Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Big Idea, Addendum: What Urges Are You Satisfying?

Usually, when I get an idea, it gets me excited for a very short time, and then it falls apart: I realize that it doesn’t make sense, or it doesn’t mean anything, or the character arc and the plot have nothing to do with each other… Somehow the whole thing fails to coalesce. 

Then there are other times when everything magically clicks into place.  A compelling character believably finds himself plunged into an exciting plot that builds to a satisfying conclusion!  Even better, the whole things is a powerful metaphor for our modern condition! Victory!  But then… something happens: I pitch the idea to a friend, or maybe my management, and they hit me with a devastating response: “Well, okay, sure, but why would anybody want to see it?”  Often, I have no answer. 

Let’s say that your co-worker corners you at the water cooler on Monday morning to tell you about the great movie they just saw.  What are the odds that they’ll say…
  • “It had a great structure!”
  • “It really seemed true to life!”
  • “It had a very satisfying theme!”
  • “It was a devastating metaphor!”
Not very likely. You have to push people’s buttons.  You have to give them something they crave.  Here’s a list of things you co-worker is more likely to say:
  • “It was so funny!”  aka LAUGHTER (comedies, dramadies)
  • “It was hot!” aka LUST (sex comedies, some thrillers, some horror, some indie movies)
  • “It rocked!” aka ADRENLINE RUSH (action movies, kids’ movies)
  • “It was wild!” aka THE THRILL OF TRANSGRESSION (thrillers, some comedies)
  • “It was gruesome!” aka DEATHWISH FULFILLMENT (horror, some thrillers, disaster movies)
  • “It kicked ass!” aka POWER FANTASY (superheroes, spies, sports)
  • “It was so sweet” and/or “It got me laid!” aka ROMANTIC FANTASY (romances, romantic comedies, coming of age)
  • “It was devastating!” aka EMPATHY (melodramas, documentaries, indie movies)
  • “It was gorgeous!” aka BEAUTY (spectacles, some documentaries, animated movies)
  • “It blew my mind!” aka COGNITIVE DISSONANCE (art films, some high-concept blockbusters)
(Some of these are self-explanatory, but some of the others I’ll delve into in more detail over the next few days.)  Now, obviously, no movie is going to hit all these, but every movie should try to hit more than one.  If your movie is pulse-pounding, then it’s okay for it to be ugly (most recent action movies), but if it’s about ennui, then you probably want some beauty onscreen (every Catherine Deneuve movie from the 1960s).

What are they going to say about your movie at the water-cooler tomorrow morning?  It’s good to know.


j.s. said...

This is definitely related to dreaming up those trailer moments. And I'd say it's also about what I mean when I say that a script or a film does or does not "deliver the goods."

I'd add that a film that repeatedly meets or exceeds audience expectations on this visceral level gets cut a little more slack in terms of the execution of the overall story. So if you're naturally good at giving the audience what it wants or if you can teach yourself to be better at it, you're ahead of the competition.

I'd say this post also speaks to why you ought to be writing not so much "what you know" as "what you love." Because then you're pretty close to your ideal audience already. If you try and write something in a genre that you're not familiar with or particularly keen on, you may well risk badly misunderstanding just what brings the audience to the theater in the first place.

Matt Bird said...

Oh, definitely. It's easy for me to look at horror from the outside and say "Well, okay, every horror movie has these 10 elements, and I can reproduce those", but if horror doesn't actually turn me on, then I leave out the one crucial element that would make it all appealing.

This is also the "how come they never..." problem, seen in movies like "Kick-Ass". "How come they never made a REALISTIC movie about a powerless kid who put on a scuba suit and then goes out to stop crime but just gets beat up?" Um... because that's not why we watch superheroes movies?

j.s. said...

With SUPER James Gunn kind of did make that movie and it's terrible. All the more sad I'd say because he seems like a fan of the genre. As awful as SUPER is, it has a kind of integrity to it, but KICK-ASS seems to me to want to have its genre cake and eat it too. Which, don't get me wrong, is a great way to go if you can actually pull it off. But such simultaneous demythologizing and ultra-romantic gestures toward a genre are best left to the few geniuses like Quentin Tarantino who can sometimes actually make them work.

Terry Brennan said...

I've got a novel that will make people say at the water cooler, "It made me think." Not as good as "It's hot" but it's something.