SF FROM THE RIM
Making ‘Heart of Stone’: An Israeli SF Film (Part II)
By Guy Hasson
In my last article, we talked about the logistics of making ‘Heart of Stone’, a feature-length, low-budget, experimental SF film in Hebrew, which premiered in Israel’s ICon 2008 SF Festival.
This time we’re going to talk about the exotic content of the film and peer a bit into the mind of an SF scriptwriter.
The SF Element
This is the basic plot of the film: Dr. Ofer Berger, a world-famous scientist, has no emotions. He has a heart of stone, so to speak. One day, he begins to experience emotions. The emotions well up within him and become uncontrollable, especially in a man who has never had them. But then his emotions turn into emotions that are not at all human and that no human has ever experienced. His mental breakdowns cause rifts between him and his wife, but in this article we will steer clear of the drama and concentrate on the exotic SF element.
The challenge in writing the film was in getting the audience to ‘see’ and experience non-human emotions as well as in establishing such a premise in a believable way. Here are the three major writing tricks I used to achieve this.
Trick #1: Getting the Audience to See Emotions
The protagonist, Dr. Ofer Berger, experiences non-human emotions, but as a writer, you can’t have him tell the audience that’s what he’s going through, because that would be cheap and most people would not buy it. The audience will have to either see the emotions or feel them along with the character.
And so the first task in writing the film was finding a way to get the audience to ‘see’ normal emotions. Once that is achieved, the audience will be able to follow more complex emotions, building up to emotions that do not exist.
The first stage was establishing firmly in the first few minutes of the film that Ofer has no emotions. He doesn’t understand emotions, he doesn’t feel emotions. He is one of the world’s most brilliant physicists, and emotions are even a greater puzzle to him than the physical mysteries of the universe. This I did by pitting him against his very emotional wife and also by letting us see him react to a tragic event in his life in a very cold way.
Once that is established, once the audience feels without a doubt that this man can hardly feel anything, any emotion Ofer exhibits would naturally draw attention. In fact, any sign of emotion from him will be scrutinized by the audience as if under a magnifying glass. The more intense his emotions will grow, the closer the audience will look at them.
Here, another cinematic element comes into play, and that is the music. Whenever Ofer Berger feels an emotion (which is alien to him), the music gives us a feeling of something ‘alien’. In this way the subliminal magnifying glass becomes a subliminal microscope.
Let us now jump a few stages ahead, bypassing a few events that would be spoilers, and get to the point in which we must get the audience to ‘see’ the non-human emotions.
Ofer is at a stage where he decides to examine what is happening to him scientifically. He records himself saying names of emotions in order to later listen to them and observe his own brain as he jumps from one emotion to the other. The script has Ofer listening to the tape in a tight close-up, and asks the actor not to move his face, as he listens to it over and over four or five times. The script has him all the while moving from one emotion to the next. As he listens to the second and third iteration of himself, the script has him moving more slowly from one emotion to another, examining the emotional ‘space’ between the emotions. By the fourth and fifth iteration, Ofer is discovering new emotions in the space between the known emotions.
Not only is all of that impossible to convey, but any student of cinema would tell you that this is a major script no-no. First, because it is impossible to act and impossible for the actor to project. Secondly, you should never tell your actors to just feel, you should tell them to do. Thirdly, you cannot count on the audience getting anything if you give a two-minute tight close-up of your actor while telling the actor not to move; that should be death. In our case, none of these are true. Here’s why.
The musical language we’ve already established is the key. By this time, in the audience’s subconscious mind, the music is tightly associated with everything that’s going on inside Ofer’s head. So now the music gets free rein to introduce new themes in-between one emotion and the next, strange themes, alien themes, that represent the emotions that Ofer is feeling. As the music leaps into unknown territory, so do Ofer’s emotions in our minds. By this point, the audience is cinematically ‘seeing’ and experiencing new and strange emotions along with Ofer.
Of course the plot proceeds from here to take Ofer to new emotional places that are even crazier than this one. But talking about that would spoil the surprise. Still, I hope I’ve established in your minds a way that delineates how we got the audience to see emotions in an SF film about emotions.
