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.”
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.
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.