Reality may seem a strange concern for a writer who focuses on fantasy and horror. After all, how can you claim anything is “real” in tales of faux-medieval warriors, disco-era vampires and supernatural hillbillies? Yet it’s an overwhelming concern to me, and one that leads me repeatedly back to the films of John Cassavetes.
His work–among them Shadows, Faces, the seminal A Woman Under the Influence, my current favorite Opening Night–created the American independent film movement. Their sometimes ragged natures are often perceived as the result of improvisation, in the same vein as the films of Christopher Guest or Henry Jaglom, but that’s a misperception: Cassavetes may have based his screenplays on rehearsal improvisations, but the final films are the result of tightly scripted and deliberately constructed performances. Within them, of course, are moments of invention, but not so many as you might think.
This approach is made clear in A Constant Forge, a lengthy (140 minutes) documentary by Charles Kiselyak. Cassavetes died in 1989, so the majority of the interviews are with people who worked with him, along with excerpts from print interviews read by Sean Penn. It’s also obvious in Cassavetes Directs, a fly-on-the-wall account of the filming of his last movie, Love Streams, in 1984.
So what’s the point of this approach? Simply, it allows an almost total breakdown of the line between performance and documentary realism. There are moments in A Woman Under the Influence that feel so real, so uncomfortably genuine, that even with famous actors like Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands onscreen, you can forget you’re watching a movie and feel like you’re spying on real people. For an audience used to dramatic signposts (THIS is a serious scene, THIS is a humorous line, you should feel TERROR here), a movie like this can be a hugely uncomfortable experience.
So what can a prose writer get from this? I hope it serves as a reminder that no matter what’s happening in the story, whether your hero is facing a dragon or a vampire is learning that sunlight will not destroy her, the reality of the moment lies in reactions that are unanticipated but undeniably genuine. In Cassavetes’ work, he strove to get beneath the surface responses people give, the “performances” that get us through real life, in order to present something original that the audience nevertheless responds to as genuine. As writers, we should do the same. As writers of fantasy, horror and science fiction, it should be a priority.
Here’s a clip of Cassavetes in action, talking about the release of Opening Night but finally going off on some interesting tangents.