Q: Aside from formatting and style, what are the most prevalent shortcomings in scripts by Christians?
BRN: The biggest shortfall I find in beginning writers - Christians and pagans - is the failure to understand and harness the real power in the screen art form. Anyone who wants to write great movies has to plumb the depths of the multilevel nature of cinema and then begin to exploit the levels to create paradox.
The real power to help and heal the audience in a work of art is in paradox. We really want to haunt the audience in the way, for example, that Flannery O’Conner’s stories are haunting. She’s the one who created that phrase, saying that in order to make a story a work, she had to find a “haunting moment.” This refers to a moment in a story that is at once completely true and completely shocking. I have really brooded over this a lot, and it is clear to me that a work of art stays with an audience, and leads them into rumination, in so far as it incorporates paradox.
So, what happens in a movie is that the audience walks into the theater distracted, munching their popcorn, burping and scratching. Then, they encounter the movie, and suddenly they find themselves at the end with a new and irritating/pressing question: “Rats! I have a question now that keeps coming back to me!”
Too many Christians think we are supposed to use the arts to give people the answers. We’re not. We’re supposed to use the arts to lead them into a question. And that is just one stage in their personal journey of divine revelation. Once they have a new question, they will be on a search - consciously or subconsciously. They are going to read, they are going to meet people, God is going to send other things in their life. They are not going to get dunked in the baptismal font and raised to the altar from a movie. That’s too much. But the arts can definitely send people delving.
If you understand that, then you understand presenting an artful paradox is enough. We used to say in the convent, “Humble tasks are still necessary ones.” I think the arts task is very humble in getting people to a place of discomfort, what Plato called the stinging fly around the thoroughbred, getting it so angry that it runs. That is enough.
Of course, the purpose of the art is not this. There is no purpose! That's why it is art. But there are goods that come from the arts, and leading peole to wrestle with the Truth is one of those goods.
So, the first mistake beginning screenwriters make is the failure to even understand what the art form is. That is, the power to combine he different levels of meaning in a movie to create paradox that will lead people to ask questions.
The second mistake that keeps many writers from greatness is the inability to create visual imagery that is truly metaphorical and resonant. For example, I just worked on a screenplay set in the Spanish Civil War. It struck me so much that the whole age was defined by this climate of polarization and hatred, very much like our own. Spain had its secular Left and its religious Right just completely excoriating each other, and getting to the point in their cultural dialogue in which both sides are basically saying “You can’t talk to these people, there’s nothing you can say to them. They’re not even people.”
That’s the kind of thing I’m hearing in our nation today. After Bush’s election, someone passed on to me a message from a TV writers' Internet forum which stated, “We have to conclude that the Christians are not really human beings the way we are.” I’m not joking. It’s really a post I read that was posted to a group of TV writers. And no one disagreed. The gist of the discussion following the message was, “Yeah, those Christian red-staters are a different kind of being from us good people.”
Anyway, writing this movie on the Spanish Civil War, I was trying to find visual metaphors that would be in the background of the scenes in which hatred was particularly active in the story. So I came up with seven or eight things hatred is like and backgrounded my scenes with those. One scene begins with a shot of weeds climbing all through this fence, tangling, completely choking. Another scene takes place with this terrible cacophony of noise going on, where both characters are so scared of each other, but they are screaming and neither can hear each other. See,these are both metaphors of hatred: it is like a weed, it chokes. It is like cacophony, it prevents you from even hearing the other person. I came up with five or six others and these are in the background of the scenes.
This kind of writing takes a lot of patience - for experimenting.
Q: And reflection.
BRN: Yes, you really have to brood over it. My mother used to say, "Anything that doesn't you cost you anything, probably isn't worth anything." This is true in storytelling on the screen. The amazing things most often show up in the rewriting.
Very often, I hear myself saying to writers, “What is the theme of your work?” And they’ll say something like, “Well Joe marries Mary.” But see, that’s not a theme. That’s a story. That is what happens - not what it means.
So, what’s the theme? It starts to show up in the second or third draft, when the writer stands back and asks, "What am I getting at here? What is this storying trying to say about life?" Our students, because most are coming from Evangelical backgrounds and so haven’t had philosophy, don’t tend to even know what theme is. They associate it with "the moral of the story." But that’s not quite what theme is, it isn’t the moral of the story - it's the meaning of the story.
A good theme can be argued. An example of a good theme is, “Man is immortal.” One person says, “I don’t agree with that,” another says, “I do.” So, as a writer, I stand back from my story and see that that theme underlies the story as a presupposition. If you don’t buy into my worldview – in this case, the premise that man is immortal – the story doesn’t make sense because the hero is going to make choices that wouldn’t make sense if we don’t have another life waiting for us. So you have to try on my theme, my worldview when you watch my movie.
A good example of immortality as theme can be seen in A Man For All Seasons. If man doesn’t live forever, that movie makes no sense at all. The audience will have to say “Well, Thomas More believes he lives forever," at least. They have to try on the theme in order to identify with the character's choices. No one watches A Man For All Seasons and says “What a fool! He’s got nothing waiting for him after he loses his head. He should have just signed the divorce statement.” No one says that.
A good theme in a work of art is a point of view by the artist about the meaning of things. Good themes are always couched in universals. So, a bad theme is, “Broccoli is good for you.” It isn't big enough. It isn't worth traveling the journey of the art to come out with broccoli. A good theme is, “In the end, the truth always comes out.” And some people will disagree with that. But the movie becomes a demonstration of that universal.
Theme - as presupposition - should be so imbued in the text that no one ever comes out and says it in the movie. For example, in my Spanish Civil War movie, the theme probably ended up being, “When God gives you a mission, He doesn’t give you a map.” Another way to say it in a more universal sense is “Just because you know your destiny doesn’t mean you know how to get there.” I don't ever say it in the movie, but it's there underneath everything that happens. I hope it emerges from the story.
Basically, I’m hoping people will watch it and then as they are going through their daily lives find themselves with the conviction, “It is okay sometimes to know what I’m supposed to do, but not how I am supposed to do it.” And this will give them some courage to persevere doing what they are supposed to do. “I know where I need to get. And it looks like I should cheat on my boss, or steal this thing, or give up on my faith, or whatever, because it seems like the most expedient way to get what I need to get. but no, sometimes heroism means hovering in faith.” I hope my movie, in dealing with that theme, will give people some room to say “Wow, I’ve felt that.”