Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Coming attractions -- for books

Back in August, an e-mail hit my inbox about the TBVAs. Random House was soliciting submissions from alumni of various film schools around the country -- the end goal was to produce a 45-second-long trailer for the Internet, showcasing the books they were pushing. It sounded pretty interesting, so I got together with a couple of my college buddies and helped put together a submission package based on a couple of the eligible books.

The one I worked on was Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief, a fat (500+ pages) but wholly accessible tale about an adopted girl living in Germany during the second World War. The plotting is a fairly standard mixture of coming-of-age heartbreak and sympathetic-Germans-sheltering-Jews war-movie tropes, but the writing is really what takes it to the next level; Zusak has Death narrate the story, giving the whole tale a poetic, often surreal spin. Zusak's style -- heavy on imagery -- also was a great help in putting together the script for the trailer.

I've written my share of screenplays before, but having to write a trailer script was strange. Trailers are normally created in an editing room after a film is scripted and shot, and often not by the filmmakers or the studio; they're usually farmed out to whatever advertising agency is helping publicize the project. They're not really scripted so much as they're assembled from preexisting parts. (Teaser trailers are often produced independently of the film itself, but that's another matter -- they still have the unfinished footage of the film itself to lean on for inspiration.) It was like having to work backwards and have precognition at the same time: capture the mood, feel and energy of a story that hasn't gone in front of the cameras yet.

I did three different versions of the script -- two which were in the standard highlights-of-the-story vein and one which centered around the Jewish boxer that the little girl's conscientious family was sheltering in their basement. In retrospect, I wish I could have had more time to come up with some additional concepts and approaches, but that's the way it shakes out sometimes. (I guess I'm just not cut out for advertising after all, am I?)

So I was intrigued to come across GalleyCat's report of the results:
I chatted with [Jon] Haller about the making of his trailer version of THE BOOK THIEF (the best of the three, to my mind, perhaps aided by going over the agreed-upon length of 45 seconds) and was surprised to learn that the entire process took four weeks from storyboard to finished editing, with a two-day shoot and three days of editing included. It was a smart choice to focus the short film's attention on a scene in a bomb shelter, which gave it a claustrophobic, eerie quality (aided by shooting the scene, depicting the main protagonist telling a story, in a black box.)
The bomb shelter, and a black box... yeah, when I read that, I did the smack-the-forehead, why-didn't-I-think-of-that bit. My thinking was that keeping the story focused on the little girl, and the most immediate threat to her safety, was the way to go. However, in the book, the residents of the provincial town in which she lives all gather periodically in a bomb shelter to escape Allied bombings, during which the girl reads to them from books she's stolen from the mayor's wife's exorbitant collection. Focusing on this aspect of the story emphasizes the girl's connection to not just her adopted family but her community as well.

The weird thing is, the winning trailer (viewable here), takes dialogue that belonged in the book to Death and puts it in the mouth of the girl. On one hand, it works because it sets up a number of the story's different characters and subplots with great efficiency, and preserves Zusak's poetic writing style. On the other hand, it's a dramatic liberty that clashes with the characterization of the girl in the book, and Death's as well. (Death isn't really a character in the book so much as he's a frame to view the story through.) Still, as a way to entice readers, I think it's a choice that works very well.

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