As we continue down or “lessons learned” list we created by watching a large number of Christian films, lets move onto the idea that nothing in a film should be wasted.
There Are No Small Characters (Or Actors)
One of the best written shows on television is the show NCIS, starring Mark Harmon. The show works on a lot of levels, primarily because the investigative team has formed a family dynamic and you enjoy watching the people solve the crimes. As my daughter once said “I don’t watch the show to figure out the mystery, I watch the show to watch the characters figure out the mystery.”
In other words, the show has a high “hang out” factor… you wouldn’t mind hanging out with the characters because you enjoy their company.
While watching a behind-the-scenes interview with Mark Harmon about the show, he correctly noted that it’s the minor characters, the one-scene actors that actually make the show tick. These are the characters brought in that are specific for the mystery of the week. If they are not on, if they are not believable in their one scene, then the entire story, the entire journey falls apart.
The same holds true with Christian films. Not only are the smaller characters important, but the actors playing them are even more critical to the success of the film.
Speaking from numerous low to no budget film experiences, I know that finding enough talented actors to work on a project as a volunteer or for virtually no money can be a very difficult challenge.
Circumstances or approach have often required Christian filmmakers to fill those smaller roles with lesser actors or non-actors. If this can be avoided, it should.
Remember, the life of a film is very short. If its a feature its only 75-120 minutes. That’s it. If it’s a short film, even less. Nothing can be wasted. No plot line, no device, no moment, no performance.
It is quite common in Christian films that a character with only one line will be performed poorly by a non-actor and immediately jolt the audience out of the world of the film. It may take the audience another five minutes to re-engage with the film. That’s five minutes wasted.
This is especially important at the beginning of the film. Audiences generally decide whether they like a film within the first 10 minutes. Don’t undermine that opportunity by placing non-actors in early moments of the story.
We were watching a short Christian film the other day about a lawyer working in an office. As the film opens the lawyer, portrayed effectively by the actor, was walking through the office, giving the audience an understanding of his job function and his workload. As he nears his office a one-line character came up to ask about a project the lawyer was working on. The performance was poor and the line didn’t ring true. Having watched many Christian films using non-actors, my defense mechanism immediately clicked on and I thought “Oh no… this isn’t going to be a good film.”
The short film ended up being quite good and the main actor was very solid. But one good main actor who’s in 99% of the film can easily be undermined by a one-line actor in .05% of the film.
No role is too small, no actor unimportant. The film’s success is based on the sum of all of its parts.
If You Show the Gun, Use It
In a previous post about screenwriting we talked about a quote from Anton Chekov, a Russian playwright, who said “Don’t show a gun in Act 1 if you’re not going to use it in Act 3.”
There are no wasted pages or characters in a screenplay.
We recently watched a Christian film where a main character was being forced to make a decision that was against his will. The decision time frame was well defined (your decision has to be made by this date at this time) as were the consequences (something bad would happen if you don’t comply).
The character questioned whether or not they could abolish their morals and make the decision being forced upon him, no matter the consequence.
As the film unfolded, we were never once brought back to that final moment of decision. It was a wasted opportunity. If the story would have intercut the action of the story with the main character at this meeting, as the clock ticked down, having to decide whether or not to follow their faith, that would have added tremendously to the urgency of the story and the depth of the script.
But we never heard about that critical moment of decision again, even though it was the catalyst for the entire film.
Nothing should be wasted. If you show it in Act 1, it has to be used in Act 3. If it isn’t needed in Act 3, then it’s not needed in Act 1 either.
So, those are just some tips, some suggestions from your fellow, humble, flawed film makers trying to use their talents to praise Jesus Christ. Let us all do our best, using our best, expecting our best and make films that will touch souls and change lives.