What It's Really All About - Part Two
"If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme." - Pablo Picasso
How about that? I share something in common with Pablo Picasso! Who'd have thunk it?
If you read my previous column on the Master Theme, you've already gathered that I, too am an advocate of theme, not as it applies to painting, but as it applies to story telling.
Every story has a theme at it's core. Sometimes, the theme is simple to identify, such as "love" in a romantic comedy, or "survival" in a disaster film. Other times, in a story of more complexity, it can be tricky to nail down. But, it's there, and everything relies on it.
If a story is not relevant, in some way, to the human condition, then there is no story. It's that simple.
However, the Master Theme, once identified, is only the first piece in the theme puzzle. It's fine, to know what the overall theme of our story is, but we now must determine what we're going to do with that information.
That's where the Active Theme comes in. This gets us down to the nitty-gritty of telling our story, because we now must take a position, and reflect that position in the story we want to tell.
That is the subject of the following excerpt from my book, "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay." It is the second of three excerpts dealing with the exploration and application of theme. Next time, we'll get into the "Characters Take on the Theme," to demonstrate how our Active Theme is reflected by the characters in our story.
The Active Theme
Once you've determined your Master Theme, the human value that will be explored, you now must decide what your story will say about that value.
What is your story's position on "love," for instance? Love is blind? Love conquers all? Love makes the world go 'round?
Simple stuff, but it can go much deeper. There is physical love, dysfunctional love, obsessive love, family love, destructive love, love of self, love of home, love of country, love of ideals, and on and on. So many ways to go. And, any of those variations can provide your Active Theme.
Let's take a common genre that does double-duty as a Master Theme: War.
Now, you might not consider War to be a value, since it also doubles as a genre, but there is a human value inherent to it, and that is conflict. Since the act of war is the highest level of human conflict, it is rife with thematic possibilities.
Within the War theme can be many common Active Themes. As we've seen in the examples of "Gone With The Wind" and "Saving Private Ryan," Active Themes within the Master Theme of War can be as varied as love and sacrifice.
Let's look at some classic war films, and the thematic choices made by the writers and filmmakers.
Most war movies made in the 40's and 50's were basically propaganda films. John Wayne, Audie Murphy and stars of that ilk were always the "good guys" while the enemy, be they Nazis, Japanese or whoever were not only "bad guys," but they were portrayed as less than human. Evil for evils sake. Beyond redemption. Unfortunately, this level of blatant bias reflected the morals and politics of the time.
Our leads, the "good guys," were always heroic, righteous and victorious in a just cause. The message they sent was that War is noble. War brings honor.
War makes heroes of men.
Now, enter the 70's, when attitudes began to change, thanks in large part to that nasty Vietnam conflict. Movies like "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon," and later "Full Metal Jacket" delivered just the opposite message of the earlier rah-rah war stories. They showed us the "dirty" side of war, and what it does to those immersed in the conflict; how it hardens them and brings out the worst in human nature. They told us that...
War makes monsters of men.
Same Master Theme, but completely different Active Themes.
Here's yet another take. "Catch 22" and "MASH" told us that war is ironic, even laughable; worthy of ridicule. Insanity forced upon the average man against his will. In other words...
War is absurd.
Some genres have obvious Master Themes, and a good example is Romantic Comedy. In this genre, "love" is always the Master Theme, otherwise, it isn't a romantic comedy. It isn't a romantic anything. The Active Theme, however, is more flexible.
In "The Graduate," the story faithfully hit all of the required Rom Com beats: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. The ending, however, was a far cry from the warm, fuzzy, "happily-ever-after" endings we had grown used to in the earlier films of the genre, from the 40's and 50's.
The ending of "The Graduate," in fact the entire film, was bittersweet; a struggle, emotionally, physically and morally for our leads. The ending didn't tell us that Ben and Elaine would live happily ever after in wedded bliss. It told us they were taking a huge chance, throwing caution to the wind. Don't believe it? Watch the film and look at the uncertainty creep over their faces as they ride away on that bus.
