VARIATIONS ON A THEME
by William C. Martell
What is a theme? It's what your film is really about - the POINT rather than the plot. The moral of the story. When I first started writing I didn't think theme even existed. People would ask me what my script was about, I'd answer "It's about a cop chasing a serial killer" and they'd come back with "No, what's it REALLY about?" I thought they were all pretentious artsie-fartsies looking for deep inner meaning from an action script. Next we'll be discussing the symbolism of THE FRENCH CONNECTION!
You know what's weird? Now I think theme is the most important part of a script. I think that the whole darned script comes from theme.
In my book SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING I used DIE HARD as an example of theme. I used REAR WINDOW as an example of theme when I spoke at Santa Fe Screenwriters Conference last year, and I used THE MATRIX when I spoke in London a few days ago. When I began writing this article for Script Magazine my main example was ALIENS, but after I was told the theme of this issue was "Family Films" I switched to LIAR LIAR as my main example. None of those are the kind of deeply symbolic art films discussed by the black beret crowd in Berkeley coffee shops. Fairy tales have themes, nursery rhymes have themes, so why shouldn't movies?
Every story worth telling has a point. Recently I was telling a friend about a frustrating experience at the Post Office. I had my scripts sealed in a mailer with an address label, and had the money in my hand to pay for the postage. I was waiting behind a woman who had the items she was going to mail, but no envelope, no address label, and no pen to write with. She was completely disorganized, and it brought the line to a stand-still. It was very frustrating... but the story was more than just an incident from my day, it had a pretty obvious point: Plan ahead and you won't waste time - MY time. Next time you're telling someone a story about your day, look for the point. The reason WHY you wanted to tell this story. There will be one!
I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme. I also think that every story has a theme in there somewhere. But will you EXPLORE that theme or IGNORE it?
I thought MI:2 was just a bunch of big action scenes strung together... but THE MATRIX was fantastic. I think the difference between the two is that one explores theme and the other ignores it. Why else would Neo turn himself in instead of escape on that ledge? That's theme! He doesn't believe in himself. Why is Morpheus stronger than Neo in the VR program? He doesn't believe in himself. Why do we get that scene in the Oracle's waiting room with the kids doing amazing things? So that Neo won't believe in himself more... Eventually Neo realizes that to save Morpheus he HAS TO BELIEVE IN HIMSELF. Theme: If you believe in yourself, you can do anything. That theme ties all of those scenes together and makes them a story.
I don't think that makes THE MATRIX into an art film, or highbrow entertainment, or anything other than a story that really holds together. But theme is the glue.
WHAT'S YOUR THEME?
Is your script trying to explore the difference between love and friendship? Decide if revenge destroys villain and victim equally? Explore tolerance? If you haven't isolated the theme of your story, you are writing blind. The theme is what you will share with the audience... the thing that will keep them thinking about your film for days after they've forgotten that clever bit of dialogue or cool plot twist.
The theme to LIAR LIAR is that honesty is the best policy.
The theme to THE MATRIX is that you must believe in yourself.
The theme to THE WIZARD OF OZ is that there's no place like home.
We all know what lesson Dorothy learns in THE WIZARD OF OZ, but look at the story that film tells. Dorothy starts out wanting to get the heck out of Kansas, and go somewhere over the rainbow. That tornado makes her wish come true... to an extreme! Now Dorothy is in this strange and wonderful world where she's become an instant hero and they're giving her lollipops. She'd like to find her way home, but there's a spirit of adventure in following that yellow brick road - she's in no real rush to get back to Kansas... yet. But conflict after conflict makes her really want to get home. The whole darned movie is about THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME! Every scene, every character, everything is about that theme!
Once we've discovered the theme, we can add shading and depth to our characters - not just the leads, but the supporting characters. Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur did this well in LIAR LIAR - each of the supporting characters shows a different aspect of the theme, creating contrast with the protagonist which helps to define BOTH characters.
Fletcher Cole (Jim Carrey) works as a lawyer, where lies are valued. But every character in the LIAR LIAR, including extras and walk ons, are a reflection of the theme - from the law firm's Senior partner who has no respect for the truth, to Fletcher's client who is willing to lie on the witness stand to win her case, to Fletcher's secretary who is forced to lie for her boss all of the time, to the partner who turns down the case because he refuses to lie. Fletcher is a divorced dad who lied about an affair who is representing a woman who has had numerous affairs in a divorce case. His client's husband is a good father who is being punished because he is honest. Loved ones are being hurt by lies in almost every subplot. Every character in the film has honesty issues to deal with... they are exploring the theme through their stories.
THEME IN ACTIONS
When the emotional and outer conflicts are connected, the theme can be explored visually (through actions rather than words). Film is a visual medium. Movies are about people who DO THINGS. We want to be able to SHOW rather than TELL our stories. Give audiences an experience rather than a lecture. No speeches about your theme! No on-the-nose dialogue discussing your theme! You want to bury your theme. We don't want to be obvious, we want to be clever!
In LIAR LIAR Fletcher's refusal to believe that honesty really is the best policy also creates a string of conflicts with the people around him which help illustrate the theme. He insults all of his office co-workers by telling them the truth, tells his wife the real reason why he can't pick up his son from school, gets pulled over by a policeman and admits everything, has to be bailed out by his ex-wife, gets into a skirmish with his loyal secretary when he admits to past lies, tells his boss what he really thinks of him, badgers his own witness in court for lying, and is almost thrown out of court by the judge. Notice that most of the conflicts in the film deal with Fletcher's lies hurting everyone around him... The theme!
