Behaviour as the basic building block of story in movies ☛
A couple of years a go I attended a Q & A with Dustin Hoffman. During the interview he made a comment that profoundly impacted on my understanding of filmmaking. He said:
“The movie camera is something that hates acting, but loves behaviour.”
I won’t presume to tell you exactly what Mr Hoffman meant by that (ask him if you see him) but I’ll tell you what I got from it. I realized that behaviour is the raw material of cinematic storytelling. A film is a story told through behaviour.
What do I mean by behaviour? To a certain extent it’s about actions speaking louder than words. A husband assures his wife that he loves her; do we believe him? Maybe but, this being a film, we’re not at all surprised when we discover in the next scene that he’s having an affair. When he reassures his wife he’s acting; when he’s cheating on her he’s behaving. And we know which one to believe. However words – dialogue – can be behaviour too. “Pass the ketchup” – clearly not. “Marry me!” or “I stole the money”: these are words that have consequences when spoken publicly; they tell us a decision has been made. Any moment where a character performs an action or makes a decision that reveals something about their inner life, they’re behaving.
You know the age-old writers’ maxim, “Show, don’t tell”? Well, behaviour is that which ‘shows’. This is why The Office and indeed genuine reality TV proved to be such massive hits – they’re thick with characters who say one thing but whose behaviour betrays a different meaning. The moment we spot this, we realize that we’re reading someone and seeing behind the mask, and boy do we enjoy doing that! It prompts us to engage. It makes us feel that we can read minds like Derren Brown. It makes us feel smart.
Okay, there’s my grand theory – so what? What use is that to you? Well, it’s more a way of thinking than anything else, but here’s how it can help focus your thinking about my three areas of knowledge:
The screenwriter generally deals in the bigger beats of behaviour – the decisions the characters make that push the story forward. But the writer can also give us more detailed behaviour. That adulterous husband I mentioned earlier goes home to his wife and decides to lie, which tells us something about him. Exactly what, depends on how he does it. If he is on the verge of confessing, but then chickens out, that tells us one thing. If he denies the affair when faced with overwhelming evidence, that’s something else. If he goes further still and turns the situation back on his wife in an attempt to make her feel guilty for even doubting his fidelity, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
Many screenwriters try to describe the slight hesitation the husband makes before answering a question, often in parentheticals, but often that kind of detail doesn’t come across clearly on the page – generally better to leave it to the actor to decide when to scratch their ear. Writers are better off using dialogue strategies – having the husband pretend to misunderstood his wife’s question, ask if she’s had her hair done, pretend he’s brought some work home with him. All this behaviour is telling in different ways. Every screenwriter should bear in mind that if a dramatic moment is not based around character behaviour it’s unlikely to be interesting.
This mainly relates to how the director deals with actors. A popular technique for getting naturalistic behaviour from actors is to involve improvisation. This can lead to some wonderfully real behaviour, but the material it produces is not always relevant to the drama of the moment. While improv might be enjoyable for the audience, if it’s not focused on the dramatic point it can cause the story to become diffuse. Behaviour is the raw material, not an end in itself.
Engaging behaviour, however, can come from the actor unbidden, if they fully engage with the scenario. A small but proud moment of this sort happened in my short film Telling Mark. One character, Alan, backs out of an incredibly awkward dinner party by getting his wife to phone him with a spurious excuse. He had, however, pre-arranged with the other guests to reveal a dark secret to their host Mark. In backing out, he’s let his friends down. What I hadn’t anticipated was that Dan Mersh, playing Alan, would give Mark a bear hug when saying goodbye. Socially the gesture is overkill, being performed as it is with sincerity rather than blokey bravado. In that moment we discover that Alan feels extremely bad about not delivering whatever mysterious news he had to deliver. This hug added an element of emotional reveal to a moment that would otherwise have been dry. The fact that Alan failed to hug Mark’s wife added even more to the scene; but to know why that is, you’d have to watch the film – I’m not giving any spoilers!
At one or more points during the edit either the editor or the director, maybe both together, will sift through the rushes for hidden gems. We’re looking for good performance moments: a look or a shrug that tells us what the character is thinking. Maybe a more playful delivery of a line that persuades us to like that character more. Maybe just any moment when the actor isn’t being a plank of wood! And what are we looking for in story terms? Behaviour.
When cutting a dialogue scene, behaviour is key. Two stories occur simultaneously:
- the dialogue: what people say and how they say it
- the looks exchanged between the characters, the failure to maintain eye contact, the nervous playing with a lighter.
While you can edit the first story through the selection of dialogue takes and pacing the scene with pauses and overlaps, in the second story, physical behaviour, a different narrative is being told. Listen to the scene without picture or switch off the sound and watch it mute and there should be a discrepancy between the two stories. In that inconsistency lies the tension that keeps the scene alive.
Where one cuts, or doesn’t cut, can affect how we read behaviour. If you’re particularly interested in the response of one character, hold on their reaction so that we can see their face change, see the thoughts racing through their mind, all in one shot. Their behaviour feels truer without intercession: like it’s happening before our very eyes.
I’ll leave you with the perfect demonstration of the behaviour of two people telling a painfully awkward story. Although a director was present, the only directoral decision was that of the person who wisely chose to present it in an uninterrupted locked-off shot. Yes, it’s that scallywag Lars von Trier sharing a platform in Cannes with his leading lady Kirsten Dunst. Set aside, if you can, what he’s actually saying and listen to his verbal behaviour when trying to decide whether to say it and to Ms. Dunst’s physical behaviour when trying to decide whether or not to stop him. Much more darkly engaging than anything Ricky Gervais or Stephen Merchant ever dreamt up.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011
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