I think in movies

Reflections on family, storytelling and the fire beneath me

Featured in

AS CHILDREN, MY brothers, sister and I would play outside, and it was cinematic from the start – dressed as Power Rangers, doing cartwheels in the yard, Batman jumping off a swing-set to somersault on the lawn, or Daredevil beating up bad guys in the shed. I remember our first home video, my dad behind the camera, looking down at me as I approached, a lurching child, unaware of the significance.

In a sing-song voice, I asked, ‘Can I have a look?’

That’s how it started: my family, telling stories to one another, acting them out. We wrote them as we went.

Now I think in movies–

Sometimes clean, crisp cinematography, images perfectly framed, clearest when I close my eyes; a soundtrack embedded, playing overhead, each actor’s movements choreographed to the beat, as if they could hear it, like it was part of them—

Part of a whole.

Other times the movies are notions, discombobulated segments, a puzzle I’m working on. Faces are absent or mutable, a rotating cast – like playing with toys; anyone can be anyone.

Costumes are usually more specific: shirts, shoes, hair and coats. Do they billow in the wind? Are they torn, or faded, or ironed?

My mind is a cinema twenty-four-seven: the lights never come up. Every day is a fight for the words. Maybe I just watched too much TV as a kid.

I’m always telling stories; sometimes I feel like they propel me, rather than the other way round. Crafting a scene, I pull words from viscous synapses like plucking teeth – details stuck like bones in a tar pit, drawn out one by one, cleaned, polished and put together.

The scene exists first in my mind’s eye, then I bring the words together; the right words are hard to find; the right words are endless; the right words just feel right.

If they don’t feel right, then they aren’t the right words. Maybe they nearly are – so close, but not quite. My pen projects what my mind conjures, stirred up from primordial silt – the muse at the heart of my ADHD.

When I remember stories, I remember films – how they made me feel, what they made me think about, and often the experience of seeing them. Eli needed the bathroom in Phantom Menace, and Dad took him, reluctantly – they were only gone for five minutes, but that was long enough.

Eli says he still remembers the way I hissed ‘Qui Gon got killed!’ as they sat back down – the way he saw it that first time, before the second rewatch, or the millionth.

I remember the line of people waiting for Return of the King, stretched out the door, grouped like ants in excited columns; then the movie itself, the swells of emotion, each ending topping the last – and I still think back to the last words, as Sam sits cradling his daughter, home safe, after three movies’ worth of adventures: ‘Well…I’m back.’

I remember midnight premieres: dressing up, falling down the stairs dressed as Obi-Wan… Or the time we were the only ones at Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – we took the day off school, and the theatre was deserted. Made sense, in hindsight.

Or the time we came out of a late session, and Eli got locked in behind the security gate; we called them, and they just told him to use the fire exit. We’d assumed it was alarmed – what if there was a fire?

When we stayed with Nan and Pop for the holidays, Pop would take us to Blockbuster, and we would get seven weeklies; we’d blow through them in two days, and he’d take us back again.

Nan sometimes took us to the movies, and that was a special treat: I remember going to Tomb Raider, and Blade: Trinity – weird ones. I remember my cheeks flushing red when Ryan Reynolds dropped a hard C-bomb in Blade – first one I’d heard on screen, in surround sound.

Or my mum sitting next to us through the sex scene between Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman in Underworld: Evolution, and the embarrassment I felt—

‘I bet she gets pregnant,’ Mum said, a moment later, ‘with a vampire-werewolf baby.’ Suddenly it seemed normal – and she was right. Kate Beckinsale did have a vampire-werewolf baby! Though it took several more movies.

In a film, everything on the screen matters. They don’t just tell you where to look, they look for you – force you into a point of view, lock you into it, make it impossible to look elsewhere while entranced in an illusion; you need to find what’s important in a mess of colour and motion. In my opinion, it’s all important – everything is artificial, built from the ground up to tell a story. That’s what I do – all I do: tell stories. Can’t seem to stop.

I started 2022 with four grandparents and, in eight months, lost three of them.

At my pop’s funeral they told us how our nan, who’d passed only six months earlier, used to iron his shirts every day for decades when he went to work – he was a barman and made his way to manager. One day, Nan missed a sleeve – he worked all day with one crumpled sleeve.

They told the story after he died – after they’d both died. And here it is, now, memorialised. Funny what small scenes stick with us – mean the most, even years later. Three funerals was the limit, it seems; I couldn’t cry where I had before, listening to hopeful or sad songs. The tears had run out.

Grief is predictably unpredictable – you can guarantee it’ll get the jump on you when you least expect it: pouring a tea, enjoying a biscuit, seeing a small statue of a tree frog resting on a pot plant. A single rogue thought can cut you down, blast through your defences like a cosmic ray. Every thought in your head comes from somewhere. Neurons are like sponges. It’s hard to quiet them when writing – hard to keep them away, keep them out of the space.

Sometimes when I close my eyes I see the grief in my remaining nan’s eyes, the day of the third funeral – the distant stare, the welling tears; we sat around in the grass of the yard, under a tree Pop had planted, and told stories; more even than at the funeral, and at the wake. I remember breaking down before I took the handle of the coffin in my hand, embracing my brothers and my sister and my cousins – a wreck of emotion, a hollowed human.

Pain is raw; pain is the most real thing in the world.

I think of Pop’s cheeky smile, walking by the car like he’d forgotten where it was. Every damn time. He knew we knew – that’s what he liked about it. Their stories are with me – they are one with me; they are my story.

As long as I am telling stories, I am telling their story. I can’t stop now; the fire has me.

To craft a good story, you should know where you want to go. The why, for me, comes as you open up the characters and let yourself inhabit them. Why would they want this? Are they a person who feels resentment, wants revenge? Do they want to right a wrong? Are they afraid of their own independence and happy to be told what to do, to go with the flow? And what happens once that option goes away – when they have to make a choice?

All the time, people ask me how I write: word by word. I can’t say, the same way I couldn’t tell people in the library how I’d gotten good at drawing. Practice – sure. But it helps to have the picture in your head, first.

Maybe it’s my calling – my curse. Burning stories.

I think it starts with character. There is someone I want to introduce everyone to – someone whose life I want to watch more than my own. It starts with sparks, single thoughts – a gun, a crime, a feeling, a setting, a ship, a monster, a mountain – and I start setting up the toys. What’s the game this time? I’ve written most of the story before I even start finding words.

Maybe that’s the idea – you have to nurse it, let a story gestate, let it develop, until it hits a point of criticality impossible to ignore. You just have to get it down, get it out.

Whenever I write I, I always mean me, even when it’s not. Why would I do these things? How would I solve it? Now, what if I was a half vampire-werewolf baby, whose father was killed off-screen in the fourth movie?

Is real life boring or horrifying? Perhaps it’s my failing – a lack of imagination, or an overabundance. I live in fiction, and through it – the weirder the better.

Maybe real life is too muted for me. Even at its simplest – why would I set something here, in our own world, when I can go somewhere else? Somewhere I control the rules; somewhere the good guy can win and the day can be saved.

In fiction, there is an ending, and often it makes sense. Real life is not as considerate.

This piece was commissioned by Darby Jones at State Library of Queensland’s black&write! project as part of ‘Unsettling the Status Quo’, thanks to support from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

Share article

About the author

Jacob Gallagher

Jacob Gallagher is an emerging Kamilaroi writer and storyteller who in 2023 was awarded a black&write! Writing Fellowship for his manuscript The Doubles.

More from this edition

Stay up to date with the latest, news, articles and special offers from Griffith Review.