Thursday, September 4, 2008

Moral Premise Makes It To The Sony Lot

I've been sworn to secrecy, but I can tell you this. Last week I was flown to Los Angeles to screen a major movie in its editing stage (SEVEN POUNDS), have a couple of meetings, and write an analysis of the moral premise. Along with consultants and screenwriters Jim Mercurio (left) and Michael Hauge (right), we watched the film twice over two days on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, CA -- once in the editing dens and then in the leather seated Thalberg screening rooms. (That was cool!) And that's all I can say. It was fun, and great to talk to Michael Hauge, whose book I quote several times in my own, after attending one of his screenplay seminars here in Detroit 15 years ago. It is satisfying to know that the audience I targeted The Moral Premise at, is finally discovering it.

I was sure to wear my MICHIGAN cap on the lot... advertising our state, now with its attractive incentive program, can't hurt. This picture was taken late in the day, but when we arrived early afternoon, the "streets" (at the North end of the Sony lot -- the old MGM studios) were busy with all sorts of folks, including small crews here and there shooting inserts for various projects.


Wayne said...

Great blog.
I think you could see the moral premise in John Mccain's story. Fighting only for yourself leads to shame and pain while fighting for your country too leads to strength and triumph.
As he put it:
I always liked to strut a little after I’d been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.

When they brought me back to my cell, I was hurt and ashamed, and I didn’t know how I could face my fellow prisoners. The good man in the cell next door, my friend, Bob Craner, saved me. Through taps on a wall he told me I had fought as hard as I could. No man can always stand alone. And then he told me to get back up and fight again for our country and for the men I had the honor to serve with. Because every day they fought for me.

Stan Williams said...

Wayne, Thank you for a great post. That is indeed John McCain's moral premise. When I sign books I often will write to the recipient, "May you find the true moral premise for your life and follow it to success." Looks like Senator McCain has done that. Thanks, again.

Matheus F. Ticiani said...

Dr. Williams

While following your latest adventures, I've seen this report just today. Perhaps the final paragraph may have something to do with what you've been doing lately.

James said...

Hello Stan.
I just finished reading your book and enjoyed it a great deal. I've been writing a little piece on it, just to organize my thoughts.

One thing I noticed in the process was that you don't write about the Moral Premise as a rhetorical device. It doesn't *convince* an audience of itself, it simply keeps an audience happy and in their seats.

Do I have that right? Or am I missing something. It seems to me that you don't see film as a means of "reaching" people with a message, but rather see films as a medium that must meet the people on familiar ground.

Successful films give audiences Moral Premises that they already believe.

Is that fair to say?

Stan Williams said...


There is a way that the moral premise IS a rhetorical device, insofar, in a successful film, it is imbued in every aspect of the story, including certain places in the dialogue. But you are also right. For the moral premise to hold a film (or any story) together so that it resonates with truth to the audience, the audience's core values must already agree with the moral premise. 

Successful films always reach people with a message. That is the ONLY reason for stories. Without a moral message there is no point to any story. See the first and last sentences of chapter 2, and a little more on pages 6-7. But the message the Moral Premise conveys is THE MORAL PREMISE, and it has to universally agree with natural law. The moral premise cannot generally be about something that can take on a debatable position, but something that is always true.

A true moral premise, imbued in every aspect of the filmmaker's craft, helps the audience connect with the truth that is buried deep in their spirit... the rules of natural law that Providence has placed in and on our hearts, and which many movie goers have forgotten. The moral premise concept works only because there is no such thing as moral relativism, even if most of the culture believes in relativism. You can't imbue a false moral premise into a movie and have it work, unless it shows exclusively to an audience that is able to live within a ghetto of falsehood. 

To go a little deeper we have to define a couple of terms you're using.  First "believe." You wrote: "Successful films give audiences Moral Premises that they already believe. Is that fair to say?"  Answer: Well, that is correct, BUT, let me define "believe" on two different levels, sub-conscience and conscience. Movies work best when the filmmaker/writer isn't hitting the nail on the head with a political or universal message, and the message (i.e. moral premise) is communicated through natural circumstances or the consequences of the protagonist's moral decisions.  (There's a relationship between what I'm saying here and using dialogue to explicitly, time and time again, communicate what the story is REALLY about, which will turn most audience's off. Show me, don't tell me. My film students are required to write and produce scripts without dialogue first, before they can use dialogue.  People believe things and have values, first at the subconsciene level before they are able to articulate them consciously. Audiences root for protagonists to do certain things because they are hoping he/she will choose good and not evil. They know that evil will bring harmful consequences.)

What I'm trying to suggest is that "belief" is stronger at the universal/subconscience level than at the particular/conscience level. We may SAY what we believe, but our private actions may suggest something entirely different. 

Second "message." I've already hinted at this, and pages 6-7 articulate it better. There are political or particular "messages" and then there are universal or natural law messages. The moral premise is about the latter not the former.  Rhetoric more often lends itself to the former, although it can work easily for the latter. But I think trying to use the moral premise for something particular or political would cause the story to fail. 

Now, you CAN do a story at the explicit, physical level about a political or particular subject ("Save the whales."). But intimately, at a psychological level, the story has to be about something much deeper.

Another, more difficult example: You can do a story about how marriage must be between a man and a woman, which is a universal truth although it is debated politically. Thus, in the context of Proposition 8 there in California, to STATE that clearly in the dialogue the film would come off as an indoctrination piece, or a preachy. There is a documentary about the famous NY composer & conductor Leonard Bernstein that is just fantastic.  Bernstein evidently had a gay side, although he was mostly happily married and had children. But at one point, late in his career he leaves his wife and kids and lives among the gays in NY. His wife is devastated and eventually dies from the trauma, although Bernstein returns home. The message of that part of the documentary is that Bernstein screwed up his life and his wife's by what he did. The natural consequences told the story, not the verbal message. 

Hope that helps.

Stan Williams said...

Matheus F. Ticiani left me a comment here that I cannot publish. Matheus, contact me off-line and I'll answer your question. You may have to respond to the SpamArrest email before I get yours.