We all need stories. Film is an extraordinarily powerful medium to tell stories -if not the most powerful one, with its blend of visuals, cuts, music and the input of everyone from the writer to the audience member. It is, however, fairly recent and is probably going to develop into an even more powerful storytelling medium in ways we cannot imagine.
Most of us making films got hooked into cinema early and never gave it a second thought. However, when you compare cinema to another medium, far more ancient, there is a lot to take away from it.
There is something far more sophisticated to film than shooting performances just as there is something more sophisticated to theatre than a film unfolding without the camera. Often when writing, it’s fun to play with a story and see how it would fit in another medium.
The case of The Producers
Mel Brooks’s The Producers, one of the funniest films ever put on the screen, was originally envisioned as a novel. Brooks, however, quickly came to the realisation that it was a dialogue-heavy book, so turned it into a play. However, it had too many different settings -then perhaps it was a movie.
The Producers is an insane story (by any given standard). It also won Brooks an Oscar for writing, in a year when the competition was The Battle of Algiers and Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. In the early 2000’s, the comedy legend took it to the theatre and turned his movie into a juggernaut musical (itself turned into a movie).
Higher levels of articulacy
What cinema has that theatre does not is an appeal to the unconscious. In that sense, a wordless moment expressed through visuals and editing done well will let you put two and two together.
Films need visuals, and theatre needs words to express moments between characters. That’s why theatre at its greatest reaches incredible levels of articulacy from its characters which, when translated to film, make for epic moments.
It was true at the time of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and is even truer nowadays when fewer and fewer characters seem to know how to express themselves with purpose and precision. The characters in Closer know how to express themselves, define their state of mind with words so sharp they’re as true and poetic as they’re hurtful.
Carnage (adapted from Yasmin Reza’s play The God of Carnage) is also an example of how words can hit the bullseye and actually carry the story forward, with each slip of the tongue pushing the characters further into conflict. A master filmmaker such as Polanski brought tremendous skill to the staging even though it’s obvious that this story worked brilliantly enough on a stage and didn’t call to be filmed, it’s enjoyable to see actors such as Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz revel in these words.
Bulletproof your story
Each medium has its constraints. If you’re hesitating about which medium to go for, assessing which constraints work best for your story. For instance, Mike Nichols had his start in comedy and later explained that it’s very easy to find out what works and what doesn’t with what you’re doing when you’re playing for an audience with a lot of beer in their hands. His career then gave the world countless stage and film hits.
And as with The Producers, it’s good to adapt your story to those different mediums and modulate it to fit the constraints of film, theatre or novels. In the end, you’ll know your story inside out, and you may find along the way what works and what doesn’t and make an even better film for it.