Film Courage: What makes a great story?
Jack Perez, Filmmaker: Oh, gosh…what makes a great story? Wow. That’s a good question. I have a friend who gets on me because I don’t care a lot about plot. And I think there are two camps (maybe?). There are people who care about character and there are people who care about plot.
I think there just has to be a reality to it for me because…you know it’s funny, I was talking to my students about this, there has been thing in recent years and it’s not new but the last 5-7 years where the value of the story is related directly to whether or not the audience cannot directly anticipate what the ending is going to be. In other words the twist has suddenly become the gold standard of a great story. Because if I didn’t see it coming that’s when it’s a great story. You got me! I feel like that’s kind of cheap.
So I feel like it has to be character-based, the characters have to be real and I’ll almost forgive a plot that is not so clever if the characters are strong and real. To me that’s my standard at least.
Film Courage: So if the characters feel too much like they are acting, even though it’s a great story, you didn’t see the ending coming?
Jack: I think characters that serve the plot are less interesting than characters that motivate the plot. Like there is a certain philosophy…I’m certain you guys have talked about this…whether it’s easy for me or it’s something I happen to subscribe to. But if you can create a character first…if you can create a character in a certain number of situations, not necessarily outline the entire movie (although it depends on the movie). But if you have a full character that’s real and you put something in front of them, in a way they will begin to write the movie. You know how they are going to react to whatever they put in front of them because they are now these dimensional characters as opposed to let’s have this happen, let’s have this happen, let’s have this happen and make sure that they do these things that are pre-ordained.
And I think that’s what creates a feeling of artifice or I’ve seen it all before or boring. So to me if you create a real character whatever happens as the result of those characters interacting is bound to be more interesting than something that has just been constructed.
Like I was attached to a big studio movie not too long ago. And the script was green lit and everybody loved it and I was reading this thing and I’m like I don’t understand this…? And it’s not a complicated movie. This was a movie with dinosaurs and fighting and all that. And I’m reading this thing and I’m like Why is this guy doing this? And I went to the writer and I said This doesn’t really make much sense. In the first act you talk about how this guy was scared of heights. There was this whole dialogue about how he was scared of climbing the mountain and then later he is on a tightrope fighting a Pterodactyl. What’s going on with that?
And he goes I just thought that tightrope thing was cool. And I’m like Yeah, but it doesn’t make any sense. You set up this guy…you can’t just put stuff in because it’s cool. I mean people do it all the time.
But as a director of this thing…I was looking at it like How am I supposed to direct this thing with any kind of confidence or authority if I don’t believe this thing? So I think there’s a lot of writing where It would be cool if this happens. And Let’s have this happen and that would be cool too. You have this pile up of cool sh*t but it doesn’t have any resonance because it’s not based in any kind of reality or at least any kind of consistency. Does that make any sense?
Film Courage: It does so that character’s arc didn’t cross over to the tightrope scene? Did the character go to a fear-based weekend [to overcome his fear of heights]?
Jack: Or have him acknowledge that when it got to the tightrope scene, he was scared…he was overcome by…but it’s almost this negligence…not even negligence, it’s almost like apathy. It’s like Who cares whether it makes sense as long as it’s cool? And I think the coolest movies that have the coolest sh*t still are weighted or rooted in some sort of reality that the writer has believed and maintained as sort of an assembly thing that just happened to be exciting but don’t really trace back to something or make sense for the character. That’s really what it is, does it makes sense for the character? Would he do that?
So the example I always give to my students is if we’re walking along the street and all of the sudden a mugger jumps out and grabs your bag and runs and that’s all we have in terms of the only idea we can come up with. The next scene (if we know who we are) we know what’s going to happen. Like for me if a mugger pulls out a gun, I’ll probably fall down on the ground and cry and weep and hope for it to be over.
On the other hand if I had created, if you’re a former cop or you were in the war or…
Film Courage: Or a Navy Seal.
Jack: Or whatever. Or somebody who has been mugged a couple times and carries brass knuckles and mace…whatever the deal…what happens as the result of that…mugger pulls a gun and goes off running. It’s either a chase or it becomes us going to a bar or crying together. But at least you know…or it’s a fight. But you don’t have the pressure of Ok, now I have to come up with the next thing. Because if the character is built, then they will dictate to you in a way what will happen which is actually less pressure on the writer because now you don’t have the burden of having to make up every thing. The characters are in fact writing the movie to a certain extent.
Film Courage: They talk about having that dialogue test where if someone is just reading a character and then people need to try to figure out who is speaking and if your character is authentic enough, we should all know.
Jack: Be able to identify, yes. In fact there are things where, there are situations where my writing partner Jim and I were first coming up with one of our films LA CUCARACHAway back in the nineties. One of the first images that came to mind was this idea of a man in a wheelchair in almost this TRUE GRIT sort of scenario where he was rolling into this town sort of with guns blazing in a wheelchair in Mexico. That was the first thing. We didn’t even know how it got there, but that was the image and it was amazing. And we were like Holy sh*t! That’s amazing. We’ve got to make this movie. We’ve got to write this. We’ve got to figure out.
And the irony was by the time we had created this character and scenario (this writer that goes down to Mexico who is really not a tough guy at all and everything goes wrong) by the time we finish this finale which is the seed of the whole thing. As much as we wanted this bad ass thing to happen, it didn’t make any sense any more, it was like too big, it was out of character. It didn’t make any sense any more. It was too big, it was out of character. It didn’t make sense that this would happen. And we kept trying to force ourselves into writing this thing and it’s like No…it’s not going to be that because that’s not true to the thing that we actually wrote.
I mean it depends on your philosophy. A studio is not going to give a sh*t about that. A studio is going to say Put the f*ckin wheelchair thing in because it’s awesome. But a writer with any kind of conscious is going to go No, that doesn’t work or they are going to really have to find a way to justify. I always heard that that was Hitchcock’s thing. I always heard that Hitchcock came up with a series of really cool set pieces like I want to chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore but I don’t know how it happens. And then he would lay it on the writer to some how get…I want a Mount Rushmore thing. I want a crop dusting thing. That will be awesome. I want to stage and shoot those things. And now it’s your job Mr. and Misses writer to figure out how to make it make sense. Of course he had the luxury of…the writer still has to figure it out though. And when you watch NORTH BY NORTHWEST and you look at it, you’re like Wow, that’s a lot of effort to get this guy. Really? They are going to bring him out to a corn field and they are going to try to get him with a crop duster. Why doesn’t someone just pop out and shoot the guy? Isn’t that easier? Should there just be a sniper? Why is there a crop duster? Well it’s because Hitchcock came up with this awesome idea and the writer is going Okay well if I maneuver this enough, maybe no one will notice this is insane. So I don’t know, I guess it really does depend on the philosophy of the writer or the filmmaker…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).
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