The Space Inbetween by Laura Scrivano
Writing is all about the words. Right?
Words form the scaffolding around which we build our stories, the foundation stone of the transaction between the audience and the author. And in a dramatic monologue, they’re essential.
But for me, as a director, story starts with character. And a character can be revealed as much by what they don’t say, as what they do. Clever lines and pithy prose don’t offer dramatic possibilities. I’m interested in the spaces between the words, the pauses, ellipses, breaks and breaths. While the words carry the meaning of the story, the spaces between reveal truth. They can make a character believable, empathetic and authentic, which are ultimately the reasons why an audience will invest in and be moved by a story.
The space between is where I started when I was asked to direct Boot and Little Love for The Voices Project. But, there were really two spaces between; those between the words and the space between theatre and cinematic storytelling that these stories would inhabit.
Filming a piece of writing originally penned for the theatre can be fraught with problems. Especially when that piece of writing is a monologue – an inherently theatrical form. Monologues exist rarely on film, and when they do it’s often to alienate or shock the audience. And the brief for Boot and Little Love was to engage the audience with the writing. Although the goal is inherently same in both film and theatre – to tell a story that will move or connect with an audience – the theatrical form is a world away from cinematic storytelling. On film, the audience’s experience is no longer live; the eye of the camera mediates and dictates their visual world, the performance rhythms, the story beats and ultimately their feeling states.
When I was asked to direct Boot and Little Love, I knew that in essence we were creating something in between theatre and film. We were expressing theatrical writing through the cameras lens. The biggest challenge would be to keep the audience watching. Both monologues have 8-10 minutes worth of text – much more dialogue than would ever be in a filmed adaptation of the same story. In order to keep the audience engaged the performances had to work for the camera, while the visual style needed to be both simple and capture the heart of the story.
We achieved this by focusing on the performances, setting up a simple but strong mise-en-scene (the compositional elements in the frame) and finding an editing style that matches the emotional temperature of the stories.
For example, I wanted the unstable, raw energy of Boot to sit alongside Laura Hopkinson’s wonderful performance so we shot it outside, where she is exposed and alone, while the jump cut editing matches the inflections of her syntax and emotions as she re-lives the night of the accident.
In Little Love I wanted to capture the surprising sensuality of Adam’s lovemaking with Bat Eyes – hence the mirrored surfaces, water, breath and touch became prominent elements. When filming a monologue it’s important to think about how the writing can be heightened, subtext created, or expectations subverted by performance, location, lighting and choice of shots. We shot Boot and Little Love with minimal lighting but even if you just have daylight at your disposal, the choice to shoot at sunrise or sunset or noon will have a dramatic impact on how the audience receives your story.
Keeping an audience engaged throughout a filmed monologue can be difficult. As cinemagoers we are used to economical storytelling, moving shots, fast paced editing and an orchestral score to keep us in our seats. Unless you’re Steve Spielberg you probably don’t have a large, professional film crew in your back pocket. So, here are some tips on how to make a monologue work on film:
- Keep it short. Film can tell a story economically.
- Suspense, subtext and surprise. Find an unconventional way to let your story unfold. Keep the audience in the dark about a key plot element until the end. Give you actor something to do, and something to play. Why are they telling this story? Who are they telling it to? And why are they telling it now? Put your character in a situation where they are out of their comfort zone, put them under pressure and see what comes out.
- Give your character a unique ‘voice’. Their use of language, syntax, movement and body language can all help keep an audience hooked.
- Your actor is your best tool. They are the conduits for your story – without them we wouldn’t have a job! Learn to love your actor and the offers they bring to your writing, work with them collaboratively and be as clear as possible when communicating with them about their performance.
- Shoot your actor at least three ways – wide shot, medium shot and close up. This give you options in picking which take is best for performance and story.
- Shoot some cutaways. You could do the whole monologue as a voiceover with other imagery or you could shoot cutaways of your actor’s hands, eyes, the location etc. Cutting to a new shot will visually refresh the audience, and can be used to heighten symbolism and metaphor in your story.
- Music or underscoring can be extremely effective in heightening the drama. But make sure it’s working for your story – there is nothing worse that the music dwarfing the writing or acting! Due to copyright make sue you use original or music in the public domain. Check out the Creative Commons website for a election of license-free music that you can use.
- Trust your instincts. As a writer or director, you have great storytelling instincts, make sure you listen to them and fight for the story you want to tell.
- Most importantly – have fun!