Tuesday, September 20, 2005

My Theory of More - A Discussion for the D2DVD Film School

I rewritten five pages of THE SKULL this morning so I'm doing rather well considering I got a late start of it, and I've been skooting around the web for awhile, dropping a few grenades here and there. As I've been rewriting the script, an informal rule seem to be applying itself to the process. Everyone who reads this blog knows of my desire for simplicity in writing, design, characterization, etc... it all falls under the umbrella of "pulp."

But as I've been editing this morning, It's becoming apparent (to me) that it's not about less...
It's about more and how those two things go hand in hand when it comes to low budget filmmaking.

With many of these low budget films you have a (very) limited amount of time and resources (money, crew, cast, locations) to produce the movie. You have less and are expected to produce more. Production value is the term.

But that's wrong isn't it?

The problem with this line of thinking is that More doesn't always equal Better. If you try to pile on MORE but have too few resources to do the job properly, then it's like slapping a glossy coat of paint on a house infested with termites. The holes show through and are even amplified by the paint.

More will equal worse -- Martin Amis
The process then, from script through post, is not to get MORE, but to strengthen what you already have going for you - your core concept. In essence, you not only want the audience to feel satisfied by what they've been given, but to also bring something of themselves into the process. You give them LESS so they access it and are able to bring the MORE. It's very much like impressionism.
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Director Val Lewton is known for his film, CAT PEOPLE where there is not a killing that occurs onscreen. It's all done with mood and shadow, because if he were to actually show the creature then people wouldn't be half as frightened.
*** To learn more about Lewton, read about the new DVD collection here:
Film Noir lighting came about as a quick means to light sets, and to hide their deficiencies. Shadow became as important as light. Simple sets became places where evil men hide. Anything could happen in the dark, which ratchets up the tension level considerably.
Japanese manga is known for simple "moving" artwork (simple design indicating motion, limited backgrounds) featuring characters that deal with complex, adult issues.
Remember when you were a kid and your church or neighborhood had a potluck dinner? One or two families would set up the tables and get things organized, and everyone else brought their family's specialty dishes to the dinner - roast this, barbeque that, deep fried whatnot (I'm from the South. There's always a lot of deep-fried whatnot) . It allowed for a much richer, tastier experience then if you had laid out only what your family cooks. In fact, you couldn't have fed all those people yourself as it would have been too expensive.
In each of these examples, the audience fills in the blanks and brings their experience to the work, making it interactive. They bring the MORE to the equation.
Our job then, as D2DVD screenwriters is to make the characters and story accessible, show a little not a lot and allow the audience to bring the MORE. We can't afford to do it any other way.
A really good example of this is ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, John Carpenter's remake of RIO BRAVO set in an LA precinct overrun by gangs. That's a great concept isn't it?
A precinct overrun by gangs...
Except there were never that many gang members onscreen! You never saw more than four or five at a time, and yet you felt the characters inside the precinct were completely surrounded at all times. The audience brought the MORE. Carpenter crafted the movie so the audience would buy into the story and think there were dozens of bloodthirsty gang members out there.
In PSYCHO, everyone thinks they see Janet Leigh being stabbed while in the shower. If you look at it closely however, you see that at no time did a knife touch flesh. The audience fills in the blanks.
Something similar happened after SCARECROW. A kid emailed me saying he really liked the scene where the Scarecrow pulled the Sheriff's entrails out and danced around with them at the pool. I didn't have the heart to tell the kid that scene isn't in the movie. How do you break it to a kid there's no entrail dance when clearly he thinks there was one? (There was a sickle to the chest if I remember correctly)
The answer is you don't, because it may not have been in the movie we made, but it was in his movie. The movie he saw in his imagination. The movie that had plenty of MORE with it.
So by design, you can get the same effect in the audience's mind as if you had pulled out the Mac computer and went with full-on CGI. The problem with CGI is that it takes time, and the longer you dwell on it, the more artificial it becomes (not to mention it's expensive!).
Remember: Nothing beats an audience's imagination.
So that's the beginning of my Theory of More. Show (better yet, imply) just enough so that the audience brings their imagination to the table you've set, and then have a good potluck dinner.
After that, leave them wanting more. (which is a whole other post)
The smoking lamp is lit. Let's discuss it.


The Awful Writer said...

Cool idea about the audience bringing the More. Seems like a lot of movies these days go in exactly the opposite direction; show every gory detail. What are some other good examples of the Theory of More?

Bill Cunningham said...

I think HALLOWEEN also qualifies though there may be some debate on that. It isn't as gory as its contemporaries of the period, yet it still delivers.

I think EL MARIACHI also qualifies. Many of the scenes are simply staged and given greater impact through editing, making it seem like a bigger picture (though it isn't).

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD uses inserts on the tv to show that the world is experiencing the same horror as the people trapped in the house. But, the focus is always on the characters trapped in the house, which makes it more personal and thus more horrific.

CinemaChimp said...

There's a danger to the "Theory of More," and that is "Shakespeare Battles." Because they didn't have the resources to stage a full-on battle, Old Will would write the scene where the messenger would come riding in and essentially say "Wow, what an incredible battle I just came from! You shoulda seen it! Let me tell you how it was..."

