Have you ever watched a movie and asked why it was so good or in some cases why it was so lousy?
Every now and then I’ll catch myself asking these questions. Most of the time I’ll do it because I cared about the plot or the characters. This is true for the ones I didn’t like.
Last week I dug out a movie I hadn’t seen in years. The movie was Splash. A 1984 comedy/romance staring some new guy named Tom Hanks.
I was in the mood to watch an oldie but goodie and after watching it I started to remember just how good it was.
The 1980’s had a handful of classics – Amadeus, Platoon and Driving Miss Daisy – but comedies were slim pickings. Sure, there were some great ones but in most cases the writers tried too hard for laughs. The storyline was weak or the casting was wrong.
But Splash was different. It could have been a disaster, instead it was one of the best movies of the decade. At least I thought it was.
Curious as to why I thought it succeeded I broke it down and gave the movie a closer look.
I’m glad I did.
The writers created a wonderful balance between comedy and drama. One seemed to feed off the other. They were a team. Not once did I feel one needed the spotlight more than the other.
Tom Hanks played the lonely hearts brother. A responsible business owner going through a recent breakup. The other brother, played by John Candy, was the comedy portion of the team. He was immature, careless and had no boundaries.
The writers could have messed this up. They could have gone over the top, forced the story line with punchlines, creating phony scenes and empty characters. Instead they took their time. We got to know the brothers by watching how they handled good or bad situations. We understood through their dialog and interactions who they were. Nothing was forced.
Daryl Hannah played Tom Hanks love interest.
She was part mermaid part human. It would have been easy and tempting to focus on the mermaid’s side of the story. The writers could have given us endless backstory or side characters in her underwater world. Instead, they focused on the moment. It was as though they were telling the audience to come up with their own answers.
For me this is why I liked her. The mystery drew me in. Where, if I were told everything, I might have become less interested.
At first she struggled to interact with humans but as the story unfolded we learned she was a quick learner. It was never explained and it didn’t matter. The writers challenged us to figure it out.
As I thought about it a lot of it had to do with Tom Hank’s character. We were struggling right alone with him and because we liked him and we wanted him to succeed, we were fine being confused and searching for clues just like him.
Eugene Levy, one of my favorites, played the antagonist. Or so we thought. His goal was to expose the mermaid’s true identity but grew frustrated when nobody believed him.
At first Levy’s comedy approach turned his character into a clown. This could have been a deal breaker but the writers were one step ahead of us. As with John Candy’s character, the writers could have gone too far. They could have turned the viewer off and slowed the pace. Instead, they turned Levy’s character from the antagonist to one of the heroes.
As a viewer the writers did two things that turned this movie into a success:
- When the mermaid was exposed and taken into captivity John Candy’s character grew. He realized in that moment how happy his brother was with her in his life and understood what really matter.
- Levy’s character experienced the same thing. He saw the hurt that he created and took responsibility. Immediately the audience went from hating him to caring about him. We now had four heroes instead of two.
I will stop here just in case some of you have never seen the movie. Check it out sometime and when you do use it as a learning tool like I did.
Splash succeeded by concentrating on the characters first, plot second. The writers went below the surface and tugged at our hearts. By doing so we were allowed to see their faults. We saw tiny bits of ourselves which gave us more reason to care.
Every now and then I’ll watch a movie that works. Splash doesn’t work for everyone but for those like me it not only worked but taught me as well.
Someday when you have time to kill do what I did and find one of your favorites. But this time, instead of watching it break it down and discover why it worked for you. What did it teach you as a writer that you didn’t know before?
The results may surprise you.