When presenting material that can be disturbing or shocking to an audience, a screenwriter has two basic choices. The first is to bring the material in a way that will maximize its disturbing or shock potential, usually by withholding it for as long as possible and then introducing it in at apivotal moment in the story so that it can hit the audience between the eyes like a two-by-four. As an example, think of the “monster jumping out” moment in any effective horror film,the “here’s what really happened” scene of a mystery or thriller, or the “you-know-what” scene in The Crying Game
However, when the disturbing material is not a plot point, but part of the texture of the story, then introducing it in a shocking manner can work against the script.
**BEWARE: SPOILERS FOLLOW**
Consider the recent film Changeling. Ultimately, this is the story of a serial killer that targets children. However, this point is not introduced until almost halfway through the film. Before then, the script focuses on a young mother whose son disappears one day. Several months later, a child turns up claiming to be her son. He’s not, but no one will believe her. So for the first hour or so, the audience thinks it is watching a mystery -- what happened to the son, who is this new child, and why is he claiming to be the missing boy? The introduction of the serial-killer element is meant to answer the first question, but it is so horrifying and of a different tone than the material that has come before that it knocks the audience out of the film and they never quite come back, which is part of the reason that the movie didn’t do quite as well as had been expected when it was released last fall.
The second choice, and a wonderful example of how to do this shift in purpose well, is contained in the new film from Japan: Departures, the winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Departures deals with two subjects that have the potential to be very upsetting and disturbing for audiences –- death and the process of encoffination, the elaborate ceremonial preparation of dead bodies prior to cremation. This would be challenging enough material if it was contained in a heavy drama. However, Departures is essentially a comedy –- a sweet, gentle tale about a man that finds his true calling in preparing bodies for their journey from this world to the next.
In the film, protagonist Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki) is introduced as a cello player in a Tokyo orchestra. When the orchestra is disbanded, the suddenly unemployed Daigo and his wife decide to move back to his hometown in the northeastern prefecture of Yamagatta to live rent-free in the small house left to him by his late mother. Daigo has a hard time finding a job until he finally answers an ad for an apprentice encoffinner. Daigo is shocked to learn what the profession involves and is initially hesitant to accept the position, but with few prospects in the offing, he finally takes the job. At this point, we watch Daigo learn his new trade in a series of vignettes in which the process of preparing the bodies is graphically (although always tastefully) shown. After 45 minutes of light comedy, these scenes could have sent the audience running out of the theater.
To prevent this from happening, screenwriter Kundo Koyama decided to open the script with the scene in which Daigo performs his first solo encoffination -- which chronologically occurs about halfway through the story -- and then flash back to the beginning of the tale. This is a masterful choice, because by showing the encoffination process in all of its mystery and eerie beauty right up front, the script takes the shock and horror out of the notion, which then allows the audience to settle down and enjoy the considerable charms of the rest of the film. Encoffination has now become part of the texture of the piece rather than an unpleasant jolt barging in on it. The audience has been inoculated against the upset and is now free to be entertained.