So I was working in a movie theatre back in 1999 when “Elmo In Grouchland” played in movie theatres. Elmo, for all you uninitiated, is the red furry “five-year-old” muppet that is supposed to channel all the personality quirks of a typical kindergardener. The young set – maybe who have never seen a film before – identify with him. This was his theatrical debut.
In the film he loves his blue blanket, but it's stolen and taken to the land where the Grouches live, and he has to go retrieve it. Now, understand, this blanket is a very powerful metaphor for comfort, home, security, and motherhood – everything a 5-year-old holds dear. When Elmo, who is a pretty upbeat and guileless character who only thinks the best of all the people (and the talking and dancing animate objects) around him, loses it, it undermines the basic foundation he bases his everyday life on.
Grouchland if you can imagine is not exactly sweetness and light. It's dark, furry, shot a little askew, and full of clutter. In other words, to any typical blanket-less 5-year-old, it's hell.
My blanket is NOW IN HELL.
So about 15 minutes into the film, the kids start hitting the lobby, screaming at the top of their lungs. “He lost his blankie - he's gotta get it!” This film has the most profound effect on these impressionable kids I've ever seen – they don't understand that it's all make-believe, it's fiction – magic of Hollywood. It's fuckin' puppets for crissakes. But Elmo needs to go get his blanket back, and they can't leave until they've gotten closure. Mom is panicking – that experiment about taking the kid to his first film, some innocuous Sesame Street film with Elmo, has completely gone berzerk.
But the kid won't leave. The moms look at each other in the lobby (funny, no dads took their pre-schoolers to the thing. He'll wait until the new “Star Wars.”) The kid feels for Elmo – they gotta see that it works out - in fact, if that blanket isn't found, Elmo won't be able to sleep, he won't be able to live, WE won't be able to live, there'll be no peace - the Earth will burst into flames. Communism will prevail. Or something. They simply have to go back in and see the end.
But – Grouchland is HELL. Even Mandy Patinkin is there! It's the classic Pirandellian paradox. Do I leave the theatre now, or go in and submit myself to more torture?
The film is only 80 minutes, shortish even by kid-film standards, but the next hour is the longest these new patrons-of-the-arts will ever spend. They're getting a heroin-shot of the power of art straight into their impressionable brains. At this rate, they may never see another film again.
Which brings me to my point.
Narrative art, whether it's a horror film or an autobiographical novel or Elmo from Sesame Street, often manifests themes that we can relate to, even if the actual characters and the actions aren't specifically ones we have experienced or resemble. For example, even though we were never caught in a tall building where terrorists were trying to rob the bank through the computer that was housed there, we still identify with John McClane in “Die Hard” because we have been forced to do something hard (save his wife, get his blanket) for personal reasons (he still loves her, he loves it so much) while facing difficulty (the terrorists all have guns, Grouchland is really scary!).
All compelling stories are basically the same. They have the same elements: a character is forced to do something hard, but continues for the right reason.
It's as simple as that. I can't believe Elmo got me to get to this discussion. There are 3 key words in the above description - “forced,” “hard,” and “right.”
The lead character must be forced to act. If he merely “decides” to do something, without being forced out of his comfort zone to try something extraordinary, there are no stakes involved. No risk. (I'm using the royal “he” here.)
And what he decides to do must be hard. If it's easy to accomplish, there is no drama. (And the story, bereft of complications, is too short.)
And finally, he must do it for the right (and by that I mean appropriate) reason(s). If the lead character is doing something that's questionable or confusing, the story shifts from something we can relate to into a narrative experiment in empathy. Okay for that narrative rhetoric class, but not for the paying public.
One of my favorite podcasts – my only vice that makes my 45-minute commute a little more bearable (all my other vices make it much harder to drive, if not impossible) - is the Creative Screenwriting podcast
in which Senior Editor Jeff Goldsmith talks to writers about their experiences writing for Hollywood. Besides the the typical “they made me change it to an elephant” stories, almost every writer has fascinating insights about how they figured out the spine of their story, and fought for that, through dunderheaded executive notes, casting changes, and sometimes years of development hell.
From “Mr. Magorium" to “Sweeney Todd,” from “The Devil Wears Prada” to “Angel A,” these professional writers practically to a man (again the royal; sorry) understand these plot points, and discuss how they got their vision through. For all you aspiring filmmakers out there, it's a great education from people in the trenches. They all want to make a connection with the audience in the theatre at the very end of the process.
Those screaming 5-year-olds in the lobby of “Elmo” would have made them beam.