Adventures of a Film Scholar – Part II

So what’s it about?

This is a question that I pose to my students. A very short, but – in my opinion – the ultimate make-or-break question as to whether a script (or the resulting film) will actually work. I don’t mean make money, I don’t mean be a critical success (both of those outcomes have many other contributing factors), I mean work on the raw, unadulterated, nuts-and-bolts STORYTELLING level.

Most of what I do in academia is to flag this to students and help them find their voice. I have taught at many places across the globe and no matter how old the students are or where they are from, “What’s it about?” is always the question that causes the most problems. What’s it about means “What’s it really about?” When you’re starting out it’s not even so much about solving the question, it’s understanding (and feeling) why the question should be asked in the first place.

Let’s clarify. In the professional world, I find it a kind of coded question. Anyone with any experience as a writer or director should know what is being asked. Not plot – not “it’s about a fighter pilot who gets up in the morning and then…” but the underlying creative voice of the piece. My preferred way of expressing it is theme and point-of-view. This column is my soap box, so let’s nail my opinions to the mast big-time. Should films have a message? Not particularly. Should they have a cohesive and detectable point-of-view? Absolutely.

If a professional writer or director interprets the question as one about plot – let’s just say, ALARM BELLS RING. Now it could be a breakdown in communication, but usually it means they do not understand the basic building blocks of film storytelling – what makes a film a FILM, and not just a series of events one after the other. And thus, the film is doomed.*

The terminology is problematic here, as when you use words like ‘theme’ it makes you sound like films should all be lofty and worthy. Far from it. American Pie has a cohesive theme and point of view – it’s what gives it heart. If I can for one moment use the metaphor of a house, theme and point-of-view are the cement. No one ever buys a building because the bricks are held together in an elegant fashion (“Man, those breeze blocks are stuck together so well, I must have that duplex!”) but without it, the house falls down.

Different writers, teachers, script-gurus all refer to theme and point-of-view in different ways: “controlling idea,” “throughline,” “creative voice.” To put my scholar’s hat on for a moment, ultimately it all goes back to Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” where you distill your idea into one sentence. But what that sentence must contain is theme and point-of-view. There is something about making that sentence work grammatically that forces you to face the core of your story – or lack of one.

So yes, the “What’s it about?” question can take a very long time to answer. But I make this promise to everyone: once you do find an answer, it will tell you EVERYTHING. And I mean everything. What to write. How to cast. Where to put the camera.

Unfortunately what it won’t do is guarantee you a good film. That takes the usual annoying mix of talent and luck. It will just give you the chance to make the best film that you can: one that works as a story.

*As a story, but not necessarily at the box-office – that’s where genre and stars come in handy.




You can be the first one to leave a comment.

Leave a Comment





Latest Tweets