"Watching a lot of movies won't make you movie literate." Thus began the argument between my sister, a writer, and myself, a filmmaker. "If you really want to train yourself to understand movies you should read a lot of screenplays."
Her argument was sound: reading more screenplays would train my inner eye to interpret words on the page as images for the screen, would focus my mind on plot, character, structure, and dramatic tension and, besides, the script was always better than the movie anyway. These were all valid points and with screenplays available online for free on websites like simplyscripts.com there was really no reason not to do some good, old fashioned reading to learn about storytelling for motion pictures.
My own argument was less well thought out: I felt that it was important for me to get back in touch with the movie format as an audience member for one thing. For a filmmaker I watch laughably few movies. When someone asks me what movies I've seen lately, what movies I would recommend, or what filmmakers I want to be like I am often dumbstruck because I simply don't know what is out there these days.
It would certainly be more studious of me to learn the building blocks of what makes an excellent story, but I contend that a good story is not the same as a good movie. I'm not saying that story isn't important. Building a movie on a weak story is like building a skyscraper on a swamp. It might still stand up but it's going to take a lot of engineering to make it work. But having a good story and believing that is all you need for a good movie is like looking at foundation and calling it a skyscraper.
Here are some of the things you can learn from watching a movie that you won't necessarily get from a screenplay:
- Timing and tempo: This is probably the biggest difference between script and screen. If you are reading a script you will only be able to absorb the information at the speed at which you read. In a movie you may be forced to wait for a dramatic moment, a comedic realization, or a suspenseful twist which will make that moment more effective.
- Reactions: The really important reactions are written into the script. For example when the boyfriend proposes the girlfriend's reaction is written out. But the living, breathing, everyday reactions that make characters live and stories important are the reactions that happen in the moment.
- Tone: Again the foundations of tone are clear in the script: noir thriller has a different tone from zany comedy, but we absorb most of the tone of a film through the visual and audio cues. Soaring music sets a different tone from heavy metal. Lush, bright colors set a different tone from drab shadows.
- Tone Part II: Another aspect of tone is how the words sound when an actor speaks them. Actors don't attend "try outs" they attend "auditions" which literally means "hearings". Sure an actor may need to look the part, but they also need to sound like the part. The greatest actors are the actors who don't sound like they're saying lines at all. (*ahem* Jeremy Irons).
- Emotional Impact: The last one is the trickiest one. Emotional impact is when you watch a movie and find yourself moved by it. I love reading and I read a lot, but I almost never cry over a book. But sit me down in front of "Mary Poppins" or "Armageddon" or "Fat Albert" (Yes, "Fat Albert" got me right in the feels) and I will cry like a baby. Laughing, crying, heart pumping adrenaline, anger- it doesn't matter if it is a "good" movie or a "bad" movie: if it has an emotional impact it was a successful movie.
So are you Movie Literate? Do you watch tons of movies or read tons of screenplays? Can you analyze what makes the best story or what gives you the strongest emotional impact?
How did you do it?
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