Prepared by Alexandra Brundrett
How can unfilmables help you create those cinematic moments of awe?
In the second part of the unfilmables series, DZ continues to examine how writing an “unfilmable” can enhance your script. While Part I focused on micro moments, Part II looks to see how unfilmables can create a ‘moment of awe’ – that is, those often breathtaking cinematic moments that, on screen, feel beyond writing. How are those sequences actually written on page? How heavily do the writers employ unfilmables to convey these awe-inspiring moments to the reader?
In this episode, DZ shifts the focus to memorable sequences from YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, THE INVITATION and MOONLIGHT. Through comparing what is seen on screen versus what is written on the page, DZ provides further commentary on writing cinematically, performance beats, breaking (and maintaining) “the spell”, limited palettes of language, self-contextualising writing, and ‘instructables’ (for Stu to coin a phrase).
When it comes to unfilmables, there’s a climate of terminology at play. In YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, Lynne Ramsay utilises what DZ refers to as ‘techniqueables’—they may initially seem difficult to convey on screen but are possible to film with the right techniques.
When used judiciously, unfilmables can help increase the white space on page. Every time Steve Zallian uses an unfilmable in SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, it’s for efficiency. It’s to convey meaning and it’s always contextualised. Zallian is such an effective writer because he self-contextualises so seamlessly— his language and his big print connects it all together. Throughout SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, he’s making very conscious choices of how he constructs his sentences and employing repetition to create the context on the page through his word selection, but also where he’s using those unfilmables in the context of the entire scene.
Conversely, in THE INVITATION the writers are going for a really disorientated sense of losing time.
They’re replicating on the page- we wash in and wash out. The elongated vowels give the feeling to the reader of how it should be experienced by the viewer. It’s showcasing absolute mastery of control of language, and that’s what makes it work.
The writers weave universally specific language throughout the script— even in character descriptions. ‘There’s something unsettling about her energy; skittish, an abused animal’– they’re using the imagery of the language to immerse and unnerve readers. The unfilmables in this script are predominately derived from tonal control. The tonal structure draws you in the experience of the characters as the dread amplifies.
When a script has consecutive pages of unfilmables in a heightened moment of the narrative, we can identify that the writers have made a deliberate decision to shift the tone and writing style. While the use of repetition in language is a centrepiece to tonal shifts, it’s important to note how the writers of THE INVITATION construct the experience of dread and paranoia. It can be argued that they impose a restriction on their vocabulary in this script— the imagery used in the dialogue is very specific. ‘Animal…cacophony’— it’s actually restricting the palette of language to suit the tone of the script, which subsequently prevents the tonal shift from feeling too jarring. In other words, the language itself has power but so too does applying restraint with your vocabulary. Does it create the feeling of awe? Potentially- if a solid understanding of how cinema works is also at play.
As discussed in Part I, unfilmables are at their most effective when they try to enhance how audiences experience the film. Sometimes restraint is required to elicit the desired reaction from the readers of your script and eventual audiences of your film. At a certain point, your execution of all the elements on the micro impacts how people interpret the macro.
One of the biggest takeaways is how much the writers of these successful screenplays have used repetition both in and out of the dialogue. It’s a conscious effort to avoid breaking the spell which carries the reader through those moments. Context is key. By using repeating language or using a defined palette of language, you are creating context even when using unfilmables.
Ultimately, most of these amazing awe-inspiring moments utilise unfilmables that are so illustrative that it’s almost like reading a novel. However, it’s important to note that the writers adhere to the principle of less is more— they’re very judicious with their use of unfilmables. They build to those moments using sparse, ‘angle on’ Mamet-esque style writing and then change the style they’re writing in to deliver those big beats. In fact, the examples that DZ bring forward all stand out because they change the language in the context of the script.
When you watch THE INVITATION, you feel like you’re being transported into another moment. In MOONLIGHT, there’s a sequence where two characters simply sit and talk in a car yet it has so much weight. It’s not just the contextual weight, but also the added weight of the way it’s shot and lit combined with emotional pull of the music.
DZ ultimately reach the verdict that sequences become moments of awe because of where they are placed in a film, and howthey incorporate cinematic language to communicate the micro and macro elements which ties the sequence all together. Structure is of course key, but language just as much if you want the reader to feel what you hope the audience will experience when watching the film.
Exposition through unfilmables is, as a general rule, to be avoided. This means anything that reveals character or plot information. E.g. Chas Fisher, a former private investigator, knows that Stuart is the greatest of all.
Relationship unfilmables, according to Stu, are at least one of the exceptions to the above rule, especially when they clarify how two (or more ) characters behave towards each other. E.g. Chas distrusts Stu, Chas is the father of the kids etc. But these relationship elements ought to still be playable and quickly dramatized.
Instructionables are a type of unfilmable that speak directly to the crew and how it is intended to be shot. E.g. MONTAGE – glimpses of a methodical process. Camera tight, sounds heightened…
“Does it break the spell?”Is a good rule of thumb for unfilmables. DZ didn’t go into any specifics of what breaks the spell but (arguably) what they identify as good writing in the examples are ways to createthe spell in the first place.
“Self-contextualising” is an umbrella term for writing that makes everything feel integrated and of one piece. That can be further broken down into specific techniques. Techniques which, broadly speaking, are about connecting elements together.
Repetition.The repetition of words is a key technique that DZ identified being used in multiple scripts, especially THE INVITIATION. It makes the writing feel purposeful. E.g.
There is something about the way people are tearing at their meat, something primal. There is something mechanical about the conversations, the seams and gaps revealed. There is something grotesque about all of it.
Repetition also functions as a way to connect lines of dialogue with action lines. This can be within individual scenes or across different scenes. An unfilmable is less likely to break the spell when the language makes it clear that it is commenting on and directly informing what a character has said.
JOSH: “When will it end? // VINNIE: “Tomorrow” // Josh wishes tomorrow were already behind him.
Using connective devices.Connective devices can be as simple as using dashes to connect lines of action with dialogue or across venues. But they can also be using a conjunctive like “and” at the start of an action like to connect it with the line of dialogue above. E.g.
JOSH (to Fred): “I tried to give him a way out” // FRED: “I know // And he’s proud of him for it.
Limiting pallets of language.Using a restricted vocabulary (which is itself a form of repetition) is another way to create connections between your action lines and dialogue across scenes,
Limiting imagery in the language. Similar to restricting your vocabulary is using only certain kinds of imagery in your imagery goth the images you evoke in your dialogue or in your action lines. In THE INVITIATION a lot of the imagery is connected to animalistic behaviour e.g. There’s something unsettling about her energy; skittish, an abused animal.
Whereas in BOBBY FISCHER, the imagery has to do with battle, which is reflected in both the dialogue and the action lines:
Zilber captures a knight. Josh gangs up on a rook with his queen and a bishop. Zilber slips away, but not before eyeing, briefly and suspiciously, this small boy sitting across from him.
Vinnie: Your boy used pieces in combination to attack.