In admiration of great storytelling

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars — Khalil Gibran

I spent yesterday morning watching a 2007 British short film called Inseparable starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Not a word of a lie, it was the best 12 minutes I ever had on a Sunday morning. And I’m not saying that just because Cumberbatch was the lead.

The film summary: A young father discovers he is dying and decides to give his ne’er-do-well twin brother a unique opportunity to turn his life around.

Yes, Cumberbatch was brilliant in playing the twin brothers. When has he not been brilliant? Anyway, aside from the acting, the cinematography and the film director’s choices were spot on. But what blew me away was the story. And I give the screenwriter, Matthew James Wilkinson, big props for that.

The story starts with a seemingly serene scene of domesticity and from there, it takes the viewer through a day that is far from ordinary, moving towards the moment the dying brother’s unimaginable decision, is revealed.

It was a story that, in the end, left the viewer with more questions than answers. Those are the kinds of stories I love. I’m not really a fan of happily-ever-after.

The final scene of the film was gut-wrenching. More so because of the sparing use of dialogue throughout the film. Again, big props to the screenwriter. When dialogue was used, it was important. It had purpose. It moved the story forward. For the characters, a lot of the dialogue was internal, dialogue the viewer never got to hear. We could only guess what they were thinking. But what you could see was their emotions and their body language. It spoke volumes. And that made the story riveting. That final scene was brilliant because of the lack of dialogue. Only one sentence was uttered at the end of the scene before the screen faded to black. Stunning.

Growing up, I was a bookworm. Now — not so much. I have a lovely collection of books I bought over the years but haven’t gotten around to reading. Some people buy clothes to relax. I buy books. I’m still making my way through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. I’m committed to finishing the collection no matter how long it takes me to do it.

Since I lack the time to really immerse myself in a good book, I do the next best thing — find movies that are great at storytelling. Sure, there are really crappy movies courtesy of really shitty or incomplete writing. You have to wade through a lot of films to find the gems.

I’m most attracted to movies that make you think long after you’ve watched it.

Admittedly, I never thought about the resonance of a film until I saw David Cronenberg’s 2007 feature film, Eastern Promises, which starred Viggo Mortensen. I was taken aback by the complexity and motives of the characters. Discovering and analyzing what drove them to do the things they did in the movie while I watched the movie was a watershed moment for me.

Before Eastern Promises, I only saw movies only as a form of entertainment. Escapism. Mindless escapism. With this film, I fell naturally into examining the characters, wanting to get to know more about them, questioning their actions and the reasons behind the actions, paying attention to the body language and clues in the dialogue that would fill in the life story of these characters. I was paying attention to the subtext for the first time. As nerdy as this may sound, I was thrilled about being able to read subtext. An epiphanous moment.

Again, big props to the screenwriter, Steven Knight, for creating those characters.

Although Wilkinson and Knight are screenwriters, not literary authors, there is so much to learn from them with regards to pacing, knowing what is important to the story, how to keep a viewer’s attention, the beauty of flawed and scarred characters and the beauty of a story’s twists and turns as you move your way through the film. Elements of great writing. Inseparable and Eastern Promises are just two such examples.

Watching Inseparable yesterday morning only reinforced observations made in the last year by a couple of friends.

One friend made the suggestion that I should try my hand at filmmaking. He only made that suggestion because I told him while I was working on the novel, I usually visualized the scenes in my head as if I was a movie director. I’m a bit picky about visual details when I write and I think it’s because I just naturally visualize the scenes in my head before I punch out the words on the keyboard. Anyway, I thought my friend was a little crazy for making the suggestion. I understood his reasons but it’s never been something I would ever have a real opportunity to try. I suppose never say never. We’ll see.

The other friend (my book editor, actually) had noted how visual my scenes were and how easy it was to create images in her mind as she read through my manuscript. She compared it to a screenplay or a teleplay. She didn’t suggest I try screenwriting but I think it wouldn’t have been a stretch for her to recommend it as something to explore.

Watching Inseparable made me think about screenwriting, about the possibility of trying my hand at it one day. There is a local film group who occasionally runs a screenwriting workshop. I wouldn’t mind learning the basics and seeing if it’s something worth pursuing.

Regardless of whether or not I try my hand at screenwriting, there is no denying Wilkinson and Knight inspire me in the craft of storytelling.

All I can hope for is to come up with great stories, tell them and maybe, inspire someone else the way those two screenwriters have inspired me.