Filmmaking: Is Voiceover Narration Always a Weakness?

Jessica Chastain Tree of Life

A couple of weeks ago I was in a preliminary meeting for a TV series I am being commissioned to write. One of the associated producers, who has hitherto exclusively made reality-TV fare, suggested the characters break the fourth wall and talk to the camera, in mockumentary style, which works to great effect in both TV and feature-film comedies — note the word “mock” — but not in drama.

As a purist, I was taken aback by the suggestion of deploying this unnecessary device. I reigned in my kneejerk contempt for it by nodding and muttering, “Hmm, interesting idea.”  It just didn’t suit my vision for this particular piece at all, but I’m also coming in later in this project’s process. I’m changing it from a comedy to at most a dramedy, although by the time I’m through it’ll likely be an outright drama with comedic hints now and then; one of the main characters has a personality disorder that is too often the butt of jokes, which isn’t so bad as it is tiresome and inauthentic to how both people with the disorder and their caretakers deal with it in real life.

If we were going for a comedy, the producer’s is actually a tried and true suggestion, and plays to her strengths as a reality-TV maker; a protagonist sharing intimacies with the viewer into the camera is part of the format she understands and works with all the time. But it weakens drama, just as its cousin, voice-over narration, does. It breaks the viewer’s identifying connection with the characters.

What I didn’t mention in the meeting was that I had a funny feeling we might actually need intermittent voice-over narration for this particular drama. I didn’t mention it because even stronger than my contempt for breaking the fourth wall is my terror of voice-over narration. It makes me feel feeble, a less-than, unimaginative filmmaker.

I don’t know when in the course of my early career I was taught that voice-over is a sign of narrative weakness, an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass device to be deployed when nothing else can move the plot forward. When you’re writing, if you use this rule of resistnace, you can almost always think of some other way to tell the story. And in my experience that other way is invariably more elegant and effective. It also forces you to maximize the strength of the cinematic medium.

Book-ending voice-overs have been around since at least ancient Greek tragedies, if you allow me to count the introductory and closing monologues by the gods or the chorus, neither of which are actual characters in the drama, as voice-overs. In film, they give a fairytale, “once upon a time” quality to the story; it feels as if you are being read to, as opposed to actively reading yourself. Again, it is a disconnection that risks disengaging the viewer, but either you’re watching that movie with a child, or you’re watching it to tap into your inner child. Or Tim Burton is about as grown up as you’ll ever be, so shut up and pass the Milk Duds.

In his earlier work, namely on the cult TV shows Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, my friend Bryan Fuller used voice-overs throughout with the deliberate intention of layering that fairytale effect onto mature-viewer content, very like Burton but without the swirly bits — Bryan prefers plaids and bold, contrasting colors. His background as a writer on Star Trek, which has perhaps the most famous introductory voice-over in the history of filmed entertainment, even more so than Twilight Zone, might have something to do with his penchant for the device. I’ve never asked him. But there’s no doubt that it vests his mature-viewer content with a bedtime story feel.

The voice-overs combined with the colorful, stylized production and almost presentational acting, turn Bryan’s earlier shows into delightful pop-up books. But that doesn’t suit his current show on NBC, Hannibal, which needs to have considerable more gravitas if you’re expected to buy into the prequel to Silence of the Lambs and not feel that Dr. Lecter is more like Edward Scissorhands. Bryan’s signature striking visuals, while no less stylish or fantastical than his other shows, are now more muted, organic and believable. That, combined with the lack of voice-over, allows me to be captivated by the thrill of the thriller, the horror of the gore, to the extent that at moments I want to look away, or at the very least bark, “Oooh, shit!”

Some forms of thriller, notably film noir, use voice-over to good effect, but it’s not so much necessary as it is a stylistic hallmark of the genre: black-and-white film, contrasty light, nighttime, Los Angeles; camera pushes in on glass-paned door with detective’s name; detective is seated, legs up on the desk, pondering the new case in V.O. You instantly know what you’re watching.

