Studies in flashback: “Ordinary People”

March 8th, 2013 by

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with – hopefully – guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the fifth of five movies that use flashbacks: Ordinary People, screenplay by Alvin Sargent, novel by Judith Guest.

Here is a summary of the movie:

The accidental death of the older son of an affluent family deeply strains the relationships among the bitter mother, the good-natured father, and the guilt-ridden younger son.

That “guilt-ridden younger son” is Conrad [Timothy Hutton] and he suffers from severe survivor’s guilt from his brother’s drowning. In this dramatic scene with his therapist Dr. Berger [Judd Hirsch], Conrad has a breakthrough about what transpired that fateful day on the lake:

This is a case of show it, don’t say it, as the catharsis Conrad experiences is that much more powerful, both to him and to us, by ‘seeing’ what he remembers of his brother’s drowning.

It’s reminiscent of the catharsis Clarice Starling experiences in The Silence of the Lambs where she recalls the frightful memories of the spring slaughter of the lambs on her uncle’s Montana farm. Interestingly they chose not to shoot that flashback. In this interview, screenwriter Ted Tally explains why:

I could see that if we were going to have flashbacks, they should culminate, there should be some climactic thing, and we should see the child Clarice encountering the slaughter of the lambs and trying to save one of them. Jonathan was willing to shoot them, it was going to be the last thing we shot as we had to wait for the lambing season in spring, and it was going to cost a million dollars to set up the whole thing. Then Jonathan shot the scene where Clarice tells Lecter about the killing of the lambs. He sent the dailies to me and said to watch them and give him a call. So I watched these performances, and they were extraordinarily powerful, and Jonathan, said, “How can I cut away from these performances to a flashback? It’s all there: she’s [Jodi as Clarice] telling us the entire story in her face, in her words, we don’t need to see it as well.” He said it’s just primary rule of filmmaking that if you can show it instead of telling it, you show it, but don’t show it and tell it. He was right, but it was scary to me.”

That ends our two-week series. Bottom line: Whenever you think about using either voice-over narration or flashbacks, you stand at a fork-in-the-road. You can use them. Sometimes they work really well. But as I’ve said all along, you have to be sure they are the best and only way to tell that story.

Studies in flashback: “Once Upon a Time in the West”

March 7th, 2013 by

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with – hopefully – guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the fourth of five movies that use flashbacks: Once Upon a Time in the West, screenplay by Sergio Leone & Sergio Donati, story by Dario Argento & Bernardo Bertolucci & Sergio Leone

Here is a summary of the movie:

Epic story of a mysterious stranger with a harmonica who joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.

It’s a complex story, but the basics are this: A harmonica-playing stranger played by Charles Bronson comes to town killing people and looking for revenge. His target: A vicious criminal named Frank (Henry Fonda). For much of the movie, we do not know why Harmonica is bent on revenge, only catching fleeting images through Harmonica’s fractured memories. And yes, that would be flashbacks.

Here Harmonica remembers a horrific moment in his past involving Frank:

Frank not only responsible for the death of Harmonica’s father, but also for the guilt Harmonica has grown up with since he was a boy. No wonder he wants revenge.

But that’s not the only use of the flashback. When Harmonica and Frank have their inevitable Final Struggle moment — a shootout — and Frank gets mortally wounded, we have another flashback:

Why do these flashbacks work? Several things:

* The event from the past is so traumatic, so memorable, and frankly so visual, it makes for great cinema.

* There is a mystery-to-revelation dynamic that plays out in the use of the flashbacks.

* And there is a nifty switch in perspective: One extended flashback from Harmonica’s point of view, then the following one from Frank’s memories, answering the question, “Who are you?”

Yet another example of flashbacks that work.

But as I’ve been saying all along, for any of us to consider using flashbacks in a spec script, we have to make sure they are the only and best way to tell our story.

Tomorrow: Ordinary People.

Studies in flashbacks: “(500) Days of Summer”

March 6th, 2013 by

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with – hopefully – guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the third of five movies that use flashbacks: (500) Days of Summer, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber.

