Monday, December 21, 2009

Yep, I'm actually going to use a Christmas carol to make a point about directing.

By this time every year, I'm totally, completely sick of holiday music. Call me a grinch, but the next tinny speaker that tries to get me in a holiday mood by spewing 'Little Drummer Boy' or 'Run, Run Rudolph' into the air anywhere near me is going to find itself decorated for the holidays with a dent that matches the size and shape of the heel of my shoe.

But there's one song I never seem to get tired of. 'Baby It's Cold Outside'.

Okay, it's not really a Christmas carol. But for a song that was written in 1944, it gets played a lot during the holidays –– and almost never during the rest of the year.

I know what you're thinking. You're wondering what 'Baby It's Cold Outside' has to do with directing. Well, let's start with the film 'Elf', which featured the song, sung by Zooey Deschanel –– whose voice has a syrupy, 1940s quality –– and Leon Redbone –– an inspired choice to dub for Will Ferrell.

Before that, it was actually used in the musical 'Neptune's Daughter'. Twice. Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams sang it once. Red Skelton and Betty Garrett sang it the other time. And it won Frank Loesser the Oscar for Best Original Song.

Enough history. It's a great song. But the question is, why?

In a word, subtext.

And that, dear Aspiring Director, is relevant to making a quality film in a way that a little gold statue may or may not be.

Listen to the lyrics. 'Baby It's Cold Outside' is a seduction, set to music.

Here's a really fun exercise: Translate the words to the song into what you know they mean. What you end up with is something about seven seconds long and boring.

Here's my version:

"I want to have sex with you."
"I want to have sex with you, too, but I don't think I should."
"I want to have sex with you."
"Okay."

When you translate the song into plain English, it sounds like the dialogue from a typical Hollywood action film. It's the subtext that makes it interesting. Sure, we know it's cold outside. That much is obvious from the title. But as the song progresses, we get to know who these people are, what they've been doing, how they think, and what their circumstances are. Or, to put it into film talk, character, backstory, motivation, and conflict. We even know exactly what's about to happen next.

Subtext isn't easy. You have to write around something instead of saying it directly, and believe me, it's hard enough to say something directly. But when it works, you end up with something really interesting. Something people –– people like me, anyway –– want to hear over and over again, even when it happens to be 65 years old.

Happy holidays. Now get back to work.