Stanley Kubrick insisted that a feature film can be constructed from six to eight ‘non-submersible units’. A non-submersible unit is a fundamental story sequence where all the non-essential elements have been stripped away. These units would be so robust and compelling that they would, by themselves, be able to keep the viewer interested. They would contain only what is necessary for the storyline. And when joined together they would form a greater narrative.
The way Kubrick reduced 2001: A Space Odyssey to its most important elements was indicative of his emerging method of telling stories. Over the years, Kubrick had adapted many books into films. By the time he came to conceive of 2001: A Space Odyssey he realised that all he needed – as he later told science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss – are six or eight ‘non-submersible units’: basic story points that cannot be reduced any further. When the story points are linked together they form a narrative that will contain a balanced mix of all the themes, images and characters.
Karel Segers: When Avatar broke out so massively and the whole planet went to see it, still people were in denial about the craft of that screenplay. What didn’t they see?
Syd Field: They wanted some type of screenplay that was totally new and just so foreign to their normal state of consciousness like Inception. What people don’t see about James Cameron is that he does not create screenplays, he creates a cinematic experience, going to the movies is a cinematic experience.
I talk about that in my book Going To The Movies: what is the nature of going to the movies? I mean what do we do when we sit down in a darkened theatre, and the curtains part and the screen becomes alive and we are all united in this community of emotion? At that moment we are all united and the film grabs us in the first 10 minutes. So I teach people that if you don’t have them in the first 10 pages, I’m outta there, there’s no reason I need to read more.
My students have been extraordinarily successful. Jim Cameron told me that he never knew that he could write until he read Screenplay. He said that showed him he could do it. Out of that comes Titanic, The Terminator and so on.