Our latest blog comes from filmmaker and stipend holder Rastko Novaković, who explores Bill Douglas's use of visual storytelling, through 'decoupage', particularly looking at Bill's epic film 'Comrades'.
I arrived at the Museum hoping to better understand Bill Douglas’s elliptical style which I consider one of his most important legacies. This kind of style is closer to silent cinema forms and image-led approaches to narrative, than the mainstream cinema of his time. Immersing myself in his working papers and tracing different script drafts, sketches, lectures, storyboards and notes to self and others, I wanted to learn how Douglas used decoupage to envision and construct his films.
Decoupage is best understood as the manner in which the narrative is broken down or ‘cut up’ in a film. It is present in the way a script is written, it flows from the script into the set-ups during the shooting (where storyboards can be instrumental) and then runs through the editing process. The case has often been made that the manner of the decoupage and its level of coherence and recognisability signal the style of an ‘auteur’. I am more interested in the how and why. The constant considerations when doing the work of decoupage are what is left out, what is the relationship between dialogue and action, what are the relationships maintained within a shot/scene/film, and how all the shots and scenes flow in collocation.
Bill Douglas on making films
Bill Douglas was known to say: "every shot is a verb". He writes in a lecture on film adaptation delivered at the National Film and Television School, which is held in the Museum: “Between the scenes there are no full stops, just commas. That’s what I mean by the structure being molecular.” As his lifelong friend and collaborator Peter Jewell confirmed to me in conversation, it was the whole, the flow of images and scenes, which Douglas strove very hard to envision. When he had grasped it, he would run the scenes in his mind backwards, in the evenings, instead of counting sheep.
Here is a passage from the same lecture on adaptation, which specifically references his script for Justified Sinner based on the James Hogg classic which he had recently completed:
Douglas is encouraging the students to build their decoupage clearly into their writing. He wants them to keep the original spark (“your very first thoughts”), but also to capture the imagination of the audience and think of the planning of the technical and artistic execution of the sequences.
I found a fine example of Douglas’s screenwriting and decoupage in a never-realised one-page script which he wrote in 1990. It was the preparation for the music video of Love for Sale by The Fine Young Cannibals. Each sentence reads as an individual shot. Each paragraph might be a scene or signal a significant change in perspective or break inviting the viewer’s imagination in. The lack of punctuation at the end of each paragraph propels you into the next one:
Just like Robert Bresson, whose work he admired, Douglas was also wary of images which are independent, freestanding. As Bresson writes in his little book:
If an image, looked at by itself, expresses something sharply, if it involves an interpretation, it will not be transformed on contact with other images. The other images will have no power over it, and it will have no power over the other images. Neither action, nor reaction.
Both filmmakers were interested in suspended images, a sense of not knowing what comes next. Yet, what does come next, carries the story forward and opens up more possibilities. Often, there is a direct contrast between Bresson and Douglas’s characters who find themselves hopeless, and the images and silences of their films which are full of potential and point in many directions.
In a letter to a former student at the National Film School, Aisling Walsh, (now a very successful filmmaker), commenting on a script she shared, Douglas warns against too much dialogue:
[I]n order to know what to leave out, consider what the audience know or can work out. It might help if each time you write a line of dialogue you look behind you to the imaginary audience and ask them if they know where you are going next. If they do then change it. Surprise them. Remember that every member of the audience knows what wet grass feels and smells like. Let them shiver with Mary.
To pick out the best of what this script has to offer I suggest you get a spare copy, cut it up and placing all the descriptive pieces together read them for atmosphere. You will find something there, something you do not want to spoil with talking or rather too much of it. There silence can be golden. [...] Next read only the dialogues and take out everything for the time being that smacks of information. It is true information had to go in somewhere but be careful with it.
In the lecture on adaptation, he speaks of his “great struggle” to keep information out and how “hell bent the money people are” in putting more information in. For Douglas, too much dialogue and too much information crowd the mind – there is a danger that the “[…] audience won’t be doing any work at all. The more information, the less mystery. The less opportunity to surprise.“ He concludes this line of thinking by saying “Make them work for the gold.” The work is that of imagination and empathy, reading images and people. Thinking. Forming an independent understanding of the characters. The audience is invited into the narrative ellipses and in between the shots. And so the film becomes more personal and intimate for the viewer, because the work on it was also personal.
Looking at Douglas’s working papers I’d like to show you some of his process of working out the decoupage. As I leafed through various script drafts and storyboards of Comrades (his last film and most developed in style and complexity) I found Douglas searching for elegance, mystery, conciseness and the right balance between focussing the audience’s attention and offering them an openness, what Bresson called “a margin of indefiniteness”.
