Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Story vs. Screenplay

Over the last week, I watched a few films that frustrated me on some level, each for roughly the same reason. That reason is inconsistency in its screenplay, and it stems back to a debate I have had about story vs. screenplay. What makes a good screenplay? Is a great story alone enough to support a movie? The films that I watched all had tremendous potential with their plot, but were far too inconsistent to really make the movies completely worth seeing. There were parts of greatness in all three, but those parts were too few and too infrequent. So, here is what has been running through my head over the past few days.

A great story by itself is not enough to make a good movie in my opinion. There are several films that fall into this trap. Movies like The Hunted, Death at a Funeral (both), and Adam Resurrected all fall into this category (you can throw most remakes in there as well, such as The Jackal and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, etc.). If you read the premise to these films, they sound like they are going to be great. They have interesting ideas and cool casts. However, the writing (not just the dialogue) really takes away from any appeal the films might have had. In the case of The Hunted, the film is just empty. Death at a Funeral resorts to bathroom jokes the entire film instead of letting the awkwardness of its talented cast show through the quirky characters. Adam Resurrected makes a movie about the Holocaust survivors goofy and somewhat offensive. There are tons of examples of films that follow this unfortunate trend.

Oddly enough, when this is flipped around, the film can still be successful. When you take into account films like Punch-Drunk Love, Dazed and Confused, and Adventureland, there is no real plot to speak of. However, in these films, the writing is razor-sharp and each scene feels completely fleshed out. There are not wasted moments, and the films are able to keep the audience’s attention simply by making interesting characters and dialogue. This implies that the screenplay is actually more important than the story. One timeless example of this is the much-scrutinized screenplay to Natural Born Killers. Quentin Tarantino came up with the idea, and then Oliver Stone and company sorta botched it. I like the movie, but most despise it. The story was good, but the screenplay was not. This translated into a modestly-successful film that could have been a masterpiece.

When a great story and screenplay are joined together, classic films are made. People who immediately come to mind right that have mastered this are Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, and of course Tarantino. There is a reason why these directors do not come out with a movie every year. They take their time, making each film they release seem like an event. They spend years mentally preparing their screenplays down to the subtle camera movements. This is why all of their films are so polished, so brilliant, and so breathtaking.

The opposite of these auteurs would obviously be Woody Allen. He comes out with a film each year, always having a semi-interesting idea for the film, but it is clear that he is rushed. Between good films like Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he makes disasters like Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream. Both of those films, however, actually had interesting premises. The scripts were too dry, too soft, and ultimately entirely inconsistent. This inconsistency is the main reason why I feel that films with great stories are so often ousted by critics and audiences.

What makes them inconsistent? I recently watched a movie called Boot Camp, which is a true story about an island in Fiji that parents send their delinquent children to in order to change their lives and/or attitudes. Basically, it is Battle Royale without the kids killing each other. Is that an interesting idea? Absolutely. The film has Mila Kunis and Peter Stormare. I had to see it. The first five scenes or so are terrific. The atmosphere was well-established. The characters seem to be developing. The storyline was laid out and you can see a great movie forming. It hits a point after that where it just seems to be wasting time until the climax of the story. After that, it is just wasting time until the epic ending. Why did it have to be this way? There was nothing really wrong with those middle scenes, but they just did not have the same feel. It was almost as if the writers came up with their story and planned the first five scenes intricately. They saw where they wanted to go, so they had their ending. They also wanted something significant to happen in the middle, so they had their climax. Then they rushed through and made the middle cliché, predictable, and somewhat of a waste of time. The beginning and the end had meaning, but the middle was just useless torture scenes. These scenes were not even advancing the story or further developing the characters. This resulted in me really not caring about the characters as much as I should have, so their big climax and conclusion were not really effective. This is the formula for how a film with a $14 million budget can go straight-to-DVD and never be heard from.

There was a more effective film I saw called The Trotsky, which is about a high school student who believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, so he lives his life trying to fulfill the inevitability of his fate. It is a really clever story, and most of the movie is fairly funny. It touches greatness on occasion, but not nearly enough. It could have been a Wes Anderson-level comedy, but in the end, it is just pretty good. In those Wes Anderson flicks, there is never a wasted moment or a scene that feels like an exception. Inconsistency is rampant in The Trotsky.

Another example of something similar is a movie called Garden Party. It is an interlocking story drama set in LA. It follows several stories about young people moving to LA to pursue their dreams and a better life. Recently, we have seen tons of films with this format, and very few of them really fail. This one had three good stories and a couple weak ones. It had two fully-developed characters and countless flat ones. Never is it boring, but having to watch the uninteresting part of the film trivializes the truly good parts. It also takes that running time away from the characters we actually care about, so we do not get as great of a payoff in the end. Again, it seemed like the writer-director had a story he wanted to tell, but only really fleshed out a couple stories and made the movie. This is what sets apart good directors from average ones. In an indie film like The Dead Girl, every scene feels like it is essential to the whole. In Garden Party and Boot Camp, neither have this sensation.

So, why is this? Are the directors of these indie films just rushing to get their first or second film released without giving thought to polishing their scripts? In the case of these three films, I think this could be it. Boot Camp had the first 20 minutes of a truly great picture. Garden Party has two stories that are really fulfilling and interesting. Both would have made good short films. Both could have been great feature films if each scene had the care and precision of the better ones. The Trotsky could have been a mini masterpiece if all of the film had the same tone and intelligence.

So, I don’t really know what all of this means. I am not picking on these movies in particular. I just watched them in the last week, and they all just reminded me of each other with their flaws. I guess I don’t really know any people involved in filmmaking, so maybe I should not speculate on how they wrote the stories, but that trend of tonal inconsistency is widespread in independent film these days. It is what sets apart films that get buried at Sundance from films that wind up getting a theatrical run. It’s the difference between Sunshine Cleaning and Little Miss Sunshine, the difference between Hounddog and Alpha Dog. It is a pitfall that may be difficult to see from the outset, but it is there.

Does this make any sense? Do you agree? Have you seen any of these three films? They are all available to watch instantly on Netflix if anyone wants to check them out.

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Terry Plucknett