Presented by journalist and script editor Ellin Stein in discussion with writers Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars) and James Moran (Spooks), this session was designed to look at the use of technology in films. Given that e-communication is taking over real life, how do you portray character interaction other than by showing them typing or texting? How do you make this cinematic?
The discussion was supported by various clips ranging from old movies showing people writing and reading letters, usually with V.O., to brand-new student shorts with no dialogue but subtitled with the text messages the characters were receiving, and included a beautiful sequence from The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft conduct a classical two-person drama by phone.
Ashley Pharoah mentioned that in Life on Mars they played it as a joke that the murder photos can’t be sent by mobile phone.
James Moran described how in writing for Spooks, they went at it from the human side first and then used gadgets to create suspense and complications. (He also mentioned that they condense material for three hours into one… I believe that!) As to the problem of “showing people typing”, he offered the solution of having characters walk in with a print-out and then going off on to act on the info.
The issue of receiving information by phone or letter is by no means new. You can use a phone conversation to show people lying – saying one thing and doing another – but this works equally well with mobile phones or landlines.
There was general agreement that technology affects the plotting of thrillers. Characters can call for help on their mobile (and “Damn! No reception!” is a pretty lame excuse*). Moveable GPS prevent people from getting lost. Applications like Google latitude will allow your villain to track the hero as he or she flees.
On character level, technology can be used to show people’s isolation, or indeed to portray character by showing HOW they use technology.
The question was raised as to whether the lack of human interaction threatens to make stories less gripping. Ashley Pharoah’s answer was “not necessarily – just look at UA 93 when the passengers, knowing they are about to die in a plane crash, call their loved ones to say good-bye – that’s drama!”
The session ended with a nice little bonus when a voice from the very back of the room said (paraphrased) “We had some interesting reactions to using new technologies when we introduced Max Headroom”. The voice belonged to Annabel Jankel, writer of the Max Headroom TV series way back in 1985!
To sum up the discussion: modern technology does present certain limitations but also new possibilities, and it is up to us, the writers, to be inventive in the way we – or rather our characters – use it. I personally would have welcomed a bit more of a discussion about possible solutions, but I guess that also is up to us!
* On the topic of “no reception”, here’s a worthwhile read: “Anybody Getting a Signal?”