P:O.V. No.5 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, WIND

An Interview with Yvette Biró on Wind
and on the teaching of screenwriting

Richard Raskin

NB. It was in the context of Yvette Biró's week-long Master Class on screenwriting in Budapest in the winter of 1994, that Marcell Iványi - along with the other participants in the workshop - was given a choice between two photographs by Lucien Hervé as an inspiration and starting point for a screenplay exercise. It was out of this exercise that the film Wind was conceived.

Yvette Biró is a screenwriter, essayist and professor at New York University Graduate Film School. In her native country, she worked with the noted Hungarian Film Director Miklos Jancsó and Marta Meszaros, and more recently with Agnieszka Holland and George Sluizer. Her books include: Festina Lente-Hurry Slowly, The Order of Disorder and Profane Mythology.

In the following interview, Yvette Biró refers to a book which is soon to appear in English under the title, To Dress a Nude. It was originally written in French and entitled Habiller un nu - De l'imagination au scénario (Paris: FEMIS, 1996) and has also been published in Hungarian as Egy akt felöltöztetése (Budapest: Osiris Kiadó, 1996). She graciously gave me a copy of the concluding chapter of the English text, also referred to in the interview.

I understand that in your workshop on screenwriting in Budapest in the winter of 1994, you gave the students a choice between two photographs by Lucien Hervé as an inspiration for their screenplay exercises: "Les trois femmes" and "Le courier solitaire au bord de la Seine." Can you tell me about your reasons for using photographs in this way?

I don't only use photographs. I have been teaching screenwriting here [at The Tisch School of the Arts, New York University] for more than ten years and I realized that the basic problem for many people is just to generate ideas. Putting those ideas in the professional screenplay format is only secondary. What I realized is that people are often so scared about not knowing the grammar of the film script, that it really paralyzes them. So my idea was - and I have created workshops all over the world, starting here at NYU but also in Italy and France and other countries - how to figure out what is actually this very rich domain of their imagination they don't dare to refer to. And therefore I thought that maybe we need a stimulation, a trigger - this is the word I used - I need a trigger in order to liberate them and to make them feel free and somehow uninhibited when they dream about human characters, about human beings. So in this book I'm re-editing in English and which is called To Dress a Nude, the idea was to find a find a whole series of stimulating triggers which can help young people to create interesting stories.

And the photograph is just one of them. I have a very particular way of building up this series of triggers. The first is always what I call a fictional self-portrait, which means that they have to try to write a little story based on personal experience, without identifying themselves or any particular circumstances, but basically the drama of their life, which could be easier for them to handle if it is fiction. For that reason, I gave them full licence to transpose themselves into a man or a woman or a young or an old fictional character in order to find the most appropriate way to express themselves. So this was the first exercise.

The second trigger is the photograph, because obviously they are much more focused and moving toward the visual expression, and photographs - as I explain in the book and it is quite obvious - have this kind of very arresting moment, where something really intriguing happens, but it is frozen in time. So it is wonderful for the imagination to try to live through this experience and somehow to open this frozen moment and to tell a story about it.

Then we went on to use the real environment and to go out and to discover what the physical conditions or circumstances may offer for the imagination.

Other triggers we used included classical paintings (such as paintings by van Gogh), we have used music... also one very interesting exercise is what we call "to dress a nude." I brought into class a reproduction of a nude and the idea was that the students had to dress this character, with all the accessories and all the little details, in order to be able to define what the character actually is and then to write a story about it.

We have also used classical tales as triggers, such as "Little Red Riding Hood," and making an adaptation of it. I have also brought foods into class, which could then be somehow anthropomorphized and used as substitutes for human experience. We have used an apple pie as a basis for stories. And the last trigger, the last assignment, was to write the most boring story ever told. And you understand the idea: if they are able to deliberately dismiss the dramatic idea, then they know what it is about.

So this is what we did, and this is basically the story of this book. And as you will see, I try to explain later in the conclusion how to go further. Because after having done this kind of improvisational or dramatic or almost automatic writing in class, then we read it and we discuss it and try to build it up a little bit more structurally and to develop further whatever is most challenging in it.

