Posted on Friday, May 22nd, 2009 by Brendon Connelly
Screenwriter and director John August has made a detour into prose with his new short story The Variant. He says it “was and maybe still is supposed to be part of an anthology of short stories written by well-known screenwriters” but, in the meantime, you can purchase a copy from August directly for only 99 cents.
Of course, at that price I couldn’t resist and I immediately pumped in my card details and downloaded the pdf – all 25 pages, 156 kb or 7,176 words of it…
At the heart of it, The Variant is a mystery. Our leading character is established as a retired spy, of sorts, who now hides a careful life, hiding himself in a library where he stacks the shelves ad fades away but always watches carefully for danger. One night, a mysterious young woman bursts through the ceiling into his bathroom and hands him a wedding ring on which he notices an inscription. She seems to be somewhat more of a stranger than she actually is…
And those are the pieces of the puzzle August first lays out for us. His solution is facilitated by a surrealist notion far more potent and powerful than it is allowed to be by such a short word count. There’s a very interesting time bomb at the heart of the story, one which not only gives the story its title but, almost literally, explodes its themes. At the half way point, this bomb is introduced and explained and the ideas start to make a bit more sense, and then it is a breakneck race… for a few short minutes and the last page. You might be left wishing for a parallel version of the story, one which has more time, more space to breathe. Perhaps a feature film? This story could have stood expansion, and not necessarily to the basic plot. A little more time spent over a few of the key moments really would not have hurt. These pacing issues aside, The Variant is a fun, witty and deceptive little toy, something for the mind to bat about as a cat would with a ball of wool.
August points out that the 99 cent price point matches that of a single in the iTunes store and compares a short story to a single, a novel to an album. I’m not too sure about that. He also makes some odd comments about the differences between screenwriting and creating prose that, frankly, his own screenwriting disproves. For example:
As a screenwriter, most of my writing takes place in the third-person present tense. Movie characters run, shoot and misbehave within a small subset of the words, senses and actions that other literary characters take for granted. We never know what Indiana Jones is thinking, unless he tells us. We don’t know what a Wookie smells like, unless another character mentions it.
I’ll keep this argument limited to nothing more than August’s own movie The Nines, let alone the full depth and breadth of cinema and the myriad creative means of expression that can be found in the entire history of film. In that one film alone there are countless examples of the characters revealing their thoughts through their actions and reactions. More specifically to the langauge of film, there are also sequences of shots that reveal the thoughts of characters through their juxtaposition. I won’t labour the point here but a quick trip to the Wikipedia page for The Kuleshov Effect should give you the basics.
I’d even go so far as to argue that seeing a character recoil from the stench of a Wookie would give as valid an impression of that smell as would any adjective. A different kind of impression, but certainly not a lesser one. With more subtle smells, the cinematographer’s art can be wonderfully persuasive I feel. This is also true with, say, temperatures and humidity levels and so on.
If this experiment with The Variant proves to be a full success, perhaps August will be persuaded to release his laugh-out-loud short film God through similar channels?