Explaining The Horrifyingly Unexplainable

6 05 2008

One of my classes is editing a feature film that is simultaneously being finished by its actual director, producers and editor out in the Real World right now. It’s a really adorable indie film about dating and turning thirty, and before you run for the hills, let me also say that it has (at its core) a really neat, somewhat science fictional, concept that I’d tell you all about if I weren’t sworn to secrecy by the filmmakers.

The problem, though, is that you’ve got to explain the rules of this concept so the audience can go along for the ride.

The class struggled with how to do that — without slowing the movie down and without drowning the audience in details all at once, so the film’s comedy could come through. It was a tough balancing act and one which the actual filmmakers ultimately solved much better than the class did.

Still, the interesting point about all of this is “how do you explain the horrifyingly unexplainable?” Or, to be more precise, the “horrifyingly difficult to explain.” The rule of thumb in feature-length films is that you have about ten minutes to do whatever you want with the audience before they start demanding to know just what kind of movie they’re watching. If you spend too much of that time explaining, that’s what they feel the movie is going to be like the whole way through. And that, in general, is poison.

I’ve spent many weeks in editing rooms trying to get to the script’s inciting incident more quickly, collapsing the first 30 minutes down to 15 or 10 minutes. For some reason, scripts always are written without thinking about that (or, if the writers do think about it — and I’m actually sure they do, I’m just being catty here) and then we get to speed everything up in editing. Sometimes well, and sometimes not so wel..

These thoughts come to mind on reading John August’s blog post yesterday called “A somewhat derivative challenge.” August is a screenwriter and director (of THE NINES) who has been publishing this dynamite blog for a few years, in which he gives a great tour of what it means to be a working filmmaker in Hollywood. Along the way he has published tutorials on screenwriting which are, often, much better than anything McKee or Truby have put in their books (his post on How To Introduce A Character is, in my mind, brilliant).

Yesterday he gave his readers a writing challenge, and it’s a doozy:

Have a character explain derivatives, as used in the financial industry. (The thing that’s like a stock, not the thing that you learned in calculus.)

The speaker should be knowledgeable, and the listener should be a layman, i.e. a proxy for the audience. What are their names? What’s the story? What’s the genre? You decide, to the degree it matters. My suggestion would be to create a scenario in which the term needs to be explained — but only to the degree necessary. Metaphors and similes are powerful tools.

You’re welcome to write as much of the scene as you want, but the focus is on the explanation. The winning entry might be one sentence long.

How many times have you had to sit through a scene in a film where there is a long, boring explanation from a scientist to a reporter about some scientific concept which will become important later in the film. Or watched as the coal miner explained to someone (anyone!) how coal was removed from the earth and how there were plenty of safety measures to make sure that no one got hurt doing it (because you knew that someone was going to get caught in a mine collapse later in the film)?

In short, how do you explain the difficult to explain? And, parenthetically, still make it interesting to watch?

The dealine for his competition is this Thursday, May 8th. So I’ll be interested to see how people solve the problem.

And then I’ll shut up about having to do all of this heavy lifting in the editing room.



One response

7 05 2008

Great post Norman. Please post again about this film when it is out on DVD as I would love to see it. Sounds interesting!

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