Monday, May 25, 2015

Experience vs. Surprise

Britt Robertson as Casey Newton in Tomorrowland

Which is more important in a story, the experience or the surprise?  In our current cinematic landscape, everything is all about keeping secrets from the audience until a movie's release so not to spoil the experience, and yet so many of our modern movies and TV shows are based off of books, comic books, or video games, that I must question why this is so important.  While a good surprise can create a unique experience once, if the story in itself is not an involving experience every time you watch it, even after you've experienced all of the surprises it has in store, then the whole thing kind of falls flat to me.  Here's the bottom line, while it's good to try and preserve any surprises you might have as a storyteller for the audience, it has to be a good experience beyond that.

What really inspired me to write on this subject is just the way that almost every major movie in production nowadays tries to be so secretive about what's going to happen in their movie, and yet most of these movies are based off of pre-existing stories to begin with.  Fans know that Harry Potter dies and comes back to life, they know that the Titanic is going to sink, we know these things and yet the filmmakers and storytellers still try to keep everything like it's a big state secret.  A movie isn't a redacted CIA brief, it's something that's meant to be experienced over-and-over again.  Now, I don't want it to be misinterpreted that I don't like it when a good movie ducks when I expected it to dodge, but what I am saying is that this moment of surprise has to feel shocking every time I see it.

Alfred Hitchcock on the Set of Psycho

Take Psycho as an example.  I did not see that movie for the first time till I was probably 18, and I already knew that Norman Bates was the killer.  Ordinarily, with that surprise ruined, you'd think the movie would stink.  Actually, it doesn't.  Alfred Hitchcock created a movie, that while it was full of surprises for the first time viewers, actually stood as an experience beyond the initial shock of Janet Leigh dying midway through the movie and the reveal that Norman was dressing up as his Mother to kill.  Hitch knew that movies were experiences, not just something to be seen once, but something to be seen multiple times.

It's like a good crime TV show or a classic whodunit.  You may know who the killer is, but when the experience is also a good experience getting to that revelation, then it becomes less about who actually did it, and more about the characters and our relationship to them as an audience.  That is why I can rewatch seasons of Castle and not be bored, and on the more serious side, the first season of Broadchurch was a brilliant example of this.  Who actually killed Danny Latimer really wasn't quite as important as how the murder tore this small town apart.  While the reveal of the killer was shocking the first time, the second and third times I rewatched all eight episodes, I still was riveted by the experience because of the human drama at the core of the concept.

The Cast of Broadchurch

So what is the trick to creating a good experience on top of a good surprise?  In truth, I don't know.  If it was that easy to sum up, everyone would be doing it, but the fact of the matter is, you can't teach this sort of stuff, you've just gotta feel it when you're writing a story.  The main thing is to aim at creating an experience and not to focus so much on just that clever plot twist you may have in your mind, because you can be clever all day long, but if you don't move people, then what was the point in telling your story to begin with?  That is something I try to live by when I write a story and it's difficult.  It means taking time to examine the human impact that a big event or revelation has on your characters rather than barreling forward into more action.  It also means creating a moment of humor in the midst of grief or tension to show the truth of humanity, that life is not always a comedy or a tragedy, but actually a blend of both.  A movie that I think did this recently, in a vey superb way, was Tomorrowland.

In Tomorrowland there are many twist and turns that continue to evolve the story and take it to new places that the first-time audience doesn't always expect, but there are also moments in there that I know will still affect me in future viewings.  When our heroine, Casey Newton, first takes a tour through Tomorrowland, it's a moment of so much joy and wonder, that it's affecting.  Or when ** SPOILER ALERT ** the Eiffel Tower splits open and our heroes blast off in an old rocket ship to travel to Tomorrowland, it's another moment that is played so wondrously that I know it will be as exciting to watch each time I see this movie, the same way that the first time you see Hogwarts in the first Harry Potter always gets me.  Then there is a moment near the end where George Clooney says goodbye to an android named Athena that he has known since childhood that is one of the more touching moments of the movie.  At a point when most movies are trying to get to that big final explosion, this movie takes the time to slow down and a have a fond farewell before anything else.  That is what I mean by creating an experience.

Casey's Arrival in the Titular Tomorrowland

So in summation, am I saying that I want to know everything about a movie before it's release?  No.  But am I saying that if certain details were revealed, like say, about the new Star Wars movies, that it wouldn't really matter if the new female lead is Han and Leia's daughter as long as it's an experience and not just a twist?  Yes.  See, that's the thing, and I think that's why I wrote all of this, because of the frustration I've had in the past with movie twists that really didn't enhance the experience but hurt it.  It hurt Star Trek Into Darkness keeping the secret that Benedict Cumberbatch was Kahn, the same way that it hurt The Dark Knight Rises with the cornball twist that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was actually Robin (just call him Dick Grayson, Nolan).  I hope J.J. Abrams isn't making the same mistake again by trying to be so secretive about the real identity of so many of the new Star Wars characters.

Bottom line is, if the characters aren't likable on their own esteem, I don't care if they're Han and Leia's children or not, cause keeping this all a big secret for the sake of creating a better experience when the movie comes out is actually a load of crap.  The movie will be a good experience because it tells a good story with real human moments and not because it had a clever plot twist, and that understanding is something that a lot of movies forget in their attempts to surprise, and that's why if I have to choose one over the other, I will choose experience every single time.  So strive for experience over surprise fellow writers, because movie history has shown that it doesn't matter if we know that the boat sinks at the end as long as people care about the characters.

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