Story, and nothing else, is the secret to making a strong movie, says Andrea Dorfman, an award-winning Canadian filmmaker.
“I once heard a saying — you can take a great story and make an OK film but you can’t take a terrible story and make a good film,” said Dorfman.
“It’s impossible. The story is the essence.”
And this is the message Dorfman attempted to instill in her students at a screenwriting workshop held at Dawson’s Klondike Institute of Art and Culture this month.
Ten students attended the five-day workshop, which started with Dorfman explaining the importance of story to film.
She then provided the “toolbox” for creating that story, including the important elements of audience, setting, structure, research, genre and character.
The students were then asked to write a five-page script and Dorfman explained how they could pitch this script to a movie producer.
But coming up with an interesting, believable story is the all-important first step, said Dorman, who received an award for best documentary for her latest film Sluts: The Documentary at last year’s Atlantic Film Festival.
I try and encourage people with just telling a story to someone to tell a story, she said.
“Storytelling starts with that oral tradition. It’s built into filmmaking, but it’s a thread that goes back to when our ancestors told stories.”
To make her point, Dorfman had each student stand before the class and tell a five-minute autobiographical story.
Some stories fell far short of the five-minute limit, others ran triple time.
After, she noted the strong points of each person’s tale.
“A good storyteller can make a great story out of pretty much anything, and I think that’s the difference between good storytelling and rambly storytelling.
“That’s what I teach in this class, because I think everybody has the potential to be a great storyteller.”
One dramatic story was told from the viewpoint of a four-year-old as she attempted to retrieve her father’s hat as it was blowing towards Niagara Falls.
A second story relived the stressful times of a single mother raising a daughter who suffers from separation anxiety.
A third captured the conflicting emotions of a child who lucked into a giant bag of candy, but could not stand up for himself as his friends devoured it all.
Storytelling is a simple art that follows a set structure, explained Dorfman.
“When it comes down to it, it has to have a beginning, middle and end,” she said.
“With the beginning comes the hook, with the middle, comes the build and the complication of events and it builds into something — it builds into the climax and it wraps up in the end.”
The medium a storyteller chooses — film, print or voice — is ultimately far less important than the message.
“A good story can be as bare bones as a voice on the radio, or just something written,” said Dorfman.
“You don’t need the visuals, music or special effects.”
Only once a solid story is in place, can film-makers use the medium to “create a really magical world.”
But even a great story can be lost in film, she said.
“You can make an inferior film from a great book.”
How does this happen? How does a great story end up as a lousy movie?
Often, because of the director, she said.
It is that person’s job to transfer a strong story onto film.
“As a movie director, your job is to maintain a certain vision that supports whatever the story is.
“There are many opportunities along the way to blow it. Ego can step in.
“You can make a wrong decision as far as an actor you end up hiring.”
Dorfman lives in Toronto but she learned filmmaking while serving as a camera assistant in Halifax between 1995 and 2000.
There, she learned how a strong story will quickly unravel on screen through weak direction.
“I remember when I was a camera assistant thinking, ‘Wow, if I was a director, I would do that differently,’ and you feel it as a director on the set.
“You have so many people telling you how to direct under their breath. It takes a really strong director to filter out what wouldn’t work and what would work.”
A strong director will ignore these creative tips if they don’t meet her vision of what the story will look like on film, she said.
“There are a lot of people stirring the pot, but a strong director with a clear vision will only bring on whatever influences that make sense in enhancing or elevating the idea.”
And the director absolutely has to believe in the story for the film to be strong, said Dorfman.
“You can write a story about space aliens living on a spaceship or you can write about mining and you don’t have to be a miner.
“You can write about men and you can be a woman, but at the end of the day you have to believe in the message that you are trying to convey.
“There is a message behind every story.”
That message must ultimately resonate with the audience for the film to succeed by bringing out raw feelings of honesty and authenticity through a believable story and characters, she said.
After watching the film, “You sit back and go, ‘Yeah, I get it, life is just like that.’ It’s not necessarily that life is all good or all bad — it’s bittersweet.
“That’s why certain stories and storytellers resonate with us. They have that honest understanding.”
Dorfman obviously knows what she is talking about.
Her 2000 film, Parsley Days, was ranked as one of Canada’s Top 10 by a panel of filmmakers in 2001.
“Parsley Days easily made my top-10 list because it is so refreshingly honest,” wrote Liz Czach, a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Firmly located in its Halifax setting, it is nicely grounded in east-coast sensibilities without falling prey to cliché.”
A film will fall apart if the audience simply says, “That character sucks, who would believe it?” she explained to her class.
“Why some films fail is because that honesty doesn’t exist.”
Often, this is because the director chooses to direct a film that she does not believe in, for financial or status reasons.
This is something Dorfman will try to avoid in the future by continuing to write and direct her own films.
“I couldn’t imagine somebody else directing the material I write. No! Because I’m so close to it.
“Likewise, I’ve received movie scripts from other writers to see if I wasn’t interested in directing and I didn’t connect with them.
“It’s really rare that you connect completely.”