#WW CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 3rd: Better Ask Bresson


I stay in on the weekends, but only because I need to get some writing done.

Here we are at Week Three of my interminable reign of terror, and well, I’m still pretty wary of directly offering any concrete Advice. However, for blog entry number three, I’ve devised something of a compromise: I will piggyback off of – and probably deliberately misinterpret – someone else’s thoughts on writing.

Last month, I picked up a copy of Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer. The book – a collection of various musings Bresson jotted down over the years – reads like a filmmaker’s Hagakure. Bresson begins by setting up a distinction between “cinema” (filmed theatre) and what he terms “cinematography” (the full potential of the camera to create a unique cinematic medium). Over the years, he riffs and elaborates on this theory: Cinematography is pure, something unto itself. Cinema is cobbled together, feet planted firmly in other mediums, never achieving singularity.

This theory of cinematography-versus-cinema may fuel Bresson’s “discoveries”, but as J.M.G. Le Clézio points out in his introduction, Bresson isn’t writing to preach. Like any other man, the greater auteur of French cinema has his “likings and dislikings”. Take them or the leave them, these are simply Bresson’s opinions.

I, for one, put a lot of stock in Bresson’s Notes. Though Bresson seems to be addressing the filmmaker (writer/director/auteur) – or his filmmaker idyll, the “cinematographer”* – many of his ideas could be applied to the screenwriter as well. Even if what we write would fall under his category of “filmed theatre”, we, as screenwriters, should absorb from Bresson a Spartan sense of cinematic economy.


*To clear up any confusion here, Bresson’s idea of a “cinematographer” does not refer to the director of photography, commonly referred to as a cinematographer.

Still from Bresson's THE DEVIL, PROBABLY


Below, I have pulled a few choice selections from Notes with my own thoughts following the quote(s). If you happen to have a few dollars to spare, I would wholeheartedly encourage any filmmakers/ writers out there to buy Bresson’s book. It makes for a great little pocket bible; full of inspiring thoughts, ripe for reciting and revisiting.

“Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way.”

I wish I could recall where I first heard or read the idea that in a film or screenplay, the plot (not to be confused with the structure) is always the least important element. Too many films or scripts allow their characters to simply become slaves of circumstance. Which is all well and good if an exploration passivity is the purpose at hand, a la the holy trifecta of meta-cinema: Blow-Up, The Conversation and Blow Out.

But when that’s not the case, shouldn’t it be natural for plot to evolve as a function of character, and not the other way around?

“A single word, a single movement that is not right or is merely in the wrong place gets in the way of all the rest.”

“An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it.”

“The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine.”

“One does not create by adding, but by taking away. To develop is another matter. (Not to spread out.)”

These four quotes are, admittedly, not among Bresson’s most revelatory. Grouped together though, they do reenforce the notion of addition-by-subtraction with respect to timing and placement. Countless times I have gotten lost in rewriting a scene, pulling my hair out over shaping just the right line of dialogue… only to come to the conclusion that half the page never should have been written in the first place. Strike it all out, and you have a solution.

Quote no. 2 could be read in much broader terms. It stresses the importance of specificity, in both setting and character. Bresson’s films (at least the nine I have seen) could all be described or pitched in a fairly succinct sentence, even in a sentence fragment. In the case of A Man Escaped, the title says it all. Why Bresson’s work is hypnotizing rather than mundane relates to the detailed interaction between to character and place.

To take the idea of originality through character/setting to its logical extreme, think of how John Carpenter recycles Rio Bravo in his film Assault on Precinct 13. Stripped of character/setting, the two storylines are basically the same. Identity comes from character and setting, not plot story.

As for Quote no.3 in the bunch – clearly, Bresson refers to the literal photographic image and its sequence through editing. Let’s destroy his analogy for a second (sorry, no disrespect intended), and think of the quote in terms of writing; dialogue and image.

Screenwriting, by nature, relies on an extreme efficiency of image and action. All the care and attention tends to go to structure and dialogue, scene description exists merely to establish something else, whether a reflection of character or a foreshadowing of plot.

And hence why, in my opinion, so many scripts immediately read as generic blueprints for  soon-to-be generic movies. As I did in Week One, I shall go on pimping Paul Schrader, a major Bresson disciple, and his Taxi Driver script. Schrader understands the “brilliance” of image at the script-level, why it pays off to let your writing sit in a scene and soak up the details.

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”

Essentially, a more eloquent and descriptive way of saying “Write what you know.” Too often the worn-out “Write what you know” adage gets translated to a young writer as “only write the experiences that you have actually lived and experienced first hand.” Bresson’s version is far more resistant to that sort of reduction. No one thinks just like you, therefore no one writes just like you, therefore write your stories because no one else can.

“Words do not always coincide with thought. Earlier, later. The aping of this non-coincidence in films is dreadful.”

This goes beyond Thou Shalt Not Write Expositional Dialogue. When characters become all-knowing, they reveal themselves as characters. They lack truth and believability, and rather than speaking words that a person might speak, they spew out bits of script-speak.

“To forge for oneself iron laws, if only in order to obey or disobey them with difficulty.”

For the final thought of the day/blog, I leave you with the above double-edged doozie. Do I even have a set of rules, or “iron laws”, to govern my writing?

Should I?


About Zach Herrmann

Currently residing in Brooklyn, New York, Zachary Herrmann started off writing entertainment journalism during college, interviewing a wide variety of personalities in film and music. He now works in Manhattan by day, and pursues creative writing in his apartment by night. In May 2011, he and his brother Jesse received top prize in the 2010 – 11 Canadian Short Screenplay Competition for their short script, Elijah the Prophet. Through the summer and fall, Zach helped coordinate a Kickstarter.com fundraising campaign with director James Cooper and CSSC’s own David Cormican, successfully raising over $20,000 in production funds. The film wrapped shooting in April 2012, and is now awaiting the start of its festival run.
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