When people talk about the craft of storytelling, obnoxious intellectuals and condescending bibliophiles would have you believe that the reference applies only to classic (or contemporary classic) novels. But in this day and age, incredible storytelling can be found in any creative platform – from comic books and video games, to traditional artwork and modern graphic design, to music and dance… and of course, drama.
For centuries, the theatre was considered the ultimate realisation of storytelling. Audiences would flock to be entertained by tales of doomed lovers, mischievous fairies, wrongly ostracized women and vengeful princes. Shakespeare, Chekov, Wilde, Ibsen and Williams were considered the Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino and Coppola of their respective times, with many of their plays still enthralling audiences across the world centuries after their world premier.
And although the theatre remains an effective (albeit elitist) storytelling medium, in the past sixty years, television and films have emerged to become frontrunners for the most popular storytelling outlet.
Don’t let those pompous scholars and bookworms shame you into thinking that films and television are only enjoyed by the lowbrow and the ignorant, either; recent studies have proven that watching television and films does have some social and personal benefits, such as “the water cooler effect”, exposure to other cultures and increased memory. Yes, even watching reality TV has its good points!
I have previously written about screenwriter Joss Whedon and his significant contributions to film and television writing, but obviously there are a large number of other directors and screenwriters who have also made a major impact on the cinematic storytelling process.
In a special three part edition of Fan Girl Corner, I will summaries the skills and techniques that separate influential auteurs from average filmmakers. Warning: may contain spoilers.
My favourite Spielberg films include: Jaws (1975), ET: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the Color Purple (1985), Hook (1991), Schindler’s List (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Catch Me If You Can (2002) and the BFG (2016).
Between inventing the “blockbuster” genre with films such as Jaws and ET: the Extra-Terrestrial, and bringing humanity’s darkest hour to the attention of a new generation with Schindler’s List, it is little wonder that Spielberg is the highest grossing filmmaker of all time.
Under the role of producer, Spielberg has used his storytelling prowess to guide other emerging talents to filmmaking glory, and collaborated with other superstar screenwriters/directors such as George Lucas. In addition to revolutionising the physical act of filmmaking with ground-breaking camera angles like the infamous “Spielberg Face” close-up and low height camera tracking shots, his films also contain certain elements that make novels an international best-seller.
Once he’d established his filmmaking street cred with larger-than-life sci-fi and adventure crowd pleasers, Spielberg wasted no time in delivering more profound films that examined humanistic issues like racism and prejudice, the effects of war, and man VS nature, and emotive topics such as the loss of innocence, absent fathers and broken families, and the importance of hope.
Like novelists, very few directors/ screenwriters have the courage to dip their toes into multiple genres, which makes Spielberg’s easy crossover success all that more impressive.
Spielberg uses lights, shadows, colour and camera angles to emphasise and heighten the emotion of his characters and plot in the same way an author uses adjectives to evoke the senses, reveal character and create tension in a novel.
His most notorious (and perhaps most effective) use of colour as a storytelling technique is in Schindler’s List, with a little girl in red and the opening and closing scenes the only exceptions in an otherwise black and white film. In Hook, deep shadows and desaturated, moody lighting is used in the first half of the film to emphasise that Peter is “sleepwalking” through his life, with colours becoming bolder and brighter as he rediscovers his inner child.In Jaws, the attacks are shown from the point of view of the shark or as the victim is dragged under water, meaning the audience doesn’t fully see the “villain” until 90 minutes into the film, and thus building the tension for when they finally do. And, of course, the infamous “Spielberg Face” – a close up of a character as they are looking at something, usually in amazement or surprise, before the audience is shown what they are looking at – was created in order to strengthen the emotional connection between the characters and the audience.
Basically, long before 3D cinema came into formation, Spielberg was pulling his audiences into his films with little more than his imagination and an eye for details.
- WORLD BUILDING
While nothing can ever replace the cognitive advantages and unadulterated pleasure of reading a good novel, the sole advantage films and television have over books is their ability to bring our most incredible imaginings to life. From extra-terrestrials, ghosts and other supernatural beings, to the disturbingly graphic horror of war, there is no concept that can’t be visually realised thanks the assistance of special effects.
Technology may have advanced in leaps and bounds in the time between Spielberg’s early sci-fi films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET: the Extra Terrestrial, and his later dramatic works like Amistad and Saving Private Ryan, but Spielberg has never let outdated special effects slow him down.
With his films earning just shy of $10 billion worldwide over a four decade career, Spielberg’s name is synonymous with filmmaking -and not just because of the box office sales his name promises.
AUTHOR COUNTERPART: STEPHEN KING
My favourite Nolan films include: the Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012), The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010).
In the twenty years since he and a handful of friends privately funded his first feature film, Nolan’s films have earned over $4.22 billion worldwide, firmly placing him at the helm of a new wave of filmmaking talent.
In addition to resurrecting (and ultimately saving) the tale of the Dark Knight with what many film critics consider to be the best superhero films ever made, Nolan has set the bar high for aspiring auteur filmmakers of the 21st century, with an almost savant-like understanding of storytelling that transcends even the most revered classic novels.
Nolan’s films explore some deeply complex philosophical, sociological and ethical concepts such as personal identity, human morality, the subjectiveness of reality and time, and the precarious nature of memory.
Not disturbing enough to be thrillers, yet too intense for dramas, Nolan is not a crossover filmmaker, yet it is difficult to catalogue his work into one specific genre. Inception, for example, blends thriller and science-fiction with heist, drama and elements of fantasy, while both Memento and Insomnia are psychological thrillers that contain hints of drama/mystery and detective fiction, respectively.
