Have you even thought about point of view?I understand the Laker triangle offense. I know what women want. Wave/particle duality does not daunt me. Carlos and Don Juan have explained to me the naguel.
I can prove Fermat's Last Theorem, understand Bob Dylan, and predict the stock market.
But I don't understand 'point of view.'
If I did, this column would be a lot shorter.
Here's everything I do know.
I won't make you wait for the main idea. Here it is: correctly employed, POV does nothing less than tell you which scenes you're allowed to write, and which scenes you're not allowed to write.
Yep, that's correct -- in good storytelling, there are scenes you're not allowed to write.
Take a look at BACK TO THE FUTURE, told from Marty McFly's point of view. Marty is involved in every scene of the film. Which means there aren't any scenes, say, between just his mother and father, or his father and Doc Brown, or Doc Brown and Biff --
Nary a one.
They're not allowed.
If you were writing that film, those are scenes you don't get to write. They might be a part of the plot, it might be incredibly convenient for the story to show them, you might be really tempted -- but you have to resist.
When other characters do have necessary scenes, Marty is at least there in the role of observer. He's always present in some fashion -- the story is 'told through Marty's eyes.' The audience sees what Marty sees, knows what Marty knows -- experiences the story along with Marty. That's the point of view choice of the film. And a strict adherence to that point of view is part of what makes that film a classic.
Another example -- consider TOY STORY, and TOY STORY 2. In those movies, everything is seen from the point of view of the toys. That's it. No toys, no scene. So we never see a conversation, say, between just the boy and his mother. It might take place off screen, fine, but the filmmakers aren't allowed to show it --
-- that is, not and keep the storytelling as elegant as it can be.
Showing only scenes with toys seems like a very restrictive choice. Yet you saw the film, and the scenes were so natural, the story designed so well, you probably didn't even notice. In fact the limitation helps the movie, forcing attention directly onto the central story and the issues of the main characters.
In contrast, consider the point of view choice -- or non-choice -- of the film SMALL SOLDIERS. Similar subject matter, but done with a mostly unrestricted point of view. There are scenes at 'human level' featuring the toy inventors and customers, and scenes down at 'toy level' featuring the toys --
And those groups are divided up even more: the toy owners are two families that live next door to each other, represented mainly by a boy and girl who fall in love, but also by the parents. And the toys are divided into two distinct groups, followed separately, the 'hero' Gorgonite group and 'villain' Commando Elite -
Too many points of view!
(An aside, there was a reason for this mixed focus. Steven Spielberg, who originally bought the project, always connected with the story of the inventors. Walter Parkes developed and co-produced the film; he preferred to focus on the people whose lives were upended by the toys. Joe Dante -- along with all the writers -- were most interested in the toys themselves; for us, they were the center of the film.)
So with three different POV choices, all equally emphasized, you end up asking the question -- what is the film really about? The inventors and their responsibilities, the neighborhood under siege, or the toys struggling with their design flaws? The central story was fragmented. People watching the film could easily tell it wasn't as good as TOY STORY, even if they couldn't so easily articulate why.
One reason: when a film is about everything, it's hard for it to be about anything.
A general rule: the more limited the point of view, the more elegant, and effective, your story.
Okay, you got me.
I know you, my screenwriting brethren, I know how your minds work. You're thinking maybe I'm onto something with this point of view thing, but you're doubtful. "More restricted, more elegant"... hmmn... you're mulling it over, reviewing your favorite movies, running them in your head, testing out the idea -- and finding plenty of exceptions, plenty of films where the camera roams all over the damned place.
Remember, I told you up front: I don't understand point of view.
For one thing, there are a number of point of view choices available in film, most of them not as simple as the ones discussed so far.
To explore the topic in depth, we're going to have to lay a little foundation, and dive into the world of prose fiction for a bit. I know, I know, boring -- stifle that yawn, I promise to keep it quick.
Stories written in first person use the pronoun 'I'. Events are described to the reader by the protagonist or secondary character, pretty much as they happen. Such as --
I sensed the lady was trouble when she first walked through the door. She sat down, crossed those long legs and smiled out from beneath a river of blond. Her lips pouted as she held up a cigarette -- chivalry kicked in, and before I knew it, I was offering her a light.
First person works great in prose fiction ... not so great in movies. To do a film in first person, the camera would see and hear everything from exactly the protagonist's point of view. There was at least one moderately famous attempt at this, a film of the Raymond Chandler novel LADY IN THE LAKE, starring Robert Montgomery. Marlowe's face was only visible when he saw his reflection. The effect turned out somewhat bizarre, especially when the camera swooped in toward a lady for a kiss.
Second person prose writing uses the pronoun 'you.' A recent example would be the novel BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. It goes something like --
You watch as she crosses her legs, cigarette dangling from pouting lips. You notice a bright lipstick stain on the filter as you hold your lighter out for her, flame burning.
Second person has no film counterpart that I can think of; it's presented here just to be complete.
THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT
Okay -- who the hell is this third person, and why is he telling so many stories? Third person narratives use the pronouns 'he or she', which creates a separation from the protagonist --
And in that separation, the storyteller is born.
A storyteller who is free to observe, speculate, and comment on the action and characters. One who can roam all aspects of the tale and invent, arrange and present information in whatever manner seems best. The storyteller has the power to dive into any character's head and reveal inner thoughts and motivations. Say, for example --
He resisted the impulse to glance down as she slowly crossed her legs. Admirable restraint, she thought. She smiled, tilted her head a little and looked out from under a river of blond. Raised a cigarette to her lips. She would get a response out of him, one way or the other.
He stood and gave her a light. A small favor -- the first of many he would do for her that long hot summer.
So what is the film counterpoint to third person omniscient?
The flip answer: the bad spec screenplay.
It's my belief that the omniscient point of view, the one that goes anywhere and shows anyone, anytime, is perhaps the least interesting choice for a film. It's pretty much a non-choice. Complete freedom seems like an advantage, allowing for an intuitive approach to telling the story. But no limits can give the impression of no form. And film finds power in structure and design. Almost all stories on film benefit, I think, from some kind of limitation of the point of view and the resulting focus that brings --
Which brings us to that 'other' third person choice, the granddaddy of them all...
THIRD PERSON LIMITED
With third person limited, the author chooses one point of view character for the story (or one for each scene or chapter) and lets the reader experience only what that character experiences. It's often the protagonist, but it could be a secondary character.
Going back to our example --
He sensed the lady was trouble when she first sat down in his office and crossed those long legs. He noticed the little trick she had of letting her hair cascade down over her eyes, allowing her to peek out to maximum effect. He vowed to not fall for the act -- but when she raised a cigarette to her lips, he found himself up out of his chair, offering her a light.
This approach has all the advantages of first person and third person combined. The story is naturally limited, focused on the protagonist -- but there's also a storyteller who is free to observe, organize, and comment on the action.
Now -- how can this be translated to film?
Lots of ways. And we'll get to that. But first --
First, to really nail down the idea of the limited point of view, (squawk!) I'm going to drag in a little visual aid -- (squawk!)
(squawk! squawk! squawk!)
A curved-beaked, onyx-eyed green parrot, leathery tongue, chewing on one of those glue-seed sticks. (Stay with me on this, it's weird, but it will pay off.)
Picture the parrot sitting there on his perch... and now strap a film camera around its feathery little tummy. All right, let's be kind, and make it one of those lightweight Canon XL1 digital video cameras, so the poor creature can still get off the ground.
So our worthy little bird flaps its feathers... rises into the air... and we have created something I will dub the 'parrot-cam.'
Our parrot-cam can fly up close to get a shot of our hero kissing his co-star. Or it can get a tracking shot of him driving along in a car. It can fly into a room, turn around to see our hero enter... and look over his shoulder, to see someone coming up from behind, and the hero doesn't know...
The camera is a third person point of view -- the parrot just observes the action, doesn't participate -- but the key is, it's limited, not omniscient at all.
After all, those little parrot wings can only carry it so far, so fast.
Send it around to too many places, too many people --
-- and you get an exhausted parrot.
You don't want that.
You want a happy, rested parrot.
So the key for point of view in film, then, is to figure out some limitations. When you limit the places the little squawker has to fly, you get a happy, rested parrot... and a whole bunch of scenes you're not allowed to write.
Sounds a little strange, I know, but watch -- it turns out there are a number of common 'limiting' choices for point of view in film.
The one we've already talked about -- Marty, in BACK TO THE FUTURE is an excellent example. With this choice, our parrot-cam doesn't have to do much work -- it pretty much just hovers over Marty's shoulder the entire film, almost never leaving his line of sight. Our little parrot stays rested and happy -- he doesn't have to fly off and see other scenes, and you don't have to write them.
This has several advantages:
-- because we experience each story event right along with Marty, we can't help but feel empathy for him and his situation.
-- mystery is naturally created. We want to figure out what's going on, but information can only be learned a bit at a time, as fast as Marty can figure it out (remember, the parrot never leaves to learn anything on its own). This is why the single point of view choice is a natural for the detective film.
-- for many stories, the single protagonist does double duty as the 'access character' of the world. An access character is a person like us, who enters a foreign environment, and has the same reactions, questions and concerns we would have in that world. So when we arrive back in the fifties, we're surprised to see a line of attendants race over to pump gas -- and Marty is surprised as well. We're shocked to see how young his mother looks, and so is he. We don't know how time travel works, and Marty asks the questions we want answered. Thus, the single point of view can work as a strong cue to the audience on how to react to, and understand, the story.
Okay, here the point of view is divided; our parrot-cam has to flutter back and forth between two characters. Still not too bad; our feather-enhanced camera can handle that, and there are still plenty of scenes you're not allowed to write.