The week after next, I’ll be featuring an interview I did with Scott and Michael, and part of that discussion was – obviously – about (500) Days. Two interesting points arose in that conversation about the use of nonlinear storytelling generally and flashbacks specifically:

* They wanted to construct a narrative that was a reflection of how memory works. As we all know, our minds are a jumble of thoughts and images, we don’t think in strict linear fashion, instead we can bounce around from memory to memory. To wit here is the chronological order of the Protagonist’s Tom’s days one after the other in the movie:

488: Park Bench, T and S, wedding ring, Narrator

1: Office, T sees S for the first time, intro to T & S as young people (The Graduate / cut hair)

240: Fateful Day, Postscript with T breaking dishes, sister, talks about the arc of relationship

1: Office, S introduced to the company

-5513 / -4779 / -3 / -1: Summer’s special something

3 + 4: Office, T declaring he’s not interested in S, elevator where she likes his music

154: “I love everything about Summer” series of shots

11: T and sister playing Wi where he says S is “special”, warning from sister

22: PacMan center, “It’s off,” she had a “good” weekend, times he tried to reach out to her and she rejected his clues

27 + 28: Office / Karaoke bar: She’s interested in him, but just wants to be friends

29: Copy room, surprise kiss / T’s apartment with Paul

238: Ikea, negative vibe (payoff)

31: Ikea, positive vibe (setup)

32: Greatest Morning Ever!

268: Office, despondent, T in “going to get her back mode”

45: Office, “Knight Rider” payoff

59: Going to movies

87: Record Store, Ringo Star [setup], porn video, shower sex

95: Tom’s Park, 1st time with Summer, architecture talk and draw on her arm

109: S apartment, “I’ve never told anyone that.”

116: PacMan café: T says they don’t need to nail down what they are

118: Soccer I, T asks sister about whether to push S about what they are

366: Party at Summer [setup]

269: “I hate everything about Summer” [payoff]

185: Bar, fight / T & S fight as he presses her on what they have / restless night apart / she shows up / next morning talk about her ex boyfriends

141: Park, “penis”

273-286: Movie montage of T depression

293: “Worst Morning Ever” [payoff], cut from movie

303: Meets with Boss, now to do funeral and grieving cards

167: Montage: Great at job [nice contrast to 303]

306: Seeing Summer everywhere, cut from movie

345: Blind date, FB to where Summer was turning against him, ending up at karaoke bar

360: Train, he and Summer going to the wedding, wedding, dancing

366: Summer party, getting married

402 + 403 + 403 ½: Total depression

404: Quits job

419: Soccer II, starting up with architecture again

240: Fateful day [Payoff]

421-464: Getting his act together montage

488: Tom’s park, T meets with S one last time, he was right, she says, he is a realist now

500: Job interview, meets Autumn

1:

That made for a more interesting way of approaching the narrative than boy meets girl, boy loses girl.

* By juxtaposing key moments and inverting the present and past, the movie creates a fun, surprising pattern of payoff, then setup, Therefore moments where we know the ending of a subplot or a storyline, then see the beginning underscores the central conceit of how memory works. And every time the movie starts with the payoff, then goes to the setup, that second beat is in effect a flashback.

Takeaway: As opposed to using flashbacks as ‘traditional’ narrative devices that a reader knows all too well and may find hackneyed and overused at this point, why not create different ways of approaching them? Like what Neustadter and Weber did, essentially wallowing in time jumps, forward, backward, present, past, future, whatever, all in the name of entertainment, but all grounded in the central idea of reflecting how memory works.

Tomorrow: One Upon a Time in the West.

Studies in flashbacks: “Casablanca”

March 4th, 2013 by

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with – hopefully – guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the first of five movies that use flashbacks: Casablanca, the famous 1942 movie, screenplay by Julius Epstein & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison.

