Pallas Paradigm No:1 – The Art of Conversation

 (Pallas Paradigms are regular feature blogs (e.g. longer than a  normal blog) on the inspiration and process behind our productions. The aim: to share our thinking with you on what is driving our current creativity.)

Two people sitting in a room talking: that is what we wanted to shoot for our first live action Pallas short. A script called Regret was written. Our two actors have been cast and we will shoot at the end of April.

Pallas shorts are explorative exercises for each member of the collective involved to hone their film-making skills and to learn new ones from each other. And seen as Regret is based around a conversation I decided to have a conversation with Charles, who will direct Regret, about what makes good conversation on film.

 Ryan – So, what you thinking?

Charles – (He laughs. Those that know Charles know this sound well) I suppose the biggest question I am asking myself is why move the camera?

Ryan – What, as in terms of whether to just film it static or move between the actors?

Charles – Yeah, exactly. It comes down to what do I want the audience to feel? And how can I achieve this with the four film-making principles of: camera movement, composition, light and editing. I have been studying great conversations or scenes which, I think, are great conversations on film for inspiration.

Ryan- Such as what? Heat or something?

Charles- Yeah that could be one. It’s one I have looked at, but I recently revisited American Beauty and the dining table scenes. They are amazing examples of what I mean and what I am looking for…

Ryan – Care to elaborate?

Charles – There’s two scenes in particular that compliment and contradict one another. The first scene is brilliant at showing dominance through composition, lighting, wardrobe and, of course, the performance from the actors. But it’s how Mendes (the film’s director) is using every part of the film making process to augment the narrative. Take the opening shot, the wife is obviously the dominant player. (Charles is in full flow now) Posture –Hers (Carolyn – Annette Benning) is strong: straight backed where as his (Leicester – Kevin Spacey) is stooped and submissive. Wardrobe – She wears a bright garish blouse, her hair has volume…

Ryan – Like Thatcher’s?

Charles – (ignoring me) … Whereas Leicester’s in a brown dowdy cardigan.  Lighting – She is lit like…like… Dracula or something. There are strong shadows on the face from above compared to Leicester who’s lit with soft candlelight. And finally there’s the composition – a lovely triangular line running from the peak of her hair down to Leicester. I think Mendes also uses the tableware, especially the candles, to draw the eye as well.

Ryan – So Sam (I am on first name terms with him) clearly makes her the main player in this scene?

Charles – Definitely! If you look at the second scene where this time Leicester has asserted himself things have changed loads. (Listing the principles off) Posture – Leicester looms over Carolyn. Wardrobe – Leicester wears an open more colourful shirt while Carolyn wears a soft pink blouse. It almost blends into the background. And her hair is also a lot flatter…

Ryan – Not like Thatcher…

Charles – … The Lighting – She is flatly lit by the candles, this time with hardly any shadows on her face.  In fact she’s almost under lit while Leicester has acquired strong key lighting but not to the extent of Carolyn’s “Dracula” lighting. Composition – Obviously this has flipped, she has almost shrunk into the background.

Ryan – You like this work a lot don’t you?

Charles – I cannot emphasise how wicked I think this scene is. And I haven’t even mentioned the subtlety of the lighting on the daughter. She’s appears almost angelic in her innocence in the first scene whilst later following her own corruption by the boy next door she becomes more darkly lit.

Ryan – (With my writing hat on) But surely the dialogue makes a big difference? Look at the great Tarantino conversational scenes: the diner scene in Reservoir Dogs and the diner scene in Pulp Fiction or the diner scene in (Michael Mann’s) Heat…Wow, a lot of these scenes take place in diners…

Charles – (laughing) It’s funny you say that because I thought the same about Tarantino and how important the dialogue was but then I looked at the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene from Pulp Fiction. I was specifically looking at how the actors were in profile shot.

 (Charles pulls the scene up on his phone)

Charles – Notice how they move, their body language.  Backward and forward as they feel each other out. She begins the scene sat back in her chair above Vincent with almost a sense of superiority whilst he is slumped on the table…

Ryan – He’s stoned. That happens…

Charles – Yeah he’s relaxed. But for me this whole scene pays off because of the power of the profile shot. You can’t get more seductive than sucking on a straw then sucking on a cherry!

Ryan – Really?

Charles – No. (Moving on swiftly) Plus this is also a great example of using no dialogue.  After all the wordy Tarantino script, you are hit with 3 shots of no dialogue where you are just left to interpret the actors thoughts… love it!

Ryan – Have you recovered from seeing Uma Thurman with a cherry? Can we move on?

Charles- Yes. But If you want contrast then let’s go from the melodic pace of the Pulp Fiction scene to the staccato tempo seen in the opening scene of Social Network.

Ryan – I love the writing of Sorkin.

Charles – (pulling the scene up on his phone) Yeah and Fincher lets exactly that do the work. Watch! What do you notice about the camera movement?

Ryan –There’s none really.

Charles – Exactly! Fincher actually said (Charles begin to quotes) “I wanted to preset in as wide a frame and in an as unloaded a situation as possible as much as a kind of simple proscenium way, this is what is going on, this is what this guy sees.” He doesn’t need to move the camera here or there because Sorkin’s dialogue is so strong. He relies on that to drive the narrative. The camera work should only ever drive the narrative anything else is superfluous.

Ryan – Wow!

Charles – What?

Ryan – I have never heard you use such big words before.

Charles – (He swears and then carries on) It’s even more than that with Fincher though. For example on close ups he says: “Every time you go to a close up the audience knows, look at this, this is important. You have to be very cautious and careful when you choose to do it”

Ryan – Wait are you trying to tell me that Michael Bay’s close-ups of bikini clad ass and tits don’t drive the narrative of his films. He loves a close up.

Charles – Exactly and it insults the audience when they don’t need to “look at” what he is showing them. It doesn’t tell the story. In this scene Fincher saves his close-up for when it has real impact. It’s on the “because you’re an asshole” line. It’s a killer line made more so by the camera work.  There is an earlier one too when we see the first glimpse of Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) true character. Eisenberg emphasizes the impact with a subtle look down and quivering lip. It’s great acting.

Again the lighting is important too. If anything this scene is under lit. I think Fincher is trying to make it feel intimate; you are pulled in to the scene. You are complicit in the conversation.

But it is the edit where this scene really succeeds.

Ryan – The edits between them?

Charles – It feels like a tennis rally but without any lobs. It’s relentless and sublime dialogue. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut and so on. There is no time to breath and take it all in. He even begins the scene with no visual so you are already in the conversation before any visual distraction.

Ryan – I like that a lot. It’s a powerful effect. I imagined that when writing Regret.

Charles – Yeah the editing is so smart here. It’s like…He machine guns you with character. He cuts back and forth sometimes a few frames before the sentence is complete to keep the rhythm. Why? To drive home the narrative of the film, you find yourself thinking ‘did he just say that?’ This is a film about acceptance or rather Zuckerberg’s need for acceptance from the ‘cool’ kids. And that is why the final line is so cutting. That’s the theme of the film: “Is Zuckerberg going to stay an asshole for the whole film or will his character develop?

Ryan- What does this all mean for Regret then?

Charles ­- I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that Regret is a conversation scene. The focus is on the actor’s performance; therefore, I don’t want to distract the audience with camera moves. The American Beauty scene is locked off and done in the lensing, apart from that first shot. If they can augment the performance wicked, if not keep it simple and concentrate on the performance. There will be time in the day during filming to try some interesting stuff with the establishing shots but the most important thing is that the camera work must drive the narrative.

 RL 1/4/15