I collected a few thoughts on screenwriting, or fiction writing in general, from watching Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (2010).
The film was winner of the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival last year in the ‘Emerging Film’ category. As daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola must have breathed films from birth. She is also an Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay with ”Lost In Translation” (2003), which also brought her an Oscar nom in the Best Director and Best Picture categories.
While I had enjoyed her “Lost In Translation”, a sensitive, existential rendering framed in the context of cultural cacophonies, I sat through “Somewhere” feeling detached and unmoved. But I did make some mental notes on how to write better… especially when I compared it with another film depicting a similar theme, Mike Leigh’s “Another Year“.
I’ve appreciated the overriding intent of “Somewhere”, the portrayal of a pointless life in the midst of Hollywood stardom. Behind the façade of glamour is a sad man, failed in his marriage, aimless, smothered with ennui. The setting of the film is significant too. From the movie poster we see the iconic Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont, a historic landmark that’s synonymous with fame and celebrity. That is where our protagonist, actor Johnny Marco lives, at the moment.
So here are some mental notes I made on writing while watching “Somewhere”:
1. We all know it: Show, not tell. But too much showing can be force feeding.
Case in point: The film starts off with the sound of a car engine revving, then we see a black Ferrari come on screen from the left, circling round and go off screen. We wait for it to come back, then go round and offscreen again. This goes on for, I forgot to count, maybe four times. Then it stops, and a man gets out. We later find out he is the main character, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Got it… his life is going in circles, heading nowhere.
But just to confirm that we are on the right track, we’re shown some more. We see Johnny Marco so drunk he falls down the stairs and breaks his arm. We see him lying in bed watching exotic dancers performing in front of him, only to fall asleep before they finish their routine. We are shown again another time, another pair of exotic dancers in his room, this time he gives a bored little clap. We see him womanizing, partying, driving his Ferrari aimlessly on the road. We see him being ushered to promo sessions and photo shoots, in unfeeling mode, and answer questions from the press. And as if not enough pounding, we hear a reporter asking the explicit question, which by now has become so contrived: ‘Who is Johnny Marco?’
This is not just the first 30 minutes to set up the mood and character, this is throughout the film. So I noted: once you’ve got your point across, move on.
2. Stir up empathy, not inflict vicarious suffering. You don’t have to drag your audience to the level of boredom to depict boredom. Like, we don’t have to be turned into stutterers before we can appreciate the struggles of a stammering king. There is a scene where Johnny has to sit down and have his face plastered with goo to make a mold of an old man. We see him plastered bit by bit until his head is covered with goo. The static camera then stays on this plastered head, as we wait with him for the goo to dry. Lucky we are spared after a minute and a half. I appreciate the long take if it conveys meaning in an aesthetically pleasing way, but here it is almost didactic in its expression of tedium and ennui.
3. Bring up a contrast. Yes, in this case, Johnny Marco’s 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) is a perfect foil. Staying with her father for a short while before going to summer camp, Cleo’s life is nothing short of wholesome. She is angelic in her innocence and beauty; in contrast to her Dad, she is happy and purposeful. She figure skates, plays tennis, swims, cooks, does Sudoku, plays Guitar Hero and Wii with youthful vitality. Johnny is mesmerized. Despite a failed marriage, Cleo is the best thing that happens in his life… and in the film as well.
4. Put the character in the context of a story, even though it is just a character study or that it is static. For the viewers to appreciate the character on a deeper level, they must see the person in various predicaments, which are missing here. Without a story as vehicle, we only see a two dimensional character. I thought of Mary (Lesley Manville) in “Another Year”. Very similar to Johnny here, Mary is a sad and utterly despondent character. Also, like Johnny, she is going nowhere even at the end, where she is spiralling further down the hole of loneliness. Not unlike Johnny here. Yet I found “Another Year” appealing because the other significant characters continue to show us their life story. The foil there is Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). Through the four seasons, we see how they treat each other and deal with life, and relationships are being depicted. It is still a character study with no major dramatic climax, yet the film can hold my interest because I am watching Mary through the frame of Tom and Gerri’s story.
5. Throw in a dash of humor,
even though especially when your character is in utter sadness. Unlike “Lost In Translation”, “Somewhere” is almost devoid of humor. A laugh or two is probably the fastest way to dissolve the audience’s aloofness. Back to “Another Year”, Mary is not a lovable character. She is delusional, dependent, aimless and weak. As audience, we are impatient with her unhappiness, because we feel she is solely responsible for her plight. But humor disarms our critical stance and gently prods us to sympathize her. Her character does not change and become loveable at the end, but we learn to be more gracious and give her some allowance. We find that it is not so static after all, for we the audience, unknowingly, have been changed.
~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
CLICK HERE to read my review of Another Year.
CLICK HERE to read my review of The King’s Speech.