Film is Powerful.
Emotional Investment and its Reach Beyond the Screen.
There are many more steps in construction from the written word to the final piece in narrative fiction film than in the literary fiction novel. Despite this, when executed well, film can create an immediacy with its audience that arguably other mediums find hard to achieve.
(Quick disclaimer: I’m not saying film is a superior medium, I love great literary fiction, but this blog is about what screenwriting and subsequently film has to offer as a medium).
Great screenwriting when twinned with the photo-realistic look of a film (whether originated on celluloid or some high resolution digital cinema format) creates a sense of time, place, and human representation that make us the audience feel like we are something more than passive observers. We bear witness to the meaning or truth of the film, we are somehow involved in what we are seeing. I believe that audience involvement is most powerful when it is an emotional involvement rather than an intellectual one, in fact I’m prepared to go one step further and argue that regardless of how intellectually challenging, thrilling, surprising or clever it is, without a well rendered emotional journey your film will not engage your audience.
A film can possess a clever and complex plot, spectacular set-piece action scenes, witty dialogue and a great idea underneath all this, but I would argue that without cultivating real emotional investment it is somehow forgettable or disposable, to me these kinds of films are empty because whilst the form might be brilliantly realised they lack that essential ingredient that needs to be at the heart of a good film namely an emotional journey. In short, if the audience is given no reason to care about what they are seeing, all is lost.
As a writer-director I am forever posing the following incredibly important questions in the pursuit of the best work I can make.
Who should we care about? Why should anyone care?
Why are these questions so important? I guess because the worst thing I can imagine anyone saying about a film is that they weren’t really bothered about what happened to the central character. To use an analogy, we need to have a horse in the race to truly care about the outcome of the race.
On the face of it these seem like very similar questions, but let’s break them down:
Who should we care about?
Your screenplay might well have a single protagonist or perhaps it’s an ensemble film with several central characters. Regardless, as the writer you need to figure out who your audience should care about, who they are aligned with. Essentially by going through this process you are identifying whose story this is.
Why should anyone care?
I regularly pose this question when teaching screenwriting. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the work you’re developing, on the contrary I’m asking you to find the reason why, as an audience member, I should invest my time in your screenplay and the subsequent film. It’s essential that the screenwriter wrestles this question to the ground.
You need to give your audience a reason to care. How and why will your audience relate to your protagonist or central characters. Is it the bravery and determination when faced with a formidable foe who appears always one step ahead like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs? Do we vicariously enjoy their boldness, power and apparent freedom that comes with living outside the law like the protagonist Henry Hill in Scorcese’s Goodfellas. Do we sympathise and cheer the character on, because the character -like us all- is flawed, but has a good heart like Rocky in the film of the same name. The reasons as to why we should care are manifold but there has to be a reason and as I’ve suggested, at core this should evoke an emotional response from the audience.
Essentially I'm writing about empathy. It may take a multitude of forms but the ability of the screenwriter to have us understand, identify with, and share the feelings of the protagonist is what makes for a great cinematic experience. If you as a screenwriter can build an empathetic character / audience relationship you can take your audience wherever you want and they’ll willingly come with you! For me this is one of the foundations of great screenwriting.
Perhaps this would be a good juncture to end this blog… but I think there’s something further to explore.
Ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you that I’m sceptical about the power of fictional film to bring about social change. Yes, I’m crazy about films and all the crafts that lead to great cinema, but isn’t it just an act of aggrandising what I love if I assert that cinema could have a role in changing peoples minds and perhaps play a role in social change?
I’d like to make the case that what people believe is rarely based on the rational, the intellectual, the reasoned, in fact I would argue the antithesis is the case… we feel something, we believe something and we then build intellectual scaffolding around what we feel and believe. 'Win people's hearts and minds will follow'; this is a maxim of politicians, storytellers and brand consultants alike for good reason. Their practice has shown them over and again that if you wish to change minds and behaviour you have to appeal to the emotions first. If we can get people to connect emotionally on a human level we then have the opportunity to change life-long held beliefs.
If we can empathise with the estranged, the radically other, the alien perhaps we see that they are none of those things. Perhaps we see that they are us and we are them. It is my belief that cinema’s ability to create vicarious but nevertheless empathetic relationships with characters rendered on the screen can be an agent for change precisely for that reason.
So let me tell you a story. I’m UK born to Cypriot parents who identify as Turkish-Cypriots. To put this into context, Cyprus is divided by a border. To the north live Turkish Cypriots and to the south live Greek Cypriots. The island was divided in 1974 after a long period of inter-communal violence that resulted in a coup d’etat by Greek speaking Cypriots and the military intervention of Turkey on behalf of Turkish Cypriots.
Before the troubles that divided the island, my father grew up in a village of Turkish and Greek Cypriots, and despite the fact that his first language was Greek and an embarrassment of cultural similarities with Greek Cypriots, he has always vehemently asserted his firmly held belief that we are Turkish and that all Turkish Cypriots are Turks. My counter-position to this is that we are Cypriots, and that Greek and Turkish speaking Cypriots share so much in common that the distinction is absurd. This argument has been an ongoing family tradition… that is until I wrote and directed a short film called Our Cyprus…
In essence, after the obligatory conflict between two characters one being Turkish-Cypriot, the other being Greek-Cypriot, the film strips away the identification of Greek or Turkish and eventually portrays the commonality between two human beings as a friendship develops. My father saw the film at a screening and his words to me ‘My God, it makes you think doesn’t it?’
This little film that created empathy in my father for two characters has done more to get my father to question his beliefs than an argument between us that has continued for 30 years!
Yes, I know this is only anecdotal evidence, I am not a social scientist nor do I want to be, but to me this is an affirmation of the potential of fictional film to change hearts, minds and actions.
My God, it makes you think doesn’t it…
Thanks for reading,
Your friendly neighbourhood scriptologist.