A Filmmaker's Guide to Source Material: Writing EA Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"
Source Material, Scripting, and Storyboarding
(Note: reading "The Cask of Amontillado" by EA Poe is recommended before reading the article in order to understand the lesson fully.)
Writing a horror film can be a tricky thing, especially when you don't know where to start when it comes to a short story. Everyone goes through the act of storyboarding and character planning, making a watchable story on the screen, etc., but where do you really start when your story length is fairly short?
What we're going to be having a look at in this article is:
- How to get started on scripting Poe's story, "The Cask of Amontillado"
- How to make it work on a page
- How to make it work on a screen as a feature-length film
There are many ways to script a film, so do not just take my word for it. Doing your own research on source material could also help. But in this case, I'm going to show you the jargon-free basics of scripting something as short as this story and how to turn it into a feature-length film.
How to Get Started on Scripting Poe's Story, "The Cask of Amontillado"
Starting a script is always difficult, which is why you never just jump into creating your cover-page. There are many different steps that many different script-writers and screenplay writers take when writing and creating the film you see on the screen. Not everyone is the same, but hopefully I can show you an easy enough way to get started on this classic tale of the gothic.
1. Reading the Story
Reading the source material more than once is always a must. You should understand the following things before even getting to storyboarding:
- Who the characters are and how they interact with each other
- What the plot-line is and why the story happens
- The main themes and symbols of the story
The first one is fairly simple. The main characters are Montresor and Fortunato and the way in which they interact creates a slight tension, which is also brought about by the narrative on Montresor "bearing injuries" from Fortunato before the story takes place. Fortunato is drunk and therefore, we don't get much "real" interaction from him, but his position seems to be to want to see the Amontillado and therefore, he could be using Montresor to get it. This is only because Montresor states he has it.
The second one is also fairly simple. Do not concentrate on the "could" when it comes to the before and after in the plot—we will do that afterwards. The main plot of this story is that Montresor wants to take revenge on Fortunato. He does this by lying about whether he has, in fact, acquired Amontillado.
The third one is the most difficult as it is the most indirect. The audience will only see this through interaction, symbolism through object and through character speech, dialogue, and possibly through dress code and setting. This will never be explicitly stated on screen. The main themes seem to be:
- Freedom and Confinement
- Alcohol and Excess
- Betrayal and Faith
- Mortality and Death
- Foolishness and Wit
2. Get in-depth with the themes.
We're not finished reading the story yet. Getting in-depth with the themes is key to creating an atmosphere for your film, so before you start scripting or storyboarding, you want to understand these the best you can. This is not just to make it "accurate to the source material," but it is also to help you really get involved with the story and so will your actors, seeing your enthusiasm and understanding for it.
Freedom and Confinement
This is the first theme—which is juxtaposed (placed in opposition on purpose) when we look at the beginning of the story compared to the end. The end of the story is pretty easy to guess on how it represents confinement, as we have a man literally bricked up in a prison-like chamber. But when it comes to the beginning and freedom, it's a little bit harder to get your head around.
Look at this:
"It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend."
That is a quotation from the beginnings of the story, in which the carnival season rages on. When we look at creating space in a film, this is exactly the kind of material we want to understand. Freedom and confinement may not have much to do with the spiritual or psychological side of things, but in this case, it is very physical. The freedom being the large, open space of the carnival compared to the confinement, where we end up at the end of story. Working these into spaces of a film can be very interesting and can produce some incredible results.
Alcohol and Excess
This is our second theme and these two things basically go hand-in-hand throughout the story. We aren't just talking about portraying the physical drunken character of Fortunato from halfway through the narrative. We are also looking at what the term "excess" can mean in different situations. When it comes down to it, there really is one meaning that sticks out.
Take a look at this:
"... but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially: I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself..."
In this respect, "excess" doesn't only mean the over-the-top indulgence of alcohol that Fortunato displays. It also means the "excess" of life—wanting to have as much or be as much as the other person. Montresor displays that here; he definitely wants to be "as much" as Fortunato when it comes to things that a rich man in Italy should be doing. It is an interesting part of character that is displayed which you could again explore when Montresor brings up Luchesi to Fortunato.
Betrayal and Faith
Betrayal and Faith is the third theme we are going to look at and this one is slightly easier to understand since most of the plot seems to rely on Montresor betraying Fortunato and killing him in that chamber. We may think that this begins halfway through the text, when Montresor finally leads Fortunato into the vault, but in fact, this begins at the very start of the narrative.
Have a look at this quotation:
"... injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."
The main thing that the theme of betrayal and faith tells us is that the sub-genre of this story is a revenge tragedy. The next thing it tells us is about what has happened before the narrative began. Montresor was not the one carrying out the betrayal before the narrative, in fact, it was Fortunato. It brings in the question of which character the audience are meant to have sympathy for—and although I would suggest keeping it to neither, you may choose your own. It would be interesting to see and hear varied results for this.
