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Storytelling Through the Lens of Camera Two 

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An interview with Joseph Alberti: Part Two

Bill Bibo, Jr reconnects with Joseph Alberti for more discussion on Film and Storytelling. If you missed it, you can find Part One here.

Bill Bibo, Jr: When I was preparing for this interview I found a website for Robber Baron Productions. You were one of the founders of the video production company that seemed to specialize in the horror genre. In fact on the home page was a short video featuring Dracula, Freddy Kruger, Darth Vader, and almost every other popular horror villain, all wishing people a Happy New Year.

If storytelling is really as simple as the three basic steps and adding a crisis, then why are so many horror films so very bad?

Joseph Alberti: A niche genre like horror has to adhere to some stereotypes and being made on a low budget is one of the most relevant, with the result that quality often suffers considerably. Horror has a long shelf life and if produced on a low budget has no trouble to make its money back so it remains a safe bet for the producers—it doesn’t have to be good, it has to be made, that’s all.

Who really understands horror? That is the question. Maybe Frazer Lee is one of the few scholars at Mash that can help us build the banks of knowledge to see through the horror narrative—for the rest of us, it’s a story, then a screenplay, then a film with all the relations of productions attached—no more, no less. If given the chance to shoot it, most of us will lack the discernment needed to improve it and it’s often too late to try to change it.

Horror comes in many shades. It’s something we don’t all feel the same about—a trip to the dentist might be more terrifying than a poltergeist for some—but from the screenwriter’s point of view, especially when dealing with the supernatural, it’s quite a challenge, as the writer needs to create not only strong characters and a convincing story but has the task of building a world in which the audience will find such happenings believable. Often the translation to the screen doesn’t do justice to the writing but when done well… films like Blade Runner, The Exorcist, the Vanishing (the 1988 Dutch original) or Hellraiser, to name a few, are true classics of the art of filmmaking.

Bill: How did your time as a producer help you learn about storytelling?

Joseph: I had the good fortune of working with some amazing, very talented individuals. One was Frazer Lee. Everything I know about professional writing for the screen or novelization I have learned from them while trying to produce movies.

As a producer, you often work with a strong core idea, usually not fully formed, yet you have to be able to visualize the project all the way to its delivery.

To pull it off you must research and know the story from within, be able to reference it and pitch it to potential investors in just a few strokes.

A good producer is able to see the story from the writer’s and director’s point of view as well as from the audience’s point of view. Often writers forget this and assume that everyone knows the story as well as they do.

The producer’s job is often to play the part of the audience and challenge the writer’s story, as well as the director’s telling of it. This has been a great educational process for me, where emotional intelligence and a good understanding of human nature count as much as the creative input.

Bill: BBC Culture this year released their list of the 100 greatest American films. In the top 10 are The Godfather and The Godfather II, with the latter being the most recent film, albeit released in 1974. Only 6 films on the entire list of 100 have been made since 2000. Why are the best films the old ones? Have we lost the art of storytelling today?

Joseph: More often your experience of watching a movie is that of a particular mood in a moment in time, and one that you will seldom experience again. Our emotions drift constantly, like leaves in the wind.

However, there are some classics with characters that are larger than life, stories of cosmic proportion dealing with the whole gamut of human drives.

It would be very difficult, knowing what we know today, to conceive Casablanca (Rick Blaine, wearing skinny jeans and studio headphones, would have known Ilsa Lund is seeing Laszlo after checking her Facebook status on his iPhone…), or Citizen Kane.

Most of the characters from the films in the list could only have been developed in those days, but they endure in our collective consciousness because we are able to recontextualize their journey and make it relevant in any age.

Bill: And what about the current state of the art?

Joseph: Our society has become very complicated. We need a teaspoon when we drink tea, a fish knife when we eat fish; we must have an iPhone and an iPod, and connect them to the iMac and the iPad… in the Cloud. Most people drive to the nearest gym to ride a stationary bike, whilst connected to a couple of the devices above.

Not to mention the way we experience news, especially the serious news, as they happen: a captive audience in an endless stream of “information” that has killed curiosity and desensitized everyone.

So what would these average people like to watch when they get home? Certainly not something challenging their beliefs (or lack thereof)—they do not want to think; they need a tranquillizer.

The result is that we get treated to a host of productions so similar to the reality of the average people around us that we forget them the moment they end. They lack depth, the characters are shallow and unbearably common, and it makes little to no sense to recontextualize them.

Analyzing closely, it is evident that in most cases there is no clearly defined goal for the character(s) (what the character needs or wants to get in the story, not what they do). When you have a clearly defined goal, planning around it will form a neural map, and neural maps are the link between cause and consequence, organizing events in a timeline… and—bingo! —you have the narrative structure you need to build a strong story. A memorable story that will touch people the way it was intended to, and that will become part of our consciousness.

This is possibly one of the reasons why we tend to value those movies on the list more dearly than most recent productions. They have strong characters, clearly defined character goals, great stories—and as much light as they have shadows. They have never left us, and often we return to them just to be reminded why we are in this industry in the first place.

