The Secrets Of The Universe Through Cinema, Part 2
By Michael Karp, SOC
month we explored how the successful screenplay is powered by the
of following the characters transcend their flaws. Flaws in films form
the fuel that powers the plot.
Now we'll consider some of the basic elements of almost all movies.
Although it may seem mechanical, I would suggest to all filmmakers that
they, by rote, ensure that
their screenplay contains these basic ingredients.
- A relationship forming or ending
- A clash of cultures or ideas
- Scenarios that make the audience cry
It is hard to think of very many movies that do not concern a
relationship forming and/or ending. Once human beings overcame the
basic obstacle of mere survival by acquisition of food, water, shelter,
etc., we have become free to focus on our greatest primal need, which
is obtaining and maintaining pleasurable and functional human
relationships. In fact, the very survival of primitive man required the creation of social
and romantic relationships. Homo Sapiens, unlike orangutans, are not a
hermit species. Like most primates, humans require rich social
situations to achieve both happiness and economic existence.
In modern life, humans spend huge amounts of spiritual and economic
capital to create relationships, especially romantic ones. We also
spend huge amounts of spiritual and economic capital making and
watching films about
Consider the relationships forming and ending in The Graduate, Casablanca, Blade Runner, Titanic, Unfaithful, Shawshank Redemption and Austin Powers. There are
some films such as the beautiful Korean Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...
and Spring that advocate a celibate, hermit lifestyle. But such
system is incompatible with the dreams and psychic wiring of most
humans. Although we might admire the discipline and spiritual rigor of
Buddhist or Catholic monastics, we secretly rejoice that others
foolishly make that choice and that we are free to party, be fruitful
and multiply. In any case, any widespread popularity of monasticism
would quickly obliterate the human race through demographic attrition,
so this philosophy is not likely to achieve widespread popularity in
our, or anyone's lifetimes.
Successful films typically deal with humans who have too many
relationships, like Austin Powers, or those who have too few, like
Austin Power's girlfriend Vanessa Kensington. In The Graduate, Dustin
Hoffman's character Ben has no friends of his own age and is so
maladjusted that the only romantic or platonic relationship that he has
is with the neurotic, manipulative, alcoholic Mrs. Robinson , a married
woman twice his age. Ben achieves his redemption when he rejects his
unhealthy relationship with Mrs. Robinson and bonds with her daughter
In The Graduate, Ben
must experience relationship pain in
order to deeply appreciate the value of his relationship with Elaine,
or the value of relationships in general. Pain, and the descent into
spiritual hell, separates the wheat from the spiritual chafe.
Beginning filmmakers often attempt to craft films about a protagonist's
relationship with his computer, video game, television or with himself.
Don't do this. Films are about
relationships forming or ending between two or more vertebrates,
sentient creatures that interact and cause growth in one another. I
include vertebrates (Mammals, Amphibians, Fish, Birds and Reptiles),
since many brilliant films have been made about human relations with
animals. In the minor James Brooks masterpiece As Good As It Gets, Jack
Nicholson is redeemed from being a pathetic misanthrope, by his
involuntary relationship with a dog named Verdell. From the dog,
Nicholson learns to reconnect with humans, including his love interest
There are certainly books such as Catcher In The Rye which
are predominately about a character's relationship with himself. But
books are not movies and the exception does not make the rule. Cinema
is a medium that requires the externalization of a protagonist's
character. Books have the luxury of talking about relationships, but
films must show them.
We all know people who love their dogs and cats more than they love
people. Although I personally am very into my pet felines, in no way
are pets a valid surrogate for a healthy relationship with another
In Blade Runner,
Harrison Ford plays an assassin. But much to his surprise, he falls in
love with one of his victims, Sean Young. And she is just as much in
love with him, much to her own surprise. Their romantic relationship is
the gateway to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. The
destructive racist ideology of the Blade Runner world is
revealed as evil, when Deckard and Rachel's love focuses their spirit
on the true nature of good and evil, right and wrong.
In Unfaithful, Diane
Lane must choose between the safety and affection of her relationship
with husband Richard Gere or the wild, uncontrollable passion of her
affair with her French lover. When Gere eventually murders his wife's
lover, both Gere and Lane are forced to consider what their marriage
and relationship really means to them.
You can see that these great films could not even exist without
relationships forming or ending. No narrative film can exist without
relationships, so figure out which ones are in your film and how they
will change your protagonists, for the worse or for the better.
consider secrets in films.
Almost all movies contain lots of them and so must yours. Casablanca has the
following secrets: The location of the letters of transit, the affair
between Rick and Ilsa, the marriage between Ilsa and Victor, and the
elegant machinations of Rick's plot to free Ilsa and Victor from the
Titanic is built on secrets:
Consider the last point carefully. The biggest secrets in life are the
lies that we tell ourselves.
