Monday, March 24, 2008

Playing With Expectations

I love filmmakers who don't feel the need to sink their film to the lowest common denominator; filmmakers who, even within the context of a blockbuster-type film, give their audience a bit of credit for their intelligence. These writers and directors accept the fact that they are working within a framework of expectations - not simply the expectations of the traditional Hollywood narrative structure, but genre-specific elements for which audiences have become accustomed.

Of particular interest to me are little phrases and lines that you fully expect to hear coming from characters' mouths that don't happen onscreen. The filmmaker knows you're expecting it, and takes that expectation and turns it into something more interesting.

What am I talking about? Here are three basic examples.

The first is from the prologue of "Casino Royale," Martin Campbell's brilliant 2006 reboot of the James Bond franchise.

Let's exclusively examine the dialogue for a moment.

Dryden: If M was so sure I was bent, she'd have sent a double-oh. Benefits of being section chief. I'd know if anyone had been promoted to double-oh status, wouldn't I? Your file shows no kills, and it takes...
James Bond: Two. [cuts to Bond fighting Dryden's contact]
Dryden: Shame. We barely got to know each other. [Dryden pulls the trigger, but no bullet is fired]
Bond: I know where you keep your gun. I suppose that's something.
Dryden: True. How did he die?
James Bond: Your contact? Not well.
Dryden: Made you feel it, did he? Well, you needn't worry. The second is... [Bond shoots Dryden]
James Bond: Yes... considerably.

Firstly, admire the incredible efficiency of this dialogue. There are so few words, and yet a complicated story is being told on several levels, and nearly every line advances the story and gives us new information about these characters. Both characters understand what's going on-- these fellas are smart. Director Campbell and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis are assuming that the audience is smart enough to realize that these characters are smart. They both know what each other is scheming. Bond is finishing Dryden's sentences. Dryden realizes Bond is there to kill him. Bond knows that Dryden knows that Bond is there to kill him (why else would he have surreptitiously disarmed Dryden?).

After Dryden shows some compassion for Bond ("Made you feel it, did he?"), he gives cold comfort to Bond, intending to tell him that his second kill would be easier. But Bond, just as he finished Dryden's sentence for him earlier, cuts him off with a bullet. The audience didn't need to hear Dryden say the full line: "The second is easier." Bond didn't need to hear it, either. We all knew it was coming. And the authors of the film gave us enough credit, rewarding us for actually paying attention to the dialogue (with a suprising, intense and explosive reaction from Bond, cutting off Dryden's dialogue, and shooting him dead), and not giving us a cliched, cheesy, needlessly excessive line of dialogue. For this kind of sly writing to appear in a Bond film, a film series that virtually pioneered the 'talking villain' cliche, this is especially refreshing. (For a description of Roger Ebert's 'The Fallacy of the Talking Killer," read his review of "Licence to Kill.") On another level, by literally cutting off the villain's cliched line, the filmmakers are slyly telling us that this is not your ordinary James Bond film, that they will be literally cutting off the obvious cliches of the genre.

The audience is further rewarded with Bond's post-shooting response of, simply, "Yes. Considerably." How easy could it have been for Bond to respond with "... easier? Yes. It is considerably easier." In this elegant and efficient way, we see Bond emerging as a double-oh, evolving from an inexperienced agent who actually felt some emotion during his first kill to a cold-blooded, emotionless weapon. All within just a few minutes of screen time, and with only a few lines of dialogue.

As an aside, notice the ultra-fast flash frames and whip pan that occurs as Bond ultimately shoots Dryden. A few frames of a family photo on Dryden's desk appear for a split second, almost subconsciously giving the audience a sense of Dryden's humanity, just as he's being shot dead. Once again, this is a remarkable feat for a Bond film; most Bond films are quick to paint their villains as one-note, two-dimensional cutouts.

Another example comes from J.J. Abrams' "Mission: Impossible III," also from 2006. Please note: the clip and discussion below contain spoilers for the film. Skip to the "Ratatouille" section if you haven't yet seen "MI3."

Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), just as we saw in the amazing and disorientating prologue to the film, has a gun to Julia's head (Michelle Monaghan). Agent Hunt (Tom Cruise) is doing all he can to convince Davian not to pull the trigger, while tied to a chair across from them. At a certain point, he realizes that Davian cannot be won over. Hunt's tone immediately changes from frenetic and panicked into an almost calm, solemness, as if he is resigned that her fate has already been sealed. "No," he whispers. "No." Davian finishes his countdown, "Ten," and pulls the trigger.

The look of resignation and Hunt's sad, whispered "No," speaks volumes. We get to feel the complex emotions going on inside Hunt, where all optimism is lost, and, even before the shot is fired, Hunt is already mourning the loss of his wife. Not only is this a good example of intelligent writing, but also of an extraordinarily nuanced performance by Cruise.

The camera lingers on Hunt's face of disbelief after Davian pulls the trigger. He's thinking, 'why is this happening? I just retrieved the Rabbit's Foot for Davian... why was he asking me where it is?' But without a word, he simply stares off. Behind him, Davian retreats to another room, talking with a mysterious person. The camera remains on Hunt, but we see the men in the background and we hear whispers. The mystery man enters the room. We cut to Hunt's near-POV, a closeup of his dead 'wife.' Then, Agent Musgrave (Billy Crudup) interrupts his gaze - for a moment, he's out of focus (since we were focused on Hunt's wife), but he slowly becomes sharp, and we realize that Musgrave has been working with Davian the whole time. He stares at us, we're staring at him... Hunt says nothing, but we're all thinking, "How could this be? How could this be?!"

