Forget Screenwriting 101. Some of the year’s most audacious screenplays throw out the rulebook, jumping back and forth in time instead of unfolding in a linear, three-act fashion. Such experimentation is as old as the movies themselves, dating back to such storytellers as D.W. Griffith (“Intolerance”) and Abel Gance (“Napoleon”). But the tendency has become increasingly common in recent mainstream releases, from “Michael Clayton’s” car-bomb opening to “Atonement’s” fragmented, time-jumping intrigue.
“I think there’s a mistrust, especially among younger audiences, of traditional Hollywood narrative,” says Oscar-winning writer Marc Norman (“Shakespeare in Love”), who examines the history of American screenwriting in his new book “What Happens Next.” “I’ve never bought the explanation that people are growing up with shorter and shorter attention spans, and that’s their notion of life. I have to think that it’s deeper than that. It’s a question of how can I get at a truth in movies that hasn’t been done before?”
In “Lust, Caution,” screenwriter James Schamus experiments with time by introducing the main character on the brink of a critical decision, then rewinding to a much earlier place, as Eileen Chang does in the short story on which it’s based. “It’s a structure (Ang Lee and I) had experimented with 10 years ago on ‘The Ice Storm,’ so we were very comfortable with it,” Schamus explains. “You’re really internalizing the narrative and forcing people to follow the psychology a bit more than the surface plot.”
In “Michael Clayton,” by opening with a shocking incident that occurs late in the story, writer-director Tony Gilroy transforms the type of suspense audiences experience while watching the film. “In theory, if I make a real world, and there are some dramatic events taking place in there, I should be able to drop the needle anywhere 28 times and make something interesting out of it.”
In recent years, director Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight”) and Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel”) — to name just two examples — have demonstrated how far storytellers can fracture the narrative line without losing audiences. Even when events are assembled out of order, the film’s emotional arcs typically follow the time-proven traditional structure, as seen in “Memento” or this year’s “La Vie en rose.”
In “Redacted,” director Brian De Palma chose to re-create the 2006 rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by U.S. soldiers through various perspectives, all of them subjective (verite-style video diaries, an “objective” documentary crew, hidden surveillance cameras and so on). The film repeats the shape of De Palma’s earlier “Casualties of War,” but also serves as a conceptual statement about the way skeptical 21st-century audiences gather information to form their own narratives.
“I watch my daughters, who sit on their beds with their computers on their stomachs, and they look at little pieces of this and little pieces of that, and that’s how they get their information,” he explains. “There is no objective narrative form because everything we’ve seen about this war has been put through a lens and distorted depending on who’s telling the story.”
As in “Atonement,” which questions whether anyone can ever truly understand how another person experiences a shared moment, De Palma doubles back on certain events. In both cases, the incidents in question take on different significance depending on whose eyes we view them through.
“In many ways, deconstructionism is the linear film equivalent of cubism as an art form, to be able to see things from different angles and perspectives,” muses “Pulp Fiction” co-writer Roger Avary (who graduates to a form of “reconstruction” in “Beowulf”). ” ‘Rashomon’ is the most obvious example of that. Reality is more a consensus of what people agree upon, as opposed to what actually is, because everybody sees things differently.”
Kelly Masterson also burrows into multiple characters’ perspectives in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” The film’s structure, he says, was inspired by the book “Reservation Road,” which (unlike Terry George’s screen adaptation) begins with a tragic event and then rewinds, tracking each character back to the incident.
“You get to a certain point where you’re expecting forward motion, and I don’t give it to you. I give you backward motion, or I give you sideways motion,” Masterson explains. “It’s almost like climax. I get you close, I tease you with it, and then I pull it away and make you look at it from a different angle, so hopefully when I release it, it’s got a big supercharge behind it.”
Todd Haynes’ unconventional Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” subdivides the folk legend into seven different characters. Although his approach feels avant-garde, the director insists, “The stories introduce themselves along a linear line where the youngest is first and the oldest is last. But I felt it was still really important to have them interact with each other and create a dialogue between stories.” Those connections determined the sequence of scenes, says Haynes, who describes Dylan as “the last modernist.”
Schamus reiterates that whatever impulse compels storytellers to deconstruct and reshape narrative has been evolving for decades, referencing “Laura” and “Two for the Road” as examples.
“A lot of these techniques have been around for a long time. They’re really hallmarks of early 20th-century modernism in terms of narrative approaches to the novel, from James Joyce to Philippe Sollers,” he says. “You found them used in certain genres of American film — film noir in particular. I think the difference now is that filmmakers are using them not to distance audiences, but to hit them with a rhetoric and a narrative style that speaks very emotionally to their present spiritual needs.”