Thursday, December 9, 2010

Physical Proxies, Or How To Convey Emotion!!

Robert Gosnell, screenwriter, mentor, and teacher taught me an extremely important lesson one day after I was finished beating my head against the wall TRYING to figure out how to convey the right emotion...silently, without dialogue.  The use of physical proxies.

Believe me, this is NOT just a technique for screenwriters.

There's really no mystery to the concept of physical proxies, or anything new. It's simply a reflection of the old "show, don't tell" rule.

The first thing I try to incorporate into my screenwriting process, and I know many screenwriters do this, is an ability to watch the movie as I'm writing it. When I have emotional information I want to convey; the kind which would be delivered through narrative in a novel, I picture the scene, the characters and the interaction going on and ask myself how each character would translate that information through an action, a reaction, a look, a tone or dialogue subtext.

If it's going to come through dialogue, then I'm looking for subtext. I don't want a literal translation of emotion into words, I want to say it in subtext that is unique to that character's attitude.

Remember that scene from "Rocky" that I use in class, (LAS: watch Rocky and this scene) where Mickey, the Burgess Meridith character, goes to Rocky's little apartment, in hopes of talking Rocky into letting him be his manager?  I chose that scene to study, mostly because I wanted to demonstrate how to effectively keep a long scene interesting. That scene was more than seven minutes long. Seven minutes of dialogue. Theoretically, that should be death, yet the scene played beautifully. The conflict was set up earlier, when Mickey told Rocky he should retire, and took Rocky's locker away from him, giving it to an up-and-coming fighter. Now, he wants to be Rocky's manager.

What I also point out in this scene is how well it added complexity to Rocky's character, using irony and opposing traits. Here's where we get to the physical proxies. Mickey is following Rocky around the room, making his case, talking about his experience, showing Rocky pictures of young Mickey as a boxer.

And, what does Rocky do?  He keeps moving away from Mickey.  (LAS: Here is the physical proxy...the silent part, though it doesn't always have to be silent to use this technique) He throws darts at a dart board. He gets a beer from the refrigerator. He walks to his bedroom. Finally, when all else fails, he goes into the bathroom and closes the door.

Here's a big, tough, heavyweight fighter, and what is he doing? Avoiding confrontation. He keeps telling Mickey, "The fights set. I don't need no manager." But, we know what's really going on. Mickey gave up on him. Mickey told him to quit. Mickey hurt his feelings. You could see it, stirring around inside him. You knew the reason he was saying "no." Nobody had to tell us, because Rocky showed us. The only time it was really addressed was in Rocky's bedroom. Mickey follows him in and sees a poster of the heavyweight legend Rocky Graziano on the wall. He remarks that Rocky reminds him of Graziano. "You move like him. You got heart." Rocky replies, "Yeah, I got heart. But, I ain't got no locker, do I, Mick?"

Now, let's look at it from Mickey's point-of-view. Look at the action he takes to convince Rocky. He brings a picture of himself as a young fighter to show Rocky--who just remarks that he hasn't taken very good care of the picture.  Mickey relates exploits of some of his tough fights. He insists that Rocky needs him. Nobody has to tell us Mickey is desperate for this. We can see it in his demeanor. When Rocky finally goes into the bathroom and shuts the door in Mickey's face, you can see the fight go out of Mickey. You can see the defeat on his face and in his manner. He wearily rests his forehead against the bathroom door and mumbles..."I'm 76 years old." Subtext for "this is my last chance." From confident hope to desperation to defeat to utter resignation, all shown through his actions, reactions, subtext, facial expressions and body language.

Think of it as mime, if you like. Think of it as silent films. Ask yourself, "What if there is no sound? How can I show what my character is feeling?" If your character is well developed; well rounded, the right action for that character to express his inner feelings will be there. Rocky was a brute with a soft spot. Tough and crude, yet sensitive and vulnerable. Those conflicting traits going on inside him caused him to react to a given situation in his own unique, personal way. So, his "physical proxies" were his, alone.

Like I said, nothing really new, just a mindset to help express emotions visually.

Perhaps it's nothing new, but to me, a light bulb went off.  I hope this helps shine some light in your writing.

Thanks Bob!



Christine said...

Enjoyed this post. I believe it will help me deepen the emotions with the physical tags. Thank you!

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Christine,
I'm so glad you found it helpful. I've watched Rocky many times and every time the sceen Bob talks about comes up, I'm totally inspired to try and write using more physcial proxies.

~ciao LA

Donnell said...

Oh, wow, LA. What a timely post and how great that Mr. Gosnell to talk with us. Wow, I never knew that seven minutes of dialogue could be a death knell. I'm a huge fan of dialogue, but he's absoltely right, at times I feel it becomes like anything else overwritten. Out of town at present but I will come back and study this post at length. Thank you!!!

Vince said...

Hi Donnell:

I don’t think it is the seven minutes of dialogue that is unusual; it’s the seven minutes of the same scene. In an MTV world, a five second scene is long!

I imagine that Mr.Gosnell did not like the movie “My Dinner with Andre” which, if I remember right, was all a one scene dialogue. Dialogue fans should watch this movie.

BTW: What I like to do is act out the scenes in my writing. Act the scene like you were on stage and watch your body language. You will pick up all kinds of visual keys that will make your writing more realistic. Try it. It works.

More than one contest judge remarked that she didn’t know what my characters were doing as they spoke. I hope I got the message. : )


Gillian Layne said...

What an excellent, clear example of the concept. Thank you so much!

Leslie Ann said...

D! Glad you found the post helpful. I remember this concept every time I rewrite. And I play the scene in my head which helps...think mime. I wish I was better at it, but practice helps.


Leslie Ann said...

I'm not sure what Bob would say about My Dinner With Andre...maybe he'll answer. Well actually I have an idea...we'll see if I'm right...I promise I'll tell the truth...right or wrong on my guess:)

It helps immensely to play the scene in your head...mime if you will and see if what you're seeing plays out for the audience.

Lesson well learned, I'd say.


Leslie Ann said...

I'm SO glad you found this helpful. I have a file of Bob's lessons...and guess what...shhh...he's writing a book about all this :)

Thanks for visiting

Nancy said...

Now this clarifies physical proxies and how to use them! Thank you Bob, and thank you LA!


Leslie Ann said...


Hey, Vince,

You are correct that the length of the scene is the issue. My point was, a scene of this length, supported primarily by dialogue, is rare and risky. The fact that "Rocky" is a character piece is its saving grace. Longer scenes and heavy dialogue is more acceptable in a character piece, yet these kind of stories are a hard sell to begin with.

Also, this does not reflect my personal taste. I love character stories and I love dialogue. It is the perception within the commercial film industry which is the issue. In this, as you so aptly put it, MTV world, there exists a "cut to the chase" mentality.

And, by the way, I liked "My Dinner With Andre." The film was produced in 1981. How many films of that nature have you seen since?

Write on!


Vince said...

Hi Bob:

Thanks for the comment.

You wrote:

“And, by the way, I liked "My Dinner With Andre." The film was produced in 1981. How many films of that nature have you seen since?”

None! (But I liked it and remember it.) But then if they movies for me, the industry would collapse.

BTW: I think it took years for Stallone to sell “Rocky”.