Into Dust

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 4 2022

Into Dust: Screenplay

Tom Carter: Author
Title of Work: Into Dust
Year: 2020

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Research Background

The screenplay Into Dust (2020) is an apocalyptic family-drama written as the major component of my PhD project to investigate and record the creative process of transnational screenwriting. The screenplay as presented has been shaped through ongoing practice-based research under the mentorship of industry professionals at Lancaster University, UK, and showcases screenwriting practice in the academic arena.

As a British screenwriter living in Korea, I have long thought about how to write stories set in my adopted country that would appeal to Korean and wider international audiences. Authenticity is key to transnational screenwriting. No audiences want to see their culture represented insensitively on-screen through lazy stereotypes or glaring inaccuracies. Naturally, my creative process is influenced by my own cultural perspective, one that differs greatly from that of the East Asian cultural sphere I currently reside in. Against this background, the project aim is to explore the considerations and challenges faced by a British screenwriter when writing a Korean film.

The work has been informed by several research questions:

  • How the apocalyptic genre can be used as a space to explore transnational screenwriting;
  • What cultural considerations need to be taken when writing for Korean audiences;
  • The importance of knowing space and environment when writing locations;
  • If a ‘western’ approach to screenplay structure can be used effectively when writing for transnational audiences;
  • If any elements of screenwriting become common in a transnational context;
  • If the intent of dialogue can be preserved through translation;
  • How the screenplay may be received and interpreted.

Into Dust is intended to be an English and Korean dual-language film. The screenplay was written in English for translation into Korean. For the purpose of publication, the English language version of the screenplay has been provided.

Research Contribution

The screenplay Into Dust breaks new ground as a record of a British screenwriter writing for mainstream Korean cinema. While the screenplay document stands alone, it is the product of ongoing practice-based research that investigates the complex negotiation of cultural, geographical and language considerations in transnational screenwriting.  Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner suggest that culture should be understood as “having a number of layers” (2): the outer layer, consisting of observable products such as “language, food, buildings, houses, monuments, agriculture, shrines, markets, fashion and art” (2) are “symbolic of a deeper level of culture” (2). It is these deeper layers – “the morals, values, behaviours and emotions” (2) – that need to be engaged with and accurately represented for authenticity. Of course, the dialogue spoken by Korean characters will be reinterpreted during the translation process, and then again by performers if the film ever reaches the production stage. This doesn’t alter the intention of the Korean dialogue, the behaviour of characters, or the need for accurate locations. When the context of the writer is taken into account, Into Dust reveals how transnational screenwriting requires more than a simple understanding of universal themes. It requires a deeper connection with how cultural perspectives influence both the creative process and how audiences connect with cinematic stories.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?  

The writer attempts to accurately represent a contemporary Korean family unit, the personalities and interactions of Korean characters, and the dynamic created through their interactions with a white Westerner. The writer seeks to address certain Korean social issues, including authoritarian masculinity, inter-generational relationships and attitudes to foreigners.

Does the submission live up to its potential?  

There does not seem to be a strong and clear link between the stated research aims and the creative element, although this is hard to gauge as some of the stated research questions are not entirely clear. The importance of the writer’s familiarity with locations portrayed in a screenplay, or any written work, seems fundamental—how is that importance explored and questioned within this creative component, and how does that exploration contribute to the creation of new knowledge regarding practice in the screenplay? How did the writer approach the writing of Korean characters not only to achieve authenticity but in a new way that furthers knowledge? This should be made clear in the research statement. ‘How the screenplay may be received and interpreted’ is too vague and needs to be reconsidered.

The research questions around transnationalism might have been further explored at the narrative level. Although the accompanying critical thesis may make the research contribution clear, in terms of reflecting on the writer’s process within a foreign film industry and methods of working towards cultural authenticity, in isolation the creative element is largely generic and familiar, and its contribution to knowledge, specifically to the issues of transnationalism raised by the research statement, is not clear. If there were further non-Korean (and non-white?) characters within the drama, for example, a greater proportion of the narrative might have directly and centrally explored transnational interactions and the issues contained within.  As it stands, the exploration of transnational issues in this creative component, without the contextualisation of the thesis component, seems somewhat limited, and as a result, I’m not clear on how this creative component, in isolation, seeks to make a contribution to knowledge in the screenplay.

It seems there was an opportunity to explore transnational issues further at the narrative level. As Robin and Ji-Hyun’s romance truly begins during the dramatic climax, there is little space to explore how cultural issues play out in an intimate relationship, however, if their relationship was initiated in the first act, or already in motion at the narrative’s opening, the writer would have been able to explore transnationalism in the context of intimate relationships, which may have helped connect the narrative portion more strongly to the stated research aims.