With a double point of view, the audience is pushed naturally into a superior position. The effect can be like watching a pair of freight trains headed toward each other (such as MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, where you know that the couple coming together are going to hate each other on sight) -- and that's part of the fun of it. We get to see both sides of a story develop, see action and reaction, and anticipate events, knowing information the participants in the story don't have.
But still the limitation is there -- scenes are allowed with just the two lovers together, or scenes with each of them separately, and that's it. (We'll also note here that even in 'love triangle' type stories, with three main leads, it's usually still a dual point of view choice -- rarely are scenes granted of just the 'third wheel' off on his or her own.)
One of my favorite point of view choices. Here the main emphasis is split, as with the romance -- but this time it's split between two people who pretty much hate each other.
Most adventure films and action films fall into the bitter rivals camp. It's a very common choice. Our flying parrot-cam focuses on the hero, doing his heroic thing... and then wings his way over to the villain, up to no good; in fact creating the need for the hero. In the end, the two are invariably together, and the bird can hover there, watching them both.
Consider RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It might be a surprise to note that the main relationship of RAIDERS is between Indy and Belloq, not Indy and Marion. The point of view is split between the bitter rivals -- when we leave Indy, for a cut away scene to be granted, Belloq has to be present -- and no other scenes are allowed.
(DANGEROUS LIAISONS does a neat twist on the basic bitter rivals form -- by leaving out the hero. It's a split point of view between rivals, yes, but both who could be considered villains.)
THE ENSEMBLE PIECE
It may not be immediately obvious in an ensemble piece that the point of view is limited, but it is. Our parrot is a little unhappy, having to fly around between five or six people now -- but it's still limited; usually the members of the ensemble group are united by a common element.
Let's consider three 'American' movies, all with an ensemble point of view: AMERICAN GRAFFITI, AMERICAN PIE, and AMERICAN BEAUTY.
With AMERICAN GRAFFITI, the setting is the night of high school graduation, and scenes are limited to several teenagers in a state of transition, deciding what they're going to do with their lives. So you can have a scene with, say, Richard Dreyfus and Wolfman Jack, but not Wolfman Jack on his own. (You could even say that the point of view is limited to the teenagers of a single small town in California -- our parrot is limited not only to a particular group, but also a specific geography.)
AMERICAN PIE is similar in form -- we're introduced to four guys united by a vow to get laid by grad night, and those are the characters we follow in the course of the story.
AMERICAN BEAUTY limits its scenes to members of that dysfunctional family -- the father, mother, and daughter. The exception is the videographer next door, who is granted his own scenes -- but since he becomes the daughter's lover, he could perhaps be considered 'family' as well.
While we're on the topic of the ensemble narrative -- the makers of the first slasher-type film certainly stumbled upon a highly effective point of view structure. What you do is put a group of characters in danger... and then kill them off one by one. Each death naturally pares the number of point of view options down, focusing the story on the remaining few. Finally the story is told from just a single point of view, the last person standing, usually the main protagonist battling the killer. It's a point of view structure that perfectly complements classic dramatic structure; perhaps that's one reason the form is so enduring.
THE BIG EVENT
As we expand out to more complex point of view choices, an easy one to notice is the 'event' film. Here, our camera-toting parrot is allowed to view all the characters and scenes related to a single central event.
Think of DEEP IMPACT... TITANIC... even SCHINDLER'S LIST. Characters are unified by their relationship to a common situation -- often a disaster. By viewing the event from a series of perspectives (reporter, government official, common man, etc.) different facets of the event can be explored, and the storyteller can provide a more complete narrative than could be accomplished with just one character.
Much more work for our parrot, yes, but at least the audience can settle into the logic of the flight pattern: scenes related to the event are allowed, all others are not.
The Stephen King novel "Carrie" uses a cool 'found footage' conceit. By showing a collection of after-the-fact news reports, clippings, and interviews in the course of the story, we get a glimpse of events as seen from the perspective of the media. (Rumor has it that part of the impetus for this choice was to help beef up the slight novella to a more formidable novel length.) It's a time-honored technique, in the prose world dating back at least to Bram Stoker's fantastic novel "Dracula."
BLAIR WITCH PROJECT used a similar, bold point of view -- we would see everything from the cameras held by the characters themselves, in theory real footage, found after the people in the film became missing. It's as if the characters were holding our parrot-cam by its little feet, carrying it around with them... (and all right, okay, we're all a little tired of the parrot-cam visual aid by now. It's served its purpose. We'll set it free, toss it a sunflower seed, wave bye-bye and watch as it flies off into the land of overworked metaphors.)
TOPICAL or THEMATIC
Sometimes the characters collected to tell a story are united thematically, or by a topic. A couple of films that come to mind here are PARENTHOOD (scenes are granted that relate to parenting) and PULP FICTION (all of the characters explore the thematic question -- "What does it take to be a righteous man?")
POINT OF VIEW SHIFT
Once the idea of point of view is understood and mastered, manipulating it can have a profound effect on an audience. One way to knock an audience sideways is to make a radical point of view shift in the course of a story.
