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40 THE OFF-SCREEN MOVIE


So I'm writing to you today from seat 34B on United Airlines Flight 482 to Hawaii.

Usually you can't use your computer while a plane is still on the airfield, but a funny thing happened to me on my way into the wild blue. Our plane taxies out to the runway. The seat backs are forward and the tray tables, like good Republicans, are locked in their upright positions. And right where you usually get that frighteningly gentle push back into your seat (along with that always-louder-than-you-expect engine howl) instead, the plane taxies forward a bit and comes to a disappointing stop.

The Captain's voice speaks over the intercom: "Folks, FAA regulations require that we actually have both engines running before take-off. We're having some trouble getting the right engine started, so we're going to head back to the gate and have a look-see."

He makes it sound like nothing more troublesome than a loose spark plug cable. But I know better. I'm gonna be sittin' here with a good amount of time on my hands. The guy on my right has a cell-phone plastered to his ear. The woman to my left is set; she's on page one of a Dean Koontz novel.

Me, I shall attempt to write an entire new Wordplay column.

Let's give it a try.

*****

Director Jan De Bont was the first person Ted and I heard talk about the idea of 'the off-screen movie.' We were working page-by-page through our GODZILLA script (the good one, I daresay; not the one that was eventually filmed) and Jan was very focused on which scenes could be left off-screen, which could be trimmed down, and which scenes had to be shot. He was hyper-aware of distances to be traveled during cutaways, what people might figure out in the time they had, what actions they could take while other scenes were going on, etc.



At the time I put it down to the natural way a director would analyze a script -- breaking it down for production, trying to save money by shooting only what was necessary. I knew the general rule of 'Enter a scene as late as possible, leave it as early as possible.' What Jan was doing seemed like a logical way to keep interest in the story -- cut out the dull parts, and leave only the good stuff to be seen.

That's true, as far as it goes. But there's more to the off-screen movie than that.

A lot more.

I didn't figure it out until years later. It hit me in the middle of watching the network premiere of SCHINDLER'S LIST on NBC... when I had a true, honest-to-God insight.

Really. One of those flashes where your brain struggles to have several thoughts all at once --

"Wow!"


"Geez, that's so simple!"

"You stupid fool, why didn't you see that before?"

"Hey, that's clever! That really works!"

And of course --

"Uh-oh, what if this has been obvious all along to everyone else but me?"

Okay, I'm gonna paint the full picture for you, so you can see how this all came about.

There's me, at home, lying on the bed, avoiding writing, flipping channels. I'm watching a little Sony wedged into a wicker shelf filled with clothes (I hate dressers). The picture is fuzzy from a bad cable connection, but since I've siphoned off an extra line to go up into the treehouse, I'm too embarrassed to ask the cable guy to come out and fix it. So I'm squinting at the screen, and I flip across SCHINDLER'S LIST.

I immediately get sucked in. (Ted tells me that at a party once, he and Harlan Ellison came to the conclusion that the definition of a great movie is one where you have to watch it through to the end, no matter where you come in. SCHINDLER'S LIST certainly qualifies on that count.)

On any count. I'm watching the movie and marveling at how damn great it is. In particular, how it seems to fly by so quickly. Great movies have that quality, they can be three hours long and you don't even notice, while a bad hour-and-a-half film can stretch into eternity. (How long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you're on, and the caliber of movie you're watching.)

So I'm marveling at how it's just zipping by, and then I come to the 'hinge' scene.

If you know the movie, perhaps you recall the scene. One of Schindler's workers is ordered by a Nazi to make a hinge. The scene is full of tension as the worker goes through the step-by-step process of actually making a finished hinge, while the Nazi times him with a watch. The guy actually creates a hinge on screen in what I believe is one unbroken shot, no cuts. He's shaking a little, and sweats a little, but overall, the worker is quick, efficient, and impressive. The longer the shot goes on, the more worried we are that he will fumble, but he does not. We're allowed a moment of relief when the hinge is done and presented to the Nazi in (what seems to us) record time.

