I am a firm believer that just about any story idea can be turned into an Oscar winning screenplay if it is approached in just the right way, and that same idea could see just as much success as a directorial effort if it is approached with the same level of care. But the difference between average writing/directing and award caliber writing/directing is all in the subtleties, at least in my opinion. Probably the biggest differentiator between average and amazing is found in the subtext (or lack there of) of any given creative work. Throughout this article I’ll share my thoughts on why subtext is one of the biggest keys to success as a filmmaker, and why it should always be prioritized.
What exactly is subtext?
Let’s first consider what subtext actually is by thinking about it in context of a screenplay: If the text is what you see on the page, the subtext is the invisible language, thoughts and feelings, that exist in the context of the scene or story, but that are never overtly spoken. To give a simple example, a scene might exist between a man and a woman that meet for the first time when she orders a coffee from him at the local coffee shop. Their dialogue on the surface may be all about the coffee – how she likes it made, how much it costs, etc. But underneath all of the words that they are speaking, it’s clear that they really aren’t talking about coffee. They’re flirting with the idea of going on a date with each other.
This is a very rudimentary example of subtext in a scene, but it can of course be extrapolated to be understood in a much more layered and in depth context. Nonetheless, subtext is always more interesting to read than text, as it keeps the reader engaged and challenged in a way that they could never be if they were reading dialogue that was on the nose. The scene described above would be extremely flat if it was simply a girl and guy flirting at a coffee shop – we’ve seen that many times and it would become tired very quickly. But when neither of them say it out loud, and we need to read between the lines, there is a lot more interest to the scene, and the viewer is inevitably more engaged in the content.
Subtext is just as important in directing as it is in writing. An inexperienced director might take the coffee shop scene example and completely miss the subtextual cues when directing the scene. They might not place an emphasis on the flirtatiousness between the two characters, and let the scene become meaningless as we are simply watching a girl order a cup of coffee.
Or the opposite scenario could exist – A poorly written scene, with no subtext could come to life by strong directorial choices. Let’s assume the coffee shop scene was written in a way that was very flat to begin with and didn’t really have any subtext behind it. A great director would be able to see this issue within the scene and direct the actors, camera movement, and other elements in a way that would show a third dimension to the scene that didn’t exist before. Ultimately this emphasis on subtext is the biggest factor in creating a dynamic scene that is full of life and captivating to watch.
Great subtext can exist in a screenplay, or can be executed while directing, but the best results always achieved when both elements are set in place and they work together harmoniously. A fantastic script that is layered and rich with subtleties and subtext, and that is then directed in a way to allow that subtext to be felt by the viewer is a recipe for success. The reason I emphasized that the subtext should be felt (as opposed to seen), is because the second that it is seen, it is no longer subtext. In order for subtext to work it needs to exist in the background, continually fueling a scene or sequence, but never becoming so obvious that it is consciously recognized.
I would argue that every great writer and great director at their core are masters of subtext. Take Quentin Tarantino for instance. He has the unique ability to make just about any piece of dialogue interesting – and not just because of his effortless way with words, but more so because of his emphasis on subtext. After all, how many writer/directors could create a brilliant scene out of a conversation about a Quarter Pounder in a french McDonalds? Probably a better example would be the opening scene to Inglorious Basterds, where subtext is used so brilliantly to emphasize the real intentions of Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), which we can all agree is not about having a fresh glass of milk.
Continuing with Tarantino as an example, it’s worth pointing out that so many writer/directors over the years have attempted to emulate his style, but none of them have been able to quite get it right. Tarantino knock-off films can be smelled a mile away, and in my opinion they are most obviously failures because of their lack of subtext. Many of these filmmakers simply attempt to quantify the Tarantino approach to dialogue or scene construction, but leave out the most important part – the subtext. So all they are left with are the bare bones of a scene that really no longer has any soul, and ends up feeling like a parody, rather than an homage.
Viewers love subtext for many reasons. It not only makes a scene more rich and textured, but also is more reminiscent of real life as it speaks to the truth of human interactions. Let’s go back to our coffee shop example. Imagine that scenario in real life – it would undoubtably be filled with subtext. No two people are going to meet for the first time and say exactly what is on their mind, so why would any two characters behave that way? Audiences may want to go to the movies for an escape, but in order to really pull them into another world, that world must resemble our own in many ways, and most importantly in it’s relationship to the unspoken.
If you’re an aspiring writer/director, try challenging yourself to re-write an old scene with subtext in mind, or to direct your next script with subtext as a priority. You’ll be amazed at how it will transform your work!