I have this theory... Okay, as you probably know by now, I've got a whole truckload of theories. But one of them is this: every movie has one main relationship at its core. One relationship that is more important than all the others, one that is the heart of your movie, one that defines your movie. Could be a romance. Could be a buddy movie. Could be a detective playing cat-and-mouse with a killer. Could be a father-son family drama. But there will always be a central relationship going on up there on screen, and the shape of that relationship will help form the shape of your story.
This column isn't about that relationship. Heck, no. Figuring out how all that works would be way too hard. But... this column is about another relationship.
One that gets overlooked by many first-time writers. Yet it lies at the very heart of the movie-going experience. It's the relationship that happens between your movie -- and the audience that goes to see it.
The really good filmmakers I've met have the ability to keep in their heads not only the scene at hand, but also the state of mind of the audience at that particular moment. A great storyteller is in tune with what the audience knows, feels, wants, hopes for, is afraid of, or is curious about, for each character, during each unfolding moment of the story.
An evolving, ongoing relationship occurs, between the story and the person who experiences it.
I wish I could remember who said this -- somebody please write to me and help me out -- I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, when he came out to Hollywood, took a look at the movie-making process and said something like: "It's an amazing art form. A series of scenes put in a particular order designed to leave the viewer with no choice but to feel one particular way."
(If he didn't say it, we'll just pretend he did.) In truth, a filmgoer experiences many different relationships when they experience a movie. The relationships happen all at the same time, in a complex interweaving kind of way. Ideally, for the art form to work at its highest, each one of these relationships needs to be controlled:
A. Relationship Between Audience and Protagonist As important as any relationship happening between characters on screen is the relationship between protagonist and audience. And it's a tougher relationship to build, as you can only control half the equation.
More often than not, you're going to want the audience to like your lead. To bond in some way -- admiration, interest, sympathy, whatever. Often the protagonist allows the audience access into the story, so you're going to need that connection for the story to work.
A few tips: It happens fast. We're a critical, opinionated lot, the human race. The second a character shows up on screen, we start building an opinion about that character. Everything that character says and does counts. There is no warm-up.
Next, ask yourself -- does my lead really have to be a remote, asocial, cynical jerk? Because for some reason, that's the character that most often interests new writers. Writers routinely fashion jerks for roles where the story need clearly calls for us to like the character. Yet the writer provides no reason why we should, and often many reasons why we shouldn't. Too many scripts start with the lead in a foul mood, making snide comments for no apparent reason. You might as well have him kick a puppy.
Now, it's true that a good actor -- or major star -- can go a long way toward creating that bond between character and audience. As my writing partner Ted says, "Cast Tom Cruise in the role and he can do whatever he wants for the first twenty minutes, the audience will be on his side." Seeing a known actor in a role is like re-connecting with an old friend. But you can't insure casting. You'll have to achieve the same effect with action and dialog.
Okay, next... you should also be at least somewhat concerned with how other characters in your story describe your lead. If someone says, "He's a mean and stupid sonofabitch, a complete loser" then know that, as an audience member, I'll assume that characterization is accurate, until proven otherwise.
We continue to learn about the character during the entire course of the story. At a certain point, though, a shift occurs. We start to feel we 'know' the character. We develop expectations, maybe some hopes for the character, and become interested in predicting what he might do. We're 'with' the character --
And that gives the filmmaker power. By affecting the character, we can now truly affect the audience. In the same way the audience comes to the story through the character, the filmmaker reaches back through the character to touch the audience.
It helps, perhaps, to imagine that we go to the movies to make friends -- and even enemies. It's similar to how we meet and interact with people in real life -- but films happen faster, in a more intense, distilled manner. We want to meet someone interesting, and then see what happens to them, see how they make decisions, and how those decisions play out. We hope that our friends will turn out to be trustworthy, and that they will prevail against their problems, and that our enemies will be punished.
But friend or foe, that connection, that relationship, has to happen first, for the rest of it to work. B. Relationship Between Audience and Story You know that the audience will try to guess where you're going with the story. It's a given. It's fun. After all, they're sitting there virtually motionless in the dark for two hours, with nothing better to do but second-guess you. (I'm leaving out, of course, the always-superior option of making out with one's date in the back row.) One of your goals is to make sure the filmgoer doesn't come up with a better plot than the one you have! (So, no stories about astronauts named Adam and Evelyn who crash land on a planet that is a tropical paradise. Please.)
