Monday, September 17, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #142: Audiences Don’t Actually Care About Stories

With both John Carter and Green Lantern, I knew after five minutes that I was in for an epic disaster, because both movies begin with a long, ponderous voice-over and SFX montage showing us the whole history of an alien civilization. This is almost always a sign that you’ve watching a flop: Dune, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Golden Compass, etc…

These montages represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how movies work: they assume that the audience is going to care about the story.  The fact is that audiences, no matter how much they love the movie, never really care about the story, they only care about the hero (or heroes).

This is illustrated by a painful profile of John Carter director Andrew Stanton that ran in the “New Yorker” two weeks before the movie opened.  Stanton just didn’t get it, despite the best efforts of his colleagues to set him straight:
  • At most studios, filmmakers try to keep the execs at bay, but at Pixar the Braintrust of six to twelve story gurus is intimately involved in revising every movie—“plussing” it, in Pixar’s term. They were confused by the film’s beginning, in which Princess Dejah delivered a lecture about the state of the Barsoomian wars, and they found her arch and stony. John Lasseter asked Stanton, “What are people going to hang on to and care about?”
  • Stanton is famously candid in other people’s Braintrust sessions, and famously prickly in his own. The Braintrust suggested a fix for the opening: why don’t we discover Mars through John Carter’s eyes, when he arrives? “That’s lazy thinking, guys,” Stanton replied. “If I do that, then thirty minutes in I’m going to have to stop the film to explain the war, and Dejah, and who everyone is, and we’re going to have even bigger problems.”
…But he had it backwards.  It may seem sad to hear that the audience will never care about your story, but it’s actually great news, since it makes your job a lot easier.  On the one hand, as I’ve discussed many times, it’s insanely hard to get an audience to truly care about your hero, but the pay-off is that this is all you have to do. 

Stanton put himself in an impossible position: He asked his audience to care about a lot of disconnected things, one after another.  His movie had five unrelated framing sequences (I’m not kidding) and he expected his audience to find a new way to care about each one. 
Pixar’s braintrust was right: we weren’t going to care about Mars until John cared about Mars.  First we should invest ourselves in his journey, then we should see the way that Mars represents his greatest wish, or his greatest fear, or an ironic answer to his big question.  If we care about John, we’ll care about Mars.  Otherwise, the movie is screwed. 

But wait, you may ask, haven’t I previously suggested opening a movie with a framing sequence?  Sure enough, I suggested:
  • A prologue scene that leaves a big question in the viewer’s mind: maybe a framing sequence, or mysterious crime, or a flashforward, or a moment of absurdity, or a self-contained interaction that represents the theme.
…But the key words here are “big question.”  The opening info-dumps in John Carter and Green Lantern aren’t starting us off with questions, they’re starting us off with answers…answers to questions that nobody asked.  This brings us back to another rule: Withhold exposition until the hero and the audience are demanding to know it!


Anonymous said...

Hmmmm... I get where you're coming from, but I don't see it the same way.

I think there is a big difference between "audiences don't care about story" and "audiences can't be drawn in by story." I agree we're not going to care about Mars until John does, but this doesn't mean story is unimportant.

James Kennedy said...

I haven't seen "Green Lantern" so I can't speak to that, and indeed I agree that "John Carter" is an abortion. And in general, I agree with your point. But isn't it the case that the movies "Star Wars" and "Fellowship of the Ring" both start with exposition (the famous crawl floating up into space, Galadriel explaining the mythology of the rings)? Why do those work? (Or do they? Do the movies succeed in spite of these sequences?)

James Kennedy said...

P.S. I must admit, when I first saw "Fellowship" and realized it was starting with a long bit of exposition, I thought to myself "oh no" and had flashbacks to Dune. Maybe part of the reason it worked is because Cate Blanchett is a much better actress than whoever played Princess Irulan. I guess you can't rely on this as a screenwriter, but in the actual movie, stuff like a strong performances, etc. probably makes up for structural sins.

I'm so looking forward to you dumping more on John Carter. That was an awful, awful, terrible movie.

Matt Bird said...

I would say that both "Fellowship" definitely succeeds *despite* that opening, which also made me say "Ugh."

With "Star Wars", the opening crawl is so different from these other examples: Obviously it's not hitting us with a bunch of images or portentous voiceover, and the text is bombastic in a somewhat goofy way. It's much more about setting a rousing tone rather than setting up the plot details.

It's always important to remember with Star Wars that the first act of the finished movie seems to break every rule, but that wasn't true of the script, or even of the rough cut, in which Luke was watching that whole space battle through his binoculars, and trying to get his friends to watch it with him.

They cut out that scene because Luke's hat looked too silly, and it turns out that the movie didn't need it, but it shows that they weren't *trying* to break the mold: in the original version, we were supposed to care because the hero cared.

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

Have you read A Princess of Mars? In the book, JC doesn't have the dead wife/kid backstory. I think I remember reading they incorporated elements from the sequels into the movie, so maybe that backstory gets revealed in a later book, but either way I wonder if they just decided to insert that in late in the game because no one was really getting into JC's plight. IIRC his introduction in the movie is basically along the lines of saying his name out loud to an innkeep.

Film Crit Hulk wrote a good article about his problems with the story: http://badassdigest.com/2012/04/08/film-crit-hulk-smash-hulk-vs-the-john-carter-script/

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

Nvm, reading that New Yorker profile, looks like that backstory was his big innovation. Hope Andrew Stanton gets back on the horse after this one!

Matt Bird said...

That Film Crit Hulk piece is great. I totally agree that withholding the death of JC's family serves no purpose, but I'm not sure it would have worked earlier in the movie either, since it doesn't really connect with JC's motivation, which is hopelessly murky:

Does he want to get home? Why? He doesn't like it there. To marry Dejah Thoris? Why? They never bond. To save the green guys? Why? They keep trying to kill him. To defeat the red guys? Why? They do nothing to harm him. To win the Martian war? Why? To get a bunch of gold and be rich? I never knew.

JD Paradise said...

The opening of Serenity uses framing exceptionally well, to my mind. Multiple framing stories nested within one another before we ever get to the main story. Each reveals another layer, reveals character and situation . . . all of them deal with Story, and none of them deal with the main character. It's genius and gorgeous and made entirely of awesome.

Which is to say that it can be done.