What makes a movie compelling?

Posted: April 12, 2010 in Tilt
by Jeremy Doyle


What makes a movie compelling?

Is it the actors?  Is it the shooting? The editing?  The musical score? Sure all these things add into it, but none on their own make a movie compelling.  I believe the answer to what makes a movie compelling is the story.  Without a compelling story, movies become forgettable.

Because I work in production and post-production and have for the last 13 years, I watch movies and TV differently.  I’m critical of the lighting, editing, sound mix, color grade, shot composition, and just about everything else. There is no way around it.  That is just how I’m wired.  I’m sure many of you reading this blog can relate.
If a story is good, I’ll be drawn in and the analysis will become secondary.  I’ll throw out an example from an educational video that my wife and I were watching recently.  The host was telling a dramatic story of a friend who had cancer.  The music was slow and low, giving a sad vibe.  Photos of the friend were doing simple fade ins and outs as not to draw attention to the editing.  When it dissolved to the talking head, the camera was on a slow zoom in (and when I say slow, I mean crawl, barely distinguishable) to heighten the intensity.  Then as the story climaxed, the music switched.  It became a little quicker and more lively.  My mood lifted. The camera started to pull back lessening the tension.
I was fully aware of every trick being done in the production and still I felt the tears building in my eyes.  The story had touched me.  I was able to put myself in the storytellers place and relate with the people being talked about.
Later, in the car, my wife and I were talking about what we had just saw.  I told her I had been laughing at the same time as crying because I was fully aware of how I was being manipulated, but it didn’t matter.  The story connected.  She just looked at me, because she knew.  She knew I can’t just watch something without analyzing it.  It’s rubbed off too.  She can sometimes speak my language now, as we dissect what we watch.
What does that mean for us as indie filmmakers?

Let me throw out a couple of my ideas.

First, we have to have a compelling story.  It has to be interesting and people have to be able to connect to it.  The easiest way for this to happen is for the characters to be relatable.  You have to see part of yourself or part of someone you know in a character.  Another way this can be done is by telling a tale people are familiar with.  The subject matter is relatable.  The audience has experienced what is happening, and shared experiences make it relatable.  Still another way is to make it so unique, that every one watching is learning something.  In my opinion this can be hit or miss.  Some people just don’t want to experience or learn new things and I think you’ll lose them fast. So, in my opinion, the easiest way is to make it relatable either by character or experience.
Second, indies are made with sweat equity.  Lots of time and devotion.  People pouring their own hard earned money from their day job, supporting their film making habits.  These films are our babies.  They are a part of us.  They are stories we believe need to be told.  Because of this emotional attachment, we can sometimes take criticism the wrong way.  We need to be able to step away from the story and look it from another view point.  This is very challenging, but needs to be done.
To sum it up, I think story is the key, but the acting, shooting, editing, and sound all play support parts that if not done properly, can distract from the story.
What do you think? Can a movie be compelling without a captivating story?
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