A film can be perfectly executed and beautifully shot, yet still ultimately waste the viewers’ time. As high-end tools become more accessible to entry-level filmmakers, the scales have tipped heavily toward slick, dazzling, albeit somewhat boring films. Maybe that’s why so many of them are only three minutes long. They’re a sprint of flash and wow factor. But you can only sprint so far.
So the question becomes: what is interesting work — and how can we make more of it? We asked ourselves this question a lot while we were creating our documentary, MAKE. We’d never tried holding an audience’s attention for more than a few minutes at a time. When you start thinking about making a film that’s over an hour long, you have to ask yourself some hard questions about what’s interesting and what isn’t.
Below are five lessons we learned about making interesting films.
Often a person’s sheer enthusiasm for a subject is all it takes for that subject to become fascinating to others. Think about your best teachers or professors. Their enthusiasm for the breakdown of chemical bonds in mitochondrial cells or for solving differential equations was, somehow, transferable to us. Contagious, even. We caught their interest. And even if we didn’t intend to become scientists or mathematicians, their passion was fascinating to watch.
For a filmmaker to make an interesting film, she first has to be interested in the subject. Better yet: fascinated. Best-case scenario: obsessed. The filmmaker’s obsession will drive the film beyond the obvious and pull the viewer into a deep, unexpectedly fascinating world.
Before we made MAKE, we spent years talking about the “why” behind creativity, talking about what it meant to “make it.” Our interest eventually manifested itself in a film ⎯ not the other way around. The first step to making interesting work is to be truly honest with yourself about what interests you. The subject might not seem sexy or timely or “mature,” but it’s the film you need to make. Follow your interests, and people will happily follow along.
In art, balance is boring. Wishy-washiness is boring. Tiptoeing around something is boring (unless you’re an art thief mid-heist). Interesting films, books, music, paintings, etc. — they all have a strong point of view. They all try to say something about what it’s like to be alive and breathing and walking around on this big, weird planet. Your job isn’t to shove your point of view down your viewers’ throats. It’s to have a point of view yourself — and then challenge it. If you’re really lucky, you’ll end up changing your mind.
One of the most effective storytelling structures is simply: “I thought things were one way, but it turns out they’re another.” Be willing to be wrong. Be willing to look dumb. Being wrong and dumb is a great starting point for creating a fascinating piece of work.
Ira Glass operates similarly: “I don’t want to sound dumb on the air, but I’m willing to sound dumb during an interview. And trying a lot of different ideas of various sorts is the only way I know to get the kind of tape I want.”
Interesting work doesn’t skim the surface of its subject. It dives down deep to where fish grow lights out of their foreheads. A simple way to get down there is to keep asking yourself why. Why, why, why. Ask it like a kid. Ask it until you go a little insane. We’ll let our friend Andrew Gallo of Sea Chant explain:
“There’s something this old-school ad guy taught me that I now do with a lot of our projects. He has this ‘Why Test’ he does with clients and himself. It’s an exercise to get down to the bottom of why something matters. All you do is ask why. You’re doing a spot about this and the story is going to be that. You ask yourself, Why? Well, the story matters to our market. Why? Because, I don’t know, they buy stuff. Why? Because we’re trying to sell stuff. Why? Because I want to support my family. And he keeps going until you get to something that matters. Then he’s like, ‘Okay, there you go, talk about that. That’s worth talking about.’ Sometimes it’s incredibly annoying, but it always works. All of a sudden you say something you actually care about. ‘Let’s talk about that.’”
We’ve been reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Somewhere near the middle, she talks about the importance of work being carnal. Meaning, it operates on the level of the senses: touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell. Annie Dillard says the same: “Always locate the reader in time and space — again and again. Beginning writers rush in to feelings, to interior lives. Instead, stick to the surface appearances…. Don’t describe feelings. The way to a reader’s emotions is, oddly enough, through the senses.”
Both Karr and Dillard are obviously talking about writing, but we believe the same principle can be applied to films. It’s the old “Show, Don’t Tell” rule that our writing teachers forced on us back in middle school. Turns out it was true. And it’s still true today. Make something interesting happen on the screen. Make your characters do things. Show us something interesting. We’ll create the emotions ourselves.
An interesting film gets stuck in people’s heads. On some level it just clicks. And then not only will a viewer stick with the film, but the film will stick with the viewer. Why does this happen? We read Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath to find out. They claim there are six principles to a “sticky idea”: (1) Simplicity, (2) Unexpectedness, (3) Concreteness, (4) Credibility, (5) Emotions, and (6) Stories. A lot of these principles can also be applied to making interesting films (seriously, you should read this book), but we’ll focus on just one: unexpectedness.
Chip and Dan write: “The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern. Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. Consistent sensory stimulation makes us tune out: Think of the hum of an air conditioner, or traffic noise, or the smell of a candle, or the sight of a bookshelf. We may become consciously aware of these things only when something changes….”
Surprise is at the heart of all great stories. As soon as your audience starts calling your moves, you’ve lost them. Predictability is the kiss of death. Ira Glass, briefly: “Surprise is important.”
Ira Glass, a bit more: “Some stories definitely aren’t worth pursuing. These are stories where everything reminds you too much of other stories you’ve already heard, and stories where there’s no sympathetic character… and stories where everything kind of works out as you’d sort of expect. Surprise is important.” (emphasis added)
Most boring films are boring simply because we already know what’s going to happen. We’ve seen this story before. Heard the same thing. There are no new ideas or circumstances or turn of events to make us want to see it again. Our job as storytellers is to have a keen sense of surprise. To know where to look for it ⎯ and know when we’ve found it.
These are just some lessons we’ve learned over the past few years about being interesting ⎯ or at least trying to be interesting. By no means is this a comprehensive list. We’re still figuring it out. We’re throwing ourselves at projects and learning as we go. There’s always a high chance of failure when you work that way. But hey, that’s what’s so interesting about it in the first place.