I’ve been in the process of writing a script and part of my homework assignment has been to watch movies. (Darn it.) While watching movies, I’m looking for structural elements as well as trying to enjoy the movies I watch.
Movies are a solid part of American culture. In our day to day existence, people will more than likely talk about movies or television. Movies resonate with people because they have a tendency to reflect truths about life without being overly academic. They are also escapist fantasy in nature. I’m not likely to be called upon to be a starship captain and explore alien worlds or to go on a quest to destroy a magic ring. (Doing so in video games is another story.)
Movies in a sense are contrived, but that’s part of their charm. As such, to make the fictional vision work, we need characters that we can sympathize and empathize with. If we don’t have good characters there won’t be a good story.
Syd Field has written a great series of books about writing screenplays. His description is simple and academic. He explains the difference between novels, plays, and screenplays. Novels are internal in nature. We can know everything going on with characters and even get into their heads. Plays are primarily dialogues acted on a stage. “Screenplays are stories told with pictures placed within the context of a dramatic structure.” (Knowing this explains to me why books tend to be better than movies.)
According to Field, stories can be broken down into three parts: beginnings, middles, and an ends. It works for all stories. All stories have conflicts. If you don’t have a conflict, you don’t have a story. Characters in stories must have conflicts. Characters must have a dramatic need. There must be something they want to obtain, get, or possess. Once there’s an obstacle blocking access to getting the dramatic need, the character has a conflict and we have a story.
Take the Harry Potter stories. Harry Potter wants to have a family. Voldemort wants to return to life, take over the world, and be the most powerful wizard ever. Harry Potter keeps getting in his way. Voldemort killed Harry’s parents and continues to destroy everything Harry loves or would give Harry a sense of being loved. That is dramatic need of characters. It works in the books and in the movies. The Potter books work because we get into the mind of Harry. The movies work because we see the story of Harry Potter told in pictures. In each case we are aware of Harry and Voldemort’s dramatic needs.
So, good movies are about good characters. Good doesn’t mean that the characters are always morally good. Villains in movies need to be engaging as well as heroes. Darth Vader becomes interesting when we learn he is Luke’s father. Gollum in Lord of the Rings becomes sympathetic as we realize all he wants is to get his “precious” back.
Movies however, also need more than a good screenplay. They need the right actors in the right roles, the right director, and need a good story. Bottom line, good stories are the bedrock of good movies. Yet movies are about getting the right combination of elements coordinated in synchronicity with one another. Also, timing and luck play a role. Oh, and the film industry is also a business. Making movies is an art. Selling them is a business. When those two worlds work in harmony, good things happen. When they’re out of alignment, we get rotten films. When you have armies of people working on a creative and enterprising venture, personalities will clash. (That could make a good screenplay.)
I’ve been an extra in a movie. It was an amazing thing to be on a movie set. It was truly magical, and I was very impressed at the professionalism of the crew. It might sound nerdy of me, but I was amazed to watch the director of photography work with the lighting crew to get the right lighting for a scene. So many people work long and hard to create everything in a movie. It takes a lot of coordination to make a Hollywood film. Truly a director needs to be an artist and field marshal. Seeing what I’ve experienced, I can see why movies cost millions of dollars to make.
In a nutshell, my philosophy of movies is that they must have compelling characters to make them work. The same holds true for any work of fiction. Special effects won’t save a bad story. Name brand actors won’t save a terrible story. Awesome cinematography won’t bring a rotten story back from the dead. A John Williams soundtrack won’t save a dud film.
Good movies have good characters. Good characters make good stories. It’s simple in concept, but not simple to implement. In my following movie reviews, I’ll explore what works and doesn’t with movies.