On Storytelling in Independent Film

Posted by on Mar 15, 2013 in Blog | No Comments

Richard Brody’s New Yorker article “The Problem with Processed Storytelling” elucidates a number of issues I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, such as:

  • The storytelling doctrines put forth by Hollywood and their perseverance in independent film–what Brody refers to as “processed storytelling”.  
  • The tendency of writer-directors to resort to 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, however, more time is spent on simply recreating what has already been “perfectly” constructed in the script.  
  • The tendency of the writer-director to seek perfection in the script comes partly from the fact that revising the script is free. A filmmaker can fine tune a script for as long as he or she wants. There is also an immense amount of pressure put on the script since it serves as the “face” of the film before the film, “the object on which potential financiers are being asked to bet on.”
  • The idea that 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.

This got me thinking about the state of story in independent film. If we subscribe to the widely-held belief that popular entertainment exists primarily to provide the audience with an escape from their everyday lives (and turn a profit doing so), then the processed storytelling described in Brody’s article makes sense for the big boys. There is a science, rather than an art, to constructing stories like those created by Pixar, Syd Field, Robert McKee, and an assortment of screenwriting “gurus”.

Charlie Kaufman meets with a screenwriting guru in Adaptation

But 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 (except for those filmmakers for whom indie work is just a stepping stone to studio work, to whom the label “independent” does not really apply)? Perhaps the most troubling thing about the current state of storytelling is that there was a time when American film was at once wildly original and artistic and able to attract mainstream audiences. 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 Hollywood execs latched onto the idea of a movie “formula” that would allow them to print money without relying on the creative output of one writer or director.  Three-act structure (down to specific page numbers), emphasis on plot and moving the story forward, and relatable characters with strong, clear objectives became the gospel, and it is still followed to this day.

This storytelling formula may make sense for certain films. But filmmakers and screenwriters should not believe that every story needs to fit into this model. My biggest complaint about this mode of screenwriting is that the protagonist must always be relatable so that the audience can “see themselves on the screen”. Are we so self-centered 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.

I always hear the same thing in interviews: “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 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 turn it into a film. Some of the best films have the simplest stories, but explore those stories in a rich way–we don’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 also calls into question the problem of the writer-director and how he/she seeks to recreate a 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–the writer can keep revising and perfecting for years until it’s just right. But of course it will never be just right and this search for perfection can prevent the filmmaker from moving forward with the film (which is understandable — making a film is scary). Once the script is ready, there is immense pressure on it to attract producers, talent, crew, funding, grantors, etc. So yes, the script is important to an independent filmmaker trying to get his/her project off the ground. It’s just not the be-all and 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.


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