Longfellow wrote it this way:
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!—
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
– Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life”
In the movie “Emperor,” the General Kajima character tells General Fellers (Matthew Fox), “There are two Japanese words you should know. Tatemae, the way things appear. Honne, the way things really are.”Epictetus said something along those lines when he wrote: “What concerns me is not the way things are, but rather the way people think things are.”
A key element for a successful movie is this: Make the audience believe that “A” is the case, when in actuality, “B” is the case. Then, at a key moment, hit ‘em with “the way things really are.”
Can you think of a few movies that do this superbly? Of course, the one that jumps right out at you is, “The Sixth Sense.” In this case, the way things really are, isn’t discovered until the ending.
Sometimes a dose of “the way things really are” comes early on, so that the story line encompasses what the hero must do to adjust and deal with it.
I’m not talking about a little twist here. I’m talking about creating a whole world that seems one way, but is revealed to be something else altogether. Something we have not suspected — or expected. A whole other world.
I knew a guy once that was as nice a family man as I’d ever known. He was so much into his children that at the drop of a hat he’d pull out his wallet and show us their latest pictures. His love for his children made us all resolve to do better regarding our own. I had never carried pictures of my children with me to show others. This guy put me to shame, so I found some wallet sized photos and began brandishing them about. It felt good.
Now, here’s the kicker. I got a call one evening informing me that our ‘Brady Bunch’ father had been arrested for child pornography. He had no children of his own. The head shots were pictures of victims. Two different worlds. The world I thought was the case, and the world that really was.
In my script “The Last Pedestrian,” a short film about to go into production, most of the film follows a mayor and his city council anxiously waiting for news from the hospital about a returning war hero who was stricken down by a hit and run driver. They are collectively concerned. Each time the attending physician phones in from the hospital, the prevailing question is, “Is he going to make it?” But, about three-fourths into the film the world as we thought it was morphs into a world we couldn’t have imagined. No, I’m not going to tell you.
I always go back to the opening scene in “The Dream Team.” During the opening sequence we see a doctor, Henry Sikorsky (Christopher Lloyd), clipboard in hand, rounding up patients for a group therapy session. He succeeds in getting them all together, except for Michael Keaton’s character who comes in late, disrupting things. Then the world we’ve built turns upside down. A man enters, makes Henry take off his white lab coat, and asks him to put away the clipboard so that he, Dr. Weitzman, can begin the session. Henry is a delusional patient.
Things are not what they seem.
It’s strong stuff for a writer to lay out the hero’s journey across the threshold into the new world of Act II; and then midway through the act lower the boom on an unsuspecting audience. The new world was an illusion. The REAL new world, the REAL adventure is not what we thought. Does “Chinatown” come to mind. We soon find out nothing is as it seemed. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
I’m not talking about twists, I’m talking about turnarounds.
I made a wrong turn somewhere in Waycross, Georgia, on my way to Brunswick. Here’s the way it went:
I’m driving leisurely along as the pines and cypress and mossy oaks whiz by on a beautiful sunlit Sunday afternoon. I look at my watch and find I’ve been about an hour out of Waycross, so it’s about time to pass under I-95, cross the Sidney Lanier Bridge, and breeze up Hwy 17 to my place of abode. But only a few seconds after glancing at my watch, I look up and see the sign that changed everything: “Welcome to Florida.”
That whole drive from the time I left Waycross was not what it seemed. It was an illusion. If you were in the car filming, your footage would convincingly portray a world the audience has no reason to believe isn’t the world we thought it was. Same kind of highway, same trees, and roadside convenience stores. But when the sign, “Welcome to Florida,” appears, we realize nothing has been what it seemed.
I love epics like, “Titanic.” Great adventures. But in Titanic nothing ever really changes, even when the boat meets the iceberg. We know who the bad guys are. We know who the good guys are. We know the social strata and the barrier between “steerage” and first class. Rose, abused by Cal, is looking for love, and Jack Dawson wants to be the one. These folks are, in the end, what they were in the beginning. The ‘wannabe’ socialite mother, the tender Molly Brown and the egomaniacal Cal make up a world that is what it is. None of it isn’t what we think it is. So Titanic turns out to be a magnificent love story in a one-dimensional world. (Releasing it in 3D didn’t change that.) Well, I suppose you could say that the Titanic, portrayed as an unsinkable world, is, in reality, a very sinkable world. But no one leaves the theater exclaiming, “Man, I didn’t see that coming,” because we knew that up front. If you’re basing a screenplay on a real event, you’d better not serve up things we knew before our first mouthful of popcorn as your “things are not as they seem” entrée.
The Truman Show is a brilliant example of a turnaround world. Suddenly an idyllic small town becomes a TV reality show. This comes to us early on, but Jim Carrey must slowly discover the reality of a world he never knew existed. So what we have here are three worlds. (1) The illusionary world. (2) The real world. (3) The special world beyond the sea.
The “things are not what they seem” element is the bread and butter of a short film. I have another short script, “Reality,” where a man is the focus of a reality show, but unlike Truman, he knows it. He knows the cameras are tracking him wherever he goes. He plays out some everyday events in a scripted manner to make the show more interesting. He brings in new characters and revisits his ‘regulars’ on a daily basis. It’s all a little upsetting to those around him. Especially when he stops midstream during the course of a conversation or task to allow the cameras to move, or to suggest a new angle to the director. But, (Are you ready for this?), suddenly we discover that there are no cameras. There is no director. There is no script. There is no reality show. Our hero is imagining it all. He suffers from what psychiatry is now calling TSD or “The Truman Show” delusion.
But that’s the way a short story must go. Build a world, then, “presto change-o,” it disappears in a flash and a new one appears.
Do sweeter words ever fall a writer’s ears than, “Man, I didn’t see that coming!”