What makes a movie enjoyable?
I’m not talking about brilliant, groundbreaking or any other Oscar® promo-style hyperbole. I mean, why is one movie engaging while others are just empty calories?
My friend Jesse and I have this conversation every once in a while. I’ve come to the conclusion that out of everything — story, visuals, fx, etc. — characters make a movie great.
Let’s take as an example a recent movie shown at the National Association of Broadcasters conference to demonstrate Canon’s 1DC DSLR. Shot by wonderful cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, “The Ticket” is a short film about a couple whose auto accident sidetracks their birthday celebration.
Anyone who has watched a good number of movies knows the story within the first two minutes. As soon as the second character shows up you know exactly where the story is going and how it will end. Or at least the general framework of it.
So why watch it? What made me stick with the entire video?
It’s simple. I didn’t want to leave the characters.
I wanted to see how they navigated the journey. I cared about them on some level immediately. Why?
Well, it’s not what you think. I used to think ‘character’ meant dialogue. To develop characters you had to write clever dialogue that tells the audience how clever these characters are so you like them.
If the lead character can pontificate on the screwy thinking of villagers building a giant wall to keep King Kong out but then put giant doors in it so he can walk through, he must be likable! [extra credit if you can name that movie]
It has nothing to do with the story and offers no real insight into the character, but it’s clever so you should like the character. Or that’s the thinking anyway.
Nowhere does Hollywood drop the ball on this more than in horror movies. I remember watching Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. The dialogue for the female characters was so vapid and nasty that I thought, “is this what women are like today? I do NOT want a daughter.” (Less than year later that’s exactly what we had of course. She’s awesome.)
Does this mean you shouldn’t use snappy character dialogue? Of course not. Snappy dialogue is great. I love it. But it can’t be a sidebar and it cannot be forced. When Jules and Vincent are talking about what they call Quarter Pounders in France it doesn’t stop the movie. It is not an aside for Tarantino to show off his dialogue skills. It both establishes the characters and advances the story. We learn who these guys are and what their attitude is. We also get an establishment of where these characters have been before this and what led to this particular moment.
Great characters are not developed in a movie by one thing. It’s not just dialogue, or the cinematography, or the acting alone. It’s all three, or it’s one. The point is, it’s whatever the director needs to develop these characters in the limited time and space given by the restrictions of a film’s pacing.
Going back to “The Ticket,” Shane does more to draw you into these characters with his choice of shots and Dan Liu’s fantastic editing, than any dialogue could. Not to downplay the script, written by Po Chan but this movie isn’t really about the script, which wisely uses less dialogue to let the characters push the narrative by action.
The characters, through cinematography and editing, push the narrative and make “The Ticket” better watching than any standard fare on your TV.
The characters, through dialogue (as well as cinematography and editing), advancing the narrative is what makes ‘Glengarry Glen Ross‘ or ‘The Big Kahuna‘ engaging movies you want to see again, even with little more than one room as the set, and Transformers an excuse to eat popcorn and leave unsatisfied.
Story is important too of course! But without characters the audience cares about, the story, no matter how great it may be, will fall flat. Without characters to advance the narrative, there is no narrative.
A great story can be destroyed by mishandled characters, but a mediocre story can be made compelling with great characters.
Also, when I say character, I don’t necessarily mean person and when I say the audience must care about them I don’t necessarily mean like them. I mean the character must draw the appropriate emotion or response out of the audience. A protagonist is only as compelling as her antagonist. Without Frank Burns, Hawkeye and Trapper are just alcoholic jerks.
So check out Shane Hurlbut’s work on “The Ticket” here and let me know what you think on the importance of character and how to achieve it.
I want to know, you people are a lot smarter than me.
*image courtesy of cambodia4kidsorg