Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Movies I Like: The Wizard of Oz (Doing what the story needs)

 “Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works." -- Steve Jobs

As a teacher and consultant, one of the things I see people struggle with the most is the concept that they should be the servant of their story rather than the master. That means that as a storyteller you make decisions based on the needs of the story rather than personal preferences.

Most storytellers have scenes, characters, settings, shots, or moods they want to put into their story. These are the things they like and so they figure that all of these things put together will make a good story. Most of the time, a good story is not the outcome of this process.

No method is foolproof, and any technique can yield a substandard product. I liken it to a recipe. Two people working from the exactly same recipe may have differing results. One dish may be delicious and the other less so. Some people can cook and some can’t. But surrendering to the dictates of one’s story is a recipe that works more often than not.

It may or may not still be true, but at one time The Wizard of Oz was the most seen film on earth. It is fair to say that by most standards this film has worked for the vast majority or audiences since its release in 1939 over seventy years ago. It is also an excellent example of the creators of this film giving over to its needs rather than imposing their will upon it.

The writing is impeccable. The credited screenwriters, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, and Noel Langley, never lost sight of the film’s main point – that we may already have what we are looking for. You see this in Dorothy herself, who in the opening of the film dreams that there must be a better place, only to find that when she is away from home it had everything she was longing for. She wants nothing more than to get home.

The supporting characters of the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man also find that they have all along had the very things they had been looking – a brain, courage, and a heart, respectively.

I talk more about this in my first book Invisible Ink, if you’d like to read more about the film’s story construction. But what makes the film such an achievement is that there were many more writers than credited and several directors, yet they all seemed to be servants of the story.

I’d like to talk about some of the other creators of this film and how they let the film itself dictate their creative decisions.

In the Frank L. Baum book The Wizard of Oz, he describes Dorothy’s world of Kansas as gray and drab. According to the book America’s Songs, by Phillip Furia and Michael Lasser, when E.Y “Yip” Harberg was trying to come up with the song for Dorothy to sing in the first act he thought of Baum’s description of the grayness of Kansas and decided that the only color she would see would be the rainbow – and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was born.

Understand that Harberg did not start with the idea that he wanted a song about a rainbow. No, he looked at the story itself to find the song that the film needed rather than some song he wanted to write for some ego-based reason. He was the story’s servant rather than its master.

What’s even better is that the director was inspired by the song to shoot the Kansas scenes in black-and-white and the Oz scenes in color. Again he was only acting as a servant of the story. He did not say to himself, “I always wanted to shoot a part of a film in black-and-white and some in color.” No, he only tried his best to serve the needs of the piece.

These days when I read interviews with directors they talk a lot about what they wanted to see, or show, and very little about the dictates of the films themselves. They seldom surrender to the film or the story being told. They’d rather have unnecessary camera moves, or other effects, that they believe are eye-catching or cool.

Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

Then there was the matter of Dorothy’s hair. The film’s first director Richard Thorpe had made many missteps in making the film and was fired off the film and was replaced by George Cukor, who did not like what he saw of Thorpe’s footage. For one thing, Thorpe made actress Judy Garland look too sexy and old for the part. With inappropriate make-up and a curly blonde wig, she did not bring to mind an innocent farm girl from the early 1900s.

Cukor, being a servant of the story, took off half of Garland’s make-up and had her curly blonde wig removed in favor of dark hair and braids. He wanted to make sure she looked the part of a Kansas farm girl.

Cukor soon left the film to work on Gone with the Wind and was replaced by Victor Fleming. But did Fleming feel he had to change Garland’s look so that he could put his mark on the film? No, he left it because it worked. This was not about the egos or whims of Cukor or Fleming or the other creators on the team – it was about the story. They asked themselves, “What does the story need?” That was the recipe they followed to make a bona fide film classic.

