How to write a great film script by understanding genre

If 1968 final shot

Understanding genre has nothing to do with wanting to write something commercial; it is about acknowledging what the audience expectations are from this type of story and realising how useful this information can be for your work.

There are three things your script needs:

  •       Theme
  •       Emotional resonance
  •       Entertainment

Your audience will extract the theme without even realising; this is what will give the film meaning for them. What is your story actually about when you distil it down to its purest essence? Examples of some common themes are:

The loss of innocence.

Triumph over adversity.

The fragility of relationships.

Love conquers all.

The emotional resonance of the piece will come from an audience’s connection with your characters. Is your main character shown to be struggling in some way – make this explicitly clear.

Look at how Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) manages to hold our heart-strings in the palm of her hand in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996). How does this character manage this? She is struggling in life; she has no money; she is lonely; she lives in a fraught situation with her daughter Roxanne; she exists on the edge of an emotional precipice the whole time, frequently close to tears. We bond with her emotionally through her hardships and feel invested in the story by the time the daughter she gave away for adoption at birth gets in touch and wants to get to know her.

The audience must also feel entertained by the story you are telling; this doesn’t have to be high-octane car chases and seat-of-your-pants casino raids but there do have to be thrills of one kind or another.

Again, do not try to be commercial. This will be the death of your story. You must simply write from the heart; if you do this well, others will respond to it and your work will find an audience.

When an audience knows something that the main character doesn’t, this is a good source of dramatic tension. Exploit this until it is resolved – and resolve it in the most effective way you can.

Hitchcock was fond of illustrating this point: ‘There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t…’

When an audience stands shoulder to shoulder with the main character and learns about events alongside him or her as they occur, this can be just as satisfying dramatically too, so don’t feel that you have to keep your characters in the dark.

When the audience knows less than the main character, this is boring however, so try to avoid this.

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How can genre help you write a great script?

The genre is the type of film you are writing; once you know this, you know what the audience expectations of that genre are.

For instance, if you are writing a Romantic Comedy, this is what is expected:

  •       Two characters – nearly always contemporary – who the audience want to be together;
  •       Neither character needs necessarily to have any psychological depth; they can be defined simply by their current situation and circumstances;
  •       The pivotal moment, which takes place during the first act, is when one falls for the other;
  •       The second act will be full of near-misses, trials and tribulations as they fail to get it together – all invested with humour, because this is a comedy;
  •       The question the audience will ask themselves throughout is: will these two end up together?
  •       The answer is always yes. In a romantic comedy, there is always a happy ending.

So once you are comfortable with the conventions of the genre in which you are writing, they can become a form of guide for you as you map out your story.

What genre are you working within at the moment? Think about a similar film and consider how that film was structured.

Try to distance yourself from your writerly, emotional reasons for writing this story. Think of it in more disciplined, dispassionate terms:

  •       Who is my audience?
  •       What are their expectations?

There are very few pure genre films made anymore, but it is worth looking briefly at the different genres in which your story could be taking place.

Here are some classic film genres:

Film Noir                       Action/Adventure                        Comedy                    Myth/Epic

Gangster                                 Fantasy                                   Thriller                 Romantic Comedy

Historical Drama                 Musical                                  Western                          Sci-Fi

Courtroom                               Crime                                       Heist                      Coming of age

Social Drama                      Romance                                   Horror                       Ghost Story

We will look at these genres in more detail in future articles, but, for the moment, try to work out which genre you enjoy exploring the most.

Drama is by far the broadest genre; in fact, it is unhelpful to label a film as a drama without qualifying it further.

Is it a rites of passage or coming of age drama, for example, like Stand By Me or The Kings of Summer or The Perks of Being a Wallflower? All these films have comic elements too, so perhaps we should call them rites of passage comedy-dramas, to be strictly accurate.

In a rites of passage story, the main character has to be taken out of his or her environment, for example by moving to a new area, going to war, starting at a new school. There has to be a steep learning curve in the second act, where they are in charge or have responsibilities that they didn’t previously have. By the end of the story, they have learnt a great deal about themselves and matured through their experiences of having to overcome a great obstacle, be it surviving in the woods over the summer, passing their exams, searching for a body, surviving the war.

If you are writing a rites of passage story, complicate your main character’s passage; create something about them – a flaw – that they are trying to hide; make sure that it is only when they deal with this flaw that they are able to overcome the challenges they are facing.

If you are writing a character piece, which is what I call a certain type of drama that addresses explicitly issues of character – sometimes referred to as a ‘character study’ or ‘slice of life’ drama – your film will very likely be about a connection between two people. Who are these two people and why do we care about them? Have you brought them together in the most interesting, involving, dramatic manner?

American Beauty 1999

How do we define genre?

Firstly, let’s take a look at your protagonist. You could be writing an ensemble drama, in which case you will need to consider your film to have multiple protagonists, but let us presume for the moment that you have just one main character.

How would you describe your protagonist?

  •       Is he or she a hero?
  •       Is he or she a victim?
  •       Is he or she just an ordinary ‘everyman’ type of person going about their business?
  •       Is the main conflict internal or external?
  •       What kind of journey are they on?
  •       Where do they begin their journey and where do they end up?

Now let’s take a look at your antagonist.

You need to create your antagonist out of your protagonist’s obstacles.

The more realistic the antagonist, the more realistic the main dramatic conflict of your story.

Don’t let them be an overly simplistic stereotypical ‘baddie’; make sure they have a clearly defined want and need and that they are on a journey of their own.

Do they have any kind of an existence outside of your protagonist’s journey? If the answer is no, go back and work out what kind of life they are leading; what are their fears; who do they love; what aspects of their character make us care about them?

Drama is the one genre that doesn’t demand a resolution. Of course, you need to resolve your tale but you can do so simply by showing the change that has taken place in the world of your protagonist or in their character. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a resolution to the story itself. Without giving any spoilers away, consider the endings of The Ice Storm or The Fabulous Baker Boys or Good Will Hunting.

So have a think about the story you are working on and the character at the heart of it and ask yourselves these questions:

  •       Can you define the genre?
  •       What kind of emotional experience is the audience expecting? How are they supposed to feel by the end?
  •       What kind of protagonist do you have? (hero, victim, everyman)
  •       What actually happens? Can you define the catalytic moment – or point of no return – for your protagonist, that takes place in the first act?
  •       Now describe the main conflict of the piece in no more than a few words. If you aren’t able to, go back to the themes and your character’s want and need and think about what they need to learn about themselves to achieve their goal.

The most important thing to remember is that genre conventions are not rules with which to tie yourself up in knots; they are simply an acknowledgement that audiences watch most films and television shows with expectations and we, as writers, must never lose sight of what those expectations are.

Once you have accomplished this, it will be clear if you have a great story on your hands and a reason to tell it – but also, crucially, you will have the freedom of knowing in what terms this type of story should be told.

CL

How to create unforgettable characters: the Protagonist

The Silence of the Lambs 1991

So you have a great idea for a script. Now you need to create some amazing characters. The characters are what will sell your story to agents, producers, actors, investors. Without great characters you won’t even end up as a doorstop under your poor beleaguered script reader’s desk.

Well, you may end up as a doorstop but believe me that is as far as your great idea will get you. Character is everything. What are the three most important things in a script? Character, character and character.

So, to begin with, let’s create a memorably complex, rounded and interesting protagonist.

Wants and Needs

The Want is the easy part: it’s the main desire of the character that thrusts him or her through the story; the external, physical goal.

To escape from prison.

To defeat the monster.

To win the race.

To protect the President.

To find a cure for the disease.

To get the promotion.

To solve the mystery.

To locate the long lost mother.

You get the idea. The most important thing about this want is that your protagonist wants it badly. The more badly they want it, the higher the stakes are. If the stakes aren’t high enough for your protagonist, you run the risk of your audience not caring whether or not they achieve their goal or not.

After a tsunami devastates the island on which they are staying, Maria is on a desperate search to discover if her husband and children are still alive. (The Impossible)

If Brody doesn’t catch the huge man-eating shark, more people on his beach will die. (Jaws)

Clarice Starling must catch Buffalo Bill or more innocent women will be abducted and murdered. (The Silence of the Lambs)

In a character-piece, the stakes will very likely not relate to a heist or an alien abduction or a murder, but they will be just as important for the life of the character.

