"What sells scripts in Hollywood these days is emotions."
This is a comment from a set of notes that Patrick received from a competition he advanced in. While I thought it sounded like the reviewer wanted Rocky instead of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the writer took the comment well and didn't find it nearly as amusing or patronizing as I did.
Of course films are emotional and these days aren't any different than any other days, are they? Well, are they?
Films are about the human experience and since we who walk upright are emotional creatures, films are also about an emotional experience. Regardless of what the emotion is and whether it's associated with the birth of a new nation or the death of a salesman, viewers need characters they can relate to and they do that at an emotional level.
Screenplays must meet the reader at an emotional level because films must meet the viewer at that same spot. How do you do that? In this post about character empathy, I steal Karl Iglesias' theory that the key is to create emotions that all readers (and viewers) recognize by exploiting three basic truths about human nature and empathy:
(1) We care about individuals we feel sorry for
(2) We care about individuals who display humanistic traits
(3) We care about individuals who have traits we all admire
Using this formula, films yank our emotional chains in the most intimate and personal ways and compel us to feel what our characters feel so we can identify with the story. What parent can't identify with a man willing to endure any hardship and go to any extremes to find his missing son? Finding Nemo isn't about animated sea creatures. It's about a parent's worst nightmare -- an Amber alert -- only it happens on a twelve foot screen to a Clownfish aided by a Regal Blue Tang with short term memory loss. That's why it works for adults. The father overcomes his fear for the love of his son and finds joy in a new bond and new relationships.
Love, joy, fear . . . powerful emotions and certainly not our only ones. If we only witness emotions as casual observers, then the film has not done its job. But when a film drags us on board and we either laugh at or agonize through those feelings with the characters as they suffer, celebrate, and tremble, then a film, as Iglesias' points out, has successfully exploited our emotions.
DEFINING LOVE, JOY, AND FEAR
To those who saw it in the theater, Jaws may very well define FEAR in film. They remember the first time they saw that pair of willowy legs swimming in ignorant peril and simply hearing John Williams' chromatic rumblings of a double bass as the shark approaches its first victim epitomizes the ultimate film terror experience. For me, ultimate film fear is an early childhood memory of King Kong , the Jurassic Park T-Rex crushing those children in the jeep, and David Hasselhoff using his pectoral muscles for rocket propulsion in the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Sheer terror.
Victory moments where the protagonist comes out on top and we get to cheer, pound our chests, and throw our popcorn are what I like to think of as Mighty Ducks moments because I still have a movie theater memory of a half dozen screaming eight year olds jumping for JOY and punching the air at a tie breaking penalty shot in overtime. For some, I guess JOY is a Chariots of Fire moment or a Father of the Bride moment. Not me. JOY in film for me is defined by quacking hockey players.
Titanic is the quintessential LOVE story to many while to others it's Ghost or An Affair to Remember. Me? I get choked up watching Meatballs. Can't help it. My kids are runners and the story is about a little runner and a counselor who changes that kid's life by nurturing in him a sense of self worth and teaching him the value of a (sort of) moral victory because "it just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!" They LOVE him, man! LOVE him! And, for the first time in that kid's life, he understands what it means to feel like HE matters.
That's real LOVE, people.
Gets me every time.
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I'm gonna need a minute.
Something in my eye.
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Okay, moving on.
While love, joy and fear are likely the most frequently exploited emotions in screenwriting, a veritable buffet of human emotion combinations in varying degrees and limitless shades is at the mercy of our pens.
Write a story with characters in love and that's sweet. Some viewers will relate. Some won't. It might depend on how hot the girl is or what kind of car the guy drives.
Write a story with characters in love and throw in a dash of anger, a touch of grief, a hint of shame, a bunch of jealousy, a little insecurity, and a whole lot of curiosity and you've got yourself characters with dimension. They've got more than one emotion going on so there's a good chance most people out there can relate to them. Everyone will be sucked into SOMETHING these people are feeling that they, too, have felt at one time or another.
Are there films that epitomize certain emotions for you the way King Kong defines fear for me, Mighty Ducks defines joy for me, and Meatballs defines the perfect love story for me? It IS perfect, you know. It's a beautiful thing to teach a kid to love himself. Beautiful. Just beautiful. The way he calls that kid Rudy the rabbit. . . it gets me. Right here. It gets me.
Excuse me. Something in my eye again.