Next time you are working on a story ask yourself what the story needs. Forget the cool scene you want to see. Forget the funny line you had in mind. Forget the quirky character your want to write. Check your ego at the door and ask yourself what the story needs you to do. Be the servant not the master. Surrender to the needs of your story, and in seventy years maybe someone may still be writing about your story. Better yet, maybe audiences will still be enjoying the story itself.


diana green said...

You know, I love Oz more than most. I'm from Judy Garland's home town, and have been accumulating Oz books for decades. But as much as i revere it, the 1939 film is not without its flaws.
Peter David wrote an intriguing essay in the late 70s about the plot holes in the film, and most significantly, the problems with Dorothy's character being so passice, which are corrected in Return to Oz with Faruzia Balk.
The most significant issue in the 1939 is the one you cite as its strength- the idea that you have everything you need in your back yard. The underlying message becomes simply- never dream. Not the best message to send to anyone at a time when we all needed to aspire to something greater.
But aren't all times like that?

Cole Higgins said...

thanks Brian! You rock.

Brian McD said...

Thank you, Cole.

Brian McD said...

Hello Diana,

Nice to know that you are still following the blog. Thanks.

I suppose that everything made by human beings has flaws of some kind. Most classic films have “plot holes” and logic problems. But as Billy Wilder used to tell his collaborators, “Don’t give me logic give me emotions.” If you want to pick apart a story’s logic it isn’t hard. Whatever “plot holes” there are have not diminished the film’s impact on generations of viewers over the course of 70 years.

Dorothy’s passive? Isn’t she trying actively to get home through the entire film? She isn’t sitting and waiting she is following the Yellow Brick Road. In fact she begins that part of the journey all alone.

What you see as the most significant issue is, in my reading of the film, not an issue at all. First of all saying that one doesn’t agree with the message of a story is not at the the same thing as saying that they way that message is delivered is flawed. One is a matter of opinion and the other a matter of craftsmanship – how well was the story told.

The other thing is that, as smart as I think Peter David is, I think he is wrong about what the story says. The film does not say that we should never dream, nor does it say that we should stay in our own backyard. It may look like is says that, but I would expect that a writer as smart as Peter David could see beyond that.

In order to know what the film is saying one must look at what the story proves, not just want any one character says. Let’s look at Dorothy, she dreams of a better place. But in the first act we see that she has people who care for her. We later find that they are exactly the people who become her friends in Oz.

Now let’s look at the Scarecrow – he believes that he has no brain. The very first thing he does is tell Dorothy how to get him down off the pole. Smart. It is significant that he knows how to do it and she does not. He thinks he has no brain, but the entire film demonstrates that he does. He already has what he is looking for.

This is true of both the Tim Man and the Cowardly Lion as well, they too have the things that think they lack. This is why the Tin Man is the one who cries when things go wrong – he already has a heart. The piece is very focused on the idea that these characters already have what they feel they lack.

The idea that may not appreciate what you have in front of you is not the same as saying never dream.

Having said that, none of this has much to do with my post. My post was not about the merit or what was said, but how well that message was crafted and delivered. This is a huge distinction.

We all have messages we think are worth communicating and other we think ought not be communicated, but that is personal and has nothing at all to do with the craft of communication.

My point was that the craftsmen that made The Wizard of Oz understood the point they were trying to make and surrendered to it.

Thanks for continuing to read, Diana.

Elise Stephens said...

My take away: Listen to the stories needs and check your ego at the door... Good wisdom, Brian. :)

OV! said...


well said man. good post.


Brian McD said...

Thanks, OV!

Brian McD said...

Hey Elise,


I think that form follows function in story construction as it does for other things. And that means getting out of the way.

ed cosgrove said...

What you say about surrendering to the story is exactly why I'm not a Frank Sinatra fan. I should be--his voice--what an incredible instrument. But I rarely feel that he entirely surrenders to the song, or even meets it halfway. It seems like his singing is ultimately about his singing. If only he had the humility of a Tony Bennett.

imyjimmy said...

