Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Is a Feature Film?

It's not an easy question to answer.

Ninety minutes--sure.  But why does it last that long?

We look at the finished story, and imagine it was, so to speak, born that way.

We imagine it didn't start out as a vague notion, that it was born fully formed--like that goddess born from the forehead of Jove.

It sounds like film criticism, but I believe that writers know what their stories are about.  And they're very clear about that--they need to be to write them. (I read recently that the author of Lord of the Flies said much the same.)

In a sense you need to start from--here's a movie you find interesting, why is it interesting?  

There must be reasons.

The head fake, that's one explanation for the middle of a feature film, the largest chunk, the "second act" (of three).  Life is one way, then something outrageous happens that takes life in a different direction.  But ultimately it merely sets the stage for a confrontation with the original reality.

Crisis exposing character--that's another way of thinking of it.  Someone finds exactly the kind of thing that's terrible for them.

Instead, most writers are writing short films--beginning, middle, end.  

But feature films are longer than that, so they have more complications.

A feature film is more like this.
Someone has a problem.  They find a solution--which turns out to be a worse problem.  Their problems get worse and worse, multiply. For everything that goes well, another problem sprouts up.  Finally, they find a way of making it all go away--though at a a cost.  And they return to the starting point to face the initial problem again.
That's feature format.
A writer needs a job.  He finds one.  But the lady is crazy and angry.  She moves him in.  He becomes her butt boy.  The film he writes for her will never be made.  He falls in love with someone else, and this makes the angry crazy lady real jealous.  The girl he loves is engaged to his best friend.  Finally, the only thing to do is be honest with the girl he loves, and pack up and leave town.  Which he begins to do.  But the crazy old lady shoots and kills him.  And SHE gets what she wants--cameras turning towards her.
THAT is three-act structure!  It could not be plainer.  

Yet it seldom comes easily.

--E. R. O'Neill

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