Tuesday, October 27, 2009

London 14B: Day 10 - Dinner Party

So I climb the stairs down to the cinema, still not knowing where my class is tomorrow morning and wondering if I can stay awake (after 4 hours of sleep) for two movies made by people who have taken classes I taught. The more I think about it, the more I worry that if I stay for DEADLINE I won’t be able to jog over to the Raindance Café Bombshelter and find the staff member who knows where my class is. So, I decide to skip DEADLINE - sorry! Maybe I’ll catch the movie at a festival in the USA.

MOVIE: THE DINNER PARTY - Australia - Based on a true story about a group of 20 somethings who attend a dinner party in Australia... which ends in murder. While I was writing up this entry the writer-director (Scott Murden) e-mailed me to say that he was enjoying the blog entries about Raindance and looking forward to reading what I had to say about his film... and to be honest. Though I didn’t say this in my reply - I am usually too damned honest. Has he read any of the stories or reviews of films made by friends of mine? So, Scott, fasten your seat belt. What I’ve decided to do, is not just to say what I liked and disliked about DINNER PARTY, but to try to find some writing lessons in there while I’m at it.

I know from the post film Q&A that it was a true indie film - made on a low budget. Not a Hollywood low budget - a real live we-have-no-money low budget. That is one of the great things about the Raindance festival - they actually focus on independent films, not some movie star multi-million pet project from a studio indie label. Also, I know that the financing fell out at one point... and they made the movie anyway. So it’s an accomplishment that this film exists - the 35mm mumblecore films and that feature length Obsession commercial had money for things like lights and lenses, this film probably had to be creative just to get images on tape (or card or hard drive or whatever).

The story concept was a smart move for an indie film - most of the story takes place in a single house, but instead of some crazed maniac chopping off teenager’s heads, the film is about an unstable young woman who plans on inviting all of her friends over for a dinner party, with a murder-suicide as desert. Only problem is - her boyfriend isn’t in on it. He’s going to be murdered and doesn’t know it. Great dramatic premise for a central location story.

The movie opens with police arresting or interrogating dinner party guests and the hostess, Angela (Laura Cox). Though this has nothing to do with writing - I remember some ragged cinematography and shot choice and editing in the beginning of the film (and there may have been some later, as well) - one thing to remember if you are making your own movie with very little movie is that you can’t do too much planning. You can always change things if you need to, but having shot lists and story boards and a real idea of what the shots and look of your film is going to help when you find yourself needing to shoot a page and a half in an hour because you are losing light or something. You can plan your shots at your leisure before filming or when you have a whole cast and crew waiting on you and the equipment is due back in a few hours. Knowing what the shot is, why you are using this lens and this angle and this camera move (and what this shot will make the audience feel) is critical - especially for the opening scenes. There was some really good camera work later in the film - especially the Angela-Joel in the trees stuff - but that was at the end of the movie. Just as the first ten pages of your script need to be as smooth and professional and typo-free as possible, the first ten minutes of your film need to impress the heck out of the audience (which includes film buyers and film distribs). First impressions. If the first ten minutes looks like it cost millions, we’ll cut you all kinds of slack later on.

After the police, we flash back to the events leading up to the dinner party and the dinner party itself. Somewhere a decision was made to remove “audience superiority”, and I think that was a mistake. All of the characters go to the dinner party knowing that Angela is going to kill her boyfriend and then herself. Audience superiority is when the audience knows something that the characters do not, and it’s a great suspense building tool. If we see a character put poison in a glass on wine, and then set the glass in front of our hero, the audience will be screaming at the screen every time the hero picks up the glass to take a sip - the audience knows something the character does not. Here we have a mix of dinner party guests, and all of them know what’s going to happen next. It might have been better if only one of them had known and the others slowly discover what’s about to happen - because it gives the characters something to accomplish and creates some suspense... will they figure it out in time and put a stop to it? Always be thinking about the viewer’s emotions in your script - not only what are they supposed to be feeling in this scene, but how is this scene *creating* those emotions in the viewer? We don’t want the audience to just watch the film, we want them to *experience* the film.

I probably have a half dozen very different script tips that call screenwriting a Balancing Act - and for everything we take away, we must add something... and vice versa. The great thing about the concept is that the story can mostly take place in the house at the dinner party - but that means we have taken away all of those locations and cut out of that house... we are stuck there. Which means the things we have in the house have to be stronger to keep the balance. When I was writing VICTIM OF DIRECTOR (which was called IMPLICATED back then), I knew that keeping most of the story in the murder victim’s house meant I had to ramp up everything else: there needed to be more plot twists and more suspense and more big character moments and in the case of that story - more nekkid scenes - than in some story where excitement and variety could come from changing locations at the end of every scene. Having DINNER PARTY mostly take place in one house... and in the dining room of that house... puts all kinds of pressure on the other elements in the story.

The six main characters (with one exception) may have enough character for a story where all kinds of exciting things are happening, but when much of the film is just people sitting around a table having a dinner conversation, they needed to be more clearly defined and more distinct. Each really needed a very different point of view, and different vocabularies and attitudes and even looks. The stand out character is Freddy (Kai Harris), who gets all of the great lines and has an active role in the story - he knows what is going on and makes some effort to confront Angela and stop her from killing Joel. But even this character could have used a little work. If *all* of the characters had been at his level, the film would have worked better.