And then we find out the deck was stacked. It didn't matter how fast or efficiently the guy worked -- the Nazi was going to nail him on why he had so few hinges made, if he's so efficient and has been at his station all day. The faster the guy worked, in fact, the more he was tightening the noose around his own neck.

So the Nazi takes the hapless worker outside to assassinate him, and another chilling scene follows where the Nazi's gun jams.

From a storytelling point of view, I was transfixed with the hinge scene. Amazed at the decision to not cut away, or compress the time it took for the guy to actually physically make a hinge. (Which, in and of itself, is rather boring. Press this, turn that, tap this, etc.)

In the back of my mind, I was also musing on a recent story meeting we had with Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald, executives at DreamWorks, regarding the sequel to THE MASK OF ZORRO. Walter had pitched a scene where Alejandro returns from a trip abroad to find a wanted poster with Zorro's name on it -- wanted for murder. According to him, that was a scene that has 'juice' and helps propel the story forward. He was right, it did. And I reflected on how often Walter as a storyteller was concerned with momentum --

-- and what an elusive quality that is in a story.

Nobody ever talks about momentum. A film either builds momentum, or flags, but why? Could momentum be designed into a film? There's the usual thing, make sure you have great story content, but was there anything else?

Back to the hinge scene. Press this, turn that, pound a little, etc. Certainly the context of the scene gave it incredible drama, but I couldn't help but notice, here was a whole film of such scenes, many intimate moments, even 'slow' moments, and yet it had pace and momentum in spades. I couldn't help but feel I was missing something --

And that's when it hit.

Boom.


That flash of understanding.

An idea at once simple, yet huge.

One of those things that is probably second nature to talented folks, great storytellers, but the rest of us have to figure out --

Jan DeBont and his off-screen movie --

Walter Parkes and his worries about momentum --

SCHINDLER'S LIST with its incredible pace --

Here's the idea: it's the off-screen movie, the scenes of the story you don't see that create momentum in the scenes you do see.

In SCHINDLER'S LIST, there's a war going on. That's the key. While watching any scene -- like the hinge scene -- we're subconsciously aware that, off-screen, there's also an incredible amount of stuff happening all over the world. A ongoing war, battles being fought, commanders making decisions, heads of state conferring, masses of people suffering. So much is happening, like the characters in the film, we can barely keep track of it all.

So when we come to any scene in SCHINDLER'S LIST, we're always off balance, always playing catch-up. Always trying to figure out what's just happened, and how it's going to affect what happens next. In that hinge-making scene, we don't really know the worker, the Nazis, their agenda, or what the stakes are. How has the world shifted this time? What are the new policies? Has something changed somewhere, a new edict or directive that is going to affect this poor guy's life? That's part of why we watch with rapt attention, just like --

-- just like at the start of a movie.

Aha! (As Danny DeVito says in a classic scene from "Taxi," bouncing across the room and pointing: aha! aha! aha! aha! AHA!)

Why do most movies start with a bang, start off with great momentum? (As Ted says, it's easy to invent a great first ten pages.) Because -- there's been a whole world of stuff that has just happened off-screen (there's that phrase again) right before FADE UP. We're playing catch-up to the story in progress, and that's almost always interesting.

What SCHINDLER'S LIST does throughout is keep giving us FADE UP, in a sense, over and over. It didn't have just one FADE UP at the start; throughout the picture, we were starting little films, with the same lack of knowledge, lack of firm footing of what has just happened off-screen, as we do at the start of a movie.

And thus, out of the unknown, out of so much happening that we don't know and want to learn, momentum is created.

Let me pause here a moment, and blink, and let that dazzle of insight fade from my brain. (Hey, perhaps this is all nothing to you, it's obvious, but the thought hit me like a ton of bricks.)
Oops. Speaking of momentum, I'm about to destroy it here. The nice flight attendant is telling us to shut off our laptops. Looks like the engine is fixed and ready to go; it's only been a little over an hour. Time to prepare for my 20 seconds of terror.

