Have you ever heard it said that the key to making a great movie is “showing, not telling” the story? Movies are made up of images, right? A picture’s worth a thousand years, RIGHT?
Wrong. “Show, don’t tell” is bullsh*t. More precisely, it’s a very misleading half-truth that in all likelihood was made up by a manager trying to sound wise in the ways of Hollywood while picking up “prospective clients” at whichever bar it was that had the cheapest cocktails in 1984. (Insert your favorite watering-hole here, maybe?)
Listen to Tennyson E. Stead tell his ‘Arriving in L.A. story here.’
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What filmmakers forget is that visual exposition is still exposition. When driver’s education comes with a powerpoint presentation, does that make it entertainment? No. Why is it that big blockbuster science-fiction movies sneak all their special effects footage about how the world ended in a nuclear apocalypse into the opening credits? Because that’s the boring part. These opening sequences contain some of the most elaborate and well-composed images in the movie, so why are they always the most forgettable? Simply put, cinema is not a language of images any more than it is a language of words.
My name is Tennyson E. Stead, and I’m an award-winning writer and director of stage and screen. For 10 years, I worked as a development executive with a number of independent production companies. Twenty years ago, my career began in the theater communities of New England… and one of the skills imparted to me in my classical theater education was the practice of dramatic structure in all stages of production. In a Hollywood that has taken leadership from Wall Street and Madison Avenue for decades, these principles have fallen out of vogue. Everyone agrees that Hollywood has lost something vital since the 70’s – and the good news is that it’s nothing irreplaceable. Folks talk about “Old Hollywood” like we’ve sacrificed our innocence or independent spirit to a more corporate way of life, but what we lost was a fundamental and industry-wide commitment to dramatic structure. All it takes to get that back is discipline. Practice.
Cinema is about action. Screenwriters describe the action, actors perform the action, cinematographers record the action, editors focus the action and designers and visual effects artists put the action in context. A director’s job is to figure out what the action is, and then to keep the team focused on communicating it to the audience as a unified production.
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that action as a genre is the only valid form of filmmaking. In the dramatic sense, action is when an actor does something in pursuit of their character’s larger, defining goal. Conflict happens when characters do things in opposition to one another’s goals, and every story – as well as every scene within the story – lasts only as long as the conflict that defines it. Darth Vader wants to enslave the galaxy, so he builds the Death Star. Luke Skywalker wants to liberate the galaxy, so he tries to blow the Death Star up. Because Star Wars is Luke’s story, their conflict begins the second Luke tries to leave the farm and go be a hero. The moment the galaxy is saved from the Empire, the story is over. Restoring freedom to the galaxy is Luke’s action, and every scene in the film is about something he or one of the other characters does to make their endgame possible. What’s more, every scene is over the moment that action is uncontested.
One of my favorite films is Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, and it serves as a great illustration of how just how subtle dramatic action can be. Ingrid Bergman plays a world-famous concert pianist who was never there for her family, and her goal is to get her daughter to share the responsibility for their mutually crappy relationship. Her daughter is played by Liv Ullmann, who wants to make her mother acknowledge the profound and devastating impact her absence has had on the family. These are both reasonable, relatable goals… but they are completely incompatible. In Autumn Sonata, Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann are doomed to destroy one another.
Bergman opens the film with Liv Ullmann’s character trying to make everything perfect in time for her mother’s arrival. Her husband urges her to relax, but she’s too focused on her preparations to hear him. Her mother arrives and picks apart everything her daughter has done, and soon the both of them are deep in a vile passive-aggressive pain game for control of their irreparably damaged relationship.
Both Bergman’s DP and his editor do a great job of keeping our attention on how overwhelmed this poor girl is in her mother’s iconic presence, which serves to illustrate how unlikely to succeed her mission of getting an apology actually is. Bergman’s cut keeps us aware of how Liv Ullmann watches and listens to her mother moving through the home, and seeing how hard it is for her establishes the impossible stakes of their conflict. His cast is universally excellent in that they completely believe their characters flaws, they completely commit to their objectives, and they open themselves completely to experiencing the consequences of their decisions. As audience members, we are constantly learning about these characters… but we only learn what information the characters themselves need to share or uncover to achieve their endgames. This movie has a tight, efficient feel to it. As soon as you start watching Autumn Sonata, you know it’s going to hurt you – but Bergman earns your trust, and you let him have his way. Before long, you wind up feeling grateful you did.
If you’re not sure where to develop these skills, take some acting classes. Literally, acting is defined as the process of taking action. Making the exploitation of conflict a second-nature impulse takes practice, and a good acting class is the safest and most efficient place to put those hours in. If you’re not an actor, don’t worry about performance anxiety or whether you’re any good. You’re there to learn action and conflict. Keep it simple for yourself.
Nothing in your movie can be passive. Use active ingredients only. When developing a project, choose a screenplay that is exclusively concerned with what the characters are doing to achieve their goals. If the script is about what happens TO the characters, get rid of it – you cannot afford to have even one scene in which your characters are not driving the story for themselves.
From there, don’t show the story. Don’t tell the story. Instead of focusing on words or images, focus on the action. Write the action, perform the action, shoot the action, and then cut the action. Take time establishing a context for the action only to the degree that the action would be confusing without it… and then you’ll have a piece of goddamned cinema.
When it comes to what makes cinema work, consider where you’re getting your information. Are you going to take storytelling advice from a sweaty, greasy wannabe manager sex addict drunk off his a*s on Harvey Wallbangers at the (insert your favorite watering-hole here) in 1984? Or are you going to take advice from William Shakespeare and Ingmar Bergman?
If you’d like to ask questions, rebuke me with experience or hearsay, or just flirt from the safe distance of your personal computer, you can always find me at Tennysonestead.com. To find out more about me, my ensemble, and my stories, we welcome you to our online community at https://www.8sidedforum.com – and please, please support our upcoming feature, Quantum Theory. Quantum Theory is the story of two brilliant, snarky women of science who develop a prototype that gives them the power to change reality itself… until it’s snatched from under them by LDI, a ruthless and powerful defense contractor. Stealing it back means winning a shell game of changing realities against a company with limitless resources, and the future of our world depends upon their success! You can find out more 8sidedforum.com, and at Quantummovie.com.
Tennyson E. Stead is a writer, director, and producer of film and transmedia. In his childhood, he spent all his time building cardboard spaceships and rescuing his sister in them. These days he does basically the same thing.
For any production to realize its full creative and financial potential, every creative element must reflect the overall goals of the project. Every great collaborative work was produced by a team of talented people, united by a common intent.
8 Sided Films and the 8 Sided Forum represent our collective stewardship over the stories born from intent too multifaceted, specific, or unique for studio production, and our commitment to honoring that intent as the foundation for a more personal relationship with our audience.
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Check out more videos from this interview series
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Check out Tennyson’s prior Film Courage articles: