Along with Saving Mr Banks, which closes the London Film Festival on Sunday night in its world premiere, producer Alison Owen‘s credits include a lot of movies with women’s names in the title. They range from Temple Grandin to Elizabeth, Sylvia, Tamara Drewe and Jane Eyre. Many of those, Owen said in a keynote address today, she made because she was drawn to material that explored themes that she was exploring in her own life at the time. Although it’s got a man’s name in the title, Saving Mr Banks is no different. In the film, Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney as he tries to convince Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, to let him turn the beloved nanny’s tale into a film. Owen admitted that at first she thought she was making it because of her kids, but soon came to realize it was really a film for her dad. “As we developed the story, I remembered Hannah Minghella… telling me how Amy Pascal always used it as a trick question for prospective interviewees or writers — asking them who Mary Poppins was about. And the answer, of course, is not Julie Andrews, or Bert, or the children — but Mr Banks.”
In a wide-ranging discussion today, Owen, who is also founder and managing director of UK-based Ruby Film and Television, also touched on the importance of story and keeping movies alive. Below are excerpts from her address:
“‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the things we need most in the world.’ That’s a quote from Philip Pullman.
I believe that to be true. I have to, really – I’ve spent my work life so far finding stories, telling stories, making stories.
But I’ve spent my life telling those stories in the movie business. And, as we keep hearing from various dark brooding media outlets, movies are seriously under threat. There’s many a Cassandra out there touting the death of the movie industry, as we know it.
But is that true? Is our business about to collapse under the weight of all the alternative entertainment out there? Our lives are getting busier and busier, that’s for sure. Our leisure time is becoming more precious than ever. Most households now have both parents working. Do we really have time to go to the movies anymore? Or even watch them at home? Would we prefer to collapse on the couch and watch The Only Way is Essex, or play Grand Theft Auto?
The first point to make is that to my mind it is crazy to say the Internet is going to kill off movies. The Internet is a container, not a substance. To say the Internet is the death of books and movies is like saying someone invented a new, more efficient kind of cup and it heralds the death of coffee – a new improved form of CARRYING something, which is essentially what the Internet IS, should be helpful to our business…
Grand Theft Auto V reached a billion dollars in its first 3 days of release. In just ONE DAY the game made more money than all but one of the years movies (Iron Man 3, for anyone who’s interested) garnered in their entire theatrical runs. YouTube clips get millions, billions of hits. Reality TV programmes have their own channels. How can movies attempt to compete with these kinds of numbers? And do we even need to? Are we scaring ourselves by unnecessary comparisons, by not comparing apples with apples?…
Reality television was the Holy Grail about ten years ago when it burst onto our screens. Since then we’ve been subjected to every kind of reality we wanted to look at and many we didn’t, from Big Brother to Honey Boo Boo.
But what started, as ‘observation on camera’ didn’t take long before it needed some non-reality. Ordinary people, it turned out, needed some help in being compelling. ‘Scripted reality’ became the new buzzword. Writers in not-so-secret rooms created ‘Characters’ — it became clear that story arcs and developments were needed here…
But they don’t scratch the itch that drama does. They don’t go to the places that only cinema does…
But it’s hard to really look into the future of our industry without looking at the past. Why did movies succeed? Why did audiences flock so immediately to movie theatres for almost a century, in such numbers, riding out the threat of radio and then television?…
There’s something about movies that makes us want to watch them with others. Those of us who make movies know that filmmakers always have this in their heads. We talk constantly about ‘water cooler moments’ — the moments in a movie that are going to have everyone talking on Monday morning around the water cooler or the coffee machine, the discussion making everyone else want to go out and buy a ticket so they can join in the discussion.
We film-makers are obsessed with the ending of movies, referring always to what the audience are going to be taking away as they go and get their cars, what they are going to be debating about, laughing about, shouting about on the way to the car park…
That’s why movies evolved as a popular form for a communal experience, replacing circuses and music halls with a different kind of spectacle.
So let’s talk about the “how”? How did producers, writers and directors get their audiences to want to do this? And how do they still, and how can we in the future?
It’s all in the power of story…
The very essence of story, the thing that keeps us gripped, is the same thing that keeps us gripped in our own lives — it is WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?…
At the beginning, characters have goals – to ask the girl on a date, to rob a bank, to be reunited with an estranged father, to land on an alien planet, to win a horse race and so on. If the story is working, the audience cannot stand up and leave the movie theatre because they need to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. This simple desire is what drives everything. The guys around the campfire knew that just as well as the screenwriters of today.
