Psychology For Screenwriters: Building Conflict In Your Script (2nd Edition) by William Indick
Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.Ingmar Bergman
William Indick’s excellent book takes us from the dream like world of the cinema to the pages of great psychoanalytical theorists, combining Freud with screenwriting in a most intelligent and approachable way. But his is not a how-to manual for writers, but an immersive experience mixing theoretical, practical, and thoughtful processes in regard to writing your next film.
If psychology and screenwriting are two sides of the same coin then this book is most definitely for screenwriters and filmmakers with an interest in psychoanalytic theory that enables them to explore archetypes, plot development, structure, and character building from the inside out. Moreover, the author provides an excellent framework with which to weave psychoanalytic theories into one’s writing. But not in a cookie-cutter style. This book is smarter than that.
While many of the theories are complex, the author writes with clarity and expertise. The useful bullet-pointed summaries at the end of each chapter crystallize the concepts with aplomb. Further, the various chapters also delivers ideas from a whole host of great minds of psychoanalytic and structuralist theory such as Carl Jung, Erik Erikson, and Joseph Campbell. There were also theorists I was not too familiar with such as Alfred Adler, Rollo May, and Maureen Murdock. By utilising his expansive knowledge and examples from many classic Hollywood films the author places you into the heart of the character’s mind and motivations.
What I found most fascinating was the book provides an invaluable framework to build your characters with. I certainly could see myself applying various ideas from Freud and Jung within my writing. Indeed, I was certainly drawn to Rollo May’s theories about existential anxiety driving and increasing the complexity of my characters. One could argue though, the author overuses references to Hollywood cinema. I would really have found it intriguing how certain psychoanalytical theories may relate to cinema from, e.g. Japan, Spain, and France. Furthermore, psychological analysis of a particular director’s work such as Ingmar Bergman could also have proved so interesting.
In conclusion, to many an experienced writer the screenwriting theories, terms and structures covered are instantly recognisable, yet William Indick freshens up the study field with psychoanalytical language, breathing life into the saturated library of scriptwriting releases. Finally, each chapter succinctly bullet-points how a writer may utilise the theories within their work as the book concludes with three brilliant essays relating said theories to the Western, Fantasy and Sci-fi genres. One could even say this book is a dream to work with.
Psychology For Screenwriters: Building Conflict In Your Script (2nd Edition) is available here.
Michael Wiese Productions (MWP) was launched in San Francisco in 1976 primarily to produce films. Today, the company is known worldwide having published some 200 books. Some of the bestsellers have been translated into 18 languages, are used in over 700 film courses, in the Hollywood studios and by emerging filmmakers.
Directors: David Fincher, Andrew Dominik, Carl Franklin
Created by: Joe Penhall – based on Inside the FBI’s Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas & Mark Olshaker
Writers: Doug Jung, Joshua Donen, Courtenay Miles, Phillip Howze, Jason Johnson, Colin J. Louro, Pamela Cederquist, Liz Hannah, Alex Metcalf, Shaun Grant etc.
Producers: Jim Davidson, Mark Winemaker, Liz Hanna
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Cotter Smith, Anna Torv, Stacey Roca, Joe Tuttle, Albert Jones, etc.
Original Network: Netflix
**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**
Serial killers and the subsequent crime investigations are big business. Book, films, musicals, songs, podcasts, television documentaries and fiction shows litter our screens and airwaves. Murder, for all the savagery and horror it brings, is something we as a species are inextricably drawn to explore. I can only speak for myself to say that I am consistently horrified by the evil crimes people commit. Such violence is sickening, yet, in an attempt to understand it I watch and listen to many crime shows and programmes.
Both dark and stylish, Mindhunter, is one of the classiest and well-crafted of the serial killer genre dramas released in recent years. This David Fincher-led production, created by writer Joe Penhall, takes elements from Zodiac(2007), Silence of the Lambs (1991) and standard FBI procedural dramas to brilliantly highlight the embryonic stages of the ‘Behavioural Science Unit’ or BSU serial-killing profiling team.
Season 1 began in 1979 and found the team of Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), forming an uneasy alliance at the BSU. They initially began interviewing murderers behind bars to attempt to understand their motives and modus operandi in order to assist with new investigations. The highlight of the season was the appearance of notorious serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton). Britton’s rendition is incredibly chilling and his intense connection with Ford rattled the FBI agent’s cage so much he unravelled psychologically.
Season 2 is even better than the first because it wastes no time in getting to some major crime investigations. Season 1 got slightly bogged down in Ford’s personal relationships, and while Season 2 find Tench’s and Carr’s home lives providing intriguing subplots, this latest set of nine episodes are more committed to interviewing and catching killers. Kemper returns briefly, but the team also have some intense interviews with ‘Son of Sam’ – David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper) and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). The latter, in Episode 5, is a short but striking scene and complete television gold.
