You can argue about narrative structure, high-concept or genre-busting approaches to screenwriting. But in my opinion, those stories which clearly define their theme, and pursue it to the end of the line, are the ones that linger in the memory, and provide the most satisfaction.
Popcorn movies wear their themes pinned across their hearts, but rarely challenge the preconceptions we enter the cinema with. Indie movies tend to reflect the varied nature of reality more truly, but often fail to bind characters and story into an inseparable whole. Like jazz, the theme should take us in wild and surprising directions, without ever losing sight of the underlying harmony.
Complications – the twists and turns of the plot – should not be confused with complexity: the rich weaving of theme into every level and branch of the story. Sure, the ability to create inventive narrative is an essential part of the screenwriter’s armoury. But even nonstop narrative can become tedious for an audience, as so many contemporary action movies prove.
Instead of looking for endless plot twists, ask yourself whether you have really explored the theme through all your characters and subplots. Shakespeare understood as well as any writer how the agonies of the young, foolish lovers in his subplots echo the weightier dilemmas of his protagonists, and that the Fool’s puns and rude humour have more sense than at first seems likely. A theme should be like a juicy debate at a dinner party, where each subplot provides its own convincing argument – an argument not to be settled until the final course. Make sure you examine the theme from every possible angle – or you’ll be writing propaganda, not drama.
I believe audiences are looking for stories in which everything connects. Cinema-goers may argue about the precise unraveling of Nolan’s ‘Memento’ or Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’. But in the end, their convoluted narratives seem perfectly suited to their themes of unreliable evidence, and (distorted) Hollywood reality.
While a clear and focused theme makes a movie an easier sell, at the outset the ‘idea’ may well be hazy in the writer’s mind. Sometimes the themes only emerge on the third or fourth draft, when certain images can be drawn out and polished until they shine through every facet of the script. Unnecessary subplots can then be discarded, or bent to reflect the preoccupations of the central plot.
But a lot of grief can be saved, not only for the writer but also for the producer, if attention is given to the themes early on. Working Title’s Tim Bevan once said that if he couldn’t think of what he was going to put on the movie poster, he probably wouldn’t greenlight a film. As producers it’s our job to make life easy for financiers and distributors by making that task a ‘slam dunk’.
The process may start as early as when, armed with a treatment, you’re making a pitch for development finance. Assuming you’ve not just optioned a bestselling book, true-life story, or re-make rights to some ’70s cult TV show, then you’re probably looking for an unbeatable premise.
Great premises often have two apparently irreconcilable elements. These elements may in themselves be familiar, or familiar genre staples, but curiosity about how they will be brought together is what whets our appetite. A good premise confounds our expectations. Mike Leigh might not have had too many takers for a grim story about a 1950s backstreet abortionist – but in creating Vera Drake, a hardworking wife, mother and neighbour who sees abortion as a form of community service, he challenged all our preconceptions and made this film a small stroke of genius.
In ‘The Aviator’, what makes the character of Howard Hughes different from other larger-than-life Americans, is his obsessive-compulsive disorder. The same quality which threatens to destroy him, gives him the obsessive drive for perfection that helps him succeed. Two apparently irreconcilable elements, never stronger than when they represent the flip side of the same coin. By combining these elements of plot and character, the filmmakers gave the film a theme of universal significance: the self-destructiveness of genius.
Sometimes, when distributors are afraid of representing the true nature of the theme, they can miss their key audience. Warner Brothers shied away from advertising the dark twist in ‘Million Dollar Baby’; but in doing so, may have failed to attract sophisticated audiences who weren’t interested in boxing. ‘Fight Club’, a clever satire on manhood in the postmodern age, was sold on Brad Pitt’s bare and bloody torso, and may have turned off audiences who would have appreciated its social satire. ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, a film about the virtues of monogamy, was sold on the (probably expired) passions of Cruise and Kidman, leaving many audiences disappointed. When the Hollywood gossip fades away, this film may be appreciated for what it’s actually saying.
In ‘American Beauty’, the theme is explored not only through every facet of the film, but even in the title. ‘American Beauty’ refers not just to the artificially bred roses pruned by Lester Bingham’s brittle wife, nor to the pubescent cheerleader he lusts after. Ultimately, it’s about the ability to appreciate beauty and meaning in every aspect of life.
The ability to connect the specifics to the universal is what gives your theme its power. Working subliminally through the key images of the film, make sure one clear and simple theme rules all your narrative strands ‘and in the darkness binds them.’