LIAR LIAR doesn't use long winded speeches to tell us that honesty is the best policy, it SHOWS us through scenes where Fletcher's lies hurt everyone around him. The person most hurt ends up being Fletcher himself, he loses everything he cares about when his lies are discovered.
THEME IN DIALOGUE
The first thing Max says in LIAR LIAR is "My dad's a liar." He's at school, and the teacher is asking all of the kids what their parents do for a living. Throughout the script, characters will be defined by their honesty (or lack of it). When the evil Miranda asks another lawyer to take the Cole case he refuses, saying "I won't lie." Miranda counters with, "Then we'll just have to find someone who will." When the case is offered to Fletcher, Mrs. Cole adds, "It's not true... does that present a problem?" Not for Fletcher! Fletcher and Mrs. Cole and Miranda are all similar characters - they are the liars who will bend and break the truth to get what they want... in fact, that is their gift. Once Fletcher has been "cursed" with telling the truth, you can chart the changes in his character by comparing him to Miranda or Mrs. Cole... and there are a number of scenes designed to do just that.
I made lists of words and phrases which described the EMOTIONAL conflict and a list for the EXTERNAL conflict in my scripts. Then I looked for Nexus words and phrases. The dialogue is peppered with double meaning lines: People who talk about the external conflict, but describe the internal conflict. It's a way of introducing the theme through word choice.
"He said he was going to be here, he promised," Max says.
"This time it's different, I'm telling the truth."
"Sometimes grownups need to lie."
"No one can survive in the adult world if they can not tell a lie."
"So all we have to do is lie... that seems simple enough."
"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" The Bailiff in several scenes... even the courtroom setting is integral to the theme of the truth.
Honesty, promises, the truth, and lies. Every character, every scene, even the locations are used to ILLUSTRATE the theme of the script. Every element is used to tell the story - nothing wasted.
At the impound yard Fletcher notices a huge scratch in his car's paint and confronts the driver... who lies right to his face. Earlier in the script, Fletcher is making lame excuses for his secretary Greta to use in letters to dissatisfied clients. Now he's one the other end of that situation... taking what he usually dishes out. The impound yard scene is critical to the script - it's the first time Fletcher realizes that being lied to is painful and frustrating.
The information that wins the case is also presented in a way that helps to illustrate the theme. The key evidence becomes Samantha Cole's drivers License. Did she lie about her hair color (it says blonde, but she's really a brunette)? Did she lie about her weight (it says just over 100 pounds, and she's really 128)? Did she lie about her date of birth? Because many people do lie on their drivers license, it's a great symbol of the "harmless lie"... except in this case, it's the evidence that wins a nasty divorce case. Mr. Cole may never see his kids again, and "He is, after all, a wonderful father" according to Samantha.
Right after that scene, Fletcher witnesses Mr. Cole hugging his children, the way that he wishes he could hug Max... then Samantha drags them away, the way that his wife Audrey is dragging Max to Boston. The visual tells us the pain that lying has caused Fletcher. He sees his problems reflected in the problems of the Coles. Divorce and lie are tearing both families apart.
Or maybe not. Because Audrey's dull-but-honest boyfriend Jerry is having trouble competing with Fletcher for Max's affections. Even though Jerry is a nice guy, he decides to do something a little dishonest... He steals the game that Fletcher and Max play together called "The Claw" and tries to play it with Max. Trying to pass himself off as Max's dad in a way. This backfires both with Max and with Audrey. Seeing Jerry do "The Claw" with Max shows her that anyone can be dishonest. Maybe she should give Fletcher another chance. Later, when they are on the plane headed for Boston, Jerry says "I love you" and Audrey just can't respond. She doesn't love him, but has never been honest with herself about this. Now it's the moment of truth... Does she want to marry Jerry and live a lie?
Of course, Fletcher saves the day and tells his son how much he loves him. He never wants to lie to Max again, never wants to hurt Max again. Fletcher has become a wonderful father... and an honest man.
WHERE TO FIND THEME
I think theme is what attracts us to a particular story idea. We all have personal themes, things that crop up again and again in our work. Issues or personal and emotional conflicts that interest us on a subconscious level. Many of my scripts are about loyalty. Others are about doing the right thing even though you may suffer. Some are about picking yourself up off the floor after you get knocked down. When I wrote my family film INVISIBLE MOM I knew it was "really about" not taking those you love for granted. Josh thinks his mom is a pest always wanting him to clean his room. He wishes she would just disappear. He gets his wish... and begins to miss her. The theme came with the title on that one!
Two places to find theme:
1) The major decision your protagonist has to make in the script.
2) The main philosophical difference between your protagonist and antagonist.
Sometimes the theme in your script idea is easy to spot, other times you may have to write the script to discover the theme. You'll usually have a general idea of the theme, but it's hard to put your finger on the specifics. You need to get in there and dig around in the story to find it. Once you discover the theme, you can rewrite the script to highlight scenes that explore the theme through actions. Create supporting characters who illustrate different aspects of the theme. Allude to theme in dialogue. Create scenes that illustrate the positive, negative, and different points of view of your theme. Theme is what sticks to your brain long after the house lights have gone up.
So what are you trying to say? What's the moral to your story? What is it that your protagonist learns in the story that makes him a better person by the time we reach the end? What's the point in telling this story? What's your theme? What's your script REALLY about?
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