The majority of Season 2 is taken up with a major murder case in Atlanta during 1981. A series of teenage black youths, mainly boys, have been going missing and Ford and Tench are sent out to help the Atlanta police department. It’s a hotbed of socio-political and racial tensions. Plus, the parents of the missing kids feel the police are not doing enough to catch the killer. There is also a belief the murders could be the work of the Ku Klux Klan. Tench and Ford have other ideas and meet resistance to their new theories. Much drama and suspense is gained from testing their methods within this charged atmosphere. Jonathan Groff as Holden Ford is especially adept at rubbing people up the wrong way with his off-centre, almost alien, persona. Holt McCallany is also very impressive in his role as his more popular partner, Tench.
David Fincher is one of those filmmakers whose form and style is often unsettling and remarkable. He, along with fellow directors, Andrew Dominik and Carl Franklin, shoot in the shadows, both stylistically and psychologically. Greens, dark yellows and browns stain the screen and create a haunting stylistic palette. Furthermore, with gripping narratives, great direction, memorable performances and the production team’s accurate eye for period detail in mind, I just did not want the latest season of Mindhunterto end. Lastly, while murder has become a lucrative fixture on our TV screens, I have to admit that series like this render it powerfully addictive; something that captures you and refuses to let you go.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE: ALTERNATIVE VISIONS OF LOVE IN THE HORROR GENRE
“Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.”
― Jacques Lacan
I continue to write articles for the excellent So The Theory Goes website and here once again is a slightly more academic approach to film analysis. You can read it here or below.
An eternal question in our society still remains: what is love? Is it the joining together of two people forever committed to a relationship built on respect and trust? Or is it the emotion you feel for a family member or person you have bonded with over time? Is it nature’s way of tricking us into the act of pro-creation? Perhaps it’s an abstract and emotional concept created by a higher power to ensure we act positively? For some it could be a dark force which enlivens obsession and stalking and violence or maybe it’s a marketing delusion forced upon us by greedy advertisers, florists and chocolate vendors? Maybe it’s simply all of the above!?
Studies by Helen Fisher of Rutgers University propose that we fall in love in three stages involving a different set of chemicals. They are: lust, attraction and attachment. Indeed, the events occurring in our mind when we fall in love are akin to mental illness. Chemicals such as: testosterone, oestrogen, dopamine, serotonin all conflict and combine to change our emotions when we’re attracted to someone. Further studies show that when choosing a partner we are at the mercy of our subconscious and inner sexual desires as proffered in psychoanalytical studies.
Love and sexual desire are a big part of everybody’s lives whether it’s the positive or negative and indeed the continuance of the species is very much reliant on it. Moreover, love or the lack of love has provided the springboard for millions of stories, films, plays, songs, poems, slogans, TV show and adverts! Conversely the horror film genre, while not synonymous with romantic love, often explores the darker side of relationships and sexuality. Indeed, as a cultural phenomenon the horror genre is wholly malleable in its narrative omni-presentation; criss-crossing literary, theatrical, dance and televisual culture offerings.
Horror intends to elicit a physiological reaction through stress and shock while presenting: monsters, ghosts, aliens, the fantastic, the supernatural, murderers, bloody gore, kidnappings, mutilation, witches, zombies, psychopaths, natural and unnatural phenomenon, demons and many more aspects which draw on our inner, societal and global fears. But what of love and how is it represented in the horror genre? For this article I would like explore notions of love and sexuality within horror cinema. I will draw on genre, gender, feminist and psychoanalytic theories and how they can be applied within the chosen films. So, if you want an alternative to the usual Valentines-clichéd-cosy-rose-petal-drenched-chocolate-card-Love-Actually-type-movies, then these films are ones you should consider.
AUDITION (1999) – DIRECTOR: TAKASHI MIIKE
It would be unfair to label Miike’s gory shocker a simplistic example of ‘torture porn’. It is in fact an incredibly scary and inventive revenge satire. In her highly influential essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey commits the powerful theory that cinema is coded via the “Male Gaze”. According to Mulvey, “. . . pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”
Yet, while beginning with this dynamic, Audition turns it around with the female anti-heroine Asami reversing the gaze on her male contemporaries. What starts as one man’s attempt to find a wife, via his own creepy version of the casting couch, is turned into a violent proto-feminist-carve-up-par-excellence as Asami cuts and slices her male victims with vicious aplomb.
DEAD RINGERS (1988) – DIRECTOR: DAVID CRONENBERG
Freud’s work on the unconscious, dreams, repression and psychosexual stages is, of course, incredibly influential on both psychology, psychoanalysis and film theory. His concept of the unconscious feeding our everyday and the idea that repressed emotions drive our motivations is none more prevalent than in Cronenberg’s exquisite Dead Ringers.
In this psycho-incestuous-ménage-a-trois-love story, twin gynaecologists portrayed by Jeremy Irons, literally split and repress their identities in order to “romance” the same women. The film is a masterwork and encapsulates many of Freud’s theories relating to the Id, ego and superego; while the doppelganger theme also looms heavily over a dark, psychosexual and twisted narrative.
