Film Courage: When we tell a story, we’re entering into a contract with the audience?
Adam Skelter, writer, director, story artist: Yes, from the video [referring to Adam’s Youtube channel The Art Of Story].
Film Courage: Can we talk about that? What’s the contract? Can we get out of the contract?
Adam Skelter: Sure…you pay a price for it. So basically when you sit down and say “I’m going to tell you a story,” you are promising something. And in the video, I draw the comparison, I use the metaphor of you’re taking out a loan from somebody and what you’re promising is that you’re going to pay it back and that they will get the interest for their investment of attention and attention is the currency that they are spending. It’s actually probably the most important currency (like real-world currency) that we’re dealing with is the currency of attention, especially with the Internet, especially with the entertainment industry.
Literally entertainment is the industry of getting people to pay attention. So what you’re doing, if you’re promising that it’s going to be worth it, there’s going to be worth putting their time into it.
Your job as the artist is not only to present conflict in an interesting way but to make it mean something to them and that’s where it gets very subjective. That’s why you can have some of the great storytelling and only a few people will get it because it’s relative to like whatever psychological dynamics or whatever value is resonate with them.
Film Courage: Can you give me an example of a story that does pay off where the contract is fulfilled and someone’s obligation is paid off and then maybe one that is not fulfilled?
Adam Skelter: Hmmm…a ton. What’s a good simple one? BACK TO THE FUTURE…will he get back to the future? Right there you are making a promise with that title. Usually the contract you are making with the audience is right in the title, it’s right in the trailer. Will he get back to the future? You’re promising in some way not only are you going to answer the question, but that you’re going to enjoy the ride and then it’s going to mean something when he gets there and I do think that ultimately he goes through this whole journey. It’s Michael J. Fox who’s endlessly entertaining and then was it Zemeckis [writer/director]? Who is just brilliant, like it’s perfectly directed, it’s so much fun and it’s the movie that everybody has seen so I would always use it as like the perfect example of just an entertaining movie. It’s just a completely entertaining movie.
I think it completely fulfilled the contract. You’re entertained the entire time and then in the end he gives you exactly what you want in a way you don’t expect and it’s fun, you enjoyed it.
But along the way you’re also learning little themes like about this high school teenager who’s learning to appreciate his family and learning what his parents went through and stuff like that, that actually resonates on kind of a more subconscious level. He begins to develop an appreciation for the different generations and then how that story continues on in his own life.
Film Courage: He’s almost reliving his Dad’s experience in some sense. He’s becoming like…his Dad was not the most popular guy in high school and was bullied and then he’s experiencing it himself because he [Marty McFly] stands up to Biff.
Adam Skelter: Then another example (which I think is actually a really interesting example), look at NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Now the thing I love about The Coen Brothers is that they are constantly subverting the audience’s expectations, they’re playing with it, they play with the contract constantly which is where that alienates a lot of people. But the people who are willing to take the journey with them they find something incredibly, much more rewarding.
With NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, I don’t know if you read the novel, as well?
Film Courage: I did not.
Adam Skelter: Ohhh….I love Cormac McCarthy [Written in 2005]. He’s one of my favorite writers. I always compare him to if like Hemingway and Faulkner had a baby, it would be Cormac McCarthy.
So Llewelyn Moss [Josh Brolin’s character] he’s kind of the hero, he’s the underdog in the story and you’re following this whole journey and the whole contract is, is it going to mean something that Llewelyn Moss is going to find this bag full of millions of dollars, go on a journey and change his life and everything is going to be awesome after that?
We’re going to get into spoilers here [***SPOILER ALERT***].
Film Courage: Okay, spoiler alert.
Adam Skelter: Spoiler alert. So when he goes to this entire journey and in the novel they also did this as well and he gets to the point and the sheriff Tommy Lee Jones [as character Ed Tom Bell] is following him around and you’re waiting for this whole thing to build to this, explosive, climatic payoff where it’s Anton Chigurh [played by Javier Bardem] and they are both well-matched and there’s this hero and this villain and you’re waiting for the big standoff…and it doesn’t come.
Instead Tommy Lee Jones drives up to a hotel, he sees just barely the periphery of some standoff and Llewelyn Moss is dead. And we never even saw it, we just see the dead body.
And immediately, when I first read it, I had to go back and reread it…like “Did I miss something?” Because my first response was “I just got cheated.” They got me to invest in Llewelyn Moss, he’s making this huge sacrifice, why did he do this? But it was the fact that he did subvert that contract, that he did subvert our expectations and then when you see it in the movie, they adapted it perfectly, where it’s also, it’s anticlimactic but it’s the fact that you’re expecting the climax that created the meaningful resonance afterward. Like after that when you start looking at ‘what did it mean that Llewelyn Moss just died and it wasn’t a standoff?’ In fact his wife ends up having to pay the price as well. She ends up getting murdered by Anton Chigurh, as well.
And ultimately it’s this question (you know it goes back to the theme) that is this no country for old men? Like is this some evil that’s ancient that has no mercy for goodness or kind people?
Ultimately it really comes down to when you’re paying off a contract, you’re trying to engage their attention and if you do break it, you have to have a good reason for it.
Art is a bridge, you’re trying to build across the waters to somebody else’s mind. So ultimately every single artist builds their bridges differently.
Michael Bay will build his bridge all the way across so people can kind of step on and have a conveyor belt across. And then Kubrick will build this bridge halfway across and the audience has to build their bridge halfway across and they meet in the middle.
And then you’ll get someone like Wim Wenders or someone who takes you on a journey and you don’t know where it’s going and you’re pretty much building a bridge to where he is at.
Everybody decides, every artist decides how far they want to build their bridge across the water.
Film Courage: Don’t you think though that every writer thinks that there is a payoff [in their movie]? It makes sense to them, but unfortunately to an outside view, they may not see that payoff?
Adam Skelter: Sure. I can’t speak for other writers. Sure. I do think that there is the basic economy of story, if you promise something give it in a way that…the old adage is give the audience what they want in a way they don’t expect.
But it really comes down to the needs of the story. What are you trying to convey with your story? And I don’t like imposing too much…like to me, what’s really interesting is when finding the exception of those rules until it actually means something new.
Question for the Viewers: How much do you value your audience’s attention?
BUY THE BOOK – THE LOST ART OF STORY: The Anatomy Of Chaos Transcripts
BUY THE BOOK – PROPHET MARGIN: The Benefit Of The Doubt
WATCH ADAM SKELTER’S INSPIRING WORK: THE ART OF STORY
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