Writer's Room

What Makes a Story Cinematic?

Podcast available FEATURE: 30 JUNE 2009

cinematic-story-panelJohn Barnett, Marilyn Milgrom & Graeme Tetley
It may be a great story … but is it ‘cinematic’? Will it make it on the big screen and what does the ‘C’ word really mean?

The June Writer’s Room set about answering these questions by defining ‘cinematic’ from a writer’s point of view and discussing how a lack of this elusive and sometimes misunderstood quality could sound the death knell for a fledgling script. Scriptwriter and teacher Ken Duncum invited producer John Barnett (Whale Rider, Sione’s Wedding), NZFC Head of Development Marilyn Milgrom and scriptwriter Graeme Tetley (Out of the Blue, Vigil) to speak candidly about the elements they felt made up a ‘cinematic story’.

Ken began by defining ‘cinematic’ simply as ‘containing elements associated with film’ and added that he had never heard two people use the ‘C’ word and mean the same thing.

The panelists were asked for their definitions of ‘cinematic’. John felt the words ‘I could have seen it on TV’ are often used to describe those films lacking so called ‘cinematic’ elements. “I’m not wedded so much to elements that make a film cinematic but rather, ‘will people pay money to go see it?’ and, if so, then it has succeeded. The story idea may be strong but does it work on the big screen or could it do just as well on the small? If you pay $15 to see it and feel good at the end then it’s probably ‘cinematic’.”

“If we are talking about cinematic writing as opposed to work that comes after a script is written,” said Marilyn, “then I think ‘cinematic’ is to do with the depth the writer brings to the subject. There is no story that cannot be told in a cinematic way. What lifts a small story into a cinematic one is the writer taking a point of view on the material that mines all the thematic depth, making it resonate beyond the detail of the plot.”

Graeme agreed, starting his offering with a quote from TV star Roseanne. “She was talking about one series of her show and said in that unique style of hers, ‘… and in at least three episodes we get down to the spiritual!’ There is something cinematic in the ability to mine those depths and Roseanne put her finger on it. As a writer, I look for that when I’m telling a story – go underneath the smooth surface and examine the rough landscape below, letting the audience dance along in the tension between those two things – cinema gives you an opportunity to do that.”

Ken asked if this is a problem for NZ film – are we cinematic enough? John felt many NZ films are not because they don’t always engage the audience with the story they tell. “When something works, the audience understands and empathises with the characters. We’ve made a lot of films that are about something but we are not inside them – we’re observing them.”

Marilyn agreed, saying it’s not just a New Zealand problem. “I am in the privileged position of reading scripts at an early stage in their lives and I’ve seen this in the UK as well. It’s frustrating. People think they have a film because they have a series of events that make a good story – and by many definitions this could be true! But they haven’t worked out what the writer wants to say about these events.”

Graeme said a script can get up to draft five and there still may not be a movie there. “It can take that long. Sometimes we push on and sometimes not.”

Ken asked the panel to establish how early the cinematic process starts.

“We see about 300 ideas every year,” said John, “and we can make a quick determination about whether they are cinematic or not. Will anyone pay money to see that film? Yes or no? You develop a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Some stories don’t lend themselves to a cinematic telling but could do well in another medium or if told in a different way. We pick up a book and ask, ‘would this make a good film? Do the characters have a story to tell? Does it describe a journey we want to go on?’ Many people think a film is about something when it’s actually about somebody.

Marilyn said that she can be pitched a great story, full of action and drama, she visualises it in the cinema but then a few months later, starts to think it isn’t cinematic at all. “Does cinematic have to be dramatic? Most films we enjoy are dramatic so I would ask, ‘where is the drama in this material?’ The way in which that drama is explored can sometimes fail to fulfill the cinematic potential of the material.”

A writer’s ‘take’ on material can make all the difference to a story. Using Out of the Blue as an example, John said if he had been approached by someone wanting to make a film about the Aramoana massacre, he would have said no. “I don’t think it’s cinematic. I like stories that have hope, redemption, something uplifting and my initial response was ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get that here’. But Graeme wrote something – that was his ‘take’ on the story and it worked as a cinematic feature.”

The audience watched a clip from Out of the Blue and Graeme spoke further about the film. “It’s your nose that tells you when you’ve got something – when it’s cinematic – and then it’s your job as a writer to make it so. When I start writing, I begin mainly with images, snatches of dialogue – often I don’t immediately know their significance – what they mean. I interrogate them, mine them, develop them. It’s also about the stories of the people of Aramoana, the way they have held them and polished them so that they help them contain and understand their own experiences.’

