Green is for stop, please stop with the exposition!
In an introductory screenwriting class we often talk about what makes the task of writing a movie unique. This is a huge topic, but we can begin to focus our discussion by reminding students that all movie writing is led by two of the oldest yet most important principles: the need for narrative economy and the mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’. The first reminds us that you are likely to have a maximum of two hours to tell your story, so get on with it and make every moment count. The second that you are working for a visual medium so don’t write a radio play. These lessons are frequently lost on the team behind Green Lantern, which is one of the stodgiest superhero movies I have ever seen.
Any superhero origins story is stuck with the problem of taking beloved bullshit seriously enough to please fans of the source material while simultaneously keeping the two-hour movie clipping along at a good pace. The problem for Green Lantern is that its own version of the beloved bullshit smells like it is much, much closer to the wrong end of the cow than is usual even in this kind of story. Faced with that problem writers usually either play it straight but blow it off as fast as possible or work it to camp and revel in the rich farmyard odors. Green Lantern not only takes it seriously but lectures us about it at length and both in dialogue and voice over.
The result is a movie that is long on pointless self-justification, yet short on coherence. Rather like the movie’s villain Parallax, the exposition billows out and sucks the life force from a plot that is only tangentially related to its hero at the best of times. You know you are in dangerous waters when the spectacular final confrontation between superhero and supervillain is also their first confrontation.
Part of the problem is that the movie’s incarnation of Parallax is kind of a one shot, beat him or die deal so the whole movie is played out through proxies until big bad finally shows up. The other problem is more to do with a studio’s almost total lack of faith in the waiting audience. This is a film about the battle between will and terror where the real battle has been lost in development before the movie begins.
The lesson of Green Lantern for the producers of future superhero movies must be that your audience is familiar enough by now with the beloved emissions of the wrong end of the superhero cow that we are willing to just go with it. Don’t be scared, have the will to just have fun for heaven’s sake, otherwise how are we ever going to join you?
The alarm clock just woke up Harry Palmer.
For those of you who have never met Harry, he looks uncannily like a young Michael Caine.
As John Barry’s wonderful, lugubrious, jazzy and distinctly un-James Bondy theme plays over, we follow Harry as he goes through his morning routine. Let’s see how much we learn about him in the title sequence alone:
Harry looks around – a blurry P.O.V. He puts on his heavy dark framed glasses. Hmm, James Bond doesn’t have bad eyesight. But now that’s much better, Harry can see properly. He checks out his modest flat. Still no ‘bird’, sadly.
The glasses were a very important part of the characterization as Michael Caine recalls in an interview with uncut.co.uk: “Well, we decided we wanted him to be the antithesis of Bond. Obviously there wasn’t any competition with Bond because Harry wasn’t another great, suave spy. He was more like a real spy, an ordinary guy who you wouldn’t look at twice in the street. So we gave him some glasses. I wore glasses naturally so I knew how to use glasses; I took them off and put them on very easily. But what worked for me is the minute I took the glasses off, I wasn’t Harry Palmer. I saw Sean [Connery] having difficulty trying to get away from James Bond and I thought, “Well the minute I take these off, I’m not Harry Palmer.” Which proved correct.”
Harry gets up and draws his curtains, revealing grimy London rooftops and chimney pots. This isn’t James Bond’s flat and it certainly isn’t his neighborhood.
He walks over to the alarm clock which is on the other side of the room. Nice little character moment there. Clearly Harry needs rituals to help him get out of bed in the morning.
Harry opens his front door and grabs the morning paper and a pint of milk. He starts to make coffee, grinding his own beans and using a cafetière a piston. He’s a man of some sophistication and not just “an ordinary guy” then, our Harry.
But wait, what’s this? He’s opening his tabloid paper to the racing page and marking today’s runners for a potential flutter. He’s a man who is moving between classes, aspiring and modern yet also comfortable in his working class cultural origins. He is also a gambler not a plodder, a major character clue which will be played out by the investigation plot later on.