See, I'm quite petrified of air travel. Ted maintains that it's because I'm a control freak, and I can't handle my fate being in someone else's hands. I maintain it's because I don't want to painfully burn in a fiery crash. But, I'm proud to say, I've got most of my terror of air travel narrowed down to the actual 20 seconds of takeoff. That's the most dangerous time. I actually count it down -- starting from when the plane is rolling along the runway too fast to stop, and ending when we've got enough air under us to where the pilot at least has a fighting chance. In between, that's when I figure we really need those engines to work, and if they fail, we're shit out of luck. So that's where I focus my terror, and all my horrific visualizations of the plane twisting sideways and plummeting down. Anyway. Hope that refurbished engine holds up. See you in a bit...

... and hey, here I am, back online, writing to you from up in the sky. The takeoff went fine, and this magic box is vibrating along, climbing to 30,000 feet. Actually, I'm convinced it's all a scam; you get in this plane-shaped box, they run scenery past the window, and meanwhile everyone works like mad outside to change the set, and then you get out and it all looks different, but you really haven't moved. Someone decided that the plane had to vibrate to complete the effect, so that's what it does.

But I digress. As we head out over the water, let's get back to the 'off-screen movie'...


So I go to Ted and tell him this off-screen movie idea and he immediately gets it. We talk it over and realize: nearly all great movies have key events happening off-screen. And most of the terrible movies we could think of had very little happening off-screen; you see it all.

And Ted comes up with a great line, worthy of the Wordplay quote box: "So the way to make a boring movie," he says, "is to show everything."

Case in point, we start talking about an animated film we've been working on for years, the source of much frustration: THE ROAD TO EL DORADO. The film suffers from a lack of momentum. We realize the on-screen movie is okay, but the off-screen movie is weak. There are too many scenes where not much is happening away from the main action.

Let's focus on one small part to illustrate. (Mid-film EL DORADO spoilers ahead.) The story involves a sort of Spanish Hope/Crosby team (Tulio and Miguel) who head off to the New World with Cortes, and discover the hidden city of El Dorado.

In our original structure, our guys meet a native woman, Chel. She appears in the jungle pursued by warriors. Our heroes fight them off, and save this damsel in distress. But Chel is hardly grateful; she disappears. Tulio and Miguel get captured and led to the city, where they find themselves mistaken for Gods. Which seems okay until they're called upon to preside over a ceremony. A prisoner is brought forth... and it turns out to be the native woman, Chel. She's a thief, and is to be killed, dropped into a ceynote well, sacrificed in their honor.

Following the off-screen movie notion, this structure works. We're surprised to see Chel again, but quickly fill in what must have happened. The reason the warriors were chasing her in the beginning was because she stole something. Our guys actually saved a thief instead of an innocent woman. But she must have been caught at some point, and convicted of a crime, and sentenced to be sacrificed. And now our guys have to do something about it -- the poor girl is dangling there, held by guards, about to drop to her death.

In the film as revised, that's not now how the story goes. The powers-that-be changed it to --

Chel is still introduced as being chased. But instead of heading off-screen, she hangs around, going with our guys into the city. Our heroes get mistaken for gods, and dismiss her. When they find her again, she's waiting at their temple.

It's not a terrible change. But it is flat. And part of the reason it's flat is because the off-screen movie is empty. And by leaving the Chel character on screen with nothing to do, it helps to establish her as someone who does nothing. Oddly, in this case, character complexity is lost by giving her meaningless screen time. (Plus, in this structure, you lose a good surprise, and a story twist.)

Clearly not as good.

It's worth repeating: the way to make a boring movie is to show everything.

So we see that being attentive to the off-screen movie can help contribute to a film's momentum, and even aid in establishing a character.

Not bad -- but there's a bunch more.

Let me tell you about a dream I had.

