Facing The Unknown: The Organic Art Of Storytelling

This is an excerpt from a longer piece I wrote exploring my reasons for not answering particular questions I raise in many of my screenplays and why I choose to tell the stories I do in the manner I do. Perhaps some of these thoughts will resonate for others as well while on their own storytelling journeys. 


How do we react when faced with the unknown? When we don’t get the answers we want? Those feelings that stir within us in those moments and the reasons why we feel we need these answers –any answer– even if it’s not a satisfying answer, is of endless fascination to me. Films that traverse a landscape of ambiguity, those which prefer to ask questions they have no intention of answering, these films are often misunderstood but are, in my opinion, a powerfully organic form of storytelling. Perhaps the most organic form of storytelling as they, quite often, are blessed with the capacity to stir our subconscious and set in motion a meaningful journey of discovery.

Of course, there is no singular answer outside of the thoughts, concerns and fears of each audience member themselves. Yet some people will accuse films –those that choose not to answer all posed questions– of robbing the audience, of “withholding” information that they want, that they feel they deserve or need (they, of course, don’t need it at all). Some will denounce these films as cop-outs and turn to accusations of weakness and unfairness, or go so far as to claim that such films are not actually “about” anything at all; they will point fingers and turn outward. Others will embrace this unknown. They will understand that emotionally and spiritually not all stories are about their plot machinations, but the human beings effected by the mere existence of such machinations.

It is exactly the different reactions a film can elicit from its audience that makes a film and its story so powerful, so memorable, and so individually personal. Remember, we can tell all the stories we want, believe a million different things about the world, the universe, but it does not make any of them so. And while our existence is oftentimes wonderful, exciting and joyous, it can also be scary, confusing and seemingly impossible to grasp. So we react in different ways. Some constructive, many destructive. Even if the intent is good. Sometimes we do more damage to one another in reaction to the unknown than the unknown itself could ever do. This is why it is essential to certain stories that particular questions NEVER be answered. The audience MUST take that unknown out with them into the world. To answer those questions would be to betray everything these stories are about, everything they explore. It would be the true meaning of ripping the audience off, of not giving them the opportunity or credit they deserve. It may not be the experience all audience members outwardly or consciously desire, but neither are the emotions and reactions that questions regarding the nature of existence, the vastness of the universe, conjure in us. And yet here we are. We continue to seek answers, to explore both internally and externally. It is what makes us human, what keeps us moving forward, growing, learning.

It is essential.

Henry David Thoreau

I have no desire to make a film whose experience ends when the final credits roll. The film, the story, is a jumping off point, not the be-all and end-all. There’s a quote by Henry David Thoreau that sums up my feelings on this subject perfectly:

“A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”

The same applies to film. Take the questions asked and discuss them, ponder them, come up with your own answers or decide it’s okay not to know. Look inward, be open to whatever thoughts and feelings have been triggered in you and take them out into the world.

I have always felt that a need for answers without a willingness to go on the journey of discovery results in a lack of growth, a lack of true understanding. One can be religious and not be spiritual if one takes the answers given them when they are a child and accepts them as true without asking the necessary questions required in order to understand those answers. We see this not only in religion, but in politics, in race-relations, in our social systems and interactions. It’s everywhere we look, everywhere we turn. And whether it is innate or learned, there are millions of people who simply do not have the desire or willingness to explore for themselves. It is very likely that any film that refuses to wrap itself up in a ribbon of answered questions is not going to be a film for this particular group of people. Unless it elicits a desire heretofore unrealized. However, this type of film will most immediately appeal to those already engaged in the act of exploration, both internal and external. And that is no small part of the human race, I assure you.