Perhaps the main area of interest is in the writer’s ability to successfully represent a Korean family and the characters and personalities contained within, as well as certain aspects of Korean culture. This feels fairly accurate in many ways (attitudes, personalities, ways of expressing themselves, ways of interacting) however there is little way for the reader to measure this. It would be useful to have a sense from the writer’s research statement how they went about ensuring authenticity when creating their characters and dialogue, and whether or not this authenticity has been tested (by Korean film industry readers, for example).  The character types are quite broad (authoritarian father, homemaker mother, stressed graduate), mined for comedic conflict—it might be interesting to see a less immediately recognisable side of Koreanness. The angles on Korean parenthood, Korean teenhood, Korean masculinity and femininity, and on Korean attitudes to foreigners feel quite familiar. It might also be useful to get a sense from the research statement how the project has engaged with Korean cinematic texts and how it seeks to build on and add to the creative conversations within Korean cinema from a transnational perspective.

How does the submission expose practice as research?  

Form and content are largely generic and familiar. Transnational interactions play a role in the narrative, explored using familiar character tropes and stereotypes. The writer’s creation of Korean characters, relationships, interactions, personalities, and ways of speaking seems the key contribution, but it’s unclear from the research statement how the writer went about this and to what extent their attempts have been successful. Robin’s role within that narrative creates an opportunity for comedic conflict but doesn’t seem to push the narrative out of the realm of the familiar. I’m not clear on what contribution to knowledge this creative element is making.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?

As a genre screenplay, Into Dust has to provide all the familiar points an audience expects of an apocalypse/road movie/family drama/culture clash project. As an academic screenplay seeking to add knowledge to the field of transnational cinema, the screenplay should also surprise us and be innovative. The key point of interest is to see how the writer rises to this challenge. It is also important to note that if the screenplay does not rise to the challenge, a discussion of that ‘failure’ also has the potential to add to knowledge.

Does the submission live up to its potential?

Into Dust only partially lives up to its potential. For the most part, the attempt to write in the road movie genre is successful. The characters clash with each other until finally realizing their bond and working together to find some form of inner reconciliation (with the approaching apocalypse) and redemption. The biggest problem for the film is characterization. Strangers thrown together in this way will initially react to each other in groups terms, as ‘foreigner/British’ and ‘Korean.’ And indeed, the characters initially make many stereotypical statements about each other (for example pages 8, 9 &32). On page 23 the characters address this in a self-aware manner, which seems to signal that their manner of the address will move from inter-group to more inter-personal terms. The first big plot point – the discovery of the body of the murdered taxi driver – occurs around the same time (26), and should usher in a tone change that allows for the characters to display more nuanced interaction. However, on page 30, soon after the dead body scene, Robin makes a quip about how he should get his money back. This lack of control in pacing and tone affects the script from this point on. The discovery of the second death does bring in a more sombre tone, one that perhaps should have been introduced earlier. The characters should be displaying more complexity to each other in their interactions, but continue to converse on the surface of things, and in generalities. We hear that Robin was bullied, but no details are revealed beyond “The other kids thought I was weird.” We never hear about his issues with his father except “He was horrible when I was a kid.” The story of Ji-Hyun’s affair and her abortion are similarly told without idiosyncratic detail that would add richness. When Robin and Dong-Wan go off to bury the body together, this moment feels like the kind of transcendent action the characters should be journeying towards, but such moments in the script are too few, and under-realized in terms of emotional impact. In genre terms, the motivations of the characters may be the root of the problem. An apocalypse is approaching, but the Kims take Robin with them for financial gain. What meaning could money possibly have in such a world? Robin is going to the airport to fly home, but no one seems to be waiting for him in the UK, and he seems rather unconcerned about the upheaval in his life. A more plausible setup for the story is required.

How does the submission expose practice as research?

I believe the screenplay explores problems concerning an authentic portrayal of cross-cultural contact in genre screenwriting. Robin speaks some Korean, and this mixing of languages alone is relatively rare in genre films. He is culturally aware, turning away from the father when he drinks alcohol. In such moments, the writer faces a challenge because he has two audiences in mind. The Korean audience will see this action and recognize its import. The international audience may not pick up on its import, and to have them do so, the writer might resort to exposition. If he does so, the Korean audience may feel condescended to. This challenge of ‘dual audiences’ which differing degrees of cultural knowledge is fundamental for ‘displaced’ writers such as this one.

Is there evidence of innovation (in form or content for example)? 