They say only psychiatrists and lovers are in fact truly interested in listening to you talk about your nighttime dreams, so I beg your indulgence here, as I'm going to inflict you with one of mine.

In the dream, I'm outside a large, low building in an industrial park, with a County Sheriff at my side. A group of bad guys have taken over the building. Lives are in danger, and it's up to us to go in and catch them. The Sheriff gives me the classic "I'll cut 'em off in the back," line and takes off, disappearing around a corner.

I go in through the front door. It's a typical business environment, lots of cubicles, empty, no people. I head down corridors, make a few turns. I come out into an open work area, and hear a sound on the other side of a door that leads to an inner office.

I burst in through the door. The office is empty. But there is another door on the far side, which is open, so if the bad guys had been there, they could have dashed out that way.

And then I notice something odd. The door moves, just slightly. I wonder -- is someone hiding behind it? (The door has swung open all the way almost to the wall, creating a hiding space behind it.) Cautiously, I approach the door, and pull it a little to see what's there --

-- and there, hanging by a noose on the door, dead, is the Sheriff.

I don't think I've ever been so surprised in a dream in my life. I was shocked -- but quickly, my mind filled in what must have happened (the events of the 'off-screen movie'). The Sheriff must have entered the building from the rear, and confronted the bad guys first. They killed him, and hung him behind the door before I got there, and got away.

Now, part of why I relay this is how strange I found the whole dream/story process. Here I am, surprised as hell by a story turn, but in my own dream. Some part of me had to set this whole thing up, as storyteller, because the logic of it held up to analysis. But if I set it up, how could I also play the role of audience, and be surprised?

And I really was shocked, so much so, I woke up. Weird, and a little spooky. But I will also say this --

If I managed to surprise myself in my own dream by letting events happen off-screen, it's definitely a technique that will work in your storytelling --

*****

Uh-oh. Hello, there. Me again. That is, me as guy sitting in an airplane flying along in the sky writing this column, not me as omnipotent screenwriter writing-guy talking about the off-screen movie.



There's something I have to tell you, I'm sitting here, typing away at the column -- and I'm pretty happy with it, it seems to be coming out okay, don't you think? -- and then I hear the little 'ding' of a call button, coming from a few rows up.

Now, when you're a paranoid air traveler like myself, you notice every little noise. And you know, people rarely use those little 'call for assistance' buttons; they usually wait for the attendant to stop by. So when someone presses one of those buttons, it does garner some attention -- even if it's just to just watch somebody throw up, or request an aspirin. Air travel can be boring.

So the attendant is there, and is talking to this young crewcut guy, who I vaguely remember as someone who got on the plane late. I guess that makes him an airline employee, waiting for an open seat to ride for free. He seems a little excited, gesturing toward the windows, but I can't hear what he's saying. The attendant leans down and talks to him privately in his ear.

Hey, what's all that about?

I have no idea, but my lizard brain kicks in its flight-or-fight mechanism (pretty useless on an airplane) and my senses are heightened. The plane is still bouncing along, but now that I listen, it does sound as though there's a change in the engine noise. Then I notice -- shadows in the cabin, created by the sunlight coming in through the windows, are shifting. Heading out in the late afternoon, and traveling somewhat south, the sun was on the right side of the plane. Now it's coming in from the left side.

The plane has turned around.

Shit.

Okay, now I'm panicking. Is there a problem? I get a vision of that flight where the roof of the plane was torn off, and quickly tighten my seat belt. My eyes go immediately to the 'no smoking' sign, and I feel a little better.



I guess I have to explain that. When you're a paranoid air traveler like me, you pick up on these things. I read somewhere that if there is a real emergency on the plane, the pilot will flash the NO SMOKING sign as a way to signal the crew. So if the NO SMOKING sign isn't flashing, then there's no problem, right? (And if this is not true, please, don't anyone tell me, I want to keep my comforting illusions.)

