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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lots More on Writing Ensemble Films

[Beware: This one is a bit long.]

Thanks, everyone, for your comments on yesterday's post regarding ensemble films. After a long conversation with the producer yesterday, I have a better handle on this script (which I will discuss further in my next update post). But in brief, I'd say that I'm probably going to start this film out as somewhat ensemble-like, though the disparate parts may come together more cohesively by the end.

Still, since I've been doing a lot of thinking about ensemble films, and have been reading a decent amount about them, I figured I'd write a bit more here on the topic, as follow-up of sorts.

First of all, it is interesting that almost all of you commenters from yesterday stressed theme as the unifying and most important element. In fact, it is theme which has led this film towards its ensembledom. As I've described, in developing this film, I started with a strong statement of theme, and built my characters from there. But then I realized that some of those characters were not receiving enough weight or attention in the treatment I had first created. That, along with the producers' comments about having a somewhat more gradual build-up are what brought me to the concept of making it more of an ensemble picture.

By moving between the different character groups as the action rises through their various stories, I will have the opportunity to explore different aspects of theme and maintain more audience interest while the plot advances at a more realistic pace. Essentially I'll have three main groups, and they will all have some interaction with the others at some point in the film, though I have not yet determined if they will remain together through the end or split up again.

Another thing I found interesting in the comments was that nearly every film that someone mentioned in there was mentioned multiple times in other postings or articles I read about ensemble films. What this underscores for me is how few such films actually get made in Hollywood. And yet, a number of the commenters mentioned that they too were writing ensemble films, also despite the fact that almost every article or post I read on the subject counseled against attempting them. At least as a spec writer.

So what does this say? I'm sure some of us making this attempt would probably be better served by not doing it (and perhaps I'll find I'm one of those people, though I do have the benefit of the producer agreeing to the format in advance). But I'd say that anyone writing one of these should really be sure that is what they need to do to serve their story effectively.

I was going to go on now and discuss when it might be a good idea to do an ensemble film, and perhaps why. But I realized I may be proverbially reversing cart and horse. So let me step back a moment and discuss what an ensemble film actually is. My dad asked me in an email after yesterday's post what an ensemble film is. And while many of you other readers may have a better idea, I think it might be helpful to spell it out further.

My brief response to Dad yesterday was, "A film that focuses on more of an ensemble cast, rather than a single main character. e.g. The Big Chill, Diner, Magnolia, Babel, Grand Canyon, etc." But I think there is certainly more to it than just that. The Wikipedia entry focuses both on large cast and multiple storylines. And the different things I've read break such films down in a few different ways. I think ultimately, ensemble is a broad category that encompasses many different types of films, all of which embrace some sort of multiplicity beyond the simple "one protagonist, one plotline" unity of most films. Let's examine some of the various breakdowns people have made.

Konrad West broke ensemble films into three main categories. The Group Hero Ensemble has multiple heroes united to reach a common goal. The Mixed Hero Ensemble features multiple individuals united against a singular antagonist but with distinct goals. And The Non-Hero Ensemble features a more complicated character relationship where each character can be a protagonist and an antagonist in different storylines.

This is somewhat in keeping with the breakdown that David Landau made in his article "Dealing with Multiple Protagonist Syndrome" in the November/December 2004 issue of scr(i)pt magazine. In it, he made the somewhat arbitrary distinction between an ensemble story (what he sees as a truer "ensemble film," such as American Graffiti) and those with an ensemble cast or an episodic screenplay with multiple storylines (e.g. Pulp Fiction or Sin City). The ensemble cast he refers to might be similar to Konrad's Group Hero idea. And his episodic screenplay is in keeping with the Non-Hero Konrad described.

In the comments yesterday, Christina offered some other breakdowns, though in less of an effort to be comprehensive, than to simply describe a number of the types she's noticed. She mentioned ensembles that come together due to a single event, those focused on a stage of the lifecycle, those in which a single individual affects many others [I'm a little unclear on this one Christina -- can you clarify and give an example or two?], and those in which characters from multiple generations deal with the same situation or topic.

I like all of these breakdowns, because they show the diversity of the ensemble format. To my mind, X-Men (a Konrad Westian "group hero") is as much an ensemble film as is Crash or The Red Violin. And while some multiple storyline films are less ensembles and more omnibus (e.g. Twilight Zone: The Movie, Four Rooms, or New York Stories), films such as Short Cuts or Love Actually fall more in the former category.

Thus, to my mind, all you need to be accurately described as an ensemble film is the aforementioned characteristic of multiplicity beyond the simple "one protagonist, one plotline" unity. And then we can break such films down in different ways. I'll stick with the more simplistic delineation of closely connected, mildly connected and largely disconnected characters or storylines.

X-Men (or many other team superhero movies) feature closely connected ensembles, so much so that they become a singular group protagonist. Instead of showing multiple sides to a single character, they give different people the task of representing different aspects of character. Short Cuts falls very nearly on the polar opposite end of the scale, with only the barest bones of a connection between its disparate characters (as I recall -- it has been a while since I saw it).

