Michael Bruce Adams is a screenwriter and a friend of mine. I interviewed Michael for my “Art and Craft of the Director Audio Seminar” and I have included a portion of that interview here. Part One (Monday) was about how to research; Part Two (today) is about the search for truth; and Part Three (Friday) is about how to write believable characters.
Peter – I talk a lot about truth as well. Directors (listening for truth) Actors (truth in performance). Why is truth so important for an artist?
Michael – Well, philosophically one could argue that there is no truth, but ultimately, for the artist, truth equals the ability to connect, to relate, in our case, to an audience. There’s a great story about two men in a modern art gallery standing in front of a grey, rectangular panel six and half feet tall and two feet wide. One guy says, “I just can’t relate to this, this isn’t art”. And the other guy says. “Well, to me this represents the grayness of our existence, a celebration of the mundane. It’s brilliant”. And at that point the drill bit for the new doorknob pops through the panel from the other side.
So I guess in one sense any art that connects with someone is a success. But in film, we have to find a way to connect with as many people as possible, and the only way we can do that is to create our art with truthful human emotions. So as screenwriters, we’re not talking about truth in plot or setting, we’re talking about relating truthful human responses to the situations we place our characters in. We have to believe them. It’s our responsibility to become the audience and maintain that perspective all the way through the creative process.
A terrific yardstick to measure the success of this is in teen comedies. By basing the comedy on the truth in human nature, that we can all relate to, a straight up genre picture can become so much more and create a huge fan response. AMERICAN PIE, HEATHERS, PUMP UP THE VOLUME are great examples of putting a little bit more effort and craft into a genre picture and getting a great result.
Peter – So what you’re saying is that knowing the truth of a scene translates into motivation for the character?
Michael – Exactly, and the opposite is also true. Characters that have truthful motivation for their actions bring out the truth in a scene. I love watching actors create characters. Most of them will get into their make-up and wardrobe then walk the sets, handle the props. You can see the wheels turning in there. The physical transformation brings on inspiration.
A few work on another level, using method techniques brought with great power to the craft by people like Lee Strasberg. They go through a similar research process that great screenwriters do. They search for the world of the character as suggested by the source material, the screenplay. So the screenwriter has to do their homework. The actors live in that character’s world until it is a part of them. This is beyond touching props and walking the sets. Believe me, these actors will let you know if you’ve done a crap job on your research.
This is where motivation starts. Motivation, quite simply, is the honest response of a character to any situation, after taking into account the entire emotional history and personality of that character.
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