Prepared by Alexandra Brundrett
Unfilmables- that is, anything which is describing something that cannot be heard or seen on screen- have long been a contentious topic among writers. Screenwriting gurus often argue that writing something which cannot possibly be realised through a camera is a screenwriting sin that will inhibit your script from being taken seriously. But what if that’s all a myth perpetuated by gatekeepers who place too heavy of an emphasis on the boundaries screenwriters must adhere to? If unfilmables are truly a faux pas, why do so many produced spec scripts use them to great effect?
DZ argues that unfilmables are not only acceptable, but are often necessary for clarity and to make the read as close an experience to the viewing of the eventual product that the script will become — if it’s greenlit.
Further, a key usage of unfilmables is their capacity as a framing device. We have the meat in the middle, which is often of a visual and aural detail. What emerged throughout discussion is the importance of active engagement of imagination. This ties in with framing, as how you frame something engages the brain in different ways. Unfilmables are most effective if they encourage the reader to use their imagination to become involved.
In order to deconstruct the usage of unfilmables in micro moments— including location descriptions, mood/tonal shifts, bringing performances to life, and communicating certain types of humour— Chas & Stu breakdown examples from various screenplays. These examples are categorised by what they consider to be the key functions of unfilmables. Analysing LETHAL WEAPON, YOUR BRIDESMAID IS A BITCH and HEREDITARY to explore how unfilmables can enhance the impact of asides and KILLING EVE to examine how unfilmables can help frame the scene. They move on to KILLING THEM SOFTLY, SHARP OBJECTS, HEREDITARY and SPARTAN to deconstruct the effect of unfilmables in openings. Then shift their focus to FLEABAG, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, THE NICE GUYS and DRIVE to observe how unfilmables can provide performance beats to actors, and conclude with MICHAEL CLAYTON, THE TREE OF LIFE and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI to offer insight into unfilmables as a method of conveying tone/theme.
DZ apply a lens to multiple scenes from HEREDITARY because horror films are often a good example of effective unfilmables as they’re typically very cinematically-driven. The truth of cinema is that the audience exists and has a point of view that is separate from the characters. The camera is our eyes and what’s in and out of the frame is us and our experience. This is especially the case in horror films, where the camera often captures the audiences’ voyeuristic experience.
As DZ shifts their focus onto scenes and sequences, they argue that cinematic moments often occur at turning points. Openings are very important for establishing character, world, tone and mood. Essentially, the opening scene tells you how to readthe film.
There’s very distinct categories of when unfilmables can be used. Framing the scene openings, performance direction, description of the physical and, finally, ending with a grouping together of tone, mood and theme. Your opening is your opportunity to provide the lens through which the readers should experience your project. You have a lot more luxury to indulge in unfilmables in your opening to inform the tone of your script, but you also need to ensure that your usage isn’t excessive because you don’t want to put readers off right from page one.
Spartanhas been included as an example because it highlights how there are different styles and different approaches to unfilmables— some of which convey no tone, no character, no theme—not even what you are seeing on screen. As a writer, Mamet’s perspective seems to be that the job of the writer is to write the action, because “drama is action”. That’s his school of filmmaking. It’s the opposite of writing the experience.
There’s a lot to say about how to write actor’s performance as communicated on the page. A recurring question is how do you write characters realising stuff on the page? There’s a cinematic language for that. It’s often a push in with music. Ari Aster might write we push in, whereas David Mamet might write angle on.
DZ ultimately reach a verdict that a lot of successful writers only use unfilmables where it is more efficient to write an unfilmable than to write what is actually seen on screen. In other words, your primary goal is to focus attention. You do not need to divulge a huge amount of detail— it’s a wide shot rather than a close-up on a narrative level.
- “Who is this unfilmable for?”— is it for the reader of the script, the audience of the film, the character, or the crew?
- “The sandwich technique”: contextualise your unfilmable by surrounding it with filmable writing. E.g. this from LETHAL WEAPON:
The kind of house that I’ll buy if this movie is a huge hit. Chrome. Glass. Carved wood. Plus an outdoor solarium: A glass structure, like a greenhouse only there’s a big swimming pool inside. This is a really great place to have sex.
- “Specifically Universal” / “Universally Specific” — the best unfilmables seem to be those that engage the reader’s imagination rather than shutting them down with excessive detail. E.g. this line from A QUIET PLACE:
THE MOST IMMEDIATE AND TERRIFYING COMBINATION OF SOUND ONE COULD EVER IMAGINE.
- Unfilmables great at setting the tone/feeling for what we are about to see. E.g. this from KILLING EVE:
There is an eerie quiet about the scene.
- and they are great at clarifying meaning to what we have just seen. E.g. This from FLEABAG’s (pilot episode) final scene:
She pulls out the little tin sculpture of the woman with no arms. It sits on her lap. Two women. One real. One not. Both with their innate femininity out. End.