Getting In the Mind of A Character — Quickly
How Two Films (One Narrative, One Documentary) With Stuttering Protagonists Show Us What It Takes To Make The Audience Feel They Have Become One Too
Relating to the protagonist. It’s one of the most talked-about aspects of storytelling, yet always one of the hardest to do. How do you get a 2018 audience to sympathize once again with a character you’ve put on screen? We’re all so inundated with visual information every day, and typically grow only more jaded because of it. With so much film and television content out there, it can feel like the audience has already seen your type of character a million times.
But the truth is that it’s not about creating characters people have never seen before; that’s just not possible anymore. What is possible, however, is to rely on filmmaking craft that will allow you to get the audience into the protagonist’s headspace whether they’ve seen that character before or not. This becomes only more important when it’s a short film, and you only have minutes (even seconds) to present a character and have her be relatable.
Now, the stutterer is far from a mainstream protagonist, but in too many instances this sort of character has been left to stereotype and pastiche. The two short films we will explore today, the 2016 Academy-Award-winning short Stutterer and the 2015 short documentary thisisstuttering, each found a way to make stutterers and non-stutterers alike resonate with their stuttering protagonists. Even though one is a fictional account and the other autobiographical, both rely on specific filmmaking techniques to make sure their audiences feel pulled into the world of the protagonists.
Turning The Expected Into The Unexpected
Making a routine call to your utility company, phone service or internet provider regarding your bills is a pretty standard occurrence. The modern adult doesn’t think much of it. It’s a fairly expected activity at this point. And that’s exactly why Stutterer decided to open the film with it.
The film starts with a close-in on Greenwood, the stuttering protagonist.
As he tries to talk to the customer service representative on the other end, he stutters and eventually becomes completely blocked. What should be a banal, even boring, scenario for the audience suddenly gets new tension.
The camera goes in and out of focus as it holds on a struggling and tense Greenwood. The camera never lets up, shooting the subject as if we were in a hostage crisis thriller. As the customer service rep continues to ask if he is still there, the scene turns to a ticking time bomb scenario, with the customer service operator hanging up on Greenwood seeming like an explosive inevitability.
This painful and awkward opening very succinctly puts us in the mind and life of Greenwood, because it takes the expected, even boring, situation of calling a customer service number and turns it into unexpected drama, even pathos. We are forced to take a side, first against Greenwood for not having the strength to answer a simple question, then with Greenwood as we feel the tragic weight of his condition.
To complete the picture of Greenwood we are given in the opening 30 seconds, the camera eventually cuts to a more “objective” single on our protagonist.
It is only now, in seeing his blank expression, that we get Greenwood’s clear, crisp and stutter-free voiceover…
“Hi, my name’s Greenwood. I’m calling about my bill.”
Both the irony and the tragedy of the situation has been made clear for the audience. Greenwood is a man with a full, mental capacity and rich, inner life who is yet unable to get through the simplest of sentences out loud. In this way, the film has effectively taken a particular character and turned him into a universally-understood one: that of the person trapped inside his or her own mind.
Director Benjamin Cleary returns over and over again to the well of turning the expected into the unexpected. Like the hostage crisis camerawork from earlier, Cleary chooses to have the camera track into the phone later in the film as if it were a bomb or some other ominous object.
By continually taking expected objects or situations and turning them into unexpected or heightened ones, the audience is left no choice but to feel some way about your character.
Unsurprisingly, all of Greenwood’s voiceovers are delivered with the harsh, monotone deliver of a detective noir. The sound cues here are clearly meant to evoke that film period known for angsty and troubled interior lives. The film also gives us other clues that Greenwood’s problems are not due to mental deficiency.
He types as quickly as any normal, computer-trained person would.
Throughout the film Greenwood can be seen with difficult books of high literary status by everyone from Bukowski to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The disconnect between Greenwood being a very smart, educated young man, yet feeling like an idiot when in public is only ever presented to us visually, and meant to further create identification with his unfortunate position.
Curating The Real World
thisisstuttering tells the real-life story of writer-director Morgan Lott, as he spends years recording private video diaries meant to help him get through his stuttering.
If you think simply being a real person with a real story is enough to draw an audience into your world, think again. Morgan seemed to know this too, and instead of opening the film with him and his story, he decided to take bits and pieces of the real world and popular culture to make a point that feels hard to refute the moment it’s presented to us.
Lott opens with a montage of snippets from recent cultural examples of how stuttering has been portrayed in the modern world. Most of the time, the examples speak unfavorably of the general cultural attitude towards stuttering.
By continually inter-mixing his video diaries with clips from popular films and television that explicitly demean stutterers, Lott makes it almost insufferable for the audience to continually face this mean-spirited onslaught.
This is an example of convincingly curating the real world in a way that makes an audience understand how someone with a stuttering condition would see cultural touchstones that we have consented to in the past. Curating the real world in a film is one of the most effective ways of seeing glorified patterns of human behavior isolated and repeated so as to reflect the point of view of the protagonist. It’s a powerful tool, and one Lott wisely uses in the opening.
Every Frame A Subjective Frame
Another technique both Stutterer and thisisstuttering employ is by making literally every second of the respective films feel fully imbued with the character’s essence, if not always their direct perspective.
Stutterer does this by making nearly all of Greenwood’s actions in the film deal with words. He’s either typing on his computer or phone, doing typography (presumably for a living), or practicing sign language.
These shots could have easily been throwaways, meant only to communicate the quiet and isolated ambience of his daily existence. Instead though, director Benjamin Cleary chooses to imbue each and every frame with a central tension: Greenwood’s fascination/obsession with words, and words’ fascination/obsession with his inability to speak them. This symbiotic obsession creates a closed loop where the audience has little choice but to feel trapped in a world of words that cannot be clearly spoken, just as Greenwood does.
This, combined with other scenes of Greenwood’s running inner commentary are meant to evoke, visually and aurally, just how much his condition rules his life and thinking. Even for a film under 15 minutes, the sheer totality and persistence of this myopic vision puts the audience in a stupor they are not likely to get out of until ending credits.
Morgan Lott’s thisisstuttering does similarly by continually returning to shots, or shot ideas, that are also concerned with words. For example, the motif of typing and looking up definitions returns again and again.
The scenes where Morgan surfs the web to research his own condition act as a visual metaphor for Morgan himself. Searches for easy, concrete answers and solutions on the internet often only lead to dead ends, setbacks or more questions (just like Lott’s own zig-zag journey). He occasionally even struggles to type what he wants to, directly mirroring the stutterer’s anxiety at preparing to get a word out.
So even when the camera is not directly on the subject, Morgan uses the documentary format to make sure every frame is somehow a reflection of Morgan’s own subjective experience.
As both short filmmakers have shown, making every camera choice, cut, montage and line of dialogue a direct evocation of the protagonist’s hopes and fears, strengths and flaws, is the most important way of getting the audience to empathize, no matter how many times they’ve seen a certain type of character (such as the outcast or the loner) before.
thisisstuttering can be seen in its entirety here.