“With the exception of My Dinner with Andre, very few films can sustain interest in one type of location for too long. Mix it up with day and night scenes, interiors and exteriors. Too many scenes in one type of location will hypnotize a reader like the centerlines on a highway.
Common Screenwriting Mistakes
“I’m a little bit country…I’m a little bit rock-n-roll”
Donnie & Marie
On Tuesday morning in Cedar Falls, Iowa I got tired of trying to scrape the ice off my SUV windows and ended up riding my bike to work on the snow packed roads. (My office is only a few blocks away.) Three days later I was riding a bike on the beach in a much warmer and sunnier New Smyrna Beach, Florida. That’s quite a contrast.
And that got me thinking of how contrast is used in screenwriting and in film/video/TV production.
It may only be something you become aware of in the rewriting stage or editing stage but how you handle contrast effects the flow of your story. If you’ve ever seen a production board of a feature film you’ve seen that there are different color strips for interior or exterior locations. Also listed are characters needed for certain scenes.
It helps producers and production managers get an overall feel of what is needed each day to bring a film in on time and on budget. It also helps a producer who is running over budget to know where to cut. And some contrasts begin to emerge in the story.
Some writers find it helpful to lay out their story in a similar way to see if there are any problems that jump out. Laid out in sequence you can see if there are x-amount of pages where your protagonist isn’t on screen ( a common problem).
Are there too many scenes in a row inside the same house? (Granted this works in a movie like Halloween, but is best to mix it up and move it around.) Let me give you another visual contrast from New Smyrna Beach of a sign a took yesterday.
The mostly white sign pops against the deep blue sky. Contrasts are used across the board in production from the script, to the way the script is shot and edited.
By contrast I mean things like:
As basic as this is many writers neglect addressing contrast favoring a more intuitive approach. But if we look over at our fellow creatives in the painting field they understand contrast very well. They are deliberate in their approach to color and composition.
Films are a visual medium and audiences enjoy seeing a contrast on screen. This can be seen in the biggest blockbuster of all time in how James Cameron deals with the world of the upper class wealthy and working class represented by Leonardo Dicaprio in Titanic.
It also contrast the arrogance of those who thought they had built a ship that couldn’t be sunk with the realities of hitting an iceberg. The film deals with a contrast between life & death as the unsinkable ship begins to sink. Another way to look at contrast in this story is wet/dry.
On the Legally Blonde DVD commentary the production designers talk how they designed Reese Witherspoon’s California sorority lifestyle to be a pastel and playful world to contrast the serious world of East Coast Harvard law school..
In both Jaws and Cold Manor Creek there is a contrast between families leaving the mean evil big cities seeking calm small town living –only to have those small town utopias turn into dangerous places. (Just for the record New Smyrna Beach with all its charm is the shark bite capital of the the US if not the world.)
Romeo & Juliet is the contrasts between two families.
In Fatal Attraction & The Godfather the calm demeanor of the Glenn Close and Marlon Brando characters are just one side of who they are.
Hitchcock built suspense in many a scene and movie using contrasts.
You get the picture. And of course the reasons for the contrast goes back to conflict. (If you a haven’t read the post Everything I learned in Film School (tip #1), that covers much of this ground.)
So the equation looks like this: CONTRAST=CONFLICT
Look for it everywhere in your script.
And look for it when you watch film and TV shows. Watch how they handle contrasts.
When you watch A Place in the Sun look see how Elizabeth Taylor is dressed compared to Shelly Winters, both of whom are of interest to Montgomery Clift. Listen to the music and sounds associated with each character. Great writers and directors are intentional in their choices.
Watch how directors and directors of photography and editors use wide shots, medium, and close-ups (and some times ultra wide & extreme close-ups) in making a scene effective.
In the circles I travel in we call this shooting a sequence, other people call it coverage. Where you are shooting the same action in wide, medium, and close up shots. Without that coverage you have no contrast and it can make it difficult for an editor to make a scene work.
If photographers don’t have contrasts in their photos they talk about the photo being flat. While at times you can use that to your advantage, it is best to avoid writing flat characters. And the way you do that is adding contrasts to every scene.
Extra Credit: Since the opening quote mentioned My Dinner with Andre, I’d like to know if anyone has heard the rumor that it was written by Wally Shawn in the Black Hawk Hotel in Cedar Fall, IA–not a half a block from my office. Several people have said that Shawn lived at the Black Hawk Hotel for a time in the 70′s and performed with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. I’d like to read some confirmation of that.
Update: The day before I flew back to Iowa it was 80 degree in Orlando and a windchill of minus 20 in Cedar Falls, that’s a 100 degree difference. Quite a contrast indeed.
Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith˙
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