I’ve often read that you need to be very committed to a movie project if you want to finish it. In the last few days I’ve come across a couple of examples that drove it home for me.
They made the initial version for $8,000 and posted it on the internet. Despite being free to watch on the internet, they have gone on to sell more than a million DVDs.
What caught my interest in the TV report was how obsessive the movie makers were. They didn’t set out to just make a movie, they wanted to expose what they believed was a real threat to freedom and peace. They made it free so more people would find out. As it turned out, there was an audience that was just as obsessive about 9-11 conspiracy theories as they were.
Loose Change was not the only conspiracy movie made, but it has been one of the more successful. I think the lesson here is that the movie makers’ obsession not only made the movie happen, but also imbued it with a sense of honesty that helped it capture an audience.
My second example isn’t a movie. Stephen King’s book On Writing is a combination autobiography and writing manual. I’m only about half way through, but I’ve gotten a sense of just how obsessive a writer he was. From the age of six he wanted to be a writer and from then on he began to write stories. By the time he became an overnight sensation with Carrie, he had been writing for 20 years.
In the book, he talks about how he persevered in the face of financial difficulties, family responsibilities and a huge pile of rejections. Before his success he had a very hard life. It wasn’t just his obsession that kept him going. His wife pulled the first version of Carrie out of the garbage where he’d thrown it, in the belief that it was no good.
No one starts out as a good writer. Writing is a skill that you need to learn and practice before you get good at it. Stephen King’s story shows the obsession a writer needs to persist until they develop those skills. Movie making is also a skill. You will make many bad movies before you make a good one.
For myself, I feel that I need to find a story that I want to tell even if I can’t make it into a movie. When I came up with the idea for Who Shot the President I thought of it as a feature. When I realized I wasn’t ready to make a feature, I took the idea and condensed it down into a short. It is that kind of idea that I want to find.
I did an article a while ago about how I developed my film Line of Taxis. That film grew out of plan to develop my skills as a filmmaker in combination with a desire to express some feelings I struggled with at the time. The article was a useful exercise for me since it helped me understand how I created a story.
However, on other projects I used different approaches. One approach I found useful was to build stories from things that captivated my imagination. In some cases these were other stories and in others they were events in the real world.
Normally when I read a story, watch a TV show or watch a movie, I don’t question the decisions the creator made. From time to time, I did find myself thinking: “If they had done … it would have been better.” I couldn’t change what they had done, so it was just idle speculation. Later I took some of these ideas and used them in my own stories.
An example of this is my story A Homicide Detective’s Rude Awakening. I got the inspiration for that story from an episode of Law and Order. In the final scene of the episode, Lenny Briscoe arrives at his daughter’s murder scene. He arrives at the scene already knowing that his daughter was the victim. I thought it would be more powerful if he didn’t know. The emotional distance from the victim that he had careful constructed would be destroyed when he recognized his daughter.
Sometimes I draw ideas from real events. An example of this is my story A Woman Alone in a Cruel World. I saw a documentary about a woman who became a rebel leader in China. When she was a young girl, her family had given to a troupe of performers. I wondered if, when she became famous, her mother knew she was her daughter. Did they ever reunite? How would they feel if they did?
In a biography of John Lennon I read that his mother had three children, all girls, after John was born. She put the first girl up for adoption because she wasn’t married at the time. I find it intriguing that out there somewhere is a woman who is John Lennon’s sister, but doesn’t know she is. She would have been of an age where she would likely have been a Beatles fan, so she would know a great deal about him. How would she feel if she found out? I haven’t developed this idea into a story yet.
Many years ago, long before I got serious about writing, I came up with what I called “The Seven Character Theory of TV Shows.” It came from my observation of the TV program Gilligan’s Island. What I noticed was that there were seven regular characters on the program and I wondered why.
My explanation was that the number was a compromise between two forces. The lower limit is set by need to provide a variety of possible relationships between characters, since stories are about relationships. If you had too few, the number of stories would be limited. The upper end is set by the number of characters that people can recognize. If you had too many, then it would become harder to differentiate them.
I read someplace that people’s minds have a limit of seven pieces of information that they can actively consider at any one time. Since this fit my observation that there were seven characters on Gilligan’s Island, I concluded that this was the ideal number.
Of course, once I started to look at other TV shows, the theory started to fall apart. While there are many shows that did have seven regular characters, there were many that did not. As a recall Batman had six and Get Smart had four or five. Mostly shows had fewer characters. I tried to rescue the theory by assuming that the shows with fewer regular characters relied on more guest stars, which brought the effective number up to seven. This didn’t even convince me.
I hadn’t thought much about the theory for a long time, but recently I’ve given it some more thought. My original theory is much too rigid. Basing it on Gilligan’s Island may not add much weight either.
However, I do think there is some merit to my idea. There is a need to provide more characters to bring variety to the stories, and there is a limit to the number of characters you can have without confusing the audience.
In the stories I’ve done of late, I have sort of followed this rule. In The Glencoe Project and The Gladstone Barrier I have 8 or 9 characters, although a few of them are minor. For The Crying Woman I only have two. I do have a couple of other characters that interact with the characters, but these are minor. Even so, that only leaves me with four characters.
One of the comments I had about The Glencoe Project and The Gladstone Project was that they were a little too complicated. That may be related to the number of characters in the story. I felt that one of the problems with The Doorman’s Sacrifice was that I had far too many characters.
I guess that in the end, you do need to carefully consider the number of characters when you create a story. If you find that you need too many, that might be an indication of a problem with the story. I am not sure just how many is too many. Maybe it is less than seven.
I also wonder: do you need an odd number, or can you use an even number?