Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the teacher who first introduced me to the technical side of film storytelling, but I remain forever grateful. When I was at secondary school, we had ‘activities’ on a Thursday afternoon, split between the various Houses. They were arranged into blocks of six weeks each, all with self-describing names like Museum Visits, Ice Skating, and so on. Film Studies was one of them. “Cool, I get to watch films in school!” I thought. But it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
In the first week, my Housemates and I were informed that we would be watching Back To The Future, one of my favourite films. Awesome. But after the first five minutes, the teacher hit the pause button. “You’ve all seen this before, right? So you know what’s going to happen?” We nodded. He went on: “What you may not have realised is that the essence of who Marty McFly is – his life, his character and everything else – are all established in those first few minutes. We learn about the major conflict and the course of the story. A first time viewer who didn’t see the trailers or the adverts or even the poster would know, either consciously or subconsciously, exactly what kind of film this is going to be from the opening minutes. Let me show you.”
He rewound the tape and we watched the beginning again. With the teacher’s help, all the stuff we’d glossed over before was made clear: the theme of time immediately established by all those clocks. The theft of the plutonium foreshadowed on the news. The great shot where Marty’s skateboard hits the container the plutonium was in. Doc Brown’s wackiness shown both by his voice on the phone and the hilariously complicated contraption he set up to give his dog Einstein some food. Marty’s rebelliousness in his skitching to get to school. The reputation of his family: “No McFly has ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley.” And the foreshadowing of the quest: “Yeah, well history is gonna change.” How he was ashamed of his father. The teacher was right – we already knew so much about Marty and his life situation, just from the ruthless efficiency of the film’s opening.
Then we went into the notion of setups and payoffs – how Marty’s mother is established as a puritanical, dowdy figure before we see her in 1955 as a sexy boundaries-pusher who has certainly ‘parked’ before. His father nervously not answering the question about what he was doing when he was hit by the car. The old lady asking for donations to save the clock tower, the same tower that proves so important in the film’s climax. The brilliant little throwaway details, such as how Twin Pines Mall becomes Lone Pine Mall on Marty’s return from travelling through time, due to old man Peabody shooting a pine tree in 1955 while aiming at his escaping Delorean. Back To The Future truly has a wonderful, wonderful script.
For me, all this was an epiphany. I began to think about story structure in the films I saw from then on, becoming ever more interested in exactly how filmmakers accomplish certain things and how the tapestry of a plot fits together.
I wish I could thank that teacher, as what I learnt in his few classes has proven so valuable in my own writing over the past few years. If only I could remember his name.