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CINEMA TECH

A bit player, but one that won't be ignored

For screenwriters, the sheer ubiquitousness of the cellphone can be a nagging detail to account for, or maybe a handy device on which to hang a plot point.

September 14, 2008|Zachary Pincus-Roth | Special to The Times

The LITTLE girl steals it. That's why Carrie doesn't have her cellphone. And that's why Big can't reach her to say he's backing out of the wedding in the "Sex and the City" movie.

A clever technique for creating drama? Or a contrived way to keep the pair from speaking, in an age in which everyone has a cell handy?

Either way, the episode shows how our pesky pocket devices have become crucial to storytelling. The U.S. had 255 million cellphone subscribers (83% of the population) in 2007, according to the International Telecommunications Union, meaning that audiences expect almost all present-day characters to carry one. For dramatic writers in many media, cellphones' ubiquity -- and the particular way they condense time and space -- creates both opportunities and obstacles.

"You would normally do scenes where people would come together face to face," says Josh Schwartz, executive producer of the network TV shows "Gossip Girl" and "Chuck." But now, "Why would they come to the door? They would just call."

Could "24" exist without cellphones? Jack Bauer would spend 20 minutes every episode searching for a phone booth. The "Gossip Girl" characters would die of boredom without their stream of salacious electronic chitchat.

While cellphones appear to help storytellers, since they allow anyone to talk to anyone at any time, "that seeming freedom only makes it all the more difficult," says Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru and author of "Story." "It takes away a possible source of conflict -- the difficulty of communicating, the difficulty of calling for help."

McKee compares the situation to the loosening of rules about depicting sexuality -- writers have more options, but they lose the tension created when they're forced to be implicit rather than explicit. Still, he doesn't see the development as negative. "All it means is that the writer has to be even more ingenious in building the conflicts and the tensions in a credible way," he says.

Writers imagined a cellphone world even before the device existed. James Bond had a car phone, "Get Smart" (1965-70) had a shoe phone and Tony Roberts' character in "Play It Again, Sam" (1972) tells his office the phone numbers for everywhere he's going to be. When cellphones first became available, on screen they were shorthand for excess. Gordon Gekko uses one on the beach in "Wall Street" as do the spoiled teens roaming the school halls in "Clueless."

Sure, law enforcement always had radios and walkie-talkies. But it's the device you don't see -- the phone in everyone's pocket -- that really makes an impact.

That implied phone creates the potential for audiences to think, "Why doesn't he just call?" For instance, in "Superbad," after Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) appears to be getting arrested after buying alcohol with a fake ID, why doesn't he call his friends to tell them he's just partying with the cops?

The typical solution is simple: Kill the cellphone. It can be lost ("Sex and the City"), out of range ("Damages," when Ted Danson is trying to re-call a hit man) or out of battery (Jamie Foxx at the end of "Collateral"). The cellphone death has become the 21st century version of the car not starting when a killer is after you.

Katherine Heigl and James Marsden's car gets stuck with no cellphone service in "27 Dresses," forcing them to seek help at a countryside bar, where sparks fly during a drunken dance to "Bennie and the Jets." The screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, says the scene isn't a cliche, it's relatable, and that audiences laugh when the two characters hold their phones through the car windows and wave them.

"Doesn't it happen to you all the time?" she asks. "Maybe as cellphone service improves, writers will have to think up better excuses." McKenna is trying to find a way to ditch a phone in her adaptation of Sophie Kinsella's novel "The Undomestic Goddess," in which a corporate attorney gets stuck in the countryside.

One solution is to get rid of the phone before it becomes an obvious burden, preferably in a way that reveals character, humor or suspense. McKee likes how it was done in last year's Tim Roth-Naomi Watts film "Funny Games." When two seemingly nice young men talk their way into a family's house, one of them, in an apparent accident, breaks the family's cellphone by nudging it into a sink of water, planting the seed for their terrorizing of the family.

"Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" uses a comic beat. Kumar gets halfway down the hall and realizes he left his phone in his apartment, but in his drug-induced stupor, he decides, "We've gone too far," thus allowing for the night's misadventures.

More downsides

Mobile technology affects each genre differently. "The cellphone has created more problems than benefits for horror screenwriters, because so many horror films involve so many people stuck outside civilization, who are being hunted and have no recourse," says Scott Kosar, the screenwriter of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake and others.

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