Okay, so why do audiences like ensemble films when they are done well? And why might we consider writing one? As Linda Cowgill points out, they allow for a greater degree of realism in our treatment of subject matter. She mentions that the ensemble film is almost as old as the feature film itself, with D.W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation followed merely one year later by Intolerance. With multiple storylines in play, we have the opportunity to end some happily, place more of a downer emphasis on some others, and leave still other strands unresolved, as is the case in real life. She points to the conclusion of Diner as a prime example of this. Since realism is one of our main thrusts with this safari picture, this is another aspect that I hope to take advantage of.

Cowgill also highlighted the need for a unifying agent, something to take the place of the traditional Aristotelian unities. To her, that unifying element can be a setting, an object or a common goal. I would see that unifying agent as potentially also being theme (as so many of you mentioned), or even a stage of life, which is something that Chris Soth also mentioned in this post (as did Christina in her comments).

So where does that leave my film? Well, I think I definitely will have the unity of the Botswana safari setting, and as the film progresses the disparate characters may also gain a unifying common goal. And as I said earlier, they will certainly also focus on a unified theme.

What about the issue of weight or attention in the film? Well as Chris mentioned, I highlighted further in my comments on that post, and Christina also addressed in her comments on my post yesterday, in most ensemble films one character gets a greater degree of attention than do others. Think of Wolverine in X-Men or perhaps Brad Pitt's character in Babel. I know that certain of my characters will be more important and gain a greater amount of screentime. But hopefully by looking at this film's ensemble elements I will be better able to make sure that none are so underused as to become unnecessary or distracting.

Whew, that was a long post. But hopefully one that is as helpful to those of you working on such projects as it was to me to lay my thoughts on the subject out!

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Blogger Grubber said...

Good post Joel.

If there was any way I could avoid doing it as an ensemble I definitely would. I figure if it turns out well, even if it does not sell it might garner interest and show I can do some "heavy lifting" and it's good training for future scripts :)

Again, best of luck!

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Joshua James said...

Let's not forget Nashville . . . or MASH . . .

4:19 PM  
Blogger E.C. Henry said...


Love ya big guy, but I think you're worrying to much about cracking the nut, before the nut is fully formed. Write a couple drafts of your story, then go back and see how it works as an ensamble film.

A lot of worry about the story and how it stacks up against other stories sort themselves out AFTER a couple of drafts. By prematurely comparing your story to others, you may be killing the originality that you bring to the table. Ever thought of that?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

9:08 PM  
Blogger Laura Reyna said...

I'm glad you mentioned SHORT CUTS and BABEL. The films of Altman & Gonzales Inarritu/Arriaga should definately be studied.

And i would give the opposite advice from EC ... no offense, EC! ;-)... in that i think you should have the story clearly worked out BEFORE you write it. Work out the story in outline form first! It will save you a ton of time & frustration.

But i think you're already an outliner, as i recall, so i'm guessing this is what you're doing now.

Good luck! :-)

12:24 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

E.C. -- While I know that some people like to just start writing and see where it takes them, I've found over each successive script that I've written, that additional upfront planning suits me best. And in particular in this case, where I need the producers to approve my treatment before I even begin writing, I don't even have a choice.

Still, even if I did, I'd be outlining heavily. I'm not just writing whatever I want here, but rather trying to write something that meets the desires and demands of the people who are paying me, and thus I need to find the best way to make it work while meeting their desires.

I'm not comparing my film to others, per se, but rather I am looking to others to see what works, etc. I am learning from other films, not copying them. And that is something we all should do.

But I thank you for the thoughts nonetheless, and they are no less valid. Just not for me right now. :-)

4:31 AM  
Blogger shecanfilmit said...

"...can you clarify and give an example or two?"

Hannah and Her Sisters - Hannah doesn't change, but the action spins around her. The film really should be titled Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands.

Little Miss Sunshine - It's an ensemble film. The catalyst is Olive getting to the beauty contest. However, the film is not really about Olive. Rather, it's a guy bonding film, and the four men all change. The action spins around Olive and the Little Miss Sunshine contest, but it's not about that.

I may be totally off-base? I do love ensemble films and have made a point to really watch what works and what doesn't. I'm not ready to write one yet, but someday I will.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Troy said...

This was great to find. I have had about a half dozen scripts produced and have dipped my toe in ensemble plots before (my first one was an ensemble western) but usually there are one or two characters pushing the "team". Currently I am starting a new one that I pitched to a studio here in LA and am trying to finish for a July shoot.

But every time I sit to write, even though I enjoy the idea of the ensemble story, I get a bit scared. I did have one in the past that in the end as a produced film did not work well with me (partly in due to all the emergency rewrites during production to adjust to budget and schedule) so I think I am halted by these past experiences. But, the producers are looking for the "ensemble action" film, so this is where we go....

I am using some of my more favorite ensemble dramas like Boogie Nights and St Elmos Fire (outside of The Seven Samurai) to help guide me through it in motivation. But thanks for posting this, helps keep a guy focused!

1:33 AM  

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