Sinatra was one of the greatest of all time. If you want to hear musicians not surrendering to the song, just listen to any rap artist today. Bling bling baby! And it's all about them. Sinatra was hardly that.

Brian McD said...

No fighting, gentlemen. Take it outside.

jean said...

I've been reading your blog archives for a few weeks now--slowly, to make them last. Your discussions of armature were exactly what I needed to understand the problem I was having with my work, and what I needed to do to fix it. Thanks so much for sharing your incredible knowledge of the craft of story, and doing it in a way that is both entertaining and accessible.

Brian McD said...

Hello Jean,

Thank you so much for the nice comment. I'm glad to know that I have had a hand in pointing you in a direction you find useful.

Unknown said...

Hi Brian. Immediately knew I must pass along to you the following email received from a dear friend, a retired literary professor and expat who's been living in India for the past twenty or so years. Know you, more than most, will appreciate the sentiment:

"The Russian/American novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, famous for having written Lolita, taught a course on the novel at Cornell. In his closing comments to the course he offers the following:

"In this course I have tried to reveal the mechanism of those wonderful toys -- literary masterpieces. I have tried to make of you good readers who read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations. I have tried to teach you to read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art. I have tried to teach you to feel a shiver of artistic satisfaction, to share not the emotions of the people in the book but the emotions of its author -- the joys and difficulties of creation. We did not talk around books, about books; we went to the center of this or that masterpiece, to the live heart of the matter."

Best, Karen Kinch

Kaki Flynn said...


You've given me much information and suggestions for reading; here's one for you.

This guy Napoleon Hill's books - just like you, he speaks in a clear way that is only possible after years of focused hard work.

He has many; but these are the ones I'm reading that I like:

*Think and Grow Rich
*Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude

He kicks it old school - I like the dude.

Here he is on video:


Brian McD said...

Hey Kaki,

Thanks for this. I have a buddy who is into his stuff and I have yet to check it out. Now I will.


-- Brian

Brian McD said...

Hello Karen,

Thanks so much for the Nabokov quote -- it's nice.

Thank you.

-- Brian

jean said...


I just finished your blog archive--I've been reading one (or two or three...) before working on my story, they are great for putting one in a writing frame of mind. I am not a screenwriter, but that seems almost irrelevant as your posts transcend medium to get to the heart of what makes a story. I just wanted to tell you that at first I was impressed by your knowledge of the craft, but I see now that your talent as a teacher is not so much about how you present your knowledge of story, but about how you share your understanding of it. I'm thinking that the difference between knowledge and understanding is similar to the difference between writing and storytelling.

My favorite quote from your blog is "When you ask a writer what their story's about and they give you plot you're in trouble." --paraphrased by Sidney Pollack.
But it wouldn't have made much sense to me a few months ago.

Brian McD said...


You are always very kind with your comments and they always embarrass me. Thank you.

And thanks for taking the time to read through all of those old posts. I’m happy to know that they helped you with your writing. It’s good to know that I reach all kinds of storytellers. I do not want my blog, or classes or books to appeal only to filmmakers, but to anyone engaged in the craft of storytelling.

Thank you so much for taking the time to write.

Mar¡! said...

You know that saying "Ask and you shall receive"?

Just recently I've started work on my very first graphic novel. My best friend is my partner and we are both noobs. Our first 'assignments' were to read both of your books and now we are on to analyzing films. One of the things we were discussing just yesterday was how beautiful it would be to have two different art styles for the novel. I kept wondering where could I find some guidance on if this has been done before. Then, this morning, I read your tweet about this post. Reading it now I realize that we are going at this backwards: we need to craft the story first and then see what serves it best.

As a visual artist I tend to be easily smitten by aesthetics. As a graphic designer I've learned the hard way that function precedes form. Time to get it into action with this part of my life too!

Thank you so much for the insightful post :)