Op-Ed: On Storytelling in Independent Film

Richard Brody’s article in The New YorkerThe Problem with Processed Storytelling elucidates a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately. The entire article is worth reading, but here are some takeaways:

  • The storytelling doctrines put forth by Hollywood and their perseverance in independent film.
  • Story should be the equivalent of “a musical melody or an architectural framework: a basis, not a goal.” The story is a starting point for the director’s concepts and concerns.
  • Writer-directors are notorious for this kind of processed storytelling. In a system where the writer and director are separate, the director can inject his ideas into the script. When the writer and director are the same, more time is spent on recreating what’s been so perfectly constructed.
  • Part of the reason for this is that revising the script is free. A filmmaker can fine tune a script for as long as he wants. There is also an immense amount of pressure put on the script as that is the face of the film before the film, “the object on which potential financiers are being asked to bet on.”

This got me thinking about the state of story in independent film. The kind of processed storytelling described in the article makes sense for the big boys. The culture industry exists to provide a release from the audience’s everyday lives (and turn a profit doing so). Audiences want to watch a film and see themselves as the hero and develop empathy for the main character’s plight. There is a science to constructing stories like these as laid out by Pixar, Syd Field, Robert McKee, and an assortment of screenwriting “gurus” (read: hacks).

Charlie Kaufman meets with a screenwriting guru in Adaptation

Aren’t independent filmmakers trying to do something different, to challenge the voice of the mainstream media? If so, then why rely on the tactics and formulas laid out by the mainstream films that independents stand in opposition to (unless being an independent to you is just a stepping stone to studio work, then by all means stick with your formulas and stop calling yourself an independent filmmaker)? The sad thing is that there was a time when American film was wildly original, artistic, and had mainstream appeal. Look at what was accomplished in the 60s and 70s–Bonnie & Clyde, The Conversation, The French Connection, Klute, Chinatown, Nashville, Taxi Driver, etc. Then Jaws, Star Wars, and Syd Field came along and ruined everything. Three-act structure down to specific page numbers, emphasis on plot and moving the story forward, relatable characters with strong, clear objectives–this was the gospel being preached and what is still followed to this day. The thing is, if this formula makes sense for the film you’re making then use it, but don’t believe that every story needs to fit into this model. My biggest complaint about this mode of screenwriting is that the protagonist needs to be relatable, that the audience should be able to see themselves on the screen. How self-centered are we that we need to see ourselves in everything? What about looking outside of our points of view to be challenged and experience something new? Is the only way to achieve empathy through identification? I’d like to hope not.

In lots of interviews I always hear the same thing, “it’s all about the script” or “the story is king”.  In that case, why bother making a film? Just publish the script. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not trying to denigrate the work of writers. I love writers! Reading the scripts to Hiroshima Mon Amour, Taxi Driver, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have been wonderful reads and eye-opening experiences. The best scripts showcase their expressive potential, giving fuel to a director to take what’s on the page and turn it into something more. However, a film isn’t just a filmed script. A story is important, but it need not be the driving force. The ideas and concepts one infuses into the script are what makes it a film. Some of the best films have the simplest stories, but explores those stories in a rich way. One doesn’t need twists and turns and goals to make a compelling film. My favorite directors tend to work in this way: Wong Kar-Wai, Kiarostami, Linklater, Cassavetes.

Brody calls into question the problem of the writer-director and how he/she seeks to recreate the tightly-knit story from page to screen. The dilemma of the independent writer-director is a tricky one. First of all, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing the screenplay. The writing stage acts as a safety net in many ways. You can keep revising and perfecting for years until it’s just right. But of course, it’ll never be just right and this reach for perfection will prevent you from moving forward with the film (which is understandable, making a film is scary). Once you’re happy with the script, there is an immense pressure on it since it is your path to finding producers, talent, crew, funding, grantors, etc. So yeah, the script is important to an independent filmmaker trying to get his/her project off the ground. It’s just not the be-all end-all. It’s important to think of it as a starting point for what the project is going to become.

What is the best approach for writing something you’re planning on directing? One method is to approach both as two separate tasks. Focus on your story world, think about how characters develop, and write the tightest script you can. And then, when you put on your director hat once the script is complete, deconstruct the whole thing. Forget the fact that you wrote it. And, since the script is as perfect as can be, you can work like jazz and stray from the script knowing that you can always return to it. Maybe the trick is to come up with the story but then pass it off to someone else to write the screenplay. Your authorial voice is still strong but it also opens it up to interpretations of someone else’s ideas, which could lead to surprising places. This seems like the best way to be a proper writer-director, as opposed to a writer that also directs.

Shaun Seneviratne


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