So I stare at the sign, the lovely, non-blinking sign, and start to feel better -- and then my heart skips as the Captain's voice comes on the intercom:

"As some of you have noticed, we've turned around, and are heading back to our point of departure. We'll be landing in Los Angeles in just under an hour. Don't you folks worry, this is a routine procedure. We apologize for the inconvenience."

Shit again -- not much information there. Is that a good sign or a bad sign? Still that 'It's just a loose battery cable' tone, but somehow less reassuring when you're hanging up in the sky. A few groans around the cabin, and some scared faces. I wonder if the repaired engine is messing up. Is it on fire right now, smoking and sputtering? My impulse is to rush over to the window to try to look at it, but what if we all did that? Would it be like going to one side of a boat and making it tip over? Could that happen on a plane?

Damn. Well, nothing to do but continue on here, I guess. Just wanted you all to know this column is being written under duress. I want extra credit if this next part comes out at all coherent.

*****


Okay, back to the column.

So, thinking about this off-screen movie idea is getting pretty interesting. It's generating all sorts of story insights. How it helps momentum. How it aids in characterization, how it's necessary to create surprise, etc. I decide it's time to take it all seriously, and give it some real thought. That means going back and talking about it with Ted.

So we take some time to analyze the idea, and hit upon some promising stuff. Ways in which the off-screen movie can help in the construction of a story. Here's what we came up with (spoilers ahead for CASABLANCA, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE BACHELOR, TENDER MERCIES, BODY HEAT, THE SIXTH SENSE, STAR WARS, PULP FICTION, THE USUAL SUSPECTS and SOMETHING ABOUT MARY):
OFF-SCREEN MOVIE ISSUES

#1. FADE IN

The first big chunk of 'off-screen movie' comes right before FADE IN. Your characters have had led entire lives, of course; and the story they're in should be off and running. The Latin phrase for this aspect of storytelling is, I think, 'in media res' or 'to being in the middle.' Commonly called 'backstory,' this big chunk of off-screen movie lets most films hit the ground running, and start with pretty good momentum.

Most good openings are situation-based. (This is one reason I so dislike the 'waking up in the morning' default opening; it's seldom that a character finds themselves in a situation waking up in the course of their usual day.)

Part of the fun of the opening of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is putting together the 'off-screen movie.' What's Indiana Jones after? Who's on his side? When he puts the two pieces of the map together, it speaks volumes as to why he's thrown himself in with this crowd. He has a rival, a number of rivals. ("Forrestal. He was good. Very good.")

A noteworthy start to a movie is JERRY MAGUIRE. Many stories follow the tale of an idealistic character who loses faith in himself and his profession, and then takes a moral stand. JERRY MCGUIRE smartly left most of that off-screen, and started with the character taking a moral stand -- and then having to live up to it.

#2. FADE OUT

At the other end of the story is FADE OUT; and past that is plenty of off-screen movie; the lives of the characters to come after the end of the film. In most stories we want to feel good about what's to come for our characters, the events we're not going to see. We want to be assured of the happily ever after, the romance that sustains into old age, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

To use common story terms, we want emotional balance for the characters, we want some aspect of social order of the world restored. We may never see it, it stays off-screen and in the imagination, but we want assurances it will be there.

In some cases, a film ends with a strong promise of a specific scene to come, yet we don't need to see it; it's actually more satisfying to end on the anticipation. (Consider the ending of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; with a free Hannibal Lecter stalking the crowd.)

#3. FOOT LEATHER

Might as well get this one out of the way; it's the easy one.

Simply put, the off-screen movie is a great place to leave boring stuff; what Jeffrey Katzenberg calls 'shoe leather.' Animation is so expensive, you want to get to the heart of a scene quickly; you simply can't afford to draw filler.

Go ahead and cut driving, parking, opening and closing doors, walking up and ringing the doorbell, shaking hands, saying hello, getting invited inside, sitting down... you get the idea.

