“We’re all liars.”
That’s what Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) said in a great interview a few years ago at the Writer’s Guild Foundation. Of course was talking to a room full of professional writers – so I guess that makes them all ‘professional’ liars.
And, that’s pretty much what we are, we storytellers, we are all professional liars. Yet, through our lies, fabrications, exaggerations and creations we attempt to bring ourselves, and our audience, closer to a truth – to any truth. And in every character, in every moment if we remain open to discovering the truth we pursue, we might also discover an unsuspected hidden truth.
In this pursuit it is important to remember a well-known fact: the core of our story is not in the events, actions or decisions of our characters. No. The core of out story exists inside the characters – the feelings, emotions, reactions, dreams, dreads, desires and fears. That’s the truth that we pursue. And those are the truths that can emerge unexpected only if we are open, vulnerable and willing to relinquish control.
One of the great joys of storytelling (beyond getting to tell a lot of lies) is that we get to manipulate reality. We manipulate reality in order to expose a deeper reality – perhaps a previously unknown truth. And one of the most powerful and effective manipulations is when we play with time.
I am aware that we are always playing with time. We compress hours, weeks, months, years, even decades into mere moments of screen time, or a chapter, a paragraph. And this compression requires us to skip over, ignore and even deny key moments in the story. This is unfortunate, often necessary and frequently detrimental.
Another quote from the insightful Vince Gilligan:
“One of the shames of modern storytelling
is that we want everything to go so fast.”
In our impatient, fast-food environment we’ve become accustomed to quick cuts, time jumps, 140-character tweets, texting with letters and numbers instead of full words, Facebook “likes” and “unlikes”. What’s our rush? Where are we going? And, more important, what are we missing? What we’re avoiding is attention to detail. You know – where the devil lives.
Let’s consider taking a page out of Vince Gilligan’s book. Without reducing the dramatic tension of our story let’s consider moving slowly, reducing the speed, taking in more of the ‘real estate’. Let’s slow down the MPH, maybe even stop and get out and talk a walk.
If you want a great example of what Mr. Gilligan is talking about, take a look at one particular episode of Breaking Bad, “Fly”, the tenth episode of the third season. The entire episode focuses on Walt’s obsession with eliminating contamination in the lab as he pursues one pesky fly. It’s brilliant.
When a rock skims over the surface of a placid lake it pings and pops and leaves ripples on the surface, eventually plunging below the surface never to be seen again. But what was under each of those ‘pings’ and ‘pops’? How are those ripples altering the composition of the lake, not only on the surface but down in the darkest depths? What would happen if we stopped at an occasional ‘ping’ or ‘pop’ and dove down and explored the dark waters? The lake will always be there. And there will always be more stones. But if you don’t drop into the dark water aren’t you leading us to believe that this is just another placid lake?
Stop and small the roses. Good advice. This homily reminds me to observe and become more aware of the beauty in life. But there are more than roses to be smelled and observed. Stop and smell whatever is there. Hmm, somehow it has lost that Hallmark sweetness. But isn’t this our job as storytellers – to stop and smell whatever is there?
Play with time. We expect that time will be compressed in every story we hear, no matter the medium or genre. In a two-hour film we anticiapate a story spanning weeks, months, years, decades even. In every story there are moments that have been skipped, ‘pings’ and ‘pops’ that have left ripples but have remained unexplored.
Richard Linklater, in his courageous and inventive trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) explores the developing relationship between two lovers one day at a time, and often in real time. (The two stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are also credited as co-writers.) Before Sunset is 80 minutes that covers the 80 minutes between the moment they are re-united (after a 9-year absence) and the moment he has to leave for the airport. When I first saw this film at Berlinale (The Berlin Film Festival) I started holding my breath the moment I realized that this movie was not going to move any faster than time itself. Talk about dramatic tension! Even paying for coffee and a croissant at a café or walking silently up several flights of stairs held my attention. But most important for me was my appreciatetion that the filmmakers were determined to explore every moment minute-by-minute. It’s extraordinary; give it a look.
By the way, Before Sunset is closer to reality than any ‘reality TV’ program I’ve ever seen.
Let’s slow ourselves down. Let’s smell the roses. And let’s take the time to smell the rhubarb, the rubbish and the rot. Let’s take the time to inhale all the odors of life and living. Hold your breath (if you need to) as you plunge into those darkened waters, fearlessly exploring the inner truth of your characters, your story, and yourself.
P.S. Here’s the link to the Vince Gilligan interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hx8ETtHxO9o