Film EventsWhat is an “Event”?

An “event” is the collision of inspirational or influential forces at work in a drama.  During a performance, there are two levels to the “event.”  One results from the director’s interpretative storytelling; the other results from the spontaneously alchemical narrative created by the actors on stage.  The event derives its force from the interconnected web of gestures, listening, and reacting that occurs between actors, overlaid with the director’s influence, all in response to the playwright’s original script.  Each one of these collaborative moments constitutes a “micro event,” and the collective impression of these events always contains the element of surprise.  The relationship between these actors on stage is interpreted by the audience as the relationship between the characters themselves; this creates a scenario where in the incidental inspiration of a “mistake” becomes the best and most moving part of a film or play.

The “Domestic Platform”

The “Domestic Platform” refers to the simplest levels of everyday life that provide the location for events.  Before tackling the higher level complexities of an event, we must first appreciate the encounter at its most reductive, mundane, human level. Set in the “normal” world, full of mundane objects, impulses, and routines, the domestic platform provides the perfect launching point for the intensity of human emotions.  These are just two people meeting for the first time.  This is only a woman buying flowers for a party.  Caught up in the emotional and psychological complexity of an event, acknowledging the domestic platform for the event helps ground interpretation in relatable human events.

Creating “Micro Events” with “Through-lines”

“Through-lines” are the often unbidden refrains that run through our mind on a daily basis.  They preoccupy our thoughts, sometimes only temporarily, other times to the point of neuroticism.  They can be positive—like the preoccupation that attends getting a first kiss from a partner—or negative—like the sense of residual anger that accompanies being criticized by our boss.  The “through-line” then is the sensory or psychological impression that permeates our focus for the rest of the day.

The most playable through-line for a character is usually framed as a goal or objective, because:

  1. It represents desire.  The character wants something or does not want something.  The sense of desire as an objective also connects the actor to other actors, who become enablers or impediments to this desire.
  2. It creates conflict.  As any director knows, conflict between characters is necessary to storytelling because it inspires emotion, which creates events.
  3. It creates intimacy.  The success of a writer is being able to foster intimacy between the characters he/she creates and the audience who views them.   Knowing what a character desires and seeing how he/she goes about approaching that desire, helps define the character, their uniqueness, and also their role within the drama.

The through-line doesn’t have to be explicit.  In fact, it may be so subtle as to go unspoken, representing a secret the character has but which announces itself through that character’s behavior of dialogue.  Referring back to Chinatown, one of Cross’ most important lines is “’Course I’m respectable.  I’m old.  Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”  Another is “My daughter.”  In a later chapter, there will be more discussion of why these lines are so important to the development of Cross’ character.

It is also important to be able to recognize the obvious facts inherent in through-lines, rather than being distracted by context or circumstance.  As Sean Penn said to David Rabe while rewriting Casualties of War, “If a woman comes to your room at 3:00AM, pay no attention to any other aspect of the scene.”  Boorishness aside, Penn has a point—the action itself is suggestive that the woman is seeking a one night stand, regardless of any other external factors.

Through-lines can also be extremely useful when filming scenes out of sequence or to maintain a connection between actors separated by space or distance.  One example of this is in The Negotiator, when the two-sides of the central phone calls were not only filmed separately—they were filmed several months apart. Through-lines enabled Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson to maintain the sense that the conflict between them was created through their respective pursuit of an objective.

Through-lines also avoid the nightmare that is micromanagement.  A robust, all-inclusive, definitive through-line will define the nuances of a performance effortlessly, allowing vision to shine rather than results, letting the details of the scene fall into place.

Events, Results, and Vision

Letting go of a “result” is not the same as letting go of “vision.”  “Vision” focuses on the creation of the event—bringing just the right influences and actors into play. “Results” are what happens when a director focuses too much on the mechanics of creating an event, rather than letting the unpredictable gestalt of forces create brilliant “mistakes.”

Not all members of the cast and crew will necessarily agree on what constitutes the “event.”  The individual characters may even be wrong about what has just happened to them, which is perhaps the most human of all gestures.  Structuring the scene such that each character is focused on their own personal sense of the “event,” which no overarching knowledge of the story and whether their interpretation is “correct,” makes the characters more believably human.    For example, referring to a scene out of the movie Chinatown, Jake may think the focus of the event is the demonstration of his fortitude before the gaze and judgment of a mysterious stranger.