If Travis Bickle doesn’t find a way to ‘wash the scum off the streets’ – by saving Iris from her life as a pimped young prostitute – he will very likely end up dead. (Taxi Driver)

If Solomon doesn’t find a means of escape from his life in slavery, he will die a slave and never see his family again. (12 Years A Slave)

If Anders doesn’t get his head around starting his life afresh after a stint in rehab, he will kill himself by the morning. (Oslo, August 31st)

The Need is more tricky. It is the internal wound of the character. He or she may not even be aware of what their need is until it clashes with their want late in your story. It could be an unresolved childhood issue; it could be a flaw in their character that is holding them back; it could even be a physical wound that needs to heal.

Brody needs to overcome his fear of the water if he is to catch the shark.

Clarice needs to let Hannibal Lector inside her head to explore her unresolved childhood issues if she is to catch Buffalo Bill.

Travis needs therapy to explore his traumatic experiences in Vietnam, which are undoubtedly behind his inability to sleep and which send him off on his chilling descent into madness.

Taxi Driver 1976 (1)

Don’t worry if your protagonist’s need isn’t immediately apparent; sometimes, as the writer of the piece, you will have to experience the character’s journey alongside him or her and it will take a while before you can think objectively about the themes of your story and what it is really about.

Remember, M Night Shyamalan himself didn’t realise the huge secret of Bruce Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense until he was several drafts in.

The needs of your characters are what will make them rich, complex and well-rounded; they will cease to be one-dimensional ciphers, however determinedly they beat a path to their goal.

If you are having difficulty identifying the need of your main character, consider what it is he or she must learn about themselves over the course of the story if they are to reach their goal. What is it in their nature that is holding them back?

The more contrast there is between the protagonist at the start of the story and the changed person they have become by the end, the more dramatic and transformational a journey he or she will be perceived to have been on.

Delineate this carefully from the start of your planning stages, when you first begin to work your idea into an outline or treatment. Ask yourself if your protagonist is the most extreme version of anything.

Joan Wilder, in Romancing The Stone (1986), is the most naive, unworldly American novelist – so her ensuing adventure in Colombia is set up from the very beginning as being ripe for fish-out-of-water potential as she sets off to find her missing sister.

Try to consider your protagonist as having two parallel goals in your story: one conscious, the other unconscious. These two goals will interact with each other throughout; at some point they will clash and either your character will evolve and adapt and change (and the story will have a hopeful ending) or your character will find themselves unable or unwilling to change (and this fatal flaw will give the story its tragic ending).

What kinds of obstacles are stopping your main character from achieving his or her goal?

These obstacles can take various forms; they can be other characters – including an Antagonist, who must have a clear want and need of his or her own – issues of circumstance and bad luck or even aspects of the protagonist’s own character.

You need to create characters who are in opposition to the main character and who are in his or her way. The chief exponent of this, the Antagonist, does not have to be a sworn enemy or ‘baddie’ of the piece, such as Darth Vader or a James Bond villain, but once these lines of opposition are drawn, it becomes much easier to work out the major plot points and beats of the journey ahead.

If your character’s biggest fear is of failure, for example failing to get the promotion at work, then you could create a character who would be the one to succeed at your main character’s expense. Develop the relationship between these two; perhaps they have been rivals at work since they both joined the company, only the Antagonist has been working there half as long and is on a seemingly effortless fast-track to the top. The audience will be asking themselves, by the time they reach the second act: will our hero manage to beat this guy to the promotion (and get the girl, make his family proud or whatever other strands you bring to the table).

If your character has a flaw or vulnerability that they must overcome, you could hide the flaw in an interesting way at first, perhaps by having the character deny its existence. Audiences connect with characters whom they see are trying to hide in some way.

Let your character externalise their inner conflict and overcome their flaw; having attempted to hide this vulnerable part of themselves, there has to be a subsequent moment when they deal with it. When and where is the crossover point and is it dramatic and interesting?

