Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On smoking

A year or so ago, I was fortunate to do a week long workshop on my script 'Galore' with a screenwriting idol of mine: Mogens Rukov, the scandalous old Danish bastard who wrote the extraordinary 'Festen' , 'Reconstruction' and 'Arven'. Despite being outrageously brilliant and a fervent chain smoker, he is also skilled at making people cry by telling them on what page he threw their script on the floor in boredom and frustration. He was, in that week, full of wisdom and cynicism and a tobacco stained romanticism that was impossible to resist.

I thought of him recently as I was watching some thin TV-pop piece on why smoking should be banned outright in film, because so much of what he says is expressed in an analogy using either cigarettes or women as their central image. For Rukov, a cigarette is inherently cinematic. It is gestural, it is visual, and it, like the act of watching, is a pause in the 'natural stories' that we are all a part of and which, expressed in cinema, allow us to insert ourselves into the narrative. I cannot imagine the cinema without smoking, he said. Smoking, used as the visible breath of cinema throughout it's life up until the 90s, has all but disappeared from the screens of English speaking cinema. Thankfully, it's alive and well everywhere else. This, from one of my favourite films of recent years - La Leyenda del Tiempo, Isaki Lacuesta's beautiful intertwined narrative inspired by the life of El Camaron de la Isla - is the beginning of a much longer sequence that is one of the great smoking scenes (underage, too, to rub salt into the wounds of the cinematic correctional facilities):

To return to Rukov, below I have nabbed an edited transcript of a talk he gave during the week long workshop which expresses a lot of his ideas in intriguing, whimsical and demystifyingly dismissive ways. His idea of going through your dialogue and ensuring that at least a third of it ends in a question mark sounds almost glib and ridiculous but has become one of my most useful tools in writing. It certainly forces a greater sense of naturalism in dialogue and, for me, usually forces me into surprising ways to resolve verbal encounters through interrogation and revelation. Respect, Mogens.
Script writing shouldn't be heavy work. It used to be a fashion amongst intellectuals to say, "I've been writing a script for one year." At that time it impressed me very much. I must tell you if I hear it today, I would say to people, "Throw it in the dust bin. If you haven't written the script within a year it's because you are just bad. Three months should be enough."

You just have to have a foundation of the story. The story should be impossible to overlook. It shouldn't be complicated in any way. Everything should be simple. For example, Festen - it's a very poor story in a way, you know. It's about somebody arriving for a celebration and leaving the next morning. You just put them into this house where they're going to stay and celebrate. Why do you give them a room? Because they've got to stay overnight. It's not a piece of genius here. It's just taking it from nature. And what are they doing then? They're getting dressed, someone is fucking, they are gathering, saying hello and thank you, and then they're going to eat something. And then, during this fantastic movie that had such an impact in the world, they're talking about the soup! Because that is what people do. That is what I call the natural story. That is one of the elements you need when you make a simple outline for your story, to know which kind of natural stories you want to incorporate.

Natural stories
To make clear what a natural story is, for example I saw many people making a natural story over there - they went into the toilet. When you realise people are going into the toilet, you almost realise what they are doing in there. How do you know that? Because your brain is full of natural stories. In cinema, we activate people's knowledge about natural stories. For example, you and I are in the same toilet block and I go to the toilet. Do I lock the door, or do I leave it open? Maybe I leave it open a little bit, it will tell something about our relationship. Say you and I have met each other within the last three or four weeks, therefore I want to continue talking. If it was my wife out there, no, I've done enough talking to her. But to you, I'd like to continue. But I would not offend you by leaving the door completely open, so I'll leave it open a little bit, and I'll shout to you. Then I'll sit down and take something to read; maybe I will take a manual of script writing and everyone in the audience will say, "oh what a bore", or I will take a porn mag or I will take the Bible. Look how well I can describe myself by choosing one of these things. Originality is one of the worst things you can do, being original is so boring! Be simple. Take a little cliche and make a little twist. For example, take the Bible, open it and in it there is a porn magazine. That's a little bit funny isn't it?

I realise that many people write scenes because they think that something new or interesting should happen. [But] I want to have some order in my world. I want to have something I can identify with. The story is everything. I think we succeeded a bit in Danish film, and it started when we said story is everything. Not intention, I don't give a shit about intention. Intention is trying to force a story into a line, but the story refuses to be forced.

I don't believe in premises either. If people say, "Can you make a story about love conquering everything?" I can immediately say no. But I can probably make a story about an idiot coming to Sydney from Copenhagen and getting jetlag. I could make that because this is the kind of story that every dramatic story is like. In fact there's only one story we really can tell, and it's a story about a stranger coming to town.