Another 20-page column could be written regarding point of view and Hitchcock films, but I'll focus on just two --
In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, we're pretty much following the dilemma of Roger Thornhill. It seems for all the world like a single protagonist point of view. And then there's a sudden cut to a scene in the CIA building. It almost seems like a mistake, it's so jarring -- but the story effect is profound; suddenly all the suspicions and fears that have been building throughout the story are confirmed. The point of view shift alone tells us that there is a much larger agenda going on, that there are in fact wheels within wheels turning, other agendas and issues at play.
Also, this is the moment in the plot that -- cleverly, importantly -- the film has to shift from the need to build mystery, to the need to build suspense.
The other Hitchcock film that must be mentioned here, of course, is PSYCHO -- which could be described as a single protagonist point of view story that changes, abruptly, about 40 minutes in, from one character to another.
(And while we're on this section, I'm compelled to note the Stephen King novel "Christine," which is the only book I know of that switches from first person point of view to third person part way through -- in an amazingly smooth and natural manner.)
I don't really have a handle on this one, so I won't pretend that I do. But it strikes me that sometimes in films, choices are made that are so stylized and so overt, it's clear that the 'point of view' that we're seeing is that of the filmmaker, or filmmaker as storyteller.
When filmic devices are used in an obvious manner -- musical stings, zooming in, montage sequences, etc. -- on some level, we realize that the filmmakers are intruding upon the story with their perspective. This often lands as a heavy handed choice --
-- but not always. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, there are 'cuts to the villain' that are obscured, granting a minimal amount of information to the audience, exactly as much as the filmmaker intends. Though clearly manipulative, it's done well enough to where we don't mind; we feel we're in the hands of a good storyteller.
With the biography point of view choice, we're granted scenes, essentially, with a single character -- and all other characters who are crucial to understanding the main character's life.
Examples of this structure include, CITIZEN KANE, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and ALL THAT JAZZ.
It's interesting to note that all these films use the device of an omniscient-like investigator, viewing the story of the person's life along with the audience (a reporter, a couple of angels, and Death, respectively). Putting a 'listener' in the story is a very distinct and powerful storyteller choice, and is often accompanied by --
THE NARRATOR (OR GREEK CHORUS)
A couple thousand years ago stories were told from the point of view of the Greek chorus -- guys in gowns marching on stage, chatting in unison, setting the scene, asking questions and making observations. They were the bridge between the story events and the audience, and a way for Euripedes & Co. to make sure the big story points hit home. (The technique is alive and well today -- check out MIGHTY APHRODITE, HERCULES, and THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY.)
But a more common 'storyteller' choice for film these days is the narrator, usually speaking in voice over.
The narrator can be separate from the story (ME, MYSELF & IRENE); separate from the story but visualized on screen (PRINCESS BRIDE); or a character in the film story itself (RAISING ARIZONA).
In the animated film ALADDIN, Howard Ashman designed the story to be narrated by a singing shopkeeper -- who was in the end revealed to be the Genie, so we got to see what became of him after he was released from the lamp. Sadly, the time constraints of animation forced all the bridging narration (the extended 'Arabian Nights' song) to be cut -- as well as the 'reveal' at the end. All that was left was the introduction scene, which felt incomplete to many of the people working on the film... but nobody could come up with anything to do about it.
Use of a narrator gives a natural perspective to the story; creates empathy; can cue responses; and can be used for exposition and to present thematic conclusions... and also allows the writer to create doubt in subtle ways; for example
THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
There's a technique in fiction known as the Unreliable Narrator; a point of view character who may be mad, or lying, or deluded. An example is Nabokov's novel "Pale Fire." The conceit is that a great poet has died, leaving his last poem to his neighbor. The book is constructed as an introduction, the poem, and the neighbor's voluminous footnotes. Reading between the lines, you realize that the situation is not what is presented.
In film as well as prose, use of the unreliable narrator takes at least two forms: the partially reliable narrator, who accurately records events but whose conclusions are suspect (THE OPPOSITE OF SEX), and the entirely unreliable narrator, who can't be trusted on any level (THE USUAL SUSPECTS).
CONFLICTING MULTIPLE POINTS OF VIEW
Perhaps the most ambitious and interesting use of point of view in stories occurs with a collection of unreliable narrators.
In novels, an example would be AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, which consists of four accounts of the same incidents, in which one person is lying, one is insane, one is overly imaginative, and one is strongly religious. Each has a different interpretation, adding insights into what the earlier writers have written.
In film, examples include ELECTION, where the characters present their conclusions, but the audience can see where those characters may be wrong. Another fine example is the unjustly overlooked film COURAGE UNDER FIRE (highly recommended).
The most famous example, of course, has to be RASHOMON, in which four accounts of a single event are ultimately irreconcilable, and the truth lies somewhere within or outside what is shown.
Okay, you got me again.
