Producer of Sense and Sensibility, Stranger Than Fiction, Nanny McPhee.
From the 2017 Austin Film Festival, a Film School Rejects interview with longtime Hollywood producer Lindsay Doran whose movie credits include Dead Again, Sense and Sensibility, Stranger Than Fiction, and Nanny McPhee.
I attended your Psychology of Storytelling panel at Austin Film Festival last year and found the talk very fascinating. You said that your interest in positive psychology began after you read the book “Flourish” by Martin Seligman.
No, it was after I read his earlier book, “Learned Optimism.”
Oh yes, that’s right. I’m sorry. “Learned Optimism” was the book. “Flourish” is his more recent book. So then could you talk a little more about how that has shaped your lens as a producer now? I recall you saying it felt like a bit of an aha moment.
Well, that book and then the later book and then getting to know the people who were sort of leaders in that field, just made me realize, you know, I think a lot of us believe that depression is necessary for art. That the great writers are all depressed, and are all drinking, and are all suicidal, and that movies that make you feel terrible are automatically better movies, and I never really questioned any of that. They really made me question it. They made me say why is that the most depressing movies win all the awards when our field is trying to make people less depressed? Why are you guys trying to make people more depressed? And why do you think that depression is a good foundation for art when research says exactly the opposite. You’re actually more creative the more positive emotions you expose yourself to. That if you’re trying to get yourself out of a story problem, you’re much better off listening to “Despacito” than Leonard Cohen. I mean that’s fascinating to me. These are the kinds of things that I want to share with people because I didn’t know, and I certainly hadn’t thought about accomplishments and relationships in this sort of ballet that goes on between those in our stories and which are the things that audiences are responding most too.
Once I began doing the research and realizing that there are real preferences going on in terms of an audience and what they care about and how relationships become so much more important than accomplishments even though, and this is more from evolutionary psychology. But we are made to pay attention to our accomplishments and wiping out our opponent and winning, but in truth what we really care about are relationships and that those are equally important for our civilization to thrive, it’s just that they’re not important for fight or flight, just for the kind of community that’s required to keep civilization alive, but they’re not as dramatic. So I just found all of that to be so interesting.
And for example, when I work with a lot of writers, because I do a lot of story consulting now, so let’s say I’ll come in the middle of a project. And I will say to everybody, “what is the most important relationship in this movie?” And I will get 6 different answers. When people realize there are 6 answers, everyone realizes something is wrong. There has to be a sense of the centrality of that. It doesn’t matter if there are 2 people or the whole group in Hidden Figures or the whole group in Pitch Perfect, but you have to say in the end, this is about these people; this group, this friendship, this couple. The script will work a lot better if you can identify that. And weirdly that’s the note we got from the studio in Sense and Sensibility. They said, this is great, but we’re not feeling the relationship between the sisters strongly enough. And they were actually right. It made it so much better when we went back and made sure that was the central thing despite all the romance that was going on. So it was just an exposure to ideas that had a lot to do with storytelling even though for positive psychologists, that’s not their main focus, but it’s mine.
And you say it’s not necessarily that a story needs a happy ending, but rather a positive ending. Could you explain maybe the difference between these two a little bit? And how important do you think it is that audiences take away something positive from a film?
It’s two things. I don’t think that people should just watch positive movies. There are lots of movies that I like and admire that are tragic. I never want anyone to think that what I’m doing is saying that you shouldn’t make sad or tragic movies. I worked for Sydney Pollack for 8 years, and he specializes in love stories where the two people don’t get together. That’s what he does for a living. He rarely made a movie where they did. But they’re wonderful movies that will live forever. It’s a lovely way to make a movie. So I would never say that people shouldn’t do that. But I have become aware that we are making fewer and fewer cheerful movies. Those that make us happy from beginning to end. That used to be a standard thing in Hollywood. We were making On the Waterfront, but we were also making Singin’ in the Rain. There was a balance. So you could go to a movie for escape or you could go to a movie to think seriously about social issues. It was all there. Now, I feel as if that genre is disappearing. It’s there sometimes. It’s there in Momma Mia, it’s there in Talladega Nights.
Somehow this idea that movies should be darker has really been taking over, and what I have learned from the positive psychologists is that the mental and psychological health for people who are going to the movies, that kind of escapist humor that makes you laugh in a un-cynical way is really an important part of our mental health. I just want to make people aware that we need to be doing that too. There are lots of good movies that end sadly and end in a devastating failure. And I’m not saying that’s wrong at all. But I do think there needs to be more of an understanding of the importance of it. We are not aware of the importance of making movies that make people happy because that is the crucial building block of mental health, of emotional health, of our own emotional health. As I say, it turns out that writers will be much more creative going and watching a scene of Singin’ in the Rain or listening to Andy Grammar sing “It’s Good to Be Alive Right About Now” than if there were to watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and listen to Leonard Cohen. It’s not that there is no place for Leonard Cohen. I love Leonard Cohen. It’s just that we have to realize we need the whole spectrum of emotion in our entertainment.
And as television gets darker and darker, I mean let’s face it, what do you watch on Sunday night that makes you feel good? I mean it’s all getting very very dark and cynical that I just want to make sure that movies are doing their part to balance that.
Lindsay’s point about the importance of relationships in cinematic storytelling cannot be overstated: That is where a moviegoer dials into the story in an emotional way. And making an emotional connection with a viewer or script reader is critical to a story’s success.
In her Psychology of Storytelling presentation, Lindsay asks the question: What’s the ending of the movie Rocky? Everyone says, “When Rocky loses the split decision to Apollo Creed, yet it’s a moral victory.” Yes, but that’s NOT the ending of the story. This is:
The movie ends with Rocky’s declaration to Adrian: The capstone to that relationship.
Takeaway: Look at your story. What is its central relationship? What is at the emotional core of that relationship?
For the rest of the Film School Rejects interview with Lindsay Doran, go here.
More hundreds more interviews with writers and filmmakers, go here.