This past weekend at Fantasia, we got some valuable script feedback and advice from a couple of the market consultants on Rite of the Witch Goddess. Our script is “done” but not “done done”. We handed in a good version and got into Frontières on the basis of it, and we’ve made some tweaks since. But we’re humble enough to know that we won’t really be done until we’d put it through the editing machine a few more times.
One of our consultants, the delightful Brian Udovich, used an example of a film I saw and loved at TIFF a few years ago, but never would have thought of as having anything in common with the Rite of the Witch Goddess (other than, to a very small degree, the ending), Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. The film isn’t supernatural, the protagonist certainly isn’t a 17-year-old girl, and it has a very gritty, “present-day” tone. And yet! And yet…
**If you haven’t seen Kill List, stop reading this blog post immediately because it will be full of spoilers, and this is a film that really packs a lot of punch in its surprises.**
I can’t recommend it enough, though. It’s on Canadian Netflix. Go watch it right now.
Here’s a surprisingly un-spoiler-y trailer. But honestly you’d be better off not even watching that. Go in blind!
So, onto the spoilers. If you’re still reading, consider yourself fairly warned.
The reason Brian brought up Kill List had a lot to do with the fact that the film drops you into its story without explanation, and without giving you much of a chance to catch up. Of course, most good films should do that, but this one actually does so in a way that’s subtle, effective and worth a re-watch for analysis.
The first 20 minutes are a bit of a slow burn. Jay and Shel are having a rough time in their marriage. He’s unemployed, their savings are depleted, they fight in front of their kid too often. The ordinary world is well established and clear, even though you still don’t know a lot of crucial details – like, say, what Jay does for a living.
But even during this languidly paced first act, there are a few really beautiful nods at what’s to come. I did not notice, for example, that at exactly the five-minute mark, Jay and his family play fight in the yard in a way that perfectly foreshadows (echoes?) the film’s finale. This is hard to miss on the re-watch, but the first time I saw it, I absolutely did not take it in.
There’s also a pretty good LOL moment at around 11 minutes, when dinner guest Fiona tells the group that she’s in “human resources”, which according to her is “not personal”, even though there’s “a lot of dirty work to be done”. Knowing the role she plays in the story, this awkward dinner moment is hilarious.
At 20 minutes, Fiona carves the strange symbol into the back of Jay and Shel’s bathroom mirror, marking him as the “chosen one”. From that moment on, the film never lets more than three minutes pass without delivering something crucial – either an important plot point for an important bit of foreshadowing. The pacing is meticulous and deftly hidden in a great story so that you are never aware of just how tightly structured it is.
Now, I noticed a lot of the tiny moments when I first watched the film, it’s just that I didn’t figure out what they meant until it was over, which is why Kill List is so smart. Don’t we usually feel a couple of steps ahead of the films we watch?
All of the tiny moments that eventually add up to a kind of “explanation” of the ending are subtle and easily missed – and even if you do spot them, the puzzle is tough to piece together. The dead rabbit on the lawn (which Jay and Shel assume was killed by their cat – and maybe it was?), the client’s strange move to “sign the deal” in blood, the fact that the victims all thank Jay (because of course, it’s an honour to be killed by him), it’s all noticeable, but what does it mean? Clearly these are clues to something – but what?
Watching it again, I was struck by even more tiny moments. Even Gal (gutted in the tunnels, like the rabbit in Jay’s garden) says thank you after asking Jay to kill him. Is this an ironic joke for the viewer? Is he in on it, or is he still the only one Jay can trust? When his wife smiles after it’s revealed that she and their son are “the hunchback”, what does that mean? Was she somehow in on it too, or is she just laughing at the horrible, terrible absurdity of it?
As a first-time watcher, if you go into the film without knowing exactly what it’s about, it’s unlikely that you’re ahead of the mystery that the superhuman duo of Wheatley and Amy Jump (I swear, that woman is my hero) are setting up. More likely, you’re on the edge of your seat wondering what the hell is going on until about 15 minutes from the end, when the first glimpses of the pagan procession are seen. And even then, as a horrible realization creeps upon you, can you honestly say you figured it all out before the final moments?
I mean, maybe you did, and you’re a smarter and more observant viewer than I. But you have to admit it was cleverly done.
How does this relate to Rite of the Witch Goddess, you might ask? Well, Brian’s advice was not that we should make a gritty British crime thriller, but that we should consider dropping our audience into the story in a similar way.
Right now, our script sets up what will eventually be the climax, right at the beginning. The film opens with a ritual that is so epic, it might leave audiences waiting for the spectacular grand finale for the duration of our 90 minute running time. And it might leave them frustrated and wondering why we started off with a bang and waited so long to get to the next bang. If we start the story differently, it might give us more of a chance to build the tension, the action, and the wild special-effects. Not to mention the sense of mystery and suspense. In other words, it might give us an edge on the audience.
As Brian wisely pointed out, we – modern genre audiences – have all seen 7000 movies, and we don’t need stories to be set up for us the way an audience 40 years ago might have. We like the challenge of working to figure out what’s going on, and we like to feel as though characters are never speaking just for our benefit.
Everybody hates obvious exposition when they’re watching a movie. Why on earth would a character say “yeah, I’m sad because my mom died” instead of just crying or shrugging angrily, as they probably would in real life. But it can be surprisingly difficult to avoid expository writing. “How will anyone know what’s going on?” you ask yourself. “How will they unravel the brilliant back story that I created?” Just let it go. The audience is smarter than you, and they don’t want to hear your whole back story, and moreover, it’s probably not going to make the movie any better.
In the case of Kill List, there are plenty of things that never get explained. What exactly happened on their botched job in Kiev? Who knows? It went sour, and that’s all we need to know. It forms the background for the story we’re watching but it’s not an active part of it, so nobody is going to pause the action to explain it all to us. And that is as it should be.
I haven’t at all figured out how the rewrite of our script is going to be structured, but if any of you have other viewing recommendations for me, bring them on. Anything that’s worth a first or second time watch for brilliant story structuring purposes would be most welcome.