On Looking by Guy Webster

An opening shot: Nick walks into a coffee shop near Central Station. He pushes through white double doors (an over-the-shoulder shot travels with him on a dolly), then walks to a seat in the corner. He sits (the camera descends with him) and starts scrolling through his phone. Facing Nick now, the camera (zoomed in to mid-level, long) reveals a clock mounted on the far wall – one of those rusted statement pieces with big iron hands. Although, I wonder if a close-up of a ‘Lunch Menu’ would work to establish our setting better? Anyway, the place is crowded with men in suits and the clock reads fifteen minutes after one. People eat on large wooden benches rather than individual tables in this cafe, so the following scene takes place with Nick basically shoulder to shoulder with a stranger who’s enjoying their deconstructed quesadilla. Nick isn’t waiting for long when someone taps him on the shoulder. He jumps up from his seat, the stranger with the quesadilla sighs.

“You’re early,” Nick says, clicking his jaw.

“It’s pouring out there,” is the response, coming from someone we can’t see yet. We remain fixed on Nick, stationary and at eye-level. When we finally cut to an over-the-shoulder shot (thereby assuming Nick’s perspective), we see a torso dressed in maroon corduroy. The camera’s frame cuts this figure off at the neck, leaving his face outside of our line of sight.

“How’s your week been?” Erik asks before he sits down into the camera’s frame, squishing himself between two patrons with ease.

Erik:  dark eyes, plucked eyebrows, a jawline like the sharp corners of a cardboard box. He has dyed his hair recently, just for fun – a dark burgundy like red wine. He asks Nick if he likes the look of it while he finishes sending a message on his phone. Nick says yes.

I want there to be a series of extreme close-ups here as they start talking. I want us to see Erik’s dark eyes when Nick tells him about moving back home; the wrinkles around his eyes compressing when he smiles. Then his shining teeth when Nick jokes about the stranger eating their quesadilla dangerously close, his eyes again, avoiding Nick’s gaze. Finally, his hand as he moves one strand of hair behind his ear.

We’ll increase the pace of each cut now, starting with a close up of Erik’s right eyebrow (two seconds), a freckle on the left side of his nose (three seconds); then, an over the shoulder shot of the man beside Nick accidentally leaning too close again, jostling with laugher, brushing his shoulder. Then the fine down on Erik’s earlobe (two seconds) and his fingers fiddling with his collar (two seconds). We want it to be sensual, even chaotic.

Finally, we settle on a medium close-up of Erik as he begins his monologue (which we’ll distort as if it’s being spoken through a muffled pillow). He tells Nick that he quit his job at the mall to focus on choreography. He tells Nick that he’s started his own theatre company – incidentally, ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’ is the first production. Perhaps we could intersperse this monologue with clips of Nick scrolling through his phone, seeing these announcements, watching these production highlights and tagged videos. Perhaps we’ve included enough cuts already and this part of the scene is better suited to a long shot.

Erik tells Nick that he misses him.

Dialogue will become increasingly distorted after that. I want the ambient sounds of the café to build until Erik’s words disappear into a chorus of mishandled porcelain, passing traffic and hissing steam. Then, I want a dolly shot to bring us in front of Nick where we’ll notice his eyes: unfocused, milky, unblinking. We won’t translate his distorted sight onscreen with an effect; Nick isn’t the focaliser here. Instead, we’ll stay and continue the shot for ten, even twenty seconds. The purpose of this long shot – can I be so prescriptive? – is to emphasise Nick’s expression as he nods, murmurs or coughs in response to Erik. It’s not up to me to direct the actor here but I want his eyes, unblinking, to grip the viewer and even frustrate them. Why is he so quiet? Why won’t he speak? Even if they end up hating Nick’s passivity, I hope they recognise a glint of shame in his blue eyes that is, mostly, pathetic. Self-pity doesn’t translate on screen but that’s what this is .

Cut to Nick’s right hand gripping the glass of water he keeps refilling, tendons and veins obvious, taught. Then, another cut (three seconds for each frame, I think): facing Nick, stationary, stuck at his eye-level again. Behind his eyes we can see his mind wandering, we can almost see the glaze of memories replaying in his head. There is a possibility of including a flashback here but I’m not sure what memory would be important to Nick at this point. Meanwhile, we hear Erik continue his monologue – he’s met someone, they’ve been dating for a few weeks.

“Why did you want to meet up with me?’ Nick interrupts suddenly.

“I mean, why did you want to have coffee together?”

He regrets speaking immediately. Erik is silent. Then, a close-up of Erik, again. We try to imagine, like Nick, what he might be thinking, what he might say, what part of their shared history comes to his mind. We could flashback to a quick scene of them locking eyes, laughing, kissing, not fucking. Perhaps a close-up of Erik’s hand on Nick’s back, of Nick tensing, of a fireplace and a Spotify playlist and a fat cat that Nick hasn’t seen for months.

