Thursday, September 29, 2011

Swooni: Q&A with screenwriter Michel Sabbe

The Flemish movie Swooni, directed by Kate Beels and written by Michel Sabbe (and, in earlier drafts, novelist Annelies Verbeke), is doing the rounds of the festival ciruit right now and garnering quite a lot of praise. A multiplot movie telling the stories of six people (three couples) whose fates intersect on a sweltering summer's day in a luxurious hotel in Brussels, Swooni boasts a very smartly constructed screenplay which manages to combine a lot of very disparate story strands and themes into a satisfying, emotionally affecting and accesible whole. I sat down with screenwriter Michel Sabbe to ask him about the writing of the film, and he gave one of the most detailed and insightful interviews on the writing of a particular movie I've ever been privileged to read. Hope you enjoy it too - there's a lot of great material here. SPOILERS AHEAD - but in any discussion of a screenplay, that can't be avoided.

How did 'Swooni' come to be, and at what time did you get involved with the project?

‘Swooni’ came to be at the initiative of its producer, Peter Bouckaert. He had read ‘Slaap’, Annelies Verbeke’s debut novel and at about the same time (this must have been around 2004-5) Kaat Beels had directed ‘Cologne’, a short that did very well on the festival circuit. Peter thought Annelies and Kaat shared a certain sensibility and he believed that if he put the two together, something surprising might happen. They ultimately came up with the six characters which form the backbone of the film. I became involved in late 2008, after Annelies had left the project to pursue writing her next novel. Kaat and I had worked together on a tv-series called ‘Jes’ and we clicked so she asked me to have a look at the screenplay. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What changes did you propose to the script? What were the main problems which you had to solve?

Annelies had already written a number of drafts and I could immediately see that she and Kaat had created some very rich characters. Characters good actors could really sink their teeth in. They all had clear dramatic goals which grabbed your interest as a reader: two refugees, a father and a son, separated on their perilous journey to Belgium, now searching for each other; a woman, desperate for a child of her own; her mother, desperate to reconnect with her daughter; and a middle-aged woman trying to decide whether or not to leave her loving husband.

Any multiplot-movie faces the same kind of problems:
1) how to keep all the balls in the air simultaneously. The trick is to make sure all of the stories have equal weight. One should not dominate the others, otherwise you’ll end up with an unbalanced piece and the loyalties of the audience will not be equally divided between the stories (which will translate to people telling you they liked one story far more than the others).
2) how to interlock the storylines without it seeming arbitrary and built on that dreaded word: ‘coincidence’. Or rather: coincidences that would seem all too convenient.
3) thematic unity. If you present several stories together, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. Through contrast or similarity or simply by interlocking, the stories must present you with a theme. And that theme must be clear, it can’t just be intuitive.

Upon reading two of the existing drafts, I made a couple of recommendations. First, to set all of the action in the hotel (which was already a location in some of the later scenes in the script). If we gave all the characters a reason to be in the hotel at the beginning of the movie, then they could run into each other without anyone questioning it. Because running into people you don’t know is exactly what happens in a hotel. From that I also suggested the action take no longer than 24 hours. I reasoned that keeping all of these very different people together in this one spot for longer than that would be stretching credulity. Also, telescoping the action like this would put the characters in a pressure cooker – which is always interesting. These seem like simple suggestions, but they would have great consequences (the occupation of some of the characters would have to be changed and it also meant that some of the story material could no longer be told and would have to move to the backstory). I also felt that one of the stories – Anna and Hendrik’s marital problems – lacked some urgency compared to the others. This was later solved by having Anna’s lover present her with an ultimatum.

I have to stress that Annelies had done a stellar job of getting the screenplay to where it was when I became involved. It’s a rare gift to be able to work with material this rich. I feel very privileged Annelies, Kaat and Peter allowed me to fool around with it. (And Annelies hasn’t run me over yet )

Who came up with the title Swooni, and why? (I used to think it was the name of the African boy when the film was first announced)

I don’t know whether Annelies or Kaat came up with the title, but as far as I know, the piece was always called ‘Swooni’. It means ‘land of milk and honey’ in one of the Bantu languages, which is exactly what Joyeux and Amadou hope to find in Western Europe. In the film of course, the title comes from Joyeux’ misreading of the name of the hotel on the postcard his father shows him.

What method did you use to structure the screenplay, as it's a multi-plot film focusing on adventures of six characters?

Let’s issue a SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t seen the film yet (shame on you!), because talking structure will inevitably lead to giving away some of the plot.