This is perhaps the weak point of the project. Robin could be of any nationality, there is nothing exceptionally British about his words or actions. He provides an outsider gaze on Korean family culture, but as a character, he is not impactful enough. Another Korean character, as ‘outsider,’ could easily provide the same commentary as Robin on the Kims.

Is the work contextualised within specific social/artistic theoretical fields?

Keywords in the research statement are ‘genre,’ ‘transnational,’ and ‘authentic.’ The first two are fairly well contextualized, but ‘authentic’ needs to be problematized and interrogated. What does the writer mean when he says his portrayal will be authentic? The researcher seems to assume that any ‘national’ Korean screenplay is authentic, and only the ‘transnational’ Korean screenplay needs to prove its authenticity credentials. However, Korean filmmakers themselves can self-stereotype and be inauthentic. So what exactly does ‘authentic’ mean with regard to this project?

Is there evidence of new knowledge, interpretation, insights or experiences? 

I think the new knowledge comes from a discussion of the screenplay as a text, and the writer’s intentionality. How has Korean cinema portrayed ‘others’ to date? Are non-Korean characters generally absent, or peripheral, or stereotyped? Does Robin as a character subvert that trend? If not, how could the next draft of this screenplay address those issues? By opening up a space for such discussions to take place, Into Dust offers insight into transnational screenwriting.

 

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

First of all, I would like to thank both reviewers for their time and comments. I accept the comments graciously and respect that they are intended to be constructive and not destructive.

It is necessary to begin by admitting my naivety with this submission that was made during the first year of my PhD. I was eager to submit my work in progress, believing that the peer reviews would provide objective feedback to benefit my development. Although the feedback has proved valuable, in retrospect the submission was made prematurely. The peer reviews highlight the conflicting and over-reaching nature of research questions that required further refinement before being presented. The reviews also exposed my lack of clarity concerning the method of screenwriting as research. As Batty and Baker note, ‘[s]creenplays as research artefacts […] contribute knowledge in their very fabric and, although accompanying dissertations, exegeses or research statements explicate this research, they do so in conversation with the screenplay itself’ (2018, 75). The screenplay submitted, Into Dust, is a first draft that was created during the preliminary stages of research and, as such, is unrecognisable as a completed research artefact. I admit that the transition from practitioner to practitioner-researcher has been a challenge. It was never my intention to claim a complete understanding of the practice-led research methodology or screenwriting as research at this early stage of my career. The learning process is ongoing.

I do not regret submitting my project for peer review as the experience has been extremely rewarding. I have been encouraged to take a step back and re-evaluate my ontological and epistemological position, which informs my decision to use the practice-led research paradigm. I have reconsidered the aims of screenwriting as research and the role of the screenplay as a research artefact. Hopefully, my submission will still help to advance the discipline and encourage other PhD candidates in a similar position to consider and reflect on their understanding of creative practice-based methodologies, research design and how to defend one’s research position.

A feature of both reviews is the limited exploration of transnational themes/issues at the narrative level, scrutiny that was invited by explicitly stating my intention to explore transnational screenwriting. I should clarify that my approach has been modified since the original submission and that I currently privilege the transcultural label over transnational as it compliments my research and is more relevant to the scenario that contextualises my practice. The transnational lens can be applied to screenwriting practice when writers from two or more nations collaborate on a project; when a screenplay narrative explicitly explores transnational themes; or when a screenplay is written with the transnational aim of reaching global audiences. I believe that these conditions focus on creating new transnational social spaces and linking transnationalism to the imperatives of global capitalism, rather than expressing a transcultural attitude or sensibility through screenwriting practice, which is my intention. I privilege the transcultural label as I believe it provides specificity for creative practitioners who, by choice or by life circumstances, experience cultural dislocation, live transcultural experiences and cultivate cultural competence and flexible identities to socially survive as they immerse themselves in new cultural environments. My position as a British-born screenwriter and long-term resident of South Korea frames this research project. This context invites an examination of screenwriting to create a screenplay artefact that exhibits a considered approach to represent South Korea and South Korean people by a non-Korean screenwriter. Although the narrative is not obliged to engage with transnational themes or issues, it does depict the tensions between Robin and Dong-wan, two characters of different nationalities with different cultural perspectives who lack transcultural competence. Into Dust can be understood as a productive space that interrogates and questions the boundaries between supposedly different cultures.

Another feature of the peer reviews feedback is the concerns expressed about the British character, Robin, and his role within the narrative. To respond, a non-Korean character was included with dual imperatives: to facilitate my subjective experiences in South Korea and to explore transcultural interactions. I want to explore the scenario through the perspectives of Korean and non-Korean characters; the frustration of miscommunication and how cultural assumptions can lead to anger. It is suggested that Robin could be from any country and still serve the same purpose in the narrative. For me, Robin must represent those who are afforded freedom of mobility and are privileged to leave their birth culture to work and live in new cultural environments, but do not need to acquire cultural competence to do so. I agree that Robin could be from any country within the Anglosphere and serve the same purpose, but I disagree that he could be from anywhere. However, the feedback encourages me to reconsider how Robin’s ‘Britishness’ impacts, or is missing from, the narrative, something that will permeate future drafts.