- Rose is broke
- Rose is unhappy with her fiancee Cal
- Rose attempted suicide
- Where is the diamond?
- The ship is sailing too fast
- There are icebergs dead ahead
- There are not enough lifeboats
- The ship is sinking
- Who is the woman in the drawing?
- Where is Jack being held prisoner below deck?
- Jack did not steal the diamond, but is the victim of Cal's
- Rose's grand daughter Lizzie does not know who her grandmother
really is (a Titanic survivor, and much more)
- Rose was a "hottie" with a past
- And the biggest secret is that Rose's spirit is a secret from herself.
There are other types of secrets in films. In Titanic, the audience knows that the ship will
sink, but the characters do not. But in Casablanca, it is the
opposite. Rick knows how the story will end, with Victor and Ilsa
together in America, and with Rick alone, except for his erstwhile
friend Claude Raines. In Titanic,
the audience knows that the ship will sink, but it doesn''t reduce the
suspense of the film, because the characters are tested, grow and change when the secret is revealed
In Unfaithful, Diane
Lane's affair and the murder are secret, but most importantly, her true
volatile inner passion is the important secret that she hides from
herself. She does not really know who she is, although her French lover
Olivier Martinez can read her like a book. Lane's true character is no
secret from her lover, who knows her dark inner self much better than
she does herself.
So what's the secret in your screenplay? If you don't have many, the audience will be very
unhappy with you.
a once joke in Hollywood that if you want to send a message, call
Western Union. If you are too young to understand that joke, ask
someone old to explain it to you, now that the Internet has rendered
the humor obsolete.
In any case, audiences thirst for
messages about the meaning of life in their films. Intellectually,
audiences may claim that they merely wish to be entertained, but
emotionally, they want to be led through a moral path laid out by the
Austin Powers is about something. The clash of
cultures or ideas concerns the conflict between promiscuity and sexual
repression. The conflict is resolved with the synthesis of a happy
medium: "Freedom with responsibility."
Titanic is about something. The clash is
between rich and poor, and the hubris of man's unquestioning faith in
technology. But most importantly, Rose transcends when she realizes that
her poverty and emotional barrenness can be overcome.
Casablanca is about something. The clash of
cultures and ideas concerns the battle between isolationism and
interventionism, between bowing to evil and self pity, or doing the
right thing. Humphrey Bogart gives up the love of his life so save the
lives of millions of people. What an amazingly selfless political
Blade Runner is about something. The clash of
cultures and ideas concerns racism. We ask how could the Nazis kill so
many humans in the concentration camps, when the victims are just like
the murderers, just as human. And what is the difference between the
assassins and the victims in Blade
Runner. The android Replicants are
human, A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So
why does the audience initially approve of Harrison Ford killing off of
innocent humans, also known as Replicants? Because racism and
xenophobia are sad parts of the human psyche.
Hotel Rwanda is about something. The clash of
cultures and ideas concerns about why we sent troops to watch a million human beings get
hacked to death. Obviously the answers to that situation are not
completely morally clear cut, but the question is still haunting.
When you make your film about something, "they will come"
love to cry at the movies. Consider the tear jerker endings of The Sound Of Music, Field Of Dreams, Swingers, Step Mom and Monsters, Inc.
It is not that easy to make an audience cry, but theoretically, the
process is simple. Make the audience fall in love with your characters
and their situation, and then yank it away from them.
In Monsters, Inc.
Sulley falls in paternal love with Boo. But all parents must give
up their children to adulthood. We cry when Boo is taken away from her
second father Sulley and we cry when Boo later remembers and loves him.
In Step Mom, we cry
when Susan Sarandon is dying and we cry when she and Julia Roberts
conciliate. Love is taken away from the characters (and the audience)
and then given back. The filmmaker (like God) takest and givest back.
In Field Of Dreams,
Kevin Costner risks losing everything for his fanatic dream...and then
In Swingers, Jon
Favreau loses the love of his life and we cry. And then he gets someone
even better, Heather Graham and we cry again. The filmmakers tear a
hole in the heart of Jon Favreau (and our own) and then they fill it up
The process of making the audience cry is based on the fact that humans
want what they can't have, and more deeply love the true object of
their desire when that devotion is tested by loss.
screenwriting is based on immersing the audience in the great pageant
of life. Our existence is filled with the drama of relationships, of
secrets, of the battle over culture and ideas. And at the very root of
things, audiences want to feel something, to laugh, to cry, to be
deeply emotionally connected with meaning.
SOC is a
twenty-five year veteran of the motion picture industry. Working as a
effects artist and vfx cameraman on such blockbusters as Titanic,
Apollo 13, X-Men2, True Lies, etc., Michael has
state of the art in that field. He is also an experienced
of Photography and story development analyst. Michael is a graduate of
Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, as well as a longtime film