Today I thought I'd do something different.
This is not by design, but by chance. I just sat down to watch Dead Man Down and found it so bad I couldn't keep watching. So I figured I'd figure out what was going wrong from a screen writing angle. But even with the added intrigue of analysing why each scene wasn't helping the story, I eventually had to give up on watching Dead Man Down.
I then stumbled upon Little Miss Sunshine on Netflix and started watching. LMS seemed to be doing everything right. So I started taking notes to look at what was going on at a screen writing level that made that film so successful.
DEAD MAN DOWN Vs LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.
You might think that comparing these two films is like comparing chalk and cheese. They're completely different genres, DMD is a noir crime thriller, while LMS is a feel good family drama.
But here's the thing.
It doesn't matter what genre you're working in, the principles of story are the same.
Firstly before I get into the story element comparison, let's look at the stats...
LMS: 7.9 (79%)
DMD: 6.5 (65%)
From looking at these numbers LMS was a runaway critical and financial success, while DMD lost a huge amount of money, and is an overall critical failure.
Let's compare elements of the two films to see where LMS went right and where DMD could have done better.
LMS: (From IMDB) A family determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant take a cross-country trip in their VW bus.
DMD: In NYC, a crime lord's right-hand man is helped by a woman seeking retribution.
Okay, so they've both got one thing in common - there's nothing terribly new or interesting about their concepts. One is a straight up road-trip family drama, the other is a run of the mill revenge story.
So neither had the advantage going into production. Some stories have such HUGE ideas behind them that the concept is what sells the film. Not here. They both had the same disadvantage from the start.
ENSEMBLE vs SOLITARY PROTAGONIST
LMS is clearly an ensemble film. Each character is introduced individually in the opening sequence. We meet the suicidal brother, the son who doesn't talk, the daughter bedazzled by beauty pageants, the heroin snorting grandpa, the irresponsible mother, and the father who believes blindly in his own work.
There is no doubt that LMS is an ensemble film. Each character is equally important as all the other characters. Sure, it could be argued, that perhaps Olive (the daughter) is the 'main' character, as the film is about getting her to the pageant in California, but here's why it's not a SOLITARY PROTAGONIST FILM...
First of all, the POV is constantly shifting between all the characters. We never spend any more time with one character over any other character. All the characters (with the exception of the mute son and the suicidal brother) are active, they're all doing things that drive the story forward. And they all have FLAWS. I'll get into flaws soon...
Now let's look at DMD. In the opening scene it is Colin Farrell's work colleague - Darcy who we first meet by way of his opening monologue. In the opening scene of the film - our hero says NOTHING. He is not active and not moving the story forward. MISTAKE #1.
As the opening sequence ensues, still, Colin is not the one driving the story forward, instead, the protagonist shifts from Darcy to Alphonse.
It's not until after the first opening sequence that we finally settle on Colin's character. What's he doing? He's sitting at home. Literally doing nothing. MISTAKE #2.
The problem with this kind of opening is the audience doesn't know who the main character is. If the film is going to be an ensemble piece, then let us know that EACH of these characters is going to be equally important, as LMS does.
DMD turns into a solitary protagonist film, but it does it too late. After 17 minutes of watching, we finally assume that this story is about Colin. But even then, it's almost just as much about Beatrice (Noomi Rapace's character.)
So the lesson learned from this is - know what kind of story you're telling and be clear to let the audience know right from the start. Is it ENSEMBLE? Or is it SOLITARY PROTAGONIST?
As a side note, there's also another type of film that neither LMS or DMD are, which is called a TWO HANDER - where you have two clearly defined protagonists -- best example is AMERICAN GANGSTER.
The next main thing to consider about these two films is...
In DMD, there is absolutely no positive empathy for Colin's character in the first 20 minutes. Then we get TOLD by way of clunky exposition that Colin lost his family - and he's infiltrating the gang that killed them.
Now empathy via clunky exposition is better than nothing - BUT imagine if we had actually SEEN Colin with his daughter and wife, loving and caring for them, THEN we see them killed. That way, we would have REAL empathy for Colin.
It's like when you read an article about someone you've never met who has died untimely. Sure, it's sad, but really it doesn't touch you in any real way, as you didn't have any connection to the person.
Now let's look at LMS.
There's not a lot of obvious empathy beats in the opening 20 minutes of the film here either. Hmmm, so why is it that we CARE so much more about these characters?
There's two main reasons --
The characters in LMS and their quirky dysfunctional lives are much closer to the lives of the majority of viewers.
I hate broad generalisations, but I think it's safe to say that one of the few broad generalisations that actually holds water is that most families are dysfunctional on some level or another.
We can identify with the family in LMS.
Now look at DMD. Colin's character is a strongman for a drug boss. How many of us have experience in that slice of life. I'm sure many have, but I would argue that the majority of viewers would find it easier to identify with the characters in LMS than with the characters in DMD.
The second aspect that endears us to the characters in LMS over DMD, is believability and reality check.
The characters in LMS are only 10% surreal. Slightly amped up versions of real people you'd meet in real life.
The characters in DMD were wholly unrealistic. Take the first time that Colin and Noomi meet in the restaurant (which was so obviously shot on green-screen it was horrible).