It goes without saying that Into Dust will be subjected to further re-writes and editing as the narrative is informed by the research that I continue to conduct. The peer-review process has been enlightening in many ways and I am thankful for the opportunity to be involved in a publication that benefits and promotes the discipline of screenwriting as research.

REFERENCES

Batty, Craig and Dallas Baker. 2018. “Screenwriting as a Mode of Research, and the Screenplay as a Research Artefact,” in Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry, edited by Craig Batty and Susan Kerrigan, 67-84. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

FINAL STATEMENT

I am a British citizen, screenwriter and, through marriage, a long-term resident of South Korea. As such, my creative practice is framed by the transcultural experience that influences my current world perspective. This PhD research project investigates the writing of Into Dust, a feature-length family drama, featuring predominantly Korean characters and language, aimed at domestic South Korean audiences.

I approach screenwriting with a belief that a practitioner with an idea has the creative freedom to write any story that they want, with the understanding that creative freedom is not freedom from responsibility or consequence. Screenwriting should be undertaken with a commitment to creating a credible and sensitive representation of the depicted people, places and events. This commitment asks the practitioner to question what they are permitted to write and consider how, or if, they should write. As a long-term resident of South Korea, I have dedicated time and energy to nurture the knowledge and cultural competence needed to survive socially in the environment I call home. As such, I believe that I have permission to write stories set in South Korea that represent Korean people and culture. However, my status as ‘non-Korean’ writing for Korean-language cinema creates tension as my ‘non-Koreanness’ may become a determining factor in how my screenplays are received. My goal is to write stories that appeal to domestic audiences, and I accept that the context of my creative practice and my non-Korean status creates challenges to navigate and problems to solve.

My creative intentions and unique position as a British-Korean transcultural screenwriter in South Korea form the foundation of this PhD and provide context for critical reflection on the challenges and solutions that become apparent during practice. ‘Intention’, ‘permission’ and ‘representation’ are the key concepts used to examine the creative and theoretical considerations that arise as screenwriting craft is explored through practice-led research.

Against this background, the key research question that frames my PhD is:

What challenges are faced by the British-Korean transcultural screenwriter in South Korea?

To explore such a broad question, research is approached through a series of sub-questions to allow for an integrated response:

  1. What permission do I have to write stories that depict South Korean people and culture?
  2. What are the challenges of representing South Korean people and culture as a non-Korean screenwriter?
  3. What are the challenges of writing dialogue in English that is intended for translation into Korean?

My intention with this PhD is to examine how a British-Korean transcultural screenwriter navigates the challenges that become apparent during practice to create a narrative depiction of South Korea that is acceptable and enjoyable for domestic audiences. Although my context makes this research project location-specific, I propose that cultural competence is essential to screenwriting outside of one’s birth culture as it allows the screenwriter to transcend a single cultural perspective. This distinguishes transcultural screenwriting practice from more standardised approaches to practice, and, therefore, enhances the craft by promoting the necessity of cultural awareness.

This PhD presents a unique examination of screenwriting. Non-Korean screenwriters writing for South Korean cinema is, to my knowledge, an extremely rare occurrence. A thorough search of all ‘Top 100 Korean Movies’ on IMDB reveals no writers except for those employed to write or edit English language dialogue for Korean-language cinema (IMDB). Overall, South Korea has not suffered the same degree of ‘Western’ representation as Japan and China, nations that have frequently been represented through the prism of the West, via negative Orientalist stereotypes or romantic cultural fetishizations. Consequently, narrative representations of South Korea by non-Korean writers are unavailable for analysis. This is set to change in the future. South Korean soft power is on the rise, fuelled by the transnational success of K-Pop acts and K-Drama shows, along with Korean cinema, animations, video games and beauty products. In Birth of Korean Cool, Euny Hong suggests that it is not an exaggeration to recognise the Korean wave of popular culture as arguably the biggest and fastest cultural paradigm shift in modern history (Hong 2014, 4) By utilising my unique position, writing Into Dust represents a previously unexplored but relevant scenario. It anticipates what may come in the future as more non-Korean creative practitioners are inspired to represent South Korea through their chosen mode of creativity.

REFERENCES

Hong, Euny. 2014. The Birth of Korean Cool. London: Picador.

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