Dear Kevin:

I’m struck by the phrase, “We’ve had over a hundred years, via movies then television then the interwebs to learn (or from a more sinister perspective, to be trained) not to act. . .” I think this is real, and a little sinister, and not just crusty complainer speak.

Specifically, I’m remembering the moment in your class where one of your students asked about developing good characters. I think he said something like, “Is it always about what a character wants or fears?” And my first instinct was to affirm that this is true both in theater and in film. But then I realized that this is a commonly held wrong idea in both theater and film. (Bare with me. This leads back to your point in a second.)

A good characterization focuses on what a character wants to accomplish and fears occurring. This puts the focus on specific action and not just general feeling. It leads directly to the actions a character might choose to take to accomplish their goals or avoid the outcomes of their fears, providing the writer with a wide variety of options regarding the different strategies a character might use, depending on who they are and where they come from. I fear Trump’s election so I will vote, protest, argue, write, alienate friends, all of kinds of things or a limited number of them, depending on how strong my fear, how clear the potential outcomes, and who I am. The specific actions I choose to do are directly related to both the thing happening in the world and who I am as a person.

Movie characters (and badly-written characters in any genre) don’t seem to take actions that are connected to the world in which they live. As you note, they are actually pretty passive.

When we over-simplify and over-generalize character in the way we’ve been trained to do, and don't get specific about goals and outcomes, then the only outcome that matters to anyone—no matter what is happening—is whether or not we are loved enough. Because, ultimately, underneath everything, we all, of course, want more love—our father’s, mother’s, friend’s, society’s—and we fear we aren’t worthy.

This revelation finally helped me understand why super hero movies seem so strangely tedious to me. Something blows up, some villain appears, and then there is 20 minutes of standing around talking—usually, stunningly, about some psychological hole in the hero’s emotional life. Thor and his father. Iron man and his father. Captain America and his friends. As though saving the lives of innocent people, improving the world, wasn’t a strong enough character choice.

Because, in movies, it seems to be that nothing external to the main characters’ feelings actually matters that much. Hence the plot/action in movies grows ever more stunningly divorced from actual people actually being motivated to take action or fight against bad actions. Conventional narratives have in fact trained us to be passive by making motivation actually seem separate from specific action. According to this model, what is important about my fear of Trump’s election is that I’m really standing up to the tyrant that was my father, or I’m learning to believe in myself, or some other over-generalized, over-simplified, de-contextualized psychobabble.

It’s kind of a frightening habit we’ve all developed.

That’s why I love that you also mentioned BLM’s highway shutdowns. I hesitate to use what they have done as a metaphor in this conversation because the context and stakes for the BLM movement is extremely serious and important. Nonetheless, in a lot of ways—and I mean this as a compliment—BLM is using "theater" well in their actions. With effects that a lot of theater people only wish were possible inside a theater space.

First, the action is very clearly in response to specific, important stimulus, not some general need for good feeling but clear goals and fears, i.e. the seemingly cavalier and random oppression of black lives by police officers must be stopped. And, at the very same time, it relates to universal, essential ideals (equality, justice, freedom). The action itself is dramatic and suspenseful. What will the highway drivers do? How will the police respond? Is anyone in danger? And, it is beautifully symbolic too-- since the way that white city planners destroyed thriving African-American communities by shoving highways through them is well-documented. Finally, it activates the audience and forces them to think about the issues. By blocking highways, they have created an inconvenience that is important enough for people to notice and to get emotional about but not ultimately important or truly inconvenient enough to keep most people from thinking about the issues they’re trying to address (even if they begin thinking about them in anger).

Many theater people say that they wish to use theater craft in order to agitate their audiences into seeing the world in new ways. Seriously, it’s a commonly expressed motivation for theater folk to “challenge” the audience. (There is so little financial reward in theater, we often have to justify our existence with increasingly strained social service/world-changey language.)

Unfortunately, it is much harder to truly agitate people who voluntarily paid money for the experience. Also, theater people over-generalize in their own way (even as I do think theater’s understanding of action/character is better than most movies). We often want to expose the hypocrisy of the (whole) world or “raise awareness” about some issue in general. Like “Everyone! Hey! Look how bad this stuff is!” rather than dramatizing specific ways that specific people are acting in their 3-dimensional, complex lives.

All of which I write so you know that I’m not just piling on criticism of filmmakers. If I am a crusty old complainer, then I at least want to be equal opportunity about it. Theater has got some serious problems too. In fact, I’m curious, Kevin, when you go to the theater, what drives you crazy?

Or, to phrase it in a more positive way, why are you a filmmaker instead of a theatermaker? I know you well enough to know it isn’t about the money.

What is it about the craft of film that you prefer to the live theater?