The Use of Flashbacks in Movies

Posted by Syd Field on

At this moment in time, I think we're in the middle of a screenwriting revolution, a time where screenwriters are pushing the form and craft in new directions. I firmly believe that the traditional way of "seeing things" has changed, and we're looking for new ways to match our experiences and incorporate the new technology into our stories.

In terms of the contemporary screenplay, it seems like we want to get closer to the subjective reality of our characters. Take a look at Atonement, The Lookout, Babel, The Bourne Supremacy, Kill Bill I & II, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento, and many others.

This revolution/evolution in screenwriting seems to be based on the new visual awareness of how we see the world. We know the popularity of screenwriting and filmmaking is an integral part of our culture. If you look at MySpace and other sites, everybody is, or wants to be, a filmmaker. Write a script, get a digital tape recorder, film it, upload it onto your computer, edit it with IPro Edit, add some special CGI effects, lay in some music, and you have a film you can email to your friends and family. With the dramatic rise of wireless technology we have certainly evolved, and are continuing to evolve, in the way we see things.

If you look at the way the flashback was used in a film like Casablanca (Julius & Philip Epstein), measure it against the fragmented flashbacks in Ordinary People (Alvin Sargent) and then compare both of these films with the fragmented strands of memory integrated into The Bourne Supremacy or Atonement, you'll see a visual evolution in terms of style and execution.

The flashbacks in Casablanca show that magical time in Paris when Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) met and fell in love. The flashback scenes showing them in Paris are simply a linear series of complete scenes inserted into the narrative flow of the storyline.

Comparing the cinematic language of The Bourne Supremacy, Ordinary People and Atonement is an interesting exercise. In cinematic terms, the visual attributes are impressive, and the way the action and the characters are expressed makes the films more of a subjective experience. As Tony Gilroy writes in The Bourne Supremacy, Bourne holds a gun to Nicky's head "about to pull the trigger -SUDDENLY -- FLASHBACK! a moment - a shard - A WOMAN'S FACE - backing away - begging - begging us - begging the camera - PLEADING FOR HER LIFE IN RUSSIAN - this awful blur of desperation and panic - fear - too fast - too panicked" and then we cut back to present time. This tone, this style, has become the new version of the modern screenplay. In Atonement, the flashback, or memory, is seen from two distinct points of view, the same thing Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill or Scott Frank did in The Lookout.

Which raises the question, when is it appropriate to use a flashback in the storyline? I hear this all the time in many of the workshops and seminars I conduct around the world. When does it work the best and when is it the most effective?

Flashbacks are a tool, a device, where the screenwriter provides the reader and audience with visual information that he or she cannot incorporate into the screenplay any other way. The purpose of the flashback is simple: it is a technique that bridges time, place and action to reveal information about the character, or move the story forward.

Many times, a writer throws a flashback into the screenplay because he or she doesn't know how to move the story forward any other way. Sometimes, the screenwriter decides to show something about the main character that could be better stated in dialogue, and, in that case, the flashback only draws attention to itself and becomes intrusive. That doesn't work.

Look at the flashback as a tool that could be used to reveal information about the character or story that you can't reveal any other way. It can reveal emotional as well as physical information; it can reveal thoughts, memories or dreams, like what happened in Berlin that Jason Bourne is trying to remember, or the drowning incident in Ordinary People or the memories of the Paris love scenes in Casablanca.

Flashbacks are really a function of character, not story. Waldo Salt, great screenwriter of Coming Home and Midnight Cowboy, told me that he thought a flashback should be thought of as a "flashpresent," because the visual image we're seeing is what the character is thinking and feeling at that present moment, whether a memory, or fantasy, or event; a flashpresent, he remarked, is anything that illuminates a character's point of view. Take a look at the hockey scene in the first Act of The Lookout. What we see in flashback is shown through the eyes of the character, so we're seeing what he or she is seeing, thinking or feeling in present time, at this particular place or time. The flashpresent is anything we see the character thinking and feeling in the present moment, whether a thought, dream, memory, or fantasy, for time has no constraints or limits. In the mind of the main character there is no time and the flashpresent could be a particular moment in the past or present, perhaps even the future.

Which brings us back to the basic question: when is it appropriate to use a flashback? The purpose of flashback is to either move the story forward or reveal information about the character.

You can use flashbacks for any number of reasons but its primary purpose is to bridge time, place and action to reveal a past emotional event or physical conflict that affects the character. Sometimes, it gives insight and understanding into a character's behavior or solves a past mystery as in The Lookout.

You can also use a flashback to reveal why an event happened, or how it happened, or possibly flashforward to an event that may or may not happen in the near future. These all are ways of incorporating the flashback into your screenplay and make it work effectively.

If you do decide to use a flashback, think in terms of the flashpresent; ask yourself what is your character thinking or feeling at the present moment? If you can get into your character's head and find some thought, memory, or event which reflects on the present moment try to show how it affects your character.

In this way, you encourage a greater sense of character making your work deeper and more insightful.

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