Cross may feel insecure, like he is being held up for ridicule.  Jake might feel pride that he has achieved the upper-hand in their dealings.  But the director’s interpretation, overlaying the acting out of this event, may maintain that Jake has actually gone beyond his depth, allowing the memory of his exchange with Cross in Chinatown cloud his judgment of future exchanges.  The culmination of these factors and how each party’s sense of the event shapes the performance is “vision.”

An Event is Always an Event

Even if an actor’s ideas about the event are completely different from the director’s, this does not mean that the performance is doomed.  So long as an honest moment is created between the actors, the audience will believe it means whatever the script tells them it should mean.  For example, if the script says the actors are supposed to fall in love, whether the actors laugh or get into a fight, the audience will believe that it is all a part of their developing intimacy.

Directors and actors must have a clear (albeit respective) sense of what the event is in order to direct the performance.  The audience, however, does not need to have the event defined for them—they need only feel that an event is taking place.  For example, All the President’s Men has a scene where Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are interviewing Hugh Sloan, who has resigned as treasurer for the president’s re-election campaign.  Woodward and Bernstein are seated in a corner arrangement, each on a different sofa, perpendicular to one another.  Sloan is seated across the room in a loan armchair.

The scene cuts back and forth between a wide-shot of Woodward and Bernstein, together, against a medium single shot of Sloan.  So when Sloan says “I’m a Republican,” the shot is answered by a wide shot of Woodward and Bernstein, together, where Woodward says “I am too.”  The camera pauses on the exchange of looks that takes place between Woodward and Bernstein while Sloan is speaking.  What is the subtext?  There are three different events inspired by that exchange of looks.

One possibility is surprise.  Bernstein: “Who knew we were working with a Republican?!”  Woodward:  “So what?  He’s a Republican.  I can be a Republican too if it means getting the story right.”

A second possibility is caution.  Bernstein: “I know what you are thinking.  Don’t pretend to be a Republican because he can always say we entrapped him.”  Woodward: “It’s only a lie if I’ve never actually been a Republican.  I was…once.  It’s just been a while.”

The third interpretation could be appreciation.  Bernstein “I thought you were too much of a tight-ass to pull a trick like this.  Pretending you are a Republican!  When I do stuff like that, you chew me out.  Well, good for you, man.  Go for it!”  Woodward: “Quit staring at me, dammit!  You’re giving me away.”

While directing this scene, I might avoid telling the actors which subtext to adopt.  The audience will never know the difference, because it is never revealed whether Woodward is actually a Republican or not.  So the subtext choice is a secret.  As director, I can present all three possibilities and leave the choice up to the impulse of the actors.  In fact, direction could be offered through the simple question “Do you think Woodward is a Republican or not?”  We all keep our answer secret, and run the scene like that, seeing what happens.

“Beat Changes”

It is helpful to find ways of breaking down the structure of a scene in order to organize its subject matter, or “beats.”  The “beat changes” represent shifts in the topical focus, changing the subject matter.  Important to note is which characters instigate the topical shift.  For example, we might break down a scene from Chinatown as follows:

Topic #1: Cross, “horseshit”

Topic #2: Cross, Jake’s reputation

Topic #3: Jake, “murder”

Topic #4: Cross, breakfast

Topic #5: Cross, the police investigation

Topic #6: Cross, the police investigation

Topic #7:  (less clear) Begins with Cross’ mid speech line (“Sit down”); continued through

“Politicians, ugly buildings and whores…” line referenced above. Topic is “power”—how Cross

has it, and what he will do to keep it.

Topic #8: Cross, hiring Jake to find Hollis’ girlfriend

Topic #9, Jake—interrupted by Cross, the photos

Topic #10, Cross, Evelyn

At this point, the next step is to see if the list of topics can be organized thematically and clustered as “beats.”  For example, the list above could be organized into a “beat” including the first four topics; the next section would consist of topics five, six, and seven; the final section would be the last three topics.