HAROLD & MAUDE (1971) – DIRCTOR: HAL ASHBY
While not technically a horror film as such Harold and Maude is a wonderful off-centre, gothic love story. The eponymous anti-hero cannot connect with his family and the world at large and through constant fake suicides he tortures his mother to the point of breakdown. It is only when Harold (Bud Cort) meets an eccentric older lady Maude (Ruth Gordon) does he begin to find some maturation. The film could be argued to embody many of the Freudian aspects of the Oedipal Complex.
Trevor Pedersen opines, “The Oedipus complex, in narcissistic terms, represents that an individual can lose the ability to take a parental-substitute into his ego ideal without ambivalence.” Indeed, through his unconventional relationship with Maude, who represents both love and death, Harold locates a maternal replacement, friend and platonic lover who brings him out of his depressed state.
IT FOLLOWS (2014) – DIRECTOR: DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL
Mitchell’s low budget psychological horror gem contains many of the hallmarks of the ‘slasher’ subgenre which can be enshrined with the general trope, according to scholar Robin Wood, that teenagers, invariably female, are hunted down for their promiscuity. What makes It Follows such an intriguing anti-date movie is that we never see the actual evil force propelling the murders.
Maika Monroe’s heroine, Jay, finds herself in a chain of deathly sexuality which she can only break through further intercourse. Jay therefore becomes an epitome of what Carol Clover calls ‘The Final Girl’ in her marvellously titled book, Men, Women and Chainsaws. Ultimately, It Follows subverts the ‘slasher’ tropes with a symbolic metaphysical force rather than a physical monster, as the “killer” ultimately represents sexual hysteria, guilt and the malevolent force of youthful sexual abandon.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) – TOMAS ALFREDSON
Ever since Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula was published we have welcomed, with fear and excitement, the vampire into our culture. Stoker’s Count Dracula was viewed as an inhuman force of destruction; as well as a metaphoric representation of sexual fervour. The vampire character is never more mesmeric and complex than in Let the Right One In. This is a sophisticated rites-of-passage-romance where a teenage boy, marginalised by his peers and family life, falls in love with a young female vampire.
However, the girl is clearly older than her looks, as the narrative bears the hallmarks of a Freudian sexual awakening for our protagonist Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant). In Eli (Lina Leandersson) Oskar finds a combination of: maternal protector, platonic companion and potential sexual partner within a complex psycho-sexual drama with hints of latent paedophilia. Of course, despite these sensitive themes under the surface, the film ultimately triumphs as a beautifully rendered story of innocence, love and friendship.
PSYCHO (1961) – DIRECTOR: ALFRED HITCHCOCK
Arguably one of the greatest horror films of all time is Psycho. From a Freudian and psychoanalytical perspective, it is an absolute goldmine. The story begins with an robbery by Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) but twists into something altogether nightmarish when she hides out at the Bates Motel. The manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) takes a shine to Marion, only for his “mother” to murder her. Norman’s character is the archetypal representation of the Oedipal Complex. Having killed both his mother and her boyfriend some years before the guilt he feels causes him to “become” Norma Crane in order to disassociate him from his crimes and absorb her identity.
Marion causes Norman’s sexual feelings to arise thus Norma/Norman suddenly appears to repress these desires by murder. Charles E. Bakeland opines that if an individual is unable to reconcile a love-hostility-identification relationship with parents there will be strong desires which will weigh negatively on their relationships. This thematic dynamic makes Psycho’s narrative a psychoanalytical minefield as Norma/Norman battle over her/his mind, causing havoc for those characters they come into contact with.
TEETH (2007) – DIRECTOR: MITCHELL LICHTENSTEIN
In his excellent book Genre, Stephen Neale argues horror monsters are predominantly defined as male with women as their primary victims. He continues with the idea that, “… it could be maintained that is it women’s sexuality which constitutes the real problem that horror cinema exists to explore.” One such film which reverses these notions in the excellent body horror film Teeth. Mixing body, horror, comedy with coming-of-age movies the main protagonist is a Christian virgin called Dawn (Jess Weixler). During a sexual assault by a college boy she fends him off via “Vagina dentata”; barbed teeth in her reproductive organ.
Played for shock and humour the story presents valid confirmation and subversion of Laura Mulvey’s proposal that women’s absence of a penis threatens male castration and therefore must be disavowed. Offering impressive gender satire within the sexual revenge narrative, Jess’ character refuses to be assimilated by the patriarchal order and comes of age within both her body, personality and sexuality.
In my view many of the films mentioned above demonstrate the horror genre is rich with possibilities in regard to representations of love, romance, relationships and sexuality. Through theories relating to psychoanalysis, feminism and genre theory we can begin to dip beneath the surface of the darkness of love and humanity. Both masculine and feminine sexuality and identity are constantly in crisis and under threat of death and disease, demonstrating that the path to true love is never straight but more often than not, wholly twisted.