Writing the “Not So Smart” Smart Film

By Michael Schilf · January 23, 2011

The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids, the Romans had their aqueducts, and we… well, we have our smart phones. But being overly smart isn’t always such a “smart” idea.

I must admit; I too have jumped on the smart phone bandwagon, and it’s abundantly clear to me that it’s a wagon with way too many bells and whistles. What I really need is a “not so smart” smart phone – something that’s the very best at the basics. Sure, the extras are nice, but a plethora of features and apps can never overcome a flawed foundation, if there is one. And making movies works exactly the same way. Writing a smart film is the goal. Just be careful not to outsmart yourself during the process.

Getting too clever with things certainly can occur, and if it does, often it begins with a screenwriter’s desire to take full advantage of building amazing new cinematic worlds with non-stop-never-seen-before action, knowing full well that movie technology can handle pretty much anything that is thrown it’s way. The ever-evolving advancement in post-production movie making ironically is also, in some respects, film’s worst detriment.

Technology and the movies go hand in hand. First, we had silent films, next sound and color, yet our imaginations were limited to a point. We simply couldn’t just go anywhere. But then came special effects, and with the help of green screens, CGI, and James Cameron – I loved Avatar just like the other 273 billion people who saw it – the sky became the limit. Now the movies can take us anywhere, but the ability to go anywhere can come at a price.

We have fallen so in love with our movie magic technology that we often forget the basics: story and character. An interesting somebody who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it is the foundation of any good film. And while incorporating CGI and other special effects can be great tools for telling fantastic stories about interesting people, effects without a story or great characters is a pretty boring thing. A simple story with a great character is all you ever really need.

So the lesson here is easy: make sure you have a solid story with memorable characters before you start decorating the cake. If we don’t care about the characters, if we don’t believe the story, everything else is in vain.