Here I've been listing these point of view choices as if the forms are perfectly restrictive, as if they really do preclude scenes featuring non-point of view characters.
Of course, it doesn't work that way. I know it, you know it, and you know that I know it, etc. Hopefully you haven't been going through here making a list of all the exceptions, and false claims and errors I've been making.
Like the scene from AMERICAN PIE where it's just the two girls talking to each other. Or the sequences in ABOUT LAST NIGHT where the two best friends flirt with each other, and the romantic leads are nowhere to be found. Or the scene from THE WIZARD OF OZ, with the Wicked Witch of the West sending out those flying monkeys -- and Dorothy, our access character, is not there.
Yeah, I know, there are plenty of cases where a film seems to be functioning with a set point of view choice... and the choice gets violated, or shifts... and the film works just fine, thank you.
It turns out, the point of view choice can be stretched, pulled, twisted... abandoned, or combined with another... and still be effective.
And that, that right there, is the real artistry of it all.
Sorry to mislead you -- it's just that I couldn't figure out a way to write this column, talk about the different forms, and keep mentioning that there are exceptions. As I'm sure you know by now, I don't really understand point of view.
But point of view is, indeed, malleable. To explore this, let's make up a scene for the next TOY STORY film. Look, there's Woody, zooming down the sidewalk; he's got a couple of Hotwheels strapped to his feet, using them like skates. Suddenly his cowboy hat flies off. He races around a corner, and disappears --
Close on: the hat, sitting there on the cement. A shadow falls over it... and then a hand appears. It's the evil Toy Collector guy. He picks up the hat and smiles.
Okay, now -- Woody is not there. He's gone. There's no toy to witness the scene. Has the point of view choice for the film been violated?
Yeah. Sort of. Maybe. Not really.
Because the scene is directly related to Woody.
It concerns him, and is still on his story. It came about as a direct result of Woody's action --
More importantly, it's short. If we cut back to the toys right away, and follow their concerns, we're fine. Later, the Toy Collector guy can show up, holding Woody's favorite hat -- great, we've stayed on track.
But if we continued on with the Toy Collector, and, let's say, followed him walking into some toy convention, where he tries to use the hat as proof he's found a rare and valuable Woody doll...
Not only has the scene physically cut away from the toys, but the concern of the film has shifted to the Toy Collector. Now we're off track, and point of view has been violated.
(Sure, showing the Toy Collector pick up the hat gives the audience information that Woody doesn't have -- making it an 'audience superior' moment. But given that the story is multiple point of view anyway -- often, Woody doesn't know what Buzz is up to -- that might not land as a violation; you could maybe get away with it.)
Another example: let's return to BACK TO THE FUTURE. There's a key scene between Biff, the father and mother -- and Marty is not there, he's locked in a trunk. Seems like a violation... except that Marty was nearby, trying to get to the scene, and later did come upon it. More importantly, the issues and forces at play in the scene were all ones Marty had orchestrated, and would directly impact on him. All these factors worked to mitigate the point of view 'violation.'
A last example: in a romance film, it's common to grant scenes 'one-removed' involving the best friends of the leads -- as long as the topic is the main romance itself. It's almost become one of the conventions of the romance form, to track the feelings of the best friends of the lovers, and see how their story mirrors the main story. The best friends can fall in love, or not, and it still feels like we're directly on topic, and on story.
See what I mean?
It gets fuzzy.
Deciding how far to bend point of view -- before it will break -- is part of the artistry of storytelling.
And the whole megillah is complicated by something else: point of view types can be mixed and matched.
We didn't realize it at the time, but a film Ted and I worked on -- MASK OF ZORRO -- does a neat trick in combining point of view choices.
The film begins with the standard 'bitter rivals' choice: Diego as Zorro, fighting against his rival, Montero. The story then cuts ahead twenty years to Alejandro Murietta in conflict with Captain Harrison Love... second set of 'bitter rivals.'
When Diego and Alejandro team up, and with Montero and Love already in league with one another, we end up with a dual bitter rivals point of view structure. Neat.
But the clever part was this: the other most common 'dual' point of view choice is the romance -- which grants access between two lovers, and often, a rival. And in this story, Elena -- as the daughter of Diego, but stolen by Montero -- is being fought over by the two older men; in essence, a love triangle romance. At the same time, she is also being courted by the two younger rivals -- a second love triangle romance.
This allowed Elena to be at the center of both 'bitter rival' stories; although she is a secondary character, the point of view structure choice makes her essential and central to the story. The camera is free to roam among those five characters, revealing the plot... and yet the scenes have a sense of natural story logic to them; never do we wonder, 'why are we watching this scene now?'
So what happens when you mix a biography point of view with a romance? An unreliable narrator with a big event? A bitter rivals story with found footage? I don't know, but the results have the potential to be powerful & effective.
Okay, you got me again.
The last time, I swear.
Some of you no doubt started to read this column thinking I was going to talk about POV shots, maybe, or the all-important filmmaker's point of view, and you're feeling that all of this stuff about storytelling point of view is all fine and good, but somehow incomplete.
