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Posts Tagged ‘theme’

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
Opening lines of HBO’s Chernobyl

I’m going to finish watching the five-part series Chernobly in the next day or two and will write about it more extensively. But today I thought I’d pull a quote from the writer of the HBO/Sky miniseries about the 1986 nuclear disaster.

“In thematic structure, the purpose of the story—listen carefully now—the purpose of the story is to take a character, the protagonist,  from the place ignorance of the truth (or the true side of the argument you’re making) and take them all the way where they become the very embodiment of that argument. And they do it through action.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin (Chernobyl)
Scriptnotes

In Craig Mazin’s talk How to Write a Movie he likes to refer a few times to Shrek and Pixar’s Finding Nemo as being great at thematic structure, but two personal favorites I like to return to again and again is Rain Man and The Verdict where the Tom Cruise character and the Paul Newman characters start out in one place in the opening scenes and are both changed and transformed by the end of those movies.

Mazin says if you just took the opening and closing scenes of movies with strong thematic structure you would see the anthesis and the synthesis of the theme played out. Two films that jumped to my mind are Erin Brockovich and Flight that show how that plays out on screen in dramatic fashion.

But not everyone agrees on the use of theme in screenwriting, and here are 10 writers and directors giving conflicting views on the topic:

“. . . I’m quite sure that I never thought much about theme before getting roadblocked on [writing] The Stand. I suppose I thought such things were for Better Minds and Bigger Thinkers. I’m not sure I would have gotten to it as soon as I did, had I not been desperate to save my story. I was astounded at how really useful ‘thematic thinking’ turned out to be.”
Stephen King
On Writing, pages 206-207

“I’m not sure I know what themes are. I know English departments care about themes. So it’s possible to look at my work, as I guess anybody’s work, and infer a theme, but it’s not something which concerns me.”
Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet
MasterClass

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

“So usually, for me, I have a thematic idea—an inspiration —and then I build everything around that.”
Writer/director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up)
Masterclass/Writing the First Draft

“If somebody asks me about the themes of something I’m working on, I never have any idea what the themes are…. Somebody tells me the themes later. I sort of try to avoid developing themes.”
Writer/director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom)
Elvis Mitchell interview on KCRW’s The Treatment

From the book Script Tease by Dylan Callaghan:
Question: What guides you through a story if you don’t outline? is it character or a certain voice?
Diablo Cody: “I like to pick a theme. I know that sounds stupid. It’s not a super advanced technique. They pick a theme on Laverne and Shirley. I think about what the emotional core of the story is, what’s something I can play on across multiple story lines, and I go from there.”

“The most important decision I have to make: What is this movie about? I’m not talking about plot, although in certain very good melodramas the plot is all they’re about. A good, rousing, scary story can be a hell of a lot of fun. But what is it about emotionally? What is the theme of the movie, the spine, the arc? What does the movie mean to me?”
Sidney Lumet
Making Movies

“Every great work has something that’s thematic about it. Not a message, because I don’t think movies do messages very well. They fall flat. Socially, I mean, some great films were made back in the ’30s and ’40s and you can see that they were placed in the time they were made, but their themes are for all time. The biggest thing is the story, but within that you need some thematic element that gets the audience going, that reaches out to them.”
Writer/director John Carpenter
Creative Screenwriting, Volume 6, #1

“I try not to think about theme until later. If I’m adapting a book I’ll extract a theme if I can from something that’s already written, but if I’m writing something I don’t say, ‘oh, here’s the theme.’ I feel like the movie feels – this word I keep using – it feels ‘built’ if you start with the theme ahead of time. If you arrive at a theme that’s great. If there are themes you know you love, that’s great. But for me, if I start writing it seems it doesn’t matter to me early on. I know there are certain themes I automatically always go to, but it’s not anything conscious.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Marley & Me)
2012 BAFTA Lecture

“The theme rarely is mentioned in the story; it is never rubbed in. The audience may not put it in words at all, but will recognize the theme and the fact that the story keeps in line with it. Suppose that you have taken for your theme the slogan, ‘It pays to advertise.’ These words may never be mentioned in the story, but the story itself will demonstrate the truth of that statement.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Big HouseThe Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories  (1937)
pages 106-107

“I will say like any time that we’ve gone off and written things where we haven’t really honed in on any theme whatsoever, that’s where you start getting into the weeds and you start losing your sight.”
A Quiet Place screenwriter Scott Beck (on how he and Bryan Woods work)

“Sometimes you never really quite understand what the movie’s about until you go into a matinée screening at the Oriental Theater on a Thursday afternoon.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434

Related posts:
Writing from Theme
Writing Grace Notes (via James L. Brooks & Judd Apatow)
Ryan Coogler on the Theme of Black Panther
Michael Arndt on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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“[W]henever a plot demonstrates some angle of truth it will be very likely to have wide appeal. These sayings are adaptable to expression in the terms of modern life. They never would have become proverbs if they had not been of general and lasting interest. 

