Updated: Feb 28, 2021
This post was created in updating my online writing portfolio at www.joshoaktree.com/portfolio
As I put together my online portfolio, I am revisiting writing lessons I learned thanks to all of the wonderful projects I've been a part of so far. This entry is about the short film, "Lawman." Specifically, it is about the thought process of writing a script without dialogue.
"Lawman" started off as a script for a visual cinematography essay and only later grew into an AFI thesis short film with dialogue.
To watch the short film on vimeo, use the password 'deputy'.
"Lawman" started off as a silent film. At AFI, the cinematography students complete a visual essay in their second year. For years, my classmate and cinematography extraordinaire, Kalilah Robinson, wanted to make a film about Bass Reeves. She saw her visual essay as the perfect opportunity. It was only due to school circumstances that the project grew into a full-fledged AFI thesis film with dialogue. (The silent version never got made.)
As the screenwriter of Kalilah's visual essay, I wrote five drafts without any dialogue before we transitioned into making the short film. It was during those early drafts that Kalilah and I began to discover the film's visual language, its themes, and tone.
When the project became an AFI thesis film, a lot of the themes we located solidified thanks to our fellow AFI grad, Matthew Gentile, coming onboard as the director.
Matthew didn't get credit for his screenwriting on the film (because he was a thoughtful friend and collaborator and gave me the full credit), but he and Kalilah were both heavily involved with shaping the story, and Matthew contributed significantly to later drafts of the script. It just goes to show the type of director that you want to work with --- someone who values your work and the relationship more than any credit.
I'll circle back to the short film. But let me get to what this entry professes to be all about: the thought process that goes into writing a film without dialogue.
As an exercise, I highly recommend that you write your script, or a scene from it, initially without dialogue. Thinking in visual terms will help you come up with cinematic ways to convey your story. The goal for any scene is for it to be evocative even when the sound is muted.
So, how do you write a script without dialogue?
From a practical standpoint, it is the same as writing any other screenplay. Best screenwriting practices apply. To keep the read progressing at a good pace, include only necessary descriptions that keep the plot moving forward.
For all screenplays, you're not writing a novel. There may be times where literary writing is appropriate, but remember the rule of thumb, "Less is more."
I like to think in terms of visual contrasts. I picture my script as a geometric pattern. Any ending must mirror the beginning in an escalated form. But what does that mean exactly?
Any story (told in the western tradition) is about a hero on a journey. From story beginning to end, the hero evolves. They embark on the journey because their life, somehow, is lacking something. Upon returning home, they are changed and that abstract something is no longer missing. The story is about the contrast between the hero's visual identity at the start of the story versus the hero's visual identity come the end of the story.
To simplify the idea, think about superhero origin stories. Often, the hero starts off as an ordinary person, with flaws, perhaps with some geeky eyeglasses and a high schooler's lack of confidence. Come the end of the story, the hero is a buff, well-toned superhero. There is an inherent contrast in the visuals.
The Lion King is about the visual contrast of Simba as the lion cub versus Simba as the lion king. Cub v. king. Beginning v. end.
I find it's a useful exercise to think about (or even draw) your hero in the beginning of your story versus the transformed character in the end.
Once you locate those bookended visuals, you can play with the middle of your story, also known as "the journey."All visuals during the course of the journey serve to aid the hero's transformation.
With "Lawman," we wished to explore what it must have felt like for Bass to be one of the first black U.S. lawmen. As a deputy, he was a defender of a judicial system that -- just years earlier --- allowed him to be an enslaved person. We wished to explore the conflicting emotions that must have gone along with that newfound role and responsibility of defending the law that once persecuted him.
In the silent version, his badge became a symbol that we depended on to communicate how he felt about being an officer. When the script was purely visuals, we allowed ourselves to be fairly heavy-handed with the symbolism.
There were early versions of the silent script that emphasized him spit-shining his badge with pride in contrast with him cleaning blood off of it in the closing scene. His transformation was from naive rookie --- first day on the job --- to jaded veteran. To aid him in that transformation, we used visuals that spoke to his unique identity as a former enslaved person.
We emphasized the visual of "handcuffs." At one point, Bass handcuffs the captured outlaw. Later, Bass looks at the campfire. The script read:
"Within the flames, we see BASS enslaved as part of a chain gang. He is tall, tired, walking alongside others who are also in chains... They are like flames, shifting side-to-side with each step."
The presence of those visuals --- the handcuffs and badge --- are toned down significantly in the finished short film. Once we added dialogue, we no longer needed the same level of visual poetry to make our dramatic point.
One of my favorite scenes in the film takes place in front of a campfire. In essence, it is the campfire scene from the silent version, but it is much more subtle. It is all about Bass identifying with the outlaw and empathizing.
I think the great benefit of having written the script without dialogue first is that we created a visual structure, which made for a great foundation for our story. In adding dialogue, we discovered depth of character that was missing in the silent version. The benefit and problem of writing in visuals alone is how dependent you are upon symbolism. A story that depends entirely on symbolism can lack character complexity as it is so dependent upon iconography and visual poetry to make its point.
I'd love to hear what you think of the film's symbolism and visuals. To watch it, you can use the password 'deputy' on vimeo. To contact or follow me, you can find me @OakTree_Comics on Instagram and Facebook.
Thanks for reading!