Consider Ernesto’s asthma in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). It is there from the opening scene of the film. This frailty to his character arouses our sympathy and makes us care about him; it is the reason his family are concerned about him; why he gets sick later in the story and, most importantly, what lends a real sense of danger to his climactic, symbolic swim across the river to the patients at the leper colony.

In American Beauty (1999), Lester Burnham wants to have sex with his daughter’s fit blonde friend Angela. But he is the most boring, out of shape, suburban nobody.

What are the obstacles to his achieving this goal?

His cold, controlling wife; he is about to be fired; his low self-esteem; his weight and fitness; the fact that he has forgotten how to experience joy.

To win Angela round, he needs to remember what it feels like to be alive and to experience the beauty of everything around him in his life.

American Beauty 1999 (1)

Why do we care?

As the audience, we have to root for your main character. How he or she develops and changes over the course of the story will engage us.

Seeing aspects of our own lives reflected in a character’s plight elicits an audience’s empathy and we invest emotionally in proceedings.

We make sense of characters by understanding why they say and do and react in the way that they do, so there has to be consistency in their actions and speech.

So make sure therefore that your main character’s motivations are clearly laid out and easy for the audience to understand.

It is so rewarding for your poor beleaguered script reader when they realise that it is your protagonist guiding them by the hand through the story.

CL

The Godfather (1972) – the Inciting Incident

Famous temper: Sonny (James Caan) tells somebody outside the family what he’s thinking

Possibly the greatest film ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece is nearly three hours long, unfailingly epic in the scale of its action set-pieces and the breadth of its cast, and closes with a awe-inspiring orgy of violence in its famed baptism-of-fire montage.

It is strange then that, when asked to pinpoint the inciting incident that kick-starts the story, most people get it wrong.

The Inciting Incident is the hook that drags the main character into the story or starts his or her journey; the point of no return; the catalyst for the film’s second act.

‘You mean to tell me the Tattaglias will guarantee our investment?’

The lead character of a film has to desire something badly – it is not simply enough that he or she wants to win/achieve/succeed at something. They must want it so badly that it means everything. The struggle to win/achieve/succeed at whatever this something is, due to obstacles the writer places along the way, creates conflict and conflict makes for powerful, dramatic scenes that keep the audience hooked. To what extent the protagonist’s plight arouses the audience’s empathy and reflects aspects of their own lives back at them, how high the stakes are regarding whatever it is they desire and how thrillingly and enticingly the obstacles are overcome will reveal the skill and talent of the writer.

The spine of The Godfather, despite its ensemble cast and majestic sprawl, details the engagement of the Don’s youngest son, Michael, into the family business and his rise to power, so surely the inciting incident, or first key plot point, that triggers Michael’s entry into the mob business is the Don, his father, being shot five times while buying oranges from a market stall.

Wrong.

Sollozzo, or ‘The Turk’ as he is known, meets with the Corleone family, where he asks for a million dollars in cash, political influence and legal protection for the Tattaglias’ proposed heroin-trafficking venture.

Don Corleone turns Sollozzo down and tells him why. ‘Drugs is a dirty business,’ he says. Sollozzo tells him the Tattaglia family will guarantee his million-dollar investment, to which Sonny jumps in, in typically hot-headed fashion, and says: ‘You mean to tell me the Tattaglias will guarantee our investment-?’

The Don, as played by Marlon Brando in unquestionably his most satisfying characterisation, realises immediately the grave error his eldest son and heir has made. Once Sollozzo has left the room, he calls Sonny back in and scolds him: ‘Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.’

But the damage has been done.

Hot for the deal: Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) seizes upon Sonny’s mistake

Later, Michael meets up with Sollozzo, in the car with corrupt Captain McCluskey, en route to the Italian restaurant where Michael plans to shoot them both, and we cannot help but ruminate upon the way Sollozzo told Tom Hagan: ‘Sonny was hot for my deal, wasn’t he?’ It is Sonny’s indiscretion, and this single line he utters in particular, that leads to the assassination attempt on the old Don’s life, which embroils Michael inexorably in the business his father never intended him to be a part of.