. . . The theme ought to be broad enough to allow the building up of sufficient situations and an interesting climax, and, as one object of the story is to prove the theme, it should be discernible before the story reaches the climax. Let the principle characters exemplify it.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 110

Here are a list of themes that Marion included in her book. Themes that for the most part don’t need updating despite the book being published over 80 years ago. As Marion said, they are adaptable to modern life (including reality TV).

WIT AND HUMOR

“He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.”

“Marry in haste and repent at leisure.”

“No fine clothes can hide a clown.”

“Put a beggar on horseback and he will ride with the devil.”

“When the cat’s away the mice will play.”

“Honey catches more flies than vinegar.”

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

PHILOSOPHICAL 

“The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

“He who is a fool at Christmas will not be wise by the first of May.”

“Better poor with honor than rich with shame.”

“A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor man perfected without trials.”

“The laughter, the tears and song of a woman may be equally deceptive.”

“The best friend often becomes the worst enemy.”

“Pride sought flight in heaven but fell to hell.”

OPTIMISTIC 

“Fortune smiles upon the brave.”

“Perseverance brings success.”

“Content lodges oftener in cottage than in palace.”

“God sends thread to those who begin to weave.”

Note: There are many disagreements among writers, directors, and producers about the use of theme in filmmaking. Some that write from theme say that the theme should never be stated verbally, and others say it can be but it’s best if it’s not spoken by the main character/hero of the story. But it wouldn’t be hard to come up with examples of fine films that show every different aspect of how theme is handled (or not handled).

One example of a main character stating the theme of the film is Cast Away when the Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) says, “Time. We live by it, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t live by us.” What’s great about that line is it’s spoken near the beginning of the story and it’s buried in a FedEx training situation. It’s like a seed planted.

The filmmakers do use the motif of time throughout the film, but I believe that short exchange written by screenwriter William Broyles Jr. states the theme.  It’s not important that that line is not as memorable as “W-I-L-S-O-N-!”—and you could argue that they could have edited that line and the movie still works—and that  would still be the theme of the movie.

Where it would have seemed a heavy-handed use of that theme is if the director  (Robert Zemeckis) and his team decided that that line needed to be at the end of the movie. Imagine Nolan standing at the crossroads of Texas (and his life) and we hear his voice-over,  “Time. We live by it, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t live by us.”

And there were other thematic questions at play in Cast Away (“Perseverance brings success” and “A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor man perfected without trials” come to mind)), but in Broyles’ words he kept the themes “beneath the surface [because] they weren’t the story, and that’s what a movie has to be.”

Frances Marion on Theme (Part 1) 
Frances Marion on Theme (Part 2) 
Frances Marion on Theme (Part 3) 

Related post:
Theme vs. Story 

Scott W. Smith

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“They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”
Hosea 8:7

Proverbs, adages, maxims, parables, and legends supply an amazing proportion of story themes. This, of course, is because they are full of profound meaning relating to human life.  A proverb is a saying certified by the voices of generations, and the origin of many of those are in use today is lost in mists of antiquity. Thousands of years ago, men said significantly, ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’; ‘He who chases two hares catches neither’; ‘The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children’; ‘Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.’

. . . Proverbs record the thoughts of generations, the voice of the multitude, and they are found in all nations. . . . The wisdom of the great religions of all races is expressed in maxims that have touched all phases of life, business, health, and matrimony, and have in them the germs of many a story with the stamp of authority. Themes based on these sayings have the advantage that the audience is in sympathy with theme. ‘As ye sow so shall ye reap,’ has been a story theme from time immemorial.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
Pages 107-108

What do you want to bet that Saturday Night Live this weekend opens with a skit on the recent college admission scandal? Low hanging fruit for the writers. Ripped from today’s headlines and perhaps sprinkled with ancient wisdom from the prophet Hosea.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Is there a thematic narrative question that’s being asked? And is it answered? Because without that it’s not very fulfilling storytelling.”
Director Ron Howard
(On one of the questions he asks when considering a screenplay.)

The screenplay for the 1984 film Splash received an Acadamy Award nomination (Bruce Jay Friedman, Lowell Ganz, Brian Grazer, Babaloo Mandel).  Splash director Ron Howard, fresh off directing Solo: A Star Wars Story, explains an angle he brought to the fish out of water story that he directed early in his career.

