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Monday, July 20, 2009

Theme: When Concept Met Character

People can be forgiven in believing that Hollywood is full of nothing but profit minded Philistines. Truth be told the popular myth isn’t entirely off. You can enjoy a long and profitable career writing nothing but stories about killer robots from space that are only about killer robots from space.

But the business is also full of people who wrote their Master’s Thesis on William Faulkner, who have seen all the works of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, and who collect Miles Davis records. There are executives who appreciate deeper and more thoughtful screenplays, even if they are about killer robots.

A screenplay that is deep and thoughtful has a theme; larger, universal ideas that underscore the main story. And even the profit hungry mercenaries in the business see the value of a good theme in a screenplay. Themes that are universal by definition have wide appeal with the global audience. That is why you’ll almost always see a family or a love story as the “B” story in an FX blockbuster. Studios want a universal theme to play alongside the explosions and CGI. They want the hero not only to beat the evil alien but to reconcile his conflict with his wife or his lover or his father or his dog.

The “insert family drama here” method is definitely a valid at least from a commercial perspective. It certainly didn’t hurt the box office receipts of Die Hard. But there is a better way. By looking at the screenplay’s concept or logline and its characters a writer can come up with a theme that flows naturally from the story.

The concept and logline encapsulate what happens in the story. The writer should ask how his characters feel about what’s happening. How does it affect them personally? Look at the two versions of The Fly. The original was just a standard monster movie about a man turning into a fly. There was no deep thought about the implications to the character. The David Cronenberg remake however asked what it would be like for someone to undergo this horrific change to their body. It became more than a monster movie, it became a theme and a powerful one for the AIDS aware 80’s. With the remake of Battelstar Galactica, the creators looked deeper into the idea of an attack by unrelenting robots and came up with a theme that echoed post 9/11 paranoia. The list goes on and on. Attention to theme is what separates a Judd Apatow comedy from Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

But writers should never forget that characters are the important second half of the equation. A theme posited by a writer is no good unless it is lived by the characters in the story. Often I’ll have beginning writer’s tell me what their theme is but I look back at their screenplays I find nothing of the sort. Sometimes I find the characters drifted in a completely different direction. They’ll say their story is about staying true to their hearts, but I’ll find that their characters are made miserable by following their passions. The writer should really have a “heart to heart” with his own characters. Really good characters take own a life of their own and can’t be shoehorned to fit the writer’s every whim, at least not without breaking believability. Ask truthfully what personal significance does the story have for the character. Therein the writer will find his theme.

A final word about the difference between theme and politics. They are separate. Politics, though it may not seem like it, are temporary. They are also highly impersonal and tend to treat people as broad categories. Politically motivated screenplays are usually the worst written and worst reviewed screenplays. Not only are they commercially unviable (studios spend millions trying to get the whole country, not to mention the rest of the world, to love their movies) but they usually are poorly written. Writers of either stripe who make overtly political pieces tend to use the same ham fisted approach to every other part of the screenplay. Universal themes on the other hand have been with us for generations and go straight to a person’s core. These core values transcend Blue State or Red State and even transcend national borders. Those are the real themes Hollywood is after.

Writers usually create a theme for their story without even realizing it. Just by choosing what to write about and how their characters react, they’ve already started down the road to creating a theme. All that needs to be done is to take that theme and give it a nice polish.

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