Mortality and Death
Mortality and Death is our fourth theme and has a bit of a big connection to Poe since his love of it was extreme. When we read this text we get no aspect of comedy or irony, but in the theme of mortality and death, we do. Poe hides a slight bit of soft comedy between the lines when it comes to this theme and it makes for good dialogue and foreshadowing when you come to making your film.
Take a look at this:
"I shall not die of a cough." "True—true," I replied.
Now, we could read this literally in the story as Fortunato being so drunk that he's getting sick. Whilst they walk towards the Amontillado, Montresor tries to show a kind face and asks if Fortunato would like to go out since it's go musky down there. Fortunato replies with this quotation and they carry on. In fact, Montresor knows exactly what Fortunato is going to die of and so this quotation is perfect for presenting the characters of Montresor and Fortunato. Fortunato is this man who seems to soldier on even though he's got a very bad cough and Montresor is the trickster character who wants to make it look as if he cares about Fortunato's health whereas, he already knows how Fortunato will die. If you're going to script your film on this, make sure you keep this line in as it is essential to understanding Montresor's motives and character.
Foolishness and Wit
The final one is "Foolishness and Wit." Now, we know that Fortunato's drunk stumbling around makes him look foolish and that Montresor's wit makes some of his dialogue a bit hold two meanings. But, what we don't know is how we can portray this physically without being overly obvious. We need to have the foolishness of Fortunato portrayed in a way that makes it explicit that he is the character targeted. But again, not so obvious that it looks badly-made.
Look at this:
"He has on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells."
This is a physical description of what Fortunato is wearing on the night of the carnival and this is a perfect piece to use for your film. Having Fortunato dressed like this makes it very clear that he is the character that is targeted, no matter how he speaks. He is the one that is going to die. The fact that Fortunato would be dressed like a jester means that his foolishness is already there before we see him acting drunk and stumbling all over the place when going through Montresor's home.
3. Map out the plot.
Mapping out the plot can be difficult seeing as most people don't know how many points they need and can't tell what is important and what isn't. Here's a tip: at this stage, everything is important. We cannot start cutting anything down until we've got everything together.
Creating a flowchart or bullet points of each thing that happens in the story as it happens is always a great idea.
Especially for "The Cask of Amontillado"—if you were to map out everything that happens then you'd be surprised at just how many bullet points you can come up with.
Let's take a look at what happens as it happens then:
- Montresor introduces himself and swears revenge upon being insulted by Fortunato.
- Montresor explains that he'd never really done anything bad or wrong to Fortunato.
- Montresor talks about Fortunato's weakness for alcohol.
- Montresor explains that Fortunato is actually very good with old wines.
- Montresor introduces the carnival season.
- Fortunato has been drinking a lot.
- Montresor and Fortunato talk about the fact that Montresor has Amontillado.
- Montresor and Fortunato talk about Luchesi and how he is not as good with Amontillado as Fortunato is.
- Montresor asks if Fortunato has the time and proceeds to the vaults.
- Montresor gives a physical description of himself wearing a large black mask with a beak like a plague doctor.
- Montresor's house is empty of guests.
- Montresor and Fortunato pass through the house and onto the winding staircase.
- At the foot of the stairs, they stand at the catacombs.
- Fortunato begins to cough.
- Montresor suggests they go back but Fortunato wants to carry on to the Amontillado.
- Montresor gives Fortunato some more alcohol to drink to ease the cough.
- Montresor talks about his family's vaults with Fortunato.
- They pass the skeletons and dead bodies etc. in the vaults.
- Montresor and Fortunato talk about masonry heritage and Fortunato drinks more alcohol.
- They go through low arches and deep crypts to get to the Amontillado.
- They come to crypts lined with human remains and that are deathly small.
- Montresor tells Fortunato to "proceed" and starts talking about Luchesi, but Fortunato interrupts him and says Luchesi isn't as good as he is.
- Fortunato becomes excited by the thought that they are close to the Amontillado.
- Montresor has chained Fortunato to the wall.
- Montresor begins using bricks and mud to block up the room Fortunato is in but at the moment, Fortunato is too drunk to realise.
- The alcohol is wearing off and Fortunato begins crying out to Montresor.
- Montresor sits down upon the bones and listens to Fortunato.
- Montresor holds a candle over the room as he is halfway through bricking it up.
- Fortunato is still crying out
- Montresor is feeling the fabric of the catacomb walls and listening to Fortunato.
- Montresor completes the tenth tier of bricks by midnight.
- Not before long, there is only one stone left to go into the wall and finish locking Fortunato in.
- Fortunato, sober now, believes this is a joke and begins to laugh.
- After conversing with Montresor, Fortunato now believes fully in the plan and begins crying out to Montresor.
- Montresor does not wait, but tosses a candle into the space left by the brick, bricking the wall up quickly and striking the room alight.
- Montresor explains that for 50 years, nobody has disturbed the vaults
Now the reason I have split it into "parts" is to make the bullet points of the story easier to understand as in each "part" something changes, such as: the scenery, the tension etc.
Now that you have done this, you can start cutting out the things that you don't think are interesting enough to go into your movie. There is no obligation to cut anything out at all if you'd like to remain faithful to the source material, but if you're focus is to be on one particular thing, you may want to cut out something like the second conversation involving Luchesi—but it is up to you and your movie entirely.