Instead, let’s cut to an over-the-shoulder shot of Nick waiting in line to pay; opening his mouth to crack his jaw as he waits. There’s a full-length mirror behind the counter. Nick studies his reflection, as do we (I think this should be possible if we play with the mirror’s angles). Then, we cut to an eye-level shot of Nick – front on, stationary as if we’re now ‘in’ the mirror. From here, Nick watches us as he continues, unblinking, to study his reflection. He cracks his jaw again, violently. I want to silence all background noise then and make every movement – of a fork dropped, water poured, laughter shared – slow down. It’s melodramatic but we’re seeing, even humouring, Nick’s perspective this time – until the cashier breaks the silence and Nick’s transfixion, and he pays, smiling.

Putting his wallet back into his pocket, Nick turns back to the table where Erik sits scrolling through his phone. The camera, however, will stay locked in its position within the full-length mirror behind the counter. From here, we’ll see Nick stop himself mid-stride, reach into his pocket and pull out what looks like a photograph.

Cut to a close-up of his palm as he attempts to flatten out the photo and walks back to Erik, dodging someone walking up to pay their bill, apologising quickly. When Nick reaches the table, he doesn’t sit down. Instead, he waits until Erik looks up at him, smiling. Nick’s face is out of frame, we can only see his torso and his left hand carefully moving a photograph between his thumb and forefinger: up and down, up and down.

I’ve written a monologue for Nick to deliver to Erik here. In it, Nick will tell him about the picture in his hand: a photo taken at school when he was 7 years old. He’ll tell him how he would smile for the camera, how his grin for every photo was full and wide. Erik will look confused, the camera will stay still, and Nick will continue. He talks about the little black stool they had to sit on when the photo was taken, those new shoes his mum bought just for the occasion, and the hair gel his brother had given him to control that stubborn cowlick he was just learning to be ashamed of. Then there were those photo packages you could get, he’ll say, the ones that included little bookmarks or magnets or calendars that they’d print your face onto. They were all the things mum would put around the house proudly and that he’d smile at, with some embarrassment, whenever he’d find them scattered around the house.

“I remember this photo; I remember the day it was taken. I remember it was 40 degrees and we were all sweating and complaining about sweating. I remember there’d been a diamond python found in the exposed buttress of the school’s tin roof that day. I remember pretending to know its scientific name.”

Cut to Nick gripping at the photo in his hand (one second), gripping tighter and tighter. Cut back to a medium shot, Nick is still out of frame.

“This photo is different; in this photo I remember being unable to tear myself away from the sight of my reflection in the lens of the camera. I came and planted myself on that little black stool, in front of that photographer and I saw myself moving in the lens, adjusting my collar and pulling at my stubborn cowlick.”

The camera gradually begins to zoom in from the medium shot. Nick is still gripping at the photo in his hands, his nails pressing into his palm.

“When the photos came, Mum immediately put them up on the fridge, proudly. I’d see them, from then on, every day before school, held to the fridge with a bright fluorescent magnet in the shape of a terrible fish.”

Cut to a long shot, abruptly – Nick is finally in frame. The noises of the café continue uninterrupted, Nick looks down (away from Erik) to study the photograph in his hands.

“I think I’ve told you this story before.”

“Have you?” Erik says.

“I think so,” Nick replies.

“I don’t remember.”

“I know you don’t.”

Cut to Nick’s hands as he fiddles with his school photo, printed on glossy paper. He was being self-righteous; he was trying to say something significant. He could’ve chosen a different story but instead he chose one with nothing in it but a kid with a smile and a photo with a line of poetry written on the back (‘I carry your heart’). So, Erik won’t say anything. I imagine he could stand up and hold Nick, tear up that photo and say something perfect. I imagine, perhaps, that he could reach over to Nick with his hand and comfort him, caress him, stick two fingers in his mouth. Perhaps he could squeeze his neck and pull his jaw out from under his skin with both hands, or laugh and laugh until Nick smashes the bottle of water on the table spectacularly.

I don’t think he’ll do anything in the end. Erik will sit there – I want him to – with his phone in his hand and his eyes on the glass of water in front of him. Then, Nick and Erik will retreat into silence, or into their own unique monologues. Nick will imagine spitting on the ground, screaming or pleading with Erik to pretend that he cared for him, and Erik will think about that married man who keeps sending him dick pics (maybe he’ll even mention that before he leaves?). We won’t see these thoughts, it’s up to the viewer to imagine them now. Even so, perhaps we could zoom in on Nick’s smile, small and quivering, as he continues to fiddle with the photo.

A bus passes outside, a wooden bench screeches across the hardwood.

To finish, I want to cut to an extreme close-up of Nick’s fist clenching the photo in his hand. You’ll see little trickles of blood seep between each finger as he folds the photo of a kid with a big toothy grin and pushes it back into his pocket. Actually, forget the blood, let’s make it simple: he holds the photo, turns it over and reads a line of poetry written on the back. Or, perhaps we forget the photo completely, as well as the line of poetry (‘I carry your heart’). Instead, let’s silence the noise of the café again. Let’s watch as Nick hugs Erik, as he laughs when Erik mentions some married man that keeps messaging him, as he leaves the café and pauses for a moment outside the door to look up at the sky.


Guy Webster is a poet originally from Sydney. He is currently studying a PhD in English Literature at Cambridge University.

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