A show that does this masterfully is "Law & Order." They're expert at cutting from a story revelation into the next logical scene, usually mid-interview with a witness, responding to a question asked 'off-screen.'

I find it actually more difficult to justify a cut out of a scene than into the next; you can't always cue the cut with a dialogue line. Most scenes need to be at least somewhat incomplete in order to propel the story; one fights the impulse to make each scene individually satisfying, rather than let scenes service the overall story.

The challenge, too, is to go where the audience wants to be, not where you need them to be. One technique is to clue the audience that they're not going to miss anything important by cutting away. (The time to cut to the villains is when your heroes have a long drive ahead of them, preferably across the state of Kansas, at night, with a broken radio.)

#4. CRUCIAL SCENES

So leave the boring stuff off; we all know that. But something I always need to remind myself: in a really effective movie, you leave important scenes off-screen as well.

In TENDER MERCIES, which has at its heart the story of a relationship between a man and a woman, at one point you realize that the characters have gotten married. The wedding is actually left off-screen. Lesser films would have spent a lot of time staging it, but it carried more power, in this case, to treat is as a background event.

In THE BIG CHILL, an entire character is left off-screen. The story could have begun with Alex's suicide, which was, after all, the inciting incident of the whole film. Yet it was so much better to leave that character unknown to the audience, putting us squarely in with the rest of the characters of the film, trying to make sense of the death, working from very limited knowledge.

Sometimes, key plot scenes can be left off-screen to the benefit of focusing the story on the emotional story. In the film THE BACHELOR it was necessary to the story for a newspaper headline to appear. It advertised the fact that the lead character needed to get married to inherit $10 million. The bachelor's friend went to place a want ad at the newspaper, and the story somehow ended up on the front page. How it ended up there wasn't important -- you could fill in some editor seeing the ad, and then deciding to make a big deal about it. We don't really need to see those scenes. By leaving the newspaper scenes out, there was more room in the film for the character's emotional journey.

#5. SURPRISES, TWISTS, REVEALS

Okay, here is where the off-screen movie really shines. In order to have surprises, twists and reveals in your story, you must hide stuff off-screen for a period of time.

When you think about it, the process of moving events from the unknown to the known, the unfolding story over time, is the essence of the narrative form -- and perhaps intrinsic to the human condition. We live our lives information-deficient, afraid of the unknown thing in the jungle, but the storyteller is there to help us out. He lets us tap into knowledge from the past, distant experiences and the experiences of others -- all sorts of stuff 'off-screen' -- through the magic of story.

In the course of doing this, the storyteller keeps secrets. He holds surprises, twists and reveals, turning them over in due time, to maximum effect. A couple film examples --

In THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, pretty much every guy in the film has fallen in love with Mary at some point, but to start the film, we don't know that. We know she's dated a guy named Bret, has a lame architect friend, and has a restraining order on an ex-boyfriend that's caused her to change her name.

These reveals are embedded into the story, ready to be discovered as we go along. The architect turns out to be a not-so-lame pizza delivery boy, in love with her. Ben Stiller's rash-faced friend turns out to be the restrained ex-boyfriend. And Bret turns out to be football star Bret Favre. All speak to events of an off-screen movie we don't get to see, but gives the comedy interest and depth and a sense of fun.

There are many more examples of how leaving events off-screen leads to surprises; you can come up with more examples, I'm sure. I'll leave this with one more -- consider how, in THE SIXTH SENSE, the decision to leave just one key scene 'off-screen' changed the perception of the entire movie.

#6. INTERCUTTING & TIME MANAGEMENT

The widow being tied to the railroad tracks. The hero is riding his horse to the rescue. This sort of parallel action has been a staple of filmmaking since, I don't know, the BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, maybe before.

Cutting back and forth is a classic technique to compress time, show the most interesting stuff, and move the story forward by having every excuse to let stuff happen off-screen in between cuts.