Trick #2: Making an Impossible Premise Believable
In coming to write the film, I wanted it to be believable. I wanted people to ‘buy’ the premise. Some diehard SF fans would simply accept any premise without an explanation, but most SF fans need the impossible premise to be believable in some way. (Vampires exist in our world? I’ll accept it if you tell me how it was that I’ve never heard about any on the news. Psychics exist? Tell me why they’ve never used their abilities to get power, and I’ll believe you. Etc.)
After thinking about this, I decided that the best way to convince people that something impossible exists is to deny it. If you tell people that something impossible exists, their first instinct is usually to disbelieve you or to poke holes in what you’re saying. But if you deny that something exists, the entire image pops into their heads and will not leave.
Here’s how I planted the idea that Ofer is experiencing non-human emotions two thirds of the way through the film. By this point I’ve established that something very strange is going on here, but, living in a realistic world, no one has ever suggested our hero has non-human emotions. That is not, after all, a believable premise or a reasonable conclusion anyone would draw. So: how do we make the audience believe in it? Deny, deny, deny.
A professional psychiatrist has come to look at Ofer, who has had a couple of psychotic episodes, to see whether he should be hospitalized. In a tete-a-tete, he seems like his old self, and even dares give her an opening:
“Dr. Tirosh,” he asks her. “Can a person feel non-human emotions?”
Rather than answer his question, she tries to get to the point, “You think you’re experiencing non-human emotions?”
He sidesteps, “I merely asked an expert a question.”
She says, and rightly so, “By definition, whatever you feel is human.”
And she’s right. Who would disagree with her? Certainly not the audience, I hope.
But later on, she rattles him. So when she asks the relatively harmless question, “What do you feel?” he roars at her like a caged lion: “Only HUMAN emotions!”
And that’s it. We’ve established in the audience’s mind that he believes he has non-human emotions. From this point on, the audience will look at him and his emotions in a new light. It’s as if you answered the question “What are you doing?” with “I didn’t steal anything.” We will automatically assume you stole something.
Trick #3: The First Line
I’m a big believer that the beginning of a story is a microcosm of the entire story. The essence of its beginning, its middle and even its ending must be there in the first few minutes or the first paragraph. That’s true in stories, books, plays, and film. Whenever I get stuck when writing a story, I go back to the beginning, read the first paragraph, and then how I should proceed, even if I’m stuck 200 pages into a book.
I followed this rule in ‘Heart of Stone’, as well. How would you begin a film that begins as a realistic drama and slowly embarks on a trip into non-human emotions? The subject of the film should be there right at the start, and even the SF element should be hinted at right there and then, so as to fuel the rest of the film and to subliminally prepare the audience for what’s to come.
Here’s how I did it: ‘Heart of Stone’ begins with Ofer Berger sleeping, and Tamar, his wife, waking him in the middle of the night. She is very angry, and her first line to him is: “You’re not human.” She means, we immediately find out, that he informed her he accepted a position in Cambridge (out of the country) without even consulting or telling her about it, and then went right to sleep. You overturn my world, is her point, and you’re able to sleep just like that? Do you have no emotions? Are you not human?
Clearly, she doesn’t mean he’s an alien. Her line is a believable one in a realistic world. But for one second, that first second, as he climbs out of sleep, neither he nor the audience know what she’s talking about. For that one second, anything is possible. And perhaps Ofer knows something about himself that she doesn’t…
This emotional argument between the two will have is the emotional scene I’ve talked about earlier in this article that shows how emotional his wife and how devoid of emotions Ofer is. The argument is highly emotional (on her part), takes hours, in which he simply and calmly states that logically she would have agreed to take the position and so there was no need to consult her. The next morning, he will coolly inform her that his father had died the day before. The fact that he was able to sleep, that he was there for the hysterical argument and never mentioned it (something that would have stopped the argument), proves to the audience how cold he is. And so elements come together in the script.
In writing ‘Heart of Stone’ I used other tricks as well, but these are the three major ones that made it possible to make a film about something that doesn’t exist, can’t be seen, and can’t be felt: non-human emotions.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this short glimpse into the mind of an SF writer and filmmaker.