questionmarkI am writing an extended essay in order to get my IB Diploma for school, and Mr. LaRue is my coordinator. My extended essay is about film, especially about emotions in film. I was wondering if you could help me out by answering a few questions.

What causes emotional catharsis in a movie?

What sort of components (lighting, sound, dialogue,…) have the most emotional effect on the viewers, and do you have any examples?

What techniques are used to produce emotions within the viewer of a movie?

What are some things that you have specifically done (relating to the screenplays that you have written) in order to produce emotions in a movie?

— Danielle
Fairview High School

Danielle is attending my former high school, so I feel some duty to steer her in the right direction, if not exactly answer her questions. But for readers who didn’t grow up in Boulder, Colorado, a little background is in order.

Boulder is a medium-sized (100,000) city tucked right into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It has a much bigger national reputation than it should, largely because of its university (CU) and its reputation as a bastion for all things New Age-y. Mork and Mindy was set there, and quite believably; a man claiming to be an alien would not raise the slightest suspicion on its snowy streets.

There are two rival high schools in the city: Boulder High and Fairview. Except that Boulder High doesn’t really consider it a rivalry, because they’re too cool to give a shit. For example, Josh Friedman went to Boulder High, and would never need to answer a question from a student there, unless it was why his Terminator show glorifies violence at a time when G8 countries should be focusing on global debt relief.

It’s an accepted truth that schools are falling apart and today’s youth aren’t getting nearly the education older generations did, but by all accounts Fairview is actually a much more academically rigorous school now than when I attended. I took three AP classes, which would now be openly mocked by students like Danielle. I never wrote an extended essay about emotion in film. But if I did, I’d probably reach the following conclusions.

  1. Emotional catharsis is a direct function of how much the audience identifies with the character(s). Catharsis is a journey through dark territory, and you don’t go on that trek unless you can put yourself in a given character’s place, and feel like you’re living that experience.

  2. The triumvirate responsible for creating emotion are The Writer, who creates the character and lays out the obstacles; The Actor, who gives the character weight and breath; and The Director, who coordinates the technical elements (such as lighting, editing, and music) to achieve the emotional reaction desired.

  3. An example from my own work: Will telling Edward the final story in Big Fish.

GIANT SPOILER WARNING if you haven’t seen the movie.

On a writing level, the moment wouldn’t work if we hadn’t invested time in seeing their dilemma from both sides: the frustrated son, the slippery father. The script sets up a lot of elements and characters for recalls: Karl the Giant, the shoes, the Girl in the River.

The performances are strong, with actors continuing threads established earlier. In particular, Billy Crudup tends to get overlooked here: because he’s so prickly earlier on, it’s particularly affecting to see him struggle to hold on.

Finally, Tim Burton directs the elements calmly. From visuals to music, he’s careful not to push too hard or too fast, letting the emotion kindle.

Good luck with the essay.