Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Writing The Short Film - Week Two

In Week Two of "Writing The Short Film" at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, students bring in exercises and read them aloud to the class. Each exercise focuses on a specific memory: a secret place they used to go, their favorite toy, a person who frightened them.

The idea is to look at story elements - environment, props, character - and notice what kind of specific details are vivid and evocative. Much of rewriting involves moving away from dull, generic, cliche choices and finding those that are pertinent, memorable and unique. Short films in particular, where there is little time for exposition, require finding visual and aural details that tell us everything we need to know in an instant.


Next, we discuss the first 32 pages Moonlight, in light of our definition of Story from Week One: a story is about someone who wants something very badly but is having trouble getting it.

Classroom Whiteboard

In this first section of the screenplay, it is Juan's story. Although the larger movie is about the boy, "Little," in three stages of his life, we (the reader/audience) experience the first act from Juan's point of view, as he tries to get the boy to speak, tries to find out where he lives, teaches him to swim, confronts his mother, and finally admits to the boy the truth. In this first section, we feel sympathy for the boy and his troubles, but we feel empathy for Juan as he tries to help him. We are "in Juan's shoes."

What does Juan want? He wants to father (to mentor, to protect, to teach) the sensitive child.

Why does Juan want this so badly? We see the relationship's potential when Juan teaches the boy to swim. We see what the boy faces without Juan in the abusive scenes at home with the boy's mother. This sets up the TENSION (see definition below): we HOPE that Juan can help and protect the boy, but we FEAR that the boy's home life and street life are too dangerous and abusive.

What are the primary obstacles Juan faces as he attempts to get what he wants? Well, Juan is the mother's drug dealer, as so, he himself is (ironically) the source of the boy's primary problem.

Juan's attempts to help the boy reach the highest point of tension in the final scene of the Act when Juan has to answer the boy's direct and unflinching questions. Am I a fagot? Do you sell drugs? Do you sell drugs to my mom?

It is also the moment of greatest empathy for Juan. We (the reader/audience) sit with him at that table, feeling his struggle to say the right thing. We know what Juan knows, and what the boy doesn't know. We feel Juan's struggle and heartbreak.

Screenwriting Term of The Week: TENSION

There are many forms of tension in movies, but tension always creates anticipation and anxiety about what is going to happen next. Tension is what makes you turn the page. Tension keeps the audience in their seats.

Tension is created when the audience can imagine or sense what is might happen next in the story, sequence, or scene, but isn't sure which way it will go. The story elements suggest several possible futures. We (the audience) HOPE for one outcome(s), but we FEAR another.

Classroom Whiteboard

There are many forms of tension. Cinematic tension can be created by music, editing, blocking and camera movement. Mystery tension creates a puzzle, whodunnit, or intellectual problem for the audience to solve. In a feature screenplay, there is overall story tension, sequence tensions, scene tensions and tension within individual beats.

Classroom Whiteboard

In this class, however, we will explore comic tension, romantic tension, suspense/fear tension, and more generally dramatic tension. In all cases, the writer leads the reader/audience to imagine something funny, romantic, or scary is about to happen next.

More importantly, while we can imagine (hope) for a good outcome we can also imagine (fear) a bad outcome, and it is not clear to us which way it's going to go.

In general, tension rises (i.e. the stake rise) when the possible good outcome gets better and/or the possible bad outcome gets worse. Likewise, if we have no sense of the future or if we feel like we know how things will turn out, the tension dissolves. To engage the audience, we must keep the tension high.

For example, in last week's short-of-the-week, The Lunch Date, tension is established right off the bat as we see an elderly, white woman in an environment filled with homeless African American men. We sense (as we are confronted by a homeless man who steps in front of the camera and speaks directly to us) that she may be harassed. As the story later plays out in the cafeteria, we see examples of dramatic, comic and even comically romantic tension, as we wonder what the conflict over the salad will lead to next.

Festival programmers who read screenplays and watch short films tell me that one of the biggest problems of most submissions is that they lack Tension!

Short Film of The Week

Ahhh, so hard to decide which to short film to recommend. If you are a USC film student in the mood for comic tension, watch George Lucas In Love.  It's set in at USC's School of Cinematic Arts and it stars my former TA (from back when I was a student in the 90s.)

If you are in the mood for intense dramatic tension along with edge-of-your-seat modulation of hope and fear, watch the short film Wasp

Since my students will start out making very short films with no dialogue, I thought I'd show this clever two-minute piece. Notice how it uses point-of-view, selective details, and the withholding of key-information to create fear/suspense tension, with a twist. 

For a variety of current short films try this collection of Award Winners.

For previous and subsequent classes, check out:

Writing The Short Film - Week One
Writing The Short Film - Week Three
Writing The Short Film - Week Four (and Five)

Next week I'll be lecturing about Plant and Payoff, Preparation and Aftermath. Please respond in the comments if you have questions or suggestions!


Rae Yucong Chen said...
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Rae Yucong Chen said...

Really love "December"!!! It's so clever and I believe that editing also contributes to its tension making. We could learn a lot from it in our project. And the cinematography of "Wasp" made me recall Dardenne brothers' "Rosetta". Love this style!!
And... I want to recommend a great Korean short film which also built tension successfully: "Night Fishing" by Park Chan-wook. This film is amazing.

Sean Hood said...

Yes, here is the link to "Night Fishing."

It was shot entirely on an iPhone.