One of the reasons why his character stands out is because he gets some good dramatic scenes with Angela about the murder-suicide plan. Even though the rest of the dinner party guests know about the murder-suicide, they barely discuss it. No one seems to have any strong opinions about it except Freddy. That’s a problem - if a movie is *about* a murder-suicide plan, it needs to be *about* the murder-suicide plan. Much of the dinner conversation was normal, kind of boring, dinner table conversation. As if they all accepted that the night would end with two of the dinner party dead - no big deal. If you told me that the film was mostly improvised, that would make sense - it had that small talk feel of an improvised film. Instead, this should have been a debate about murder-suicide... and a *veiled* debate because the killer and victim are sitting at the table. That would have given the film more drama and more conflict and really made it *about* murder-suicides. Each character should have been given a character-specific opinion and have them hash it out as they eat. Argue. Get in each other’s faces. With only a handful of characters, each could have had a different and very strong opinion on the subject. “Do you have the right to kill someone just because you want to die?” “Hey, when my aunt died, she had her dog buried with her... they had to put the dog to sleep first.” “None of this is any of our business - people control their own lives and we shouldn’t interfere.” “Suicide is a sin - only God should decide when we die.” “So that drunk on the road is God doing his work?” “What if someone is in extreme pain?” “Like in the hospital? You could pull the plug on someone you love?” “What if it’s not physical pain, what if it’s emotional pain?” “All broken hearts heal eventually.” “Not all.” And about a million other things that can turn into big dramatic discussions on the subject of murder-suicide.

Another aspect of this is the characters relationships with each other. If you are inviting people to your suicide, you aren’t inviting a bunch of total stranger or casual acquaintances - these people are your closest friends... Yet, we didn’t get the feeling that they were close friends. Though Freddy brings his roommate Matt (Sam Lyndon), these guys seem more like people who live together because one of them answered an ad on Craigs List. And Freddy is so antagonistic to Angela you wonder why she allowed him to be invited. I wanted more exploration of the relationships and how that connected to the murder-suicide desert.

And what about the guest’s responsibility? Though Matt goes to the party to try to stop the murder, once he gets there he talks and eats. Only Freddy, who starts out thinking he’ll just watch two people die, ends up thinking he has any responsibility for what happens (though other characters later discuss it when the party is over). That’s another subject that could have been hashed out in nice dramatic scenes around the table. Really hashed out, not just brought up and abandoned. Though some of this is in the film, it isn’t strong enough for the single location scenario. It needed to be big enough to balance out being unable to cut to another location. The film’s great scenes take place in the bathroom, where Freddy confronts Angela about some hot shots of heroin designed to cause an OD, and the later discovery of the needles by another character. The rest of the film needed to be at that level... that was great stuff!

There’s another great scene near the refrigerator - also a conflict scene. I think when it comes down to it, without the ability to cut away to some other location or character, the story needed more juicy conflict to keep it going.

The film this most reminded me of was RIVER’S EDGE, also based on a true story, about a group of high school kids who discover their friend murdered his girlfriend and do nothing about it. But that film really focused on whether they *should* do something about it, and some kids were just apathetic while others were afraid of the authorities and some didn’t want to rat out a friend... and the relationships of the kids disintegrates... until one realizes that he must turn his friend in. Oddly, there’s a character named “Sky” in DINNER PARTY and Ione Skye played the female lead in RIVER’S EDGE (unless you count the blow up doll).

One of the issues with characters that are a little sketchy is that it opens the door for some one-note performances, and Angela is a complete bitch 24/7. Aside from an over-all character problem, this creates an interesting story problem: why the hell did Joel hook up with her in the first place? Though there’s some footage at the end of the two in love, and some footage up front of them meeting, there is nothing here that would make me believe Joel would want to move in with this bitch... and that makes me question the reality of the story, and also think that Joel is an idiot who maybe deserves to be killed. I’m not sure that was what they had in mind. The Angela character needs to be *attractive* and interesting and someone you would want to move in with... someone you would want to die with. That’s not a bitch, that’s a seductive and manipulative person. Someone who is dangerous because they can lure you into doing things you don’t want to do. The meeting scene is in a bar where the two dance - but there isn’t much in the way of conversation between the two. Nothing that would show us why these two are meant for each other (or, at least, why Joel would think she’s the one to hook up with in a bar filled with women to dance with). I wanted to see (and hear) the attractive side of Angela - and have that be a part of her character throughout the film.

An important thing with any script in any genre is that the characters be well rounded. You should know why your protagonist is *wrong* and why your antagonist is *right*. Here, we only see why Angela is wrong - completely wrong - and that makes us question why Joel hooked up with her in the first place. We really need to see how wonderful Angela is, and how she can charm anyone into doing anything. That would allow Joel to fall in love with her, her friend to help her buy the hot shots of heroin, and her to be the perfect hostess even when everyone knows her plan is to murder Joel and then maybe kill herself. Funny how these murder suicide pacts usually end with the murder and never get around to the suicide.

As the party winds down, and Joel slumps over in his chair and needs to be helped upstairs, the guests leave to their apartments to discuss what they could have done and should have done... while one character calls the police. Like in RIVER’S EDGE, one of the characters realizes they can’t just be bystanders to a murder, they must do something. And that leads us back to the opening arrests and that flashback of Angela and Joel in happier times. THE DINNER PARTY has a great idea and some great scenes with Freddy, but I wish the other characters had been as fleshed out as Freddy’s character and that there was more debate about the murder-suicide. As a first film made for very little money, it shows promise, and it *was* selected as one of the five films in the Best First Feature category. I hope this leads to some more films from Scott with bigger budgets.

AFTER THE FILM: I am dead tired and worried about finding my class the next morning, and walk out of the cinema like a zombie. I say goodnight to Janet and walk to the Raindance Café Bombshelter, where I find the staff member who knows where my class is! As she’s about to leave! She draws me a map, and it’s near Charring Cross Station, which is a longish walk. I thank her and head back to my hotel to try to get 8 hours of sleep before the class... but remember I have to burn CDs for the class. Hell, I’ll skip movies and do that tomorrow night. I need the sleep!

- Bill

No comments:

eXTReMe Tracker