Thursday, March 29, 2012

Creative Limits, Hitchcock, and Me

Continuing on the subject of Alfred Hitchcock, I'd like to talk about how he spurred his own creativity by putting limits on himself. (And I'll end up by talking a little about how this kind of thinking helped me out with a scene in one of my own books.)

Hitch liked to work with physical constraints, especially if they created a contrast. Within a story, he often used scenes where the hero or heroine was in grave danger in the middle of a public place, with lots of people -- but people they could not talk to. Perhaps the hero couldn't speak because he was accused of a crime, such as in The 39 Steps, or North By Northwest, or Sabotage. Or it might be a mother who knows an assassination will happen at a concert... but her child will die if she speaks, as in the second The Man Who Knew Too Much. (Actually a variation happened in both, now that I think about it.)

But he didn't just put constraints on his characters. He put constraints on himself, sometimes.

I mentioned Lifeboat, where he constrained himself to telling a full story that stays entirely inside a small lifeboat. And in Dial M For Murder he filmed a popular stage play, and as with the play itself, stayed mainly to one location -- the interior of an apartment. (A couple small scenes are in the hall or street outside, and one at a dinner which is happening parallel to the action in the apartment.)

The danger of working within such limitations is that they can become boring. You have the same backdrop throughout, not much space for your characters to do anything exciting, and so the only thing that moves is the dialog. And that can be visually very boring.

So what did Hitchcock do?

In Dial M For Murder, he didn't just jump in with weird angles and strange lighting -- like an amateur might do. He first leveraged the tools given to him by the material.

It was a stage play, and a play is always founded on the actors. The "action" is first of all dramatic action -- social and interpersonal rather than physical. (Physical comes into it, but in support of the interpersonal stuff.) For a play to work, it has to start with the characters pushing for something. They might be subtle, or they might be overt, but whatever they do, it's like a sport, and they are trying to score.

So he first kept it interesting by supporting the subtle but powerful pushing of the characters. And as with a stage play, he gave them a set which was interesting to move around in. This gives us body language and ways to demonstrate the tension going on underneath the words. So the set was designed to make movement more interesting, and give opportunities for contrast. One person could sit and the other be active. An area at the back where characters could move unimpeded across the whole stage, other areas which would force them to maneuver.

And when one character is talking, he might move around behind another, forcing the other to twist around uncomfortably -- a visual representation of manipulation, power and weakness.

This is largely how Hitchcock turned Lifeboat into a fine story too. Even though there wasn't much room, he made that small amount of space physically interesting for the actors to move about in. Climbing over junk and each other. Trying to find private space where there was no space at all. And even in close ups, when two characters talk, we can often see the reactions of others nearby.

This is very much something fiction writers can do too. Let your characters block out their moves like actors.

Hitch also did make some interesting camera moves in Dial M, of course, but he used them in support of the conflicts mentioned above. We might see a character from below or from above, in way to make them feel powerful or isolated or weak or creepy -- but not all the time. Only as the mood of the scene moved in that direction.

And in Both Dial M and Lifeboat, Hitch used other tools to change the location without going anywhere -- night and day, different kinds of lighting from one sequence to another. In Lifeboat he was able to use weather, especially wind and rain, to completely change the nature of the location, even if the location itself was always the same.

But there was one more really BIG way Hitchcock kept everything moving and everything interesting -- a method he used in all his pictures:


With Dial M For Murder, some elements were built right into the play: earlier in the first act, the villain asks his wife's lover (who is a mystery writer) about committing the perfect crime. The writer tells him that, though he could think up great crimes, he would never try to commit one: Because something will always go wrong.

Now we're primed. We're put on notice: We know that the bad guy has something murderous on his mind, and we know that it must go wrong. But we also know that he's warned.

Then when we get the killer's plan, in great detail, has he coolly lays it out for his cohort, in a wonderful climatic scene of the first act: all shot from above so the set is like a diagram. This part of the scene is brilliant, partly because it contrasts with the first part of the scene, which was more interpersonal, more about that ping pong game the villain was playing with his cohort. Suddenly the ping pong game is over the real game is afoot.

But the key reason that scene is so important and successful is because it's full of information.

This is something Hitchcock understood that so few others do: the thing that causes the greatest tension is not what we don't know, but what we DO know.

We know all the tiny lynchpins of the plan, and so throughout the next sequence, Hitchcock reminds us of those tiny details, keeping them in our mind, forcing us to tense up when something trivial happens that puts the plan in jeopardy. It's not that we want the killer to succeed, but that we're anticipating everything that happens. We are truly focused on the unfolding story. We're waiting for it.

There's a wonderful scene in another Hitchcock movie, The Lady Vanishes, where we know the villain has drugged a brandy glass. The good guys don't know it, but they're too stirred up to drink as they talk with the villain. The villain, however, doesn't have to push the glass on the heroes. Hitch does it for us. Those glasses are in every single shot of that scene. Often just in the corner, often out of focus, but always there. Teasing us.

That is something that's hard to do in prose. Words draw even more attention to thing than images, we run the risk of overdoing it. Still, fiction writers should keep that psychological effect in mind. And foreshadowing itself is something writers already do, but we may want to consider being more open about it -- like Hitchcock, just outright telling the audience what to expect, and then endanger that outcome.

In the meantime...

Talking about this made me think a little about how one of these techniques -- stage direction -- helped me with my own work.

It always surprises me when people tell me their favorite scene in The Man Who Did Too Much is the one where Karla and George first start conspiring together.

That is basically just one long conversation. Totally dialog driven, and all about analyzing the facts of the case, and speculating. They aren't in conflict. There is no grand drama. But when I look at it in terms of movement, I realize that there's a lot of coordinated stage direction, and actually, it's not just one scene. It's a sequence of mini-scenes, where the action (or non-action) moves from the kitchen table, to the living room, back to the kitchen, and then to the fridge and counter. The characters are doing a whole lot of stuff while they talk. Bandaging injuries, making a snack, examining evidence.

When I look back on that now, I realize that I was using a technique I learned from the movies. Specifically from Woody Allen, actually -- the roving conversation -- but also from Hitchcock. Hitch was less dialog oriented so it doesn't "feel" like Hitch, but he certainly used this. Woody Allen, of course, has always worked within the limitations of a lower budget, and as a student of film (such as Hitchcock) and as an actor, he uses those limitations in creative ways to spark and keep interest.

Did I do it intentionally, just to make a static scene more interesting. Well, yes. I was trained to do that in film school. But I also had another reason. I wanted to show that these two very different people are very much on the same wavelength. By packing the scene with business and clutter, I could show how well their timing just naturally works together. They complement each other admirably. They fit.

I think, if you look at any successful scene -- in a movie, in a book -- you'll find that behind a practical technique there is also a storytelling purpose. Find that purpose and the scene works.

See you in the funny papers.


Nicole Pyles said...

I have definitely admired Hitchcock's story telling ability. I took a film class in college on his movies and one thing I remember for sure is the instructor describing how Hitchcock would take "ordinary people and place them in extraordinary circumstances." And to me, that is a wonderful approach for any writer to have!

The Daring Novelist said...

Hi, Nicole -- There are so many lessons in Hitchcock. Of the ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances is now the definition of "Thriller" for many in Hollywood.

(BTW - for some reason your comment went into the spam bucket. I cannot figure out why. Had to fish it out.)