MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
THEME & EMOTIONAL CONFLICT
I believe that Theme is the most important part of your story... and the secret source of everything in your story. Theme is the point of the story - the reason why telling *this* story is important not only to the audience, but to you. Without it, your story has no purpose, no real reason to tell this story. It becomes disposable. A reader may not be able to point to "no theme" as the reason why the script seems to be bland, but that will probably be the reason...
Hey, what about just selling popcorn? Can't a film *only* be entertainment?
Of course it can - but those are disposable movies. Films we see once, but nothing draws us back to see it again. Nothing makes us want to pick up the BluRay when it comes out and nothing makes us stop on the film while channel surfing late at night. Nothing makes it our favorite film. Every summer we get a bunch of big budget tentpole films that are completely disposable... and a few that break through to become hits. I think if we look at the hits, they are films that have more going on in them than explosions and special effects, they have heart and soul - two things that often come from theme. They are films that connect to us on a deeper level than popcorn.
Did you notice the problem with those expensive summer popcorn films? If they spend well over $150 million on TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS and it's just disposable entertainment, people will not want to see it a second time in the cinema, nor will they want to own the film on DVD or BluRay, nor will they be all that interested in seeing the film on cable and then network TV - and that means the expensive popcorn film will *not* make as much money as the film that is "Popcorn Plus" - entertainment that touches us on an emotional level and deals with a theme that is greater than the story itself - exploring some element of what makes us human that we will think about long after we have left the cinema... and maybe go back to see the film a second time. Those silly summer tentpole films *need* to be more than just disposable entertainment to make their money back.
Any story with a big emotional decision for the protagonist also has a theme. It's there somewhere, even if you don't consciously know it.
To find the theme in your story: What is that big emotional decision your protagonist must make? Whatever the protagonist decides, will show you your theme. Will expose the point you are trying to make, or subject you are trying to explore. These things may be working in your subconscious when you were writing the script without your conscious mind even knowing it... but when the script is done you can spot them and bring them into focus in your rewrite.
Before TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES and TRANSFORMERS 7 and even the dreadful crap that was RUSH HOUR 3, we had a nice, fun, bit of summer popcorn called RUSH HOUR 2. The first film had Jackie Chan give his word to his friend that he would protect his daughter, and when the daughter is kidnaped Chan goes to great lengths to keep his word. This is something that resonated with the audience, even though it was a popcorn comedy. But RUSH HOUR 2 seemed like a second string Abbott & Costello movie - entertaining, but empty calories - because it didn't
seem to have a theme, a point, or anything that gives the story weight. Though most of the scenes were entertaining, they didn't seem to add up to anything... leaving no memories even as the out-takes were playing at the end. Even though RUSH HOUR 2 was just summer entertainment, it should still have strong powerful scenes that remain in our memory days - even years - later. That will insure the film has a long life on video, DVD, BluRay, video-on-demand, holovid, direct-brain-plug-movies, and whatever other movie delivery systems they come up with in the future. The way to make entertainment memorable is to give the story and scenes a strong emotional impact tied to theme. Even if you were to give each scene a strong emotional core, if there isn't a connection between the scenes - if they aren't part of an overall point or single emotional issue you are exploring - you're are giving the audience a bunch of scattered,
unrelated information. Details that don't add up to anything.
Did RUSH HOUR 3 correct this? Nope - it managed to have even less of a point and purpose than RUSH HOUR 2... and only a couple of good Jackie Chan fight
scenes to make up for it. I will never understand why sequels often get progressively worse when you would think they could learn from their mistakes (and successes) and they could become progressively better. Instead it often seems like they ignore what made the earlier film successful and just add more explosions.
RUSH HOUR 2 had two chances to establish a theme. One is Lee (Jackie Chan) avenging his father's murder. Carter (Chris Tucker)'s father was also a cop who was killed in the line of duty. They might have explored father/son relationships and
vengeance. Scenes and supporting characters could have been created to explore this. The story could have been centered around fathers and sons... or sons who have lost their fathers through violence... or sons who are trying to live up to their father's high standards for them. Every character may have been dealing with the ghost of their father in a different (emotional) way. Because father/son issues are important to men, even a silly summer action film would have some emotional resonance. The audience
would laugh at the jokes, be amazed at the stunts, and think about their father issues days later.
