Flashbacks – Are they necessary?

Continuing my exploration of whether or not flashbacks are a necessary device in modern screenwriting, today I’m going to write about a movie whose entire plot hinges on events that happened before the action starts — and the filmmaker doesn’t rely on flashbacks to convey their significance. The movie is Asghar Farhadi’s The Past.

The story centers around Marie (Bérénice Bejo) , her second husband, Ahmad (Ali Mossafa), and her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad abandoned Marie and her two daughters five years earlier to return to Iran. He’s come back to Paris to grant Marie the divorce she requested so that she can marry Samir, who has a young son himself. But it turns out Samir is already married — to a woman languishing in a coma. Marie’s relationship history — or baggage — is constantly impinging on her current plans with Samir. When it comes to love, you can never completely free yourself from the past, (particularly if you have children.) And, like I said earlier, director Farhadi conveys this complicated history without a single flashback. In order to achieve that, Farhadi relies on a different narrative technique: by using Ahmad, in the role of the newcomer.

This works particularly well because Farhadi does not just use Ahmad as a device; he is an integral part of the love triangle. Also, Ahmad has been away for a long enough period of time that his complete ignorance of the current facts makes sense; his questions don’t jolt the audience out of the story or smack us as unrealistic. Yet Ahmad has not been away so long that the children have completely forgotten him. He is also a natural peacemaker, so it makes sense when Marie asks him to draw out her teenage daughter, who resents the new fiancé.

Farhadi is an elegant storyteller, so Ahmad’s inquiries also drive the plot. Maybe this is one reason Farhadi’s movies often feel like thrillers: there’s always a mystery at the heart of the story. In The Past, Ahmad delves into the reason Samir’s wife attempted suicide and ended up in a coma. Also, much like in film noir, the plot is further complicated by the fact that all the characters have their own motives for being less than honest about their own complicity in that suicide attempt — including Ahmad himself and the kids. Farhadi’s elegant use of character dynamics gives us a deeper grasp of human relationships, particularly in connection to truth and culpability.

When it comes to the elusive nature of ever knowing what truly happened, Farhadi has learned from Rashomon. Except he undergoes that exploration without any flashbacks. In a way, this involves the audience more because it feels like we’re finding stuff out along with Ahmad.

Have you seen “The Past”?

Flashbacks – Pro and Con

Flashbacks are a controversial device in movies nowadays. I’ve heard a lot of screenwriters be adamantly opposed to them. “They’re a lazy way to relay information,” those against them argue. We’ve all seen movies in which we’re jolted out of a story by a flashback. My take is that they’re useful cinematic devices and not just for giving backstory.

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Train Your Eye – Great Photographers

When I was in film school, my advisor, Vojtech Jasny, encouraged us to carry a camera and shoot something every day so that we could “train our eye.” That’s one of the great things about film; it borrows from so many genres that it gives us an excuse to consume art in all its forms. In order to be a complete filmmaker you have to appreciate photography, painting, sculpture, music, hell, even dance. All art forms feed each other, of course, but film has a little bit of everything.

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Happy Birthday, Clark Gable!

Today is Clark Gable’s 112th birthday. Let’s celebrate it by talking about one of his most famous films, It Happened One Night. One of the best known romantic comedies of all time was scripted by Robert Riskin whose successful collaborations with Frank Capra produced many great films.


If you haven’t ever watched this 1938 gem, I recommend you stream it. The story is simple: Ellie (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled and sheltered heiress who runs away in order to marry someone her Dad disapproves of. Newspaperman Pete (Gable) spots her on a Greyhound bus and, “rescues” her with the intent of landing a great story. Instead, they both fall for each other. Predictable and silly? Maybe.

But unlike many other movies of the era, it holds up remarkably well, due in large part to the carefully crafted characterization of the two lead roles. It’s become a classic because, simply put, Riskin and Capra created two believably complicated characters and carefully constructed a story in which the audience sees how these two fall for each other. In fact, I would say that what makes this movie a must see for any writer is that it is a great character study of two flawed, yet likable individuals. Unlike a lot of modern romcoms, they’re not shoehorned into falling in love; their romance doesn’t happen because “it’s what’s supposed to happen.”

Ellie is headstrong and sheltered. Like someone with her background, she has a sense of entitlement but she is also adventurous and adaptable enough to go with the flow. She might not be street smart, but she is not too spoiled to refuse to sleep on a pile of hay under the stars. She’s a good sport in spite of it all and is willing to play along with whatever risky stunt Pete cooks up. In short, she’s terrific fun and when’s the last time you saw a modern female being portrayed as fun onscreen without her devolving into a manic pixie?

Pete in the meantime is calculating and hardbitten, but he is also genuinely caring and resourceful. He might act rough, but he is genuinely considerate. Man, he even cooks for her. Obviously, he has to, because she’s used to being served, right? But nevertheless, there’s a sweetness to his character that clearly tugs at Ellie’s (and any female in the audience’s) heart. At different moments in the movie, the audience gets to see each being vulnerable.

The beauty of the script, the reason it still works in the 21st Century, is that here’s a pair that definitely adds up to more than the sum of their parts. The trip is a metaphor for life and each is allowed to come up with solutions to solve whatever obstacles they’re thrown. Theirs is a collaboration, in a way. Their chemistry is not just a function of good casting; it’s also written into every one of their onscreen interaction. This considered structure has the emotional payoff of completely engaging the audience; the audience very badly wants them to end up together. We don’t want them to end up together because they’re young and hot. We want them to end up together because Capra and Riskin have shown us that these two are terrific together. Tell me honestly: When’s the last time you watched a love story in which you felt this way about the two leads?