At this point, you’ve probably had enough of politics already. You can’t open your phone without being bombarded with the news, whatever Trump said, wherever Brexit is at, the dwindling of democracy the world over… As a filmmaker, or more broadly as a creative, it can be very overwhelming to be bombarded with all that information. When all that you aspire to do is just creating good art, what do you make of this information?
Even though I am a proud political nerd who’s rushed to binge on the silliness of the last season of House of Cards and enjoyed every last drop of it, there are ways for the casual newsreader and serious creative to cope with the state of today’s politics.
The subtext of political speech
A recent article in the New Yorker on the stakes of the midterm elections in the United States contained the following about Donald Trump.
“Believe me, folks,” he told his crowds back in 2016, before proceeding to lie to them. “I’m the only one that tells you the facts,” he told a crowd the other day.
That particular section utterly leapt out of my screen. What was spoken was fairly transparent. What was said, meant a lot more. This is the very definition of subtext: when the implications of what is uttered are far broader and deeper than the words themselves, the emerged part of the iceberg letting on all that lies below.
Politicians don’t tell the truth. That much we know; they have turned it into an art form. Trump is the most recent, blatant and shameless iteration of this politician figure, who spins whatever they can into what is convenient to them. The only exception to this might be when Theresa May says that Brexit means Brexit, the words and the meaning being equally opaque.
Following politics and politicians is a blessed opportunity to understand what subtext is really about. Books have been written, but following the news will make you see those theories put into practice.
You can then turn this knowledge into scenes. I only italicise the words to emphasise that subtext makes a “scene” in the general screenwriting terminology turn into something bigger. It is an event. It is something that happens. As the late, great Mike Nichols would describe it: an event. He explained that his job was all about answering the question “what is it really like?”.
So when you write, or when you direct, ask yourself -what is it really like?
Weaving another narrative
The art of creating a good narrative sequence has been mastered by storytellers since Aristotle and refined by consulting companies and spin doctors in the past couple of decades.
A good politician will not just sell themselves. They will sell you a narrative. The more the narrative is high concept, the easier it is to sell. What is Trump selling? “Make America great again.” What does it mean? Not much, really. It is an appealing slogan that any voter can project their fears and hopes onto. Effectively, it is an iteration of “us versus them”. The problem is when the slogan is so innocuously vacuous that it quickly falls apart. Again, see “Brexit means Brexit”.
Aristotle theorised that any narrative consists in a beginning, a middle, and an end. His theory has yet to be disproved or improved. Jean-Luc Godard added that those elements need not be in this order. David Mamet appended that this was why French films were so expletively boring.
Looking at Trump’s electoral narrative about the “caravan” of migrants walking from Honduras to the United States, it fits perfectly with his broader narrative of “us versus them.” It sets up refugees (them) as wanting to steal from Americans (us), and puts him in the convenient place of the hero.
Following politics is basically analysing storytelling. It is true to say that the best narrative work is done on television, but it is not necessarily in fiction television. Any 24-hour news network will show you heroes, antiheroes, enemies, goals, high stakes… The politics may be dreadful, but the narrative is compelling. Stakes hardly get higher than the balance of the world order. That is a lot for you to unpack and take into your creative work.