Saturday, July 31, 2010

How Being Up-Front About Theme Influences The Audience

Stating the theme of a film loud and clear at the beginning of a screenplay is sometimes the best way to focus the audience’s attention.

I recently watched Woody Allen’s wonderful Match Point, which I thoroughly enjoyed on all sorts of levels. Beautiful acting, great tension and suspense, gorgeous cinematography. But what struck me above all about this film, is the boldness with which its theme is presented right at the beginning of the opening scene, both in voiceover and as a visual metaphor. Here’s what it looks like in the screenplay:


In slow motion, a tennis ball passes back and forth over the net.

....................CHRIS (V.O.)
.........The man who said “I’d rather be
.........lucky than good” saw deeply into People are afraid to face how
.........great a part of life is dependent
.........on luck. It’s scary to think so
.........much is out of one’s control –
.........there are moments in a match when
.........the ball hits the top of the net,
.........and for a split second it can
.........either go forward…or fall back.
.........With a little luck, it goes
.........forward…and you win. Or maybe it
.........doesn’t…and you lose.

The ball hitting the top of net and hanging for a beat in the air, is actually visible on screen too during this voiceover, although it’s not mentioned in the script. Either way, what this opening does is set the tone and focus your attention on the meaning and point of everything that follows. There’s no need to speculate about what the theme of the film is, it’s laid out for you in the clearest terms.

What’s in a Theme?
Nuances aside, pretty much everyone agrees that the definition of theme is something like: What the film is really about. The issues which, ideally, all the film’s action and dialogue refer to, and the moral aspect of the main character’s core problem. Sometimes you can express the theme in a single word, such as, honesty, greed, etc. Other times it’s the type of specific moral premise advocated by Stanley D. Williams. And there are all sorts of variation in between. But however it’s formulated, the theme of a film is the moral or philosophical case the film is trying to make.

Ladies and Gentlemen… The Theme!
Not all screenplays state their theme as brazenly as Match Point, but they almost always contain a moment, usually during the initial phase of the story, when the theme is alluded to, or even explicitly stated. It’s often a line of dialogue, such as on page 4 of Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, when father Flynn addresses his congregation in church:

.........What do you do when you’re not
.........sure? That is the topic of my sermon

Or page 4 of The Reader, by David Hare, when Michael’s father Peter responds to his wife nagging the boy to see a doctor:

.........We’re not going to argue about
.........this. People have to take
.........responsibility for their own lives.

Sometimes it’s the lyrics of a song, such as Rock, Rock Till You Drop, the Def Leppard song which opens The Wrestler, written by Rob Siegel.

Stating the Theme Primes the Audience
So what’s the advantage of stating theme as early and explicitly as possible? A lot has been written about the phenomenon of priming , which is basically the fact that we are unconsciously influenced by the choice of words and metaphors we’re presented with. For example, in his recently updated book Predictably Irrational, psychologist Dan Ariely gives some striking examples from psychological experiments, where exposure to a set of selected words prior to the experiments, significantly influences their outcome. Even to the extent that, for example, subjects exposed to words relating to elderly people, walked slower than subjects who hadn’t been exposed to these words, after the experiment was over. Advertisers make use of this phenomenon all the time, as do professional debaters, politicians, salespeople and all sorts of other people whose business it is to influence their audience.

It’s a Screenwriter’s Job to Influence The Audience
In more than one sense, screenwriters should weigh every word in their scripts. Not just because you have to limit yourself to writing what you can see and hear, but also because the way you prime the audience is going to influence how they perceive the rest of the film. I’ve written before about how European films tend to be less emotionally manipulative than Hollywood films, but however much you leave up to the audience to work out for themselves, you still want the film to have a sense of thematic unity. The more your screenplay is about one thing, and the earlier you focus the audience’s attention on that thing, the more engaging an experience it’s likely to be.


Anonymous said...

I was thinking about your post. And this could be an awesome book, for example to take movies and discuss the theme. Dave, since you're on top of screenplay education and wisdom , just for example lets take a movie like Peter Greenway THE COOK THE THIEF THE LOVER, IMO this first five minute nailed the theme, though it's a chanllenging movie to watch. Do you agree? And also, got a request - is it good to do a FAKE THEME thing. I heard this discussed briefly by UNK. I'm a big fan of Korean Crime Thrillers and they tend to trick the audience with a theme in first five minutes that has nothing to do with movie. What's your opinion of this technique?

Raving Dave Herman said...

Thanks for that. Yes, it would make a great book, but it’s also just a great writing exercise to distill the theme of a film and pinpoint how the screenwriter establishes it.

It’s been a long time since I saw The Cook etc., and I don’t have the script. From what I do remember, it’s established pretty quickly that too much power in the hands of one person causes secrecy and deceit.

I’m not familiar with too many Korean crime thrillers, but I imagine that wrong-footing the audience with theme is just as effective a way of creative suspense and surprise as any other. Do you have any examples of these films?


Scott M said...

Great topic. I think the reason the theme is usually stated around page 3 or 5 is that we can more vividly experience it through someone else's perspective. It can be the difference between giving someone advice ("who asked ya?") to hearing a parable/story about some other "dude with a problem" that actually mirrors are own issues; preachy vs. a spoonful of sugar.

That said, Woody Allen has made so many movies, he's gotta figure out new ways to open them. Hey, whatever works.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Yes, and sometimes the theme is more like a question for you to ponder than a lesson for you to learn.

One of the reasons I liked Match Point so much, was because the main character gets away with the murders, and purely by luck. This is not how thrillers usually end, and it left me with something to think about...