There's an art to this, of course, and it brings to mind a memorable case where it was done poorly. In the Harrison Ford film AIR FORCE ONE, the storytellers needed to have the President 'do something' while key scenes were taking place on the ground. Their solution was to have him search the luggage of the plane's passengers for a cell phone. Back and forth they cut, scene on the ground, the President searching. Scene on the ground, the President still searching. Another scene, and more searching -- it became almost comical.

Intercutting can be used for both time compression and time extension, but in this case, the implied off-screen action, searching luggage, didn't mesh with the amount of implied off-screen time.

#7. OUT-OF-FRAME

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT made extensive use of a simple, time-tested technique: simply leaving action out of frame. In this case, what we see on frame is the on-screen movie, and what happens out of frame (or in the dark, just out of the reach of the light of the film camera) is the off-screen movie.

Horror is a special case; the conventions have always made use of the off-screen movie; what isn't seen is almost always scarier than what we see. Consider the film SE7EN, where the protagonists come upon one grisly murder scene after another. There's power in seeing the aftermath of a killing, and being left to imagine the actual killing scene from the clues provided. This is especially true of the next-to-last murder of the film; a climactic scene, left off-screen, and all the more memorable for it; we only see the aftermath as delivered by truck, and we don't even see that.

Sex is another 'event' that seems to gain power from being left off-screen. What film is it (maybe BELLE DU JOUR? I'd have to watch it again to be sure), where a scene takes place in a brothel -- the woman says she's willing to do anything the customer wants. The man presents her with a box, and lifts the lid -- and she shakes her head, she won't do the thing in the box. What is it? I have no idea, I don't even remember the movie title, but by leaving that bit off-screen, I remember the scene.

The current trend toward the generic wrestling-in-bed scene insert is the worst of two worlds. It doesn't leave to the imagination what goes on under the sheets, or behind closed doors; yet it's not unique enough to be memorable or reveal character. Far better to write a real scene that makes use of leaving some aspects tantalyzingly 'out-of-frame' than to give up on the scene altogether.

#8. THE SPECIAL CASE OF THE MYSTERY

Why are there so few good mystery movies made nowadays? Once a staple in Hollywood, particularly as "B" programmers, pure mystery movies are few and far-between. For the most part, they have been consigned to television (MURDER SHE WROTE and its ilk; wonderful BBC adaptations of mystery novels).

All movies should contain mysteries, of course; but here I'm speaking of the classic mystery story. Mysteries fascinate me, as they use the 'off-screen movie' to great effect. It's truly challenging to invent a great mystery, because not only must you construct the off-screen movie in the audience's mind, but the off-screen movie is malleable, ever changing and shifting, to the end.

And that ending is the entire point of the story: the discovery and reconstruction of the exact off-screen movie which makes sense of all the information which is presented in the on-screen movie.

Which is one reason the pure mystery has fallen out of favor: They are exceedingly difficult to construct, as each element must be present and in its specific place for the story to work -- meaning the story must take precedence over any and all other considerations.

Another reason is that, quite often, the story relies on a last-act scene that is almost purely expository, as a character in the story tells the other characters -- and the audience -- the correct solution to the mystery.

The perfect model is one where a single piece of information -- preferably visual, but definitely brief and simple -- is all the audience needs to put all the pieces of the off- screen movie together in a new light, providing the solution to the mystery.

Like this: THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

#9. POINT OF VIEW

Point of view is an elusive, slippery topic, and worthy of its own column. But here we'll just say that your choice of a point of view character is crucial to your off-screen movie; it will define what scenes you can leave off-screen. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, for example, restricted the movie to the point of view of the Tom Hanks character.

Most romances will restrict scenes to two access/point of view characters, the two destined to fall in love. Most films benefit from restricting the point of view to one or two main characters. A detective film often restricts a story to a single point of view. Adopting a completely omnipotent point of view is somewhat dangerous, it seems to me; as you skate near the edge of the pitfall Ted outlined: "So the way to make a boring movie is to show everything."

