Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Notes Meeting

John McFetridge

Last week I had a notes meeting with the producer of the movie version of Dirty Sweet. It was a strange feeling to talk about the material – the characters and situations I’d created – as if it was something we’d found.

It was sort of like talking about myself in the third person.

But the notes were all good, which was a relief. The producer was one of the producers of Chicago so I was worried he’d want to turn it into a musical. Well, he also produced movies like Exit Wounds and Knights of the South Bronx so that’s good.

The notes all had to do with finding ways to show the characters develop, ways that in the books I would just put in the narration. Some things can be turned into dialogue but some things just don’t sound right.

The process is interesting and maybe it even helps to imagine how a scene would play out as a movie. On the one hand you’d get an actual person with facial expressions, subtle little clues to their feelings, you’d get music to help the mood along, you’d get close ups and wide shots with lots of characters. But on the other hand you wouldn’t really get inside anyone’s head.

There are a few flashbacks in the book, sometimes one character tells another about something that happened years ago and sometimes a character just thinks about something that happened years ago. In some cases the dialogue can be translated into the screenplay, but for the scenes in which a character is thinking about the past, the question of flashbacks came up. Some how-to books about screenplay writing say never use flashbacks. But a lot of my favourite movies have flashbacks. The same with a narrator. The books say never, but some of my favourite movies have narration.

What do you think? Flashbacks? Narration? Yes or no? Which movies have used flashbacks or narration really well and which ones are the examples for why those things shouldn't be used?


Declan Burke said...

Flashbacks, yes. Narration, yes. Any damn thing that makes it work, yes.

Fight Club is a pretty good example - flashbacks, narration, all sorts of narrative trickery. And a damn fine film to boot ...

Cheers, Dec

Barna W. Donovan said...

Wow, interesting problem.

I think the screenwriting books have some good points about flashbacks because they can cause abrupt and awkward breaks in the flow of the action. When I watch a movie, I’m not a big fan of seeing too many flashbacks. Maybe some very specific & precise dialogue that gives some important back story, I think, can work well.

Or perhaps a prologue to the film? A scene set in the past, shown just before the opening credits. Maybe the most important part of the past that still shapes the present.

Some of my favorite exceptions to my unease at seeing flashbacks would be Quentin Tarantino films, though. “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs,” of course. I was not a huge fan of the “Kill Bill” films, but the flashbacks still work structurally. I also love a film called “Frailty” where much of the story is told by a narrator and almost all of the film is one big flashback. But as the film goes along, the whole point of the story becomes the question of how reliable the narrator might be and what sort of a role he might have played in the serial killings.

For the best example of all the most horrible offenses one can commit in adapting a good book into a misbegotten mess of a film I usually think of David Lynch’s “Dune.” It should be a teaching tool on how to make every conceivable mistake when dealing with exposition and back story in a film.

Dana King said...

First, congratulations on how well things are going with the movie so far. I know you still have a ways to go to get it on the screen, but this sounds very encouraging.

Something key you've pointed out here is how different books and movies are as storytelling media, and why things have to be changed to make a good book into a good movie. The trick is to be true to the spirit and intent of the original, not so much a word for word reproduction. When done well, it can be GET SHORTY; not so well, and you wind up with BE COOL.

For me, the gold standard for flashbacks and narration is SUNSET BOULEVARD. The narration allows the film to keep from becoming flabby, while still letting the characters unfold. Flashback? hell, the whole movie's a flashback.

Ron Earl Phillips said...

The Road to Perdition used narration well. I can't think of a good flash back usage at the moment, but I imagine it is good if done well. Just as long as the flash back doesn't take viewer out of the movie, disrupt the flow.

Look forward to seeing what comes of your book. Sounds pretty cool.

John McFetridge said...

Good comments, thanks. I have to admit, I've never read the novel, Fight Club, I wonder how close it is to the movie?

Now, every time I hear someone say, "Flashbacks," I think of the great Jim Mora playoffs!?!? speech.

I like the idea of a prologue. Part of the issue is when to show the character's "secret" past. A prologue that doesn't give too much away would set up a secret past.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I like both in novels-but I don't like voice over narration in movies or on TV. Flashbacks can work though--if they are brief and limited in number.

Scott D. Parker said...

If a flashback is needed, I'm fond of one character telling another character what happened. In a novel, that omits the need for a bunch of prose. In movies, however, you can do all sorts of cool visual things so I go with flashbacks over narration.