Friday, 4 September 2009

(500) Days of Summer plus Q&A, Barbican

NB: review contains spoilers

Last night we saw a preview of (500) Days of Summer at the Barbican, followed by a quick Q&A with director Marc Webb and co-writer Scott Neustadter. The film has been billed as a "post-modern rom-com"; greetings card writer and frustrated would-be architect Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls for his boss's new assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel), and we trace their relationship over the 500 days of the title.

However, while Tom throws himself whole-heartedly into the relationship, Summer remains a little aloof and unattainable, never quite committing fully. Their split is revealed early in the film, and rather than ending with them getting back together again, the 'happy ending' is Tom realising that had he put too much weight on their relationship and that he needs to look forward instead of back.

In terms of screenwriting techniques, the film is interesting in that it tosses naturalism out the window and uses a variety of narrative tricks to enliven the story. The most obvious of these is the non-linear structure. Using an onscreen ticker to identify which of the 500 days we're currently on, the film starts after the couple have split up, and then flips back and forth to show how their relationship developed and how Tom deals with its aftermath.

It also uses a Pushing Daisies-style narrator. The device is used sparingly, but once or twice it comes across as a slightly clumsy way of articulating what's going on in the characters' heads.

Other narrative flourishes include a split-screen comparison between Tom's expectations and the reality of a party he attends, and a musical sequence that depicts Tom's joyous state of mind the morning after he and Summer finally consumate their relationship.

However, the tone, style and structure are well established in the pre-title sequence, drawing the audience into the film's world so that the subsequent flights of narrative fancy don't come as a nasty shock.

The relationship between naturalism (still the predominant dramatic mode in the UK) and more overtly cinematic techniques is something that I think I've banged on about before. I generally love it when films draw attention to their artificial nature (Amelie and Annie Hall are examples that springs to mind), but as both a viewer and a writer it still feels a bit like a guilty pleasure - like it's somehow cheating to use narrative 'gimmicks'.

Anyway, that sounds like quite a dry dissection of what is a very enjoyable film. It might not quite be the new Annie Hall, as some slightly over-enthusiastic commentators have suggested, but it's a very engaging look at that time in your life when your first big relationship picks you up and gives you a good shake.

The Q&A after the screening was well led by film journo Charles Gant. Scott Neustadter said that the script was based on a relationship he had while living in London, and was initially an act of catharsis. However, the input of his co-writer Michael H Weber enabled him to gain a bit of objectivity on the material and convert his angry first draft into something more accessible and universal.

The writers were keen to draw attention to the gap between mainstream Matthew McConaughey-style rom-coms and the reality of how relationships actually tend to work. They also wanted to move beyond the stereotypes of how men are generally represented as emotionally illiterate in stuff like Judd Apartow's films.

In fact, they expressed a bit of surprise that the film is being marketed as a rom-com at all. They view it more as a coming-of-age story than a clash of the genders, as Tom moves from his initially idealistic view of Summer to a more mature appreciation of how relationships work.

Referring to the non-linear structure, they said that's how you tend to remember love affairs - your memory draws links between various episodes, such as trips to a particular location that took place under different circumstances. They spent a lot of time in development justifying each of the time-shifts in the script (although it becomes much more linear during the second half).

Following that structure allows the audience to analyse the relationship in the same way that Tom does, while also depicting how his perceptions and the way he remembers the relationship also changes, marking his growth from anger at their break-up to acceptance.

Interview with writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber (HitFix)
Another interview with SN and MHW (CanMag)
Interview with director Marc Webb (Cinematical)
First draft screenplay (via Script Collector)

No comments: