The Main Thing Is The Main Thing
As I continue to write and direct a thing that I can’t talk about, I can at least talk about the things it is teaching me. Good and bad, every project gives you lessons you carry with you the rest of your career. The writing process is never easy, and what has surprised me over the years is that the difficulty is not writing ENOUGH words, it’s writing LESS. If you’re Peter Jackson and you enjoy telling stories over three hours, congratulations, you’re a rare special little gem that doesn’t have to play by as many rules as the rest of us. But for most filmmakers, it’s about editing, cutting down, streamlining, distilling all the ideas down to the ONE idea.
What is the ONE THING your story is trying to say? That’s usually called the theme. But it can be a sentence or an overall message that is the reason you wanted to make the movie in the first place.
In the spirit of crystalizing an idea, I can think back to a panel on Production Design that I attended at the San Diego Comic Con. This was a panel with some of the top guys in the field — designers who have crafted the entire look of films like “X-Men,” “Pirates Of The Carribean,” “Man Of Steel,” etc. And whether you consciously know it or not, really good films have a consistent visual idea all through them that inform every set, every costume and every prop. Everything you are seeing is quietly visually communicating very few streamlined ideas. Distilling.
One of these designers said something wonderfully simple about simplicity. He said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. I want to burn that into my office wall with a laser.
Because in the highly collaborative medium of film, there are lots and lots of people with lots and lots of ideas. Some of them are GREAT ideas. Funny lines, new characters, awesome action scenes. But not everything belongs in the movie. I’m as guilty as anyone. I always over-write. My first and second drafts are met with a lot of success, but my seventh and eighth drafts are these bloated, overly complicated things that are weighed down with too many words, too many ideas. That’s when I shake myself free of all the notes and needs and agendas and remind myself of the MAIN THING.
Look at your theme. If every scene doesn’t reflect it in some way, cut it. Are there characters that can be combined into one character to accomplish the same thing? Are you a writer that is in love with words? (I am.) Stop being fancy. Cut some words. Tell the scene in half the time. Boil everything down to its essence.
This is not to say tangents aren’t fun in stories. I’m a big fan of the awkward pause, the odd sidetrack. Those moments can make films very unique and specific. But choose those battles well. No one needs two hours of tangents and extra characters. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sure didn’t need it. Get the ark! Get the ark! Get the ark! Indy never stopped and neither did we as the audience. Films are a unique art form in that they are very visual, sparse, lean vehicles for stories. You want no limits, write a novel. But movies are a ride that requires pacing and restraint. Think of any movie that left you satisfied and I’ll show you a movie that was boiled down to its “main thing” and nailed down tight.
I’m not saying I always do it. But I know it’s important. And as I slave away on this movie, it’s currently my MAIN THING.