Emotional Arc: Breaking Down Your Screenplay
As a filmmaker it is incredibly important that you understand a script’s emotional arc when reading it over. Reason being is that a script is not the “final step” in the process of filmmaking. Being thorough with a script will give you a better understanding on how to achieve the “next step” which is ADAPTING IT FOR THE SCREEN.
The big question is HOW TO BREAK DOWN A SCRIPT? This is an extremely important question to ask and I want to say that this step cannot and should not be taken lightly. As I stated earlier, breaking down your script is the big next step into getting the script translated for the screen.. This is essentially the period in pre-production in which your are cultivating the ideas on the page and combining them with your own.
As a cinematographer, your goal is to tell the story that the script lays out for you. Whether you deviate in action, how the scenes play out, dialogue, etc… Your job is to deliver the essence or the emotional arc of that story. The arc is extremely important in your time of research because this is the tangible aspect of the film that the audience needs to latch onto. If you don’t deliver a coherent emotional arc, then a film can be rendered as hollow or unguided. Who would want that as a review? Yeah… no one.
So let’s discuss a film that everybody here can get a hold of. In 2001, I lensed a feature film directed by John Stockwell called, Crazy/Beautiful. This movie is a great example of trying to capture that “emotional arc” of the story and to convey it in images.
Here is a quick synopsis of the film:
When fate brings together two high school seniors from opposite sides of the tracks, it’s something crazy/beautiful. Nicole (Kirsten Dunst) is the 17-year-old troubled daughter of a wealthy congressman who never met a rule she didn’t break. Carlos (Jay Hernandez) is a grade A student with big dreams who endures a two-hour bus ride every morning to attend high school in an upscale L.A. neighborhood. Their innocent flirtations quickly develop into passionate love, but Nicole’s self-destructive behavior threatens their relationship and puts Carlos’ promising future in jeopardy. Will their intense passion keep them together despite the objections of their families or will Carlos be forced to plan his future without Nicole?
Written by Gavin Nelson Magnum
From the summary above, this is a movie that has an emotional arc rooted deeply in the characters and their relationship. Character-based dramas can be extremely hard to translate into alluring and thought-provoking images for the audience to chew on. So let’s consider a film that has done a great job at illustrating relationships in movies.
Let’s take a look at David Fincher’s character-drama, The Social Network (2010) that’s about the start of Facebook.
How could a film about Facebook be interesting and how can these characters be made compelling in the mise-en-scéne?
Well, David Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth, ASC collaborated to devise what I consider to be one of the most quintessential pieces in this genre. This film encapsulates all the necessary elements to not only illustrate but explore the emotional arc and it’s thematic ups and downs.
“The Social Network” © 2010 Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved
This scene is a great example of the character’s dynamics, their motives, and the outcome. This is an early seed planted by writer Aaron Sorkin to cultivate the arc of the subjects and where this story can ultimately go. Above, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) asks for an algorithm from his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to help create a webpage where the user ranks two women side-by-side. Thus calling it “Face Smash.”
The dynamic of the group is quick, unapologetic, and looking to cause a ruckus behind closed doors. These are intellectuals that would otherwise go unnoticed on a normal day. With Fincher’s uncompromising aesthetic of locked-off studio shots, he crafts a quickly passed sequence through cuts, intimate shots, and exposition. This establishes the characters in the room, their individual motives, and their roles in execution (some taking big roles than others).
Fincher and Jeff hang on the end of using traditional two-shots and single with reverse coverage to create a quick yet engaging experience. Let’s also take into consideration what the center point of this whole scene is. It’s the algorithm written on the window pane in plain sight for everyone to see. Right off the bat Fincher lets the audience know that this isn’t a secret or coincidence — it’s a planned attack.
In a way, this is Mark Zuckerberg’s form of revenge due in part to earlier scenes with character Erica Albright. In addition, this is his plan to “hopefully” draw attention to himself and to get into one of the prestigious final clubs. He wants people (male and female) to stumble onto this site and to polarize audiences. He’s leaving a paper trail for faculty to find and for his name to be synonymous with “Face Smash.”
Fincher and Cronenweth capture both ends of the spectrum — the creators and the consumers. Interweaving these two timelines creates a sense of urgency and immediacy on the part of the audience. You can feel events escalating at an unfathomable pace, leaving the viewer without any idea on where this film might go.
The outcome is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg had wanted and expected. He wanted to create something that would shake the campus up, cause the masses to create network inducing traffic, and ultimately make the servers go catatonic. This brought notoriety to Zuckerberg (whether it be good or bad) — he was now someone on campus. This is a “hopeful” ticket into the final club.
The Social Network is a great example of what a director and cinematographer can do when properly breaking down a script. The audience was taken on a journey, fed information about their futures, and illustrated who the characters are. They created a relationship between Mark and Eduardo. Something that many movies for whatever reason avoid doing.
So, back to Crazy/Beautiful…
When cultivating my ideas, I knew that I wanted cinematography to be the vessel in which I attach emotion to the characters. Nicole lives in a glass house that her dad and evil stepmother ran like a compound. Her mother passed away triggering a downward spiral of drugs and depression in the world she inhabited.
Every time the audience was in that house, I wanted the camera to feel completely locked off and lifeless. Similar to how Fincher is locked off, but pulling the life out of it. This created a sense of control and order with Nicole, an illustration which conflicted with her personality.
Carlos was from East LA and he had a very controlling mother, so the camera moved in a militant style. It only moved left to right, right to left, up and down. It never moved diagonally. That was the emotion of his world and his house.
When Nicole was out of that glass house, the camera was very haphazard. The frames were off center, lots of headroom, lots of foot room, lots of negative space to one side or the other. Very inconsistent, like a teenager. I have a teenager and I have to say they’re all over the place. One minute they’re talking to a person and I meet them at the house, and “Hey, this is my new friend Chelsea.” The next minute, “Chelsea is awful.”
Carlos comes in with his militant view as he’s traveling out of East LA. He’s going to this charter school. This is what he wants to do. He’s got to get good grades to get out of East LA, to get out of the hood. He’s in this militant style. When they mix, Nicole starts to change the language, and Carlos starts to change the camera motion of Nicole.
It becomes this other style.
Now, all of this is done over a two hour movie, and I describe it and you say, “Oh my God, this is it.” When you see it, you will feel it. It’s not going to be something like saying, “Oh yeah, look, I see all those locked off cameras. It feels like she’s in a glass house and she’s under surveillance,” or, “My God, when they’re out of the house, it’s like the frames are all haphazardly all over the place.” These are things that you will feel. You’re not necessarily going to call attention to it. This is the art of cinematography. This is the art of really understanding the ability for you to evoke and assist a character’s emotions.
Breaking down a script and creating something tangible for an audience isn’t an easy task. It takes time, it takes meditation, and it takes pre-visualization. Don’t rush this process and enjoy it. You have a blank canvas… now paint it.
-Shane Hurlbut, ASC