Making Up Your Own Rules

“It’s time to let go!”

I think as filmmakers, most of us are compelled to ask, “what is the real secret to great filmmaking?”  Just about everyone has their own opinions on this.  There have been books written all over about what works and what doesn’t on an audience.  I think it was Robert McKee who said this one simple truth I can agree with:  No studio in the world has a clue as to what makes a movie great.  If we did know the answer, every film would be great.  The smartest authors will tell you when they give advice, “these rules aren’t the end all, be all of everything.  This is what I’ve discovered works on an audience.  This is what works for me.”  When you’re a novice writer/artist, learning the rules that what other people have learned is important.  It gives you a kind of grounded focus and something to work with.  But I think for the best artists, there comes a time in life where one decides to challenge those rules.

I’ve thought about this constantly about my own directions I’ve taken as an artist, and how sometimes making that left turn put me on a totally different path.  I’ve seen all the things out there that have inspired me and pushed me into different directions.  When I was a kid, I wanted to work for Disney.  When I saw Iron Giant I wanted to be a director.  I thought I had my path set and all figured out.  But when I went to Cal Arts, I made this film, which challenged everything I ever thought I knew about myself, and set me off into a completely unknown direction:

Not exactly the Disney-like ending I expected.  But for my own unknown reasons at the time I was compelled to go there.  I had to.  You can probably read into the ending anyway you want.  But for me, I think the death of that little boy cemented one thing in me…the death of childish things, and the beginning of my adventure into adulthood.

I won’t go into detail about all the personal trials I’ve faced in the 8 years since I made this film (at least, not now).  But the direction of my life has felt like a constant mystery, with no set direction and no clear path as to the person I would become.  I’m still finding this out. Many times I would look at my fellow Cal Arts animators with envy, as I’ve watched those people fulfill their childhood dream, their dream of going to Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, or Nickelodeon.  Through their own compulsion and dedication, they refined their craft, they made their student films fitting to the company they always wanted to work for.  And after college, they wind up achieving their dream, get married, have children, and lead a fulfilling happy life.  I’ve tried over and over again to have that kind of life like everyone else I know has, pushing myself through continuous drawing classes, trying to write stories and make films that will appeal the studio’s, so I could just feel happy and secure in my life.

But I know now I can never be like those people.  It’s not possible now.  Too much has changed in my life, and it seems like my future has become about something else entirely, an entirely new and personal approach to making my dream happen, and in its own subtle way I feel that dream is beginning to reveal itself.  The more I’ve started letting go of the desire to have that life like every other animator I’ve known, the more I can see my own path emerging.  For so long now I thought I needed to have everything about my life figured out in order to become successful.  But that doesn’t seem so important anymore.  The more I don’t know what’s coming my way, the more I feel my life is starting to reveal itself.

I suppose some of you might be wondering what this tangent has to do with my thoughts on the rules of filmmaking.  Or more precisely the thought about challenging those rules.  Don’t get me wrong, learning the rules is very important.  But what bothers me sometimes is that some artists will take the rules to heart, but never bother to ask questions or challenge them.  For a lot of people in Hollywood, the holy bible for many screenwriters is Robert Mckee’s book, STORY.  I’ve read it a couple of times, and there’s good advice in there.  But I think what Mckee preaches in his book can be seductive, and this is something I started to learn when I read his book at Cal Arts.   His advice is far from bad.  But his rules are the ones he discovered on his own (I’m also a little skeptical because I’ve never seen an actual screenplay from Mckee, but that’s another post).  Rules can also be a danger to novice writers/artists who haven’t yet explored their own creative energy, who wind up binding themselves to other writers commandments without exploring how you want those rules to apply to your own vision.  They don’t know that these rules are really just tools for the artists creative approach.  Anyone who says their rules are the answer is….well…an idiot.   