There is a saying that bad films are about the A-story and good films are about the B-story. What this means is that it is not the outward “plot machinations” that make a great story, but how the characters within that story are effected by such machinations. Today’s Hollywood, in my opinion, places far too much emphasis –if not all the emphasis– on plot, on the A-story. Character, metaphor and meaning take a backseat or are eliminated altogether. For me, this is the antithesis of great and effective storytelling. It is my belief that the most organic, the most genuine form of storytelling works on the subconscious.

url-4It is a fact that every conscious creature dreams. And as humans, our dreams play the role of working out our fears and concerns, our doubts, questions, joys and desires. But they are never direct. Dreams have their own logic, their own vocabulary, their own essence. They are oftentimes abstract, surreal. They ask to be interpreted. When we don’t understand our dreams, when we can’t remember every moment, every detail, we can still “feel” them; they linger in our guts for days, weeks, years, lifetimes. And there is no single interpretation of any one dream. Yet these dreams are not delivered to us from some outside force attempting to confuse us, alienate us, dissatisfy us. No, they come from within, from our own subconscious, when we sleep, when we are most vulnerable and least-likely to resist. The movie-watching experience is very similar. In a theater, we go so far as to share in a kind of “group-dream.” At home alone, if we give ourselves over to the film, we can be transported from our couches to experience places, people and emotional stimuli as if it were as real to us in that moment as our dreams are when we are dreaming. And each person’s experience and interpretation of that story and its characters are filtered through each participant’s own personal set of experiences, needs, desires, etc. Our subconscious plays a part even when stories come from without. We take them in, internalize them, add them to our collective dream experiences.

A filmmaker’s job is never to mirror reality but to express reality. Films are not made to look real, to lure us into thinking that what we are watching is taking place in the real world, that we are looking through a window at something outside or in the next room. No, we go willingly to a world that has its own rules, its own language, ever-changing and otherworldly, no matter how much we may convince ourselves that it “feels’ real. “Feeling” real and “being” real are two very different animals. Again, dreams are proof enough of that. More times than not, the most profound, most authentic feelings are triggered by the subconscious via abstraction and/or metaphor. How infinitely and gloriously creative our dreams are. Whether one is a great storyteller or a great thinker in life or not, their inner world is as complex and as expressive as any other’s.

At their best, films, like all great art, tap directly into that subconscious. They do this best when they are created out of the subconscious of another. This is why so many films made by committee are often so dissatisfying, so infinitely forgettable. In our deepest recesses, we are natural storytellers. And we receive stories with equal ease. Storytelling has been with us since the dawn of mankind. It is in our DNA. If we embrace the notion that there are truths within our dreams, that our minds and bodies turn naturally and organically toward storytelling, regardless of conscious intent, then we can begin to see why great works of art exist, why film is such a massively popular art form, and why our most cherished works touch us in ways that words often cannot. Music is a perfect example. Often abstract, poetic, sometimes improvisational, almost always, in its best form, deriving more from a feeling than being an intellectual exercise. Why is Salieri so profoundly moved by the works of his contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? It is not the mere mathematical perfection of the notes, but his deep sense and understanding –his feeling— that the music derives from someplace far more penetrating, more enigmatic, more organic. For Salieri, Amadeus is, quite simply, channeling God. And what Salieri felt lo those many years ago, is still being felt today by millions the world over each and every time they allow themselves to embrace and be embraced by Mozart’s works.

So it is with film.

Film can effect us on a level beyond logic. A person must have a need to share an experience with others before forming the words with which to tell it. The emotion, the desire, comes first, before articulation. Any good actor knows this.

url-1From an early age, we seek out storytelling experiences, ask our parents to read us stories, to tell us far-off tales. We yearn for these. We do so because they effect us, they tap into us. Children’s stories are often quite abstract and rich in metaphor. L. Frank Baum’s book THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ has captured the hearts and imaginations of children –and adults– for generations. It does this long before any desire to break it down, to take apart its pieces and study its meaning and power over us, comes into play. The film version of THE WIZARD OF OZ works on the same level. What is it about that film that keeps children and adults coming back? It is rich with metaphor, it finds us through our subconscious and taps into something deeper than words alone could convey. It is, in so many ways, dreamlike.

As adults, our subconscious has no less need for such storytelling, yet we find ourselves searching for the kinds of stories that reflect our lives now, our adult fears and longings. And yet, too many films today are not willing to engage the adult subconscious from an adult perspective.

At the end of the day, for me, success as a writer and filmmaker comes from eliciting a response as a result of stirring the subconscious –before the conscious mind steps in and enacts its need to decipher, to find an articulated meaning. I see my job as the former. And I see the audience’s job as the latter. Quite simply put, as an artist, any film I make or script I write must be in the service of that experience.

Facing The Unknown: The Organic Art Of Storytelling

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