Charles Dickens and Making Better Movies (part 4)

Continuing from last time, and my reflecting on a problem with Canadian films…not the making of or the distribution, but the concepts driving them…

Take a lesson from none other than Charles Dickens if you will.

Dickens wrote novels well over a hundred years ago and yet is still widely in print, and regularly adapted to movies and TV. Dickens is generally considered a “literary” writer, his novels taught in school as though of profound value, and his stories dealing with provocative themes of poverty, compassion, injustice, and more.

Yet he wrote with a pulp fiction soul (or a Penny Dreadful soul, to be more true to the era)

Dickens’ novels often have some central mystery or puzzle that must be sussed out over the course of things — a mystery that keep us wondering where it’s headed. There are usually shadowy figures lurking about whose identities won’t be revealed until later chapters. There are crimes and criminals, and threats and danger. Often there’s a romance. His dramas have some comedy…his comedies some drama. In Dickens’s oeuvre — to entertain and to enlighten were not mutually exclusive goals.

In Hollywood they sometimes talk about the “high concept” pitch, or the idea that a movie’s premise should be able to be written out on a restaurant napkin. The idea being: a good idea should be something that can be articulated in a few sentences, that that should be enough to pique the audience’s interest. That’s often dismissed as crass and leads to vapid movies…but maybe it also recognizes the nature of storytelling. You should be able to articulate what makes your movie worth seeing…and not simply say: it’ll be worth seeing ’cause I’m going to make a great movie — trust me!

I’ve noted before that I once read a quote from a Canadian film executive who said his job wasn’t to support movies…but to support filmmakers. In other words, he was more likely to okay funding for a filmmaker who struck him as someone with talent and was likely to make great movies in the future than he was to fund simply a great pitch. But how can you say someone is a talented filmmaker to watch in the future…unless the movie he’s pitching right now seems like a good movie? And as I say: it doesn’t matter how talented he is, if his movie bombs and no one wants to see it, then that hardly bodes well for his next film, or his next.

I repeat what I wrote in my last post: in Canada, promotion and marketing is never certain, not even if you’ve won awards at a festival (and let’s face it, there are so many film festivals today, it’s not hard for a movie to win something somewhere). So the best ad for your movie…is simply the movie itself, and those few sentences in a newspaper or on the back of a DVD. So the idea — the plot — driving your movie has to be interesting in and of itself.

So here are some guidelines for making movies — not making good movies, necessarily (that will be decided in the final edit) but at least an interesting movie, a movie that can be described in a few sentences and will, hopefully, cause a reader to pause over it while scanning that “what’s playing” section.

Have a protagonist. Just as I say I don’t like movies that try and sell themselves based on a theme, it’s good to have a focal character — someone the story is about. Personally, I can get restless if I’m ten minutes into a movie and I still haven’t identified the main character(s). And, ideally — a sympathetic protagonist.

Give the character a goal. It has been said that a character is defined by what he wants and what he is prepared to do to get it (and I would add: what he’s not prepared to do — in other words, his principles). I’ve seen a lot of movies that are boring simply because there’s no drive to the story, and there’s no drive to the character.

Have a plot! A theme is not a plot. A milieu is not a plot. A social issue is not a plot. All those things contribute to and enhance the plot…but they are not a plot. A plot is something with a beginning, a middle and an end, where scenes build on and arise from each other (and if you switched the order it would mess up the coherence of the film).

Have a hook, a mystery, that can get the ball rolling and makes us curious to see where it’s all headed. In the movie Incendies — a “serious” drama that was critically acclaimed — the story starts out with a hook, as two adult siblings are told, via their dead mother’s will, that they have a father and a brother they knew nothing about, are given little information relating to them, but nonetheless are charged with tracking them down. To be honest, I didn’t think Incendies was quite as good as a lot of critics…the overall movie was a bit loosely plotted, the siblings threatened to be more plot devices than characters, and even the revelations I think weren’t as surprising as they were meant to be. But there’s no doubt that was a great hook. And that was for a “high brow” drama. The makers of Incendies clearly didn’t feel they were sacrificing their art by wrapping their socially relevant theme (of war and intolerance) around a mystery.

For that matter, throw in little mysteries, too. This can involve questions about relationships (why are certain characters estranged) or even just, to cite Charles Dickens again, some mysterious figure who crops up from time to time but it’s not till later in the story we discover who he is or what he wants. My point being: it’s not just enough to have a hook at the beginning…if the rest of the movie unfolds predictably.

I’d also advocate for a bit of romance. Now I know that’s one that can polarize people — some finding a romance in a movie is precisely what they hate, and regard as schmaltzy. But I think a romance can add to a story (relating to ideas of human warmth, and even the character’s goals as I mentioned earlier). Whether it be John Carter battling his way from one end of Mars to the other, or Pip seeking to become a gentlemen…it was always for the sake of the girl.

Now here’s a slightly contentious one but — make your movie about something. I realize that might seem contradictory given what I’ve written earlier, but my point before was that a socially relevant or political theme shouldn’t be a substitute for a plot — but that doesn’t mean a plot can’t benefit from deeper themes and meanings. I mean, consider how many Canadian movies have been made over the years (often based on books) that are coming of age stories. Now consider one of the greatest, most critically acclaimed coming of age stories ever written…To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a coming of age story…but it also dealt with powerful and important themes of racism and intolerance, both in the stories of the accused Jim, and the ostracized Boo Radley (and it’s a story that mixes drama, and humour, as well as mystery and suspense). Compared to that…a lot of coming of age stories are rather insubstantial and vapid.

Another point that has occurred to me over the years is to try to make the scenes themselves interesting. I realize that’s a vague admonishment. But I mean a scene needs to be more than just a place holder, it must engage you for itself. Not only does this relate simply to watching a movie (and whether the audience starts to get bored) but it also relates to the notion of TV. As I say: a lot of Canadian movie aren’t going to get much theatrical distribution, so they are eventually going to end up on TV. And on TV, people channel surf. So sometimes the thing that hooks the viewer is not your movie or your plot or even the opening scene…but just a random scene they stumble upon, catches their attention, and they decide to stick around for the rest of the film.

I’ll be brutally frank with you: on occasion I’ve found I can recognize the difference between a Canadian movie and an American movie while channel surfing, not because of the actors, not because of the budget, but because the American movie scene catches my attention…and the Canadian one seems slow and doesn’t pique my curiosity about the next scene.

A while back I wrote a piece titled (with a certain cheeky smugness) 10 Golden Rules for Making Better Canadian Movies and you can see this as a sequel to that, adding a few more points. The irony about my recommendations, both here and in that other post, is that I suspect most people would shrug and say few of these ideas are particularly radical or controversial and are, in fact, pretty obvious.

Yet way too many Canadian movies fail to incorporate even one or two of these ideas, the filmmakers themselves no doubt quick to come up with an explanation for why their film is exempt — even as they will then get drunk in a bar, raging with their friends and Yes Men about how their film bombed and received poor reviews and how it’s all a conspiracy against them and so on.

But it ain’t rocket science…it’s storytelling. And the first step is to come up with a solid story.

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