Film School Confidential Lesson One: Without Conflict, There Is No Story

Danny Boyle said making films is 5% creativity, 95% organisation. He clearly wasn't talking about the writing process, which is a minefield of debate and discussion, 100% of the time.
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Danny Boyle said making films is 5% creativity, 95% organisation. He clearly wasn't talking about the writing process, which is a minefield of debate and discussion, 100% of the time.

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I make trouble with shoddy workmanship and with shoddy, shabby people, people who don’t do their jobs, and the whiners, and complainers, and the bitchers, and the sore-asses who talk a good piece of work and never produce. I don’t know why the hell they went into motion pictures in the first place. It’s certainly not to make pictures, it’s just a sort of masturbation or something, and I don’t like to be around them ---David Samuel “Sam” Peckinpah, writer/director

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to film school.

Every good film has three elements: external conflict (often identified as goal + obstacle) internal conflict (want vs. need, or what the character thinks they want versus what they really want) and point of view (the perspective through which the story is told). Apply this formula to any idea and you’re well on your way to turning that annoying story you keep telling at parties (which, let’s be honest, happened to your neighbour’s cousin, not to you) into something that people will pay money to watch on the big screen.

My own story began many years ago. Like many of you, I watched entirely too much television, built an impressive collection of DVDs (including all 7 cuts of Blade Runner) and an arsenal of completely useless movie trivia. Then, one night at a back-to-back screening of Lord of the Rings, I thought, “God, that smell is outrageous”. My second thought was, “I want to make movies”

And so my journey began, which I can now share with you.

The goal ahead in these next few weeks is to produce a few short films, the obstacle is that I have to work in cooperation with other people who also find working with others an obstacle. We want to do it all our own way, but we need to learn to work together, even if that means accepting that each step will bring new and increasingly greater conflict.

One night at a back-to-back screening of Lord of the Rings, I thought, “God, that smell is outrageous”. My second thought was, “I want to make movies”

This week I find myself back at the beginning, in the writers’ room, where conflict is born, where shit is thrown at the walls but rarely sticks, where dreams are formed, ridiculed, and shot down. It’s where we come to the realisation that we will spend hours of our lives debating whether or not zombies can be vegan, preparing to take all the credit if the script is well received, and to shift the blame as quickly as possible onto someone else if it isn’t.

As we all pitch our ideas, The Benevolent Dictator (a cinematography major, naturally) swoops in and picks them up like carrion. Too savvy to bully or intimidate the competition, he takes their ideas and rotates them 30 degrees to suit his own vision. I have watched four of my classmates fall into his trap.

As The Quirky One draws breath, The Benevolent Dictator smiles broadly, diplomatically even. I watch him carefully as The Quirky One presses on, trying to come up with something that couldn’t possibly work with The Benevolent Dictator’s current synopsis, but he’s already coming in for the kill. He nods as though he’s listening and cuts The Quirky One off at the third sentence.

When he leaves the room, The Editor, who can gauge the emotions of the group better than anyone, purses her lips. She innocently wonders aloud if The Great Interrupter is stepping on anyone’s toes, and we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, even The Visionary, who managed to get through a 2 ½ page script synopsis before the first interruption.

“We can’t just tell him to stop. He’s too nice”, whispers The Conspirator, her blue eyes darting across the table to The Muscle, who nods in agreement.

“He’ll never stop”, the Comic Relief says, noisily slurping a pot noodle.

At dusk I make my way back across the studio lot and into the station, weary from battle. I take my seat on the train, leaning back, watching the suburbs slip away, when suddenly I hear a voice

“Hey! I have an idea that would fit really well with your story”

Other stories you should read

Kickstarter: The Future of Independent Cinema

The Avengers: Why I Couldn’t Give A Toss About It

Werner Herzog’s Note To His Cleaning Lady

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