Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Tone

I feel like Henry Hill in the final act of Goodfellas today. Get up at 5.30am and drive my sister to Heathrow. Come back, make breakfast for my Australian friend who's staying with me for the week. Read four scripts before lunch. Update blog. Make lunch. Go to post office and send short film to Sundance. Try to read four more scripts before tea; cook tea etc.

Naturally, the main difference between me and Ray Liotta is the copious amounts of cocaine his character was snorting and the paranoid helicopter trailing him all the way. That and the Mafia connections obviously. But it has put me in the mood for pasta which is what I'll cook for tea, probably.

So far the scripts this morning have been okay, nothing great. The thing I like when I settle down into a script is that I have no idea whatsoever what it is or what it's going to be like. The title may give some indication of genre but until I get into the swing of things, it really could be anything. And it's up to the writer of course to ease the reader into their carefully crafted world and introduce the characters & story. This is where TONE is all-important. After FADE-IN, I'm eager and ready to be told a good story. The first page (& first ten pages) should ideally set the tone, pace and structure in order to appease the reader's anticipation and expectation of the story.

I like the tone to kick in pretty quickly so I know what I'm dealing with (tone is a good friend of 'genre', a much maligned term in the UK film industry). I dislike reading 20 or more pages and still being unsure just what the hell is going on or what the film is about. In one of the scripts this morning, it started off quite grim and dark but at about page 25, all manner of quirky things started to happen and the film's true tone was established: "ah, it's a comedy." But I had to reshift my own mood and expectation to accommodate the writer's choice of expression. It turned out okay in the end but the first act set-up was quite misleading and potentially damaging to its ultimate recommendation.

Tone can be generated in a number of areas, the most obvious being the narrative description. However, some scripts read very basic and without any tonal inflection. These scripts (usually by very talented writers indeed) rely on the dialogue and the sparse action to speak for themselves so that the reader is never prompted or told directly what they're supposed to feel or think. When this happens (which is a rare delight) the reader is perfectly in tune with the writer's world and will not even moan if the script is well over 120 pages.

Scripts like these have a lot of 'white space' on the page, i.e. the page isn't crammed with chunky paragraphs and long speeches, and are much sought after in the reader's pile or the exec's inbox. They're easy to read and they usually indicate that the writer is at the peak of his craft. I read a script recently by Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) and it just zipped by without any real effort at all. The tone, pace and structure came from the characters and the story. It looked easy on the page but it's far more difficult to achieve when you sit staring at the blank screen on your computer waiting for inspiration to descend. Or at least, that's what I find when I try to dig out my own work. But I love it. And I wouldn't dream of doing anything else...

3 comments:

james henry said...

Interesting that 'genre' is such a dirty word in the UK industry. Is it seen as too comercial?

Danny Stack said...

Not so much a 'dirty' word but a bit misunderstood and dismissed at times, surprisingly by a lot of writers & directors. Producers & production companies generally pursue a project that they think will make money so there's definitely commercial considerations made, just don't tell the auteurs who want to film their fridge for 90 mins.

Anonymous said...

Read Paul Thomas Anderson. HIs script for Punch Drunk Love a fine example of this. (Even though its full of spelling mistakes.)