How and why two-handers work ☛
I attended screenings of three very different films last week, not realising that they had one thing in common: they were all British and made for less than £500k ($800k), but the most interesting similarity was that all three decided to restrict the scope of their story to following the fates of just two central characters.
The two-hander is a good way to face the challenge of making a movie on a sustainable budget. Low-budget movies always start with a disadvantage: they just can’t afford the scope or scale of a well-financed film. The good ones find a way to turn that problem into a virtue. The trick is to pick a cost restriction – maybe setting everything in one location (Cube, The Hide), or presenting the whole film as a home movie (The Blair Witch Project, Festen). Once you’ve chosen your limitation, you embrace it. You build it into the DNA of the story, so that it’s the thing that makes the tale to work, rather than an embarrassing shortcoming.
Accepting the restriction of the two-hander brings all manner of budgetary benefits, not just in actors’ salaries. Two characters can be covered in far fewer shots than three. Such stories tend to require fewer locations than stories with a larger cast, and as a result none of these films took more than 4 weeks to shoot.
But, to state the obvious, restrictions also make your life more difficult. The dramatic possibilities presented by three characters are exponentially greater than those presented by two. A love triangle will always have more scope than a straight love story. Also, seeing as the story will usually be most interesting when your two characters are together, you’re giving yourself nowhere to cut to, no subplots save for those described by the characters themselves. None the less the three films all made this strategy work for them, albeit in very different ways.
The first film was Deviation – a psychopath (Danny Dyer) escaped from a high-security mental hospital hijacks a woman (Anna Walton) as she’s getting into her car. The script mixes mystery with suspense – is she simply a hostage or are his motives more twisted? Will she try to escape? What strategies will she use? While hostage dramas like Three Days of the Condor or From Dusk Till Dawn use an abduction as part of a broader plot, writer / director J.K. Amalou makes the relationship between abducted and abductee the main event of the story. The strategy pays off. The film, originally conceived as a road movie to be shot in the States, probably works better for being an odyssey set in and around the streets of London. Help is often just the other side of the car window, but calling out would risk the ever-present threat of violent consequences. So near and yet so far. The film never feels in danger of running out of dramatic material.
The second screening was an early cut of the film I’m editing at present, Sparks & Embers. Gavin Boyter‘s script plays a variation on a Before Sunrise-type relationship movie by cutting up time. In one timeline Tom (Kris Marshall) and Eloise (Annelise Hesme) meet when they are stuck in a lift together. In a parallel timeline we encounter Tom and Eloise five years later, after they have had a relationship that has subsequently fallen apart. They meet for one last time before she returns to France with her new man. Does Tom secretly want to win her back? The two timelines intercut to build a portrait of a relationship, where ‘the relationship’ itself is played off-screen; we just have the build up and the aftermath. The Reservoir Dogs structure, applied to a love story. In this way Gavin has also got round the lack of somewhere to cut to, by cutting to the same characters but in a different time. Cleverly, the structure also plays with rom-com inevitability: the audience always know that the two biggest names on the poster are going to get together in the end, even if the film tries to pretend otherwise. So in one half of the film we know they’re going to get together (we’ve seen their future) and can sit back and enjoy seeing how that happens. But will they get back together in the other storyline? I’m not telling.
The third film I saw was also a love-story: Weekend by my fellow veteran of the Calendar Girls cutting room, Andrew Haigh. Russell (Tom Cullen) picks up Glen (Chris New) at a gay bar, just before closing time. What starts as a one-night stand builds over the weekend that follows into a deeper bond, which external circumstances threaten to render impossible. While the plot is neither complex nor unfamiliar(save that the general audience is perhaps less accustomed to seeing gay love stories), Andrew’s script is distinguished by the detailed focus of its attention. Keeping the camera just on the two characters turns the love story into a character study. It also captures beautifully the process of sexual attraction growing into an emotional bond. Andrew’s directorial choices also help the film to stand-out – the sustained, documentary-style, handheld two-shots (every scene is a master shot) make it feel like watching two real people falling in love in real time.
Sensibly, none of the three films opted to be strictly two-handed – all have other minor characters; but at least 80% of the dialogue is shared by the leads. There have been films that have gone the whole hog and not allowed for any other speaking part: two examples that spring to mind are Sleuth and My Dinner with Andre. Both work, but the complete absence of other on-screen characters makes them both feel stylised, like filmed stageplays (as Sleuth was). The real world tends to be better populated.
In all two-handers you end up getting to know the central characters very well, so script and performance are key. Okay, script and performance are always key, but with pared-down plots and a lack of stunts, special effects or other distractions, you’ve got nowhere to hide. The exposure of the characters means that they have to be absolutely real: they’re what the film’s about. Creaky writing or a weak performance will sink you.
Two-handers can tell many different kinds of stories – I could also have written about Once, Monsters, L’Homme du Train, Distant and Moon (sort of). But they all have one thing in common: they’re all about relationships, or to be more precise, one relationship. Get that right and, as Andrew has found with the phenomenal international success of Weekend, the world will put two hands together and applaud.
Deviation is released in cinemas across the UK on 24 February
Weekend comes out on DVD 19 March
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012
To be sent my articles as they come out, hit ‘follow’ under the photo of my happy smiling face at the top of this page.