The first scene I want you to consider concerns a character called Brine. He is one of the field workers. During a break from field work, we see all the men apart from him collect their food from the women. Hungry, he goes to his mother’s house, but she doesn’t open the door to him. Desperate, he steals a turnip, and overcome by shame, half-eaten he plants it back in the ground.
Looking at Douglas’s storyboards we see that he’s considering the audience’s connection with Brine. Perhaps he was thinking that too many wide shots would kill the empathy and connection. Likewise, going too much in the other direction might make the scene too melodramatic, too obvious. In an early draft storyboard, Douglas inserts a medium shot of Brine after the extreme wide shot of the field workers:
In another storyboard sketch, Douglas wonders if to shoot Brine the way he shot Stephen (the main character in his My Childhood Trilogy), i.e. with a medium or closeup, following the visit to his mother’s house which is all framed in wide shot.
And the way Douglas resolves these questions is inspired. The closeup he inserts is that of the mother: inscrutable, perhaps also worried about Brine, but unwavering. It takes the tension in the sequence onto another level. The release comes in the medium shot of Brine eating and weeping. Prior, there is so much of Brine’s character expressed in his gestures and the desolate way in which he walks. The lack of horizon keeps the frame focussed on Brine and his isolation, the wide shots enforce the lack of human warmth. Without melodrama, Douglas presents a desperate man in moments no one seems to have witnessed. The scene fans out in many questions about the causes of this suffering and the lack of help.
Arrival at Botany Bay
The second scene I want to look at features the arrival of convicts at Botany Bay, Australia. It was added in a late draft of the script (perhaps 3rd or 4th) and Douglas went through several rewrites of the dialogue and working out the sequence of shots. The completed film features the following shape. After a moving panorama sequence featuring drawings and symbols depicting the route of the voyage between England and Australia, we see a fop looking to buy a toy panorama from the captain transporting convicts by boat from the prison hulk to the mainland. We are introduced to the child convict Charlie and the first glimpses of land after the long voyage.
In this early storyboard draft, Charlie isn’t even featured. The focus is much more on The Fop and The Captain, with a closeup on the coin which concludes the sale of the toy panorama and a cut to the chains being taken off the convicts on the mainland:
Later, Douglas decides to open the scene with Charlie and writes in his supplementary notes that the surrounding hills are to be shown as Charlie might see them:
And here is a version seemingly without the convicts on the boat at all, followed by a shot of the convicts on the mainland approaching the tables to be processed and concluding with a Union Jack:
Let’s look at how the dialogue evolved. Originally the dialogue ran like this:
Subsequently, the dialogue becomes more intricate and follows the idea of Charlie’s face opening the scene:
And here also is the idea that as the Fop and the Captain haggle off-screen, we look at the convicts. Only later it’s revealed that the Captain is not selling them, but the toy panorama.
The scene in the completed film opens with a modified line from the Captain: “For just one penny, you can put the world in your pocket.” A few lines down, the Fop points at the panorama when he asks “British?”, but the Captain isn’t looking at him when he replies: “Only the very best, my dear sir,” as if it’s the convicts he is speaking about. In this way the double meaning of the sale is woven through the scene rather than having it fixed in the more heavy-handed opening featuring off-screen dialogue and images of convicts. When the sale is completed we cut to Charlie’s face.
In a pithy way, Douglas shows how the ruling class buys and sells trinkets, people, lands. They are also buying and selling images, which used to be sacred in many cultures (remember the chalk-painting of the Cerne Abbas Giant from the opening titles of the film, as an example of pre-capitalist image-making). The meanings are layered, the perspective shifting between the collective and the individual (like in the Brine sequence we looked at), but showing the bonds that link us all, even when we are in opposing camps and classes – we’re in the same boat. The immediate interest in Charlie’s fate shows the abiding fascination that Douglas had for children as protagonists and their experiences of the world. Peter Jewell spoke of how both he and Douglas reread Anne Frank’s diaries repeatedly and the love Douglas had for John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941).
Brine, Charlie and the many other suffering faces in Douglas’s films have stayed with me over the years as abiding questions. It was not surprising then, when looking through Douglas’s paintings in the archive to find this striking portrait of Christ:
which now reminds me that for all the answers I found in the Bill Douglas Museum, I came back with even more questions. Ones I will be wondering about for years to come.
Note: The material pictured forms part of the Bill Douglas Working Papers and is copyright to the Estate of Bill Douglas. Please do not reproduce these image without conatcting the museum for permission. The featured image at the top is a production still showing Bill Douglas and Robin Soans as George Loveless on the set of 'Comrades'. The copright for this is owned by the photographer, David Appleby.
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