Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Why of the Want

I want to love Michael Mann. No, not that way. As a director and writer. A film maker. I really do. And is often the case with people you want to love, I have come close to doing so. There are whole sections of The Last of the Mohicans that I think are absolutely brilliant. Same for Heat. But overall, I didn’t love the entirety of either one. My favorite Michael Mann film is Collateral. Great story and great acting by Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith. But Mann did not write Collateral, in whole or in part. Perhaps that’s the key. Which brings me to his latest effort: Public Enemies.

Like Heat, Public Enemies is a 'cops and robbers' film, with a flawed cop obsessed with catching the sympathetic robber. Public Enemies features wonderful performances by Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. But as with most Mann films, it falls short in terms of story.

In most great commercial films, our main character is somebody who wants something badly and goes after it against great odds. Impossible odds often. John Dillinger is the main character of Enemies and Mann does a passable job of telling us what Dillinger wants. Actually, Dillinger tells us himself what he likes: money, nice clothes and Billy. Great. We know what he wants. However, here’s where we get the flaw in Public Enemies: we don’t know 'why'!

In my paradigm, somebody wants something 'badly'. You might even say desperately. It is this urgency that is the essence of 'story'. It is this urgency that makes us want to watch the film. The 'badly/desperately' part is 'why' the main character is doing what they are doing. It is also what creates the emotional connection between the main character and the audience, and do not underestimate this.

We in the audience don’t have to have the same 'want' as the main character. In fact, we almost never share a want. After all, who wants to go see a film about somebody who wants a promotion or a new Range Rover? No, films are far better when we don’t share the same want as the main character. For instance, none of us (OK maybe some) share the 'want' of Tony Montana in Scarface. But we understand why he wants what he wants (money/success). It is that particular immigrant’s version of the American Dream. We empathize and we get it. And, therefore, we watch to see if he can fulfill this want.

In Public Enemies we have absolutely no idea why John Dillinger wants so badly to robs banks and obtain the money that comes from that. Obviously, there is something about the danger attached to acquiring it. We might even play kitchen-sink psychiatrist and try to draw some connection between that and the fact that his father beat him often 'because he didn’t know any other way' to raise him. But if that’s the reason, it falls far short.

I think this movie could have been made far better with a short scene or even an additional line or two of dialogue in the first act to allow us to get a glimpse of why Dillinger wants what he wants. It could have even come later in the film, as in Good Will Hunting in that famous scene with Will and Chuck at the construction site. But wherever it might have come in Public Enemies, it would have improved the film mightily.

The lesson for the budding screenwriter is this: don’t forget the 'why'! Everyone tells screenwriters to make sure the audience knows what the main character wants, but that’s just half the battle. Less even. If you don’t also let the audience in on the urgency of that desire - the 'why' of the 'want' - there will be no audience connection. And your script will suffer for it.

You are not yet Michael Mann. He gets to keep making movies because he is brilliant at giving us spectacle and big scenes. I just wish he’d give us more story to go with them.

Then I’d truly love Michael Mann.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. On all points above.

    Not knowing why is the reason all eyes are dry when the agent tells Billie that Dillinger's last words were for Black Bird. But because we didn't know that what he wanted and how she was the tenderest embodiment of it, the moment of tragedy slipped away.

    The other caveat to add though is that we didn't need to know everything about why he wanted to rob banks or command the love of a woman like Billie (who wouldn't?). We're not therapists. We just want to see how a man's external and the internal drives match and mismatch. Because that's entertainment.