But a better possible theme pops up later in the script: The villain says that good partners are hard to find - you just can't trust them. Here's the fertile ground for theme in a buddy cop movie! Plus, we already have two sets of partners: Carter & Lee
and Reign & Ricky Tan. Imagine how strong each scene might have been if
each explored trust between partners? If the action scenes were designed so that one partner had to trust the other? If the arc for each of our protagonists was to learn to be completely honest with the other? Hey - there were hints of this in the beginning
with Lee lying to Carter about going undercover in the night club and massage parlor!
But the TRUST between the two was never the focus of the story. It was never built scene-after-scene then finally put to a test. We never had a scene where Lee must put
his trust entirely in Carter, nor a scene where Carter must take himself out of the decision making process and trust Lee. Imagine the reversal when Ricky Tan reveals that Reign isn't his partner, Chinese bomshell (and bomb thrower) Ziyi Zhang is! Or the big dramatic scene where Lee asks Roselyn Sanchez which side she's on -
who is she REALLY partnered with? Now we're creating big emotional scenes that an audience will remember - plus adding an emotional component to all of those great action scenes where Chan and Tucker must trust each other and work together in order
to avoid getting the crap beat out of them. This would have made RUSH HOUR 2 not only an entertaining movie, but an entertaining movie that could stand the test of time. Not just disposable popcorn, that we sweep up off the cinema floor and throw away after the showing.
NO DISPOSABLE FILMS!
The key to theme is the big emotional decision the character has to make in the story, which is often connected to character arc or emotional conflict - so our two possible themes to explore from the RUSH HOUR 2 story are the father-son relationships or learning to really trust your partner. Both were present in the story being told, but ignored rather than explored. Though the theme may have just been not explored in the original screenplay, it is also possible that another writer was brought in who *removed* the theme elements because they didn't know they were important, or - worse - bad story notes either removed the theme elements or down-played them to the point we only see traces of them. Since having that element that resonates with the audience and makes them remember the film and want to see it again and own it on BluRay is important from a commercial standpoint, the idea of the *producer* removing of diluting or just not *insisting on* theme and an emotional conflict shows frightening incompetence. Producers and studios should be trying to make movies *less* disposable, since that means they will make more money over the life of the film. If a studio is not trying to make the best film possible from both an a *quality* and commercial standpoint, they are committing slow suicide. Though the commercial (popcorn) might sell tickets today, the quality aspects like theme and character and attention to detail are the things that will sell the Extra Special Gold Band Ultimate Blu Ray release of the film to people who may already own the regular version. We are suckers for movies we love and want to see again and again, but who cares about that disposable popcorn film that was *only* entertainment? We don't need to own the new "Ultimate Version" of that.
The reason why people love THE MATRIX but don't really care that much about the two sequels comes down to the strong theme in that first film. The other two films are just popcorn. In THE MATRIX Morpheus believes that Neo is the Chosen One, but Neo doesn't believe in destiny at all... let alone believing that he's here to save the world. He thinks he is just a guy in a tie - nothing special. Neo must wrestle with his emotions and decide that he *is* the Chosen One before he is powerful enough to take on The Matrix and win. Act Two of THE MATRIX is all about that emotional conflict (the scene with the Oracle, etc) where Neo struggles with self doubt... and is all about theme. Once Neo believes in himself, he has the power. So, the theme is: you have to believe in yourself - even if everything around you is a lie.
Without that theme, THE MATRIX would just be about incidents and effects, like the two sequels were. It would never have resonated with the audience. The theme is what creates the bond between audience and story - it is often connected to that big emotional decision your protagonist must make, and often the character arc. It's what the audience remembers long after those never-ending tail credits have rolled and the house lights have gone up...
Your theme the most important element of your screenplay. It's what the audience takes with them from the theater after the funny out takes have been shown and the audience has left the theater. What is the big emotional decision your protagonist must
make in order to resolve the plot problem? That's usually where you'll find the theme. Once you know what the theme in your story is: explore it, don't ignore it. You want a script that people remember, not one that they have forgotten ten minutes after reading it. Touch the audience and the reader - give your script heart and soul and make them remember your story years after seeing the film... when that Extra Special Gold Band Ultimate Direct-Brain-Plug Special Edition comes out.
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