Back when I was in graduate school, my screenwriting professor gave me an assignment that made very little sense to me at the time. Every student in the class was tasked with the responsibility of creating a movie poster for the script they were writing. At the time, it seemed like a throw-away assignment. I figured my professor just needed to assign us a bunch of busy work to fill some empty class time. It wasn’t until years later that his movie poster assignment not only made sense, the lessons I learned from it became profound. It’s an exercise that every screenwriter should be assigned.
Several years ago, after completing Vacant House, my first zero-budget feature film, our little movie got accepted into its first film festival here in Los Angeles, and I wasn’t about to let the evening of our premiere pass by without a poster proudly displayed in the lobby of the theatre. And so, I set out to create a one-sheet that embodied the mood and tone of our story – a poster that compelled audiences to buy tickets – an iconic image that made people want to see our film.
I scoured through our footage, looking for an ideal visual moment to put on our poster, but as I scrubbed through the film, I grew disappointed. The story was there, but the images all started to blend together. Everything looked… the same – just a bunch of talking heads, and a few interesting cutaways. I looked and looked for those encapsulated moments that screamed Vacant House. I couldn’t find a single image that embodied our unique story.
It was at that moment that my screenwriting professor’s assignment started to make a lot of sense. Where was my “E.T. and Elliot soaring through the night sky on a bicycle silhouetted by the moon” moment? Where was my “Gandalf standing before the Balrog with staff raised above his head screaming, ‘You shall not pass!’” moment? Where was my “Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader locked in a light saber duel” moment? I didn’t have a single visual moment in my film that said, “This is an image unlike any other image you’ve ever seen that encapsulates the theme of Vacant House.”
This wasn’t just a marketing fail. This was a basic first-time director fail. My movie had no stained-glass moments.
Back in the early days of the Catholic church, most parishioners were illiterate. These men and women were at the mercy of educated priests who would read and interpret Biblical texts on their behalf. This is one of the reasons liturgy and rituals were so important to the foundling religion. Traditions were not created to burden congregants with rules and regulations, instead, liturgy was formulated to help a generation of non-Bible owning, illiterate believers take the truths of scripture with them into their weeks. Through the power of recitations and memorable hymns, common people could remember the truths of their religion, deep in their minds and hearts, and imbue them into their daily lives outside the walls of the church.
Stained-glass windows served a similar purpose. Just like the movie screens of our days, the artists behind the great cathedrals searched through the stories of scripture and found iconic moments – moments that could be expressed in single imagery. Moses standing before a burning bush, David flinging a slingshot at a giant Philistine, the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus on the cross, A host of angels appearing before a field of shepherds proclaiming the birth of the Christ – and these singular moments were artistically expressed through powerful imagery in the windows of churches; they left indelible marks on the hearts and minds of believers who sat in their pews week after week.
Even centuries ago, artists recognized the power of cinematics.
I was proud of our movie poster for Vacant House, but it ended up looking like most posters you’ll see for low-budget, independent films – just a collection of headshots arranged above a picture of a location from the film and the title of the movie written in some interesting looking font. Nothing says “boring” like a bunch of nondescript floating heads.
So, the next time you sit down to write a screenplay, or if you’re a director and you begin to storyboard your film, ask yourself, “What are my stained-glass moments?”. Find the visual moments in your story that are powerful and memorable – images that would make a great movie poster! Film is a medium of imagery, and if you’re not speaking the basic language of motion pictures, you’re not telling great cinematic stories.