Authenticity, and ‘Stranger Than Fiction’

I’ll be getting a new batch of Animation Mentor victims students in class 6 in a few days. They’ll have spent the last 12 weeks in class 5, fleshing out a short film idea and blocking it out in animatic form. In my class, their final AM class, they’re supposed to animate the whole thing. I predict one of my major critiques of some of the animatics will center on the issue of authenticity. After watching some of the shorts, I will find myself asking who, exactly, their characters are, and why, specifically, their character is doing what they’re doing.


Some students will struggle with this because they aren’t sufficiently clear in their own mind what the answers are — some won’t have noticed that they’ve been working with clichés instead of real characters. Others will have good answers to the who and why questions, but their storytelling skills aren’t yet sufficient to convey those answers within the context of their short film. Either way, they’ll struggle in trying to animate their characters, because they won’t have a sufficient handle on their characters. I’d been ruminating on the concept of character authenticity when I made the mistake of watching the film ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ over the holidays (yes, I know I’m a year behind in working through my list of films to see), and it occurred to me that an analysis of that film might provide a useful illustration of some important ideas.

Stranger Than Fiction got some glowing reviews, and was supposed to be a thoughtful, even profound film. Uh huh. I found myself disappointed, even angry. The movie has an interesting premise but was completely botched. A quarter of the way through I was bored and annoyed. By the ending I was shaking my head that so much talent could be so badly wasted. Where did the film go wrong, and what does this have to do with character animation?

It boils down to one key word: authenticity. This is an absolutely vital ingredient in good storytelling, and storytelling is what character animation is all about. If your animation lacks authenticity, it’s generic, it’s boring, it’s a waste of people’s time, and it’s a waste of your precious time. Stranger Than Fiction wasted a lot of talent, along with two hours of my time.

My friend Jim Hull (like me, an animator with an avid interest in storytelling and writing) did a nice analysis of the film’s story structure, pinning the films problems in the area of structure and point of view. I think Jim is too generous, and that fixing the structure and POV would still leave us with a hollow, unsatisfying film. I think there are lots of films with broken story structures and POV problems that are still entertaining – if we believe in and care about the characters, we forgive plot holes and structural defects. Hell, we forgive almost anything if the characters are compelling enough. In this film, the main characters aren’t within hailing distance of being authentic, or believable, or interesting, so the film doesn’t get that free pass.

** SPOILER ALERT – stop reading if you don’t want me to ruin the film for you **

Great stories require great characters. In STF, we never care about the characters, because they’re barely there. There are two main characters – Harold Crick, the “protagonist” of the film and of the book within the film, and Kay Eiffel, the book’s author. I never believed in, or cared about, either of them. They’re both generic and shallow and false. They lack any shred of authenticity.

You don’t have to be a writer yourself to see that the Kay Eiffel character is fraudulent. She’s nothing more than tired clichés about writers, which seems odd, given that Emma Thompson is both a skilled actress and a writer, and director Marc Forster has written, and the screenwriter Zach Helm is, well, a writer himself. How could they all get is so wrong?

Granted, portraying a writer struggling to do what they do, within a film, is damn near impossible. The process of writing just isn’t visually interesting. Watching a writer work is about as stimulating as watching metal rust. Usually this is pulled off in films two ways. One, by having other characters ‘indicate’ that the writer is in fact a writer, by the way they talk about and interact with that character. ‘Indicating’ is generally considered a weak technique, and it’s rarely sufficient in and of itself. Moreover, the characters doing the indicating have to be believable themselves first (i.e., authentic). The film tries to indicate Eiffel’s writerly status with two characters: first, the completely unbelievable “writer’s assistant” (Queen Latifah) who’s been imposed on Eiffel by her publisher (a ludicrous development that surely made real novelists guffaw so hard milk shot out their noses). Later we have Dustin Hoffman’s wacky lit professor character sing her praises, so now we HAVE to know how great Kay is. But, well, the professor is no more authentic than any other character here, and by then it’s too little, too late. In the professor’s shallow literary world, the very phrase “Little did he know” counts as great literature in and of itself. Yeeeeaaaaahhh.

A writer at work.

