Movies themes have always been the most difficult concept for me to grasp. The difficulty lies in the subjective nature and perception of the audience. Movies can sometimes have two or three themes as well and couple that with theme being extremely subjective. So, the theme the screenwriter has for the film may not be the one the audience sees.
Think of a theme as a film’s dominant thought and unifying idea. It can be summed up in one word or a phrase. It usually ‘evokes a universal human experience’. Every movie has a theme whether the screenwriter and filmmaker fail to identify them or intentionally created them. They are the embedded in the story’s DNA.
What is theme?
- Money is root of evil
- Absolute power corrupts absolutely
- Love conquers All
Themes to a lesser existent are safeguards for the crew and cast. It’s important that everyone is making the same movie. The ability to explain in a word or universally understandable phrase is paramount. So, if your movie idea is “money is the root of evil” then can you see how the set designer, set props, wardrobe, lighting, film composition, sound, music, etc. all need to be resonating this theme in some shape or form. Assuming the storyline and dialogue are compelling, you would have the makings of a great film.
Themes outline the world in which the story will take place. Like glasses they bring what’s important into focus while effecting the character’s motivation and storyline.
While making my first feature, Rule of 3rds this past November 2021, I would often bring up the theme to remind the actors notes/keys to hit in different scenes as we moved from location to location. Notes or keys are terms I use help motivate actor choices while performing. To a lesser degree I wanted to speak to actor’s musical sensibilities by referring to notes (musical) they should be in while in a film sequence or scene.
The subjects of my movie were Abandonment/Second chances/Lost loves. On many levels the principals characters were grappling with all these themes. If I were narrow it down to one phrase it would be – ‘second chances at love are rare’. I had three principal actors and all were dealing with the themes vastly different one another. If you follow Save the Cat, and I do, characters will spell out the theme for the main characters to heed in the first ten minutes of the movie, but not always.
According to the author of Save The Cat, Blake Synder (every serious filmmaker should own a copy) he has this to say:
“Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up) – What your story is about, the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t Understand the truth… Not until they have some personal experience in context to support it.”
Save The Cat – Beat Sheet.
The most obvious example is Spider Man from 2002 – ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Uncle Ben, played by actor Cliff Robertson, says this very phrase to Peter Parker/Spider Man and he shrugs the advice off. The theme carries more weight later in the movie as Spider Man grows in maturity. The theme was so popular and drilled home, other movies would use it as a running joke or bit.
The next time you watch a movie try and figure out what the theme is. Try to determine how the directors and actors use that theme throughout every scene and sequence. Doing this will help you develop your own skills and usage of theme in your projects.
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