Well, you never know… you just never know. You just go along figuring some things don’t change ever, like being able to drive on a public highway without someone trying to murder you. And then one stupid thing happens. Twenty, twenty-five minutes out of your whole life, and all the ropes that kept you hanging in there get cut loose, and it’s like, there you are, right back in the jungle again.
I got in last night (actually a week or two ago now that I’m ready to post) feeling like I wanted to watch a classic, something showing the art of a great film-maker learning to stretch his talent – and his budget – as far as possible.
Every now and then the stream of sewage that is broadcast television spews out something worthwhile, like a dirty dank coal-mine yielding a 20-carat diamond. On this occasion ITV4 blessed me with exactly the gem I was hoping for.
It’s pretty much Spielberg’s debut feature. And, without wishing to understate the film-makers’ craft, the logistics of shooting the movie must have been pretty damn simple. They would have run something along the lines of…
1) Get hold of a car. A cheap, red, American car.
2) Stick an everyman behind the wheel. A cheap, red-faced, American everyman. (In case anybody has registered that he represents the travelling salesman within all of us, call him David Mann.)
3) Stick a camera behind the everyman (and in front of him, and either side of him).
4) Get hold of a rig. A cheap, rusty, really beat-up rig.
5) Film the rig marauding the car at high speed, snaking along hundreds of kilometres of long empty roads through the heartless heartland of America.
6) Drive the car and the rig into a ravine, filming it from about thirty different positions.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Every now and then Mann stops, and gets out of the car, and – through his total inability to engage with the inhabitants of the dried-up backwaters he’s washed up in – says very little. We see how isolated and insecure he has become, expressed through this conspicuous lack of dialogue.
On the rare occasions that Mann speaks, he does so in fits and spurts. He scoffs at the gas station attendant’s transparent attempt to sell him a new radiator hose, or stumbles through the process of ordering a glass of water and a cheese sandwich. At the peak of his performance, he confronts a fellow diner with a string of incoherent demands and misguided accusations, all of which turn out to be totally unwarranted.
The real narrative momentum of DUEL is delivered through Mann’s interior monologue, as he explores each avenue of action open to him, and discovers each to be a dead-end. The film becomes a backdrop against which each of us is left to wonder how we would respond in the face of such a brutally malevolent force, one that will not relent, one that cannot be reasoned with.
Immediately after DUEL ITV4 screened an hour-long interview with Spielberg in which he discussed his work on several of his better-known films. With regard to DUEL, he revealed that he had undertaken the project on the strength of his first great realisation in film-making – that, armed with a good script, and his own assorted faculties, he could make a watchable movie.
So what is it that makes it such a good script?
Well, there’s the fact that it cuts brilliantly to an essential vulnerability at the heart of the human condition. That it holds us at the precipice, and forces us to gaze downward into the depths of our own potential powerlessness and ineffectuality. There is that.
Of course, there’s also the fact that it’s written to be so overtly realisable. Given one capable actor, two beat-up vehicles, three or four scenes with any significant dialogue, and a decent stint in an audio suite recording voiceover, Spielberg crafts a debut feature worthy of Hitchcock. And, by Spielberg’s own admission, if DUEL owes anything to Hitchcock, it was there in the script before he even picked it up.
I think I came home wanting more than to just watch a movie. I wanted to learn something. What did DUEL teach me? That a good script doesn’t just deliver on elevated ideas and stylised insight into the human condition. It’s set in a single location, or a wide open space – somewhere cheap to film. It emphasizes a few central performances, and a concentration of focus and narrative tension. Think the rich and concentrated mix of talent stranded in the remoteness of space, in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. Think the patchwork of talent isolated in the polar wilderness, in John Carpenter’s THE THING.
Look at the common ingredients, in pure story-telling terms, as they start to emerge:
- We find ourselves at an environmental extremity, some lonely and isolated colonial outpost characterised by it’s actual and ideological displacement from the ‘civilised’ world.
- We discover a tormenting force, at first hidden from view, whose motives and modus operandi become gradually clearer as the story unfolds.
- We turn to our central protagonist – the character with whom our greatest sympathies lie. Though abrasive in manner, perhaps even mildly sociopathic, he or she is also essentially rational and reasonable, and ready to come to life in the face of adversity.
- Our protagonists prevail, but never triumph. These movies gain a great deal from showing an awareness of the difference between one and the other.
I don’t know about anybody else, but these make some pretty compelling building blocks for a debut feature. They lend themselves to sprawling westerns, long range sci-fi, and the kind of smothering horror movies and psychological thrillers I grew up on.
They put the onus on the writing, confining events within the claustrophobic context of a wide open space, juxtaposing the intricacies of human nature against the an otherwise prosaic and inanimate backdrop.
This is the script I’m currently trying to write, and the idea behind the idea behind Weatherman.
All I need is the damn time to do it.