Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fantastical Elements in Movies

(Spoilers: Lord of the Rings, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Sixth Sense)

Whenever you write a movie with some kind of fantastical element – anything that isn’t generally acknowledged as “real” in our world such as ghosts or aliens or super powers – you have to think carefully about how you’re going to reveal those elements to the audience. There are two important things to consider. First, you only have a narrow window in which to get the audience to suspend their disbelief, and second you want to avoid moments where they might feel that you’re “cheating.”

It’s important to introduce the fantastical concepts you want to play with early. In the first fifteen or twenty minutes of a movie the audience is open to just about anything. They’re trying to figure out what world they’re in and are willing to suspend their disbelief. But once they think they’ve figured out the rules of your world, you break those rules at your peril.

For example, Ghostbusters (written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) opens with a prologue where the characters encounter a ghost in the New York Public Library. This tells us we're in the world we know, except that ghosts are real. This is important because we don't actually see another ghost in the movie for quite a while.

In the Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) we don’t learn what the matrix is or that the world we’re familiar with is an illusion until we’re into the second act. But we do see Trinity behaving in superhuman ways in the opening prologue and we see the agents sewing Neo’s mouth shut in the interrogation scene early in act one. We are told that the world of the movie has these kinds of fantastical elements in it. Without that set up, we probably wouldn’t accept the revelations in act two and the movie would seem silly.

On the other hand, sometimes we want to hold back a piece of information to create a surprise or twist, or just to avoid overloading the movie with exposition up front, such as in The Matrix. You can get away with this as long as the additional element falls within the bounds of the kind of world you’ve set up.

For example, when the Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson) reveals the existence of undead characters deep into the third movie, we accept it because it fits within the kind of world they’ve created – one with magic and mystical creatures.

But if Star Trek (written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) did that it would seem ridiculous because the world of Star Trek is one where all the fantastical elements are attributed to science. Conversely if Frodo pulled out a laser gun toward the end of the Rings trilogy we would probably demand our money back.

Consider The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan). Cole doesn’t deliver his famous line, “I see dead people,” until the middle of the movie. Ghosts aren’t explicitly discussed until that point. But we have to be prepared to accept them. So in the opening scene Vincent tells Malcolm that he knows why he’s afraid when he’s alone. And then we get the creepy scene where all the drawers and cabinets in the kitchen mysteriously open. Much like in the Matrix we’re being prepared that something supernatural is going on so that it’s believable when it’s finally revealed that ghosts are behind it.

Musicals are a similar situation. In our world people don’t generally break out into song or coordinated dance routines on the street. We accept this behavior in a musical if we’re told this is how people behave in the world of the movie. But if the first time someone breaks into song is an hour into the film (and it’s not a dream or a psychotic break), we won’t accept it.

I had this problem in Dreamgirls (screenplay by Bill Condon). I hadn’t seen the play, and in the movie all of the musical numbers in the first third of the movie are done by performers on stage. I assumed we were in the real world. Then suddenly three guys break into song while walking down the street. It completely took me out of the movie. I just couldn’t accept it – despite the fact I’m okay with the same behavior in Singing in the Rain (story and screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden).

Similarly, if you don’t play by the rules you’ve set up, it feels like you’re cheating the audience. In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) we are shown all of E.T.’s powers before he uses them for any crucial story purpose. That way, when he levitates the kids out of trouble later in the movie, for example, it doesn’t feel like a cheat. Imagine how you would feel if E.T. suddenly shot laser beams out of his eyes in act three to defeat the bad guys. (I discussed this in more detail in my analysis of E.T.)

So it’s important to figure out the rules of the world of your movie and introduce those rules to the audience early. Then you have to play by those rules. It doesn’t take much to blow the sense of reality you’ve set up!

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