Emotional Distancing

When to hold back ☛

One of the basic tenets of the industry that has grown up to help screenwriters with their scripts is: make your story as emotional engaging as possible. It’s not bad advice: well-written, emotionally impactful scenes cost the same to shoot as averagely written ones; but they can make the difference between film festivals’ acceptance or rejection, a 3-star or a 5-star review.


Emotional engagement is not the ‘be all and end all’, sometimes a degree of emotional distance is required. I’m going to look at emotional distance on micro and macro levels – scene-based and story-based.

First of all on a micro level, emotionally distancing techniques can be used in where the overall objective of the film is to be emotionally engaging. Engagement requires emphasis and, as with every form of emphasis, it quickly loses power if overused. Write a whole page in bold and it no longer reads as bold, it just looks like you’ve used a heavy font; you need a lot of non-bold text for bold to provide effective emphasis. Make every scene emotionally poignant or filled with searing passion and the audience will soon get overwhelmed. And not in a good way. Just as action movies need briefing scenes, scenes of preparation and regrouping where guns are not a-blazing, so emotional plots need moments of repose, if only to give the audience time to catch their breath.

While this emotional disengagement can be in the writing, you see it more often in the camerawork. There is a very simple rule in staging a scene: the closer you place the camera to a character the emotionally closer we feel to them. It’s not that we like them more, just that we feel more engaged with their experience of the scene. Conversely, the further we move the camera back from the actors, the greater the degree of emotional distance we feel. Quite often in editing a long scene if there’s an emotional lull, or perhaps characters reach an impasse, you find yourself cutting to the wide shot at that point, allowing the emotional intensity to let up, so that the screws can be reapplied later in the scene.

Ridley Scott staying back from the dialogue in ‘Gladiator’

But physical distance is not just about wide shots. Ridley Scott likes to shoot dialogue scenes with the camera at some distance from the performers; tight shots are still possible but on long lenses. Ridley likes to spare the actor having the camera crew breathing down their necks. By contrast, the Coen Brothers like to place their camera within the space between characters, putting the audience quite literally in the midst of the action. Camera height plays its role too. Low-angle shots tend to be more engaged, high-angle shots more removed. This is one reason for the traditional crane up and away on the final shot of a film: this camera move gently withdraws us from the story we’ve just experienced and prepares us for return to reality.

‘Fleabag’ breaking the fourth wall in church

Other devices to create emotional distance can be built into the script. Voice-over narration, especially after the opening of a story, briefly takes us away from the here-and-now, reminding us that this all happened in the past. Fourth-wall breaks, where characters step out of the action to talk to the camera  – as in Deadpool and Fleabag – disrupt our suspension of disbelief, reminding us that what we’re watching is fiction. There are a variety of other devices with a similar effect, like the film discussing its own outcome, as in The Player; a character rewinding the action and then playing it out differently, as in Funny Games; or the action spilling off the film set, as in Blazing Saddles and Out of Her Mind. These techniques tend to be designed to make us think, or sometimes just to make us laugh, but they all require us to take a step back from the emotions of the characters involved in the action.

On a macro level to emotional engagement is not always possible or even desirable. This can be to do with genre, and how far the audience can be persuaded to let their guard down. Romantic comedies, when done well, manage to get us to get emotionally closer to the protagonist than any other genre. The deal is that we know that the worst thing that could possibly happen to the heroine or hero is that they could get their heart broken, and if that does happen it will probably be alright in the end. With that reassurance, we feel safe to invest emotionally. In horror movies, by contrast, there’s a very high likelihood that our heroes will be maimed, killed, tortured and/or eaten; with this foreknowledge we greet them with a nod and a polite smile, but are careful not to invest too heavily in their emotional well-being. This is why characters in horror movies are often a bit two-dimensional or obnoxious: we’re not meant to care about them, we just need to be curious about their fate. Thriller and war movies take a similar approach, if to a lesser extent: the protagonist is likely to be put through the mill, but their chance of survival is higher than that of their horror counterparts.

Woodward and Bernstein in ‘All the President’s Men’

Even when emotional engagement with characters is more possible, it’s not always desirable. In many political thrillers there’s little threat to life, but still we don’t find ourselves very involved in the emotional life of the characters. We root for Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men, but how much do we actually care for them as people? Our hope is fixed much more on what they will find out. How far up does the conspiracy go? It is possible to be hooked without being emotionally invested in characters.

There are many great directors whose work is characterised by emotional remove. I love Kubrick’s work, but I don’t think I felt emotionally close to the protagonist of any of his films. The same goes for the work of Wes Anderson, Peter Greenaway, Antonioni, Passolini, Jean-Luc Godard and Christopher Nolan. Many of these directors – while their work is seminal – are dismissed as being intellectual. But the commercial success of both Nolan and Anderson suggests that the appeal of their cooler approach lies beyond just art house cinemas.

To conclude, George Lucas once said that getting an audience to experience emotion is not difficult:  you just show them a cute puppy and then show someone strangling it. The script gurus aren’t wrong: close emotional identification is a very effective way of hooking an audience in, but it’s not the only way. ‘Save the Cat’ is not the only way to skin a cat [no animals were harmed in the writing of this article]. In the end it comes down to what sort of films you want to make, and what sort of films you care about: invest your passion in the project and make the emotional temperature of your movie as warm or cool as you wish.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2020

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s