Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Scene Of The Week: DIABOLIQUE (1955)

SCENE OF THE WEEK: DIABOLIQUE

Directed by: Henri Georges Clouzot (WAGES OF FEAR)
Written by: Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi based on the novel by Narcejac & Boileau (VERTIGO).
Starring: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, and Charles Vanel (TO CATCH A THIEF).

This scene is a lesson in creating suspense, that can be used in both Thriller and Horror genres. It used to be basic film direction, but it seems to have been lost these days - people no longer know the basics!

Okay - someone is walking through dark, spooky room... what is it we (audience) want to see? The person *walking* or what might be skittering in that shadow in front of them? It's all about POV - what is important isn't the person walking, it's *what they see* (or think they see). Only an idiot director would keep the camera on the girl with the flashlight and not show us what the girl *sees* with that flashlight! If you look at 1955s DIABOLIQUE's end - there's more screen time spent on what Vera Clouzot is looking at, than on hottie Vera Clouzot looking. The long hallway, the sliver of light coming from the door - jeeze - is her dead husband in there *typing*? The key to creating suspense is to put the audience in the protagonist's shoes – and we can't be in their shoes and be looking at the shoes. The most important shots are *not* the star, but what the star is looking at. The problem with so many bad thriller and horror films is that we **never** see what the character is seeing – we only see the character looking. No suspense or dread in that at all.

That DIABOLIQUE scene works – not because we see *the star*, but because we see *what the star sees* - and by alternating those shots we feel like we are in her shoes looking through the shadows. Wait... I can describe that scene from DIABOLIQUE, but why not just show it to you and talk about it afterwords?

OKAY: MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR SPOILERS!!!!!!!
THIS IS THE **END** OF THE MOVIE!!!!!!




The story until now: Vera Clouzot is a shy (but hot) school teacher who has inherited this huge old private school. She has also inherited a heart condition, and could drop dead at any time. She's frail. Isn't supposed to get excited. And discovers that her slimy husband has found excitement outside of their marriage... with another teacher at the school played by the sultry Simone Signoret. Now usually these two would be fighting each other, but did I mention the husband is slimy? What happens is both women turn against the husband, and decide to kill him. Over a holiday break, Signoret lures him to her house where the two women drug his wine and drown him in the bathtub, and then take his corpse back to the school in a huge wicker basket and throw his corpse in the school's swimming pool that is closed for he season. A drowning accident. But the body is never discovered, and when they find an excuse to drain the pool... no corpse. WTF? The two women panic – what could have happened to his body? Did animals drag it away? If so, how can they prove that he's dead?

Which brings us to the scene....

(which appears to be missing!)




Okay, let's take a look at how it works.

1) She's sleeping and a sound wakes her up...

2) She looks out her window and there is a light on in her husband's office. Notice that she looks out the window, then we see out the window (and from her point of view – in Hitchcock/Truffaut they talk about the remake of THE 39 STEPS and how instead of using Hannay's POV looking at the two men watching on the street, they have a non-POV eye-level shot of the two men, which doesn't come from anywhere and takes us *out* of the protagonist's shoes, undercutting our identification – when people say “well, maybe the editor decided to do that”, the problem is that the editor can only work with the shots the director gives her... and if the director doesn't have a plan for the sequence and just shoots coverage, you end up with a bunch of junk shots that do not work). We see what Vera sees, then back to Vera looking, as she decides to investigate.

3) She opens the door and looks down the hallway... and WE see down the hallway from her POV. She walks down the hallway. She hears footsteps... and we see someone walking – this is a break in POV, and I think it doesn't work well. It splits us from knowing only what Vera knows and also having the additional knowledge that there is a man walking in the hallway. In the film there is a nosy cop – and I'm sure this was put here to suspect the nosy cop of setting her up... but *that* undercuts the scene. I think these shots are stumbles... but there are only a couple of them, and the rest of the scene just kicks ass.

4) She enters the next hallway. Looks down the long hallway... and WE see down the hallway from OVER HER SHOULDER at a faint light at the end of the hall. An Over The Shoulder Shot is a great combo of POV *and* Star – even though it's usually just the star's back. Sometimes there's enough of the side of their face that it's really the best of both shots.