Setup: Out of nowhere Ilsa Lund has reappeared in Rick’s life. He gets good and drunk, then remembers key events from his past that broke his heart, a sequence known as the Paris montage. Here is a breakdown of the scenes:

* The Arc de Triomphe
* Rick and Ilsa driving in a car
* An excursion boat on the Seine
* Rick’s Paris apartment
* A Paris cafe
* Newsreel footage: German occupation of France
* Paris cafe: Germans will enter the city soon
* La Belle Aurore: Drinking champagne, Ilsa’s mood is unsettled, plans to meet at the train station
* Gare De Lyon train station: In the rain, Rick receives a note from Ilsa. It reads:

“Richard, I cannot go with you or see you again. You must not ask why. Just believe that I love you. Go, my darling, and God bless you. Ilsa”

Stunned Rick tosses the letter aside as the train pulls away.

Here is part of the sequence:

The entire sequence is 8 pages long in the script. All of it flashbacks. Why does it work? Here are two takeaways:

* The sequence has a beginning, middle and end, a well-structured montage.

* Most importantly the sequence answers a critical question: What the hell happened between Rick and Ilsa?

So if your story needs an extended flashback sequence, make sure it has a strong structure, and serves a necessary and important function in the story. You’re probably in the ballpark if you’re working with a mystery where the answers gets revealed.

Okay, I can hear some of you: “Casablanca is an OLD movie. Maybe flashbacks worked back then, but not in contemporary movies.”

Uh, wrong.

Tomorrow: The Social Network.

And remember, use flashbacks if they are the only and best way to tell your story.

Examples of voice-over narration and flashbacks that.. just don’t work

February 22nd, 2013 by

Okay, so I’m in full voice-over narration and flashback get-our-shit-together mode, prepping for a two-week series beginning next Monday. For background, go here, here, and here. The general idea: Let’s study movies that use voice-over narration and flashbacks well.

Yes, that’s right, voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently EVIL as some would lead us to believe, witness movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Casablanca, Inception, Fight Club, Apocalypse Now, and To Kill a Mockingbird. 

You can actually use voice-over narration and flashbacks effectively and to the general benefit of your story and you will not necessarily be thrown into the pit of Development Hell.

I know. Shocking, but true.

So that’s where our heads will be the next two weeks.

But today, let’s wallow in the miasma of Hollywood Conventional Wisdom, that voice-over narration and flashbacks are by definition flaccid, flabby, effed up writing.

What movie examples of voice-over narration and flashbacks can you think of that… just don’t work? As a touchstone, you can always check out what is perhaps the worst case of exposition ever.

For the next two weeks, we’ll revel in the creative inspiration and aesthetic value of well-written voice-over narration and flashbacks.

Today let’s check out what doesn’t work. For starters, how about this flashback:

See you in comments with your suggestions.

Wanted: 5 best examples of flashbacks

February 21st, 2013 by

On Monday, I presented this conundrum: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with – hopefully – guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today let’s see if we can lock down five movies that are great examples of flashbacks.

Here is a list of notable movies in the IMDB Top 250 list that use flashbacks:

Inception [#14]
Casablanca [#25]
The Usual Suspects [#26]
Memento [#33]
Gladiator [#63]
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [#76]
Rashomon [#91]

As I did yesterday in putting forward The Shawshank Redemption as one of the five movies for voice-over narration, today I recommend we include The Silence of the Lambs, notable for two important flashbacks… and a third that was scripted, but never shot. And as per what I did with Shawshank, here is Siskel & Ebert’s review of The Silence of the Lambs:

Yeah, such a crap movie, it’s one of only three films to win the top 5 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay.

What other movies can you recommend that feature flashbacks used in an especially effective way? See you in comments with your suggestions!

Series on voice-over narration and flashbacks

February 19th, 2013 by

So we all know the conventional wisdom is both voice-over narration and flashbacks are no-nos in screenplays. Indeed the Robert McKee character in the movie Adaptation flat-out states:

God help you! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.

Similarly screenwriting ‘guru’ Michael Hague expresses the common negative opinion of flashbacks in a response to one of his columns here.

