TODAY’S TOPIC: STORY
So. You want to make a movie. You have cameras, you have lights, actors, locations, a computer editing program… You’re ready to go!
The thing that’s missing from that list is the single most important thing you need — the thing that every movie begins (and ends) with. IT”S THE SCRIPT that tells you what the camera’s going to photograph, what will be lit (or not lit), what characters the actors will play, and what the story is that your editing program will be used to tell. Without the script, you’ve got dick. Bupkis. Zip.
So what IS the script? On one level, it’s the blueprint; the Bible for all your department heads and actors. But even more important, it’s the substance of your movie. It IS your movie. In other words, it’s the…
Why do people go to the movies? There are many answers to that question – to escape the drudgery of everyday routine, to vicariously live other people’s lives, to see new things or exciting action or fantastical worlds outside one’s own experience. Those are all valid answers, but none of them really help with writing the script. Because at the end of the day, a movie isn’t ABOUT escapism, or cool shots, or special effects, or action sequences.
The bottom line is: people want to feel something when they go to the movies. And how do you achieve that? Simple. You do what people have done since they painted on cave walls with berry juice or sat around the campfire grunting at each other: you tell a…
Obviously, in script terms the story is What Happens In The Movie. But there are some basic questions you might want ask yourself when pondering what story you want to tell. Because the kinds of stories a director chooses to tell – as much as how it’s told — is what partially defines a director in the first place. So just for fun, let’s pretend we’re sitting in the 4-Point Film School annex. I’m going to go around the class and ask what stories the students have come up with for their first film project.
Student #1: “I want to make a dystopian epic with weird aliens and space battles.” Me: “What’s the story?” Student #1: “It’s going to be really cool because there’s this new FX software where I can green-screen live action over a digital matte painting, and…”
Student #1 is clearly more interested in special effects than telling a story, and while special effects are a wonderful tool when used right, they don’t make a story. It’s like wanting to build a house and buying the paint first.
Student #2: “I want to do a romance.” Me: “Great. Who are your characters?” Student #2: “This chick and this dude.” Me: “Brilliant. What happens?” Student #1: “They meet, and… you know, fall in love.” I ask, “Who is this couple? Young? Old? Somewhere in the middle? Well-off or struggling? What obstacles do they have to overcome? Do they end up with each other or go their separate ways? Is it a happy love story or a funny love story or a sad love story?”
Student #2 blinks at me, then murmurs something about how the new Canon DSLR makes backlighting look really cool and also that he has a crush on this girl and told her she can play the chick.
Student #3 has been watching all this silently. She seems thoughtful, pensive. “How about you?” I ask. “What film do you want to make?” Slowly, deliberately, with great confidence, she says, “I want to make a film about a rest home in which the senior citizens symbolize all the endangered species of earth and the staff is an allegory for socialism. And I want to shoot it in black and white to be ironic.” I nod slowly. “I see. What happens? Who are the characters?” Student #3 blinks for a beat, then pronounces there will be no dialogue in the movie, which will be her way to symbolize all the many important issues that society should be addressing but isn’t. Oh, and she plans to use a lot of Joni Mitchell songs.
What have all three of these students neglected? Take a big, fat, Super-Size guess:
My son is nine years old. The other day he told me about a video he’d seen on his favorite Minecraft Music Video YouTube Channel (it’s a real thing, don’t ask). He said it was about a kid whose parents die so he goes to live with his sensei. I was thrilled he knew what a sensei was (it’s a Japanese term for a teacher or mentor, usually specializing in a particular skill). “What happens?,” I asked him. “The sensei teaches him to fight but also to be a good person. Then a ninja kills the sensei.” Holy crap. I’m hooked. “What happens next?” I asked. And then the kicker:
“The kid goes looking for the ninja to get revenge.”
Okay. Hardly original. Kurosawa probably did it a couple of times, and when you think about it, it’s STAR WARS. In fact, it’s what we used to call in the Star Trek: Enterprise writer’s room a “crusty nugget.” But guess what, folks?
THAT is a fucking story.
An innocent befallen by tragedy. A surrogate parent trying to teach him to survive, physically and emotionally. Then a brutal plot twist. And finally — questions. Not so much what will the kid do, but how will he do it? And will he succeed?
Apart from my enthusiasm for the unlikely hero and the emotional stakes and the martial arts action that is pivotal to the plot, the thing that intrigues me most – and that is a key component to any story – is the question part. Not just how will he do it and will he succeed, but will he reconsider the whole thing? His sensei taught him two things: to fight AND to be good. Can he do both? And if so, how? And what if he has second thoughts after he’s in too deep to back out? What if he pisses off the ninja and realizes he doesn’t stand a chance? Good stuff. And remember something: audiences aren’t stupid. They’ve seen everything and they’re one step ahead of you, so your job as a storyteller is to surprise them, to keep them off-balance, to ask questions they want answered, but never make the answers too easy.
Now far be it from me to rain on your parade if you love CGI special effects or hot chicks or pretentious, beatnik art school crap. Have at it. But if you want to make a movie using your personal obsessions, you can’t just state them — you need to formulate them into AN EMOTIONALLY ENGAGING AND COHERENT NARRATIVE WITH COMPELLING CHARACTERS. In others words (all together now), a…
So think about a story idea that touches you, that’s personal somehow, that scares you, that turns you on. Or do what I do: think of a movie you want to see but that nobody else has made yet.
With that in mind, maybe next time we’ll talk about how to turn your idea into a screenplay. Because only THEN can we quote my awesome first assistant director Tommy Irvine: “Why aren’t we shooting?”
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Tags: Fred Dekker