SURPRISE, SUSPENSE AND VIOLENCE
Last semester I taught an undergrad screenwriting course at a college in Los Angeles with 13 students, nine of whom were girls and four were boys. The girls were interested in character and story. All four boys were trying to be Quentin Tarantino. Poor Quentin Tarantino. To think he’s going to have all that competition. On the other hand, he needn’t worry because none of these four young hopefuls had a clue what it means to be Quentin Tarantino. They all thought it meant to write lots and lots of violence.
Actually, a computer could do that quite easily. But it wouldn’t be a script, it wouldn’t have a story or characters, and it wouldn’t capture what makes Quentin Tarantino so special. His incredible talent is not writing violence, it’s writing the longest, quietest, most compelling scenes and sequences of suspense imaginable. It’s impending violence that puts us on the edge of our seat, not the explosions and blood that might follow.
No one has written a more nerve-racking, spine-tingling experience than the opening sequence of “Inglorious Basterds.” In it the renowned “Jew-hunter” Nazi Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) spends a long, long time chatting with French farmer LaPadite. Meanwhile we in the theater can hardly breathe it is so suspenseful. Why? Because the camera dollies down beneath the floorboards, and we see huddled there in the grimy depths the Jewish Dreyfus family. If we didn’t know they were there there’d be no suspense. But once we know, we dread what’s inevitably coming. We can’t wait to get it over with while simultaneously praying it will never happen. It gets more and more unbearable. And over time we relate and identify more and more with the people under the floor. They are us and we are them, as Col. Landa slowly and casually breaks down the farmer’s reserve, playing on his fear, making him understand the Nazis can keep coming back to his house or never bother him again.
Oh, my God! It’s getting closer. No! No! With a look, the farmer gives away the location of the family. Landa begins to leave. Maybe he didn’t notice. Maybe we’re free. The tension is relieved. And then…in the best Hitchcockian tradition, just when the tension has been relieved, the climax hits. Landa’s Nazi soldiers pour in and fire hundreds of rounds through the floorboards.
They kill all the Dreyfus family except for one young girl who escapes. And who takes us along with her into the movie that follows. It was all a preamble to a whole different story. But one we’ll never forget.
It took me a page to describe the sequence in detail, but it must be at least 15 minutes, maybe twice that in the movie. That is the genius of Quentin Tarantino. He holds us in the palm of his hand for as just long just as he likes. He can have two characters discuss what they call Big Macs in Paris and we lap it up because we know, he’s made us know, something sinister lurks around the next bend in the road.
In a much nicer, more civilized kind of way, it’s just what Alfred Hitchcock did in over 50 films over some 50 years. He invented many of the techniques that have become the norm in Hollywood films. The Jews under the floorboards come right out of Hitchcock’s boy unwittingly carrying a bomb onto a crowded bus.
We, the audience, need to know what the potential for violence is if we’re going to be affected by it, that is, if we’re going to feel the suspense. Hitchcock said he didn’t make mysteries. That isn’t true. He often did make mysteries. But he always made moves rife with suspense.
Screenwriters have choices to make time and again. Do you want to create surprise or suspense? Both are good in movies. The best surprise is the one we almost saw coming but not quite. It is inevitable while also completely unexpected. That’s how movie climaxes should feel when they’re working at their best. But surprise has its limitations. It only last a few seconds. We all gather in a room with Harry’s wife, turn off the lights and wait. The door opens and Harry enters, and we flip on the lights and all yell, “Surprise!” But then we see Harry has entered with his arm around his girlfriend. We’re the ones surprised. Especially Harry’s wife, who’s so mad she pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. Surprise! Wow – three surprises in less than a minute. Pretty good writing there.
But the problem with surprises is they only last a few seconds. It took three of them to fill up less than a minute. Whereas suspense, as practiced so wonderfully by Quentin Tarantino, can last a lifetime. Or at least many minutes until it’s paid off, and we suffer through all those minutes. In a good way. And remember it for a lifetime. Since what we, an audience, want to experience in a movie is everything we don’t want to experience in our own lives. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
- Bob Shayne