There is an approach to screenwriting where the focus isn't on traditional acts or scenic construction as a primary unit of narrative, but instead on key spectacle driven sequences connected by lesser units of exposition or transition.
This is most observable in the development of large scale action films, but has older precedents in Hollywood musicals and dance pictures. The narrative anchors of these films consist of choreographed fifteen to twenty minute sequences. These elongated event-scenes often contort or even blow apart the three act structure synonymous with much of screenwriting. They command the center of gravity of the films that possess them, defiantly defining how the story will be remembered.
Elements of this style of storytelling are even observable in the origin of cinema itself. You can find the roots of it in the silent comedies of Keaton and Chaplin. Here, literal set pieces facilitated escalating physical comedy scenarios that iconicize their movies. SAFETY LAST, and MODERN TIMES are immortalized by their “set pieces” and remain some of the most enduring imagery of the era.
In the action spectacle, these sequences are transparently positioned to deliver the thrills demanded by the audience. These elongated scenes are occupied by the car chases or world saving machinations that we expect from a secret agent or super hero picture.
What is fascinating about the idea of building a screenplay around a set of spectacular elongated sequences is that it allows you the concentrated space to navigate high stakes through your characters and put them up against increasingly potent trials.
The time constraint is the key.
By concentrating the events of the narrative into the limited space of what is essentially an elongated “scene” you create a kind of focusing or amplifying device that brings all the stakes, themes, and arcs of the film into clearer focus.
In the action spectacle plot is often divorced from character. Theme is less valued than visual razzle-dazzle. As a result, this focusing device serves only to amplify stakes and tension.
It is consistently effective for providing a kind of fundamental cinematic thrill, even when it is not utilized in the service of deepening our experience of the characters or themes of the story. As a result, many of our most memorable moments in the cinema have been driven by this type of story-within-story approach.
Indiana Jones escapes the boulder in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC. Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star using the power of the force. The Titanic hits the ice-burg.
American film-going culture has become defined by the creation of such sensational moments. It may not seem to matter if substance is beneath the surface of these iconic movie experiences because their adrenaline soaked escapism can be an end in itself.
In the hands of a character driven story-teller, this method of structuring screen time reveals its deeper potential. What we quickly discover is that all of the most important aspects of the story can be underscored by the escalated tension. Powell & Pressburger, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and the Safdie Brothers reveal to us the power of building screen time around such moments.
THE RED SHOES is performed for the last time without Victoria Page. Henry Plainview watches his well come in, the sum of all his ambitions.
One of the great thrills of watching a character driven story that co-opts this more spectacle driven mode of storytelling is that it has a tendency to overwhelm your sense of structural fatigue.
Where other screenplays might fall into McKeesian grooves, well trod and familiar to viewers, the sheer weight of sequences in the set-piece driven screenplay has a tendency to throw a structure’s balance ever so slightly off. Where properly executed, the results can be pleasantly disorienting, giving the film a sense of immediacy, spontaneity, and freedom.
The Safdie’s use this approach to guide us through the life of Howard Ratner. The narrative is essentially composed of six interlinked large-scale sequences whose beats often repeat, escalate, and eventually resolve in one of the most memorable conclusions of the year.
Each of these sequences is connected by vital moments that deepen our understanding of the characters, put into momentum the next high-stakes sequence of events, and engross us in the world of the film. There is a connective tissue running between these set pieces that both makes them possible and frees them feeling repetitive or overwhelming.
The dominant focus of the film, however, rests on the core “set pieces” that anchor us in the movie. They are the foundation for the narrative, and work as amplifiers for everything we need to know about the life of Howard Ratner.
Traditional screenwriting might have the same events unfold more gradually, over a longer period of time. Screen time might be invested, instead, in sub-plots or in the interests of a divided ensemble. The intersection of these previously separated elements may bring the narrative into focus over a more diffuse period of time, with less urgency but with a kind of expressive expansiveness. A narrator might guide us across a wide range of experiences and events, quickly making sense out of what would otherwise be disconnected experiences.
These are all valid and proven approaches to storytelling in the cinema, but they each in their own way feel altogether too conventional for UNCUT GEMS.
GEMS, instead, uses its structure to keep you off balance, to thrill you, and to illustrate the bi-polarity of the inner life of its central character.
Like all the best writing, its form serves as the perfect compliment to its themes and its characters.
For character-driven writers, it may serve as a new classic example of how to create compulsively watchable narratives.