The second way to show that a writer is a writer in film is simply by having them ‘signify’ being a writer by acting like what we expect writers to act like – intelligent, verbal, eccentric, socially maladjusted, passionately arguing their points with other characters, wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, etc. Again, not so easy to do, and it depends on the writer character’s traits being unique, specific, authentic. If you want to signify that a character is a police officer, you put them in a uniform, and have them do something only cops do, like arrest somebody. It’s easy to show that the character is a cop. Not so easy to ‘show’ someone being a writer. ‘Adaptation’ had Nick Cage doing this with two different writer types. It was a little over the top, but both characters felt real in their own ways. Both the writer brothers were specific, and terrific fun to watch. In STF, Thompson ‘signifies’ being a writer with a few hoary clichés – lots of nervous twitching, chain smoking, odd posturing, swigs from bottles of alcohol, and finally throwing writing equipment around the room. Anyone believe that’s what writers do when they work? No. What’s worse, it’s not interesting to watch.

Years ago I was watching the film ‘Julia’ with my older sister, who was doing some writing at the time. There’s a scene where Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman character huffs and puffs at a typewriter, trying to find the words she wants, takes a few macho swigs out of a bottle of whiskey, and finally throws her typewriter out the window in frustration at the difficulty of the writing process. My sister, not prone to talking to the screen, blurted out something along the lines of, “Oh, jeeze, what bullshit.” That was my reaction as I watched Thompson’s Kay character climbing on her desk, staring off into space, and generally acting flamboyantly autistic and tortured.

The striking and unusual thing is, this is the rare film that actually SHOWS us what the writer is writing. No need to ‘indicate’ or ‘signify’ – we literally SEE her novel come to life, and hear chunks of her text. This is the film’s central conceit, and we will believe in the character of ‘Kay the great writer’ to the extent that we believe in her novel. And this is exactly where the film fails. Her novel sucks. No, that’s not accurate, this is: there is no novel. Nothing happens to a nothing character. It’s nothing, squared, which is a lot of nothing. There’s no hint of a plot or a story. There’s no hint of an interesting setting or environment or situation. There’s essentially no conflict, no drama. And worst of all, the novel basically involves a single character that has to be the most uninteresting figure in the entire canon of western literature. Let’s look at this character: Will Ferrell’s Harold Crick.

What can we say about Harold? He’s an IRS auditor. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder. And . . . uh, well, that’s it. There’s literally nothing else about him. His flavor of OCD isn’t interesting, and he doesn’t struggle against it. It actually serves him in his work. We see no evidence that he’s remotely conflicted about being an IRS auditor. He has no outside life, no meaningful friends or family, no goals, no wants, no needs, no nothing. To call him a cardboard character is an insult to cardboard. He’s so blank he’s virtually invisible.

Scintillating action by a fascinating character.

We don’t see the beginning or middle of the novel, but from all indications, absolutely nothing happens in those pages. Or rather, the same thing apparently happens, again and again and again, ad nauseum. We are given the impression that Mr. Crick has been happily counting his toothbrush strokes and his steps to the morning bus and doing his IRS work day after day after boring day, for years and years, with no desire to change his routine, and no meaningful interaction with anyone else. And we’re supposed to believe that not only has this so-called life been the material for a novel, but it’s an important, landmark, literature-changing novel. I call bullshit!

Then we get to the climax of the novel (if something inert can have a climax), where Crick runs into Maggie Gyllenhaal’s groovy, sexy tax-protesting baker, Ana. For Ana to be authentic we have to believe that she has some deep inner need to fall for someone who represents the exact opposite of everything she is. Why would a spontaneous, intelligent, passionate, anti-establishment, artsy, free-spirited, attractive tax protester fall in love with an uptight, awkward, weird, obsessive, straight-laced IRS drone who’s there to fine her and probably to send her to jail? The film gives us no real reason to buy this development, other than Crick showing a moment of wit with an assortment of ‘flours.’ It’s more inauthenticity, though by this time I’d already been fighting the urge to turn the DVD player off, so I didn’t care that these completely mismatched people hook up in clichéd movie fashion.

Then comes the film’s payoff, the answering of the central question the film’s been asking all along – if a fictional character becomes real enough, is it okay to kill him off? Let’s ignore the fact that, of all the characters ever written, Harold Crick would be about the last one to come to life. I couldn’t even get to that question. What I wanted to know was, what in Kay Eiffel’s groundbreaking novel could hinge on him dying? The professor tells us Crick MUST die for the novel to be great. What has the movie shown us that justifies this? Crick lives a completely empty life, then because he finds out he’s a vacuous character in a novel who’s about to die, he goes on a vacation (!), gets a girlfriend, and then dies. That’s a story?!? No, sir, it is not. Not a great story, not a good story, not even a story at all. He could live, die, be resurrected, and get killed off a dozen more times, and it still wouldn’t be a story worth telling.

