Sunday, 21 September 2008


My Red Planet and RISE submissions are packed up and ready to go, which means I no longer have to tinker with them until I go all cross-eyed and unnecessary. The script I’m submitting for RISE has been rattling around in my hard drive for a while now, so a week of work to make it ship shape (me hearties) seemed reasonable. However, my Red Planet entry was entirely written from scratch, which meant I had to call on the duumvirate of John Soanes and the still blogless Caroline, who both offered up some decent tweaks (at least they didn’t say it was shite, which is the reaction I usually expect). I also called upon Mr Voodoo himself, Adrian Reynolds, who made a crack about The Bill and the word ‘plethora’, which made me realise I had some rewriting to do. So, thanks to all.

With the first ten pages of my RP entry this year, there were at least a couple of things I wanted to do:

1) Establish the character of my protagonist, and
2) Establish the milieu of the story

However, I wanted to do this in the context of scenes that kept the story moving without becoming bogged down in great big tar pits of exposition. Two films I’ve seen recently helped inform my thinking here – There Will Be Blood, and The Silence of the Lambs. There Will Be Blood's opening fifteen minutes are entirely soundless, and are almost exclusively devoted to establishing the character of the protagonist, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, giving yet another scenery chewing turn). Whilst mining for silver, Plainview falls down a mine shaft, badly injuring his leg. However, this doesn’t stop him from dragging himself to the nearest prospecting office, where the staff assess his claim as Plainview lies on the floor in front of them, his leg shattered. Whilst keeping the narrative moving, this tells you all you need to know about his character – what’s more, not a single word has been spoken.

With that in mind, I looked at the opening twenty minutes of The Silence of the Lambs, which again, is a fantastic example of how to establish character – however, where There Will Be Blood is almost exclusively concerned with the character of Plainview, The Silence of the Lambs is slightly different inasmuch as there’s one helluva lot of potentially labyrinthine narrative that needs to be covered off. As with most films, I find the first twenty minutes or so of ‘set-up’ to be the most intriguing, but with The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps it’s worth taking a few minutes to figure out how screenwriter Ted Tally did it so well:

* Clarice Starling tackles an obstacle course at the FBI Academy (we know she’s at the FBI Academy as it’s printed on her sweatshirt). The fact that Clarice seems to be running the course by herself gives us an early indication of her character: she’s enthusiastic, ambitious, eager to impress, perhaps even a little desperate.

* After being interrupted mid-course with a message that Jack Crawford (her boss) wants to see her, Clarice jogs back to the Academy , where she steps into a lift with nine red shirted FBI trainees – the fact that these trainees are all men is no accident. When Clarice steps out of the lift some seconds later, the men have all gone. This is the milieu that Clarice finds herself in (the scene is repeated some time later as Clarice stands in a funeral home surrounded by male police officers, just in case we didn’t get the message first time round).

* Clarice walks into Crawford’s office, but he isn’t there. Clarice turns and... that’s the end of the title sequence. Five minutes in, and already we have a fairly good indication of Clarice’s character and the environment in which she finds herself.

Subsequent scenes in Crawford’s office and at the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital keep the story moving forward whilst fleshing out the character of Clarice. From her conversation with Dr Chilton, we learn that she is resourceful and quick witted, even when Chilton tries to unnerve her with a lurid account of the serial killer Hannibal Lecter’s extreme violence. In her interview with Lecter, Lecter mercilessly dissects Clarice’s character (“You’re not more than one generation removed from poor white trash, are you?”), which again gives us some valuable background. And then – horrors! – a flashback to Clarice’s childhood, where it transpires that Lecter’s description of her background was not entirely correct, but pretty damn close all the same.

It’s perhaps worthwhile to note that it’s the secondary characters within the narrative that give us the descriptions of Clarice’s background – the qualities of character that will help Clarice later in the narrative are demonstrated by her in her interactions with Crawford, Chilton and Lecter (a combination of guile, intelligence and ambition). Twenty minutes in, and you know all you need to know about Clarice Starling (even down to the type of car she drives, which is seen as another signifier of her many motivations). And what’s more, the narrative is up and running. The two are pulled along together hand in hand – we know that Clarice is ambitious enough not to let her objective slip from view, and it’s this that initially provides forward momentum.

It’s a superb opening – not that I’m saying that my RP entry comes anywhere close, but if you’re going to be inspired by something, it may as well be something exceptional.


John Soanes said...

You know, I hadn't thought about it that way, but yes, I can see the similarity between the opening of your RPP entry and that of SOTL. Which is not a bad thing at all, I think the screenplay for that film really captures the book incredibly well. I have a vague notion that the opening assault course bit may feature some very long takes, or even one unbroken take, but that may just be me assuming Foster's as physically sturdy as she is talented.

Chip Smith said...

I don't recall that the opening features one long take, but I might be wrong (and thanks for the tip of the hat). Anyway, I think much of the credit for SOTL must go to Ted Tally, the screenwriter (who also adapted the follow up, I believe). Bear in mind that Thomas Harris adapted his own novel for HANNIBAL and it's absolutely horrible! A screenwriter he most certainly ain't...

John Soanes said...

Didn't realise that TH had adapted his own book, but to be honest I thought Hannibal the book was atrocious, so I've never bothered with the film. Nor with The Adventures of Young Hannibal, or whatever it's called.
Just feel that Harris lost control of his own characters, really, a bit like George Lucas with (shudder) Mr Binks...

Chip Smith said...

I haven't read Hannibal, but if the film is anything to go by... the film really is shockingly bad.

Then again, if a movie from one of your novels had won a 'Best Picture' Oscar, I expect they'd give you the chance to pen your own movie - I mean, how difficult can it be, right? ;-)

John Soanes said...

I gather the film ends differently, but put simply at the end of the book Lecter drugs Starling and they have sex, then flee as lovers. Simplifying, yes, but I kid you not.

I was very keen to read the book when it came out, but the disappointment was immense. It does seem that returning to the well, as it were, can produce very variable results...