My Rules of Movie Making

By:  Iggna Ray Muss

Neither my brother nor I have any formal training in film-making, but we share a passion for movies and believe there are a few rules that should be applied to almost any film to make it worth watching.  Since Anon writes the 140 character reviews you can read on Twitter, it seemed appropriate to let me write this article.  But remember, I’m speaking for him as well as myself.  Check back often to see if any additions or changes have been made since we tend to edit our ideas ad infinitum.

I do not presume to know enough to tell anyone who actually makes movies how to make them.  This is really a short list of rules that make a movie enjoyable to me.  Of course there are exceptions but this gives some insight into why I rate movies the way I do.  

Rule No. 1:   Make me feel something…anything, about someone or something in the film.  Make me care.

I don’t watch movies just to see the art of film-making.  I want the experience to be meaningful in some way or another.  A movie can be entertaining, scary, shocking, thought-provoking, thrilling…  (the list is endless), but nevertheless, the film must affect me or I won’t recommend it.

The exceptions to this first and most important rule are extremely rare.  One that I can think of is Citizen Kane (1941).  It is unquestionably a cinematic masterpiece.  Virtually every frame has meaning and was thought out to the Nth degree.  Almost every type of special effect that was available in 1941 was used with perfection.  If you’re like me and you know nothing about making films, read Roger Ebert’s review of Citizen Kane and listen to his lengthy commentary on the DVD.  It might answer for you the question that had haunted me about this film:  What’s the big deal about it?

Well now I know, but the movie still sucks.  My brother rated it rather highly because of its cinematic excellence, but it ain’t the best movie ever made by a long shot.  When I finally learned the all-too-long-anticipated answer to the question, (What did he mean when he said “Rosebud” with his dying breath?) I couldn’t have cared less.  Nothing in that movie made me care about any of its characters.  And here’s a tip for all of the wanna-be film makers who are screaming at me right about now; Citizen Kane would have been 1000 times better if “Rosebud” had been the puppy he was separated from as a child instead of some stupid sled.  Even I know that if you want to create feelings for the “good guy” and hatred for the “bad guy,” have the bad guy kill a dog or a kid.  I think it’s called character development.

Of course character development doesn’t necessarily take place in an instant, and if I could tell you the secret of creating it I’d be doing it instead of writing this, but good character development is essential to virtually all movies.

That pretty much covers the rule, but I’ll end with a couple of examples.  It’s why Robert Altman’s overrated Short Cuts (1993) was boring as all hell, and Crash (2004) was excellent.  It also explains why I’d take Gigli (2003) over Eyes Wide Shut (1999) any day of the week.  Except for Sydney Pollack in Eyes Wide Shut, and Al Pacino in Gigli, the acting was pretty bad in both movies; however, at least I cared what happened to the characters in Gigli.

One last thing.  As I was writing this I realized that a mistake had been made and I convinced my brother to increase his rating of Raging Bull (1980) significantly.  We had debated this on many occasions and even though the directing and cinematography were excellent, and De Niro’s performance may have been his best, Anon had given it a rather low rating because of his disdain for the character of Jake La Motta.  Assuming the intent was to portray La Motta as a loathsome character, it was a job well done.  “Don’t kill the messenger.”

Rule No. 2:   Have a goal or objective for the film.  You have to know what you want the audience to get from watching it and make sure you accomplish it.  In other words, what’s the point?

As a viewer I have to feel like there is a reason for me to watch a movie.  Do you want me to be happy or sad, to laugh or cry, to feel good or bad, to be scared; do you just want to give me something to think about, or have me learn something?  Maybe it’s just to tell a good story.  The number of possible goals is infinite, but don’t lose sight of it, and never forget Rule #1. It should also go without saying that the need for a goal has nothing to do with the need to have some underlying meaning or a message, neither of which are necessary.

More often than not, the goal will be perceived differently by different viewers and may even become the source of debate.  Maybe that was the goal in the first place.  Wonderful.  You probably won’t believe me (he said sarcastically), but sometimes people read things into movies that the film-makers never intended.  And admittedly, some films have objectives that I just don’t see or understand.

Anon wrote this about The Thin Red Line (1998): “Riveting and masterful directing and cinematography of battle scenes in a “WTF is the point of this?” film.”  One response he received was “I am sorry to say this, but if you concentrate the point of the film is quite obvious. It is a look at humanity as a whole.”  We didn’t get that when we saw the  film and we still don’t get it.  Perhaps we can chalk that up to our ignorance.  It certainly doesn’t make it a bad film, but if that’s true, it’s wasted on us (as Denzel said in Philadelphia, “explain it to me like I’m a 4-year-old”).

Rule No. 3:   End the film with something that makes sense, as that last impression will have a major impact on the viewer’s opinion of the film as a whole.

Coming up with a proper ending for a film is probably one of the most important and difficult things to do as a screen writer, director, producer, or whomever makes these decisions (I’m sure this is not news to anyone reading this).  The endings of countless movies have been changed after test screenings because the ending can make or break it.  A good ending will make up for a lot of shit that went on before it.

When I’m in the middle of watching a great movie I start to wonder how it’s going to end.  Not because I want to solve a mystery or something, but because I like it so much I don’t want it to get all fucked up.   It’s essential that I feel something as I leave the theatre other than “what a waste of time that was.”  A bad ending will destroy a lot of good things that occurred before it.  An example of a great movie with a great ending is Se7en (1995).  Can you imagine a better ending?

Obviously, depending on the type, or goal, of the movie, the ending doesn’t have to answer all of its questions, but it still has to make sense vis-a-vis the goal.  Personally, I love an emotionally satisfying ending but I realize that isn’t always going to happen.   When it doesn’t, I might watch it a few times before I’m sure how I feel about it.  Examples of two such movies are No Country for Old Men (2007) and Doubt (2008).  After reading great things about them, when I saw them my initial reactions were negative.  I don’t care about the intensity of the drama or greatness of the acting if I’m left asking “what was that about?” when it’s over.  I’m sure it was more obvious to others, but I had to watch them again to see if there was a point to either of them or if I had wasted my time.  In both cases I concluded that (and I’m sure others feel differently) they are all about their titles, and were very well done.  Call me old-fashioned, but a movie has to have a point (not a message), even if it’s not obvious after the first viewing.

Rule No. 4:  A film is what it is and must be viewed in that context.  This is intended for film critics as well as film makers.  Of course an extraordinary film will transcend its genre, but generally the quality of a film should be determined relative to the type of film that it is.  Films like Office Space (1999) and Old School (2003) are not cinematic masterpieces, but they accomplished their goals (Rule #2) spectacularly, and for what they are, they’re just about the best out there.  Oh, and BTW, never forget Rule #1.

Rule No. 5:   ???

Please leave a comment.  I’d love to know what you think.

One Response to “My Rules of Movie Making”

  1. Tweets that mention The Rules of Movie Making « THE MOVIE ANARCHIST -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by snobbyfilmguy, Anon E. Muss. Anon E. Muss said: Raging Bull (1980) My brother convinced me to raise my rating from 5/9 to 8/9. See why. […]

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