Marilyn felt that point of view plays a major role in determining a film’s cinematic appeal. “In whose shoes does the audience walk through the story, in an emotional sense. Through whose eyes do we experience the world? There is a part of screenwriting that could be described as mystical and emotional but then there’s another aspect that is just pure technical craft, making the audience feel something. Perhaps a character goes on a journey – the audience engages emotionally and literally. Sometimes a great character is one who cannot change but has to be positioned in an arena in which the audience is desperate for them to do so and understands what is at stake for them and the world if they don’t. I ask writers what their film is about and they say, ‘this and that will happen’ and I ask what will happen if it doesn’t. If they cannot answer, I say ‘you don’t have a film.’”

A clip from American Beauty illustrated the importance of point of view by combining the mid-life crisis that central character Lester is experiencing with the visual language of the film, truth and beauty.

“There is a perceived need in NZ films to tell a lot of back story,” said John. “In the Beauty clip we don’t need Lester’s back story – we’re right there. Many of our films spend too much time on back story and so don’t start with a strong point of view. Out of the Blue gives some indication of David Gray’s life but we don’t see his childhood, how he was shaped into this person – it’s a good example of telling just a little and then letting the story start.” Marilyn felt that if back story is important, then start the film there.

A clip from NZ film Heavenly Creatures offered an excellent example of storytelling via flashback and fantasy.
“The characters are rich and the story so complex,” said John. “By comparison, I don’t think the David Bain story would make a good film. The murders could have been done by one of two guys. One is dead and the other may or may not have done it – not as much mystery as with two girls who form a pact and kill a mother to make their own world. The richness of these characters resulted in the film. There were at least three other projects at the time – to make this murder story into a play, a film or a TV story. The one that lifted the story above all the others was the film. Generally there is the ‘who dunnit’ and the ‘why they dunnit’. ‘Why’ makes a better film and ‘who’ is better for TV.”

“You carry shots around with you from good films,” said Graeme, “and the one I love from Heavenly Creatures is of thegirls running along the wharf and jumping into what is essentially the story. I love those craft things.”

The panel invited questions from the floor and began by debating how much a writer should know about the technical craft of others involved in a film’s production. “I don’t want writers to put themselves into the position of producer, director or marketer,” said John. “I want them to tell the story that is unique and resonates with people. Everyone else has their job to do and the writer shouldn’t worry about those other roles.”

Marilyn felt the story is everything for a writer. “I want a writer to ping pong between ‘what do I want to say about this story’ and ‘what does the audience want to see’? For example, I want them to determine cinematically what is remotely interesting to an audience about two schoolgirls living in Christchurch in the late 50s (as in Heavenly Creatures).”
Would the story of David Bain make a good film? “If there was a good take on it, maybe – but not David Bain’s story,” said John. “The legal process is so much a determining factor, he was in jail for so long so he’s not the motivator and that forces you into telling it from a different perspective. It’s quite hard because the story really takes 15 years to tell.”

The cinematic appeal of film Revolutionary Road was questioned. “Take the two stars (of Titanic) and make a film in which they do something entirely different and you’re going to disappoint a lot of people,” said John.  Marilyn said a colleague of hers turned the book down because she could not see it as a film. “But if they get a big enough director with big stars to do it then it will become a movie. If it hadn’t been that particular cast and based on a successful novel I question whether they would have secured the money to make it. It is one of the most sophisticated depictions of a marriage I’ve ever seen. Watching such a forensic examination in public with a lot of people is quite chilling and provocative. The material itself is not cinematic but the arena in which it is received makes it worth going to see it.”

Are New Zealand films particularly cinematic or are we just loyally supporting our own film makers? John felt the circumstances attracting audiences in different countries are peculiar to their own places. “People do tend to support their national cinema to a greater degree than those in other countries. Our NZ films must have an audience here and that’s a measure of their success. If an NZ audience won’t go see them then maybe no one will go. Often our films aren’t seen in other countries because there is so much competition.”

… and if writers are told their scripts are ‘not cinematic’? “Ask that person what they mean,” said Marilyn. “I don’t think I’ve ever said that to a writer and if I had, I can only hope I was able to explain what I meant.”

Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen