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Does anybody really know what time it is?
                                                             Robert Lamm/Chicago

Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By
                                                             Humphrey Bogart
                                                             Casablanca 


Did you know that Three Days of the Condor was based on Six Days of the Condor?

That is the movie Three Days of the Condor was based on the novel Six Days of the Condor.

Why do you think the screenwriters Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel compressed the novel by James Grady? I haven’t read any comments by the writers, Robert Redford who was the star, or by director Syndey Pollack on why that was done, but I have a pretty good hunch.

Movies do not handle long passages of time well. More often than not films will compress time for the sake of moving the story forward and keeping your interest.

Screenwriters and producers often talk of a time-lock on a film. A specific set of time the story is set when something must happen by. (“If you don’t get the heck out of Dodge by sunset there will be hell to pay.”) It sets the parameters for the story. Here are some films that have a time-lock:
High Noon
Speed
48 Hours
Apollo 13

Lew Hunter in his book Screenwriting 434 says when you use a time-lock “you inject an urgency into your story that can give it additional drive to heighten audience involvement and anxiety.” Of course, the more organic to the story the better.

Some movie deal with time by placing them in a single day, in just a night, or even in real time in the length of the film:

American Graffiti
The Breakfast Club
Halloween
Phone Booth 
Before Sunrise
Rope 
Timecode 
Russian Ark 

In a talk I heard John Updike give at the University of Iowa earlier this year he spoke about the limitations that film has in showing the passing of time. When he’s writing a novel he can take a person from a baby to old age and it’s no problem for the reader, but in movies it doesn’t work as well. He explained that if your main character is a child for the first 30 minutes of the film they have a certain amount invested in that person and to switch to another person is a jolt.

This may be one of the problems Updike is having in bringing the story of Olympic wrestler/famed college coach Dan Gable to to screen. Gable had a great high school, college career before winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Then he went on to win 10 national championships as a head coach at the University of Iowa before retiring. Then he came back as an assistant coach last year to help Iowa win another national championship.

How do you show that in an hour and a half or two hour movie? And even if you found a way, can you really have the same person play Gable as a 15-year-old high school freshman and Gable as a 63-year-old coach? See the problem there? 

Maybe the digital world will help this in the future and it will be interesting to see the effect on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where he plays an man born in his eighties and ages backwards. If anyone can pull that off it’s David Fincher & Eric Roth. (Didn’t that once happen on a Star Trek episode?) But it’s still Brad Pitt we are investing in.

Of course there are other exceptions, and generally Hollywood has found some creative ways to deal with the passing of time when needed. For instance, in Forrest Gump we are introduced to Forrest (Tom Hanks) as an adult in the opening scene and while we see Forrest as a child the majority of the film is as an adult. We are invested in Tom Hanks.

In The Natural they chose to have Robert Redford play both the thirtysomething Roy Hobbs as well as the teenage Roy Hobbs. They used soft lighting, shadows (and Redford’s youthful look) to create believability for the audience. 

The remarkable TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won eight primetime Emmys including two for actress Cicely Tyson. Tyson playing a 110-year old woman reflecting on her life was amazing, and aided greatly by makeup and costume design (that both also won Emmys) as well as a whole creative team that brought the Ernest J. Gaines novel to life. (Leonard Maltin called it “One of TV’s all-time best,” so it’s worth renting of you’ve never seen it.)

One major problem with the passing of time is the amount of money it takes to create different eras. Think of the expense of the cars alone cover the time period of a story set in the 40s, 60s, 80s. Sure it’s been done, but if you are starting out it may be best to avoid that hurdle. (A short time frame also favors lower budget films since you have less continuity issues to worry about. Always good especially if you don’t have a script supervisor.) 

In my post Screenwriting by Numbers (tip #4) I point out some averages related to running time in movies such as most movies tend to be between 90-120 minutes in length and most scenes tend to run between 1-3 minutes long. And if all of this seems cold and artificial let me once again to the great quote by design guru Milton Glazer; “Limitation stimulates the imagination.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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