As a storyteller, you can make good use of the audience's tendency to look ahead. In fact, you need it to build surprises into your tale. Oddly, an audience expects to be misled ... they want the red herrings, the false leads. They appreciate a fair puzzle, as long as there's a decent shot at figuring it all out.
Now that's a bit of filmmaking artistry that no one ever talks about -- because it's so difficult to describe. The use of film language and story elements to subtly mislead an audience, or subtly set-up the ending while keeping it unexpected.
A great example of this is the work Lawrence Kasdan did in the film BODY HEAT. The film plays with audience expectations throughout. We start to search for even the tiniest clues to answer the two burning questions -- "Will Ned get caught?" and "Is Matty setting him up?"
(Note -- there are spoilers here for those who haven't seen the movie.) There's a point where Ned mistakes another woman for Matty -- the infamous, "Hey, lady, wanna fuck?" scene. This is, in fact, the real Matty Walker, who now goes by the name of Mary Ann Simpson. All we find out about her is that she is a 'dear friend' of Matty's. But Matty gives her a rather overstuffed envelope.
So what's in that envelope? We never find out! But the film sets that mysterious envelope tantalizingly in our heads. Later, Ned discovers that Matty has purchased another explosive device from Ned's ex-client. "It's rigged to go off from an external trigger, with a little delay" is the bomb expert's line. When the boathouse explodes, Ned thinks Matty is inside, dead. But at the end of the film, Ned suddenly realizes what happened. It's Mary Ann Simpson's body in the boathouse. The 'little delay,' so casually mentioned earlier, allowed Matty to set off the device, and get away. And the envelope was obviously filled with money to pay off Mary Ann Simpson for the use of her name -- Matty killed two birds with one stone.
When you look at a great film like BODY HEAT, or STAR WARS, CASABLANCA, BACK TO THE FUTURE, one thing is clear -- working out a smart story with no plot holes is the best way to establish a great relationship between audience and story.
Before we move on, a quick caveat on this topic: as a pet peeve, I'm particularly sensitive to comments that the characters within the movie make, regarding the story of the movie itself. I would put a red-line through sentiments like: "You mean this entire thing was a waste of time?" -- and -- "Well, that was sure stupid." -- and -- "Man, this all seems to be going nowhere." My big fear with lines like these is that, when the movie plays before an audience, someone will stand up and shout out agreement -- "Yeah, no kidding!"
Oh and heck, while we're here, I have to vent on another pet peeve. Where did this idea come from that you have to 'set up' all of a character's abilities before they're used? If a character is going to shoot a bow and arrow in Act III, some development executive will invariably insist that you have to set up that the character can shoot a bow and arrow by showing them doing it in Act I, or you're not playing fair with the audience.
Why can't we just find out that the character can shoot the bow and arrow when the character needs to do it? And if it's not believable in Act III without a set-up, why is it believable in Act I without a set-up? Don't you have to set-up the set-up? Thank you, vent-mode off now.
C. Relationship Between Audience and Filmmakers Beyond the characters and the story, an audience experiences a relationship with the film and filmmakers themselves.
On some level, an audience is aware of the presence of the controlling hand of the filmmaker. It might be an overt presence, in, say, a Steven Spielberg or Spike Lee movie -- a film where the presence of the director is quite evident in style, or the film's marketing --
Or it might just be some nebulous 'they' in the mind of an audience member. "They didn't do a very good job with the ending", might be a sentiment expressed. Or the ever-popular, "How'd they do that?"
In any case, an audience looks for clues that they're in good hands. After a smart, effective scene or two, and some great lines and character moments, the audience gets to relax, stop working at it, and simply give in, give themselves up to the movie.
On the other side of the coin, filmmakers (and screenwriters) can easily 'lose' an audience. How does this happen?
Bad writing, unclear story points, and cliches will certainly do the job, and in some cases, perhaps, can't be helped. But I've also read scripts that opened with scenes of racist humour, and sexist humour. I've read scripts that open with off-putting toilet humour. I've read scripts with gratuitous violence, pointlessly graphic blood and guts.