Love is risky.
It was risky throughout the entire story, and it was still risky at the end.
Now, take a look at "There's Something About Mary." Everyone loved Mary in some warped, dysfunctional way. Not your mother's romantic comedy. The Active Theme, here, was...
Love is obsessive.
But, the Master Theme is still love.
"Slasher" films also embrace simple, basic Master Themes. In a slasher film, it's either about survival or revenge, depending on who we're rooting for; the killer or his victims. Therefore, the Active Theme isn't likely to vary much in this genre, either.
Perhaps a character learns that only by enlisting the help of others can she defeat a crazed killer, telling us that...
Survival is achieved through unity.
Another approach might have our hero fighting back to stay alive, concluding that...
Survival is achieved through conflict.
The messages remain pretty simplistic and familiar in slasher films, but there is always a message.
Hollywood studio pioneer Samuel Goldwyn once quipped:
"If you want to send a message, call Western Union."
I suppose, today, it would be "send a tweet." With all due respect to Mr. Goldwyn, every story has a message, whether we intend it to, or not. It's part of the package. Even Jerry Seinfeld's "show about nothing" was always about something. The Active Theme, what your story has to say about your Master Theme, is your message.
There is usually more than one Active Theme being played out, within a story. "Rocky," while primarily a story of redemption, also contained a Love theme in the subplot between Rocky and Adrian."The Wrestler" explored the same two themes, Redemption and Love, except as a tragedy. In both films, our central protagonist was attempting to overcome long odds to make a comeback, and in both films, love was a sub-theme. In "Rocky," our hero succeeded in achieving redemption and winning love. In "The Wrestler," Randy "The Ram" failed at both.
Believe it or not, the same two themes were explored in the classic 40's noir film "Casablanca." In this case, Love was the dominant theme, while Redemption the sub-theme. In "Casablanca," Rick won redemption, but lost at love. Once you start playing with those combinations, you unlock a Rubik's Cube of possibilities.
Robert's book, "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay" is currently available at:
Amazon digital and paperback
Barnes & Noble
Amazon digital and paperback
Barnes & Noble
A professional screenwriter for more than thirty years, Robert Gosnell has produced credits in feature films, network television, syndicated television, basic cable and pay cable, and is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of Canada.
Robert began his career writing situation comedy as a staff writer for the ABC series Baby Makes Five. As a freelance writer, he wrote episodes for Too Close for Comfort and the TBS comedies Safe at Home and Rocky Road. In cable, he has scripted numerous projects for the Disney Channel, including Just Perfect, a Disney Channel movie featuring Jennie Garth.
In 1998, he wrote the Showtime original movie, Escape from Wildcat Canyon, which starred Dennis Weaver and won the national "Parents Choice Award." Robert's feature credits include the Chuck Norris/Louis Gosset Jr. film Firewalker, an uncredited rewrite on the motion picture Number One With A Bullet starring Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams, and the sale of his original screenplay Kick And Kick Back to Cannon Films. Robert was also selected as a judge for the 1990 Cable Ace awards, in the Comedy Special category.
In 1990, Robert left Hollywood for Denver, where he became active in the local independent film community. His screenplay Tiger Street was produced by the Pagoda Group of Denver, and premiered on Showtime Extreme in August of 2003. In 1999, Denver’s Inferno Films produced the action film Dragon and the Hawk from his script. In 2001, Robert co-wrote the screenplay for the independent feature Siren for Las Vegas company Stage Left Productions. His feature script Juncture was produced by Front Range Films in March of 2006.
Robert is a principal member of the Denver production company "Conspiracy Films." He is frequently an invited speaker for local writers organizations, served on the faculty of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in 2002, and in 2007 was chosen to participate as a panelist for the Aspen Film Festival Short Screenplay Contest. Robert regularly presents his screenwriting class "The Elements of Screenplay," along with advanced classes and workshops, in the Denver area.