden – because we want to get him back to the happy person we saw before.

Like I said, this rule is a work in progress – would love to hear your thoughts.

Back to the movies:

There is nothing worse in storytelling than to be behind your audience. The most obvious example of this is a murder mystery where we're not supposed to know who the killer is, but we do – and the characters don't. We can even call out the twist that's supposed to be a big surprise long before it happens. As the storyteller, you have to constantly be aware of what cards you've dealt your audience and how they are going to put them together. You can't let them get gin before you're ready. You want them eagerly awaiting their next plot point. And you must make sure they win the game only when the last card is dealt.

We had a few movies last night that had problems in script logic. A character says something in one scene that doesn't jibe with a plot point in the next. This is a complete failure in writing, editing, storytelling. Make sure the logic of your story is sound.

We had a lot of phone conversations in the films last night. One was brilliant – they obviously new their film history, climbed the shoulders of giants, and did a nice homage to Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The others, not so much. As a general rule (someone else's not mine), phone conversations should be avoided in movies. They don't make for great pictures, so write around them. With cell phones, this gets harder and harder – how many times can the battery go dead or the coverage be lost? But still, if you can write around a phone call, do it. If you can't, then understand that you're breaking a filmmaking 101 rule, and make it interesting.

Finally, a word about the one joke movie that goes too long. I touched on this in the play-by-play article, but it's worth another mention. If your movie is basically one joke, that's fine. Get in, get out. You do that, and I guarantee you that you'll enjoy a long festival run. If you go one frame past what is obviously the natural end of the joke, then you'll be one of a million entries with the judge's note, "one joke that goes too long – PASS."

That's it for this week. Have a good weekend, and thanks for reading.


Anonymous said...

I love your 180 degree rule. Thanks for sharing your wisdom as a filmmaker and as a festival director.

RSMellette said...

Hey, no problem. Thanks for the thanks. :)