On the utility of cinematic dreams

I’m currently teaching a screenwriting workshop, and this week, I asked the students to write a dream sequence. Without dialogue, the dream should illustrate their main character’s innermost hopes, fears, or conflicts. When the character wakes up, we’ll see how their dream contrasts with their waking life. 

This assignment definitely falls into a murky area of “things that are overused in media and thus risk seeming kind of hacky.” But if a device gets used in film and television so often that it’s developed a stench, chances are that thing is an extremely facile story device. To put it simply: certain devices get used over and over again because they work really, really well. When I went searching for examples of cinematic dream sequences to screen for my class, it only took a few minutes to find several examples which I already had in my screenplay collection.

Having watched quite a few, I’ve classified three main ways that cinematic dream sequences frequently operate:

  1. They show us the dreamer’s memories (maybe good, usually bad)

  2. They show us the dreamer’s hopes or fears (this is the focus of the assignment)

  3. They allow the dreamer to commune with the dead (which is a kind of memory, and sometimes serves to illustrate hopes and fears)

I ended up showing my students a pair of dream sequences from 2018’s Black Panther. While not strictly “normal” dreams — they are “dreamed” as a part of a magical Wakandan royal ritual — they each touch all three of those bullet points. We see significant memories flash before the eyes of two different characters, T’Challa and Killmonger. We watch each one have a confab with his dead father. And we learn what is driving or troubling each man. Nice find, Professor Flaxbart.

There is, of course, one major issue with the way dreams are employed in film, television, and other media: it’s not true. Everyone’s dreams are different, but in my experience, actual dreams don’t speak very clearly about anything. Hopes and fears are in there, but they’re hidden behind a layer of what you watched on television and what your friend texted you before bed. And my own dreams have always been woefully short on visits from the dead.

I know that SOME people dream beautiful encounters with lost loved ones. Just this past Friday, I had the immense pleasure of seeing a live comedy show — Rachel Bloom talked and sang to an intimate audience of masked and vaccinated fans for over 90 minutes. Remarkably, she did the thing that so many comedians are purposefully avoiding right now: she talked about death and loss in the wake of this awful year. When it was supposed to be, it was very funny. But at one point she described how she dreams about people she’s lost. Her dreams, she told us, are the one place where she has an opportunity to experience those people as alive again. She even described a recent dream where she KNEW she was dreaming and was marveling at her brain’s ability to create all the faces in the crowd around her. Listening to her weave this heartfelt and humorous tale, I was not just moved: I was jealous. Not only do I rarely dream of the dead, but I NEVER know that I’m dreaming. 

Back when I was in screenwriting school, I wrote a short dream sequence script of my own. The main character wanted to learn how to have lucid dreams so she could change the way she dreamed about her dead mother. I never showed the script to anyone, which ironically makes my mention of it something akin to describing one’s dreams — I’m telling a story of something that never happened outside of my own mind. And, like a cinematic dream, the script itself represents its writer’s own hopes and fears. For years after her death, in my dreams about my mother, I could never have a nice, meaningful chat with her the way those Wakandan kings did with their forebears. She wasn’t a spirit visiting me to give me some sage wisdom. She was always just back somehow, and in the dreams I would either be stressed out about how I was going to explain this impossible return to my friends, or else angry that she’d been alive all this time and left me thinking she wasn’t. 

After researching it for the script (yes, the script I wrote just for me and never showed anyone), I attempted to trick my brain into letting me have a lucid dream. My attempts were unsuccessful. In my script, the protagonist eventually accepted that she’d rather have angry dreams about her mother than no dreams at all. And this was the magic key! Once she accepted this fact, the spell was broken and she was able to have that sleepytime heart-to-heart with her mom at last!

This too, was more Hollywood horseshit. In real life, my acceptance of this same truth didn’t do a damn thing. Nowadays, I rarely dream of my mom at all. 

Back to the assignment I gave my screenwriting students. Of particular interest to me is a line in instructing the writers to follow the format of dreams “as they experience them.” I think this where dream talk gets really juicy. Will their characters morph from one person into another? Will the location of the dream change without warning? Will they try to read something but be unable to make out the words? That’s the kind of unreal weirdness my dreams are made of. We don’t see a lot of it in the movies, because while it would be realistic, it could easily stray into bad storytelling.1 It’s usually safe to assume that anything we see on screen is being shown to us for a reason. That’s why, in my lucid dream screenplay, I made the character dream an actual fight with her mother, about something that bothered them both in waking life. If I’d copied directly from my REAL mom dreams, we would have been left wondering WHY our hero is so annoyed that she’ll have to call her friends and explain that her mother is the first person since Jesus to return from the dead. And it wouldn’t have told us anything about our protagonist, except that she’s a Christian who doesn’t relish making phone calls. 

But the night of the Rachel Bloom show, I had a dream that I was walking up a big sand dune to go to a party on the beach. All the people at the party were just over the crest of the dune I was climbing.  I still couldn’t see them when I reached the top, but I could hear their voices. There were flowers at the crest, and I began to pick them. I gathered a handful of  black-eyed susans before spotting a bright pink anemone and adding it to the bunch. Suddenly I knew that the flowers were for the party’s guest of honor. And then I heard her voice — my mother. I don’t remember what she was saying, and I didn’t see her. But I recognized her voice because it sounded just like mine. The dream turned to nonsense from there, but I woke up happy.

That was a real dream, or part of one anyway. It wouldn’t make much sense in a movie, but in real life, we don’t need everything to tie into a tidy narrative. Oh, we might want it to, but we don’t need it to. I’ll take my dream for what it was — an unexpected flower at the top of a hill. And I’ll keep an eye out for random wildflowers in waking life too, while I’m at it.


Notable exceptions are movies ABOUT dreams, like Linklater’s Waking Life or Gondry’s The Science of Sleep.