And yet check out this list of movies [their IMDB ranking in parenthesis]:

VOICE-OVER NARRATION

Fight Club [#10]
Goodfellas [#15]
Apocalypse Now [#35]
A Clockwork Orange [#64]
To Kill a Mockingbird [#70]
The Apartment [#98]

FLASHBACKS

The Godfather [#2]
Inception [#14]
The Silence of the Lambs [#24]
Casablanca [#25]
The Usual Suspects [#26]
Memento [#33]
Gladiator [#63]
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [#76]
Rashomon [#91]

VOICE-OVER NARRATION AND FLASHBACKS

The Shawshank Redemption [#1]
Forrest Gump [#18]
It’s a Wonderful Life [#30]
Sunset Blvd. [#32]
Citizen Kane [#46]
American Beauty [#54]
Double Indemnity [#57]

That’s just me scanning through the top 100 movies, I probably missed some. Even if I did, this is a list of over 20 notable movies that used either or both of this supposedly unworthy pair.

I take this to mean the problem isn’t with the narrative devices themselves, it’s with how writers use them.

My guess is if we asked people who read scripts professionally for a living, they would roll their eyes and grab their stomachs at the mere mention of voice-over narration and flashbacks. Why? Because they have seen them used poorly over and over and over again. Yes, it’s true, both can come off badly on the page. I’ve seen it with my own eyes as well.

Yet the fact remains some of the greatest movies of all time use these narrative devices. Does it mean simply because a lot of aspiring or novice writers use voice-over narration or flashbacks poorly, that precludes us from employing them in our stories, particularly if that’s what the story absolutely dictates?

That would be most unfortunate.

Therefore here’s what I propose. Let’s come up with five examples of movies that use voice-over narration well. Plus five examples of movies that use flashbacks effectively. Then next week and the following, go analyze each of those movies day by day [Monday through Friday] to determine why the voice-over narration and flashbacks work within the context of each story.

Our goal: Come up with a list of tips, even guidelines to help steer us in using voice-over narration and flashbacks.

By the way, let’s get our terminology straight. Here’s a starting point [I grabbed them from online dictionaries]. Feel free to offer your definition of either or both:

Flashback: A device in the narrative of a motion picture, novel, etc., by which an event or scene taking place before the present time in the narrative is inserted into the chronological structure of the work.

Voiceover Narration: Where one hears a voice (sometimes that of the main character) narrating events that are occurring.

So the questions on the table:

What are some great movie examples of voice-over narration?

What are some great movie examples of flashbacks?

Let’s try to figure this thing out.

Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Flashbacks

January 22nd, 2012 by

After a week of celebrating victories, this week’s theme is flashbacks suggested by Alexander Gorelik. Some of the most famous scenes and sequences in cinema history have been flashbacks. For instance, what about Rick (Humphrey Bogart) remembering the way it was with he and Ilse (Ingrid Bergman) when they were in love and living in Paris:

[Yes, that is a theme song from the movie Inception accompanying the visuals].

And yet supposedly Hollywood loathes flashbacks. Actually in my view, that’s not true. Hollywood loathes the bad use of flashbacks, just like the bad use of voiceover. If you do it well and it works in the story, no problems.

Anyway what about some notable flashbacks in film? What are some great sides of dialogue from those flashbacks?

You know the drill:

* Copy/paste dialogue from IMDB Quotes or some other transcript source.

* Copy/paste the URL from accompanying video at MovieClips or YouTube.

See you in comments for flashback suggestions!

Spec Script Sale: “Flashback”

January 13th, 2012 by

Endgame Entertainment acquires sci-fi spec script “Flashback” from writer Will Honley. Per Deadline:

After becoming the first human to break the speed of light, a NASA pilot is struck with amnesia, and in the search for the memories of who he was, he discovers he has the ability to travel back in time.

The script made the 2011 Black List.

Honley is repped by Verve and Mindframe Entertainment.

By my count, this is the 3rd spec script sale of 2012.

The 3rd spec script sale did not happen last year until February 8, so we are nearly a month ahead of schedule.