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"The amazing, existential reality of film is that it mediates relationships through cinematic stories. These stories, already mediated by celluloid or by digital means, take place entirely in our heads because of the phenomenon of persistence of vision. Through the experience of film we... come to an understanding that something matters..." - Theresa Sanders
The philosopher, Martin Buber, who unwittingly has had a lot to say about the art of becoming a MEDIUM, contributed an extremely important insight concerning the nature of creativity when he said, "all real living is meeting".
Buber’s observation is particularly illuminating when applied to dramatic screenwriting, especially character-based screenwriting where the quest is to MEET one’s characters, not as things but as living beings who respond and react to one's presence with a presence all their own.
Indeed, every authentic meeting between storytellers and characters is an act of "making present", or what Buber has referred to as an "I/Thou" relationship. Simultaneously, the character-as-writer encounters the writer-as-character (both, as real or as fictional as one another, depending on one's bias), which gives rise to their final cause, the defining identity of which is the story itself.
As the illusion of separateness - between storyteller and character - is stripped away, the utterly manipulative and chauvinistic tactics of the would-be writer are necessarily set aside, replaced by a profound holistic vision in which both story and writer are actively and empathetically engaged in the realisation of each other.
The act of entering into this relationship also requires that the storyteller engage with those other characters who, in relationship with the writer and the characters-in-the-script, are necessary and sufficient for the birthing of any successful (i.e.: emotionally meaningful) screenplay, namely one’s audience and one’s tribe.
In the process of building and energising these relationships, one might be tempted to suddenly marvel in recognition at the profundity of one's actions. But the experience of recognition is merely one of any number of illusory by-products employed by a self-defeating ego. Indeed, the mental sensation of what passes as understanding - where understanding signifies a degree of control over the language systems germane to dramatic storytelling - is itself a diversion. One is either IN THE DRAMA or secure in the belief that one has gained a measure of mastery in the application of the knowledge of how to write a screenplay, but not both. The art of becoming a medium has nothing to do with knowledge. In fact, it is not so much a matter of recognition or understanding as it is of self-forgetting.
From a creative point of view, every dramatic encounter is a relation-event. If the storyteller enters into an authentic relationship with his/her characters, including his/her audience and tribe, then the story that arises from these relationships produces a relation-event that IS a story with its own ability to create relation-event with its own audiences and tribes. For just as the storyteller has an audience to whom his/her story is addressed, and a tribe who speaks through him/her, so too do the characters in the script have those to whom they address their actions and words and tribal groups for whom they speak and who speak through them.
“Characters in scripts are people… not artefacts to be shuffled and manipulated like cards in a magic trick, to suit the contrivances of plot. I think that if filmmakers could approach characters more as if they were people, we’d have much better movies.” - Judith Weston
Never the proposals that get in the way,
only the stupid questions and
inattention to answers;
the blind assent to speed:
the headlong rush into untried truth
because he said this and she said that,
so long as everything is quick,
so long as everything is sweet.
As if life could be conceived and born
in a night’s sleep;
toddling by breakfast;
high school on the way to work;
college and a perfect marriage by noon;
old age for lunch; and a palsied decline
in time for tea.
Setting for an early hour
the alarm clock by Death;
and Heaven: another sleep.
So how is it that Men and Women
make it through another day
with such velocity,
with so little deliberation?
Freedom is a wishbone
caught up in the hand of a child who
believes in magic and cannot speak,
for speaking does not make wishes happen.
What is closest to us must always remain a secret,
and there is tragedy in this.
Syntax cannot change this room.
Something more is required…
or something less.
Courage: the rudimentary ingredient.
Better to reflect the world without a word
than talk ourselves to death.
But make no mistake –
this is no theatre of ideas, only lucid dream.
In here, the passing show
lacks the usual requisite action,
but should do in any case.
The anticipation of a long journey
is still possible,
even when there is no horizon.
To read the complete play, CLICK HERE
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d been channeling the voice of the American poet, Ezra Pound; and though I couldn’t have told you why, or even what it all meant, I later discovered in what I’d scrawled over both sides of the Ozone Hotel stationary what was to become the opening monologue of Act II of my play, Sixteen Words for Water, which would take me three years to complete and would open simultaneously to rave reviews and full houses in both Sydney and London. Characters work in mysterious ways.