For most of the movie, writer Kay has played with many different possible deaths for Harold, from accidents to suicide, some of which relate to a malfunctioning wristwatch. We’re led to believe that the mechanism of his death is important, and tying it in with Crick’s OCD and wristwatch obsession is supposed to have story value. Again, why? To show the tragedy of a defective wristwatch? Never has so much angst been hung on so little. Then, in the end, when she doesn’t kill him off, it’s such a false note, and so unsupported by anything we actually see in the movie, that the last few minutes of the film are devoted to her explaining why she doesn’t do it. Hey, here’s a 411 to budding filmmakers and animators alike: if you have to literally explain to your audience what just happened and why it happened, you’ve failed in your cinematic storytelling. Explain nothing. Show what needs to be shown. Let the audience put it together. Period.

To bring this back to character animation, I’ve animated on films that, like STF, had shallow storytelling and empty, superficial characters. It’s hellish. The phrase polishing a turd gets used. And I’ve animated on well-written films with fascinating characters. That’s a ball. I think this is why the film made me angry. I take filmic storytelling too seriously for baloney to be passed off as something profound.

Doing quality character animation requires characters who are authentic, and who have something real and specific that they’re trying to accomplish. Animating is hard work, made all the harder if we (or our writers and story departments and directors) haven’t taken the time to create real characters within a real story. Anything less makes for an exercise in pulling splines.

POSTSCRIPT

After writing this I took a look at Stranger Than Fiction‘s box-office record. Here was a heavily advertised big-studio holiday release, prominently starring the most bankable star in Hollywood, which got generally good reviews. It should have made a mint. Instead, it made a paltry $40 million domestically, and a pathetic $13 million overseas. The movie tanked, not because no one heard of it or people didn’t want to like it, and not because it didn’t have great production values and an excellent cast — its false, shallow characterizations and tissue-thin story simply didn’t deliver entertainment value.

14 Responses to “Authenticity, and ‘Stranger Than Fiction’”

  1. Alexiss Says:

    Heya Kevin — really interesting points here man. I’m not going to be one of your “victims” this term as I’m just getting going in class 5 this term, but this was an interesting read — especially as I’m just about to dive into developing my short film story with c5 starting this week. With ideas I’ve been tossing around I’ve been working through a lot of character development sheets — trying to find the essence and purpose of those characters. Hopefully that’ll push me to have those strong characters in my story. I’ll be looking forward to watching some of your eCritiques. :)

  2. Jim Says:

    But what do you really think about it…?

    LOL – Great article Kevin I think it’s interesting that we both spent so much of our own personal time commenting on this film. For me I think it’s because it seemed like such a great premise at first that we get really frustrated when it ends up being handled so poorly.

  3. Kevin Says:

    Hi Alexiss,

    Good plan. Give yourself juicy characters that will be fun to animate, and that will go a long way towards carrying you through those late nights to come in class 6.

    Hey Jim,

    Haha, yeah, I hated it, in the way that you hate something that could have and should have been much, much better. I think we both ripped into it for the same reasons — it raised our expectations, but didn’t deliver the goods. I will give the filmmakers credit for aiming high.

    I just saw ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ last night. Great film. It has some similarities to ‘Stranger Than Fiction.’ We again see the novelist at work, and we see the novel itself being played out before us. The key difference is that the Schnabel film is beautiful and rich in it’s characterizations, and it builds to a deeply moving conclusion that no one has to explain to you.

  4. DJ Says:

    oh boy..

    the more i read about this stuff, the more im worried about my own shortfilm.. may be my next shortfilm will be better. this is GOLD! Thanks for taking the time for maintaining a blog Kevin!

    DJ

  5. DJ Says:

    I think one of the problems I had, was that I was worried too much about time limits and story points that i overlooked clarity and authenticity in my character. i was also worried about animating it since i was going for subtlely for the first time.

    so, here is a question Kevin. What do you think about when you have to start doing a shortfilm? Do you start with Genre first, style next and then the story and characters? Or the other way round?

    If we start with a story, I found that I was coming up with only long epics. If I start with characters, i find it hard to find interesting non-cliche situations and finding that i dont have enough time on my shortfilm time budget to set up the premise and introduce the characters and situations. And, considering my STUDENT/VICTIM efforts, i was worried about learning particular things in animation while doing so (like animating a face and subtlety) and also about having a message in it.

    I think that got me into a tangle. So, how would you go about it/what would you advice as an approach for my next shortfilm or to the class 5 students?

    DJ

  6. DJ Says:

    Oh.. as always.. one last question.. hehe.

