Last week, I was watching Clint Eastwood’s newest flick Changeling—just sitting there, enjoying the movie, watching Angelina yell “I want my son back” for the umpteenth time—when suddenly, I couldn’t hold it in any longer:
I started to LAUGH!
It rose up out of me, and once the seal was broken it took several minutes to bottle it back up. By then, it was too late: The bug had spread, and others in the audience were now choking it back as well…
I felt terrible! I respect the austerity of movie theatres, and am always the first to turn off my cell phone—well before the digital popcorn man reminds me to do so. And yet, here I was: Absolutely challenged not to bust at the seams at this quiet, ostensibly DRAMATIC part of the film. Something had happened. The movie had just undergone a TONAL SHIFT, and in one short moment—it had lost me.
It was a part of a scene that had clearly been improv’d on set, and not a product of J. Michael Straczynski’s original script (I hope). And I don’t blame Angelina, either—actors have a right to overindulge on set, and this was a moment that should have been edited out: As though reminding herself of why she was crying, Angelina went broken-record, and starting repeating, each time more demanding than the last, “I just want him back, I want him back, I just want my son back…” It didn’t work. It could have, but it didn’t. And in this moment, I knew we had just taken a detour from the roughhewed world of DRAMA, and had entered the murky waters of something far more treacherous:
The very word gives me the shivers.
There is a time and a place for melodrama—the time is 10am to 4pm, and the place is Lifetime Channel or the broadcast networks. It belongs nowhere else. In comedies, melodrama may also rear its ugly head—but the purposeful use of melodrama to induce laughter is something else instead. Self-aware melodrama shifts categories, and joins the well-respected genre of FARCE.
So what is melodrama? Why is it so nasty, and how can writers avoid it?
Simply put, melodrama is drama for drama’s sake. When a scene separates from its dramatic foundation, and lifts-off into a world of heightened emotion and strained interaction that seems out-of-sync with the situation inspiring these reactions, it has become melodrama. Interestingly, the term “melodrama” comes from the Greek words for “musical drama,” and was used to describe plays whose emotional beats were exaggerated by music. This exaggeration still defines the format. When the emotions and/or situations of characters in a movie start to feel pushed or bloated for dramatic affect, you have entered the land of make-believe known as MELODRAMA.
For writers, dramatic over-indulgence can be easy. Everyone wants their scripts to pack a punch, and what’s so wrong with having one’s characters cry, scream, pound on their chests, and EXPLODE INTO RAGE at life’s many injustices?
Nothing. But you better make sure that the situations inspiring these events would REALISTICALLY create those reactions. Melodrama is created when a character’s REACTION to an event seems out of whack with the ACTION that initiated it. In Changeling, you would EXPECT Angelina to be sad and to lose control at her son’s disappearance. But at the point I started laughing, her son had already been gone for many months, and we had watched her break down MANY times already. With little new impetus, Angelina broke down into a torrent of tears that now felt uninspired by her situation, and included in the film only to make the audience feel her loss more intensely. The result was the opposite. Because her tears seemed exaggerated in the context of the scene, myself and others were sucked out of the story, and reminded in that moment that this was all just a movie.
Americans have a high-bar for melodrama. Our summer blockbusters often include scenes and characters that milk their emotional contexts for everything they’re worth.
But we also know when we’re being duped. Remember in the post-911 years when the Bush administration introduced a series of colored threat levels? ORANGE THREAT meant trouble, but RED THREAT meant totally heinous, serious shit was coming to a city near you! Well—after months of ORANGE THREAT LEVELS with virtually no televised terrorist action, people began to sense that the federal government was being a little sensationalist. And when the RED THREAT LEVELS returned (along with their heightened security and travel restrictions), Americans began to suspect that they were being duped. No matter what the reality behind the claims, when Americans started to feel like their emotions were being MANIPULATED, the DRAMA of the terrorist warnings had become MELODRAMA—and had lost their credibility.
Don’t let your script lose its credibility. You can have highly emotional, ratcheted-up scenes and characters, but you must also make sure that these reactions feel REALISTIC and IN CONTEXT to the situations inspiring them. Don’t push the intensity of your scenes so far out of alignment with your storyline that you risk losing your audience half-way through the film.
A movie is a contract. Once you have them in their seats, an unspoken promise is made to your audience that for the next two hours they can TRUST YOU to take the reigns on their emotions. If you break this contract midway through a film it’s near impossible to win them back.