Harry puts on his jacket and then searches for something under the pillows. He finds a woman’s bracelet, but clearly he wasn’t looking for that. Harry pulls back the covers – ah there is his little automatic pistol. He checks the safety catch and slips it into the waistband of his trousers. So Harry is a man who takes a gun to work. In our minds we run that by the pre-title sequence and get ready to position him in relation to the scientist kidnapping affair.
Now the titles have finished and, if we have been paying close attention we already know a good deal about him. Most importantly we know something of the complexity of the man. We see his contradictions and we are given hints at his talents and possible weaknesses. Hint: both have a lot to do with him being cocky (expects a lady to be in his bed, pushing at the cultural boundaries of his class origins like many of his generation in the early 1960s).
Anyway now Harry is out on the streets. Let’s follow him and see what he gets up to.
The next scene sees Harry arrive at work in a seedy attic flat where a surveillance operation is taking place. This is the unglamorous end of the spy game and Harry brings his cheeky, irreverent personality to bear. He is late; he doesn’t care. We learn he is still in the army, but he doesn’t act as if discipline is the first thing on his mind.
Later he reads his report of mundane activities into a tape recorder, combining humor and a cynical detachment from the boring minutiae of his current operation with sound deductive reasoning: a larger delivery of milk might mean there are more people inside the target house, or just that they are drinking more tea. He can do his job well then, even when it is reduced to the most mundane of tasks, and even if he doesn’t seem to care much about it.
Now a colleague turns up early to relieve Harry. Harry’s the one the boss wants to see immediately when something serious comes up and he heads out with a final practical joke at the expense of his replacement.
Cut to the Ministry of Defense. Harry shows his pass and is called “Sir” by the guard. He’s important to somebody then.
Cut to Harry’s boss, Colonel Ross, feeding the pigeons on his windowsill. Ross is old school British army, but by no means the foolish stuffed shirt we may want him to be based on his attitude to our Harry – see we like him already. “Sergeant Palmer reporting as ordered, Sir.” He keeps Harry waiting, talks to him without turning round: “close the door, Palmer” and treats him like an unruly child. The big news? Harry is to be transferred to another department where his unique talents might get more of a workout than in counting milk bottles. What is Harry’s first question? Is it a promotion and will he be getting a pay rise? Bond wouldn’t ask that because it just isn’t done – oh and of course Commander Bond (Royal Navy) doesn’t need the money.
There might be a pay rise and Harry responds that now he can get the grill he has been wanting for his kitchen. It is no surprise that we find out later Harry is a good cook, but right now this response is just to signal his difference from Ross and to get a rise out of him.
We also get an introduction to the bureaucratic world of the British intelligence services. There is much talk of forms and records (and of course Palmer’s insubordination on record); of departmental loyalties and protocols: “Harry Palmer doesn’t play by the book in a world where ‘ooh look, lots of books we have to play by’.”
Now we move straight to the world of Harry’s new department, spread across a number of front companies sharing buildings elsewhere in London. There is an employment agency, a film distributor and a firework company which all link up in a maze of drab stairways and cramped hallways. We start in the employment agency which is specializing in domestic servants – Colonel Ross is ostensibly here to interview a butler. This takes us back to the old Britain Harry’s generation is breaking free from. In part this is a movie about the end of class deference, about the changing of the old guard and the danger of being left behind.
That danger brings us directly to Harry’s new boss and the villain of the piece. Major Dalby is Colonel Ross’ less successful double. A passed over major, he is told he should be grateful for his job and gets the full patronizing treatment from Ross which he, in turn unloads on Harry in a telling interview which almost duplicates the previous scene in Ross’ office: “shut the door.” There are a few minor differences in the shooting which subtly set up Dalby as the villain but, on the surface, the scene plays the duplication for humor before Harry follows Dalby through the maze of offices to his new department.
And so we go on with more introductions to new colleagues and with the start of the main investigative plot and the minor romantic subplot, but in these first twenty minutes of the film we are given all the information we need to understand who Harry is, what he does, where his talents lie, to see why Ross puts him into Dalby’s outfit as a plant and to understand his actions throughout the film which get him into very bad trouble and also get him out of it. The main events are waiting to occur and we are now ready to understand and enjoy them through our hero.
