MEET THE READER: Screenwriting In Times of Crisis

Human beings respond to stories precisely because they provide hope—that causes can be won; that issues can be successfully resolved; that people can endure and triumph. Ray Morton shares advice on creating story concepts during times of crisis.
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Screenwriting In the Time of Crisis

There is no doubt that we are living in challenging times.

I don’t think there’s anyone who would disagree that the twenty-first century has gotten off to a very rocky start—the 2000s began with the worst terrorist attack in history, which was followed by two decades (and counting) of war, and a disturbing renewed flirtation with fascism and totalitarianism around the globe. In the past four years this country has given power to leadership that has appealed to and encouraged the worst elements in our society rather than engage the better angels of our nature. And now, of course, we have this terrible virus. Is there anything a screenwriter can do to help in dark days like these?

Yes. Quite a lot, actually.

Our nation and our world have been through desperate times before. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that movies were at their most popular and most influential the last time our planet faced such a dire existential threat—the 1930s and 1940s, when the world was poleaxed by the double-whammy of the Great Depression and World War II.

There wasn’t much the screenwriters and other filmmakers in that time could do to improve the economy or prevent or end the war, but they sure did a lot for morale. The movies of that era helped people feel better.

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They did this in two main ways:

1) The first was by providing escapist entertainment—comedies, musicals, adventure films, horror movies, and Westerns—that allowed audiences to remove themselves from the increasingly grim real world for a few happy hours and envelope themselves in narrative fantasies that allowed them to forget their cares for a bit.

2) The second was by tackling the issues of the day in ways that provided viewers with hope, inspiration, and optimism.

  • The Grapes of Wrath (1940; directed by John Ford; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by John Steinbeck) depicted the desperate plight of dust bowl farmers whose lives were ruined by the Depression. The film did not shy away from the many challenges and injustices its characters faced, but it did conclude its grim tale with a vow by protagonist Tom Joad to fight for justice wherever he could and with an affirmation by his mother that their spirits and the spirits of all the folks like them would never be defeated, no matter how bad things seemed at the moment.
  • Mrs. Miniver (1942; directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, and Claudine West, based on the novel by Jan Struther) told the story of a middle-class British family keeping calm and carrying on through the early days of WWII—through Dunkirk and the Blitz. Again, it did not shy away from chronicling the family’s hardships, but it made sure to highlight their persevering spirit and ended with the suggestion that it was that spirit that would allow the Allies to eventually prevail.
  • Casablanca (1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; screenplay by Julius & Phillip Epstein and Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett & Joan Alison) obliquely challenged America’s neutral status in the early days of World War II, when there were many people and leaders who felt the U.S. should stay out of the fight against fascism in Europe by featuring a protagonist in Nazi-run French Morocco who—having lost his idealism after fighting for too many lost causes in the past—is determined to stay out of the fight and not to take sides. However, when his former lover arrives with her freedom-fighter husband, Rick Blaine’s idealism is reawakened and at the end of the picture he rejoins the good fight just as the United States did after Pearl Harbor.

On occasion, “serious” movies in this era such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and All Quiet on the Western Front would take a more downbeat, less idealistic approach to real life issues, but such pictures were definitely the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, the movies of Hollywood’s Golden Era were positive and upbeat. They validated their viewers’ experiences, encouraged them, and made them feel it was possible to overcome the incredible challenges facing them. These films made people feel better. And because they felt better, they were able to carry on, to persevere, and eventually triumph. Movies certainly weren’t the only factor that allowed the world to overcame these twin threats and not even in the top ten or maybe even the top twenty, but they were still a vital and significant one.

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But it wasn’t just this era—since the beginning of cinema, American movies have tended to be optimistic and upbeat; aspirational and inspirational. There have been exceptions, of course—most notably the period from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, the era of film noir and post-war realism, and the period from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, the so-called New Hollywood period, when mainstream films embraced the downbeat, cynical mood of the era. But these dark patches didn’t last—the most popular movie of the 1950s was Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic The Ten Commandments and the gritty films of the late 60s and early 70s eventually gave way to (and more than likely resulted in) popular fables such as Rocky and Star Wars. As great as many of the movies of these eras are, the reason their cynical view didn’t last and become the dominant aesthetic is because in the end it is contrary to our nature. For the most part, human beings are genuinely positive, optimistic creatures.

Some might say (and have said) this predilection for the positive is a denial of reality (“the world just doesn’t work that way”) or a sign of cultural immaturity or an example of Hollywood’s pandering. There might be some truth in these perspectives, but I think they all miss something fundamental.

Storytelling has always been about hope. From the earliest times, when primitive man sat around the fires that were their only source of light and heat and comfort in a mysterious world that was often cold and dark and threatening, they told stories to comfort themselves, inspire themselves, and to ward off that darkness.

Human beings respond to stories precisely because they provide hope—that causes can be won; that issues can be successfully resolved; that people can endure and triumph. We need that hope to keep going in difficult circumstances and to inspire us to take the necessary steps to solve the problems that abound in real life. The world may not work the way it does in the movies, but maybe it should and the examples cinema provides can give us a goal to shoot for. So, rather than aide in a denial of reality, positive narratives can provide us with a powerful tool to engage it.

And these days, we certainly need that.

(Interestingly, Hollywood has already produced a number of films that speak directly to the issues of today. 1957’s A Face in the Crowd tells the tale of a egomaniacal media personality who uses his popularity to create a populist political movement and becomes a demagogue. 1976’s All the President’s Men depicted a free press under siege that nevertheless persists in rooting out government corruption on a scale hitherto unimagined; 1995’s Outbreak and 2011’s Contagion both tell a tale about the emergence of a deadly virus, its effect on the world, and the efforts to contain it. All of these films end on an upbeat note: A Face in the Crowd ends with the demagogue’s downfall after his true vile nature is revealed and his fans turn their backs on him; All the President’s Men ends with the free press vindicated and validated, the corruption exposed and the downfall of those who perpetrated it; Outbreak and Contagion both end with the virus contained and eradicated and life returning to normal in the aftermath.)

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Many of you are already at work on screenplays inspired by the events and issues of recent years. Those screenplays will deal with those events and issues in different ways. Some will document them. Some will explain them. Some will exploit them. Some will expose and decry the conditions and bad behavior behind them. Some will celebrate the heroic actions that came out of them. Some will be serious. Some will be funny or satirical. Some will use the issues and events as jumping-off points for thrillers, action-adventure tales, and horror movies. Some will have nothing at all to do with these issues and events and instead will just be intended to provide an escape from these troubles.

If you’re working on a script meant to provide escape, then make it the best escape possible. If you’re writing a comedy, make it as funny as you can—one or two big laughs on every page, not just an occasional chuckle. If you’re writing horror, don’t settle for the occasional jump scare—instead, frighten the living daylights out of us. If you’re writing a tear-jerker, then give us something that will have us bawling our eyes out. If you’re writing a thriller or an action piece, create a story that will have us on the edge of our seats from beginning to end.

If you’re going to address the issues of our time, then consider doing so in a way that provides some hope; some light; some inspiration. Not an artificial happy ending grafted onto a narrative that hasn’t earned it, but a true and organic uplift that is generated naturally by the characters, events, and themes in your story, and by the author’s genuine belief in the ability of people to endure, overcome, and to find the light in the darkness.

Movies can’t save the world. But they can help us save the world.

Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton

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