Communicating on a deep level, within the constricted confines of the feature screenplay format is where the art can be found when discussing the craft of screenwriting.
The canvas for writing a screenplay is finite, specifically the limit of time allowed for a writer to tell his story. This is the one aspect more challenging than what faces writers of novels who can take as long as they creatively want to tell their tale.
Storytelling within the limits of a theatrical screenplay is about conveying a ton of information to the audience, communicated simultaneously on several different levels. In Professional screenwriting, one uses “shorthand,” usually by employing the ever-changing Film Language to convey information to the audience about the story. This is one of the most important and demanding features in the screenwriting craft. Those who have a great understanding of this aspect of writing, and do it well, are the writers who create work that is clearly identifiable on the page and up on the screen.
The basic screenwriting level is focused on the storytelling, utilizing the craft to allow the audience to orientate themselves to the main plot, and the characters they will be following. The other levels of screenwriting communication are what expert writers operate in at the same time and in the same space as they reveal their basic plotline. These are the levels that creatively expand and deepen other aspects of their storytelling.
One of my favorite films, MICHAEL CLAYTON (Screenplay and Direction by Tony Gilroy) expertly displays the craft of multi-level storytelling. Especially noteworthy is how the introduction of the eponymous main character is handled at the beginning of the film, an opening sequence essentially comprised of two main scenes, and two shorter scenes of the main character walking/talking on the phone and then driving in his car.
I wanted to share some thoughts on the introductory scene/and adjoining scene with the main character walking and talking on his mobile phone. My goal is to highlight how the filmmaker considered every moment up on the screen as an opportunity to tell his story.
Before proceeding, you can take a look at the scenes under discussion -
A summary of the basic narrative of the scenes begins with the introduction of the lead character, Michael Clayton. He's playing (literally) in an underground poker game. We get an entertaining verbal back and forth between one of the card players and the main character which elicits a couple of laughs.
We cut to Michael Clayton checking out of the game, and then leaving the warehouse. He becomes aware for the first time that someone has been trying to call him. He tries to return the calls while riding the elevator to the street level, but is unsuccessful. The moment he steps out into the street a colleague at his law firm connects with him as he's walking to his car.
And that's the basic beats of the sequence under examination. However, along the way, the filmmaker throws in a ton of artistic elements, executed succinctly, and on the fly, each one operating on several different creative levels, a continuous stream of information to the audience about the world they are about to jump into. Here is a list of some of the important creative elements that operate below the basic level of revealing the main narrative to the audience --
- Michael Clayton not only gambles, he's obviously been indulging in this vice for a long time. We can see this in his demeanor during the game. And this point is confirmed when one of the other players in his dialogue refers to the last time they played, something that happened many months (or even years) ago.
- We quickly learn that Clayton has not been successful at gambling. Apparently he was so bad, that he apparently quit for awhile. We know this because winners don't give it up, only losers. And it explains why the other character in the scene had not seen Clayton for awhile, during the time when our lead character tried to stop gambling.
- We can deduce that Clayton has a gambling problem because he obviously quit, but has recently returned. (As he checks out of the game, the overseer of the game remarks, "Nice to see you again,") The fact that Clayton is now playing again makes us wonder if there is a specific reason to explain his addiction renewal.
- Regardless of why and when, the fact that Clayton is gambling after he tried to get out shows that he’s behaving in a self-destructive way. Obviously this is a key character trait, maybe the whole point of these scenes is that our main character has a self-destructive personality and the filmmaker needs us to witness this.
- During the scene’s dialogue, we discover Clayton was a partner in a restaurant that went belly up. We don’t know any details about what went wrong, but we’ll find out more later. The dialogue in this opening scene could be about anything, but note when the screenwriter is not letting any opportunity go by. In this case the filmmaker is planting into our heads the beginning of something significant, a very consequential plot beat.
- Clayton works for a prestigious law firm.
We discover this as Michael speaks on the phone to a colleague, a lawyer on vacation in Burmuda attempting to service an important, rich client in the middle of a crisis. He needs our main character's help. He wants Clayton to do what he's been hired to do at the law firm.
At this point, we don’t know for sure if Clayton is actually a lawyer himself. In the next scene we will discover that Clayton is indeed a lawyer, but one who doesn’t actually practice law, and there’s a big reason for that. This intell will end up being one of the missing pieces to his character's jigsaw puzzle. This scene introduces that concept because he’s being called out, not to provide legal advice, but to clean up a mess made by one of the firm's important clients.
- In these scenes, only one thread directly impacts the main plot moving forward — Michael needs to drive to Westchester and meet with this rich client involved in a hit-and-run incident.
I point this out to illustrate how everything in this sequence is truly about establishing aspects involved in storytelling other than advancing the basic plot of the movie.
- There are symbolic aspects to the scenes operating on additional levels. For example - when he gets the call from his law firm, he tries to call back while riding in an old warehouse elevator, and when the steel cage is shut, we get the feeling that this represents where Michael is with his relationship to the firm he works for – at the beck and call of his cage keepers.
More significantly is the symbolism in locating the poker game at the basement of a warehouse. This represents where Michael Clayton is in his life, apparently at the bottom. But things could get worse. He doesn’t know it yet, but in a few hours, Clayton will be in jeopardy of permanently winding up underground... six feet underground.
- There’s a major factor in these scenes that involves the storytelling we’re about to take in (but the audience has no idea of knowing this upon the first viewing). The entire sequence (and the later scenes in Westchester) will be used to “time stamp” the narrative so the filmmakers can employ a non-linear plot line to tell their story. The time stamp will allow the audience to keep track of the when and where of the plot as it unfolds.
There’s so many more elements communicated throughout this short sequence that I could go on and on with my list, but I hope the above will suffice to prove what great writers do when working on a script.
Let me close by citing something the opening scenes in Michael Clayton doesn't do – Spell out in an obvious way, all the points above. Accomplishing deeper, faster, and with subtlety means trusting your audience in the same way you trust your capabilities as an artist.