Eye on the Oscars: The Writer

Silence.

In films, silent moments may be one of the most effective techniques to evoke a powerful emotion or to portray a character, and often what’s seen on the screen is more powerful than any words could be.

But telling stories visually is usually thought of as the province of the director, not the writer, since writers are limited to words, whether it’s dialogue or scene description. Yet writers often conceive images even when the story is still only words on a page.

The year’s most extreme example is a film that is mostly silent: “The Artist.” By choosing to (almost) entirely eschew dialogue and sound effects as a storytelling tool, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius limited himself to images to explain or evoke a conflict.

Hazanavicius points to a moment when fading silent star George Valentin meets rising talkie star Peppy Miller on a staircase at the studio. “She is on the top (of the stairs) and he is lower than she and he is a little sad. She dressed in white with very dark hair, and she is talking and talking because she is now doing talking movies. He is a little faded and not talking at all. Then there is a long shot where he is listening and looking at her where his eyes say he is in love with her. We use light and shadows,” Hazanavicius says.

Hazanavicius had to write his script before he could be sure the project was even doable. “I wanted to do a modern movie but with another cinematic grammar,” he says. “Nobody had done it for a long time and I didn’t want to do a spoof movie.”

So he wrote the script like a short novel. “I would write ‘We understand he is confused’ or ‘He doesn’t understand what she means,’ and then let the actor do his job,” Hazanavicius says.

“Shame” is by no measure a silent film, but co-writer/director Steve McQueen establishes the main character’s sex addiction in the film’s first few minutes without many words. McQueen says writing a scene without dialogue is “all about ritual.”

“Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is waking up in the morning, wiping the sleep out of his eyes, switches the button on the answering machine, takes a shower and catches a train,” he says. Within minutes he’s on the prowl for his next liaison. “It’s a kind of ritual — once he gets up from the bed, it’s like ‘Go,’?” McQueen says.

For “Jane Eyre” screenwriter Moira Buffini, writing scenes without words is “most of the job.” She says she writes to illuminate, using everything from “the kind of kitchenware that the characters may use, to the banks of storm clouds in the sky.”

Buffini was very impressed with Jane Eyre’s love of drawing and painting, so she wrote that into the script.

“There’s one tiny scene in the film where on her way to bed one night, Jane holds her candle up to a picture of a naked woman that Rochester has framed on a wall. I wrote ‘She studies it with an artist’s curiosity — and a girl’s.’ The scene very simply opens up Jane’s sexual awakening to us,” Buffini says.

Like Hazanavicius, Buffini tried to be very clear in her writing for the actor, as when describing a certain emotion.

“For example, rather than saying, ‘She is tearful,’ say ‘She is struggling to contain her tears.’ That is active,” she says.

EYE ON THE OSCARS: THE WRITER
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