One of the first things you learn as a screenwriter is that your character(s) need to have an arc. They need to start in one place and finish in another. It’s a journey and it needs to be an emotional journey. However, it’s more complicated than that.
Jack dreams of being a millionaire. Jack works hard and becomes a millionaire. Jack is happy. That’s a story that has a journey and is emotional. But, it’s not a story audiences want to see. Jack has to dream of being a millionaire, not for himself, but for someone else. So, Jack grows up desperately poor and wants to become rich, so he can buy his mother a house. Jack works hard and gets rich. Jack buys his mother a house and is happy. Briefly. Jack decides to build houses for poor people everywhere.
Now, that’s not a great story. It’s too simplistic. But it’s simplistic so you can see that movies with heart need to be about people who do things for other on a small or, sometimes, a grand scale.
One of the masters of giving a movie heart was Frank Capra. His film It’s a Wonderful Life actually uses it as it’s theme. His main character’s inner turmoil has to do with whether we should do things for ourselves or whether we should do them for others. George is unhappy because none of his dreams have come true. He wanted to travel and see the world. But instead, he’s spent his life doing for others, and not just the people close to him, but as a bank manager, he’s touched the lives of everyone in town. The movie’s journey teaches him that the real joy in life is not getting what you dream of but in doing for others.
Steven Spielberg is another master of heart. From E.T. to The Post, his main characters are always doing for others. E.T. is the relatively simple story of Elliott and his attempts to help an alien go home. In The Post, the core questions aren’t only about Katherine Graham’s family business they’re about what our government should and should not be doing, and what she’s willing to risk in order to address that question.
There’s also something very important to remember about movies. They’re not real. Even when they’re about real people they’re not real.
There are certain kinds of things people want to hear over and over. Money isn’t everything and it can’t buy happiness. Love lasts forever. Doing for others is the real joy in life. Everyone deserves forgiveness.
Depending on where you are in your life, you may not believe all of those things. You may not believe any of them. But when you walk into a movie theater you still want to be told those things are true.
Sometimes to give a movie heart you have to be a good liar.