CL

Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue at their stunning best in this tragic love affair

Captivated: Ben (Nicolas Cage) and Sera (Elisabeth Shue) are co-dependent lovers in the film

Nicolas Cage is better known these days as the hard-working star of action-packed blockbusters, but he is always at his best playing characters with a wounded romanticism; remember his Elvis-loving Sailor in David Lynch’s Palme d’Or-winning Wild At Heart (1990), and especially his angst-filled Charlie in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), where he also played the more outgoing, fun twin Donald.

His greatest characterisation yet is still alcoholic Ben Sanderson in Mike Figgis’s moving 1995 drama Leaving Las Vegas, for which he deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor and many other awards besides. Ben gives up on his life as an increasingly drink-sodden screenwriter working in L.A, packs up his stuff and moves to Las Vegas, where he plans to drink himself to death with his redundancy money. He estimates it should take him about four weeks, averaging 250-300 dollars per day. In Vegas he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute, and it is their involvement with one another, and the trials of their subsequent co-dependency, that are the beating heart of the film.

Cage is so thrilling to watch and so convincingly damaged that we are moved to question what could have caused this breakdown, but Figgis steers clear of signposting the motivating factors. Ben says early on in the film: ‘I don’t remember if I started drinking ‘cause my wife left me, or if my wife left me ‘cause I started drinking’. It is suggested that he has lost, by divorce, a wife and son, and that this is the root cause of his suicidal alcoholism.

Cage revealed as much in an interview promoting the film, telling Roger Ebert: ‘I think something really emotionally devastating happened to [Ben]. The way I explained it to myself was, he has a kid and for some reason or another, he can’t see this child, and that has driven him to where he is’. When he has settled on his plan, Ben packs up his belongings, burns all his scripts and any reminders of his past – including a photograph of a woman and child, presumably his ex-wife and son – and leaves for Vegas.

‘I’ll tell you right now I’m in love with you. But, be that as it may, I am not here to force my twisted soul into your life. We both know I am a drunk. And I know you are a hooker. I hope you understand that I’m a person who is totally at ease with this. Which is not to say that I’m indifferent, or I don’t care. I do. It simply means I trust and accept your judgement’.

Like so many great character-pieces, the film is above all about a connection between two people. Sera, lonely and tired of being so, is struck by the connection she feels to Ben, who is actually interested in her as a person, not as a vessel of her profession. She clearly relishes looking after him, buying him new clothes and presents, such as the hip flask (below), to which Ben responds, choked up, by telling her: ‘Looks like I’m with the right girl’.

It is the twisted nature of their co-dependency that enables both actors to get their hooks in the audience from the start. Ben warns Sera she can never ask him to stop drinking, just as he can never ask her to stop being a hooker. The complications that arise from this precarious dynamic are what make this film very special indeed. Sera agrees that she won’t ever ask him to stop drinking with the words ‘I do’, like a wedding vow, but reneges on this, late in the story, telling Ben she wants him to see a doctor. Ben would have her, and us, believe he is ‘totally at ease’ with the fact that Sera is a prostitute. When he buys her some earrings and helps her to put them on, however, he whispers in her ear without thinking: ‘You’ll be able to feel it sharp and hot under your ear as one of the brothers is putting your head face-down into one of the penthouse pillows’. The film is full of such extraordinary exchanges between the pair. ‘Maybe I should follow you around and ask one of your tricks what it’s like to sleep with you’, says Ben. ‘They wouldn’t know’, replies Sera.

The film was shot quickly over 28 days on Super 16mm, on a budget of $4 million, with Figgis scoring the film impressively himself, while also appearing as one of the three thuggish henchmen who come to dispatch Yuri, Sera’s hunted Latvian pimp. Yuri, as played by Julian Sands, provides the film’s only misfire. His awkward performance fails to convince and unsettles the early scenes of the film in which he appears.

‘We both realised that we didn’t have that much time’, Sera says, to an unseen therapist. ‘And I accepted him for who he was, and I didn’t expect him to change, and I think he felt that for me too’. What lends Sera’s situation some hope is the fact that she tries to save him; Ben, while similarly infatuated, is beyond any hope or chance of salvation. As he reveals himself, he cannot even remember the reason why he is drinking.

