May 28, 2008

Son of Rambow

When you're making an indie film, you're always looking for ways to save money. And if you're smart the first and foremost place to do that is in the script.

One great strategy is to make a virtue of having no money - the old turn-lemons-into-lemonade trick. You know you can't compete with the big budget pictures on production values. So you come up with a story that relies on amateur video. This was the main technique used by sex, lies and videotape, generally considered the beginning of the modern indie film movement in the US. And it was used in The Blair Witch Project, one of the highest grossing indie films of all time. It's also used to great effect in Son of Rambow.

Of course, this strategy won't mean a thing if your story is not well structured. Ironically, script is even more important in indie filmmaking than in big budget movies, because the script is usually all you have going for you. And it doesn't cost any more to write a good one. Son of Rambow is a love story between two young friends, and writer Garth Jennings came up with a structure that not only carries a lot of comedy, it packs a surprising amount of emotional impact.

Like most good love stories, Son of Rambow is based on the fundamental opposition of the odd couple. Here a delinquent schemer and religious straight arrow team up to make a First Blood sequel where the son of Rambo tries to save his father. Matching the concept to the personal weakness and need of the leads, both boys are missing a father at home. The odd couple sets up the main opposition, but the similar need sets up the emotional payoff at the end.

But the key structural decision the writer made in this film has to do with the desire line. The normal desire in a love story is for the characters to want each other. But using the normal structure for these characters would have meant no plot and a sticky sentimental mess. Instead, these boys want to make a movie that will win a short film contest. Notice that this external goal allows the writer to sneak up on the audience, to tell a love story where the payoff is a complete surprise.

One of the big problems a lot of love stories have is lack of plot. That's also the case here. The desire, though effective at setting up the final punch, does flag a bit since it is essentially a stall. To increase the plot in the slow middle of the story, the writer adds outside opponents from each boy's family, along with the older kids at school. This character web is not altogether successful, especially the cool French boy that all the English kids worship. But it does complicate the making of the video enough to justify waiting so long to find out who wins the award.

In the Love Story Class, I talk a lot about how to transcend the form, by twisting the beats so the story pays its dues but also gives the audience something new. Writer Garth Jennings has come up with a unique love story structure through which to express the joys of friendship and the power of the imagination.