A Dreamer Walking

The Audience’s Comfort

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 14, 2012

Andrew Stanton said in a recent interview that there is nothing he likes more then to feel he is in good hands at the beginning of a film. He wants to know that there is a master storyteller helming the wheel and he is in for a great adventure. You want to let your audience know they are not wasting their time, that they are seeing something they have never seen before. This however has more to do with trust than comfort.

Honestly the new is often uncomfortable for the audience member. Most of the entertainment in film comes from creating a story that puts the audience in suspense. We put the audience in suspense through putting the audience in a state of unease.

One of my greatest problems with most classic films from the 30’s through the 50’s is the clear black and white line they draw with almost every situation and every character. There usually is a clear good guy and a clear villain. The goal is obvious and usually not too deep or insightful. Classic westerns, for example, tried extra hard to villainize the Indians so we didn’t need to think twice when one of them were shot. The Hollywood system created stars who were reliable. The good guys were always good.  The bad guys were always bad.  And, the beautiful women were always beautiful. Even John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart, with a few exceptions, were characters who seemed to have rough edges but were dependable for coming to their senses at the end of the film. The result from this was a lack of suspense, specifically for the younger audience member. Because the big studios were unwilling to take many risks and create characters who walked the line between good and evil and create stories that did not always end in the politically correct way, the studios’ power over the film industry died off. In the sixties we saw the rise of the independent filmmaker. These filmmakers began to blur the moral line with films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), to the point that in the 70’s our interest in the anti hero grew, expressed most vividly in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver  it was hard to know what was going to happen in any given scene. Scorsese and writer, Paul Shrader, put us in a state of unease by creating a main character, Travis Bickle, who was always in a questionable state of sanity. He was not out to do the right thing, however he wasn’t the villain. He was the character we were supposed to get to know the most in the film. The choice he made at the end of the film brought us as an audience out of our comfort zone. He did not choose to do the right thing like we were so used to. Instead, he commits a great crime and gets away with it. The film did not give us any clear answers. We didn’t know who to hate and we did not know who to like. The film did things we were not used to and had a character we were not morally in agreement with, which put us in a state of unease. This unease created a suspense that made each scene more interesting to us.

I am not saying you should create films with characters we can’t like or who don’t do the right thing sometimes. However, don’t try to please us when making your story and characters. Every character you make should have both good and bad qualities. We are not supposed to like everything about them. A good example of what I am talking about is the TV series Deadwood. In the series we are introduced to a ton of characters, all of whom have both good and bad qualities. Through out the three seasons the series aired we explored several different aspects of these characters and found that some of the characters we first labeled “villain’s” had truly redeeming qualities, and some of the characters we thought of as “hero’s” were corrupt and wrongdoers in many ways.

The series Deadwood kept its audience on their feet in many clever ways. It was a show where the audience was not supposed to be comfortable. They took us out of our comfort zone by having the characters talk in extremely profane ways. David Milch, the show’s creator, knew that the language by itself would help the audience realize we were not watching any old classic western. In all of the first four to five episodes we see a character die. Some of whom seemed to be quite established. This took us out of our comfort zone and created interest and suspense. Viewers never knew exactly what was going to happen. There were things I saw in the series that I was morally against and frustrated with. However, the more I thought about it the more I was happy with Milch choosing to go against the audience’s expectations and do the politically incorrect thing.

You will never satisfy every audience member with your movie. Don’t try. Take the audience out of their comfort zone and do things we are not used to. You will now doubt have your share of critics if you choose this path. But, it will make your films worth something. Your personal vision on any given subject is what matters. To take the unknown path is not only scary for your audience but you as well. However, it’s the very thing that keeps the cinema alive. The unexpected keeps the audience member interested, connected, and inspired.

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