Want to ramp up the tension in your film? Martin Scorsese's scene breakdown of The Irishman hints that the secret sauce is subtext.
In filmmaking, tension is everything. It's the lifeblood of conflict. It's what gives a movie that dynamic vibration that keeps audiences invested, entertained, and anxious to find out what's going to happen next.
But something like tension isn't always easy to understand, let alone employ in your own work. How is it created? How is it calibrated? How is it maintained over the length of a scene...or even an entire film?
Well, let Martin Scorsese tell you how he did it in The Irishman. In this video from The New York Times, the director breaks down the award ceremony scene from the film and explains how he used things like facial expressions, music, and dialogue, driven entirely by subtext, to make things as tense as possible.
Using Subtext to Build Tension
As a general rule, it's not really a good idea to whack your audience over the head with exposition. There's a writing convention that is a whole lot more fun, engaging, and effective to use as a filmmaker, well as experience as a viewer: subtext.
As with many complex conventions, it's a whole lot easier to learn about subtext through its many real-world examples but to give you a general definition, it's essentially an underlying theme or message that isn't communicated explicitly.
Think of it as an equation.
- A=A: Using clunky exposition, Don Corleone says, "I"m gonna put a severed horse head in the producer's bed to scare him into giving you the part, Johnny." We know what's about to happen, no tension is built, and this scene and the related ones after it become as dead as that horse. (Sorry to any horse lovers out there.)
- A+B=C: Using subtext, Don Corleone says, "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse," to hint that he's about to do something terrible to the producer. So, a mob boss (A) trying to sway a powerful man (B) will lead to something unusual and probably violent (C). What's he going to do? Is he gonna kill him? So many questions!
Subtext in Dialogue
This method is quite common, but what does subtext in dialogue look like? It's saying something without actually saying it. It's what's implied. It's Don Corleone telling Johnny Fontane that he'll make his producer an "offer he can't refuse."
In the award ceremony scene from The Irishman, we see it used during Russell's conversation with Frank. Now, Russell doesn't just come out and say, "Hey Frank, we don't like Jimmy anymore, so we're gonna need you to kill him." No, he says things with their "friend" have "gotten out of hand," and he needs Frank to go tell him "it's what it is."
Subtext in Action
But subtext isn't used only in dialogue; it shows up in action, too, whether it's a mother tossing uneaten french toast in the garbage disposal or a group of mobsters staring down a union president at an award ceremony. A simple look, like the ones Scorsese describes in the video, can often communicate to your audience everything they need to know.
Of course, this takes great actors and great direction to pull off—even Scorsese says that "looks are harder than words. A look can be just as on the nose as hamfisted expositional dialogue.
For example, imagine if the award scene from The Irishman had Russell doing a throat-slitting gesture toward Jimmy instead of just glaring at him with his goons? It sounds cartoonishly bad, but, then again, most overwrought expositional scenes are.
"The structure of the scene is all about the looks. The dialogue doesn't matter until you have this extraordinary moment..."
Subtext in Music
The other technique uses to communicate subtext in this scene is music. The Jerry Vale ballad "Spanish Eyes", which is performed while the ceremony guests dance, has, as Scorsese describes, a "melodramatic tragedy" to it; a "sweetness and a sadness."
It's very fitting for a scene that has dual purposes, one that is for joyously celebrating Jimmy and Frank, and the other for tragically cementing both of their fates.
The song is able to evoke the emotions Scorsese wanted his audience to feel at that moment—sweetness, sadness, and tragic melodrama—and as they're feeling those emotions, they're not even aware of the music's subtext yet. However, when they are, when all of the pieces begin to fit together near the end of the scene, it hits them like a ton of bricks.
Why is Subtext Important?
Many say that clunky exposition is lazy writing. That may be true to a certain degree, but it can also simply be a product of not knowing what makes a story work.
You need conflict, and conflict is at its best when there's tension, and to have tension, you need to employ conventions that are able to create and sustain it.
Sure, you can have a ticking clock, a bomb under the table, or a guy with a gun following someone around. All of those things have been used successfully throughout cinematic history, but Scorsese chose a slightly more subtle method with subtext.
The path that must be taken to arrive at that final conclusion (A+B=C) requires the audience to be engaged and participate in the storytelling process. It's the difference between putting viewers in a locked room and giving them clues on how to escape or literally just putting the key in their hand.
And that's where the tension comes from when you use subtext. It's that everpresent questioning in your own head: "What's going on? What's going to happen? What does this mean?" And the more layers you add in a scene, from the dialogue to the music to the intense facial expressions that say everything without uttering a word, the more complex and sublime that experience will be to your audience when Frank ultimately decides that his loyalty to Russell is stronger than his loyalty to Jimmy, accepting the gold ring and becoming one of its three bearers.
What is your favorite example of subtext in a film? In what other scenes does Scorsese use subtext in The Irishman? Let us know down in the comments.