Answering an unasked question, Musgrave finally says, "It's complicated."

We really didn't need to hear Hunt ask, "Why?" or "How?" It was implied, and instead of a completely predictable dialog between characters, we get the almost jolting answer to a question we were all thinking.

And, if the reader may indulge me, watch how carefully this scene is crafted. Director Abrams doesn't just cut to Musgrave sitting down, quickly rack focusing on him, and have him say his line. This is a big moment in the movie, and the timing needs to be just right to convey the magnitude of this moment-- the reveal of the big betrayal.

For one, offscreen, Musgrave throws a chair down, then calmly sits, blocking our view. For several beats, he's out of focus, visually mimicking Hunt's disorientation. Slowly we come to realize that it's Musgrave, and slowly he becomes in focus. Allowing this moment to soak in, another few beats pass before he says his line. This is about drawing out the suspense, putting the audience in Hunt's shoes. ("MI3" is, essentially, a film that follows Hunt's point-of-view for the duration of the entire film. I'll hopefully be writing about POV films at a future time.)

But the nice touch that I most appreciate about this scene is in regards to the camera movement. Just after Davian fires, we have a wide two-shot of Hunt and his wife, where the camera is to Hunt's left. We cut to an extreme closeup of Hunt's bewildered face, while the camera slowly dollys right to left, including a moment where Hunt's wife's head blocks the entire view of the camera. We continue dollying to reveal the men behind Hunt. As the camera settles, we realize that Hunt's view of the world is changing, and his disorientation and befuddlement is going to take another hit, when Musgrave is revealed to be a traitor. The rest of the scene between Hunt and Musgrave occurs with a shot-reverse-shot sequence with the camera stationed on Hunt's right side.

What happened here? The camera crossed the 180 degree line. To establish a sense of orientation and understanding of a scene, particularly a scene with two characters talking to each other, the camera needs to stay on one side of the imaginary line that is created between the two characters. The camera, even within shot-reverse-shot sequences, needs to stay consistently on a single side, so that the scene is grounded for the viewer. The result: the audience is constantly oriented and understands the action.

If the camera moves to the other side of that line, especially in a cut, the audience is immediately disoriented. "Our hero has just spent the entire scene talking to a character to the left... and now our hero is on the right? Wait, what happened?" This can be used for dramatic effect (for example, Ang Lee's "Hulk" used this device often, frequently cutting to cameras on either side of the 180 degree line, to create a constant sense of uneasiness), but in traditional Hollywood narrative filmmaking, this practice is frowned upon.

However, if you literally show the camera breaking the line in an uninterrupted shot, you can set up a new orientation of the scene properly. Plus, emotionally, the break of the line causes the viewer to realize that something is changing, something is different, something is disorienting, which is exactly the kind of emotion director Abrams was trying to evoke for this scene in "MI3." In our case, the camera slowly dollys across the 180 degree line in an uninterrupted shot, subtly giving the audience an extra, almost subconscious level of disorientation.

Here is a good illustration of the 180 degree rule, in a YouTube video created by Moviemaking Techniques:

And here's another YouTube video, explaining the same concepts in a different way.

Let's get back to writing. Here's a clip from Brad Bird's "Ratatouille," and look for two things: a moment where the camera answers a question that a character asks, and a moment where a character doesn't get to finish his thought.

Emile doesn't need to complete his entire thought - long before the lightning struck, we knew what he was going to say. But the gag comes from the fact that the setup is really subtle. Remy is obsessing about cooking his cheese and mushroom, while Emile looks around nervously. In the deep background, we barely see flashes of lightning, with some eventual soft thunder behind it. The joke is that the storm arrived at their location so quickly, Emile couldn't even finish his thought. It's a quick, basic physical gag of the movie, and screenwriter/director Brad Bird takes what he can get out of it, then quickly moves on.

Imagine how, say, the lazy screenwriters of any Dreamworks animated film would have staged this type of scene. First a wide shot of the deliberately approaching storm. Then, some pop-culture-laced riffs between two animated characters who look exactly like their celebrity voice counterparts. One of them says, "Hey, maybe we should get off this roof, dawg! Let's go shopping at Old Wavy while sipping a Coral Cola! " And then ZAP! they get struck by lightning, and 'hilarity' ensues.

The "Casino Royale," "MI3" and "Ratatouille" clips are examples of intelligent screenwriters playing with the expectations of a clever audience. Of course, this technique of toying with cliches and turning them into something more interesting only works in the hands of truly innovative filmmakers. Here's an example of the technique falling flat, from Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns."

Yeah... it doesn't really work here. In a film filled with land mines, this is a small firecracker. The entire film is so hopelessly lost and devoid of purpose or heart, and this scene is illustrative of that fact. The ploy of illustrating Luthor's expectation of Lane's line "Superman will never let you get away with this!" is overplayed, and hammed up to such an extent that its power is lost.

Are there any other cinematic examples of this phenomenon that you can think of? Where filmmakers assume the audience knows a line or cliche that is coming, and then they turn that cliche on its head and deliver something more interesting?


Anonymous said...

Any scene from 'Princess Bride'.


Jeremy said...

Hi Todd, another interesting article thanks. One problem the youtube videos are missing (says they are no longer available).

Jeremy said...

Seems I spoke too soon, all working now!?

Todd said...

Yeah - YouTube was doing some maintenance at that exact moment. But thanks for letting me know! -tv

Mridul Kabra said...
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