Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Larger than Life

Mess up again and I'll hit you in the face with a T-Rex.
"You can go for years saying, 'I'm gonna get this thing real,' because they really haven't seen it real, do you know? They just keep seeing one fashion of unreal after the other that passes as real and you go mad with realism and then you come up against someone like Stanley [Kubrick] who says, 'Yeah it's real, but it's not interesting.'" - Jack Nicholson

I can recall a surprise guest in one of my undergraduate classes: Richard Dreyfuss. He screened Captain Blood. It was every bit a swashbuckling Errol Flynn pirate flick as you can imagine. Once the film was over, Dreyfuss noted the fair number of "real world" films that were packing the box office.

He said, to paraphrase, "When I go to a film, I want to be taken away. Give me The Wizard of Oz. Give me pirates. Anything that doesn't hold up a mirror to the everyday."

I wondered for years if that meant that he didn't like films about suburban angst, yuppie love lost, and low-budget indies about middle-class people doing middle-class things. When Richard Dreyfuss went to the multiplex, did he automatically filter out American Beauty in favor of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean?

More to the point, which was better to write? Should I focus on writing stories that ship audiences to Narnia, Middle-Earth, Hogwarts, or Jurassic Park? But why would I do that when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to favor lower-budget, suburban-set fare such as Juno or Little Miss Sunshine?

It took me a while, but I figured out the answer.

Was Richard Dreyfuss right?

Yes. Sorta.

Here's the thing: Dreyfuss likes stories that are larger than life. But so do we all. The Wizard of Oz takes place in a faraway, munchkin-filled kingdom with an ornery witch. Harry Potter takes place at Hogwarts. Captain Blood commits romantic, sword-swinging piracy on the high seas. These take us away just as Dreyfuss said.

But is an unusual setting the only element of storytelling that has that power? Of course not. So what's the key element?

Once you apply the idea of "larger than life" to everything in your story, it all falls into place.

American Beauty takes place in a suburban setting, liberally peppered with angst, insecurity, lust, and powerlessness. But its characters are awesome. We cheer for Lester with every scrap of respect he recovers.

Little Miss Sunshine presents us with a dysfunctional family on an even more dysfunctional road trip. But every family member is nuanced, complex, and fascinating.

Juno, also set in a quiet suburb, asks if a pregnant teen with a mistake-riddled history can make the ultimate right decision.

You don't need to send us to Saturn and beyond, such as in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, to take your audience away. You can do it in an office building. You can do it in the suburbs. You can do it at a Starbucks. The point is, as a writer, you must ask yourself:

What in my story is larger than life? Is it the characters? The setting? The central conflict?

Ideally, it should be everything. You'll turn every audience member into a wide-eyed five-year-old as they experience your story. Bring them from wonderment to wonderment. And that doesn't necessarily mean that you must bring them from Munchkin-Land to the Emerald City. It means that your characters had better damn well be titanic, compromise-proof forces of nature. Larger than life. Bake it into everything you write.

Take Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. We're taken to an exclusive music academy in the heart of Manhattan. But this isn't a story of witches, dinosaurs, dragons, or multidimensional travel. It's about a boy who wants to be the best drummer in the world and a teacher who would probably sneer at the Sistine Chapel as a pedestrian artistic effort. This is a story about an unstoppable force smashing into an immovable object. It's about real people with real dreams doing real things, sure. There are no ruby slippers or rings of power. But it's really freakin' interesting.

A music school likely wouldn't be at the top of anyone's list of exotic locales. But Andrew and Fletcher are gigantic, fantastic personalities. They are larger than life in their motivations, actions, goals, and desires. They are complex and richly layered. So what if Andrew's goal isn't to save the world or if Fletcher's dream isn't to be the first man to walk on Mars? The film convinces us that to these characters, saving the world and walking on Mars amount to mere molehills when compared to what they really want. They're both convinced that there's nothing more important, and they will move heaven and earth to pursue their goals.

Best of all? We're on board. We don't want to see Andrew save the world. We want to see him become the best drummer the world has ever seen. Any art form that can invest us in the story of an awkward, hapless music student, a good-hearted pregnant teen, a family driving their smallest member to a youth beauty pageant, or a creepy father pursuing a high school cheerleader is doing its job. Their stakes become our stakes.

Does this hold up a mirror, like Dreyfuss cautioned us against? Sure, but it's not a mirror to the everyday. The best characters take us away and show us a place far more interesting than Oz, Middle-Earth, Hogwarts, Jurassic Park, or Narnia.

They show us themselves, or more accurately, they show us versions of ourselves pushed to extremes. Best of all, they're really, really amazing characters. Write your characters as the most intriguing folks your audience has ever met. Larger than life. Let them take us away!

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