Avoiding "Disaster" as an Artist
I think you’re smart. In fact, when I finally pressed the "Export Movie" button for my latest film "Wreckage," I was counting on it... or rather depending on it. I knew my story would confuse some people. And I knew it wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste. And yet, I was determined not to spoon-feed the story to my audience.
During production, many people from cast and crew and even my wife urged me to drop more hints and explanations to the story, fearing that some might not follow it otherwise. I considered their opinions and thanked them for the ideas. But in the end I went with my gut.
When it came time for the premiere exactly ZERO people had seen it who didn’t know the story already. And now I was going to debut it to over 1000 people! I won't lie, this is when the doubts began to creep in.
I envisioned a frightening scene trudging out of the theater with 1000+ people avoiding eye contact with me and whispering to each other “what. was. that?” Before the movie began people would ask “are you SO excited?” I’d smile and reply “yes, very excited” but I know I must’ve looked like a scared puppy. As the movie played I tried to sneak a peek behind me to examine the faces of those watching. I couldn’t quite tell if their expressions were that of intrigue or suspense or confusion or distaste. And when the final credits rolled and we all shuffled out I was SO nervous what the response would be.
THIS IS ART
One of the ways I encouraged myself on that day was to repeat the mantra that “this is art!” And because it’s art does it matter how people receive it? Was I being overly concerned about people‘s acceptance and appreciation for my film? Shouldn’t I just don my beret, turn my nose up and say “if you don’t like it tough cookies.” I suppose so. But that’s not really me. Because in addition t being an artist, I’m a pleaser. I like to make people happy. I like to make people think. I like to encourage people. And yes, I like people to like me and my work. So while I do get a lot of satisfaction from the craft itself, the opinion of others does have value to me. Does that make me less of an artist? I don’t think so.
KNOW YOUR STORY
When you tell a story, especially a complex story it’s difficult to know how closely the picture in the viewer’s mind matches the picture in the writer’s. As the author, we put words to our vision but there are story elements we don’t even think to put to words because they just exist in our mind and seem obvious. But often they are not obvious and those missing pieces are the first things an audience will snag on when they’re confused about your story. Call them plot holes or undefined characters or undeveloped narratives… it’s all because the writer couldn’t step outside his or her own mind and see the thing with fresh eyes.
One solution, and in my opinion a bad one, is to dump information on your audience and make everything plain as day. Sure your story is clear now, but it’s also boring. Everyone wants to work a little for it. My solution for “Wreckage” was to ask a few trusted readers to look at the script and then invite their honest feedback. These few people gave me confidence that the story held up OK. They even suggested some new ideas that made it into the final draft.
My rule of thumb here was that as long as I could answer any question that came up about the story then I didn’t have to include that information in an obvious way. The fact that I had an answer meant that it would be authentic to the story. For instance, if someone asks “why does your character do this or that.” As long as you, the writer, knows why, it’s OK to let your audience guess at it. That’s the fun of it! An example from Wreckage is “why does Rachel call everyone together for a dance sequence when she learns about her dad?” That is a good question and I can see why it would be confusing to some people. But if I would have included some dialogue of her saying “get everyone to the theater, I need to hear loud music and dance wildly and remember scenes from my childhood so I can process this news that I’ve just received” that would have killed the mystery of that moment and nobody would have cared. I knew why she did it and simply showing her doing it caused the audience to wonder and think and theorize and arrive at their own answers. And if I did my job right, most people came to the right answer anyway. Admittedly some did not. But you can’t please everyone.
A SATISFYING EXPERIENCE
Let’s pick up with that scary walk out of the theater… I was initially encouraged by a few pats on the back and “good jobs.” Relief washed over me. OK so it wasn’t a total failure. But then something amazing happened and it’s been happening ever since. A small percentage of people, I can’t even venture a good guess… 20%… 30% maybe… of the people who’ve seen the film say the most incredible things to me. Words like “It was just beautiful.” “So powerful.” “I can’t stop thinking about it.” “I want to see it again and catch everything I missed.” One friend reported a man saying “I want to be a better dad.” I don’t remember ever creating anything that generated so much discussion and reflection. I have people coming to me and thanking me for giving the story the ending I did. Words like this are so very satisfying to a filmmaker.
The lesson of this experience? When you write your story and create your characters, get to know them so well that the film you make will automatically be authentic and real and the missing information in your story will seem like a mystery to solve rather than a plot hole that has no solution.
Purchase “Wreckage” DVD HERE
See a highlight video of the 2018 NXNW Film Festival HERE
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