Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Day 68: Guns n’ Russians

It was the playwright Chekhov who said “If you see a gun on the wall in the first act, you know that somebody is going to get shot in the third act.” I know that there are shooting fatalities in his plays The Seagull and The Three Sisters, however, whether bullets fly in The Cherry Orchard, Ivanov and Uncle Vanya, I forget. Either way, it’s a great quote and a good tip, of sorts.

I saw a Russian film yesterday, on the closing days’ programme of the Sydney Film Festival. called How I Ended This Summer. It tells the tale of a young man - Danilov - posted to work at a meteorological station in windswept Chukotka, in the Arctic Circle. his only company being the older, angry and tempestuous Gulybin, a seasoned veteran of the Arctic North and a bit of a bully. In the opening moments of the film, much business is made of a shotgun and where they keep the cartridges for that weapon. Was I the only one in the cinema who was hearing voices....actually, one voice: Chekhov’s: “There’s a GUN, do you see it? A GUN, you know what that means don’t you? Someone is going to get SHOT a bit later on; that’s what happens when you have GUNS lying around.”

I don’t mean my channelling of the spirit of Chekhov to read like sardonicism, I’m not making a fool of the greatest playwright of the last century or mocking the filmmakers, I’m just relaying my contact with the ‘other side’ in the cinema.

Anyway, the first act turning point in the film comes when the family man, Gulybin, is out on the ice somewhere and young Danilov is manning the radio. A message comes through that Gulybin’s wife and child have been killed in a road accident. An icebreaker is on it’s way to collect Gulybin and bring him home; Danilov must break the news to the unpredictable, tempest of a slightly unhinged man. With the ship a few day’s away from them, Danilov decides,that it’s in his own best interests, not to pass the news onto to Gulybin, fearing what horrors might ensue. But Gulybin finds out.

So there you have it. Two men - one crazy and one fearing for his life - hundreds of miles from civilisation, out on the tundra with a shotgun. How much white-knuckling can you do for 60-70 minutes in a movie theatre? The answer to that is “plenty”.

What Chekhov was saying about the gun in the first act, is early 1900’s dramatic speak for the notion of the ‘setup’, the shooting that comes in the third act, is all about the ‘payoff’. Look closely at films and you’ll become attuned to setting up and paying off, it’s the screenwriter’s stock-in-trade. I’ve waxed lyrical about it here before and here I am going on about it again, only this time with the gun spin added on. You see, the “gun” thing does something else apart from setting up and paying off and that film I saw yesterday proved this: it raises the stakes and adds tension. Guns do that. Guns in the proximity of fruit-loops really do that.

It can work the other way too. A producer that I’m working with at the moment - Michael Robertson - re-introduced himself to the Australian Film industry with a wonderfully taught movie last year called Black Water. The plot was really simple yet really good: three young tourists are taken out on an impromptu crocodile viewing trip in a lightweight aluminium craft (a tinny) up a creek in Far North Queensland. The boat is flipped by a man-eating croc who consumes the skipper of the vessel, whilst the three youngsters scramble for safety up a mangrove tree, a long long way from home and safety; plus: no one knows they’re there, apart from the beast beneath.

Black Water was co-written and co-directed by Andrew Traucki and David Nerlich, it’s great, get it out on DVD if you haven’t seen it. Costing little more than Aus$1m it got released in the wake of a very similar crocodile movie - Rogue - which cost about $20m more. Get them both out and see which you think is better value for money.

I saw the script of Black Water pretty early on in the piece and was asked for an opinion by the producer. I had one real concern: in act one of the film we see a gun and, as you now know, when I see guns in first acts in the cinema, my old mate Chekov bellows out to me about the third act. When I saw that pistol, I just knew that the lifeline had been thrown to those stranded people up the mangrove tree. My suggestion was that the writers, come up with another draft, removing the gun from act one; my challenge to them was to write the next draft without a gun in it; I had a suspicion that it would strengthen the third act and the film. I still believe that. They chose not to take up my challenge, which is their prerogative and the film still works very well without my interference.

My point to writers is this: be careful when playing with guns.

Day #68 Tip: Organic setups and pay-offs
Witness is a wonderful film; it’s certainly not the most sophisticated of crime stories that you’ll ever see and, indeed, this central crime plot film is greatly enhanced (some would say “saved”) by a beautiful romantic subplot between an Amish widow (Kelly McGillis) and a streetwise city cop (Harrison Ford).

Act One is set on the gun-toting streets of Philadelphia, where Ford’s John Book finds himself a quarry of the bad guys. He flees the city with Rachel (McGillis) and her young son Samuel, the boy being the only witness to the murder of an uncover cop. They find safe haven with with Rachel’s father, on their farm in the heart of the rural and peaceable Amish Country. Detective Book’s revolver is the first thing to be handed over for safekeeping; guns being verboten in that Mennonite community.

That gun of John Book’s comes back to play in the third act and, more importantly, it becomes a true character dilemma for the protagonist - Book - in the film’s climactic moment: the way of the gun vs the way of peace. That weapon represents so much more and is not just a handgun in this movie of Peter Weir’s. It’s not just a practical tool serving practical purposes in the story either; it’s organic, to the narrative, the symbolism, the meaning and the motifs of the film. It’s so much more than just a gun planted in a film because sooner or later the writer and the character were going to need a gun to “get out of jail free”.

Neither is this about smuggling guns in inconspicuously or under the cover of filmic night, it’s about making setups and pay-offs organic.

The final shoot-out scene of Witness takes place on a farm, amongst the cattle stalls and grain silos; in fact one bad guy comes to a terrible, yet organic death, in one of those silos. This was a favourite tip of Hitchcock’s: to use, as instruments of death, objects and things that are germane or organic to the scene and circumstances of the characters.

Maybe it’s best to take the lead from the whodunnit board game Cluedo: “It was Miss Scarlet, in the kitchen, with a KNIFE.”

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