Monday, June 13, 2011

Exquisite Use of Back story : Super 8

by C.L. Phillips

While at a party this weekend, I found myself telling everyone about my new favorite movie, Super 8, released on June 10, 2011.  Why is it my favorite?  Because of its exquisite use of back story and single line dialog anchoring the scene and action in 1979.

I don't dare give away the movie premise, so I'll confine my comments to how the back story and dialog provided a richness and depth I don't often find in movies.

1)  Gadgets - "Don't touch my C.B., man." - Doesn't that just scream the 70's to you?  Sure does for me.  "Breaker, breaker one-nine."

2)  More gadgets - "It's called a Walkman, sherriff.  You can listen to your own music."  I wondered where they found a real Walkman.  At the Smithsonian?  Compare the size of the original Walkman to an ipod nano, and you'll appreciate how far the music business has changed in thirty years.  I wonder what it will look like in thirty more years, in 2040.  Music on your fingernail?

3)  Hero back story - One of the heroes in the movie is a school teacher.  We see his actions, but do not learn his background or motivation until most of the movie is over.  The back story provides another level of emotional depth - one that I did not expect.  Again, I don't want to give it away, but after that scene, I started cheering for the bad guy.  Why?  Because the bad guy wasn't bad, and the bad guy was behaving exactly as I would if I were in his circumstances.  Now that's effective back story.  And it was done with one simple line of dialog.  "I felt what he felt."  Of course, there were more words,'ll have to see the movie! :)

4)  Visual back story - the picture of the businesses on main street - including a photo store with film processing.  When was the last time you dropped off a roll of film?  Or picked up a package of prints?    As the camera panned down the street, I thought, "I buy that on Amazon, haven't bought that in twenty years, buy that at Walmart."  The scene captured a time that is no more.  Commerce that has evaporated into the network and the world of electronic payments and super stores.

So go see Super 8.  Listen for the back story.  Check your watch.  None of it arrives until well past the half way point of the movie.

I plan to incorporate this lesson into my editing.  I'm calling it SUPER 8.  Backstory way back.  Deep back.

What's your favorite example of well placed back story?  Movie or book?


Ramona said...

I read Roger Ebert's review of this yesterday and thought I should check this out. Thanks for affirming that.

Backstory...the master is JK Rowling.

I spent a day recently highlighting someone's manuscript with yellow for backstory. You no longer need a highlighter and paper, you can do it on screen and it is just as effective. If someone was inclined to do that sort of thing. :)

Joyce Tremel said...

This is very interesting! I haven't gone to see a movie in about ten years, but now I'm tempted. It still costs about $4.25 to get in, right?

When I revise I usually end up moving or removing backstory. I have a tendency to reveal too much too soon.

Annette said...

I probably won't make it to the theater to see this one, but I'll definitely add it to my Netflix queue when it's available.

C.L. Phillips said...

Ramona - I really like the idea of highlighting back story.

So is it "backstory" or "back story"? I've got to know! :)

Joyce - this movie isn't as expensive as the 3D versions. I swear the only reason the studios are doing 3D is for the upcharge.

Glad y'all enjoyed the post.


Joyce Tremel said...

Annette, how's your foot?

Jenna said...

Backstory is tricky stuff. Very easy to get wrong. Very tempting to put in too much right up front. I agree with Ramona; the Harry Potter books handle backstory very well, and the backstory there is integral to the front story, so it's really important to get it right.

As for how to do it as writers, I heard Hallie Ephron do a workshop on it once. She broke it down into three types of backstory: what the reader needs to know now, what the reader needs to know later, and what the reader doesn't need to know at all - at least not in this book - but what helps the writer develop the character. Very interesting and helpful stuff.

Annette said...

Joyce, my foot is much better, thanks.

Patg said...

I saw Super 8 this weekend too. It was suppose to be 'in keeping' with Goonies, ET, Close Encounter, but I think it would scare a lot of younger children. Of course, the kids reminded me of Spielberg and what he said of his younger life.
I didn't see the backstory of the teacher as much of an 'ah ha' moment. It was just something the story needed and put in its proper place because once you get that ah ha hint as to what the story is about it becomes 'ah one of those stories' and who needs to be reminded of the past, it floods right in. OTOH I think I read a lot more SF than most so I didn't find the story new or special, just an entertaining variation of many others.

Gina said...

I haven't seen Super 8 but now I think I'll have to.
Yes. JK Rowling does backstory best!

C.L. Phillips said...

Okay, it's seems the consensus is "backstory", right? :)