Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Secrets of Great Movies by Paul Brown

 Yesterday I attended a lecture by Paul Brown, a professor from the New York Film Academy. The main topic of his lecture was what makes a good story. He started talking about the quality of stories we see on TV and the cinema. Brown basically classified stories into two big groups: the kind of clever-boy stories in which we see a lot of noise, action, effects and we enjoy them with guilty pleasure despite their shallowness. There are other kinds of stories in which the readers or the audience can see how a character experiences an inner journey of transformation and self-discovery for good or for bad. Those kinds of stories are the ones that unmask the characters' humanity to the bone and make the reader or the audience feel connected.  To illustrate this, Brown showed excerpts from the movie “In America” written by Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan. This is the story of a family who moved to NYC after the death of one of their children.

As we watched different parts of the movie he explained why the movie could emotionally connect the audience. First, he introduced the concept of the four selves that co-exist in a character:

The Public Self

This is how we present ourselves to the world. People are usually aware of this  self

The Private Self

This is how we behave behind closed doors. The way we behave in private with our families or loved ones.
The Blind Self

This is what we are not aware about ourselves. What other people perceive about us but we are not conscious about it.
The Undiscovered Self

This is are the beliefs that lie behind our emotions and behaviour. For example,  the painful events that justify someone’s choices.

A good story should play with these four selves in order to make a character go through an inner transformation that may imply make choices, face the consequences or not, move forward or backwards. The writer should have this idea clear enough to decide how to organize the events around a character. 

After sketching this, Brown mentioned other elements to make a good story. First, he mentioned the importance of having a backstory for the actual story told or shown on the screen. For example, in the film “In America”, the backstory of the actual storyline was the death of their 3 year old son, Frankie. This boy was present in the whole movie as a ghost: The characters talked about him, the narrator of the story asked wishes to him, he had become an issue for the entire family. But the actual death of this child was never shown on screen. It was part of the characters’ memories only. This backstory is the soul of the storyline in this movie since it unfolds the undiscovered self of the father of the family, and all private selves from the characters in the family fit perfectly well: they are all grieving Frankie’s death but they don’t say it aloud. So, the key to construct plausible stories that show inner conflicts is to understand the character’s biggest fears to make them face them and succeed or not.  For example, this is the key to construct a great antagonist character: The public self of an antagonist may be the consequence of a painful past event that leads this character perform certain behaviour that hurts people or him/herself. He gave other examples in which the character release ghosts from the past and can move forward. And this is the transformational inner journey that may get the audience connected. This transformational inner journey doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending. The craft of character-building relies on the unfolding of the four selves along the story. Any of the four selves can work as a fatal flaw, that is the reason why a character goes through situations, a wrong belief taken to deal with a painful event from the past, a self-defense mechanism or a coping mechanism from the character's behavior. 
The second element is the construction of empathy, fascination or mystery around a character. Here is where the writer decides what information to show in order to create this effect. Brown exemplified this with the movie Wallie: in the first scenes of the movie, the audience can see how Wallie lives, that he has an insect as a friend, that he watches musicals, that he dances. The audience can see that Wallie can be like any of us: human, loving, lonesome, etc. That is how empathy is constructed. If we are creating a hero, then we should show information that produces admiration, fascination or mystery. 

The third element has to do more with the plot. The writer needs to define the conflict, the issue that touches the reader or the audience. He mentioned the construction of a dilemma between a external problem and an internal problem from a character that implies internal transformation. In the plot, the writer needs to define the relationships among characters and how they are going to oppose or help his/her choices, for example. 

Last but not least, Brown mentioned a very key aspect of writing stories: What am I trying to say as an artist? What’s the message behind all the storyline? He said, the writer needs to have this idea clear too because it is the fuel that is going to keep the writer writing for about one or two years in order to come up with a good script. So, we should take something that matters to us: A feeling, an idea or an event from our past that means something special to us. From my point of view, it is important to question ourselves what is it that we want to do by telling a story. What do we want our readers or the audience to keep with them? Whatever it is, what the people keep from a story is what we, as writers, can contribute to the world.

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