It turns out that Point of View is just an amazingly great phrase, versatile, with multiple, intertwined meanings. It can reference vastly different things, but on some level, all those meanings and uses are related to each other.
Let's go through them quick:
Common shorthand for 'point of view' when it relates to a single shot; used in screenplays to designate a camera angle from a particular person's vantage point. The camera (and audience) literally sees through the eyes of the character.
It's a bold choice -- the audience is practically forced into the shoes of a character, forced to see things from that perspective.
And of course there's the classic 'stalking in the woods' point of view where the audience doesn't even know whose eyes they're looking out from. Even so, the POV shift is so strong, there's no missing the important point: something is out there, and it's not the people we've been following all along.
-- Scene Point of View
The same scene can be shot in many different ways, with different emphasis. A bank robbery shot from the point of view of a terrified teller lends sympathy to the teller, and the thief is just a bad guy. Shoot the same scene from the point of view of the thief, perhaps scared, forced by circumstance, wishing he didn't have to steal, and suddenly the thief is made more human, more sympathetic.
My favorite example of this technique in the prose world is in the novel "Treasure Island." Long John Silver is a classic antihero -- a bad man that we somehow like. How did Robert Louis Stevenson pull this off? Every time Silver is nice and friendly, he's big in the scene, loud, smiling, vivid and alive. Every time Silver does something reprehensible, he's off screen, or distant, small in the scene, or we only hear about it second hand.
So scene point of view can emphasize different characters within a scene... or it can be entirely separate from the characters, by including an 'audience' within the scene. The most common form lately seems to be the 'declare your love' scene in romantic comedies. In NOTTING HILL, it was Hugh Grant testifying in front of a bunch of reporters; JERRY MCGUIRE had Tom Cruise declaring his love in front of a woman's support group; MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING had Julia Roberts tried before the court of ladies' restroom public opinion.
-- Point of View as Belief or Opinion
Characters in films often disagree. A scene, then, and even a story, can be an exercise in competing beliefs; an exploration of what is right and what is wrong.
I prefer relationship films that are 'issue based.' WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, on one level, is a love story. On another level it explores the universal question: can men and women be just friends, or does sex always get in the way? Differing points of view are explored in scenes between the two -- and the 'point of view' belief that seems more compelling often depends on whose scene point of view is emphasized.
-- Story Point of View Choice
This is the one we've been talking about throughout the column. The story point of view choice -- whose perspective do we 'see' the events from -- goes a long way toward determining the focus of the story, and quite often, where our sympathies lie.
William Goldman recognized this when he turned down the assignment for the first GODFATHER movie. "I didn't want to glorify those terrible people," he said. He knew that simply telling the story from the mob's point of view would, on some level, make those folk sympathetic.
-- Filmmaker's (and film) Thematic Point of View
A filmmaker, screenwriter, or storyteller may have an overall point of view they wish to promote -- we could call that the theme. The theme can inform the story point of view choice, and the weighing of the beliefs that are expressed by the different characters, and how individual scenes are approached. All the choices work in concert to convey the filmmaker's beliefs.
Same phrase. Different meanings. Yet all of the meanings and uses intertwine, one playing off the other.
See why this drives me nuts?
All right, cool.
We're done with the hard part.
You've got what you need to know -- or at least everything that I can halfway figure out -- now there are just a few things I'd like you to know.
For one, I want to tell you how this column came about.
Ted and I were working as producers on a project set up at Image Movers, which is Robert Zemeckis' production company. A revision was completed, the script went in, and the story notes came back. Among them was this little gem:
"The story lacks a consistent point of view. While Curtis is our window into the world... the dealings between Willie and the cops, and Stacey and Lyle are not told from his point of view. These scenes should be witnessed by Curtis. This will provide consistency in p.o.v., will intertwine the different worlds of the narrative, and will also provide Curtis with the necessary motivation to aid Stacey."
Of course, I'd prepared the writer -- Paul Hernandez, whom some of you may remember from Column #39, Cover Me -- to expect some insanity in the notes. Because no matter how hard you try, no matter how clever you are, you simply can't predict, nor prepare yourself for the truly whacked-out story notes. You may think you know the flaws in your work, and can anticipate response -- but it's no use. There will always be at least one criticism that comes out of left field, absolutely inexplicable, one that you could never foresee.
Case in point.
The above note is pretty clear: tell everything from the lead character's point of view; have him present in every scene.
But -- the story was a romantic comedy.
It would be like, you turn in a draft of THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and get back a note saying all the scenes should have Mary present.
In truth, most story notes are simply not well written, and with a little work, you can find some small amount of merit hidden, ironically, inside their poor execution. But every time we got to the above note, we were stuck. There was just no way to tell the story and limit the point of view to just the lead character.
What were they thinking?
So we went into the story meeting. Did the chit-chat, and waded through the list of changes and suggestions. And then we got to 'the' note. What, exactly, did they mean?
