Yesterday, I got to be on the receiving end of three opinions by three really smart people, each of whom probably has no clue that the other two exist. What's really neat is that these three opinions are superficially distinct, but manage to overlap in an area that's really important to you, Aspiring Filmmaker.
Let's start with my really smart friend Bill. We've been emailing back and forth about films for a while, and yesterday morning I got a message from him in which he contends that post-modernism accounts for the wealth of lousy films being made. His point is that most filmmakers these days are afraid to incorporate real themes into their work because real themes require taking a moral stand, even if the moral stand is unimpeachable: Work is dignity. The love of money is the root of all evil. Family is everything. That sort of thing.
By a perfect coincidence, just after reading Bill's email, I read really smart Seth Godin's blog about magician Steve Cohen. Seth's point was that Steve Cohen makes quite a good living by doing several things, one of which is, and I'm quoting here, "He tells a story to this group, a story that matches their worldview. He doesn't try to teach non-customers a lesson or persuade them that they are wrong or don't know enough about his art. Instead, he makes it easy for his happy customers to bring his art to others."
In other words, he incorporates themes that his audiences will not only find palatable, but will nod along with.
There's no denying that a lot of vacuous Hollywood films make money. Would they make more (an objective, if not entirely complete measure of success) if they actually stood for something?
I've always thought so, but what clinched it for me was something my buddy Jeff said.
Jeff is a another really smart person. He's a doctor –– a liver and kidney specialist. But he doesn't waste his brain theorizing about film.
Jeff's daughter is the same age as mine, and as we were talking yesterday he mentioned how much he appreciated 'Yertle the Turtle'. Especially its message, summed up in the last line of the book: "And turtles, of course ... all the turtles are free / As turtles, and maybe, all creatures should be."
So there you have it. Three really smart people who each in his own way says the same thing:
1) Your story needs a theme.
2) Your theme must be something your audience will connect with.
Oh, and don't give me that crap about how you don't need to bother with themes because you don't want to be Ingmar Bergman or anything, you just want to entertain.
'Pirates of the Caribbean' (the first one), 'The Incredibles', and 'Shaun of the Dead' are unquestionably three of the most entertaining films, well, ever. They also all happen to transcend traditionally mindless genres and incorporate powerful themes into their storytelling.
And 'Yertle the Turtle' is for three-year-olds.