Sex in Screenwriting (4)

Screenwriter David Freeman’s wrote a great book The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. David worked with Hitch on what would’ve been his final film, called The Short Night. It was an adaptation of a book by Ronald Kirkbride of the same title.

Previously:

  1. Social hygiene and the Seal of Approval
  2. A sex scene is only as good as its characters
  3. A rollercoaster named Desire

It’s about an American agent chasing after a very bad British double agent who escaped from jail. While the American waits for this bad Brit to arrive in Finland to meet up with his family, he has an affair with his wife.

The project was always on the brink of being shut down due to Hitch’s failing health, but it was the passion of his characters and their love affair that kept him going. Here’s David:

“The talk of love was a tonic for him. ‘Yes, yes. That will work. Very exciting.’ It was as elaborate as praise ever got: He was saying, ‘I will put that in my movie.’ He was off and running.

“‘The lovers are seated across the room from each other,’ he began in his deliberate tones. ‘Their robes open as they look at one another.’ He stopped, savoring the scene, repeating that the robes were open.

He was starting to sound suspiciously like a schoolboy with a copy of Penthouse. ‘Outside, on the bay, a tiny boat is approaching, coming over the horizon’ (the scene takes place in a cabin on an island off of Finland). ‘The lovers know the husband is approaching. They can hear the sound of his boat’s motor, growing louder as it comes over the horizon.

They stare at each other and begin to masturbate, each of them. The camera moves closer to their eyes. The sound of the motor grows louder as their eyes fill the screen.’ He’s grinning now and actually stretching his legs, his cane has fallen away with the lovers’ robes.

‘Then, after orgasm, the man must take an ivory comb and comb her pubic hair.’ Now he didn’t actually intend to put this in the film. It was a private vision, playful and from the heart, a true home movie.”

I love that scene. I love the aching desire between those two characters combined with the fact that they can’t touch each other in those few moments they have together. Plus, you have the noise of the approaching boat’s motor that brings a sense of rising tension into the scene with the arrival of her evil husband and by extension, the moment where he must be executed. Fabulous!

“Hey, don’t knock masturbation!
It’s sex with someone I love.”
– Woody Allen in Annie Hall.

It’s different from all the usual sex scenes we see in films. It’s rooted in the story, and it capitalizes on the high emotions of the moment. (A good friend reminded me of a film called Bent that had two men in love who couldn’t touch each other, and in one scene, they “have sex” by imagining it while standing side-by-side.)

HORIZONTAL VS. VERTICAL

Let me get on a soapbox. Sex is also an opportunity for vertical writing in your screenplay. Maya Deren once made a distinction between drama that’s “horizontal” and “vertical,” and by that she means that the narrative is “horizontal” and the lyric is “vertical.” To quote her:

“In Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a ‘horizontal’ plane of development, of one circumstance—action—leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once in a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning to this moment of drama, and, at that moment, he builds a pyramid or investigates it ‘vertically,’ if you will, so that you have a ‘horizontal’ development with periodic ‘vertical’ investigations, which are the poems, which are the monologues… You can have operas where the ‘horizontal’ development is virtually unimportant—the plots are very silly, but they serve as an excuse for stringing together a number of arias that are essentially lyric statements.”

In one of my favorite screenplays, Kubrick’s Napoleon, you can really see the distinction between that which is “horizontal” and “vertical,” because in order to cover all of the important events in Napoleon’s life, you have to fly down that horizontal plane at lightning speed in order to squeeze it all in before you reach page 150.

And thus, you cannot help but notice those moments when Stanley shifts gears in the narrative and chooses to slow down to be “vertical,” to spend just a few pages to highlight the meaning of a dramatic moment.

And the first “vertical” moment that comes to mind has to be the sequence involving Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine. We’ve been flying through pages about his quick rise to power and his preparations for the Italian campaign, which we know will send him into worldwide fame and headlong to becoming the next Emperor of France.But we stop for this very important love affair.

We hear Napoleon’s many poetic love letters to Josephine. “Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what is this bizarre effect you have upon my heart?” “By what magic have you captivated all my faculties, concentrated in yourself all my existence? It is a kind of death, my darling, since there is no survival for me except in you.”

And while we hear Napoleon pour his heart out, we watch Josephine have a torrid sexual affair with Captain Hippolyte Charles.

This sequence is not just about establishing their marriage and her betrayal and how much Napoleon loved Josephine. It was also about how much he overwhelmed her with the kind of love that suffocates a human being, which in this case drove Josephine into the arms of another man. (Of course, she was indifferent to him since the beginning, but his behavior certainly didn’t help matters either.) It also showed a believable contradiction in the main protagonist, which gave him depth – that is, the arrogant, powerful, confident Napoleon was also the insecure, needy, emotionally reckless Napoleon who naively wanted to be loved as overwhelmingly as he loved Josephine. We see that he completely gave himself over to her with an almost childlike honesty without realizing the consequences of his behavior, a stark contrast to the genius who meticulously calculated (and won) every battle. And by making us hear his voluminous words of love while at the same time showing us Josephine’s sexual betrayal, we are practically forced to feel the sting of her infidelity just as Napoleon felt it, and we sympathize with him.

– Mystery Man

In his own words, Mystery Man was “famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. A homebody jetsetting around the world. Brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.”

MM blogged for nearly 4 years and tweeted for only 4 months, then disappeared – mysteriously.

The Story Department continues to republish his best articles on Monday.

Here, you’ll also be informed about the release of his screenwriting book.

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

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