We all know that every scene needs conflict, yes? Case in point: It’s often said that His Girl Friday has some of the greatest dialogue of all time, so much so that it has now become the template for every male-female relationship on screen: “We bicker all the time with rapid-fire, razor sharp wit, but we really just want to jump each other’s bones!”
But the heroes of that movie don’t just have conflicting personalities, they have conflicting goals. He wants to win her back, both as his wife and his best reporter, while she wants to get free and move on with her life. They disagree about the past (what ruined their marriage), the present (the best way to get this story), and the future (whether or not they should get back together). That’s genuine conflict.
The problem with so many modern stories is that they show the very first meeting of a man and woman, only to have the two of them instantly launch into combative, flirtatious banter.
return to that tragic “New Yorker” interview with Andrew Stanton about John Carter. Stanton is meeting with his editor, who is desperately trying to save the project. The editor shows him a scene where our hero first meets a humanoid alien on another planet:
- They watched Taylor Kitsch soar up to save Lynn Collins as she fell from her airship—the Superman catch—and the newly met couple then carve up an enemy platoon. “Do you have a take where Lynn isn’t smiling when she says, ‘Let me know when it gets dangerous’? ” Giacchino asked. “She just met the guy. Why would she be smiling playfully?”
- “Mm-hmm,” Stanton said. He folded his hands behind his head.
- “It was a bump in the movie for me.”
- Afterward, Stanton told me, “I was mentally kicking my own ass, because I don’t think I have a take where she didn’t smile—and I don’t want my learning curve to be the reason a scene doesn’t work.”
“Zero Hour” combined the “instant flirtatious conflict” scene with another dumb cliché: “instant conflict with law enforcement”. Anthony Edwards’s wife has been kidnapped, and he’s just a meek magazine editor with no experience at this stuff, but as soon as a hot FBI agent shows up at his door, he starts firing off rapid-fire sarcastic retorts.*
Yes, every scene needs conflict, but that should be because the characters have conflicting goals! Until their goals conflict, they should get along just fine! If she had doubted that the kidnapping had taken place, or accused him of being involved, or implied that the case wasn’t a priority, then you’d have a reason for conflict. (And a reason for him to investigate on his own.) Instead, we see that she’s obviously hyper-competent and totally committed to finding his wife, whatever it takes. So what’s the conflict??
* These scenes are especially infuriating in our hypersensitive post-9/11 security state. Yelling at cops or feds these days is a very dangerous activity that can instantly ruin your life. And, of course, withholding evidence when your wife disappears, which Edwards does for no reason, will automatically make you the sole target of the investigation.