Shue’s wrenching performance was justly as lauded as her co-star’s; together on-screen it is impossible to tear your eyes from them. A remarkably affecting performance from all concerned that is shocking, in Hollywood terms, for its complete lack of sentiment, and all the more effective because of it.

CL

The madness of Melancholia – making sense of Lars Von Trier

Melancholia

Dir: Lars Von Trier | Year: 2011 | Cert: 15 Country: Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany

Running Time: 136 mins | With: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland

…This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.

The City of Dreadful Night, James Thomson, 1874

As a literary prelude to Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, The City of Dreadful Night by Scottish poet James Thomson might have been written by the controversial director himself, over a century later. (Visitors to London during August’s riots this year may yet find a degree of truth in Thomson’s bleak title and outlook towards the capital). Neither men were strangers to depression, the directorial imprint for much of Von Trier’s condition is seemingly apparent within the darker elements of Breaking The Waves (1996) and more recently Antichrist (2009).

In revealing more than just a empty interpretation of London’s sprawling metropolis, Thomson hinted at the hopelessness of the human condition itself. The idea that death alone can provide oblivion to all inherent suffering endured in life is a notion that Kirsten Dunst’s character, Justine, brings startlingly to Von Trier’s film Melancholia.

Attempting to decipher the plot is unhelpful as we very quickly learn the entire premise of the film anyway. Amid the mother of all plot spoilers, the opening scene depicts the blue planet Melancholia, a narrative and wider metaphorical device for Dunst’s own psychological devastation, smashing catastrophically into Earth just as it will by the closing credits; Justine forseeing the final moments of humanity in a sequence awash with beautiful, extended, swooning Wagner-scored images. And yet despite all, the film still works; namely through the narrative tension developed in Part Two as we head expectantly towards a doom-laden finale.

The dismantling of romantic rituals in Part One of the film is a direct nod to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998), the first of the Dogme95 films. We follow the wedding reception of Justine’s marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) within a separate, distinct segment from the impending disaster yet to follow in Part Two. Yet here Von Trier plays a significantly weaker hand. The remainder of the wedding reception seem impervious to the drama unfolding before them. Much of the characterisation doesn’t hold together such as the Groom’s curious choice of Jack as Best Man, Justine’s career driven, overbearing and significantly older boss (played by Stellan Skarsgård) unless we are to assume that the role embodies father and son (though the relationship is unimplied anywhere else).

As a resistance of film makers to ever powerful Hollywood studios, Dogme95 swore a ‘vow of chastity’ to only produce pictures through natural lighting, handheld camera and zero special effects (to name but a few). Von Trier was co-author of the original manifesto along with Vinterberg, and the wedding section of Melancholia signposts Dogme95′s trademark febrile camera and jump cuts. Nevertheless, as the later computer generated images of planetary collision demonstrate, he has long since departed from the club. Perhaps it is significant that Von Trier since expressed disappointment at the final special effects depicting Earth’s destruction in the finished production of the film. There is no doubt that given his directorial history of making dark, pessimistic pictures, Melancholia could have cut even deeper, and the visual brilliance of the second act significantly dilutes the bleak message of the piece. Whilst there is no material evidence to substantiate the possibility of Von Trier unintentionally wrong footing himself  in the film’s directorial design, Melancholia is arguably the richer for it.

Still, while Thomson’s 1874 poem was well received in the literary circles of the time, winning acclaim from several leading English novelists, Von Trier’s film continues to garner mixed reviews today. Many critics seem to overlook that his pessimism is actually challenging us, we should be asking, why do we exist at all, why does anything exist?

George Saintbury wrote of The City of Dreadful Night that “what saves Thomson is the perfection with which he expresses the negative and hopeless side of the sense of mystery …” and so could be said of Lars Von Trier.

Despite an empty perception of human existence, Melancholia offers up a certain lyricism in the way any of us attempt to make sense of life and death.

In doing so, Von Trier delivers cinematic moments not easily forgotten.

