Stories are cheap. We tell them to each other every day. I write them here for free, except for what little ad revenue comes in off my blog. In keeping with my resolution to think “keenly” about spending a small fortune making a movie, I wanted to riff a little on what prompts you to pay for a movie, what keeps you watching it, and what prompts you to tell friends about it. Ponder this all with me and tell me if I’m thinking clearly.
Before you invest in a story, you have to have some reason for even sitting through the first two minutes. If your friend walks out the door with the words, “remind me to tell you what Debbie said about you,” and then charges out to the parking lot, I’m guessing you’re going to be pretty anxious for your friend to get back and start talking. Debbie’s place in your personal hierarchy may factor in, as well. If Debbie’s a witless bore in the collections department, you may shrug your shoulders and bide your time. If Debbie’s the soon-to-be love of your life, you may call your friend on his mobile and demand to know when the Debbie movie is playing. The tease has to be great. I’m guessing that title, star, hook, content and genre all fuel the tease, but the tease is an art in itself. I believe Alfred Hitchcock, prior to the release of Psycho, intimated, darkly, that theater ushers would need psychiatric counseling in order to respond to both the film and its affect on the crowd. If that sort of thing can be pulled off, you get the sense this isn’t just film; it’s a chapter in history itself. I happen to think that It’s a Wonderful Life is likely the best film ever made, but does that title help or hurt the tease factor? With respect to Courage, we won’t be able to publicize the tease strategy, (or it wouldn’t be a tease), but we ignore this step at our peril.
One of the real life Von Trapp sisters observed that The Sound of Music had something for everyone: music, dance, romance, God, comedy, Nazis, escape, and even a little gunfire. If you make a story about two Cistercian monks staring at a fireplace and talking for two hours, the audience range will be smaller than a story about Hayley Atwell running a comedy improv club above a basement where a dozen Jihadists are building a Plutonium bomb. I think a Revolutionary War story with beautiful women, rugged men, plucky children, imminent danger, and a little comedy would have suitably large range. The lack of comedy in Courage is something we need to address. We built more action into later episodes, but we can’t ignore that either. I think range of interest also covers storytelling style too. I’m a bit of a snob. I like John Cheever and Flannery O’Conner over James Cameron (spit), but “accessibility” is something we can’t ignore. I insist on 18th century language, but it can’t obscure the drama or alienate the audience.
I turn off a movie if I feel characters start to do things that just don’t make sense, or if the actors haven’t convinced me they believe the words they’re saying. “Super women” who effortlessly knock down men three times their size—so as to placate some feminist sensibility—qualify. I turned off Showtime’s Shameless in the first episode, when they asked me to believe family members casually talk to each other while they’re rutting. Credibility is a subjective reality, but the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief can’t be abused.
Credibility and surprise live together in a story, and the fight between the two shouldn’t be obvious. We are associational (hence boring) thinkers. “Trucks,” in our minds, are more likely to be “red” than “ecclesiastical.” Both the language and the action and the conflict in a story have to be both credible and surprising. In a story about the causes of the American Revolution, we have to introduce known historical realities in surprising ways: throw in a violent Quaker grandmother with a peg leg and four dead husbands for good measure.
Toying with this. I think the conventional “super powers” story is a little boring. People who can simply light you on fire whenever they have a problem may not experience enough tension to demonstrate conflict and credible resolution, and you can wander into deus ex machina territory, but our big book, the Bible, uses miracles sparingly, and perhaps so should we? A witch or an angel or a prophet here and there in a Revolutionary war story?
I think people enjoy having false idols shattered. In the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit, Rooster Cogburn actually knocks an Indian child off a porch rail for teasing a horse. Archie Bunker was allowed to be wildly funny, and even smart, in his bellicose reactions to Meat Head. William Wallace threw an effeminate, lisping fairy out a castle window. Every story should contain something that peeves both the Progressives and the Baptists a little.
Godless wretches like Harvey Weinstein need less sex in their films and Christians need a little more sex. We’ve ignored our own book again: Adam and Eve, Potiphar’s wife, Song of Solomon. God created the stuff, after all. You don’t need to put actors in bed, either, to make the story hot. It’s a Wonderful Life, for a Hays Code film, was powerfully sexy. Donna Reid was naked in that hydrangea bush, folks, and Violet Bix sent the cop home to see the missus.
Most of us have limited patience for ensemble story telling. If we have lots of characters, we need to have one or two that hold the story together. Courage was beginning to feel like the Lawrence Welk show after a while, always bringing in a new act. Something to debate. I don’t think an audience will forgive a producer who makes himself the central character of his own story, so my sense is that Silas Rhodes has to step more into the background, or we tell a different Courage story altogether. Something to debate.
Violence / The Dark Side
There’s a reason you pick American Assassin over Sarah, Plain and Tall. Think about the sheer number of films made about Nazis. It’s almost as if Hollywood is actually in love with what it hates. I think there’s a part of most stories that should scare us a little. It shouldn’t be gratuitous or scarring, but we don’t get to throw the ring in Mordor by traipsing through wheat fields. Samson didn’t ask PETA for approval before lighting the foxes’ tails on fire. I think we introduced something pretty dark with the Bill Krepps character in Courage and Jim Tavaré created a fearfully sinister presence. It’s easy to get the “evil redcoat” thing wrong and we need to spread depravity around, here and there, on both sides of the conflict.
I think you do want to walk out of the theater, glad that the rebels destroyed the death star, and the deeper, and more credible you can make God’s love known, by the end of the story, the more likely it is that someone will say, over coffee the next morning, “you’ve got to see this.”