Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Visitor (2008)

I'm writing a script at the moment. I know that is not earth shattering news from a screenwriter on a screenwriting blog. But apart from a short film I wrote back in January, 2009 has been the year of the outline, the treatment, the pitch proposal, the script reading... pretty much anything apart from actually writing a script.

And I'm loving being back in the groove. Sure it's tough, and yes a bit stressful because there is a deadline (more of which I will elaborate on when I can) and no I can't sleep cos story ideas, scenes and lines of dialogue keep whirring around my head as soon as it hits the pillow. But hey, we live the life we choose.

And I chose to have a look at The Visitor (written and directed by experienced actor, Thomas McCarthy.) I actually watched this for a specific research purpose, but I got much, much more out of it. There are no spoilers coming, but the set up is essentially that a tired, lifeless middle aged professor returns home to find a couple of illegal immigrants living in his apartment. It's primarily a story about characters interacting and it was very, very good.

But as I work on my first draft, inevitably rubbish and overwritten as they always tend to be, The Visitor was a lesson in economy. Economical storytelling, economical characterisation, and economical dialogue.

Mr. Barron blogged about this last aspect, as eloquently as ever, only yesterday. I didn't realise when I watched the movie who Thomas McCarthy was but his experience as an actor clearly stood him in good stead when it came to trusting his cast to say more with a look, a glance, a change of expression, than any line of dialogue.

I read a script recently and told the client that I thought the dialogue was overwritten. They replied that they agreed but had been told it was one of their strengths. (If you're reading this I'm not having a go - just illustrating a point!) I'm not sure overwritten dialogue is ever a strength. And I know there are many screenwriters known for writing fantastic dialogue - but that's not quite the same thing as overwritten dialogue.

Check out The Visitor if you haven't seen it. It gave me plenty of food for thought for when I finish bashing out the first draft and get stuck into the real business of rewriting.


Piers said...

Aaron Sorkin and Billy Shakes off the top of my head.

Admittedly, they're both playwrights who later moved into television.

Jez Freedman said...

For sure. And you can add David Mamet, Tarantino and no doubt a lot of others. Take Juno MacGuff - she talks and talks and talks - and Diablo Cody gave her wonderful line after wonderful line to say. But Bleeker hardly says a word.

Back to The Visitor and Walter, the protagonist, is a man of as few words as possible. Tarek, the young man, says more but even then not a lot.

As with many, many things - it's all about character and being character specific. But the overall point is to remember that characters don't have to talk and talk for us to get what's going on. And if it's not there for a very good character reason, it probably means it's been overwritten

Anonymous said...

I must say it didn't like The Visitor nearly as much as I liked McCarthy's previous film The Station Agent. In The Visitor, what McCarthy is trying to do is show that 'illegal immigrants' are normal people too - however, I can't help but think that you just don't achieve that by presenting them as flawless, overly sympathetic characters. If McCarthy wants to show us that immigrants are 'just like the rest of us' or that 'we can learn a lot from them and their cultures', he would have been much more bold of McCarthy to present them as warts and all human beings, with imperfections and hang-ups like the rest of us. The result would have allowed for a far more interesting and compelling drama.

Jez Freedman said...

Haven't seen The Station Agent but I'll try and check it out. To be honest the main focus in The Visitor for me was Walter. Watching his character arc was like watching a guy wake from a coma and I found it cleverly and subtly done.

Having spent a small fortune on the bureaucracy of sorting out my (American) wife's visa, I'm not predisposed to sympathy for illegal immigrants! However, I do feel for genuine asylum seekers who have to navigate the same bureaucracy to live in the freedom we take for granted.

(spoilers coming)

It's worth remembering that in The Visitor, Tarek's mother confesses to receiving the deportation letter, throwing it away and thereby confirming that her son does indeed have illegal status. It's an understandable yet criminal act. That's a warts and all of sorts.

But I take your point that characters in drama usually benefit from shades of grey, rather than black and white. However, it's also nice to hold onto the hope that amongst 'the rest of us,' there are good people who just want to live their life in a quiet, dignified way, regardless of their backgrounds, beliefs, races and ages.