Thursday, July 07, 2011
Two Sides of an Argument
Many times a good film presents two sides of an argument and the film's hero is caught between the two viewpoints, trying to navigate their way through and choose between the two competing philosophies.
"High Noon" (SPOILER ALERT) starts with the Sheriff of a small western town (Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper) getting married to Grace Kelly on a Sunday morning. She's a Quaker (a religion that, at least as the movie explains it, prohibits violence against others) so Will is going to "hang up his guns", give up being a lawman and move away to another town to open a store. The town's new sheriff is set to arrive tomorrow.
However, just at that moment, three criminals ride into town and go to the train station to wait for the noon train to arrive. It turns out that they are the gang mates of Frank Miller, a notorious criminal who used to run the town until Will Kane cleaned up the town and sent Frank to prison. Frank was supposed to be hanged, but was pardoned instead. Now he's headed back to town on the train (set to arrive at noon, hence the film's title) to take his revenge on Kane for sending him to jail.
So Will has about an hour and a half before the train arrives and the four gunman ride into town to kill him. He's caught between two bad choices (which brings to mind the old expression "caught between the horns of a dilemma").
On the one hand, he could ride out of town with his wife (which is what she wants him to do). But Will can't bring himself to do that, because he knows that the gunmen will chase him wherever he goes, and he'd rather fight them here, in town, where he knows the townspeople. Will figures the townspeople will give him a hand in his fight.
The downside of this choice is that his wife has made him promise never to use violence again (because of her strongly held religious beliefs) and she threatens to leave him if he doesn't go away with her immediately.
Against her wishes, he chooses to stay. But as he tries to gather townspeople to help him defend the town, he has more trouble than expected. The townspeople are terrified of the Miller gang, and they know Miller's vendetta is against Kane. Why should they put their lives on the line when this is Kane's problem? When Kane asks them to help, they encourage him to run (so they can have a clear conscience) and they ask him questions he can't answer, like "If I get gunned down in this fight, who will take care of my wife? My kids?"
So what gives the film its powerful intensity is this tension between different points of view (and the tangible, pressing deadline of the arrival of the noon train). The brilliance of the film is that it gives equal weight to both sides - Will has really good reasons why he's convinced he has to stay and fight, his wife has good reasons why she won't stay if he does, and the townspeople have good reasons why they can't really help him and why he should run away.
The key is that you have to present both sides as honestly and attractively as you can. That way, it's very hard for your character to choose between them and this creates a lot of conflict, tension and emotion.
This is where many films fall down (in my opinion): they make one side obviously "good" and one side obviously "evil", so that there's no real tension about which way the hero will jump. You know they'll never pick the "evil" path so you're just waiting for the hero to figure out what the audience already knows.
To really make your hero caught between "the horns of a dilemma", the two sides should seem equally valid possible choices for your hero.
"Toy Story 2" is an animated film that does it very well. Woody is caught between the choice of going back to be with Andy until he gets too old to play with Woody anymore, and then facing an uncertain future, or going to be preserved in a Museum forever, but never being played with again.
Even when making a film that's a fairy tale, or one that is set in the past, I think it's really important to make the choices in the movie ones that are universal and relateable to everyone and reflect problems and issues faced by all people, not just people who lived in the past (or princes and princesses, for that matter).
As we were making "Tangled", I always saw the two viewpoints that Rapunzel had to choose between as either staying at home with her Mother, where life is safe and predictable, or going out into the world and making her own way, where she runs the risk of being hurt and having her heart broken.
Both are valid viewpoints and you see people who have to choose between those two options every day. It's one of the biggest choices we face in life.
Anyway, the point is: as the film maker, you have to look at both sides and make them as valid as you can for your hero. The goal is to make the audience sit on the edge of their seat, stressed about which one the hero will pick, wondering which way the hero will jump. If you do it right, they'll be fascinated by watching it all unfold, but relieved that it's your characters (and not them) having to make the excruciating choice.