If only it were as simple as Julie Andrews would have it and we could just “start at the very beginning” because, of course, “it’s a very good place to start.” But in terms of narrative, there is always for me the pressing question of where to begin. I carry a few principles with me I have learned from various teachers and from trial and much error.
1. Walk in late.
2. The end is in the beginning.
3. Show the audience how to experience (love) the story.
The trick, then, is to keep these things in mind but, as Andrew Horton reminds us in Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay, “Remember you wish to draw the viewer into your world, but you don’t want to drown him or her in the first ten minutes” (159). Easy peasy.
The odd thing about beginnings is how often they are forgotten. When I’m teaching and asking students about the first frames of films, they often reference later plot points more than the actual first shots. Roland Barthes, in his A Lover’s Discourse, points out that there is no love at first sight.
I never fall in love unless I have wanted to; the emptiness I produce in myself . . . is nothing but that interval, longer or shorter, when I glance around me, without seeming to, looking for who to love . . . Yet the myth of “love at first sight” is so powerful . . . that we are astonished if we hear of someone deciding to fall in love. (190)
So how we do suggest, provoke, encourage the audience to want to fall in love, firstly. And how do we not falsely advertise, lure the viewer or reader in with the promise of a torrid and lurid affair only to promptly pull out the TV dinners and our sad house coats, narratively speaking?
The question of how to begin has been more recently preoccupying me with a film I shot last may, “zack & luc,” where I planned a beginning but lost it. I shot the film all on super 8 film which in this day and age is an exercise in desperate waiting for a hopeful outcome: you shoot the film, you send it off to the lab in another city, you then wait for the lab to develop it, send it to another place where it is scanned and digitized, and then months later your film footage and its electronic version arrive back and you see what you have (or don’t have). In our case, of the thirty-eight rolls of film, we were rather lucky that only one had some exposure to light and only one didn’t turn out at all. The problem that presented itself was that the footage on the missing roll was intended to be used for the first and last shots in the film. Because I believe the end was in the beginning, I lost both.
In the beginning,
The rain clattering against the windshield of the parked truck, the wipers forgetting then remembering to clear away the water. The lights of the cars driving by become clear then blurry, then clear, then blurry again.
And in the end,
Zack turns and opens the door and then he is gone, the cab filled again with the sound of rain on the glass. Through the windshield the world is dark and impressionistic, sparkled with the red and white lights of passing cars.
Perhaps I would not be so concerned with this lost beginning and ending if I wasn’t acutely aware that the stories I am interested in telling are a little high maintenance and thus a little hard to instantly fall in love with. In my short film scripts I am drawn to stories that are narratively challenging. “alice & huck,’ directed by the wonderful Kaleena Kiff, tells the story of two characters who collide but mostly miss in various scenarios or universes, exploring the question of how timing plays into our possible romances.
“zack & luc” is two versions of the entire story of a relationship, told for the one character on the right chronologically and for the other on the left frame in reverse chronology, so the first and last moment the two lovers are together are juxtaposed.
Among other things, this non-linear story I think gets to explore that beginnings principle (“the end is in the beginning”) and how it pertains to relationships. Once you’ve loved and lost a few times, you look at beginnings a little differently. In writing both stories, I was aware that I had to find some way to coach the audience to watch the films differently than they would a realist or classical (typical Hollywood) piece.
A film that taught me a lot about beginnings was the Belgian film Une Liaison Pornographique (a fantastic title which was then rather confusedly and perfectly translated into the title for the American release as An Affair of Love, which betrays an American confusion around endings or love or both).http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPksJ99XhT0
It’s a peculiar film: it tells the story of a man and a woman, both unnamed, who are being interviewed by an unidentified interviewer about a sexual act that the two met for but insist they will not disclose to the interviewer. There are a barrel of monkey questions that could easily undo the “love at first sight” state we might want to experience for this story: who is the interviewer? Why is he making this documentary? Since the two versions of the affair contradict, who is telling the truth? And what the hell were they doing in that hotel room anyway? Here the filmmakers had to create a difficultly achieved balance between building the audience’s desire and not creating so many questions that the viewer might be more attached to the questions than the momentum of the story. How to coach an audience to not over focus on the details? How to get them to go along with an improbable though compelling story?
In the case of Une Liaison, the filmmakers bracket the film with the same crowd footage you see linked above. We begin and end with this out of focus, impressionistically shot, crowd of strangers on the street. If you watch intently I promise you that you can almost see the woman and the man in that crowd; or do you? This is flirting; this is the possibility of love. Regardless, the opening, in the style of an impressionistic painting, coaches us to see what follows in a similar fashion: to see associatively or impressionistically. One could look at a Monet painting and just look at the brush strokes but then one would be kind of missing the point.
Other films embrace the same principle with different methods. Tom Tykwer‘s Run Lola Run has an ominous clock followed by a similar crowd scene that emphasizes and introduces its themes around time and the interconnectedness of people.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s Amelie does a beautiful job of establishing its themes of connection and synchronicity and its tone of absurdity.
When it came to writing “alice & huck” I knew I needed a similar sign post declaring“Watch this way.” It presented itself in the swing and the clouds
That did not seem enough to signify the leaps between the various versions of how the two characters might collide, so I then wrote in a recurring impressionistic montage of body parts saturated in sunlight:
A world out of focus, what look like limbs, a mouth, a throat, 1 all blurry and impressionistic. breath and sighs. these are the moments that bridge time and place, like puzzle pieces each time, but pieces to a puzzle all about the sky — no one can put this together.
This is what it translates into in the film:
With “zack & luc” I needed a similar sign post so the viewer would be prepared to watch loosely, associatively, patiently. The impressionistic beginning I wanted was that visual through the windshield in the rain. It had partly come to me from Lucrecia Martel’s “Pescados” (presented and written about by Sophie Lavoie right here on Numero Cinq at the Movies).
There when the fish explain their dream where they go driving in the rain, we see footage of the highway through a windshield in the rain. This image stuck with me and seemed a perfect way to bracket the complicated story of “zack & luc.”
So when it no longer existed, when the roll was damaged, I had to decide how important it was. Then when I woke up two weeks later declaring to the ceiling that I needed the shot, I had to go about it. It took until the end of the summer for me to order in the film, book the camera and grab a handful of people to get the shot. I think it was a Tuesday night, in a friend’s driveway with a very long garden hose, but we got it.
It will be months still before an audience sees this beginning / ending and before I can really get a sense of whether these shots create a space for love. But I am hopeful and this is a good ending to the story where I lost my beginning.
— R. W. Gray
So, the ending of this essay is that we don’t get to see the beginning/ending of the film? 🙂
You do get to see the footage that is meant to put you in a state of wanting to see it (guess that works). We’re still in post / edit unfortunately.