It's all there, right before your ears.
Listen to Arthur Miller's introduction to the play and the opening of the play as performed by Lee J Cobb and Mildred Dunnock
"You specialize in something until one day you find it is specializing in you." - Arthur Miller
Dialogical cinema cannot be meaningfully reduced or pigeonholed into any preconceived genres or categories. It is not a style, so much as the essence of style - the source of freshness and originality that defies elucidation in terms of either a linear or non-linear form of narrative. It is not limited to or subsumed by experimental, alternative or hybrid films or filmmakers, nor is it susceptible to description by means of appeal to the conventional jargon that is commonly employed in delineating and analyzing the usual component processes of that most unusual of obsessions, that strangely occult occupation that calls characters out of the darkness to enact and play-out their dramas round and within the virtual campfire of cinematic storytelling.
Whether the story is fictional or factional, whether the screen is large or small, in a theatre or on one’s laptop, it is the interactive impulse made present that is the core of the dramatic action and the soul of character-based, screen drama. From idea to script to production through to post, an dynamic and interactive environment continually shapes and paces the emotional energies expressed by the actions of all of the characters necessary to finding the drama.
Depending upon one’s perspective, and at which point one embarks upon one’s relationship with the characters, the dialogic operating within, behind and through the characters’ actions may be viewed as either a process or an outcome, or both. It is important, therefore, not to interpret “Dialogical Cinema” as merely a consequence or product of a certain kind of methodology. Likewise, it would be inexact to think and speak of it merely as a technique for the development of story.
Dialogical Cinema is not noun but verb – a doing more than a having. One can DO it much more effectively than one can possess it, and has little if anything to do with what one knows, for knowledge is of no use to it. Indeed, knowledge is almost always its enemy.
Dialogical Cinema is a way of being – a way of being with oneself and one’s characters, and with whatever story is trying to get itself born by means of whatever the storytellers are attracted to it.
Dialogical Cinema takes seriously the idea that dramatic stories are not merely ABOUT relationships and problems; they ARE relationships and problems. And the relationships and problems are not confined to the script. The actual screenplay is but an artifact of a dynamic, interactive continuum that all the characters undergo in the process of becoming acquainted with one another; it is but one side of a dialogical interface that echoes and mirrors what is being played out – often unconsciously – in the inner and outer dramas of the filmmakers, their audience and their tribe/s.
The central question facing the prospective screen storyteller is where do I position myself in terms of the drama? Basically, there are only two choices: in or out. One is either inside the drama, or a mere spectator. Alas, the experience of viewing a spectator-generated film is something with which most of us are all-too-familiar; it is equivalent to, and about as exciting as, listening to a blow-by-blow account of a heavyweight-title fight filtered through the intermediary of some guy who heard about it from some guy who heard it on radio.
Far too many screenwriters, “create” their stories at arms-length, or even farther. Whether it be due to a fear of “cheesiness” or simply a lack of insight or an impoverishment of taste, the great majority of screen storytellers – would-bes and has-beens - creep uncertainly into that most dangerous region on Earth – the world of character-driven drama.
Screenwriting software, cameras, lighting rigs, sound recording devices, monitors and editing software; the deals and tax breaks, the casting agencies and training schools that feed into the materialization of the dream - that make it shareable – all of these may be helpful, even necessary, to the enterprise. However, regardless of how important they may be – and I often wonder whether films schools generally are a boon or a bust as far as eliciting native creativity is concerned - they are merely the MEANS by which a story is told. The means, unfortunately, is of little use without a MEDIUM.
To effectively enter the world of character-based drama, both cast and crew must work as mediums. The job of the medium is to conduct emotional energy – to be open and receptive to it, to continually free it and keep it moving and building and releasing according the deep emotional logic of the characters’ actions and understandings.
To work as a medium is to been intimately connected with the emotional energies of a story as these energies flow from scene to scene, and within each scene. To work as a medium is to have the courage to let go, to allow oneself to listen to and respond authentically to the other characters, to give them permission to become what they will, to trust.