SGM

♦ Recommended ♦

Senna – a tragedy told by the man himself

Senna

Dir: Asif Kapadia | Year: 2010 | Cert: 12A Country: UK

Running Time: 106 mins

Asif Kapadia recognised that the challenge of making a documentary about three times World Championship winner Ayrton Senna, lay in condemning nuts and bolts racing to an essentially back seat role. His film is compelling, the life drama of an exceptionally gifted individual at the height of his powers. As a working history of the Formula One machine, with all its politics, money and corruption, it is equally engrossing. And yet the actual sport of motor racing, just as it might have appeared in the psyches of the majority of us then, knows its place here, playing the supporting role to a far bigger event.

When I was given the opportunity to direct Senna, I decided the film had to work for audiences who disliked sport, or had never seen a Formula One race in their lives. It had to thrill and emotionally engage people who had never heard of Ayrton Senna.

Asif Kapadia, interview with The Guardian, Senna: Come Drive With Me, Tuesday 31st May 2011

Kapadia’s decision to employ entirely archive footage of Senna is the masterstroke here, with the Brazilian driver eerily narrating his own life story for the most part. The material research has been meticulous, as it had to in constructing an entirely ‘source documentary’ pieced together from recorded film taken twenty years ago. Numerous home videos, Grand Prix races, interviews and news coverage all contribute to building a real sense of Ayrton Senna the man – a contrasting amalgam of playboy celebrity, religious faith, social conscience and dogged determination.

I had a rule with the film: if we can’t show it, we can’t put it in. Fortunately, Senna was constantly followed by a camera at the height of his fame: whether it was Globo TV from Brazil, Fuji from Japan, his brother’s VHS camera or the Formula One crews. Rather than shooting it, we scripted it and then sent word to our researchers in London, Japan and Rio to find the shots to fit.

Asif Kapadia, interview with The Guardian, Senna: Come Drive With Me, Tuesday 31st May 2011

The film retains the feel of gripping real life drama unfolding before your very eyes, a refreshing alternative to what could have been a reflective, posthumous approach relying on current day analysis to shape events. Moments of real pathos present themselves in the simplest of interview, such as when Senna reveals his future hopes after winning the Formula One Championship for a third time (Kapadia’s choice of Giles Peterson score works brilliantly here), barely three years from tragedy upon the track at Imola.

There is a great desire in me of improving. Getting better. That makes me happy….Maybe I’m only at the half of my life right now, so there is a lot to go, a lot to learn, a lot to do still in life. And happiness will come when I feel complete as a whole, which definitely I don’t feel today. But I have plenty of time to fulfill that, too.

Ayrton Senna interview post-1991 World Championship win,  Senna (2010)

Scenes like these are heightened by our prior knowledge about a young life cut short and sound a sad footnote to lost potential.

Formula One fans may complain about the film’s negative depiction of technology advancements at Williams which seemingly explain away Senna’s latter championship failures at the hands of Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. However there is no doubt that the Frenchman, presented as winning titles by accumulating points over podium finishes, played the politics of the sport better than anyone. Here, he serves as the pantomine villain for the piece although Kapadia is careful to square opinion by including later footage of Prost bearing his former team mate’s coffin at the funeral, and a final mission statement reveals him as trustee to the Senna foundation.

The extended footage of Senna sitting in his car during the final hours of his life grant the film a doom-laden tension as sister Viviane recalls his doubts during the morning of the race.

He opened the Bible and read a passage which said that God would give him the greatest of all gifts. Which was God himself.

Senna’s sister, Viviane, recalls her brother’s last morning,  Senna (2010)

The immediacy of Kapidia’s approach proves as exhilarating as the final in-car camera sequence prior to the crash itself. Whilst the film is the beneficiary of a subject matter boosted by the extraordinary wealth of archive footage available, it is Kapadia’s proximity to his lead man that contributes to Senna’s deserved universal appeal. Here is a celebration of documentary film making to challenge the mainstream, and a truly cinematic experience.

SGM

♦ Recommended ♦

Bobby Fischer Against The World – playing the stalemate

Bobby Fischer Against The World

Dir: Liz Garbus | Year: 2011 | Cert: PG Country: USA

Running Time: 92 mins

Bobby Fischer – the name is ingrained in chess folklore whether you care for E4 openings or not, and for those of us who take more than just an interest in chess en passant, Fischer still stands as probably the greatest player of them all.

