Testing rollercoasters


For all its Germanic rigidity, creative tantrums and ultimate implosion, I’m a huge fan of the Bauhaus. Its combination of creativity and practicality and its thrilling cross-pollination of craft should make it an inspiration even for people who don’t much like its aesthetics; and its sense of collaboration and community paved the way for many of today’s networked organisations. One of its purest, simplest statements was this: 

“The principle of a form is not it is but one does.”

Which strikes me as a terrific mantra for good screenwriting. Far too much writing for film is concentrated on the is not the does. It asks “what is this scene about?” rather than “what effect will it have?”. Or, in other words, “what is the subject?” rather than “what’s the objective?”. This is not to say that a scene shouldn’t be about anything; but it is to say that if you don’t know how you want it affect the audience, the only thing it’s about is about three minutes too long. 

Part of the problem is the attitude of writers, who are too often more focused on what they want to say than on what they want the audience to feel. But part, too, is the industry’s culture of script-reading, which sees it as branch of literary criticism, when it should be more like testing rollercoasters: “where is it too fast?”, “where is it too slow?”, “how can this bit be more scary?” and “can we shorten the time to the top?”.

The rollercoaster analogy also implies variety. Bad drama strikes one emotional note and plays it constantly for two hours. Good drama gives the audience a work-out. Shakespeare faced an audience that was rowdy, uncomfortable and easily bored, so his plays are almost literally variety shows: an act of tragedy is followed by one of comedy, action, horror or the supernatural. Hundreds of books and films claim to have been inspired by Hamlet, but offer all the adolescent angst while forgetting that Shakespeare also gives us a ghost, a murder, pirates and fights.

Hitchcock’s movies are a lesson in this. Every scene in his best pictures is perfectly calibrated for its effect on the audience. Here’s an extract from an article he wrote for Stage in 1936, in which he all but uses the rollercoaster image:

“My methods of film-making and the introduction of those legendary Hitchcock touches are quite straightforward. I like to keep the public guessing and never let them know what is going to happen next. I build up my interest gradually and surely and, in thrillers, bring it to a crescendo … Next to reality, I put the accent on comedy. Comedy, strangely enough, makes a film more dramatic. In all my films I try to supply a definite contrast. I take a dramatic situation up and up to its peak of excitement and then, before it has time to start the downward curve, I introduce comedy to relieve the tension. After that, I feel safe with the climax …

I am out to give the public good, healthy mental shake-ups.”

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