Perhaps it is this inability to pigeonhole their work that is the mark of a truly genius storyteller.
- METAPHORS & SYMBOLISM
When you’re dealing with material exploring existentialism, the construction of reality and time, and other abstract ideas, metaphors and symbolism tend to be necessary in order for your audience to relate to (and understand) what you’re trying to say.
Yet Nolan never underestimates the intelligence of his audience; in his films, symbolism is not a tacky Hollywood technique used to fill in the blanks for the audience but to represent the true nature of the characters.In The Prestige, for example, Nolan shows both Angier and Borden’s obsession with each other through the water tank, and the contrast between light and darkness is often used to highlight character growth/decay and exploration, a method most obvious in the interactions between Batman and the Joker/ Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight.
Muted shades of black, white, greys, navy, burgundy, and olive seem to be the only colours on Nolan’s palette; from the dream-like world of Inception, to The Dark Knight’s Gotham City skyline, and the back stages of London’s theatres in the Prestige, Nolan appears most comfortable in the shadows.
Also acutely aware of the effectiveness of camera angles – especially when a scene is dialogue heavy or focusing on a specific character – Nolan has devised a clever way of creating a first-person like experience for the audience without compromising the filmmaker’s omniscient third-person storytelling – the camera is placed behind an actor at eye level, allowing the audience to “see” from that character’s perspective.
Like the definitive 21st century auteur filmmaker that he is, Nolan understands the story is what matters above all else but that its overall effectiveness actually lies in the presentation.
Labyrinthine plots, nonlinear storytelling, shifting points of view and unreliable narrators are trademarks of Nolan’s style, pertinent given the profound subject matter of his films.Like a novelist, Nolan often uses a flash forward in the opening scene to a create a hook for his audience, and flashbacks throughout the film to reveal back story. The protagonists of Nolan’s films are usually psychologically damaged, and the editing is used as a way to represent the characters’ psychological states, merging their subjectivity with that of the audience.
With his philosophically erudite ideas and fresh, sophisticated style, it is clear why Nolan is nipping at Spielberg’s heels for the title of most successful filmmaker of all time.
AUTHOR COUNTERPART: JODI PICOULT
My favourite Scorsese films include: Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Gangs of New York (2003), the Departed (2006), and the Wolf of Wall Street (2013), among others.
If Francis Ford Coppola is the Godfather of gangster films, then Scorsese is the King. With eight Best Director nominations, he is tied with Billy Wilder as the most nominated director in Oscar history – and with only one win, his snub by the Academy puts him in the company of other underrated auteur directors like Hitchcock and Welles.
During a career spanning over half a century, Scorsese has established himself as the master of cinema storytelling, not only with a landmark film every decade since the 1970s, but with consistency in his storytelling techniques that have made even his less-celebrated films box office and critical successes.
Organised crime, gang conflict, corruption (especially among authority figures), and machismo are themes commonly associated with a typical Scorsese gangster film; yet Scorsese, who studied for priesthood prior to switching to filmmaking, is much deeper than the shallow pools of blood depicted in his most notoriously violent work.
Identity, faith, and Roman Catholic concepts of guilt and redemption are also common themes found in Scorsese’s style of storytelling. Whether or not these philosophical contemplations are residual from his (limited) days as a man of the cloth remains to be seen, however one thing is certain; Scorsese seemingly enjoys torturing his protagonists with the promise of an ever-elusive happy ending.
Like any auteur director worth his creative salt, Scorsese knows which novel writing techniques emphasise and heighten emotion, evoke the senses and reveal character, and uses them to their full cinematic effect.
Scorsese often uses long range tracking shots, as seen in Goodfellas and Gangs of New York, to ground a moment or scene in reality, and even his frequent use of film-based techniques freeze framing and slow motion have their novelistic attributes. Freeze frames are used to emphasise the importance of moment or scene (and particularly the emotion felt by the protagonist in that moment), while slow motion is used to heighten emotion, particularly during scenes of psychological duress.
Scorsese is also particularly fond of sequences set to popular music or voice overs, often involving aggressive camera movement and/or rapid editing, which is an effective cinematic technique used to heighten tension.
- WORLD BUILDING
Unlike Spielberg and Nolan, whose films contain fantastical, larger-than-life and sometimes otherworldly themes, plots and characters, Scorsese’s films are rooted heavily in realism. However, that doesn’t mean he just can pluck details out of his hat, or slack off when it comes to credibility.Regarded in some circles as a film historian, Scorsese’s world building techniques rely less on special effects and more on research, similar to historical fiction authors.
Although creative liberties have resulted in some of his historically-based work facing heavy criticism – most notoriously with his 1988 film the Last Temptation of Christ, which now carries the disclaimer stating that the film is “not based on the gospels” – Scorsese has also been lauded for the authenticity of costume and set designs in his films, such as the Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York and the Aviator.
In recent years, Scorsese’s efforts have become more focused on film preservation, such as his restoration work with The Film Foundation, which he founded in 1990, and The World Cinema Foundation, which he founded in 2007. He may have shifted towards semi-retirement, but Scorsese’s position as one of Hollywood’s most successful auteurs will remain steadfast for generations to come.
AUTHOR COUNTERPART: JOHN GRISHAM
Who is your favourite auteur filmmaker, and why? Leave your comment in the section below.
In Cinematic Storytellers Part 2 – Tim Burton, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino.
© Tara Jenkinson 2017