5) The sound of the typewriter pounding away in the office. How is that possible? She walks down the long hallway, and this is the core of the scene. We cut back and forth between her cautiously walking to her husband's office and a POV shot of her getting closer to the office door... the light slicing from under it. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we get shots of Cary Grant running and looking over his shoulder alternating with the zooming crop duster heading right at him. One of the great things in that sequence is the *pacing* - the length of the shots (in frames) becomes shorter with each shot – making the scene more and more frantic as it goes on. This was a common suspense editing technique in the days of Stienbeck Film Editors where actual physical frames of film were part of cutting. You counted frames and created a rhythm... or created an anti-rhythm to throw the audience off. Now, with editing on digital media I'm not sure editors even think in terms of frames anymore. The technique of shaving a frame or three with each shot to build tension may be lost.

6) When Vera gets halfway down the hall, the office door slowly opens sending a slice of light down the hall towards her. We cut between the light and her – as if it's searching for her... and finds her!

7) She cautiously enters the office – and again we get shots of her alternating with her POV of inside the office – this puts us in her shoes and builds suspense up the wazoo. She sees the typewriter on the desk with a piece of paper in it – and that is two shots. She moves to the typewriter (shots of her, POV shots of the dark spooky room), pulls out the paper, and reads it – and we get a POV shot of the paper so that *we* can also read it. Her husband's name over and over again.

8) Footsteps coming from the darkness in her husband's room. She runs like hell.

9) Shots of her running all the way back to her bedroom, cut with shots from her position of her husband's office.

10) In her bathroom, she splashes water on her face... sees something and clutches her heart – this is a great tease shot, because we have not yet seen what she sees... THEN we get her POV shot of her dead husband's corpse in the bathtub. How did he get there? Who put him there? The nosy cop?

11) She backs up, looks... Her POV of her husband rising up!

And that's how you create a suspense scene on film. It's not just shots of the protagonist in the haunted house holding a flashlight walking from room to room – it's WHAT SHE SEES. That flashlight's pale beam searching the shadows and things skittering in the darkness. That’s what builds suspense... and that’s what is often missing from modern films. It’s as if current horror directors have never actually seen a horror movie! They probably think the audience wants to see the $20 million star, when what the audience really wants to see is what the character is seeing - the darkness, the place where the terror may be lurking!

- Bill

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Can't Judge A Zombie By His Poster

Another ancient blog entry (from 2007) that I'm reprinting instead of writing anything new, because I'm lazy.

A whole bunch of posts and half a year ago, I wrote that my friend Rod and I were stuck in bumper-to bumper traffic on the 405, trying to get to a movie playing in Santa Monica. That movie is now out on DVD, so I thought maybe I’d talk about it. The movie was....

FIDO



Imagine that perfect 1950s suburbia from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER... combined with the bright, well manicured 1950s soap operas of Douglas Sirk (like ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS)... and throw in that wholesome all American 1950s classic TIMMY AND LASSIE...

But Lassie isn't a dog, it's a domesticated zombie.

That's FIDO.

This is not some scary zombie attack movie, no friends, after we won the zombie war (which seems a lot like WW2 in the newsreel footage that opens the film) zombies have been domesticated and are a servant class. Every suburban family hopes to one day have a zombie of their very own - to take out the trash serve meals, mow the lawn, wash the car, and any other task that sophisticated people may find distasteful.

You end up with a send up of 1950s TV & films, zombie movies, suburbia, the class system, government, Douglas Sirk films, and all kinds of other stuff. I actually laughed so hard at one point that I almost lost consciousness. My stomach hurt. This was the best film I've seen in a long time.

Carrie-Ann Moss is mom, Dylan Baker is very repressed dad, Tim Blake Nelson is the next door neighbor and Henry Czerny (the asshole political aid who double crosses Harrison Ford in one of those Tom Clancy movies) as the pipe smoking perfect dad down the street... and Billy Connelly as the zombie Fido (an amazing performance, since all he does is grunt and growl).

The film is supposed to be the most expensive Canadian film ever made (cast, probably) but only played on a couple of screens in the USA and the showing we went to wasn’t crowded at all. The plan was to expand to more screens if the film is successful...

But it never came to a cinema near you. Instead it vanished, only to appear a couple of weeks ago on DVD.

And, just like HOSTEL 2, I think the problem was in the marketing. (That’s *twice* I’ve blamed marketing - really unusual). Here’s the thing - you need to get the people into the cinema on a movie like this, so that they will laugh and then tell their friends that have to see it. That’s where marketing comes in.

The first problem with this film is the title: FIDO. When I read a list of new films opening over that weekend, I saw FIDO and skipped right past it. G rated family film about a dog. Not even a good title for a G rated family film - tells us *nothing* about the story. LASSIE COME HOME - hey, Lassie is lost and has to find his way home! So FIDO not only makes you think it’s a family film when it’s really a horror comedy, it also doesn’t tell us anything about the film. Your title is like a mini logline - it needs to tell us what the story is about. Some of you may be thinking, “Hey, it’s about a zombie named Fido!” But we only know that *after* we have seen the movie. We want the title to tell us what the movie is about *before* we see it.

