Character or plot?

Character or plot?

I’ve been working on a new project, and it seems to be developing into a series, rather than a film, and as I work I am discovering what I now think is the most important element in any drama.

As a writer and as a filmmaker I have always worked on the premise that the story is the most important element in a film. But the older I get, the more I watch great programing, the more I read and the more I write the more I am really reevaluating that concept altogether.

Of course the story is important, of course it’s vital in fact, but without well developed, realistically proportioned, complex and compelling characters that an audience can truly connect with…your story, any story, can never really take on meaningful dimensions and effect anyone at any level that becomes memorable and profound. After all, it’s the characters we remember and the people we love and love to hate and the people that we bond with and attach to that keep us returning again and again to any kind of story, but especially a visual one.

So, I am at the very beginnings of my project. I am in the process of writing characters…which means I am creating them all, giving them their own back stories and putting them in their own individual worlds that I am also busy creating and populating for them in the hope that eventually they will lead me to my story and that they, once fully formed, will actually do most of my work for me…hopefully…

We’ll see…

Much like every other part pf the process of making films, the more preparation you do the easier it will be on the day…the day being when you actually begin to write the script.

At least that’s the plan…

I saw Woody Allen’s Cafe Society over the weekend. I loved it, it’s one of his best I think, and thank goodness, as there’s nothing so depressing as a mediocre Woody Allen film. Allen famously doesn’t audition his actors, he invites actors that he admires to work with him and when they do he gives them very little direction, choosing instead to let them ‘be’ the characters and to trust in their ability to act what’s on the page, which is why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it struck me, as I watched, how very precise his characters were. His voice narrates the film and he actually describes the characters to us, introducing them, as we watch…an illustration come to life, so to speak…and it is these very precise and well-formed characters that invigorate the film, that breathe life into the narrative. The story is about the characters, rather than the characters merely populating the spaces between the plot twists.

Sure there is a little more to it than that, there is, of course, a plot. In this case it’s unrequited love mixed in with a bit of ‘fear of being alone’, but it’s really the characters that the plot pivots around, and what drives it forward, not car chases and tri-level storylines. I did find myself saying “Aahh,” rather a lot, while we watched, much to my husband’s chagrin, but in my defense we got there late and didn’t have time to get popcorn…or I wouldn’t have been able to make sounds of any kind…

So what does going to see a Woody Allen film have to do with me writing a new project or very, very independent filmmaking in general?

Good question…

Art is supposed to be a reflection of life…so in order to do that we must try to use our own voice, as artists. This means that some filmmakers will always create elaborate storylines and plot twists and car chase and we will all go to see them and eat popcorn and gaze googlie-eyed at the spectacle and that’s just fine.

But it also means that, if we can, we really need to remember that it’s the faces from our lives that we hold on to, the moments spent with friends and family and sometimes even foe. And when we cast our minds back, as if showing a reel of our life, do we remember exactly what we said to that girl, or our mum, or what they said to us? Or do we remember the way they looked at us, how we felt, what color her dress was. Do we remember how we got there or even why we were there, no, we just remember that we were there and the wind blew the table over and we all laughed and our mum said she loved us, or the car wouldn’t start and we sat in it while it rained and we ate our picnic together and she told you she loved you. Yes, of course, we need to have a reason and some kind of story and even a goal, but it’s always the people in our life and how we are with them and they with us that really matters…in film and in reality…

So write relationships, write full and flawed and ridiculous characters, all drawn from your life, which, if it’s anything like mine is full of them. Draw from your experience and your surroundings and it will feel authentic and real and interesting.

I’m going to be fleshing out my characters for a while yet before I begin on the script. I want to get to know them and, in some cases, reacquaint myself with them, then I can write their story in my film, and then, perhaps, I think I may even be able to let them write their own.

Happy Filmmaking

Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros
Author: Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros

Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros is a British writer and filmmaker living In Los Angeles.