Structuring a multi-plot is a major pain, because you have to do the work x times (x being the number of stories you have) and then you still have to provide a sort of super-structure to fit them in. You don’t have to be crazy to attempt this, but it certainly helps! There’s three main stories in ‘Swooni’ (we’re not counting subplots), so that means having to break down all three of them into acts and sequences. As to the super-structure: I always knew Amadou’s arrival in the hotel would bring things to the boil and give me a third act. Having set the whole thing in the hotel also meant that I wouldn’t be able to show the second act of the father-son story. In Annelies’ version there were sequences showing Amadou’s escape from a detention centre and Joyeux roaming the streets of Brussels looking for his father. I would still love to see that movie some day, but we simply didn’t have the space for it here. (The first act of the father-son story is told in flash backs, of which more later). So that left me with two stories to structure. The first sequence of these was easy: everybody needs to arrive at the hotel. (Well, I say ‘easy’ – you try introducing a dozen or so distinct characters in the space of 10 minutes! This was probably the sequence that got rewritten the most…)

Then it struck me that the starting points of the two stories were in opposition to each other. Whereas Hendrik and Anna enter the hotel ‘together’, Violette and Vicky haven’t seen each other for 10 years and couldn’t be further apart. It just felt very natural for the two stories to progress ‘in opposition’ as well. So, in the first half of the second act, while Vicky and Violette slowly come closer together (with Joyeux acting as a catalyst), Hendrik and Anna drift further and further apart. Once you reach the middle of the movie, Vicky, Violette and Joyeux have formed a sort of surrogate (albeit doomed) family unit playing puzzles together. Meanwhile, Anna has abandoned Hendrik at the wedding reception to go knock on the door of room 105 (I refrained from calling it room 101, but only just…) In the second half of act 2, you have the opposite movement. By the second act climax, the precarious bond between Vicky and her mother has been broken while Hendrik and Anna find themselves spooning each other on the bed. Both are of course what you would call ‘false endings’. In the case of Anna and Hendrik you get a ‘false dawn’, suggesting all’s well that ends well. While it seems like an ‘apparent death’ for the relationship between Violette and her daughter Vicky. Those false endings get turned on their head again in the third act, using the resolution of the Amadou-Joyeux story as a catalyst. Is that technical enough for you, Wout?

When structuring a multi-plot, the notion of a ‘controlling idea’ becomes – to my mind at least – even more important. This of course goes to the question of ‘theme’. ‘Swooni’ was structured around the notion of the ‘pyramid of needs’. At the bottom of said pyramid you will find the people whose basic needs – food, water, shelter – have not been met. These would include Joyeux and Amadou. Above them, you’ll find the people who are lacking in affection and human warmth. You could put Vicky and Violette into this bracket. You could say they are lonely people. At the very top of the pyramid, you’ll find people whose every need has been met, but who still struggle with something which we could summarize as: ‘is that all there is?’-syndrome. That’s where we’d put Anna and Hendrik. They ‘enjoy’ the luxury of an existential crisis. By putting all three levels together and by showing that - to the characters at least – the problems on each level feel every bit as acute or urgent, hopefully some interesting questions will be raised in the mind of the audience.

How closely did you work with director Kaat Beels, both during the writing process and once shooting had started?

Kaat and I had worked closely before on ‘Jes’, so we had already established a relationship of mutual trust before embarking on this venture. So it was a pretty easygoing relationship. Whenever I turned in a draft, we got together, usually with Peter, and discussed what was working and what was not. I can’t really recall any major disagreements along the way. It was clear we were all heading in the same direction and it was just a case of getting the script to where it had to be.

Kaat is pretty open as a director. She knows what she wants, but she’ll always invite people’s opinions. So I found myself consulted and kept abreast pretty much throughout the process (which is a surefire way to stroke a writer’s ego!). I visited the set a couple of times and saw some of the rushes – even from a couple of shots I could tell that Kaat and her D.O.P. (Frank van den Eeden) had managed to put a lot of emotion in their images. I was present at the test-screenings and I got invited into the editing room, which is still an all too rare privilege for writers. (And it shouldn’t be, as editing is the final stage of the writing process and one that I personally am fascinated with).

What (major) differences are there between the shooting script and the final released movie? Why were these changes made?

Other than the usual trimming of scenes, there’s only a couple of minor changes and one big one. Some changes had practical reasons. For instance, Vicky pretending to herself that she’s pregnant and then pulling a cushion from under her frock just proved impossibly cumbersome. So a different approach was sought to key us in to her ‘want’.
The scene in which Vicky calls to inquire whether uncle Joseph works at the hotel or not was moved forward – it now happens before she puts Joyeux to bed. This had the crucial effect of making her look less calculated. Because of that, the effect of a later scene in which she tells Joyeux a truly horrible lie is much bigger – and the audience doesn’t feel alienated from her.
One scene in which Hendrik tried to seduce Anna donning a traditional Greek outfit was cut – it just slowed things down and wasn’t needed. Then we come to the major change, which we’ll deal with below.

I found the scene in the script with the tramp to be quite risky, starting out as a cliché and then being succesfully turned on its head a few scenes later. Who thought of this idea? Was it always the intention to play with the audiences' expectations here, or did this approach grow gradually?

