January 3, 2009

Time and It's Use in Storytelling

I want to talk a little bit more about the editor's role in story development.  It seems fairly obvious; after all everything in a movie, TV show, commercial or even home video is about the story that's being told and the edit is the final rewrite.  Since it is always about the story it's worth it to go into this in some detail.

This past Christmas Day I went to my local theater and saw "Seven Pounds" with Will Smith.  The structure of this film got me thinking about how structure supports and in this case, elevates, the story.  I don't want to give away any details.  I think this is a superb film, one of the best I've seen in years and I strongly urge you to go see it yourself.

"Seven Pounds" opens with the film's ending.  Before you start thinking I've just given something away- trust me when I say it will be obvious to any viewer that this scene is actually the end- and that's the point.  The fact that you know where the story is heading, that as you watch the film you have the inevitable conclusion in the back of your mind, gives even the smallest moment greater poignancy than if you didn't know.  The choice to start with the end is in fact what makes this a great film instead of an ordinary one- and this is a great film.  I don't know if this choice was made during the writing process, the production or the editing, because I couldn't locate a script online but for the purposes of this discussion, I don't think it matters.  

Lots of films have used time as a way to increase their impact- "Pulp Fiction", "Memento" and "Jackie Brown" (it's structure taken directly from Stanley Kubrick's "The Killers") all use time in different & uniquely effective ways.  "Pulp Fiction" jumps around from one story to another and back and forth in time- this structure keeps the viewer on his/her toes, you never know what's going to happen next.  "Memento" is famous for it's reverse timeline.  At it's heart, this is a mystery about a guy with short term memory problems, so telling the story in reverse chronology is a way to reveal the mystery.  Contrast this with "50 First Dates" where Drew Barrymore also suffers from short term memory problems but the story is told in standard chronology- because this works better for a comedy.  

As for "Jackie Brown" and it's godparent- "The Killers"- revealing the crime by cutting back and forth between the planning and execution as well as showing the clock adds tension that keeps you on edge.  "Bound" does a similar thing with cutting between the planning and execution of the caper, just without the clock.  In "Bound" this is used to compress time and create tension.  Corky (Gina Gershon) is telling how the caper will go down through voiceover while we watch her & Violet actually executing it.  At first it appears we're just being shown the plan, until it all goes wrong and we realize we've actually been watching the crime in progress and hearing about what should be happening while watching it go wrong.  This adds an extra layer of tension.  This also harkens back to "The Killers", just less obviously so than "Jackie Brown" because unlike those films there is no onscreen clock showing you that things are not happening when & how they should.  

What does this mean for you?  Simply that you need to consider how time can be your friend and that standard chronological time isn't always the best or only way.  This doesn't mean using flashbacks- flashbacks, as a general rule, should be used only sparingly because they pull your audience out of the emotional moment that they're in.  But time, when used to the story's advantage is different.  This is why the initial flash forward in "Seven Pounds" is so effective, it infuses every moment that follows.  As you watch the film you are constantly thinking back to that opening and it places you inside the mind of Will Smith's character and increases the emotional impact of all of his actions.  

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