Your Film Stinks, Get Real

– Posted in: Directing Story

During one of his his workshops the famous script writing guru Robert Mckee stated:

There are two keys for an audience’s emotional involvement in a story:

1. Empathy for the protagonist
2. Authenticity

Authenticity = Is your story credible & authentic, does the audience believe in the world of that story?

We’ve all had the experience of watching a movie we didn’t believe. Why is it that we can watch some movies and easily suspend disbelief? Why, with certain films, can we easily lend our belief system into fantastic, death defying situations while other films lose credibility portraying everyday situations?

Part of the answer is genre. Each genre has rules based on historic practices that audiences have come to accept and expect. As long as you stay within the genre rules, you’re on solid ground.

The films story itself establishes rules. An example of this is, a super hero movie is believable as long as the super hero doesn’t obtain or lose super powers at the will of the writer. If the super hero gained a new power just in time to save the world the film would lose credibility. But, if the superhero plays by the rules of the story and cause and effect unfold according to these rules, the situations are believable and you’re safe.  The authenticity I’m talking about includes this and a much subtler level of believability.

As a director you must be an authority of the world your characters live in.


This is where authenticity is found. You want the situations, reactions, motivations, as well as every big and small choice each and every character makes to come from a place of truth. Just because you say it would happen that way means nothing, it becomes credible only when it’s validated in the script and acted upon by the characters. Credibility is built into the screenplay and reinforced by the actions of each of the characters as well as the unfolding dramatic events. It’s important to note that the audience must experience this unfolding in order to know the story rules and become anchored in the film’s world. Audiences do not approach believability with logic. They do it by instinct and if things don’t add up, the audience will feel it and they will zone out. While the audience doesn’t actively decipher our films for cause and effect, the screenwriter and the director must.

This is one of the reasons screenplays go through several rewrites and why experienced directors do a thorough script analysis. Believable cause and effect unfolds with the plot points. When this is done well the story is engaging and gains momentum. When a director fully understands the film’s world, it’s sub-world and the back story, He can use cause and effect to manipulate the audience’s expectations and set them up for an unexpected outcome.

People go to movies because they want to go through emotional experiences. For this to happen if they have empathy for the protagonist the every situation unfolding in this film’s world (authored by you) is authentic. Like the audience, director’s  know authenticity when we experience it, but as the film’s author we must establish the elements of authenticity before the experience exists.Have you seen a film that lacks authenticity?

Have you seen a film that you think excels in this area? Leave a comment and share your insights. You’re participation will help us all. I just saw THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and I think Director Jean-MarcValle’e nailed it. It was raw, very uncomfortable at times and believable through out. The only moment I had to extend my disbelief a little was when Ron (Matthew McConaughy) spiffs up for a date and it turn’s out to be with the doctor. This felt a little forced to me as I wasn’t convinced that he had captured a slice of her romantic heart. It wasn’t a poke in the eye moment, but is was a bump in the road.

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If you liked this blog I’ve got few more that focus on understanding story form a directors POV. Check out these links.

Are you a Director Struggling with Story Structure?

What Does Your Audience Want from Your Film?

Directors – Do you throttle the drama in your story?

How I Stopped Making Soulless Films?