Storyboarding can be difficult but it is important if you want to understand the scenes of your story in more detail. If you want to get to know your scenes and how they're going to flow from scene to scene on the screen, then storyboarding is the best thing to do.
Let's have a look at how we'd storyboard our story "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe.
The first thing we have to do is decide what we are and what we're not going to put in the film. This is entirely up to you and will change depending on what you want the focus of the film to be: character, plot, thematics etc.
Once you've decided this, you need to make a storyboard for each "part" (as we've labeled parts 1-4 on the mapping of the plot section).
Then, it is really simple—draw out the main thing happening in that bullet point in the correct part and place, using the lines underneath to write the bullet point of make extra notes you think you'll need to convey what's going on.
Note: try not to be too abstract because we have to remember, this is going to be watched by an audience. Some of this audience will not have read the source material so you cannot assume that everyone knows.
The reason we have one storyboard for each "part" is so that you can script one part at a time instead of scripting the whole thing together, making it easier at this stage.
How to Make It Work on a Page
Making this work on a page is not very straightforward, but I will try to make it as simple to understand as possible—explaining any terminology I use throughout.
The very first thing you need is your storyboard and, namely, part 1. This means that we can script in parts as opposed to altogether—ironing out any confusion that may happen.
If you do not want to, you do not need to write in camera movements. But, for the sake of this screenplay writing exercise, we are going to.
We are going to begin with "Part 2" storyboard section 1, for the sake of showing you physicals and how we would script them. This states:
"Montresor introduces the carnival season."
Very simple writing. We now need to expand this to something that looks like maybe a 20 second scene. What I have done with my script is merged "Part 1" storyboard into the first bullet point of "Part 2"—so it looks a bit like this: (this is an example)
Screenplay: The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe
EXT: An Italian Carnival.
Medium-Long arc shot above the carnival scene. (5-7 seconds)
Narration (V.O) : Thousands of injuries I had borne the best I could. But (beat) when he insulted me (beat) I had vowed revenge.
CUT TO: Medium-Close-up Tracking Shot of the legs of Montresor walking through the carnival.
Narration (V.O) : I had never given Fortunato a reason to doubt my good will. In fact, I would continue to smile in his face and he would never know that this smile (beat) was at the thought of his demise.
CUT TO: Medium-Close-up of an carnival-goers hands pouring out wine into a glass, clumsily.
Narration (V.O) : Fortunato's only weakness (beat) was wine. (2 beats) He prided himself on it.
CUT TO: Medium shot of carnival-goers drinking wine, clumsily.
Narration (V.O) : Yet, in these old wines, he was (beat) sincere.
CUT TO: Medium-Close-up of Montresor's legs walking around again, the wine spilling around his feet from clumsy carnival-goers.
END OF SCENE.
Now, with this, you would not need to mention that there is a carnival scene, cutting down description tenfold. This means that you can go straight into the conversation between Montresor and Fortunato if you really wanted to—or you could put in another scene that you think might be appropriate; maybe Montresor encounters Luchesi, or maybe he takes a look up at his house, the mansion of the Montresor family.
I know not many people use "beats" in their screenplay, but symbolising a small break in speech could be useful to the actor and could be useful to seeing how long your scene is going to be. It's always useful when starting out.
Notice as well how we haven't written the script word-for-word. We've translated it to make it easier to understand and watchable to the audience. Too much narration could make the film look outdated and worn. It is entirely up to you how you translate the script, but the example is how I've done it. You want to keep the 19th Century feel, but not too much 19th Century language so that it puts your audience off. Hopefully, you can find the healthy middle. I would heavily suggest cutting out the large, archaic words and replacing them with something else—or simply do what I did and keep it formal, but easy to understand.
How to Make It Work on a Screen as a Feature-length Film
Making this story work on the screen is fairly easier than making it work on a page; there are some things that you need to make sure you do in order to convey the atmosphere of the story, before we get to dialogue etc. Let's take a look at your check boxes:
- Keep the time of day as it is in the source material in order to create the pathetic fallacy (how the weather/exterior land conveys the atmosphere/feeling of the story).
- Keep the colour scheme similar.
- The surrounding buildings require to be appropriately thought of for conveying atmosphere.
- Music/Sound needs to be thought of (if any).
- Make sure your shots convey what you're attempting to convey (for example: I have a shot of Montresor's legs in order to convey his mystery by not showing his face).
- Make sure your shots have the correct timings; if shots are too long or short, they may not give the desired impact to the scene.
- Make sure there aren't too many CUT TO segments, don't go crazy. It'll make the scene look jolted.
- Make sure your dialogue is simple but still conveys the time period you're in.
- Make sure the dialogue isn't overly long and doesn't have these big Shakespearean speeches because you're trying to convey real life.
- Give the most dialogue to the main character so the audience knows who it is.
And you're off to write your screenplay!
I hope you've enjoyed today's lesson on writing "The Cask of Amontillado" as much as I did writing it. Good luck on your next project!