THE CINEMATIC AND THE UNIVERSAL
Lately, I’ve been watching THE BEAR. It’s a single-camera workplace half-hour comedy in construction, but as it takes place in a sandwich shop, with a chef for a protagonist, it’s also a cooking show. It is not the only cooking show; there are entire cable channels devoted this this sub-genre. We have star chefs who are famous with the general public.
Cooking holds eternal interest for the viewing audience. It’s a very cinematic activity. We have a cacophonic ballet of action: roaring flames, clattering pots and pans, slicing knives, steam rising, ingredients sprinkling, the chef in constant activity and motion.
Time is never-ending factor. This must be cooked for this amount of time; we can’t leave that on the heat too long or else it will burn. The stakes are clear. In a restaurant, if the meal doesn’t come out well and on time the guest is unhappy, the place gets bad reviews, the business is threatened. At home, we’re disappointing the family; the children literally go hungry. And we have a protagonist (the chef) working toward a clear goal (making the meal).
These are all elements we often talk about in screenwriting. And on top of that, our subject matter is of universal interest to a general audience. Everyone needs to eat. Everyone loves good food. On an existential level, we get it.
So much of screenwriting is about deciding what to write. A script isn’t a novel; it’s a blueprint for a movie. Which means that at base we should be looking for business that plays to the strength of the moving image. Hence why we also find eternal fascination with musicals. What’s more purely cinematic than a dance number?
Once we have the idea, we craft the story around common ingredients: Protagonist, goal, stakes, ticking clock, all resolved by the cinematic action derived from our concept.
By looking for stories that have the widest possible universal subjects and themes, we better connect with the biggest possible audience… and hopefully maximize the film’s potential for return-on-investment. So we’re talking about birth, death, marriage, family, happiness, meaning in life… things that, like food, everyone can find connection.
I’ll often read scripts and wonder, Why does this need to be a movie? How is this story better served as a feature? Should it be TV? Should it be a novel? If it needs to be a movie: Why? Is it cinematic?
I’ll also sometimes read scripts that have to go to lengths to explain the stakes. “Oh no, the androids are going to invade the Planet Zorgon!” It isn’t impossible to connect an audience with that, but compare that effort to the easy universality of, “If dinner gets burned, the family doesn’t eat.” Which might seem very humble and “small,” but I would say foundational to the human experience. And once we have that foundation of a human story told in a cinematic manner, the rest is just a matter of putting words on the page.