Friday, January 28, 2011


The Ghost and Us: Showing, Not Telling

Emily Carmichael's horror comedy short film, The Ghost and Us, provides an excellent working example of the old screenwriting rule, Show, Don't Tell.

In the film, Laura (Maria Dizzia), is newly married to a man she loves. Ben (Geordie Broadwater) loves her back. The problem is that Ben's ex-wife, Sena (Moira Dennis), won't let go. She keeps dropping by unannounced. Laura even finds Sena in the newlyweds' bedroom, whispering sweet nothings into Ben's ear.

Laura can't even get a restraining order against Sena, because ... Sena is dead. The woman isn't just a stalker, she is a spiritual stalker.

(Yes, The Ghost and Us evokes Blithe Spirit.)

Despite its short length (11 minutes), The Ghost and Us provides story arcs for all three of its characters (wife, husband, dead wife). All three characters change in some small way by film's end.

Especially admirable is the film's mid-point scene. As Syd Field teaches, the mid-point is where one should normally place a film's key turning point/incident -- an incident that affects the main characters' story arcs. The Ghost and Us not only achieves this, but it does so by showing, not telling.

Prior to this mid-point scene, Laura and Sena have battled and bickered over Ben's affections. The mid-point scene begins after Laura and Sena have engaged in a temporary truce. Together, they share a snack in the kitchen. Girl stuff of the sort that bonds women.

Then it becomes apparent that Sena cannot eat. She's a ghost.

Laura's attempt to help Sena eat, and the latter's realization that she's no longer of this world, both strengthens their bond, and conveys a poignancy that lifts The Ghost and Us above a mere spook tale. Adding to the scene's strength is that:

1. It's conveyed visually. Rather than having the two women say nice things about each other, Carmichael shows Sena's inability to eat, and Laura's futile attempt to help her rival.

2. It's not overdone or overlong. The incident occurs. It's over. The women return to battle. (Albeit with a greater understanding of their situation, and of each other, hence, their emotional story arcs are advanced.) By not belaboring this scene, The Ghost and Us avoids the trap of cheap sentimentality.

Actually, The Ghost and Us is admirable for just having a story and characters. All too many horror films these days are just an unmotivated succession of scenes which contain nothing but gore effects.

Emily Carmichael is an NYU film school graduate whose work has screened at the Sundance Film Festival. She may be contacted at Kid Can Drive.


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