That’s exposition. It happens by turns subtly, Harry turns on the lamp and we ‘happen to see’ French cigarettes (slightly out of focus, no tedious pan over coyly revelatory mementos of childhood here) and obviously, Dalby reads him his personnel record (insubordinate with criminal tendencies). The various techniques we can infer from this short account of the opening act of The Ipcress File combine to make sure we are prepared for the unfolding of the movie’s story along with our hero/ine. Let’s outline a few of the best ones:
1. Show, don’t tell – yes I know: “yawn”, but there is a reason it is part of the trinity, it always turns up to help you. Example: Harry grinds coffee beans (aspiring middle class) vs. Harry’s tabloid racing section (working class).
2. When you do tell, make us want to hear it. Example: Dalby reading the negative litany of Harry’s officially reported personality traits to him off the personnel form so Harry can smirk and agree. Dalby then goes on to prove he’s no fool either when he remarks that he can use someone with Harry’s criminal tendencies.
In screenwriting we refer to statements that speak their literal meaning as being on the nose and generally try to avoid them where possible. Of course sometimes the simple eloquence of being on the nose is what is required just we try and save the literal for special occasions (remember Bob and Jenny on their date when he tells her he loves her from chapter one?), so it plays strong rather than dull. Here, however, we don’t resent this kind of literal exposition because it comes from character, Dalby asserting his rank and class superiority and plays to character, Harry unashamedly agreeing with the assessment. He’s proud of himself, unimpressed by Dalby’s pretensions and knows perfectly well these talents make him useful. It’s a little bit of on the nose exposition that works hard. It goes on to enable two entertaining and revelatory character moments and makes us really want to see Harry use his dodgy talents in action.
3. Always work towards narrative economy. Example: the whole title sequence is just somebody getting up and ready for work, but look how much we learned from it. This is a world away from the typical film student’s flat, exposition free “getting ready to go out” montage that tells us nothing other than what brand of toothpaste their friend who let them shoot in the location uses and that the director doesn’t know what their film is about and has no problem wasting the audience’s time until they figure it out (or, all too frequently, don’t).
4. We learn most about a character from their actions. (Yes, this is another way of saying show don’t tell, but it is an important principle of screenwriting.) Example: Harry winds up his colleague at the surveillance operation to say something rude about Colonel Ross only to reveal: “You’ve got some wiping to do. That tape’s still running.” He’s something of a prankster and we learn this by seeing it happen, not through someone leaning over to a colleague and remarking: “I say old chap, did you know that Harry Palmer is something of a prankster?”
5. Use duplication as expositional reinforcement. Example: There are so many in this sequence, notably the two interviews with Ross and Dalby. Also, remember those two little moments in the title sequence introducing us to Harry’s interest in the ladies? He reaches over in the bed at the start and then finds a bracelet at the end while searching for his gun, just in case we hadn’t registered the first clue. The point is that we are much more likely to register important information if we get more than one instance of it. Ideally you would find ways of giving the same information in different forms. We learn Harry is something of a gourmet from watching him grind coffee beans and from his comment later that he wants to buy a new grill. Don’t overdo this because then it becomes boring and obvious, but using humor or disguising that you are repeating – he is looking for his gun, he finds the bracelet – will take you far.
Exposition doesn’t necessarily end with the first act by the way. We enjoy learning about our characters and their world and good writers keep allowing that process to happen, allow new information to be revealed through story, all the way through the script. In The Ipcress File the theme of Harry’s culinary interests plays out again later when he cooks dinner for Sue Lloyd. This should also remind us that normally people don’t reveal themselves to strangers on first acquaintance and that includes to the audience. We have to work at them to get them to open up. So it should be with screenplays. Exposition should work on a need to know basis. What do we need to know to get us to the next thing we need to know? Think of it like an emotional onion skin. We peel away layers to reveal truth.