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August 6, 2020

Why Endings Matter in Movies – Jarhead and the Goldfinch

I was 14 when I rode on an airplane for the first time. I was excited and terrified (mainly because I’m afraid of heights), but once we were in the air I felt my nerves settle and I began to enjoy it. That was until the pilot announced we were about to land. My father leaned over and said, “Now it’s time to see how good the pilot is. It’s easy to fly, but landing the plane is the real challenge.” 

I look at filmmaking a lot like flying a plane. It’s easy to take someone through the journey of a story but unless you can land them home safe, the whole journey is for nothing. We have all felt this before: the story is strong, we are invested in the characters, and then the director has no idea how to land the plane and we are left feeling let down or disappointed. The ending is everything.

Jarhead and The Goldfinch

I wanted to take a moment to discuss two beautifully shot films I watched recently and how one ending left me in awe and the other indifferent. Jarhead directed by Sam Mendes and The Goldfinch directed by John Crowley.

Jarhead Trailer
The Goldfinch Trailer

Both films had me glued to the screen for different reasons. Jarhead is a psychological study of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm through the eyes of a U.S. Marine sniper who struggles to cope with the possibility that his girlfriend may be cheating on him back home, and ultimately plays with the theme of what happens to a person when they are transformed into a war machine, but go to war and don’t even fire a single shot. The Goldfinch also deals with psychological trauma, but with a different setting. The Goldfinch is about a boy in New York that is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jarhead still frame
Still from Jarhead directed by Sam Mendes and lensed by Roger Deakins.
The Goldfinch still frame
Still from The Goldfinch directed by John Crowley and also lensed by Roger Deakins.

The Dialogue

Let’s take a moment to read the climactic dialogue of these two films. First, let’s read the dialogue of The Goldfinch. Our protagonist is sitting at a coffee shop with his good friend that just saved his life after the protagonist tried to kill himself. After his friend gives him a little pep talk he leans in and says this: 

“Listen to me. It's important. You talk about bad things you have done and you blame yourself. You wish you were dead. So we have done bad things. But maybe sometimes good can come from bad.”

The movie then goes on a bit to wrap up a couple of plot points, but ultimately ends after that statement is made. 

Now let’s take a look at Jarhead. In the final moments of the film, our main protagonist stands facing a window in his home after the war. A voiceover from our lead character begins and says:

“A story. A man fires a rifle for many years. And he goes to war. And afterward, he comes home. And he sees that everything else he might do with his life, build a house, love a woman, change his son’s diaper, he will always remain a jarhead. And all the jarheads, killing and dying, they will always be me. We are still in the desert.”

The scene goes from the suburbs outside his window to the desert with a group of soldiers walking. Fade to black. The end.

Jarhead still frame
Still from Jarhead.
The Goldfinch still frame
Still from The Goldfinch

Wrapping it Up

Between my first plane ride and now, I have flown across the world many times. I have landed on different soil, with different airlines flown by different pilots, and one thing is consistent. The plane always lands safely, but it’s never perfectly smooth. There is a split second of doubt, fear, uncertainty. Filmmakers often undermine the intelligence of the audience by landing the plane on an unrealistically smooth runway that gives the viewers a spoon-fed message. But realistically, we need endings that are sometimes difficult and rough. Endings that propose a question and thought. Endings that don’t give us pretty statements but rather force us to look at our own lives.

Going back to The Goldfinch and Jarhead, which ending challenges you? What ending spoon feeds you by saying, “Now Pay attention! This next section is important.” And what ending makes you stop, process, and think about the journey you have just been on? Which story does not land you smoothly but rather drops you off in the desert?

- Josh Gallas

Please reach out if there is anything we can do for you or a project we can collaborate on! We'd love to grab a coffee or a drink with you soon to catch up.

July 29, 2020

Studying Films During Quarantine for Inspiration

Writing a feature can be one of the most daunting challenges to take on. On set, every crew member has someone to fall back on. A director with their cinematographer, a gaffer with their key grip, an AD with their 2nd AD. But bringing a script to life happens alone in your living room at night with a cup of coffee. To escape loneliness, or honestly, to help with the overall emotional toll it takes when you pour your heart and soul into a character on a page, I have found one exercise that has given me the strength to push on. Group film screenings!

Studying films and screenplays is an absolute must when writing a feature and watching and discussing these films with your key crew members is just as important. It keeps everyone pointed in the same direction and begins an open dialogue about themes, tones, and story structure. For the first round of films, we studied ‘71, Hell or High Water, and The Searchers. Focusing on different elements for each film, we began to see what techniques worked and didn’t work.

Check out the trailers for the films below:

'71 Trailer
Hell or High Water Trailer
The Searchers Trailer

Still from '71
Still from '71 directed by Yann Demange and lensed by Tat Radcliffe

'71

For ‘71 we focused mainly on the technical approach and tone. ‘71 was shot with anamorphic glass on 16mm film stock, a combination that is not commonly practiced. We wanted to see what this unique look and tone accomplished. Did it aid the story or distract from it? How did it look and did it hold up in night scenes? Did the flares drive us crazy? (Michael Bay has almost ruined anamorphic glass for me.) Overall, we really enjoyed the look and didn't find it distracting at all. The subjective nature of the film and the grit of the subject matter were supported by the choice of lenses and film stock.

Still from Hell or High Water
Still from Hell or High Water directed by David Mackenzie

Hell or High Water

For Hell or High Water, we mainly focused on tempo, character development, and themes. Following four dynamic actors like Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Gil Birmingham, and Jeff Bridges is no easy task. Each actor shared the screen quite well and we felt that each character was given a thorough level of development. This character development was made possible by the tempo. The film never felt like it was moving too fast or too slow. The simple yet incredibly complex dialogue between the cast gave us all the info and background we needed while also revealing the theme without most people even noticing. Is there a difference between the men robbing the bank and the bank robbing the men? Hell or High Water has earned a spot on my favorite top ten movies.

Still from The Searchers
Still from The Searchers (1956) directed by John Ford.

The Searchers

The Searchers was first brought to my attention in graduate school, and I had not seen the film since then. This film was the first of its kind: taking a classic genre of Western and flipping it into a dark drama. John Wayne plays a racist civil war veteran embarking on a journey to save his niece from a group of Comanche Indians. Even though John Wayne plays the protagonist, the director John Ford does a good job of making the audience feel empathetic without feeling sympathetic. John Wayne’s character is a drifter and will continue to be one until he deals with his baggage. Spoiler alert, he never does. 

Our feature, Over Hell’s Half Acre, is a story about fatherhood and what it means to be a man in today’s culture. The story follows the hard lonely life of a West Texas ranch hand, Austin Booth, and the journey he takes after facing a life-altering event. 

Knowing our logline and themes, you can now understand why we chose the first round of movies to study together as a group. I do believe it is important to write several drafts before studying films to avoid copying any story characteristics subconsciously. We study films for inspiration, to better understand film language, and to have a better understanding of cinematic storytelling as a whole.

- Josh Gallas

Please reach out if there is anything we can do for you or a project we can collaborate on! We'd love to grab a coffee or a drink with you soon to catch up.

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