There was nothing real about that meeting. As well as it was acted, the CHARACTERS didn't feel real. When a scene feels phoney and unrealistic, we're less likely to be drawn into the scene - we're less likely to develop any empathy for the characters.
As I've discussed before on this blog, the flaw in your character/s is what defines their inner journey. Their flaw is an ill personality trait that holds them back from being in a better place.
Now look at LMS - EVERY CHARACTER HAS A FLAW.
The son hates the world and refuses to speak.
The grandfather is a heroin addict.
The father believes his own garbage.
The brother is suicidal because of unrequited love and being usurped by a work colleague.
The daughter places too much value on beauty.
It took me a while to realise what the mother's flaw was.
It's responsibility, or rather the lack of it. She smokes cigarettes. Which kill you. That's irresponsible. (The smokers out there will be shaking their heads at that, but really you're lying to yourself - smoking kills - fact.) She also serves her family take away food. She doesn't shield her daughter from any of life's ills. She allows her daughter to enter in beauty pageants. All of this is summed up when Pual Dano says to his mother at the end, 'You're her mother, you're supposed to protect her..."
For an ensemble film to work, every character needs to have a flaw, and every character needs to go on a journey. It is this INNER journey that we as an audience relate to.
When we see characters with flaws, we also empathise with them - why? Because we recognise that no one is perfect, including ourselves, and that's what life is all about - identifying and over coming our flaws to become better people.
Now look at DMD.
It can be argued that both Noomi and Colin are flawed characters. What's their flaw? They're both obsessed with exacting revenge. Now the problem with typical revenge films is that REVENGE is not treated or considered a FLAW in these types of films.
It's actually considered an honourable trait.
Think about how that works in real life.
Granted I couldn't bring myself to finish watching DMD - but I'm pretty damn sure that NEITHER of these characters LEARN by the end of the film that REVENGE is a negative flaw in their personality - something that is filling their life with pain and misery.
I guarantee you, that this film is a celebration of REVENGE.
Being obsessed by revenge is not a positive personality trait. It only leads to more sorrow and pain.
So if you take that flaw out of the equation, what flaw is there in either of the two main characters in DMD?
When you don't have a flaw in your protagonists, you don't have an inner journey. Without an inner journey you don't have a vicarious connection between your audience and the film, nor do you have any guide for the structure of your film.
The second and third acts of your film rely heavily on your character/s having inner flaws. Protagonists without flaws means your film's structure is going to wander.
The goal in LMS was set at the 17 minute mark. Get Olive to the beauty pageant in California in two days time.
In DMD - the goal was unclear. I think Colin wanted to kill his boss. But he was also being forced by Noomi to kill the guy who caused her to crash in her car, and caused her face to be 'scarred.'
Lesson to be learnt here is that your story goal needs to be CLEAR.
In LMS they have 2 days to get to the pageant.
In DMD there is no clock. No time frame what so ever.
When a story has no time frame, it will start to wander, and drag out.
We also have to believe in that goal.
Now while I personally think beauty pageants for pre-teens are sick - I got behind this one in LMS - as it meant a lot to Olive. Because there was such a good job of making me like and empathise with Olive, I really wanted for her to go to it.
In DMD - in principle I'm vehemently against revenge - especially if it's murder. No one has the right to take another person's life, regardless of scenario. But if you give me the right reasons, perhaps I could get behind it. Now the problem with DMD is that there is no really good reason given.
Firstly, he's going to kill the guy who hurt Noomi to stop her from going to the police as she has dirt on him. That's hardly a good reason to kill someone.
Secondly, he's out to kill his boss, but because I didn't get to know his wife or daughter, I haven't been given the chance to care about them. So the motivation to get behind Colin's goals isn't there.
LMS has a really clearly defined structure. We can see a very well executed ordinary world, where we met all the characters, learn their flaws - then we're hit by the call to adventure - which is the phone call saying that Olive got into the Little Miss Sunshine contest.
We then have a clearly defined first act turn, where we see them on the road to California
The structure of act two plays out well, then segues into act 3. I won't break the whole script down, as that'd actually justify a blog on its own. But suffice to say because all the characters have clearly defined flaws and there is a clearly defined goal with a clearly defined ticking clock, the structure was great.
Now look at DMD.
Firstly, I'm not even sure who the main character is for the first 20 minutes. When it finally settles on Colin's character there's no real flaw or inner journey going on. There are TWO goals, which splits the focus of the story up, and consequently things get confusing. As there's no ticking clock there's no urgency to anything that's happening and the story structure falls apart.
The people in LMS feel real. As I said, slightly elevated versions of real people.
In DMD, the characters feel like stereotypes. There's nothing real about any of the characters at all.
The way the characters speak in LMS is brilliant. It feels REAL.
The way the characters speak in DMD, feels fake, it feels written. And you can't say, well, DMD had lesser actors who couldn't deliver the lines so well.
IN FACT I would argue that the actors in LMS were not as well known as COLIN FARREL and NOOMI RAPACE.
Everyone knows who Colin is, and I would argue that a huge number of people have seen The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
So there you have it. The core elements of why the STORY in LMS worked and why the STORY in DMD really needed a hell of a lot more work before it went into production.
Both DMD and LMS are available on Netflix in most countries around the world. I'd highly recommend watching both films and comparing the STORY elements.
There's a lot to be learned about story telling from both films...