    What do you think about the authenticity of my character in my shortfilm? I am finding it more and more sterile and generic the more I read about this stuff. Honestly, if it was not a student shortfilm, what would you think i should have done differently?

    man.. 12 weeks with you guys is just not enough. You know so much but we cant get everything down in 12 weeks! Im gonna bother you with questions on this blog Kevin. Ignore if you find it annoying.. :)

    DJ

  7. Kevin Says:

    Hi DJ,

    You have some great questions. I think I’ll make them into a new post and answer them there.

    Kevin

  8. Alonso Says:

    So what do you do when you’re working on a film that “had shallow storytelling and empty, superficial characters.” what can you do to try and bring your scene up a level, in spite of the writing? Do you make up your own backstory trying to fill in the blanks the director/writer left? How do you get inside your character’s head so you can create a believable performance when the obstacle is obviously a plot device not feeling organically grown from the situation?

    -Alonso

  9. Kevin Says:

    Great questions, Alonso. I’ll try to organize my thoughts on the subject and put it up as a future post. Maybe I’ll use the title “Faking It.”

  10. J.P. Says:

    Just wanted to say I enjoyed your review immensely and thought it was absolutely spot-on. Just saw this movie on cable yesterday and had almost the exact same reaction–what a waste of a talented cast and an interesting concept. As a writer myself [a newspaper sportswriter], I recognize a hack job when I see it, and Eiffel’s novel is a total hack job. For me, the movie fell apart, as it did for you, when I realized she’s a terrible author with nothing to say, because the whole film pivots on us believing this is a great work of art she’s writing. As you said, there is no novel, and what is there, sucks, complete with a hoary rom-com meet cute followed by a completely non-believable courtship. And both main characters–the joyless numbers cruncher and the tortured, chain-smoking artist–also are horrible cliches.

  11. Kevin Says:

    Thanks, J.P. Excellent, succinct summary. It’s always nice to hear from like-minded folks.

  12. J.P. Says:

    You’re welcome, Kevin. I guess as a writer it especially bothered me that this film was trying so hard to act like it was intellectual and it was really dumbed down anyway. As you noted, ‘little did he know’ isn’t exactly a groundbreaking way to indicate foreshadowing. I also didn’t get the author’s ‘method-actor’ approach to writing a death scene, either. Again, the basic problem, as you pointed out, is that no novelist worth his/her word processor would try to build an entire book around such a nondescript, non-conflicted character, let alone an alleged’ best-selling’ one.

  13. Brian Says:

    I dont think it was perfect, but I must admit, was moved to tears a few times, I don’t know why but it really stuck a chord with me. That puts it in my “good movies book”.

    I agree with your assessment of the main character being nothing, and to me it seemed that was the whole point. It had flaws no doubt, but I found it east to forgive them and was sucked in.

    What do you think about the idea that not all films are not tailored the same way and that a movie targeted more specifically at a niche aspect of life, (and even the use of clichés) may not get rave reviews or massive sales, or even make a connection to a wide audience, but the few it reaches are deeply moved?

    Was it the gereatest movie ever? Not in my opinion, however, personally I would love to make a movie as good as STF in my lifetime. :)

    Great site and great article, keep up the good work, I love reading your site, so my taste cant be that bad right? ;)

    Still learning,
    Brian

  14. Kevin Says:

    Hi Brian — I embrace the idea of films made for niche audiences, and I embrace the idea that not all films are made the same way. That said, my impression is that STF was intended for a fairly wide audience, and I think the box office records shows I’m not the only one with whom the film didn’t connect.

    I’m a bit confused by your statement ‘I agree with your assessment of the main character being nothing, and to me it seemed that was the whole point.’ I found the main idea of the film was that the writer was struggling with the decision of how (and later, whether or not) to kill off her protagonist in what was supposed to be a great and important novel. Her dilemma was that the nature of the character’s death was crucial for the novel’s greatness or importance. and she was stuck with making that death work for her. Now, if she were writing something with a clear existential theme, and Harold was seen to be obsessing about his own existence (think ‘Crime and Punishment’ or ‘The Stranger’ or even ‘On the Road’), this might have generated a bit of traction. But Harold was a boring man with OCD and not a whif of introspection. Imagine a book about a man with no interior life who does the same thing day after day? Hell, I couldn’t finish ‘The Stranger’ the one time I tried to read it, so I know I wouldn’t read 10 pages of such a book. Nor do I think anyone else would.

    Still, I’ll grant you that the movie has a few charms. Will Farrell is good at doing almost nothing, and despite clearly trying way too hard, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson are fine actors. And the production values are fairly high. To me, that all makes the film’s failure all the more unforgivable, but I respect that parts of the film moved you. And keep reading this site — I’ll help you improve your taste! ;)

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch