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A Dream Within A Dream

Hello to Script Pete, who emailed me the other day with this question:

“Character is institutionalized…..deluded into imagining she is a singing star! Do you consider, beginning @ page 49 the next 26 pages are mixed over 60 pages…..too many in dream? Dream scenes I was told is difficult to put on film? 109 pages total ie: 26 dream 83 real…”

I find the difference between dream sequence and “reality” in film a bit of a contradiction in terms; whenever people talk about reality or realism in film, I wonder if there is any such thing, philosophically-speaking? Edgar Allen Poe says, “Is everything we see or seem, but a dream within a dream” (which horror buffs may also remember from John Carpenter’s The Fog) and I think this applies nicely to movies, since everything in them is but a dream within a dream to me, even those supposedly “realist” or “real time” pieces – after all, how many times do we see Johnny Depp go to the loo in Nick of Time? None. Alright, it’s only supposed to be an hour and a half and perhaps fellas can hold it in better than us laydeez, but if some hardcore criminals were threatening me and my daughter’s lives, I’d probably have an even weaker bladder than normal, know what I’m saying?

But it’s okay. ‘Cos it’s not reality, it’s a representation of reality. That’s why the line drawn between reality and dream then needn’t really be that stringent. Just as we needn’t see anything that doesn’t feed into the story (like going to the loo – though in thrillers people are often murdered in the toilet and heroes can be attacked in public toilets often, though they usually manage to slam assailants’ heads into sinks, etc: Go Arnie!), we also needn’t worry too much about what’s “real” and what’s not, since it’s more about context. Let me explain.

The context of your movie or movie script has more to do with its own internal logic, than the notion of reality. For example: if we are concerned with notions of reality, then we’d have to deal with statistics. What is the likelihood of getting attacked by a group of highly trained, hardcore criminals tooled up to the nines in real life? Um… Probably zero. Yet it’s happened to John McClane four times. More facetiously, what is the likelihood of being attacked by an acid-dripping alien and then going back for more, only to die and then be ressurrected 100-odd years later and do it all over again? You know who I’m talking about ; ).

It’s the old, “it gets worse and worse” scenario in movies: oh, we’re being attacked by werewolves? Damn. Oh we’re being attacked by werewolves AND we’re in the werewolves’ own house? Double damn! Oh – and you guessed it: there’s a couple in here with us as well?! (Dog Soldiers). Because of this then, all movies have a certain “nightmare” quality to them, regardless of genre (though this does of course lend itself particularly well to horrors and thrillers). We all know, watching any film, that quite literally things will get worse before they get better. Even in dramas, where it’s more about the minutaie of life, it still focuses on personal tragedy or problems; that character has to face something or someone, in order to triumph – even if the stakes are not their life. Miles in Sideways will not die if he doesn’t knock on Maya’s door. But a little piece of him will be lost forever. That is a tragedy. Yet Miles has to go through a nightmare of humiliation, embarrassment and bitterness to come to that realisation.

So, if internal logic governs your story, then it should also govern whether the use of dream sequence is appropriate. The most famous dream sequence of all, Alice In Wonderland, gets blasted from time to time because it can be construed to be a cheat on Carroll’s part: we go into this fantastic world, only to find it’s a dream. Argh! I didn’t know the word deus ex machina when I was a child, but I remember gnashing my teeth when my babysitter Caroline came to the end of that book. I promptly tried to rewrite it, coming up with the story of Alice and The Brown Sauce Spider. I remember the Spider liked Brown Sauce. But that is all.

In answer to Script Pete’s question then, it really depends how he sets the dream sequence up in my view and most importantly, what it is for. >Edit due to 17 year old spoilers FFS< The thing to remember with the “it was all a dream” thing is not to imagine that audiences will accept it as just that – a dream; there has to be a reason for it, an organic way of fitting it into your tale, otherwise an audience will feel cheated, just like I was by Alice In Wonderland at the tender age of six.

What about you lot, out in Any fave dream sequences? Over to you…

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36 thoughts on “A Dream Within A Dream”

  1. If I start to realise that a significant portion – or even all – of a film is taking place solely in a character’s head, especially as dreams, then I quickly lose interest. Doesn’t it then become the cinematic equivalent of someone telling you what they dreamt last night (which, let’s face it, is the wrong side of dull)? Episode One of Life On Mars almost lost me entirely – if it’s all in Sam’s head, I reasoned, then who cares? Thankfully I came back a couple of episodes later and the characters hooked me.

    Even though film/TV is all make-believe, you have to be able to invest in the main character’s everyday reality – it has to anchor you down, so that fantastic things then mean something. I’m especially tired of horror movies which hinge on the whole ‘Is he mad? Is he imagining it all?’ idea.

    Having said all this, the drama I’m working on right now has one quick dream sequence and a couple of equally swift delusional hallucinations! Oh, the hypocrisy. Think I might at least prune one hallucination…

    In terms of great movie dream sequences, I doubt you can beat An American Werewolf In London. Talk about a dream within a dream…

    And oi, Luce! Stop spoiling Jacob’s Ladder for people who mightn’t have seen it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Too funny: was just leaving a msg on ur blog at EXACTLY THE SAME TIME.

    I like the idea of films within people’s heads – we all live in our own mind movie, after all – but it’s got to be done WELL or I switch off. I also prefer those where a supernatural element is involved, like ANGEL HEART, which wasn’t his imagination so much but a nightmarish vision of reality that was neither real nor imagined somehow. DEM’s are an absolute no-no: as well as Alice I’m reminded of DALLAS where Bobby Ewing comes back from the dead and Pam dreamed everything… Euugh.

    As for spoiling Jacob’s Ladder – the film’s SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD!!! I respect the “no spoilers” rule, but if you haven’t seen it by now, I reckon you probably never will…

  3. I reckon the criteria with spoiling fillums – 17 years old or not – is whether it’s become a ‘household’ movie. Jacob’s Ladder remains a huge cult hit – the kind of thing you enjoy recommending to friends and acquaintances if they haven’t seen it. And then you – YOU – come along and trample all over that pleasure. How could you, Lucy Veeee? We TRUSTED you.

    *Sobs into morning tea, while pumping a Rescue Remedy-branded stress ball*

  4. A huge cult hit – Really??? I have NEVER had a conversation about Jacob’s Ladder until I wrote about on this blog and I talk about films a lot, unsurprisingly, yet not ONCE has this EVER come up with ANYONE. But if you like, I could remove the spoilers if you want… *sigh*

  5. IT’S GONE! Happy now??? Perhaps you can have your brain washed like in Total Recall Phill?? OH MY GOD! MORE SPOILERS FROM AN AGE AGO!!! ; )

  6. Yep, ruined it for me as well. And no good editing now either – I read the original post on Bloglines. Just look at the damage you’ve caused!

  7. EVERYBODY CAN GET LOST! 17 YEARS!! 17!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You will have watched by now if it was that important – JUST LIKE i DID WHEN IT CAME OUT! AND I WAS ABOUT ELEVEN! There’s priorities for you, punks.

    As for Sensible Oli, I agree – and it does go to show that the old “adages” can get broken from time to time like in Life On Mars and no one notices.

  8. Oh, and I wrote something recently that you think is a dream sequence and it turns out to be real… pleased with that. Sure it’s been done before, but it’s still creepy.

  9. Lucy – I’ve been laughing out loud (out loud, I tell you) over you acquiescing to make an edit, but with such resentment. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Oli – You bad man! You can’t decide to spoiler the ends of three films (three! count ’em!), purely because you’ve decided that they’re terrible (to offer a different opinion, folks, Dead End is actually pretty good and Reeker has a few things going for it – The I Inside is indeed rubbish). Oh, I despair of you spoilering folk. I’m going to deliberately have a bad dream about all of you. So there. Can’t stop me. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Lucy Spoilerminx, do you take Oli Giveaway as your lawful wedded husband in blogland? Do you promise to ruin the endings of films, ’til you both wake up and it’s all been a dream?

  11. Fortunately I come to this post post-edit, and can therefore still enjoy Jacob’s Ladder.

    Which I haven’t seen, and have been meaning to watch any moment now for about seventeen years.

  12. Sure you have Piers!

    Right, the ending is this: Tim Robbins realises he didn’t actually go to Vietnam because in reality he is a very large chicken in a battery farm called Esmerelda.


  13. It’s not that big a deal. I showed it to my girlfriend recently and she immediately new it was about…

    *Oli is chloroformed and dragged off by mysterious men in black*

  14. Can I be your blog-husband then, Luce, if Oli’s not game?

    We can spend our remaining blog-years in a dream cottage which turns out to be QUITE LITERALLY JUST THAT, existing only in an actor’s mind. We’ll hurl crockery at each other as we fiercely debate what constitutes a righteous spoiler. Say you will!

  15. Rebound relationships never last, you two. Beware! Ooh, that Oli’s a wrong ‘un, breaking our poor Lucy’s heart like that!

  16. Well, first off– it’s like a goddam spoiler BOMB went off in here! There’s bits of ripped and torn endings *everywhere*. I hope you’re going to clean up after yourselves, but clearly you’re all far too busy playing duelling blog-flirts. Tsk, tsk.

    STILL (rolls up sleeves, spits into palms) to the matter in hand.

    Well, at the end of the day as with so much in writing it’s not really *how much* dream sequence you are using as it is *to what end* you are using it. If, for instance, you’re just employing it to goose the audience and get a quick shock (aaargh, the heroine got stabbed in the neck- she’s dead, oh she’s not), well, probably best to think again. This is a VERY wheezy old trick and it’s so difficult to get a dream sequence past a modern audience without them cottoning on pretty quickly what you’re up to.

    If, instead, you are – as Oli sort of suggested – using dream sequencery to invade the film’s reality – the waking world – making you constantly wonder what is real and what isn’t that can be quite effective, esp. in horror/ scifi/thriller settings. Still, even that is a little seen-it these days. Like Jason I’m really over the whole horror “is it all in her head?” bollockery-fuckery nonsense. Also, it was great in Edge of Darkness 22 years ago when Bob Peck had conversations with his dead daughter, and it’s still great now when Baltar talks to the Number 6 in his head on Galactica , but it really is tough to make that stuff sufficiently fresh nowadays.

    As an aside, a few years ago I was commissioned by a local director producer who, after reading my first draft, came back with the immortal note, “But what would make it REALLY special is if THE HEROINE was the killer all along AND SHE WAS INSANE AND DIDN’T EVEN KNOW IT!!” Tough to find a facial expression that shows how seriously you are taking a note whilst simultaneously hiding your true feelings that you think it’s the WORST IDEA IN THE HISTORY OF TIME.

    But back on topic I think if you have a good character reason to use a ongoing set of dream sequences, and can illuminate a character’s personality best through them- for instance showing how someone retreats into a fantasy world rather than face the horrors of their life outside of their head a la BRAZIL โ€“ then you should go for it. Though, you do run the risk of it feeling, well… virtual. Events in the dream arena can be robbed of any tension or import because they aren’t real, and are therefore pointless digressions/ distractions, and, meh, so what, why show them?

    If you ARE using the dream sequences to illustrate character then the relationship between the “real” and the dream world is important, too, I think– do we have characters or events from reality echoed in the dreams, for instance? LIFE ON MARS side stepped this issue by setting itself entirely within the โ€œdreamโ€, rather than swapping between two states. After ep 1 we were ALWAYS in the dream, so it always had weight and a real feeling of persistent drama with concrete consequences.

    If the dream sequences follow a parallel narrative of their own running alongside the primary waking world (say a magical quest the protagonist dreams they are on) which can build up to its own emotionally engaging climax at the same time the waking narrative does (I think Angels in America does something like this), you could avoid Lucy’s dreaded Alice in Wonderland/ Deux Ex Machina meltdown.

    Mind, I’ve just opened a feature with what seems to be a dream sequence, and ended it with a VERY nasty shock, but the cut away to a โ€œwake upโ€. So, like Jason, I’m breaking my own rules. BUT, like Oli, the dream sequence is later revealed to have actually happened, and so not a dream after all (despite its bizarre and grisly content).

    Fantasy elements of whatever status are very much a matter of taste, though, ain’t they?

  17. Dream sequences are shit. Unless they aren’t.

    If it’s a surprise (American Werewolf, with its double shocker, wins every time), then fine. If it’s all “ooh look, I’m a big dream sequence”, then it’s boring, cause there’s no danger. Except Nightmare on Elm Street, because the dreams are the things that can kill you. Boogaboogabooga! And because it’s fab. Yes, I know there’s one in Severance, but it’s a surprise one, and anyway I can do what I like cause I’m a rebel, me. Breaking the law, breaking the law!

    Without reading the spec, I can’t just make a blanket statement like “don’t do 26 pages of fantasy sequences, for Christ’s sake”, but… don’t do 26 pages of fantasy sequences, for Christ’s sake. Unless it’s done *really* well, it will get tiresome, especially if it suddenly happens late in the movie. You could probably do bits and pieces of it, if it’s threaded through the whole film, maybe. Don’t know if I’d like it, but different strokes etc etc.

    And stop with the spoilers! Like Jase says, just because you decide a film is rubbish does NOT give you the right to ruin it for people who might enjoy it. Dead End is fucking great, Reeker is a laugh. The I Inside is horrendous though, but hey, some people probably like it. I could never spoil something just because I didn’t like it, that’s Proper Evil Behaviour. Bad boy, dirty boy, in your bed. And as for Jacob’s Ladder, I’d argue that it’s not as well known as it should be, so no spoilers – just because it’s old doesn’t mean everyone’s seen it, you can’t apply your own logic to everyone else. I bet there’s plenty of “old” films you haven’t seen, doesn’t mean we should spoil them for you.

    I am tired and grumpy and I need coffee, and I don’t care about my grammar today.

  18. How come no one’s bothered about my spoilering of Alice in Wonderland?? Oh yes – BECAUSE IT’S OLD AND WELL KNOWN.

    Jacob’s Ladder is old. And has bloody Tim Robbins in, big major bloody actor = well known. As for not applying my own logic, why not?? I remember it coming out; there were posters EVERYWHERE, if that didn’t entice you then that’s your own prob! My friend Joanne worked in a video shop and let me take it out even tho I was 11. The video shop closed down not long after that, probably because she was renting videos to under-agers. SHOCK! HORROR! And we all know that’s what’s wrong with the world today…

    Plus the fact I am Goddess of my own blog, you are my bitches. So there ; )

  19. Alice in Wonderland is a classic tale that has filtered into general culture, even people who haven’t read it or seen any versions pretty much know what happens.

    Tim Robbins has been in plenty of movies that didn’t hit big, many of them cult favourites, that a lot of people probably haven’t seen – The Sure Thing, Bob Roberts, Arlington Road, The Hudsucker Proxy – that had big posters and everything. Doesn’t mean *everyone* has seen them, and just because someone *should* have seen a film doesn’t mean it’s okay to spoil. No matter what, if it’s a major spoiler like the bloody ending, then just put “Spoiler Warning” or something. There is NO room for compromise on this, particularly not movie endings.

  20. Jacob’s Ladder, pah! It’s just a remake of Ambrose Bierceโ€™s story An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge. 116 years old.

  21. He he. James Moran called me dirty.

    Nonetheless, I am getting a bit of lambasting from all sides… so my original spoilering comment has now gone.

    I am pleased and bemused to see that at least two other people have seen The I Inside though. Oh, the wasted hours. Poor Sarah Polley.

  22. Oli, I take it back, you are very clean – and a gent for taking the nasty, dirty spoilers away. Plus, we’ve both suffered through The I Inside, so Blitz Spirit comradeship and all that. We’re stronger for surviving through it, some weren’t as lucky as us…

  23. Thank you. But you’re right. I am dirty.

    Oh, and even though it got deleted along with the spoilers, I’m afraid the rejection still stands, Lucy. Sorry.

  24. In Silver Age (50s, 60s) era comics, almost everything was a dream or an imaginary story. Lois Lane in prison for murder? Superman marrying the Queen of the Underworld?

    Then later, because fans were jilted by lack of reality in their superhero comics, whenever a truly nutty story would come around the covers would scream “Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story!”

    Even imaginary worlds like in fiction have to have internal consistency and rules. Superman cannot suddenly turn invisible. Dream sequences trash all that and are usually dull to boot (hazy focus, fish eye lenses, blech).

    The only successful dream sequence is the commercial where Lincoln plays ping pong, and your dreams miss you. And even that isn’t so successful because I forget what it’s a commercial for.

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