Movie mogul Sam Goldwyn once demanded of a writer: “What we want is a story that starts with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax…” Talk about raising expectations!
Endings are the hardest thing in the world. Nothing creates so much angst on the set, or anguish in the cutting room. Because we all know that the ending should be the most memorable part of the film. When you leave the cinema, what do you argue about? The ending! And nothing creates such a sense of outrage in the audience as the feeling that they haven’t got the ending they deserved.
As the filmmaker, you should ask yourself why you’re having doubts in the first place. In my experience, there’s no clearer sign of a script having lost its way than uncertainty about the ending. When a story is set up in the right way, then the ending becomes obvious. If you find yourself unable to find an ending that ‘fits’, it’s almost always because somewhere along the way your story got diverted from its original purpose.
Usually, this means each and every ending that you play with, seems to satisfy only one aspect of the film (it’s the same with titles – beware a script that you can’t find a title for). The reason is your themes have gotten too diffused – your story is ‘about’ too many things. Often it also means that you’ve got the balance wrong between your main story and your subplots, so it’s hard to tell which is which, and which is the most important. This can also lead to the fatal flaw of ‘multiple endings’, in which each new ending increasingly defuses the tension of the last – the endless leavetakings in the final instalment of The Lord of the Rings being a good example.
The cure for this is to go back and remind yourself of the original inspiration for your film. What was it that attracted you to the idea? If you started your script with one idea, but then got diverted when other, shinier ideas came along, then major surgery may be called for. Nothing is worse than a script that doesn’t deliver what it promises.
A film poses a question with the first big twist in Act 1. It creates a problem that must be solved, or a question that must be answered, by the end of the film. If it hasn’t been, then your story hasn’t delivered.
But a good ‘hook’ does more than that. It makes inevitable a climax in which the forces that have just gotten entangled must fight it out to the finish.
In Vertigo, when James Stewart’s character unwittingly pulls a policemen off a rooftop to his death after an attack of vertigo, we know what’s got to happen by the end of the film. This defeated, devastated man is going to have another opportunity of saving a life – and to do it, he’s going to have to overcome his vertigo and climb.
In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis is just celebrating an award for his achievements in the field of child psychology, when he gets confronted by an enraged former patient, and shot. But we know Willis is going to get a second chance. He’ll be offered a new patient, a boy who also says he sees ghosts. And this time, he’ll have to take him seriously.
A good ending should feel inevitable; but perversely, remain in doubt right up to the finish. The audience may despair of ever achieving the right outcome – but they’ll be so relieved when it comes.
That doesn’t mean all endings have to be neatly resolved. In fact, audiences are inclined to be disbelieving of such neat endings. To the modern sensibility, wars are won – but at a cost. Sometimes they are lost, but they inspire others to carry on the struggle. Sometimes they are won, but the prize is found to be worthless. Sometimes they are lost, but we find that what we have instead is worth more. These variations reflect our sense that we live in a complicated world – and that only irony can resolve all its contradictions.
Endings carry an even greater burden, though. Not only do they have to resolve the storylines, they have to do so in a way that powerfully reflects the truth of the film: a ‘key image’ that sums up everything it stands for. Truffaut called it a “moment of spectacle and truth”. However, it’s no use tacking on a spectacular ending to your story just for the sake of it. Unless it expresses what we’ve already seen in the film, it will feel arbitrary.
You hear a lot of baloney about ‘up’ and ‘down’ endings, as though one were somehow more commercial than the other. What matters is the ‘right’ ending, the one that is appropriate to the characters and theme of your movie.
In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the two outlaws hottail it down to Mexico to escape the dogged pursuit of a U.S. Marshal. Intending to retire, they find they can’t resist a return to the adrenaline rush of the old lifestyle. Only this time, they have the whole Mexican army on their tail. The badly wounded heroes argue about trying things out in virgin country – like Australia. All they have to do is come out shooting, grab their horses and ride out like they‘ve done so many times before. For a moment we believe they might actually make it. They run out, guns blazing, and the frame freezes. Over it, we hear a volley that is as deafening as it is resolutely final, repeated before fading into the distance. We remain frozen on their final, defiant leap into history. Which is just the way they would have wanted it.
Twenty years on, Thelma and Louise pulled the same trick. The two women go on a liberating journey that turns them into outlaws. When faced with the choice of death or surrender, it’s no contest at all. The final image of their ’66 T-Bird flying through the air over the Grand Canyon expresses everything that is liberating – and destructive – about that journey.
In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest McMurphy, the rebellious inmate of a mental institution, is given the ultimate sanction to pacify unruly patients: a frontal lobotomy. His fellow patient, a Native American Chief, suffocates him rather than allow his body to live on with his spirit broken. Then he breaks the bars of the hospital and heads for home. McMurphy may have been crushed by the System – but he was never likely to change. Instead, he has given the Chief the courage to believe in himself. This ending may kill off the main character (the kiss of death!) but it offers us a greater prize – hope.
It might not have satisfied Sam Goldwyn, but it works.