In this month's ‘Notes on the Screen Door’ article, ESSEX FILM COLLECTIVE member Rory Joscelyne examines how we, as filmmakers, should pay attention to the shifts in social and cultural change, and the importance it has on writing and directing film.
When creating our own movies, we often begin with an overriding emotion we want to pull from our audience. While every filmmaker will tackle this differently, the germ of any story is what we want the audience to feel during, or by the end of, the narrative. This can be elation, romance, horror, fear, anxiety, humour, and not always within the genres you would expect. Some of these unique ideas become so popular that they have now become expected tropes – such as the monster in a horror waking back up after the credits, or a villain showing their dominance by requesting a barber shave. These were once very clever subversions of expectation but are now so largely overused they have become expected. When penning your creative new work, you can either ignore these tropes, work them into your story to satisfy an audience’s expectations or you can include the expected sequence, but fundamentally break it to subvert your audience.
When written in this context, we easily understand that no movie exists in a bubble. You can use these tropes, but don’t expect to shock or bewilder your audience with them if they are repurposed verbatim from other media. Likewise, the same is true of characters. If you write a romantic comedy and the girl repeatedly punches the boy in the arm (not aware of their own strength), this is considered cute. Switch the genders and the social perspective changes the dynamic of that relationship, even if the script and intent is the same. We know that audiences come into the cinema with pre-set ideals of what is acceptable and what is not. These change over time, which is why some scenes and films age very badly. The Birth of a Nation (1915) was socially acceptable in its time, but now is merely a relic of a vastly more racist era. A more recent example would be the end sequence to the original Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), with the humiliating outing of a trans character being considered hilarious in its time but is now vastly less comfortable to watch.
So how can we prevent our films from falling into these traps? Can you even sculpt a controversial movie that can remain relevant? Yes and no.
We’ll start with the negatives first. Some aspects to your film will age, and there is nothing you can do about that. These things are largely superficial, such as certain fashions, the types of props shown (if not a period piece) and the type of tech used (including cameras, lenses, film stock or digital, microphones etc). Some of these can be mitigated, but for the most part you’ll have no control over how much these elements will date your production. I would advise you do the best with the equipment available at your budget, rather than attempt a “futureproof” solution, especially for filming technology.
“If you are willing to write a script in which you tackle the darkest sides of humanity, then you need to take time to consider how you are going to represent the moment.”
Where you can better future proof your story, and where it ultimately counts, is in both the writing phase and the direction of your film. Not only in veering away from showing the “hero” mocking or violating minority groups as a positive, but also in how you frame certain behaviours. For example, the way romance is initiated. Try and find a way for both characters to find each other in a mutually beneficial manner. In the 1960s there were socially accepted standards of women refusing to want to kiss the protagonist, but he would force himself on her and she’d reveal that she really wanted it all along. Just from how I have explained it, you are likely finding that notion less palatable in a modern context. This existed not only across many movies, but even found its way into future-looking science-fiction, such as the original Star Trek. Watching 1960s Star Trek, it’s easy to forgive some wonky sets, comically out of date “futuristic” gadgets and the visual trappings of television of the period. But hearing Spock mock a female crewman who escaped abuse because she secretly must have liked it is a vile moment in a mostly forward-thinking show (“The Enemy Within” – Season 1, Episode 5). If you are willing to write a script in which you tackle the darkest sides of humanity, then you need to take time to consider how you are going to represent the moment.
What reaction do you want from an audience, and how do you feel that is best represented?
I’ll do a few comparisons, as well as one on my own work, to show some examples. The Birth of a Nation and American History X (1998) both showcase heavy themes around race, however the latter is a redemption story (“Hate is baggage”) whereas the former is a celebration of race segregation and abuse. In a slightly more nuanced context, I would compare Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995). Both show some horrific scenes of sexual violence, however the way they tackle the subject matter couldn’t be more different. Bad Lieutenant was directed by Abel Ferrara (who had begun his film career in porn) and the scene was shot in soft focus in a “sexy” style. In contrast Strange Days showcases a similar situation but there is nothing sexy in how the moment is directed, instead giving the moment the heart-wrenching, violating tone it deserved. One used sexual violence as a sexy quirk to start a story, the other used the moment to make a point of just how sickening the act is.
In my own work, Human Cargo (2019), I also tackled a very dark subject matter – abortion. The idea was to take the concept of removing a woman’s right to choose and turning it on its head, so now women were not allowed to have children without express governmental consent. The abortion sequence was the crescendo to seeing how such a law causes major injustices to women. However, when my producer (Alice Ryan) asked if I wanted to show any form of blood or gore, I was very clear that I didn’t want any. In fact, the procedure itself isn’t shown. We see the character slip away through anaesthetic, a heartbeat monitor cut out in an artistic manner and then we get the reaction of the character on waking up. The whole point was to focus on injustice, and the lifelong emotional trauma of having freedom of choice ripped from you. Adding blood and gore would have added nothing to the scene, and in fact detracted from the trauma and injustice felt by the audience. This one decision fundamentally subverted expectation and opened the film up to wider audiences. It also meant the following dialogue scene (where the two leads discuss the ethics of the law) was given significant context on both sides of the debate. I’m certain this choice means the film will be slightly more future proof, as the tackling of an extreme and disturbing sequence was handled tastefully. After all, even if that debate ends someday, the emotional subject of injustice will always resonate.
Don’t be afraid to tackle delicate or dark subject matter in your work, just keep in mind that you need to handle such subject matter with a greater degree of reverence. This goes for the intent behind a scene, how the actions and dialogue are scripted (who is delivering said lines/committing said actions, and what are you trying to say with those words/actions), and how that scene is directed. If these don’t hit the mark, whatever you tried to say with that scene will be lost completely. Even if it generates a laugh or a shock now, it will soon be seen as bland and outmoded, and your film could become cringe-inducing to watch in the future.