I hear this a lot. A great film starts with a great story, or script. If you haven’t got a great story then no matter how good your actors are, no matter how good your sets are and no matter how good your effects are, your film is going to suck!
I agree with this… to a certain extent. BUT, I don’t think a great film starts with a great story and I don’t think it’s the most important part of the film. For me, the most important part of a film and something that I feel is the absolute key to why some films become classics and some films just don’t, isn’t the story at all, it’s the CHARACTERS!
And even go as far to say that you don’t need a great story to have a great film. But if you haven’t got great characters then you’re film isn’t going to be too interesting to watch no matter how gripping the story is meant to be.
Lets look at an example. How about Star Wars!
This film is classed as a classic, 95% of the people I know love this film. There are a few that wouldn’t place it in their top and actually a couple that haven’t even seen it, but they’re just weird. Overall I think it’s safe to say that Star Wars is a classic film. But why? Is it the story, after all if story is so important than surely if you read the screenplay without knowing anything about the film beforehand would you’d be blown away. Well in the case of Star Wars the screenplay isn’t exactly on par with Citizen Kane. For starters the films called Star Wars. Now this is so etched into out culture that it’s hard to separate ourselves from the words, a bit like Coca Cola or Mc donalds. But just for a moment try and see that title as if you’d never heard of it before, STAR WARS. It may just be me but honestly that’s an awful title, straight away it screams B-Movie!
So what about the story?
I won’t go into the story as, lets face it everyone knows what it’s about and if you don’t, well where have you been for the last 37 years? But to sum up. a farm boy goes on a mission to battle the evil empire. Along the way he meets a smuggler and some droids. He falls in love with a girl, follows his dream of becoming a rebel fighter and destroys something called “The Death Star” (another awful name).
I’m actually surprised that Star Wars got green lit and I believe that if it wasn’t for the great characters in that film it would of been a flop. Don’t believe me? I think one only has to look at the Phantom Menace to see how a very similar film can fall flat on it’s face. Yes the story wasn’t great or as simple as Star Wars but I believe what really let that film down was the characters. Apart from R2D2 and C3PO I don’t think there was one character in that film that I cared for, or believed.
So lets take a look at what made the character in Star Wars so good. Well this goes back to something I’ve spoken to before and it’s a rule that all forms of art need to contain, so as not to be BORING and that’s contrast. If you don’t have contrast you have bland.
Contrast in characters can come in many shapes and forms. It can literally be their shape, BIG and small, or their voices LOUD and quiet or speed FAST and Slow. They could also have contrast in their behavior, maybe they’re always really angry but ever so often get very scared.
All of the characters in Star Wars are rich with contrast. Either within themselves or up against each other. Each character brings something unique. Luke is very loyal and driven. Han is very gun-ho and easy come, easy go. Leia is very feisty and independent. C3PO is a worrier and quite feeble. R2D2 is fearless. There’s also contrast in C3PO and R2D2’s size that gives them a very Laural and Hardy feel. I could go on but hopefully you get the idea.
Now if we look at The Phantom Menace we have lots of characters who I honestly can’t remember the names of. This in itself proves how forgettable they were. It’s unfair to say that didn’t have personalities but they were so bland that it was hard to have interest in any of them. No contrast in characters equals no chemistry between them. If the characters are basically cardboard cut outs then why should we care if they live or die. The story could have the best twists and the biggest obstacles for the characters to overcome but if we don’t care for those characters then it means nothing.
You see this problem a lot in horrors. The biggest problem with horrors is that the ratio of cost verses profit is so good that Hollywood loves to churn them out. This is great in that there’s more horrors and I do love horror. The problem is that most horrors are seen as a way of making a quick buck and so character and story go out the window. When this happens you also loose the horror. It doesn’t matter how scary the monster is, or how many jump scares there are, if I don’t care about the characters then it’s not scary.
If when watching a horror the characters are so bad, I find myself actually willing the monster to catch them and hopefully kill them in the most entertaining and horrific way. On a side note, for me, one of the quickest ways to kill a characters believability is to get them to say or do something that no one in their right mind would do, or that’s just completely out of character. Now I know sometimes the story has to be driven forward but I’d rather the story was a bit slower with great characters, than fast with really bad ones.
Another classic example of a film that could of been bad if it wasn’t for the characters and Directors vision, is Alien. When this was written no studio would touch it. They felt it was a really bad B-movie but at the same time Star Wars had been released and 20th Century Fox needed something to keep the ball rolling and so they took it on. Here’s a great documentary if you’re interested.
After many re-writes they felt it was just about good enough to go ahead but they didn’t have much faith in it. It was Ridley Scott who at the time was a very new Director, that had the vision to take the film and make it feel as real as possible. If it wasn’t for the solid acting and the depth of the characters, Alien would have been a very different film and probably a very poor one.
I feel so strongly that characters are the key to a great film that I’d almost go to the point of saying you don’t need a story to keep people watching. Take Big Brother, ok so this is reality TV so slightly different but people will quite happily sit and watch an hour of other people walking around a house, shouting at each other.
Now it could be argued that there is a story because certain people form friendships, there are rivalry and scheming all of which are keys to a story. But if we look at story in the traditional sense then Big Brother has none. The biggest hook is that they’re real people, we know that the feelings they have are real. Now the producers of Big Brother aren’t stupid and they don’t just put a lot of boring, similar people together, after all where’s the fun in that and more importantly where is the contrast? So what you get in Big Brother is a mixture of people from all walks of life with very different personalities. Some loud, some quite, some confrontational and some diplomatic. That is why we watch and it has very little to do with story.
Of course if you have great characters that the audience believes in and you then put them in difficult situations, placing obstacles in their way, that’s when your story becomes gripping. But without those real characters, the story is just an empty container.
I’d love to know other peoples opinions on this so drop me a comment or a mail.
Till next time,