A storyteller caught up in the thrall of dialogical cinema conducts the life of the drama by becoming the life of the drama, and allowing the Drama to become the storyteller’s life.
Dialogical Cinema is revolutionary, not necessarily in a political sense, or even aesthetically; but as a powerful, living energy that flows freely every time a screen storyteller has to courage to relinquish control, to set aside the sophisticated chauvinism that refuses to treat the other characters as less than one’s equals.
The success of any dramatic screen story – its ability to move us, to change us – depends on the quality of the interactions that occur both inside and outside the script. The evolution – or “making present” – of any story world, is necessarily interactive. Indeed, the dialogical drama can have no being apart from the living interaction of MEDIUMS – a collaboration whose alchemical-like union swirls with equal amounts of dread and delight around and within the field of original characters whose problems, goals, plans, anxieties and points of view are made fully present only when the emotional energies at play are conducted mediumistically.
Media is best conducted when conducted by mediums. But it will always do whatever it is told to do by whoever is manipulating it. The written word has given us The Koran as well as Mein Kampf, and the advertising jingle employs the same seven-note scale as Beethoven’s Pastoral.
Every dramatic story develops from the interactions of those characters relevant to the story’s natural history and final cause. However, if one works only with the characters in the script, one aborts whatever opportunities the other characters had to become actively involved in living the drama, and thus contribute to its potency. The damage done by storytellers whose ignorance of these characters is allowed to pass unchallenged and uncriticised, thus subverting the potential of the story that is trying to birth itself, is incalculable.
Standing in marked contrast to this narrow-minded, fearful, and controlling style of film-making, is Dialogical Cinema, in which ALL of the characters relevant to the finding of story are engaged and interacting with one another. One of the great – and mostly ignored - lessons of the new, so-called interactive media is that it provides a rather vivid metaphor of a largely hidden process whose usual domain is the imagination. It externalises the fundamental dialogical relationships and elements of mediumship in ways that the black squiggles of a written language seem less and less able to convey with any degree of power or eloquence.
But the “new media” is only another means to an end, in a universe teeming with means, and like any other means for expression must go begging for a storyteller – who is ready and eager to step away from the “second-life” we so carelessly and habitually understand as “reality” and take up the adventure that is the true and enduring territory of the MEDIUM.
Even if you don't have the foggiest idea what your story is going to be about, or what will happen or exactly when and where it is to be set, it would be helpful if you could at least complete the following: "My main character wants _________ more than anything else in the world."
What does your character WANT? Love, respect, courage, revenge, a kidney for his kid sister, to find the son that was given up for adoption? If you want to write a DRAMATIC screenplay, the minimum requirement is that you have a character that wants something.
At about the same time you allow yourself to start discovering what your character wants, and who or what opposes them, you'll begin to find out where your story is going, and what it’ll be about, both narratively and thematically. Dramatic characters can only be dramatic insofar as they are fighting for something.
Fighting does not necessarily mean using fists or guns or joining an army, but they must be striving for something that is not easy to attain. In short, dramatic characters are goal-driven, and in order to achieve their objectives they have to act.
A character’s actions involve both confrontation and avoidance. Avoidance? Yes! Characters also want/need to avoid things, like being killed, or captured. But whatever it is that the character is avoiding, it only has meaning (i.e.: emotional power) if it is enacted within the context of what it is that the character hopes to win, gain or achieve.
What scares your characters? Humiliation, disfigurement, pain, terminal illness, poverty?
What lengths will they go to to avoid what they fear?
What have they already done to avoid their greatest fears?
Discover what it is that will cause your characters to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, hands clutching the covers, body rigid with terror.
If you want to really make your characters come to life, choose something that terrifies YOU! -- you'll find that when you write something that makes you shake, you'll also make your reader shake.
A rule of good storytelling is that the protagonist will confront the thing s/he fears the most and overcome it in order to win the thing s/he desires the most.
This isn't a hard-and-fast rule. For every 100 successful dramatic films where the writer followed it, you'll find at least one successful drama where the writer ignored it completely.