"Oh, don't worry about that," they said. "That's just a standard note that we give all writers. Bob is very particular about point of view, so we include that note on all our projects. But we don't really understand it."
I tell you, hand on heart, looking you in the eye, I'm not kidding -- that's exactly how it happened.
Now, we'll leave aside the whole crazy brain cloud notion of giving all scripts the exact same story note response, especially one that you don't understand... some things are beyond even the scope of this essay.
We'll just focus on this --
The important thing, to my ears, was the notion that Robert Zemeckis thought point of view was such a crucial issue. "Oh, yeah," they said. "Bob won't even allow an establishing shot in one of his movies. He'll ask the question -- who's seeing it from that spot? Who's point of view are we showing?"
As many of you know, I consider it my job to roam the halls of Hollywood with my ears open, determined to not miss little tidbits like this.
The concept blazed through my mind. Robert Zemeckis... won't shoot an establishing shot. The venerable establishing shot... how many times have you or I blithely dropped in one of those... and Robert Zemeckis wouldn't shoot it.
Now, as chance would have it, that same day I happened to have a conversation with a friend of mine, novelist and teacher Will Shetterly. After reading Column #40, The Off-Screen Movie, he practically demanded I write a column on point of view. He emphasized how crucial the idea was -- and provided a brief outline of how it's used in prose fiction (from which I have stolen liberally, thanks Will).
"You have to do a column on point of view in movies," he said. And then he added the magic words: "It's something that I've never seen written about, anywhere."
Now it turns out this is not entirely true -- there's a concise, accurate, three paragraph description of point of view on page 363 in Robert McKee's fine book "Story." It points out how limiting the point of view can be helpful to focus a story. I read it, he was right, but clearly, it seemed, more could be written.
And then a thought came bubbling out of my subconscious.
Years ago, in some video interview, I remembered Steven Spielberg making a comment on a scene from DUEL. "I wish I'd never shown Dennis Weaver's wife," he said. "It's the one thing in the movie I'd change. It was a mistake to cut away."
I can't tell you why I remembered that little comment for so many years -- maybe because it was Spielberg admitting he made a mistake? I dunno. But now I see what he was saying -- he'd violated his point of view choice. DUEL is told exclusively from the Dennis Weaver character's point of view, a choice that enhances the mystery, paranoia, and tension of the film. But early on, during a phone conversation, the film cuts away and shows Weaver's wife. A minor violation of the single protagonist approach, to be sure, and it's the only one in the film -- but something that bugged Spielberg enough to mention it in an interview years later.
So I was pondering that --
And then another thought bubbled up: James Cameron, talking about THE ABYSS. In the original film release, he cut the section at the end with the giant waves threatening the world's shorelines. One of his reasons, as I recall, was he "... couldn't motivate the cut out to those places."
It was a point of view problem. The story followed the Ed Harris character down to a visit with aliens, living in the depths of the ocean. Once you're down there with him, having taken that journey -- how do you cut back up to the real world, without losing all the tension of the situation?
Cameron's decision: he couldn't. At least, not until he figured it out for the director's cut.
So I was talking all of this over with a writer friend, Bill Marsilii -- and he gave me another director anecdote that he remembered, also involving Cameron. Apparently for TITANIC, Cameron wrote and shot scenes from the other ship nearby, the Californian, the one that ignored the flares of the sinking ship, and came too late to rescue the people in the water.
But Cameron cut those scenes when he realized he didn't want to leave the point of view of the people on the Titanic.
He wanted to bring the audience along as if they were passengers on a sinking ship... and cutting away destroyed the illusion. It was a point of view problem, with only one solution -- don't leave the ship. It was a sequence that, given his point of view choice, he wasn't allowed to write, wasn't allowed to shoot, and once shot, wasn't allowed to use.
I wonder how much it cost?
So anyway, still around the same time -- hang with me on this -- I happened to go see a screening of THE GREEN MILE -- which had some fascinating point of view choices.
In the film (not counting the opening) there are, I believe, four times where information from the past needs to be presented to the audience. And the audience gets to see those events on screen as flashbacks. But in each case, Darabont found a way to present those scenes as unfolding for the Tom Hanks character, Edgecomb... seeing them from his point of view, so to speak.
The first is when Edgecomb reads the report on Coffey. As he reads a description of events, we get a flashback -- seeing them as Edgecomb is seeing them in his mind. Then there are two scenes where Edgecomb 'sees' events as Coffey remembers them, through a magical transference from touching Coffey's hand. And then there's one scene where Edgecomb interviews a official regarding the case, and hears a story told which, again, we see in flashback.
(And hey, there's a way to improve the quality of slushpile scripts all over the world: all flashback scenes should be seen through the eyes of a point of view character!)
So here's a case where Darabont was so concerned with maintaining the point of view choice, keeping it to a single protagonist, he went out of his way to structure the story accordingly, and even so far as to invent a magic device to account for a flashback.