And so they end up TELLING the battle instead of SHOWING it.

Bill Cunningham said...

Good observation, and yes, you would have to be careful not to cheat the audience. However, instead of showing the battle, how about showing the AFTERMATH of the battle with sound effects over the scene? Instead of staging a huge battle (for a low budget picture) with many scenes and cutaways, you stage it as one scene described as above? Same effect, lower cost.

There is a fine line to be aware of in this. This is a good discussion and needs to be done to shake out any flaws in my theory.

writergurl said...

Aw, guys, com'on! All girls know this... it's called a "tease". Let them think they're getting more than they actually are. (Especially on the first few dates...)

Of course when we're yakking about it as a teenager, we're not thinking of movies. Usually. ;)

Scott the Reader said...

I think the Blair Witch Project definitely qualifies. It's amazing how little was actually shown in that film, but it was still very effective for what it was.

And of course the famous Jaws story, where the malfunctioning shark led to less shark, which turned out to work a lot better than more shark would have.

Bill Cunningham said...

So it should be called the "Theory of Tease?"

So, writergurl, school us in the art of the tease, and I ain't talkin' movies either...


CD said...

Funny story.

I was watching a featurette on that film Better Luck Tomorrow (bored honor school Asian kids get involved in crime).

The script called for a gigantic party scene at a house.

And I guess the scene involved the kids walking in the house and then into backyard in one long shot (Goodfellas-style). So in order to make the party look big, the director had the entire crowd stand out front as the kids arrived and then when the kids went into the house, the entire crowd from the front of the house ran around to the backyard -- so when the kids walked into the backyard it did appear they were attending a giant party.

Good stuff.

writergurl said...

Bill, I don't need to school you on the tease. Every girl who's made you drool has already done it.

That little half smile as she walks out of sight.

The way her skirt casually brushes against her thighs.

The wink that is so quick you're not sure if it was really there or not.

That ever so subtle brush against you as she passes you.

The faint scent of her perfume.

The eye contact that bashfully breaks but somehow always winds up back with you.

Oh, I could go on and on.

Now, there are some who are absolute MASTERS at this... and some who will never get it down no matter HOW hard they try.

You just have to figure out how to master this skill in movies.

JD said...

Halloween is such a good example...the killings are fairly tame, and yet the total atmosphere of the film..namely the score,the camera work, and the lighting, makes it feel a whole lot more tense than it would be with more violence on screen.

Curt said...

I have a different take on this issue, Bill. I'll apologize in advance if it comes off sounding arrogant or confrontational, because that's not my intention. This is just my personal artistic philosophy as I write my horror novel.

The other caveat I'll mention is that my medium, writing, is quite different from movies, in that a certain amount of imagination is demanded of the audience by the very nature of the medium. They can't just look at a screen; they have to provide their own imagery, based on what I've written. Also, writing involves no budgetary considerations whatsoever, in the same sense that movies do.

Still, in prose as in film, you have a lot of people taking this "less is more" line, and arguing that implication is superior to writing out the details.

Well, I think my imagination is in a completely different league from most readers, and I don't think they could bring the "more" that I deliver. Sometimes potluck is fine, but a top-tier caterer is something else entirely, and that's how I see myself.

I do recognize that there are artistic limits to telling all, but as a matter of principle I try to go right up to those limits before I back off. For example, describing a fight scene blow-by-blow quickly reaches a point of drastically diminishing returns. So it is necessary to employ summary and let readers' imaginations take it from there. But I also provide every fight scene with two or three "signature" moments (equivalent in intensity to a Mortal Kombat fatality move) so that what readers fill in is far less conventionalized than it might otherwise have been.

Similarly, just because description of a monster quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns, doesn't mean I leave the monsters skulking in the shadows. They're front-and-center from start-to-finish. My strategy for keeping them scary is to exceed readers' most horrible imaginings.

Anyway, that's just my perspective on this issue. ;-)

Bill Cunningham said...

No problem here, Curt. I asked for discussion and I'm getting it.

I do think we have differing constraints on our respective media as:

1. Movies are about "show" not tell.

2. Books are about "showing by telling."

My theory of "More" was hatched when I came into the whole story v. budget conflict."How can I afford to tell this story and make it entertaining for the audience?"

(which is, of course, the sword of Damocles which hangs over every low budget filmmaker's head)

What I'm hoping is this theory will stimulate thought on thinking outside the box. That there is more than one way to skin a cat (actual 37 ways)or to really make a movie work for both the budget and the story.

JD said...

Similarly, just because description of a monster quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns, doesn't mean I leave the monsters skulking in the shadows. They're front-and-center from start-to-finish. My strategy for keeping them scary is to exceed readers' most horrible imaginings.

I can't do it on a budget of $10,000 and make it look incredible, so better to allude to the horror, make the viewer feel it, because at the end of the day, the effects I can muster won't do that at all. It'll drag them right out of the film. I think that's all Bill is saying.

In a book, go crazy man! That is what the imagination is for, and I think everyone agrees with you on that. You're speaking on different points is all.

Anonymous said...

I think the best example is Reservoir Dogs. We never see the ear cutting scene, we see a wall and we 'hear' the torture yet most people think they saw it because they saw the aftermath and their minds filled in the blanks.