If you ditched the voice-over and began a film-noir piece in media res with the detective at a crime scene, or the stylish dame in distress sashaying into the detective’s office to hire him, the drama wouldn’t be diminished. In fact, if we followed said dame into the detective’s office, and then handed her viewpoint over to him during the expository interview, no one would complain that the dramatic impact was affected adversely.

Unless it’s a deliberate, tongue-in-cheek, self-referential homage to the genre, these days the opening of a crime drama normally begins without a voice-over, unless it’s Gone Girl, but I pretty much loathed that film and everyone in it, so that only bolsters my point. The stylistic change is in large part thanks to one of the best L.A.-noir films of all time, Chinatown, which didn’t use the gumshoe’s voice-over.

Indeed, Chinatown is not so much an homage as it is a reinvention of the genre; film noir rather suits Polanski’s pervy and sadistic sensibilities, as does horror — always in that Frenchified, never-too-base-but-still-fucking-creepy way of his, bien sûr.

The lack of the traditional detective’s voice-over connects the audience more immediately with a firsthand, shared experience  of the drama via the protagonist’s point of view rather than the protagonist remaining detached; in other words, the voice-over creates a duality, a you-and-I, shattering the desirable unity through identification: the character is telling you about his experience, his philosophy. Therein lies the narratological weakness, in that disconnected duality, and it’s whole reason we avoid using the device. Well, that and the fact most film actors frankly suck at voice-overs.

I’ll call the film noir-style narrator the Dear Diary Voice-Over to distinguish it from the Fairytale Voice-Over. The Dear Diary provides exposition, moves the plot forward at certain points, and often provides a conclusion; if there is no resolution, no final statement, then the narrator — who is almost a separate character from his on-screen persona — as well as the voice-over itself as a device is left dangling. Not that I would care at that point because, like Gone Girl, it’s unlikely to have been a very good film in the first place.

Another L.A. noir more famous than Chinatown that plays with the archetypal voice-over of the genre is Sunset Boulevard. The dead man in the pool bookends the film and provides something of a twist at the end, another risky narrative device that I’ve been shamelessly guilty of in the past, but which I’ll save for another day as a subject. New York Times critic Thomas Pryor wrote about the narrator and the twist ending, “That device is completely unworthy of Brackett and Wilder, but happily it does not interfere with the success of Sunset Boulevard.”

The challenge with a film like that is the twist ending is a huge part of the film’s appeal to the larger audience. It’s only jarring to the intellectuals, to the critics or dramatists who care about things like narratological purity, about how much better it could have been if only…

My policy when making these sorts of decisions is that you are responsible to the largest audience possible; I’m not an auteur filmmaker — I’m not sure I believe in auteurism, anyway — and you need to make the money back so you can make your next film and make a living doing what you love. If you can please the critics at the same time, you’ve hit a home run. But successfully entertaining the broader audience will at least get you around all the bases with your backers.

Sunset Boulevard

American Beauty deploys a similar dead-protagonist narrative. It works at least as well as Sunset Boulevard, mainly because it’s again almost a separate character from the protagonist, whose voice it is. It’s snarkier than Kevin Spacey’s wimpy, crisis-riddled Lester Burnham in the main drama on screen. It’s far more assured, more godlike. It straddles the line between the Dear Diary narrator and a third variant that I’ll call the Ruminative Voice-over. This is probably the most appealing of all three kinds of narration, but the most open to intellectual failure, to becoming mired in pretension and uselessness.

I’m not enough of a daredevil to use the Ruminative Voice-over ever again, having used it once in a short film, Tail, a take on The Little Mermaid told from the drowned man’s perspective. This is the first time I’ve ever discussed that particular film by name since it puttered around the festival circuit in the mid-2000s; usually, I refer to it as “that film” with superstitious-like dread, as if it might taint the rest of my oeuvre. I still cringe at the decision to only use lyrical narration over gorgeous images. I’m squinting as I type.

I don’t think I deliberately tried to mimic Terrence Malick with Tail. Synced dialogue is harder to work with and ups the budget much more, and the lack of funds dictated the production’s parameters. If I’d had the money to use synced sound, I would not have made that particular piece.

Malick is the undisputed master of the Ruminative Voice-over. He blends his prose poetry with the score, creating an oratorio with spoken words, voiced by several narrators. While I’m not a fan of either Tree of Life, with it’s nonsense spiritual-ish message egregiously mixed in with the science-based evolution of the universe, or its sequel To the Wonder, a goopy meditation on romantic love and relationships, I am a huge fan of his earlier work. Yes, even The New World — I seem to be the only person who liked that so much I was moved to tears at one point.

Malick is shamelessly sentimental, a Neo-Romanticist who makes Douglas Sirk, the king of melodrama, look like hardboiled film-noir gumshoe. I call him shameless because, as much as I would like to go there with the Big Feels myself sometimes, I am too ashamed, too self-conscious of being emotionally manipulative. Or, worse, that the attempt at manipulation will fail. Like his characters, Malick is searching for an ethereal, esoteric grace in existence through his movies, and while I admire that, I also feel that I’ve been there, done that with my life; however, I have never achieved the same sensation of spiritual ecstasy in my work. And the device he uses to achieve it is the combination of sublime visuals with the spoken song of his voice-overs. It’s his, he owns it, he does it very well, so I allow it.

Can Malick do a straight three-act drama in the classical sense, with proper dialogue and interactions between characters, and no voice-over? I doubt we’ll ever find out for sure; I would imagine a classical format interests him not in the least.

I’ve always appreciated the fact that David Lynch, who also marches to his own stylistic drumbeat, made The Straight Story almost as a way of proving he can, at the very least, successfully pull off the quirky indie Sundance film without resorting to his signature narrative and visual weirdnesses. Lynch is like Picasso saying, “Yes, I can draw a proper figure. Here it is. Now, leave me alone while I try to reinvent the medium.” I might be wrong, but the only time Lynch has used voice-over to my recollection is when he was forced to with that delirious clusterfuck Dune. That was such a mess that they had to hand out a glossary of terms to the audience when it first opened.

This is the only time voice-overs work for me: When they are integral to the film, as they are in Sunset Boulevard, American Beauty and Malick’s oeuvre.

This is where I loop back in a Sunset Boulevard way to my original story about the TV series I am being commissioned to write. The whole reason I’m scribbling this essay to begin with is I’m talking to myself about the use of voice-over narration because I can’t see how I’m going to get around using it.

The title character (not the main protagonist) is an autistic ten-year-old with a rich interior fantasy life. He’s midway on the autism spectrum, in the state of being that was formerly known as Asperger’s. He is based on a real person; our purpose is to keep this series as authentic as possible, so all of the characters are pattered on actual people and their lives. The real-life boy does have this rich interior fantasy world. In fact, all of us have an inner voice, and all of us fantasize, particularly when we are young and in as psychologically stressful circumstances as this character is.

Therefore, it is correct for me to use voice-over narration as a device. It conveys how he sees the world, how he wishes his world really were. His background and current situation make him mistrustful of the real world, but I’m wary of conveying those observations directly in the voice-over; stress and duress is something that can and should be conveyed cinematically, by showing rather than telling through visuals and drama, not talked about.

There is no Dear Diary here, no rumination, no fairytale quality I’m trying to impart. I want the audience to listen in on a pathologically private, mistrustful individual’s inner voice because it is a real thing that exists in the real boy. The voice-over will be its manifestation and is therefore integral to the drama.

So, there, I’ve worked it out. Thank you, dear reader, for listening to me throughout the process. My inner purist is relieved from guard duty over my work, allowed to break free to explore a device I secretly enjoy using. In the voice-overed words of Lester Burnham in American Beauty, “It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about.”



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