For those who have seen the film but haven’t read the screenplay, this will be an odd question as there is no ‘tramp’-scene in the movie. It stayed in until quite late in the game, but ultimately it was cut. So let me describe what happens in the scene. We’re at the wedding and the film has gone deeper and deeper into a dreamlike state as the afternoon and the night progress. Anna smoked some dope earlier and now notices a tramp, scrounging food off the tables. She sits down next to the man and, needing someone to talk to, she makes what amounts to a full confession to this stranger. He looks a little non-plussed and tells her to go back to the party and to enjoy herself. She feels this is wise advise and gives him 50 euros. Later, the tramp drinks form someone’s glass and a scuffle ensues. The bride intervenes and reveals the tramp to be an actor whose presence is meant to make the guests reflect upon their good fortune. Anna realizes she has just made her confession to a fraud and flees the party followed by Hendrik.

The origins of the scene are quite simple: I once attended a wedding where something very similar transpired. So I used it. The scene was rewritten a couple of times, mainly trying to find the correct way of introducing the tramp, and it was shot and edited into the movie. At the test screenings, the scene worked just fine. Anna’s punchline – complaining that she’d given the guy 50 euros – got a big laugh. Even the fact that we were introducing a new character this late in the game (near the end of act 2) didn’t seem to be a problem. But we could feel the film dragged a little when really it should have been accelerating towards its second act climax. The problem turned out to be the confession scene. It was perfectly acted, perfectly fine as a scene. But it was also superfluous. Everything in it had already been told by the scene on the dancefloor between Hendrik and Anna, a scene without any dialogue. It was possible to ‘read over’ that scene in the script, but it certainly isn’t possible to deny its impact when you see it come alive with the actors (stellar performances by Sara Deroo and Geert van Rampelberg) and the music (Melody Gardot crooning ‘Our love is Easy’). So we had to kill this particular ‘darling’ (both Kaat and I were fans of the scene). Cutting the tramp-scene out meant the other scenes in the final sequence of act 2 needed some rearranging. I feel we should credit editor Philippe Ravoet for finding the solution which so effortlessly brings us from the wedding to the heartbreaking bedroom scene between Hendrik and Anna. (You see? Editing = rewriting).

What was/were the biggest lesson(s) you learned as a screenwriter on this project?

Patience? And that the check will have run out long before the movie ever hits the screen?  On a more serious note: I’ve learned that the movie on the screen will always be different from the movie you see in your head while you’re writing and that that’s a good thing. You WANT the director to put his or her interpretation on the piece. It’s part of what breathes life into what are in effect only words on a page. (Of course, you also want it to be the RIGHT interpretation )

Did you put this screenplay through any European development programmes? If so, what was your experience?

As you know, I’m a big fan of development programmes (full disclosure: Wout and I met a decade ago on the now sadly defunct North by North West workshop). ‘Swooni’ didn’t go through the traditional screenplay development workshops such as the Mediterranean Film Institute (to which I am devoted), but it did go through the EAVE-workshop. EAVE is a workshop geared towards producers, but it does have a story-development segment. Which means producer Peter Bouckaert and myself had a couple of meetings with script-doctor Martin Daniel. Even though these were short meetings (an hour and a half or so each), they were very useful. For instance: in my first draft, all the refugee scenes in the container were front loaded. They opened the movie. That wrongfooted the reader into thinking this was going to be a movie about two refugees. It was Martin’s idea to use them as flashbacks throughout the movie which works very well (and it also serves to keep the Amadou-character alive in the mind of the audience during the second act). Perhaps controversially for a writer, attending a producer’s workshop meant I also gained some sympathy for the plight of the producer!

Review: Blue Book #7: Creating strong Protagonists by Willial C. Martell (Kindle)

The second in the long line of Bill Martell's legendary blue books to be transposed to the e-book medium, Creating Strong Protagonists tells you everything you need to know about - well, creating strong protagonists. Luckily, you won't find anything as sheepish as that previous sentence in the book. On the contrary, Martell digs deep into how to make your protagonist come alive, be (and remain) active and, very importantly, be unique. And Martell's central message is that how deeper you look into yourself, your own traits, strengths, weaknesses and fears, the more real and convincing your characters will be. You really need to be able to take a long, hard look at yourself in order to create characters which resonate and transcend the archetype or the cliché, and whose behaviour, no matter how off-the-wall at times, will strike an audience as real. Martell provides many examples, techniques and insights to help writers (both beginners and veterans, because just about every screenwriter on the planet can benefit from this material) achieve these goals. And there is also a good helping of assignments to get you to practice these concepts and use them in your writing. There's also a lot of great advice on keeping the protagonist active throughout the story. And for those of us who find this occasionally difficult to accomplish, the in-depth investigation of the main reasons for protagonist passivity will prove to be very helpful and inspiring. Some readers might take umbrage (love that word) with Bill Martell's strong insistence on there only being one protagonist in a movie, and come up with examples where this is not the case. Not to worry - in the supplemental material, you will find a lot of tips about writing about group protagonists. There are far fewer typos in this Blue Book than in its predecessor, and only one instance of material being repeated verbatim. Extremely small niggles which do not distract from the value of the book in the slightest. All I can say is - get this book NOW and let's hope the other Blue Books get converted to e-book format as quickly as humanly possible! You can get it here: