Focusing on the ‘move’ in movies

A film maven explains the positive and negative aspects of American films and reveals what it would take for aspiring screenwriters to have Hollywood come knocking at their door.

Linda Seger 311 (photo credit: Sharon Lenger)
Linda Seger 311
(photo credit: Sharon Lenger)
Close to 300 people packed the Tel Aviv Cinematheque down to the last seat and the aisles to attend the first Tel Aviv Screenwriters Summit, where four of Hollywood’s leading screenwriting teachers were lecturing on the art of the silver screen in a recent two-day workshop.
The Jerusalem Post caught up with one of them, Linda Seger, when she visited Jerusalem after the summit – initiated by the Israel Film Television Producers Association together with The Scriptwriters Guild of Israel – to try to find out the secrets behind the success of the Hollywood formula.
Seger, who has a doctorate in drama and theology and is the author of 12 books – nine about film and three about theology – has been teaching for more than 20 years and has taught in 32 countries. She works mainly as a consultant with directors, screenwriters and production companies and has worked on scripts from all six continents.
So what is it that makes Hollywood so successful? “Well,” says Seger, “one thing is that Hollywood has a lot of marketing dollars that many other people perhaps don’t have. But the other thing is that Hollywood movies have action, while a lot of other movies have dialogue. People all over the world respond to action because it is easy to understand. You can go to a Hollywood movie, turn off the sound and say, ‘I understand what’s going on because they have clear action.’ If I go to a movie where everyone is talking and I don’t understand the language, then I can’t understand the film. So a good film, whether character driven or plot driven, will have the action to keep moving the story,” she explains.
Seger illustrates that point – albeit with an Australian film – when she recalls how one Christmas she was in Milan and decided to see a couple of movies dubbed in Italian. “I wanted to see if I could understand them in Italian, even though I knew very little Italian. I think I understood everything in Shine except that the woman was an astrologer. For some reason I didn’t understand that, but I understood all the relationships, I understood the problems, I understood the thrust of the story, I understood the psychology; and when I saw it in English, I really felt that I had understood the movie [in Italian], that it was a very clear film to watch. It wasn’t just carried by talking, it was carried by movement and action,” she says.
“So I think that Hollywood movies are easy to read by people all over the world. They don’t demand that you sit around and listen to philosophical conversations, and they don’t demand that the action be advanced with movement. The movement doesn’t have to be fast paced – it just has to move.”
While it may seem to some that the Hollywood movie is rule and format driven, Seger contends that Tinseltown is merely adhering to the basic rules of drama. “These are not rules, they are concepts. And to understand drama, you need to understand the concepts.
Many times people say these concepts are from Hollywood, but they don’t even come from Hollywood – you find them in Ibsen and Shakespeare. You find them in the best writers.”
I ask Seger why Hollywood movies, while they enjoy unparalleled commercial success, are often the subject of the critics’ contempt, especially European critics. I expect her to launch into a staunch defense of Tinseltown, but she replies that she sees two main problems with Hollywood films.
“One problem is that they are driven by the star system.
That means your main character has to be just wonderful and usually heroic just beyond how people would be heroic. You have a demand made upon the main character that they can’t be flawed, and that means they can’t be fully dimensional. I think other countries often have characters that can be more interesting because they are not caught up in that star system.
The other thing is that Americans often don’t have very strong ideas; or if they have an idea in the film – it might be determination or perseverance or the underdog triumphs – a lot of times it’s not very rich or very profound.”
Seger offers her take on the perfect synthesis between cinematic cultures. “One thing I have felt in my travels in all six continents is that if the rest of the world could learn to move their stories like the Americans, if the Americans could learn to have rich themes like the Europeans, and if people could learn from the Australians, who are very good at character, then if you put all those together you would have something terrific without compromising your subject, without compromising style and without compromising your particular types of characters and ideas.”
What is Seger’s advice to aspiring screenwriters? “I don’t think people writing in Israel should try to break into Hollywood unless they have a lot of money and are willing to move there and stick it out for 10 years, writing five days a week,” she says. “They would do a lot better looking at the Israeli market and European markets and trying to get a movie made that way. A lot of times after a few movies are successful, if Hollywood wants to come to you, they will.”
Seger worked with one director who went down that path and hit the big time. In 1989, she worked on Peter Jackson’s third film, the cult zombie comedy horror film Braindead (released in North America as Dead Alive), regarded by many as one of the goriest movies ever made. It was also the move that got Jackson known internationally. Success with Heavenly Creatures paved the way to Hollywood, and then Jackson landed The Lord of the Rings.
“I would guess that he was courted by Hollywood,” says Seger. “He didn’t try to break into Hollywood; he started from where he was. I think that’s much better. Hollywood is so hard to break into anyway, so if you’re not from there and you don’t have that sensibility, all you do is copy. I would encourage people to get known in their own countries and also to enter screenwriting contests. If you get one of the top places, Hollywood comes looking for you. If you get toward the top at Nicholl’s [The Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting], they are going to come knocking at your door.”