The target audience for FIDO would never see a film with that title.

Then we come to the poster...

What the hell is up with that? The poster is supposed to sum up the story in an image... Can you tell from the poster that this movie takes place in the 1950s? Or that it’s about a boy and his zombie? That it is a comedy? Or that Billy Connelly is even a zombie? He looks kind of weird in the poster, and has that punk collar thing, but that poster tells us *nothing* about the movie. The artwork that was on the NuArt Theater’s flyer was much better - it had silhouettes of the 1950s family (iconic images) and the boy holding a leash... with a zombie on the other end. That sums it up... but it’s not the poster.

The poster is in collage style - and I hate that. I was in a book store a while back and bought a Greg MacDonald book about Inspector Flynn. MacDonald created Fletch - the clever investigative journalist who always gets involved in some murder mystery - you may know the character from the Chevy Chase movie. If you haven’t read the books - check them out. Great writing and fantastically witty dialogue. The paperback versions in the 70s used to have a dialogue passage on the *cover* instead of art work. That was the selling point - really clever writing. Inspector Flynn pops up in the 3rd Fletch book, accusing Fletch of murder and chasing him throughout the book. He spun off into his own series, and this was a recent book I didn’t know existed...

Even when I saw it, I didn’t know it existed. Because the book cover was some sort of collage with the title written with every letter in a different font. It looked like someone dumped a bunch of stuff on a table, glued it in place, and that was the cover. Huh? I probably looked at this book a hundred times before realizing that it was a Flynn book. And the cover gives me *nothing* about the story - actually, under the crap there’s a sketch of a guy with a nail in his ear. That’s part of the story. But the sketch doesn’t look like a crime novel picture, it looks like something you’d find on the cover of a Gay romance. Cover doesn’t match the contents at all. Though there is a boy with a nail in his ear, the main story is something entirely different and much more exciting: someone is sending death threats to a Harvard professor and breaking into his house. Flynn has only a few days to stop the killer from striking. The nail in the ear thing is a minor subplot... but the cover of the book. Was that because they could find a sketch of a boy and add it to the collage?

When you look at old movie posters, they are amazing. They tell the story, set the mood, and usually feature the star’s face, The lower the budget of the movie, they less they could depend on the star and the more they had to find an *image* the sums up the story. I just did an article for Script about creating the poster image for your screenplay - because I think it’s important to know how they are going to be able to market your work down the line. When some producer says, “I love the script, but kid, I have no idea how the hell we’re going to market it”, you can pull out your poster. If you can’t figure out what the poster for your movie looks like, how the heck do you expect some non-creative guy in a suit to figure it out?

The thing about collage posters and collage book covers is that it’s just gluing together existing elements. It’s not creating the one iconic image that sums up the book or film, it’s using someone else’s stuff. The movie posters of the past were amazing, but somewhere along the line, movie posters have become all about star faces. Instead of finding that image that tells us what the story is about, we get George Clooney’s face. “I have no idea what the movie is about, but George Clooney is in it, so I’ll see it!” Hey, that’s great for Clooney fans, but what about everyone else? What about people who want to know what the movie is about before they plunk down their $11.50 (what I paid last night at the AMC in Burbank). What happened to those folks who created the amazing images that summed up the story?

Did collages - the concept of using pieces of *someone else’s* creation - squeeze them out? Have we been breeding humans to think “collage” instead of “creativity”?

I read scripts (and even see movies) that are just collages. Take existing elements from popular films and glue them together. Quentin Tarantino is the king of Collage Movies. Take a Ringo Lam Hong Kong cop film about a jewelry store heist gone wrong and the band of bandits in a warehouse aiming guns at each other and wondering which one of them is an undercover cop and add the color name thing from PELHAM 1-2-3 and the... well, eventually you have a bunch of scenes from other people’s films processed into a new movie. Check out Mike White’s WHO DO YOU THINK YOU’RE FOOLING and YOU’RE STILL NOT FOOLING ANYBODY (about PULP FICTION).

Tarantino is a genius - he can take the pieces of other people’s work and turn them into something uniquely his own...

The funniest thing are the collage scripts that use bits from Tarantino movies - for a while it seemed like every other script was someone pretending to be Tarantino.