I’ve always been more driven by character.  It’s just the approach I’m most comfortable with.  My feeling is that you need to treat your characters as if they are real people.  You have to spend time with them, get to know them, put them into situations and see how they react.  I’ve heard the Pixar term, “Story is King”, but to be honest story isn’t my biggest concern.  I don’t really try to think about what I’m trying to say with the film.  The characters will say it for me.  Sometimes the characters change, sometimes they don’t, and if they don’t, that’s totally okay.  I prefer this approach because you’re putting yourself down on the characters level, like a fly on the wall understanding who they are and what it is that they want for themselves.  I saw a story artist from Pixar once posing questions to a novice writer when the writer asked how they should introduce a wife character.  The questions she asked him in return were something like this:  “What is the wife’s story function?” and “Why did the husband marry his wife?”  Thinking about these questions, it seemed like the story artist was looking at their characters from a far away God like position, as if dictating what the characters function were to the overall theme of the story.  There’s nothing wrong with placing yourself in that position of course, it just works better for some writers.  But because she was posing these questions to a novice, I would have preferred she just ask some more casual questions, like “What kind of relationship do the husband and wife have?  Do they love each other?  Is their relationship abusive? Is one of them cheating on the other?  Does one of them have an obsession the other can’t stand?”  By asking these questions, you’re not putting yourself in a far off place dictating what the story is about.  You’re right there in the room with them.  You let your gut instinct take over.

Putting yourself in a superior position with your story is a problem I had with the Pixar film, Brave.  In that film, I felt Merida didn’t want to have much of anything to do with her mother.  At first Merida is an inspiring protagonist who can do all these great things:  She’s a pro with a bow and arrow.  She rides in the woods everyday.  She hunts.  She can make shelter for herself.  She has all the tools at her disposal for survival whenever she needs them.  When the fight occurs between her and her mother, who wants her to get in line and marry the suitor, my gut reaction was: Merida…RUN AWAY.  This is your chance.  Go have an adventure.  Go live your life.  But then after we think she’s going to run away, she meets a witch and suddenly she gets this 12 year old childish idea that she should get revenge on her mom by putting a curse on her.  “WHY? “, I asked myself.  “She’s 16 years old.  In that era, she would be considered an adult.”  Instead she stupidly forces herself into a situation where she gets stuck dealing with her mother for the rest of the film.  All so she can prove to her mother that she can be free and independent.  I kept asking, why are they doing this?  Why does she need her mother’s approval to live her life?  She’s an adult, she has all the tools of survival at her disposal, she’s free to leave anytime and do what she wants….which is what she wanted in the first place.  It’s after the first act that you can see the filmmakers suddenly put themselves on a higher moral ground with the story, because the rest of the film becomes a contrived situation in order to teach Merida and her mother a lesson….a lesson that is not only not needed, but its not true to Merida as a character.

We only need to learn about life through the characters experiences.  Because at one point you may think at first, “I want my film to be about this…” but then you might start hanging around your characters and discover they want something else entirely.  If you don’t listen to that, you’ll end up forcing a contrived situation on your characters as with what happened in Brave.  You have to remember too that when you listen to what your characters want, what they want is really coming from you, and can reveal to you what you really have to say about life.  Because what you only think you know about life…it could be wrong!  If they wanted Brave to be a mother/daughter story, I think they should have made Merida younger, like 12 years old.  Putting the curse on her mother would make more sense because she’s just a kid who might feel motivated to get back at her mother because she’s got no where else to go.  At that age she may not be able to survive in the woods on her own.  The Looney Tunes demonstrates characters perfectly that don’t change, but we can still learn about life through their actions and how they interact with one another.  Elmer Fudd may never learn that he’ll never be able to catch Bugs Bunny, but we all know people like him who will always do the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.  The result here of course, is that it just gets funnier every time Elmer fails. 

But this is my approach, and this is how I feel about story.  Knowing what my story is about isn’t as important to me as knowing who my characters are, what they’re feeling, and what it is they really want out of life.  And if they want something, your goal as the storyteller should be to challenge them in ways that will help them along to get what they desire.  They might get it, they might fail.  But whatever the final result, it’s going to tell your audience how you feel about life.  To think you know what life is all about can put you on the straight and narrow path.  It takes a lot of guts to say yes when your destiny may be calling to you.  For awhile its going to feel like the worst decision you ever made in your life.  But when you say yes to the call, you’ll find your whole life is right there waiting for you.  Its the experience of living, not where you end up, that matters most.  And after awhile you won’t need the rules anymore.  You’ll start making them up on your own.               

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