I came out of the theater...
... and I happened to recall Zemeckis and his unwillingness to show an establishing shot...
... and then I got another odd memory, a story of Brian DePalma vowing never to show a 'plane landing' shot in one of his films. Apparently he made a bet with one of his assistants on BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, and then lost the bet when the assistant got an incredible shot of the Concord landing that he just had to use...
... and that, for some reason, made me think of the 'establishing shot' in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. When we get to D-Day, the first shot is not a wide shot showing the many ships pounding toward shore. It's a close up of Tom Hanks, frightened, much the same thing we would see if we were a soldier sitting on the seat next to him. Clearly Spielberg's intent was to make us experience the event from the point of view of the common soldier --
And that's when -- finally -- I got it.
It all came together.
All these directors struggling with the same issue, all these storytellers worried about the same thing --
I suddenly remembered my favorite book of all time, "Lord of the Rings" -- an epic tale of sword and sorcery and high fantasy -- but all told from the point of view of the down-to-earth Hobbits. I recalled George Lucas saying he wanted to do Star Wars as an epic from the point of view of two robots, spanning decades in space --
I recalled Robert Zemeckis and his company's note on point of view, and his reluctance to shoot the traditional establishing shot --
I could cite many other examples and many other films that rushed through my head, but finally all came together and I realized --
Directors are passionate about point of view.
Especially great directors.
Point of view informs their choices, from the overall structure of the story to how to approach individual scenes. It was a necessary part of good storytelling.
Now if point of view was something that directors cared about so much, I needed to care about it as well.
I got this image -- if you took all the great filmmakers, directors, writers, and storytellers, and got them all together on the back lot down at Warner Bros, and asked the ones who worried about point of view to raise their hands --
Every one would do it.
This column had to be written.
A few closing thoughts, trying to sum up a bit.
It should be plain as paint by now that choosing the point of view of a story is one of those crucial early decisions to make on a screenplay. Our first impulse is to go wherever our instincts take us, and just relate the events that happen --
Sometimes that's the best choice.
Often it is not.
A wandering, drunken parrot's flight point of view is the hallmark of hack filmmaking. And the paint-by-numbers made-for-TV-movie omniscient viewpoint is the common default choice; you can do better.
You might even want to try some of the more advanced point of view tools -- the audience within the story, the multiple point of view choice, the radical point of view shift -- to enhance and focus your tale.
If you get notes back on your script that your story seems unfocused, that it's not tight, it seems to meander -- you may have a point of view problem.
And some of the nastiest story problems to solve are point of view problems. And some of the best story solutions are point of view solutions. Boldly limit the point of view of a story and you immediately give it form, and focus.
And in any case -- at least now you can impress development executives in your next meeting. No matter the script or story, just say -- "Well, the first thing to do is to fix the point of view problems -- both in the overall story structure, and in individual scenes." They won't admit they don't understand what you mean, but they'll be impressed as hell.
(You could try telling them, "You've got a very tired and worn out parrot here," but I'm not sure that would work.)
Finally -- I was trying to come up with a way to use point of view within this column, maybe end with some sort of radical point of view shift, to illustrate these ideas. Which made me ask the question - what is the point of view of these columns, anyway?
You'd think the answer was obvious: mine. But a little thought revealed that's not the case -- once again pointing out how elusive that tricky little point of view beast can be. What a surprise to realize these columns are actually written from your point of view, the reader!
That is, if they're done right. I actually write from inside your head, bringing the ideas in front of you, presenting them, unfolding the arguments in a way that hopefully makes sense.
You're my access character.
Now if this column was really written from my point of view, it would be something like this --
The third day of the climb brought Terry to base camp five. The summit was now tantalizingly close, just a few hours away.
Cold, hungry, exhausted, Terry had started to care less and less about reaching the top, and finding the sacred wise man, the one who reportedly held the secret to Point of View. Terry just wanted a shower and a Quarter Pounder with cheese. He would eat it in the shower. Even the fur-frosted yaks looked tired and pissed off. But the Sherpa guide said they had to push on; the weather was due to turn bad, and if they didn't make the summit that afternoon, they probably wouldn't make it at all.
The last few hundred yards were the hardest. The porters held back, letting Terry crawl forward, and reach the summit alone -
And it was empty. No one there. Just a cold, unhappy wind gusting over the rocks, a few early flakes of snow --
Wait. A sound. From the other side of the peak. Maybe the wise man went off to take a pee. Did wise men have to go pee? Terry supposed that they did. He waited, formulating the questions he wanted answered in his head.
Finally, the man did appear, climbing up over the ridge. He looked remarkably like William Goldman. Well, Terry thought, who the hell else would he look like?
The man smiled at him -- and then a strange thing happened. A second man appeared, climbing over the ridge... a man who looked remarkably like Robert Towne.
What the hell was going on?
William Goldman cleared his throat, said, "Are you the Dalai Lama? We've got some questions about Point of View."