PolarisDiB (polarisdib) wrote,

A few more notes on writing

This last weekend we shot the short film I wrote called "In the Bowels of the Building", which is to be the first of an anthology of five horror shorts based in a single residential highrise. As the project has developed it may become more than just five, it could go towards a series, but for the meantime we have the five scripts and now one of the shorts in order to go out and try to finance the rest.

This is the first short film I've legit written and produced for about six years, if you don't count the Robinson Met Krasna shorts and some quick "fuck it, let's shoot something because we're bored" things I've done in the interim. With such a length in between, during which I moved to New York and developed a career, my relationship to writing has changed a lot and this was an ideal learning experience.

One important aspect is that I didn't direct or produce the short. I was an executive producer and worked very closely with the director in the process, including having a word in with the casting and so forth, but this was an opportunity to observe how my words translated to screen in a way I've never really done before. A couple of lessons came out of that process.

Firstly, watching the casting audition tapes, I noticed almost all of the actors stumbled over a certain line I wrote that went something like this:

"Did you see anyone using the service elevator? Anyone going down stairs?"

It reads simply but speak it aloud. What's the point of having the two sentences? What happens in between them? Nothing important, really. So the second question ended up being superfluous and tripped actors up. This is the realest example I've seen of the often suggested approach of reading the script aloud after writing to see how it translates to speech.

Another thing that happened was that the director ended up taking several things I wrote much more literally than I expected. I wrote things like, "Something like teeth floating on the surface" and "piled up like chicken bones on trash" that was really meant to refer to a sense that the character was projecting pareidolia on an unknown substance, but the director was very insistent that those moments had literal teeth and chicken bone props to interact with. And it makes sense that he would, because those items are called for on the script, which means that when writing for a visual medium you have to be aware that metaphors or analogies may be read literally and only describe the things that people will actually see on the screen.

Both the director and I had a conversation about that a few weeks ago, in fact, as he was rewriting the script into a shooting script. He pointed out that both of us have a tendency to poetic and figurative language and we really needed to focus on writing something that could be shootable so that the other collaborators (make up, art design, cinematography, etc) will have something to work off of. So lesson learned, practice will be needed.

So the production finished on Sunday night at around 11pm, and I went home and immediately passed out, and yesterday found myself barely able to move. So I rewatched The Godfather for the first time in what might be a decade. It's part of a reappraisal of film 'as an adult', as so many of the classics I've seen I watched in my late teens and early twenties, when filmmaking was a mysterious artform and I hadn't experienced a lot of things that help some things seem more real or relatable.

I had seen The Godfather a couple-three times before but I always had trouble recalling in my mind how one thing led to the next, what the actual progression of plot was. So this time I focused specifically on the writing and I was kinda surprised to find out that a lot of what happens in the first act really doesn't serve much of a purpose throughout the rest of the film, other than establishing the sort of world and rules and the characters. The first act, in fact, ends with the famous horse-head scene, which itself really has fuck-all to do with the gang war that forces Michael into the family affairs, i.e. the point of the story. And that famous opening monologue is just a mortician that shows up later to be asked by Vito Corleone to clean up Sonny after Sonny is ambushed at the toll booth.

What that monologue serves to do is to express that this is a movie about the power structures of America. It literally begins with, "I believe in America" and compliments Michael's conversation with Kay later:

Michael: "My father really isn't different than other men who are responsible for leading other men, like a Senator or a President."
Kay: "Oh Michael, don't be so naive. Senators and Presidents don't kill people."
Micheal: "Who's being naive, Kay?"

But compare the opening sequence (b-story character introducing larger theme of movie and then relatively disappearing from the narrative) to the Coen brothers' homage to it in Miller's Crossing. In The Godfather, the mortician says, "I believe in America" and then builds out to a request for Vito Corleone to kill two men who beat up his daughter. Later on, Sollozzo asks for Don Corleone's aide in security for his drug trade, which Corleone rebukes, leading to Sollozzo setting out the hit on Corleone that wrecks havoc and starts a mob war. In Miller's Crossing, Johnny Casper begins with equally abstract notion, "I believe in justice" and then requests Leo's aide in hitting an enemy of Polito's. When Leo refuses, Polito's character sets out on a vendetta campaign that wreak's havoc and starts a mob war.

Miller's Crossing's writing, then, has far more economy of narration than The Godfather. The first shot of Miller's Crossing achieves what two different scenes from two different acts served in The Godfather.

This is not a statement that Miller's Crossing is a better movie than The Godfather. I don't want to say that either are better than the other, partially because The Godfather is an example of novelistic cinema and high drama and Miller's Crossing is firmly a loveletter to mob and noir cinema. They live in different universes and are different genres of movie altogether, despite the clear references in Miller's Crossing to elements of The Godfather. But it's very interesting to look at the two openings from a writing perspective and find very different achievements. The Godfather's monologue is all about building the world that the mob war lives in; Miller's Crossing is all about building the character that starts the war.

The Godfather is actually surprisingly lacking in character arcs in general. For all that's written about Michael's reluctance to be a part of the family's business, he jumps in pretty firmly relatively early on (at the end of the second act) and then becomes very good at that job very quickly -- it turns out that Vito Corleone's attempt to raise him as something better than a gangster makes him a far more effective gangster. It's great dramatic irony but it's not much of a character arc. Most characters remain at the end of the movie the same they were at the beginning, it's just that the choices they made got them to where they are in the power structure of the movie -- or got them killed.

Miller's Crossing, on the other hand, is a character driven movie, where Tom Reagan learns he can't just be the right-hand man and stick with his relationship with Verna, he has to take more responsibility for himself and get out of his toxic relationships.

Anyway, today I'm going to watch The Godfather Part II and see what that's like, all over again.

Tags: coen brothers, film, filmmaking, godfather, millers crossing, review, script, short film, the godfather, writing
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