Now, in studio meetings, well-intentioned studio executives bandy around the word ‘sympathetic’. They say things like, ‘that character is not SYMPATHETIC. This character is not LIKEABLE’. This term is incorrect and if actually followed, as often happens without a strong Producer we end up with a bland character and, quite frankly, a boring movie.
The correct term would be INTERESTING. Why is the character INTERESTING? Why do we care about the character and what happens to them? What stops us drifting off and breaking the movie’s spell? Why do we keep watching the screen? Why don’t we start wondering about where we parked the car, or what we’re going to have to eat at the restaurant after the movie, or whether we left the oven turned on at home?
So the most interesting characters keep us hooked. Not likeable ones! Iago, Shylock, Darth Vader — are they likeable? Do you want to invite them to dinner? (Well, it might make for an interesting night).
But they are sympathetic: because each has been created to feel he was wronged or in search of a complex goal. And most importantly, they are INTERESTING. Each does crazy, mean things to other people, but we understand why they do what they do. We understand their human nature, because we feel those things ourselves.
And we want to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT because we find them interesting. We want to know, whether we feel it consciously or not, what it means for us, for our own lives, for the lives of our loved ones, for human existence. What is going to happen to US? WHAT HAPPENS NEXT in our own lives?
Movies have taken all this advice very much to heart. But the writer of a movie will get just as much good advice — more — from Aristotle’s Poetics as from any Robert McKee’s Story Seminar lecture on screenwriting. Believe me, he’s stolen it all from Aristotle anyway.
And if you get this right, it’s a very pleasurable experience. The story unfolding on the screen elicits a powerful response and brain chemicals of well-being and yumminess like Oxytocin floods your body and you float into the realm of the imagination. Oxytocin is sometimes called the ‘love hormone’ or the ‘connection chemical’ and it is the job of the storyteller to get this stuff flowing round your body and ambushing your responses. Not to be confused with Oxycontin, which is something else altogether and if you take enough of that you won’t know you’re watching a film anyway.
So – put simply – stories – films – are good for you. It’s as different an experience from playing a videogame as golfing is from reading. They are such different beasts it seems slightly perverse to compare the two. Is golfing being challenged by reading? I mean; it’s just absurd.
But WHY? Why do we need storytelling so much? Why does Pullman say it is so important? It is important because it helps us explain our lives. It helps us ask questions and it helps us find the answers. Story is an art form, just like music or painting. But whereas music or painting is much more to do with reflecting emotion, providing resonance with human feelings, or the encapsulation of a philosophical idea, story is about explaining our very existence. And so with the kinds of people we are, the age that we are, how wealthy or happy or depressed we are, so do the stories that we need change.
Just as we use children’s stories to reassure and make our children feel safe, so we use them that way ourselves…
Historically, movies are one of the few industries that thrive in a recession. But you can bet in a recession that audiences are not flocking to Scenes From A Marriage or Requiem For A Dream. In a recession people want to be told for two hours that everything is going to be ok. They want to escape from their humdrum or painful reality into a feel good drama, or a love story that transcends their daily life. Many of the great dramas and love stories emerged during the war years – Casablanca, Rebecca, Brief Encounter, Jane Eyre, Little Shop Around The Corner. Audiences like to be made to feel that there is a world where things go right, where big emotions can happen and yet feel safe. This is why there is a constant tension in Hollywood between studios who want happy endings and writers who want to explore the human condition. There is a time and a place for both! And generally, when we are younger and have not experienced the ups and downs of life, we are more willing, eager in fact, to ‘tell the truth’ ‘stare pain in the face’ etc. When we’ve actually experienced pain, or are dealing with trying to pay the rent, feed our family, deal with a nagging toothache or get over a break up, we’re less keen. People in third world countries are less eager to see movies full of angst over existential problems, and who can blame them. They’ve got other fish to fry. They’d rather see a few great dance routines and the guy end up with the girl.
It’s only in periods like the relatively economically stable and war free seventies that movies about ‘important’ and philosophical topics with ambiguous endings can proliferate. You might point to Shakespearian tragedies which played to housefuls of people living in poverty – but you’ll notice that even when bad things happen to good men, it’s because they had a fatal flaw. It makes sense in an ordered universe. And that’s what a lot of stories and movies do — attempt to make sense and order out of what is essentially a random and chaotic world.
Isn’t that what religion does, even? Aren’t they the best and most powerful stories of all? Who wouldn’t want to believe in a lovely heaven where we’re rewarded for all our good deeds, and the schmucks that fucked us over are downstairs burning in hell?…
I hope we can all keep movies alive, as I believe this is a very necessary job that other innovations cannot match. Movies give people breathtaking dreams of other worlds, and intimate glimpses into the private spheres of lives beyond their understanding. Movies are where they keep the Magic.
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