Filmmaker Andrew Stanton on The Clues To A Great Story at TED – Transcript
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Andrew Stanton – Filmmaker
A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland, and he stops at a pub to get a drink. And the only people in there is a bartender and an old man nursing a beer. And he orders a pint, and they sit in silence for a while. And suddenly the old man turns to him and goes, “You see this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands from the finest wood in the county, gave it more love and care than my own child. But do they call me MacGregor the bar builder? No.”
Points out the window. “You see that stone wall out there? I built that stone wall with my bare hands. Found every stone, placed them just so through the rain and the cold. But do they call me MacGregor the stone wall builder? No.”
Points out the window. “You see that pier on the lake out there? I built that pier with my bare hands. Drove the pilings against the tide of the sand, plank by plank. But do they call me MacGregor the pier builder? No. But you fuck one goat… “
Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings. We all love stories. We’re born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.
The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the most, greatest story commandment, which is “Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching channel after channel, and then suddenly you actually stop on one. It’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in and you care. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.
So it got me thinking, what if I told you my history was story, how I was born for it, how I learned along the way this subject matter? And to make it more interesting, we’ll start from the ending and we’ll go to the beginning. And so if I were going to give you the ending of this story, it would go something like this: And that’s what ultimately led me to speaking to you here at TED about story.
And the most current story lesson that I’ve had was completing the film I’ve just done this year in 2012. The film is John Carter. It’s based on a book called The Princess of Mars, which was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. And Edgar Rice Burroughs actually put himself as a character inside this movie, and as the narrator. And he’s summoned by his rich uncle, John Carter, to his mansion with a telegram saying, “See me at once.” But once he gets there, he’s found out that his uncle has mysteriously passed away and been entombed in a mausoleum on the property.
[Video – Butler: You won’t find a keyhole. Thing only opens from the inside. He insisted, no embalming, no open coffin, no funeral. You don’t acquire the kind of wealth your uncle commanded by being like the rest of us, huh? Come, let’s go inside.]
What this scene is doing, and it did in the book, is it’s fundamentally making a promise. It’s making a promise to you that this story will lead somewhere that’s worth your time. And that’s what all good stories should do at the beginning, is they should give you a promise. You could do it an infinite amount of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as “Once upon a time … “ These Carter books always had Edgar Rice Burroughs as a narrator in it. And I always thought it was such a fantastic device. It’s like a guy inviting you around the campfire, or somebody in a bar saying, “Here, let me tell you a story. It didn’t happen to me, it happened to somebody else, but it’s going to be worth your time.” A well told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end.
In 2008, I pushed all the theories that I had on story at the time to the limits of my understanding on this project.
Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal.
We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There’s a reason that we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just that they’re damn cute; it’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking and what their intentions are. And it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.
I first started really understanding this storytelling device when I was writing with Bob Peterson on Finding Nemo. And we would call this the unifying theory of two plus two. Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience. Editors and screenwriters have known this all along. It’s the invisible application that holds our attention to story. I don’t mean to make it sound like this is an actual exact science, it’s not. That’s what’s so special about stories, they’re not a widget, they aren’t exact. Stories are inevitable, if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.
I took a seminar in this year with an acting teacher named Judith Weston. And I learned a key insight to character. She believed that all well-drawn characters have a spine. And the idea is that the character has an inner motor, a dominant, unconscious goal that they’re striving for, an itch that they can’t scratch. She gave a wonderful example of Michael Corleone, Al Pacino’s character in “The Godfather,” and that probably his spine was to please his father. And it’s something that always drove all his choices. Even after his father died, he was still trying to scratch that itch. I took to this like a duck to water. Wall-E’s was to find the beauty. Marlin’s, the father in “Finding Nemo,” was to prevent harm. And Woody’s was to do what was best for his child. And these spines don’t always drive you to make the best choices. Sometimes you can make some horrible choices with them.
I’m really blessed to be a parent, and watching my children grow, I really firmly believe that you’re born with a temperament and you’re wired a certain way, and you don’t have any say about it, and there’s no changing it. All you can do is learn to recognize it and own it. And some of us are born with temperaments that are positive, some are negative. But a major threshold is passed when you mature enough to acknowledge what drives you and to take the wheel and steer it. As parents, you’re always learning who your children are. They’re learning who they are. And you’re still learning who you are. So we’re all learning all the time. And that’s why change is fundamental in story. If things go static, stories die, because life is never static.