No other master has such a terrific will to win. At the board he radiates danger, and even the strongest opponents tend to freeze, like rabbits, when they smell a panther. Even his weaknesses are dangerous. As white, his opening is predictable – you can make plans against it – but so strong that your plans almost never work. In middle game his precision and invention are fabulous, and in the end game you simply cannot beat him.

Brad Darrach, Life Magazine, 12 November 1971

A grandmaster at fifteen, Fischer began learning Russian just so he could immerse himself in the wealth of their chess literature, a country that had produced an uninterrupted line of world champions as far back as 1927, and for as long as 1970. At the height of his fame, the American defeated Russia’s Boris Spassky in the 1972 Chess World Championships in Reykjavik to finally end this sequence, during a series of games that seemed to embody the Cold War struggle itself.Yet by the end, he was seeing out his days in self-imposed isolation, ostracizing the few friends left to him through growing bitterness, paranoia and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Liz Garbus’ new documentary film, Bobby Fischer Against The World, lays bare the extent of the chess prodigy’s rise and fall for the first time, a feat impossible prior to his death in 2008. Whilst alive, Fischer’s few remaining friends were unwilling to fuel his wrath further by providing even the most basic of backgrounds demanded by biography. And through his violent outbursts in occasional live interviews – he hailed the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center as “wonderful news” from his exile in the Philippines – the public’s perception of an anti-American, anti-Jewish lunatic who used to play chess, gradually overshadowed the golden memories of 1972 Reykjavik.

In making the film, Garbus has stated that she intended the 1972 Spassky games in Iceland to form the narrative spine of the piece.

Bobby Fischer finds solitude away from the media glare during the 1972 World Chess Championship match against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik (photograph by Harry Benson).

Here the film excels in delivering rare archive footage of the match amid the beautiful photographs provided by Harry Benson, the photographer whom Fischer allowed close to him during the trip because he didn’t care to talk about chess.

With its assured analysis of Game 6, Bobby Fischer Against The World finally finds its voice in describing how Fischer played one of the most beautiful middle games in chess history to secure the win, and the applause of even Spassky himself.

Over to you Boris: Bobby Fischer takes his move against Boris Spassky in Game 6 of the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, 1972.

However, it is the decision to examine the various political, social and cultural implications of the games through the medium of latter day interviews with figures in and outside the chess world  - Garry Kasparov, Susan Polgar, Dr. Anthony Saidy and the late Larry Evans to name but a few – that effectively blunts the purpose of the piece. Garbus seems reluctant to take a definitive narratorial stance over how to judge Bobby Fischer against the backdrop of his later descent into madness and paranoia. The film seems unclear and ill disciplined as a result.

…When we were going out to make this film about Bobby Fischer, people wanted to know: “Is he a saint or a sinner? What portrait are you making of him?” And I said, “I’m listening to you. I’m not making a portrait. I’m not making him a [saint or a] sinner. I’m listening to all the stories and putting them all together and finding a truth in all their differences and all their agreements.

Liz Garbus interview with Robert Levin, Which Bobby Fischer Should We Remember? The Atlantic, June 6th 2011

In this spirit, Bobby Fischer Against The World supplys evidence for trial without ever reaching its verdict.

The possibility that public pride and imagination could have been fired through this documentary as it was in 1972 when crowds of Europeans and Americans huddled in bars to follow the games on television, playing each other in cafes with their own boards, represents an opportunity missed.

The 1972 Fischer-Spassky games captured public imagination across the world.

There does not appear to be any greater meaning to the story of Bobby Fischer with the decision to document his illegal 1992 Spassky rematch in Yugoslavia, those final miserable years of asylum in Iceland or a personal examination within the context of human psychology.

For an engaging film about a chess player, Bobby Fischer should clearly stand as a genius of the game whose legacy remains in chess and chess alone. The final seconds of the documentary prior to the credits – a broad celebration of chess and how Fischer popularized it – demonstrate that Garbus did at some level understand this. But ultimately this film demonstrates that in showing absolutely everything, sometimes you can show nothing at all.

SGM

Bobby Fischer Against The World is released into UK cinemas on 15th July, 2011.

♦ Recommended ♦