Austin Film Festival: Wrap-Up Part 2

By Elizabeth Quinn

We come to the last installment of the Austin Film Festival blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles and I hope you get a chance to attend the Austin Film Festival for yourself. It truly is a unique experience and the screenwriting conference is unlike anything you’ll find at other film festivals. The passion, the learning, and the shared love of writing and filmmaking permeate the space. Aside from that, Austin is such a fun city with really cool people who strive at doing their own thing and making creative work happen. And of course, there’s the food (Green Chile Mac and Cheese at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel and Rudy’s BBQ Ribs are a must!).

I encourage you to enter your film or script to their festival competition or just come and have a great time meeting like-minded people. And if you can manage to build in a few days for sightseeing, Austin has some wonderful things to offer the creative tourist. Check back for my interviews with filmmakers and writers in attendance at AFF.

The Screenwriter’s Guide to Time Travel featuring Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into the Darkness), Rian Johnson (Looper), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko)

This panel provided a great discussion on time-travel stories in film. Each panelist talked about the important elements to keep in mind when tackling a time travel script and they all cited Back to the Future as the touchstone for time travel movies.

Roberto Orci: Time travel stories allow for that wish fulfillment of reliving a memory or a perfect day. Back to the Future is a great example of the idea of changing your destiny, which is a form of wish fulfillment. Peggy Sue Got Married is another great example of wish fulfillment. It’s not so much about the time travel, it’s about that character looking at her husband and her marriage in a different way.

Rian Johnson: The idea of time travel is a continuum of storytelling that speaks to a human desire to play God, control destiny, relive moments.

Richard Kelly: Sometimes technology can be a friend and other times it can be an enemy of logic, forcing you to set your story in a past time without modern technology.

Rian Johnson: I admit I stole the vanishing element (i.e., the vanishing photo) from Back to the Future for Looper. The vanishing photo is great because it makes narrative sense and it is a visual representation of the character’s motivation even though it defies the laws of science. That film also established all of the time travel rules up front so the audience was prepared to go along for the journey.

Roberto Orci: Time travel stories ultimately belong in the fantasy genre not the sci-fi genre. With Star Trek, most people don’t get that it is based on quantum mechanics (many worlds theory). When we created it, we wanted to give the audience the option of either getting into the science of it or just enjoying the fun of it. At the end of the day you want whatever the science/technology is in your story to service the character and the story, not the science.

Rian Johnson: Logic matters but make sure you’re serving the emotional core of the story/characters. It’s not about scientific logic it’s about emotional logic. It’s easy to avoid (or sacrifice) character in defense of scientific logic but emotional logic is a screenwriter’s job. It helps me to think of time travel as a fantasy element as opposed to a form of engineering.

Richard Kelly: I agree. If a story doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and no amount of scientific logic will save it.

The panel ended with a discussion about the elements writers tend to overlook in time-travel stories. Richard Kelly stressed the importance of not getting too caught up in the time travel elements and forgetting the story. “If a story doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” Roberto Orci elaborated on that idea and told the audience to avoid getting stuck in the rules. “You have to ask yourself why are you doing the time travel story? Don’t do it for the gimmick. Do it because you have a compelling story that you want to tell.”


Psychology of Storytelling with Lindsay Doran

After several years in the movie business, Lindsay wondered why the movies that win the most awards are often the most depressing and why the drama category is always the last one presented at the Golden Globes. She spent years studying positive psychology and reading Flourish by Dr. Martin Seligman (catalyst of the positive-psychology movement) she began watching and re-watching films through the lens of what Dr. Seligman identifies as the five essential elements of well-being: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. She discussed how these elements relate to the films that resonate most with audiences

Positive Emotions – There have been studies that prove watching something positive for two hours is actually helpful to the mind and spirit but after 1990 it was harder and harder to find 100% feel-good comedies. Many of the comedies were “wincing”, based in physical pain or mean-spiritedness. Additionally, there were often feel bad/feel good movies where the characters go through too much sad angst before they got to the happy ending. She encouraged us as writers to create those feel-good movies and give our audiences the positive emotions they crave.

Engagement – So much of our engagement depends on our engagement with a character. In Die Hard we relate to Bruce Willis’ character because he is that good at what he does. When people are that good and focused on what they do, we can’t take our eyes off of them. We also get engaged when characters are learning something and this harkens back to the beginning of storytelling, when the purpose was more often than not to learn something – in some cases to literally save lives. If a hero came back from a battle and told the village his story it was partly to tell them how to avoid danger. Engagement is a type of joy – we can even be engaged in a bad character doing things well.

The final three elements, Accomplishment, Relationships, and Meaning are all intertwined and culminate in the film’s climax and finale. An executive once told Lindsay that audiences do not care about accomplishments, they care about the moment afterwards when the hero shares the accomplishment with someone they love. The relationship takes over the movie. Lindsay cited the following examples as proof that the accomplishment is not the last thing we see on screen:

  • The Karate Kid: After Daniel wins the tournament, he gains respect from his adversary Johnny who hands the trophy to Daniel himself while Mr. Miyagi, Ali, and Daniel’s mother look on admiringly.
  • Dirty Dancing: After the Baby achieved doing “the lift” in the dance number with Johnny, her father apologizes to Johnny and admits that he was wrong to assume Johnny had gotten Penny “in trouble”. Jake also praises Baby for her dancing. T
  • The King’s Speech: A title card explains that Logue was always present at King George VI’s speeches during the war, and that they remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Lindsay noted that when we make movies geared towards men, it’s often about the goal, accomplishment, or overcoming setbacks, and the hero realizes that the accomplishment means nothing without the relationship. When we make movies for women, the relationship is the accomplishment. While some criticize this approach, Lindsay believes that it may mean women have already figured out what’s important so we start the movies for them at a different place.

The accomplishment that audiences care about is resilience, and this is where meaning comes in. In Rocky, he doesn’t win the fight but he gets his relationship with Adrian. We follow his journey and his resilience in never giving up on his dream. There’s a reason thousands of people travel to Philadelphia every year to run up the “Rocky steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  All of these are great things to think about when writing your next screenplay and I highly recommend listening to Lindsay speak if you ever get the opportunity. To read more about Lindsay and the five elements of well-being, click here.

For all of the 2013 Austin Film Festival blogs, click here.