Most of the triggers that you mentioned are non-verbal in nature. Do you also encourage your students not to rely too much on dialogue in their scripts?

Yes well the basic mistake students make when they write their first screenplays is to put talking heads together or against each other, and have them discuss all the interior emotions or dramas or conflicts they have. They have to forget this kind of approach and go back to a very basic, instinctive and deeply felt experience from their own past and then visualization is much more natural. The motto of my little book is by René Char who said: Seules les traces font rêver [Only traces make us dream]. It's very beautiful, and what I wanted to do was to unearth or detect those traces of memory or experience, bring them to the fore and try to create something coherent out of it. This is what the students did.

Now your choice of photographs was surely not at all left to chance. Why did you choose Lucien Hervé's "Les trois femmes" as a trigger? What it is about the photo that makes it a good starting point for a short screenplay?

The basic idea was that there is something beyond the frame which has to be defined. And whether those people are basically calm or quiet or tense, is a question of interpretation. But there is definitely a question here. And if you have a question, then you are already somehow hooked and drawn to a story you have to create.

It is very interesting that this is a very neutral moment in real life, because I asked Lucien Hervé (who is a very close friend of mine - I have a very great admiration and respect for him) what was the moment he photographed in 1951. Those are three obviously country women who are looking at something. What they're looking at is actually a church! It's a kind of celebration or opening or something of that kind, and had nothing at all to do with this very deeply dark, dramatic story that Marcell Iványi has created out of it.

Now I know that you encouraged Marcell Iványi to produce the film, Wind. Did the final result surprise you in any way, or was the film pretty much what you expected on the basis of the screenplay?

It was exactly what I expected. It was so surprising and so strong in the very short description he made - this was a one-page description of the story - and actually it was indicated that it is an uninterrupted moment of camera movement, and this is what I immediately celebrated and complimented so much. I said: It's wonderful, and you are right. This is the only way visually to capture this unspeakable event. This is obviously the way to translate into cinematic language something that we fear and which cannot be named. And this is exactly what he did.

I don't know whether Marcell mentioned it, but there is a very important Hungarian film tradition, the work of Miklós Jancsó, that has to be taken into account here. His seminal films appeared in the late 60's and early 70's. He was influenced by Antonioni in exploring the role of the long take, the uninterrupted long take in order to create a specific dramatic experience. (He made a film out of eleven takes, which became almost as famous as Hitchcock's The Rope. But it was more than that. It is not just a style that Jancsó used consistently in many films as his écriture, but those were films with a very particular content. Those were so-called "historical films," because at that time it was not possible to be very open, those were films about repression, about violence, about lack of freedom, about silence. Therefore the language he invented was metaphorical, emphasized by the calligraphy of the camera. His famous choreography and camera movements were foreboding and baleful in order to introduce a charged ambiance and feel. Already the titles of those films are revealing: The Round Up, The Red and the White, Silence and Cry, Agnus Dei, Red Psalm... evoking a world of suffering and revolt. In this mythology, also landscape had its compelling power. What you see in Wind is an echo of (or hommage to) the landscapes we used to have in all those Jancsó films: a startling barrenness to give the sense of timelessness, the sense of history in this kind of mythological vision... I think Wind shows a beautiful way to understand tradition and to follow or reinterpret it with a new sensibility.

I suppose that most of the workshops that you do are focused on writing short films. Do you think that storytelling in a short film is of a different nature than storytelling in a long film?

No, I really don't think so. But also I don't agree with the way many people in America think about screenwriting: a very formulaic approach, with a three-act structure, which I definitely refuse. Obviously we have structures. I have taught for many years what I call alternative structures, and trying to understand what the particular content of a particular story would require as structure and to what extent they have to be different in finding their own rhythm and their own particular design. I like to quote Italo Calvino, from Invisible Cities:

Marco Polo describes the bridge stone by stone. But which is the stone that supports the bridge? Kublai Khan asks.

The bridge is not supported by one stone or another, - Marco Polo answers, - but by the line of the arch they form.

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: - Why do you speak to me of stones, it is only the arch that matters to me.

Polo answers: - Without stones there is no arch.

It is the teacher's pleasure while nurturing talents to find precious stones.

New York, 20 December 1997