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.