Splash is an example of basically a 30s romantic comedy. It makes all the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, all the obstacles—they’re right out of the screwball comedies. Which I always adored. Even in the 80s when we made Splash it was already too tired to do it in a literal way, yet adding the fantasy element of her being a mermaid it made all of that okay. So sort of the traditional idea, the sort of quaint idea, was suddenly fresh, visual, funnier, and more interesting. Along the way, I also came up with this other theme that love is not perfect. I actually got the John Candy character to say that line. And it became really important to me. It was the idea that you’re going to have that initial rush of romance and excitement and then may discover there’s some complications, there’s some problems—yet what are you going to do with that love? Is that going to be the thing that chases you away or are you going to accept it?”
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind)
Masterclass

It’s hard to hear John Candy say, “Nobody said love’s perfect” and miss the echo of the line “Well, nobody’s perfect” from the end of the 1959 movie Some Like It Hot. And to show what’s old is new again, check out the video below to show the connection between Splash and the 2018 Best Picture Oscar-winner The Shape of Water. 

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of literal fish out of water stories. A couple of years ago there was a reboot of Splash in development with Channing Tatum and Jillian Bell attached with this twist—Tatum as the mermaid.

Related posts:

Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

 

Scott W. Smith

 

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Below is an excerpt from a Go Into The Story interview that screenwriters Bryan Woods & Scott Beck did with Scott Myers. This exchange is from part 6 of the interview.

Bryan Woods: With A Quiet Place, we weren’t comfortable writing the script until we knew that the theme was going to be about communication. We liked how that paralleled the idea of a world and a story that’s scary because the characters can’t talk and they can’t make noise.

We didn’t feel good about the story until we were like, “OK, we are comfortable with this theme.” One of the interesting things about theme is that you can start off with one thing in your head, and then the ultimate movie teaches you what it’s really about.

While I think that theme of communication that we started with is very much prevalent in the finished film, I think another theme emerged, which is the theme of, what would you do to protect your children and how hard is it to protect your children?

I think that theme is maybe an obvious one that we didn’t intellectualize but comes through very boldly in the finished film. I think that’s the best way to do it. I think you should be thinking about making sure your story has layers and that it can resonate on a deeper level.

At the same time, you’ve got to let it teach you what it wants to be and not be so constricted that you’re forcing it into a certain box.

Scott Beck: I will say like any time that we’ve gone off and written things where we haven’t really honed in on any theme whatsoever, that’s where you start getting into the weeds and you start losing your sight. It’s always important to hone in on some certain ideas that can at least be the starting point.

Related posts:

Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Lyrics by Bob Dylan

On my top shelf of storytellers sits Bob Dylan.

His songs written and/or performed over the last 50 year have appeared in movies or Tv shows more than a staggering 550 times. Along with his creative influence he’s won many awards including an Oscar for his Things Have Changed which he performed on the movie Wonder Boys (2000).

Ever since seeing St. Vincent (2014) a week ago I’ve been listening to Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm over and over again. It hit me that Shelter From The Storm could sum up what most movies are really about:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Many great movie characters seek shelter from the storm;  Rocky, Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront),Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.) , Rick (Casablanca), Erin Brockovich, George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life), Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath), Norma Rae, Oskar Schindler, Maximus (Gladiator), Karen Silkwood, Tyler Durban (Fight Club), Indiana Jones, Ellen Ripley (Aliens), Chuck Noland (Cast Away), Joan of Arc, Sophie (Sophie’s Choice), C.C. Baxter (The Apartment), Andy Dufresne (The Shawshank Redemption), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and Bogart and Hepburn’s characters in The African Queen.

If you’re looking for a standard and proven theme/desire to hang your story on take a tip from Dylan and write about characters who are seeking shelter from the storm. It emotionally resonates with movie audiences —people who are also seeking shelter from the storm.

P.S. Couldn’t find a good version of Dylan singing Shelter From The Storm, but I did find a version with Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris.

Related posts:

Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan’s Brain
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited” (2.0)
‘Against the Wind’ Bob Seger’s version of “Shelter From The Storm”)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1) Buffett’s version (written with Bobby Holcomb):
And there’s that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within
Highway 61 Meets A1A
Protagonist=Conflict
Neil Simon on Conflict (Conflict and more conflict.)
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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“Here’s the beautiful thing about theme, it’s the underlying message that kind of unifies the story…Even if you don’t write from theme I know the reason why a lot of you are sitting down and putting the time into [screenwriting] is you have a way of looking at the world that you want to communicate to people…Just like dialogue needs to have subtext and not be on the nose, you never want to be on the nose thematically. You don’t want to be didactic, you don’t want to be preachy, it’ll put people to sleep. It’s not what people expect from drama. Drama is about emotion…In Star Wars Luke has to shoot the Death Star, he has to shoot something down a little hole—blow up the Death Star. And he’s got a chose in front of him, he’s got the force—’Use the force, Luke’—or he has a computer. Now the computer technology isn’t just like [basic] computer technology, it’s the technology that built the Death Star—which is pretty powerful stuff. So when he chooses the force and he’s successful, you get this theme; ‘Humans, intuition is more important than technology.'”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme
Obligatory Scene=Story’s Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Sheldon Turner on Theme
Theme=Story’s Heart and Soul
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sideny Lumet on Theme
More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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