Bill: Has our method of storytelling changed today? Is that to blame?

Joseph: The digital revolution is partly responsible for the change in the way we photograph movies, in my opinion, with the result that most writers end up making the screenplays dialogue-heavy to accommodate for the format.

“The Medium is the Message” ?

Digital pictures are often very bright and have a large depth of field, unlike film, and with a large depth of field the focus is sharp in the foreground as well as in the background, an almost impossible picture to take in 1942 when Casablanca was made.

If both foreground and background are on the same focal plane, whose story are we watching? The rules of frame composition state that the eyes will lock on: 1) the sharpest item; 2) the brightest item; 3) the moving item.

With low- to medium-end digital photography you lose the ability to direct the eyes of the audience to the sharpest area on the screen, as everything is in focus. So how do you substitute that? Often with a lot of dialogue to direct the audience’s attention to the story and not the sofa behind the actor’s shoulder.

Bill: Is that a bad thing? If it is so bad, can we ever go back?

Joseph: It is, on the whole, a welcome change, as nowadays you can shoot a decent-looking picture with professional sound for the price of a term at film school, and this has led to the big studios slowly losing control of the movie industry. The other side of the coin is that with the freedom to self-produce no one tells the filmmakers when to stop.

What we lost, at least temporarily, is discipline and specialization. If digital photography is approached with film discipline then every frame has a rationale, and the cameraman does not keep the camera rolling. You would never film something you don’t need on good old 35mm—it cost money to develop and cost money to print.

Also, we are all video makers and photographers nowadays, whether videoing our kids at play or taking pictures on holiday, so the separation between what is good and what is bad is very blurry. Most movies out there are mediocre, yet you cannot fault them entirely—and there you go, the bar is lowered even further, and more mediocre, pointless programmes are produced.

For the first time in the history of broadcasting, there is no difference between reality and television—the show is the same.

That’s why the majority of films made lately are about basic, petty instincts that we can all relate to: a bit funny but also with some drama; politically correct yet “challenging”; with some horror but also with witty comedy. As much cross-genre as possible, to please everyone—and it’s no bother to anyone to have a break in the middle of the show to sell nappies and washing up liquid.

Can we ever go back? Maybe not in the short term, and not until we stop watching mediocrity so the industry will stop producing it—we, the people, have that power.

Bill: Moving past that mediocrity means adding in strong characters to our stories. What are some key points to creating those strong characters? Staying with movies, if we were to look at a movie like The Godfather, what characteristics would we find that make the story and characters unforgettable?

Joseph: A movie like The Godfather is something unforgettable, a celebration of the art of filmmaking. From its characters, the cinematography and the music score, to the screenplay and the cast, there’s hardly ever been anything like it. Perfect.

If you look hard enough, there will be similarities in any story and any character ever conceived by the mind of men. Humans all respond to the same basic drives. What’s different is how we respond to them—that’s the birth of the story.

For me it was the combination of the story and how it was told on screen that struck me as sensational, the quality and timing of the writing, all the beats of the story down to the minutest detail—everything is spot on. There’s hardly a movie that can compare to it.

Arguably, one of the main reasons The Godfather has not lost its appeal (and never will), is that the character’s goals are clearly defined from the start and Vito Corleone’s story, as well as that of his family, has a purpose (a character with a vision is a strong character), enabling the storytellers to map it across a whole generation (it spanned three movies), drawing a net of connections that has the power to captivate any of us.

I recently read of the storytelling template used by a former story artist from Pixar, Emma Coats. This Pixar narrative template involves six sequential sentences:

  • Once upon a time ____________________.
  • One day ________________________.
  • Every day, ______________________.
  • Because of that, ___________________.
  • Because of that, ____________________.
  • Until finally ________________________.

Let’s see what they did at Pixar with Finding Nemo:

  • Once upon a time there was a widower fish named Marlin who was extremely protective of his only son, Nemo.
  • One day, Marlin warned Nemo of the ocean’s dangers and implored him not to swim far away.
  • Every day, in an act of defiance, Nemo ignores his father’s warning and
  • Because of that, he is captured by a diver and ends up as a pet in the fish tank of a dentist in Sydney.
  • Because of that, Marlin sets off on a journey to recover Nemo, enlisting the help of other sea creatures along the way…
  • Until finally Marlin and Nemo find each other, reunite, and learn that love depends on trust.

If only our friends in television used this template more often, what shows we could have!

Bill: Storytelling really is all around us. Joseph, thank you for your time and your insight into storytelling in all of its many aspects.

Has watching a movie ever influenced how you write, or does your writing influence how you watch a movie?

As always, thanks for reading me.

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Bill lives with his wife in Madison, WI. Late at night he writes about intelligent mummies, incompetent zombies, and other things that scare him in the hope that someday they no longer will. He’d like to thank his wife and children and especially his grandsons, Nolan and Sonny, for keeping the child alive in his heart. It’s so deeply rooted now nothing could remove it. @bbibojr

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