Hello to Script Pete, who emailed me the other day with this question:
"Character is institutionalized.....deluded into imagining she is a singing star! Do you consider, beginning @ page 49 the next 26 pages are mixed over 60 pages.....too many in dream? Dream scenes I was told is difficult to put on film? 109 pages total ie: 26 dream 83 real..."
I find the difference between dream sequence and "reality" in film a bit of a contradiction in terms; whenever people talk about reality or realism in film, I wonder if there is any such thing, philosophically-speaking? Edgar Allen Poe says, "Is everything we see or seem, but a dream within a dream" (which horror buffs may also remember from John Carpenter's The Fog) and I think this applies nicely to movies, since everything in them is but a dream within a dream to me, even those supposedly "realist" or "real time" pieces - after all, how many times do we see Johnny Depp go to the loo in Nick of Time? None. Alright, it's only supposed to be an hour and a half and perhaps fellas can hold it in better than us laydeez, but if some hardcore criminals were threatening me and my daughter's lives, I'd probably have an even weaker bladder than normal, know what I'm saying?
But it's okay. 'Cos it's not reality, it's a representation of reality. That's why the line drawn between reality and dream then needn't really be that stringent. Just as we needn't see anything that doesn't feed into the story (like going to the loo - though in thrillers people are often murdered in the toilet and heroes can be attacked in public toilets often, though they usually manage to slam assailants' heads into sinks, etc: Go Arnie!), we also needn't worry too much about what's "real" and what's not, since it's more about context. Let me explain.
The context of your movie or movie script has more to do with its own internal logic, than the notion of reality. For example: if we are concerned with notions of reality, then we'd have to deal with statistics. What is the likelihood of getting attacked by a group of highly trained, hardcore criminals tooled up to the nines in real life? Um... Probably zero. Yet it's happened to John McClane four times. More facetiously, what is the likelihood of being attacked by an acid-dripping alien and then going back for more, only to die and then be ressurrected 100-odd years later and do it all over again? You know who I'm talking about ; ).
It's the old, "it gets worse and worse" scenario in movies: oh, we're being attacked by werewolves? Damn. Oh we're being attacked by werewolves AND we're in the werewolves' own house? Double damn! Oh - and you guessed it: there's a couple in here with us as well?! (Dog Soldiers). Because of this then, all movies have a certain "nightmare" quality to them, regardless of genre (though this does of course lend itself particularly well to horrors and thrillers). We all know, watching any film, that quite literally things will get worse before they get better. Even in dramas, where it's more about the minutaie of life, it still focuses on personal tragedy or problems; that character has to face something or someone, in order to triumph - even if the stakes are not their life. Miles in Sideways will not die if he doesn't knock on Maya's door. But a little piece of him will be lost forever. That is a tragedy. Yet Miles has to go through a nightmare of humiliation, embarrassment and bitterness to come to that realisation.
So, if internal logic governs your story, then it should also govern whether the use of dream sequence is appropriate. The most famous dream sequence of all, Alice In Wonderland, gets blasted from time to time because it can be construed to be a cheat on Carroll's part: we go into this fantastic world, only to find it's a dream. Argh! I didn't know the word deus ex machina when I was a child, but I remember gnashing my teeth when my babysitter Caroline came to the end of that book. I promptly tried to rewrite it, coming up with the story of Alice and The Brown Sauce Spider. I remember the Spider liked Brown Sauce. But that is all.
In answer to Script Pete's question then, it really depends how he sets the dream sequence up in my view and most importantly, what it is for. >Edit due to 17 year old spoilers FFS< The thing to remember with the "it was all a dream" thing is not to imagine that audiences will accept it as just that - a dream; there has to be a reason for it, an organic way of fitting it into your tale, otherwise an audience will feel cheated, just like I was by Alice In Wonderland at the tender age of six.
What about you lot, out in www.land? Any fave dream sequences? Over to you...