The writer may achieve a sort of knee-jerk response with these types of choices, but at what cost? At the cost of alienating the audience.
For example... I read a script where a guy gets his revenge on his rival by focusing a surveillance camera on him as he goes to the bathroom -- then broadcasting the toilet-stall image on all the TV monitors in the company. In a word, yuck. I get the story beat, certainly. But the screenwriter earns no points for providing me with that image. I can't help but think that great filmmakers like Preston Sturges, John Ford, William Goldman, Alfred Hitchcock, etc., somehow managed to enjoy entire careers without resorting to such devices. You could even argue that they had successful careers because they didn't resort to such images.
A friend of mine, producer Michael Engelberg, observed once that a film can never escape the essential nature of the person directing it. If the director is kind, the film will reflect it. If the director is cynical or mean-spirited, the film can't help but be that way, too.
At its best, the film experience is not only the 'ride' of experiencing a great story, it also allows us a glimpse into the mind of the filmmaker, a chance to share our choices, beliefs, and sensibilities. Your work is a chance for people to connect to you. Is the art you have created a true reflection of who you are, the experiences and beliefs you have? Your audience would like it to be.
D. Relationship Between the Audience and Itself Moviegoing is a group experience. Your family or friends may be a sub-group, and then you join into the larger collective in the theatre. You share the anticipation, laughter, surprise, fear, understanding. If you've ever seen a great movie with a large crowd, you know how the experience is enhanced. You can 'feel' the response of the crowd, and that gives you further license to buy into the experience, and into the reality-world of the film.
And in the course of this, a great thing happens. The audience, collectively, gets smarter. It's like the opposite of a lynch mob mentality.
In a large enough group, even the most demanding story point or subtlest of character moments, will play like gangbusters. I think that studio executives, and filmmakers in general, consistently underestimate their audiences. A complex story, read cold from the page, might be tough. But when you bring to bear acting, music, editing, mise-en-scene and all the other tools at a filmmaker's disposal, and the power of the collective experience, even the most challenging story can be crystal clear.
A full theatre is far smarter than the average studio executive. In fact -- I'll go so far as to say, there are NO EXAMPLES of solid story-logic stories that were too difficult or demanding for the audience to understand. From BODY HEAT to THE USUAL SUSPECTS to HOUSE OF GAMES, we have ample evidence that smart stories work. I believe that, if a film has a story logic that holds up to analysis, the audience will invariably find it. Like I said, they've got nothing else to do. But -- the logic has to BE THERE to be found.
The irony of most studio notes is that, in an effort to 'simplify' the story for the sake of the audience -- so the audience will 'get it' -- the story is made nonsensical. And then no matter how smart the audience is, they will never be able to find the logic -- because it isn't there. The notes have exactly the opposite effect as intended.
E. Relationship of Each Filmgoer with Themselves Finally, we get to the most important relationship of all -- the relationship of the person watching the movie with themselves. The best movies can cause an internal struggle, or reaffirmation of values. Perhaps you wanted one thing for a character, but something else happened. And the character didn't respond in the way you expected. Suddenly you question your own presumptions. Perhaps the experience of the movie as a whole induces a bit of soul-searching, a reassessment of personal values. An effective movie can cause us to challenge our fundamental beliefs. To reexamine our presumptions. To broaden our awareness. And even, in some cases, to change.
So, just to review the main idea, here -- the audience-film relationship is central to the filmgoing experience. As a filmmaker, you need to nurture it, to treat it with care. The audience is your friend -- even if you're going to make them cry or scare the hell out of them.
It's worth doing a final read-through of your script from as objective a viewpoint as you can muster -- from the point of view of the people sitting down in their chairs with their popcorn, taking it all in for the very first time. (Perhaps you have to get away from the material a few days, and then come back, to do this.) But you should really track through your work, paying attention to the subtlest of feelings your story invokes, at each step of the way. It's worth it. Because a reader opening a script page -- or an audience sitting down to watch your film -- is performing an act of trust, an act of faith. Writing stories and making films is great, it's powerful, it's fun. You get to play God, you get to make whatever fantastic things you want happen up there on screen -- Just remember -- the audience is listening.