A stranger comes to town
When I heard this from a British producer: The only story in the world is 'a stranger comes to town', I thought, that sounds interesting, but is it true? When I re-thought the whole dramatic production of the Western world, I realised it wasn't so stupid - a stranger coming to town. If I think about Hamlet, he's coming from Wittenberg and he wants to go back to Wittenberg, and he doesn't know what has happened at the castle in years. Medea, she's from another town. And even if you have a character who is in his or her town, it can be useful to treat this character as a stranger in their town. Reading your scripts, I realised that you have done like I have done; we have a father, mother, two sisters, and they know each other, so why should they talk together? There's nothing to say to each other! It's much more interesting to have a son coming home from abroad after two years of absence, and he can say, "Did you love my real father, or do you love my uncle?" We make this mistake where people are familiar with each other.

A director came to me with 30 pages of treatment. Do you ever write treatments? They are the most boring thing to write and to read. I think that you take a lot of fantasy out of your film writing a treatment. I am sure that the treatment is mostly intended for producers and institutions. I never write treatments. I refuse, because when you have written the treatment, you have written the scene, but you haven't written the scene. I find the step outline much more useful.

So he came to me with 30 pages of treatment, and I said to him, "This is the most boring story I have read in ten years." And he answered, "Yes I agree, it is really boring." But there is one character who is really interesting; it is a woman who is too much. She's a little bit nuts, she's interesting, so let's make eight to 11 sequences about a women who is too much. And we sat down and said, what could the main headlines of these sequences be? And what I said about scenes I will now say about sequences. You've got to make some order in this world, in your film. It's not an hour-and-a-half story that's developing; no, there's bits and pieces of the world and you put them together. All films are made in this way, bits and pieces put together. For example, a Hitchcock film - most of his films have sequences of 11-12 minutes. It's easier to think in this way instead of a two-hour movie because you just have to write an 11-minute movie, let's say eight 11-minute movies, and you can begin to think that a movie has waves. So instead of thinking of a whole movie, you can say we have this and this mood and we can introduce this and this characters, each in a wave. I remember when I was sitting with Visconti's screenwriter - I met her when she was 82, and she was fresh and fantastic - she said every Visconti movie is built in seven sequences. I think it's a very nice thing for you to think that a sequence is a unity, a scene is a unity and a film is composed by these kind of sequences.

If people know each other, if they're not strangers, essentially they don't have a lot to talk about. We know it from our long marriages - after 24 years we didn't have to speak together because she knew everything I knew and I knew everything she knew. So let people talk about something they don't know. You're not going to decide what they're going to talk about because they're talking from their situation and location. I read boring scripts where I can feel that scriptwriters want them to talk about particular things. I don't care what the scriptwriters want, I care about seeing a film where the characters up there want to talk about this. They should want to know something, because dialogue is not conversation, that's a great misunderstanding. Dialogue is interview. I interview you about what you feel, what you have experienced, and in a good scene you see one character is the interviewer and one the interviewee. So if you see a piece of script and there're no question marks at the end of the dialogue, it's a bad script. It should be at least one-third question marks.

When you have long dialogue you must change aspect on the topic. For example, we're talking about fishing, or love, but we change the angle or aspect. I talk about my love for you or her love for him, but after three or four sentences you talk about another kind of love, my love for my dog, or dogs' love for each other. And after three or four sentences you again change the aspect. You do it because the whole film is about giving an impression of the whole world. You know that expression, 'you've got to laugh and cry in the same world'? Why? Because living is partly laughing and partly crying, and when you see a film you want to see the whole of life, the whole world. You don't want to see something that is invented by art people; you want to meet your life.

How do you make a character unique? I don't know and I don't care. There is no characterisation, I believe, just the actions of the character in the story. Everything is this person reacting, and what you are going to do is to challenge the character with the story. You are not being God of the story. You are challenging yourself with the story - what if this and this happens? How are these two characters, a man and a woman, entering a cafe? That is what films are about, it's these simple things, it's the world that is expressing itself.

You know, you and I are sitting in a cafe, but one of the first things that will happen will be that I'll call the waiter and say, "Please, could we have a bottle of red wine?" And depending if we know each other or if I want to seduce you, I would say a cheap one or an expensive one. I don't need to sit down and say, "You are looking beautiful." No, I can say, "Give her the best wine you have. Are you sure this is the best? I want a better one!" And how would I dramatise that you are not interested in me? If I ask you if would like a red wine, and you say, "No, I think I'll have a cup of green tea." If you invite out a woman out and she says she wants a cup of green tea, then you know you're going to have a long walk home.

Original text can be found here.

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