None of the other “collage scripts” I read seem able to do what QT does (make it work). All they have done is lifted scenes from better films. No creation involved, just some cut & paste. These scripts have no soul, no point of view, no theme... but they often have all kinds of scenes that would look good in a trailer. I think that’s why they sometimes get bought and made.

Now, I’m not talking about those homage scenes, or those scripts that have been influenced by some other writer (FIDO is influenced by Sirk and Lassie and George Romero - three things that don't seem like they'd work in the same movie)... I’m talking about the ones that are just collages. Nothing original about them. They were made on some assembly line somewhere. Nothing was created, it was just glued together.

I think fan fiction is the ultimate in collage writing. They take someone else’s character, someone else’s world, someone else’s basic situation... and they put together some sort of story *based on those existing elements*.

For me, movies and stories are *about* characters. The most important thing is to create your own, personal, characters.

One of the message boards where I regularly answer screenwriting questions has a large number of fan fiction people, all writing INDIANA JONES and STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS and PIRATES movies. *Not* creating their own characters. Whenever I feel like tilting windmills and mention this, I get the “Every writer started off writing fan fiction” from a half dozen people. Well, I have no idea if that is true today... but it was not true when I began writing. The idea then was to create your own characters and stories and situations. Sure, you may have read a lot of Raymond Chandler (like me) and your early work is about a private eye and seems influenced by Chandler (mine was) but my stories were about a private eye in my home town area who had completely different character issues to deal with than Philip Marlowe and what was cool for me was to *create* his methods, his office, his weapons, his *world* and make it completely my own - based on things I loved and problems I was going through and the world I knew. My first stories were about a Private Eye named Nick Carrico who had an alcohol abuse problem after accidentally shooting his partner when he was a police detective. Now, none of that is Philip Marlowe. The idea of writing something back then - when dinosaurs ruled the earth - was to *create* something. To *create* your own characters and situations and worlds and dialogue and scenes. Not to write about the time Captain Jack Sparrow and Will went on a pirate adventure in Cuba... and fell in love.

How we went from that to fan fiction is beyond me. At what point in time did people say, “I’d rather not go through all of the trouble to create my own characters... I’ll just use somebody else’s work”? When did *not creating* become the norm? When did people begin thinking that someone else’s creation was better than theirs? That their original work wasn’t good enough, so they should use someone else’s? That collage is art?

Collage is not better than creation.

YOUR individual creation is YOURS.

George Lucas can send of C&D letters from his lawyers closing down fan fiction sites - because *he* owns those characters... but no one can take away original characters that you created. Original situations and worlds you created. Those are *yours*. The thing about fan fiction is that it diminishes the writer.

The collage poster for FIDO was used on the DVD box... what a mistake! Was this because no one in the marketing department is capable of creative thought? That evolution has created a generation of people who can cut & paste, but not create? Or was it just some lazy guy in marketing who thought the collage was good enough for the poster (that managed to kill a great film) so why not use it on the DVD?

Whatever the case - create your own material... and check out FIDO on DVD. It's really good on a bunch of different levels.

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Character Goals, The Hulk and Hulk 2 (with Ed Norton)... but not Hulk Hogan.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Fish Tacos at Islands in Burbank.

Movies: BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD. Okay... Marisa Tomei is nekkid in about a quarter of the movie. That may be a selling point for some of you - I read an interview where she said she didn't wanther parents to see the film because she's nekkid all the time. That is damned good PR work for a film with a story that is very low key, and looks like they dug it out of a 1974 time capsule.

My friend joked that it looked like they ran out of money and couldn't color time it.

Good dramatic thriller that escalates as one thing after another goes about as wrong as it could. Story does this thing where it backtracks and takes another primary character's POV for a bit - but there's no connective tissue between the segments, so there's no flow. It needed visual linking (like Sayles used in LONE STAR - that stuff has to be in the script). And sometimes it pulls you out of the story - or, at least, pulls you out of a character just when things are getting juicy.

You can also see a bunch of stuff coming from *way* down the pike - which is kind of lame plotting (in one instance) - setting up something that solves a problem later in the story, but actually creates a logic problem.

But I forgive all of the problems because what you end up with is some really tense material - basically a family drama with firearms. It's relentless.

DVDs: PULP... not PULP FICTION, but the film with Michael Caine playing a writer. One funny thing of note were the sight gags - all kinds of them. Many having to do with taxi cabs. The *same* taxi cabs heep coming back throughout the story - more and more banged up. Film is one of those comedies where you smile, but don't bust a gut. Mystery-based, with clues you can follow.

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