#10. THE ONCOMING FILM

The future is always 'off-screen.' To begin with, your entire story is off-screen, lying tantalizingly ahead in the audience's imagination -- and they're aware of it. This is one of the reasons I'm so fond of Robert McKee's idea, in the book "Story," of the 'Obligatory Scene.' This is the expectation of a coming scene that must occur for the story to be satisfying. It gives a name to that audience construct of the expected ending. It's part of the off-screen movie until it occurs, and when it does, it almost always should occur in a way not imagined.

Because the unknown parts of your story, the oncoming film, takes loose form in the audience's mind, you can use that to your advantage, setting up false clues and expectations. The great triumph of THE SIXTH SENSE was not the 'twist' of the story point of view, but the masterful way in which we were misdirected into thinking we were experiencing a tale of a marriage in trouble.

#11. HEART OF CHARACTER

What's going on in the minds -- and hearts -- of your characters is by necessity off-screen. You can't tell what a character is thinking, what they believe, until their thoughts are revealed through action.

The discovery of a character's true nature is perhaps one of the most satisfying experiences at the movies. But to pull it off, you've got to hide the nature of a character inside, 'off-screen' and then find the action to demonstrate it, the action that brings the inner nature on screen for all to see.

It's a great moment in PULP FICTION when the Bruce Willis character has escaped from the sadomasochist cellar folk... and then hesitates... and turns around to go rescue his enemy. Or when Han Solo returns to the battle in STAR WARS. His decision to turn around is left off-screen, making his arrival all the more satisfying.

In the greatest film of all time, CASABLANCA, the true heart of Rick is off-screen, in doubt throughout the movie, hinted at but never fully revealed until the final scene.

#12. THE ILLUSION OF DEPTH

The constructed world of your movie needs to have a sense of depth, and the best way to accomplish this is through references to scenes, events, and people off-screen. Perhaps the best 'constructed world' of them all is the novel "The Lord of The Rings." I happened to run across a review of "The Silmarillion" (a sequel of sorts to "The Lord of the Rings") by Professor T.A. Shippey in his book "The Road to Middle Earth." And I've got it right here:

"One quality which [The Lord of the Rings] has in abundance is the Beowulfian 'impression of depth', created just as in the old epic by songs and digressions like Aragorn's lay of Tinuviel, Sam Gamgee's allusions to the Silmaril and the Iron Crown, Elrond's account of Celebrimbor, and dozens more. To tell these in their own right and expect them to retain the charm they got from their larger setting would be a terrible error, an error to which Tolkien would be more sensitive than any man alive. As he wrote in a revealing letter dated 20 September 1963: "I am doubtful myself about the undertaking [to write the Silmarillion.] Part of the attraction of The Lord of the Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background; an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed."

Consider, in STAR WARS, the throwaway line, "He fought with your father in the Clone Wars" --


Oh, shit! I'm looking out the window, and there's a thin, white vapor trail coming from the right side engine. I swear it wasn't there before. We're still a ways off the coast of California --

-- Damn. Remember what I told you about the 'No Smoking' sign? I kid you not, it's flashing! Shit! I've never seen it flash before, never. So much for my 20 seconds of terror; looks like I've got a couple thousand more coming. And that crewcut guy who got on the plane late, he's getting up and headed forward toward the cockpit. That doesn't look good --

Now the Captain is on, telling us about some possible fuel leak, and that we may have to evacuate the plane on the runway when we land, using those little slides. And now he's saying, "In the event of a water landing..." Shit, what are we, running out of fuel? Will this be the last Wordplay column ever? I ought to have one of those pingers on my Powerbook, so the wreckage folk could find it along with the black box data recorders.

Well, clearly, this column is done; I need to shut down. Wish me luck. I'll leave you folk to work out other examples of the off-screen movie; it's certainly a fertile topic.

Just remember: what you tell an audience can create drama, sure... but it's what you don't tell 'em that really drives 'em nuts.


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