What Makes A Good Story? – Making Movies Is HARD Podcast

mmih.jpgToday is a special one because I’m the guest on one of my favorite podcasts in the world: Making Movies Is HARD.

I had the wonderful opportunity to talk with indie filmmakers Alrik Bursell and Timothy Plain about what makes a good story. We discussed our favorite storytelling principles, delved into some of the nuts and bolts of how stories function, and examined Andrew Stanton’s excellent TED talk.

The whole reason I started the Story Punch podcast was to try and figure out how to tell compelling stories. It’s incredible to sit down with a couple of filmmakers who really know their stuff and swap ideas with them. I hope you’ll give it a listen and check out their podcast!

Listen here – iTunesStitchermp3


Godzilla and the Protective Instinct

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Note: Full Spoilers for Godzilla (2014)

Gareth Edward’s Godzilla achieves what most large-scale big-budget movies fail to do: tell a coherent story. The film interweaves ambitious spectacle with small storytelling moments and uses the two to reinforce and build thematically upon one another. While many reviewers and the filmmakers themselves settle on the idea of man’s inability to control nature as the major theme of the movie, in reality it seems to be much simpler. Godzilla is about the need to protect others, especially those we love.

On one level we have Godzilla, the hulking bestial creature who instinctively hunts down any biological threats his own size. He only surfaces to combat these ecological competitors and then retreats to the bottom of the ocean to feed off radiation from the earth’s core. His motivation is animalistic, predatory, and instinctual.

On another level, we have the human protagonists who fight to end the destructive rampage of the MUTOS and save their loved ones. They arrive with bombs, planes, and guns. Their motivation is human, calculating, and instinctual.

These twin forces converge over and over throughout the film, building a central idea: how do you protect the things you care about? Although this answer is not fully answered by the great creature himself, it is carefully constructed through the human characters and then symbolically echoed in actions of the King of Monsters.

Joe Brody the Protector

The emotional centerpiece of the film (aka the story punch) occurs in the prologue. Compulsive nuclear physicist Joe Brody uncovers strange readings near the Japanese nuclear plant where he works. When he sends in his wife to check for problems in the reactor, a massive breach sends a cloud of radiation reeling through the containment zone. Left with no choice, Brody is forced to close the security door, abandoning his wife and all the others with her to certain death.

In this moment Brody fails to protect his wife and the mother of his child. She dies. He does not save the plant. And worst of all, he does not know why or what caused this. For 15 years he searches for answers at the expense of alienating his son and ruining his reputation. Although Brody does not live long enough to accomplish his mission, he is vindicated when the MUTO is revealed and his findings eventually help Dr. Serizawa piece together the answers. His example also catalyze his son into stopping the creatures and saving lives.

The Military as Protectors

The military personnel in this film are not killers or warriors. They are protectors. Tanks and ships line up around the Golden Gate Bridge to defend buses full of fleeing civilians. Soldiers transports bombs designed to lure the beasts away from populated areas. They jump out of planes and enter the fray in an attempt to defuse the missing bomb. Their job is to save lives and if necessary, sacrifice their own.

It is they who track the creatures, investigate missing nuclear subs, and search remote lockers full of radioactive waste. They are the ones who make tactical decisions for American cities and utilize the full weight of their resources to prevent loss of life. Here the military is an idealized institutional form of the protective instinct.

Ford Brody as Protector

Even in his job description, Ford Brody is revealed to be a protector. Although he is a solider, Ford doesn’t drop bombs on people. He diffuses them. He ensures that innocent lives are preserved, not taken.

Ford’s priority is the safety of his family. Although he clearly wants to help stop the monsters, his primary motive is to get back to his loved ones and meet up with them as promised. However he does not limit his protective instincts to his wife and son. At the Honolulu airport he looks after a boy separated from his parents and saves his life during the MUTO attack on the airport shuttle. Although he is rational and human, his need to protect others comes from somewhere else. Like the rampaging creatures battling across urban landscapes, Ford’s protective actions are instinctual.

He plays a crucial role in blowing up the MUTO eggs, drawing the female MUTO away from Godzilla, and ferrying the bomb away from San Francisco.

MUTOs the Protectors

These Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms are also protectors. Interested solely in the propagation of their species, they fight off both the humans and Godzilla alike to lay a nest of fertilized eggs to replenish their long dormant race. The male MUTO brings the female food, defends her offspring, and attacks potential enemies from ground and air.

The female is significantly larger than her male counterpart, granting her a sizable advantage against her enemies. She carries an egg sack on her belly, guarding them with her life. When her nest is destroyed, she exacts a terrible vengeance on the human soldiers responsible. Her maternal prowess is undeniably strong, nearly overpowering both the might of the American military and the atomic amphibian.

Godzilla the Protector Incarnate

In an era of superhero cinema, a gallery of exaggerated hyper-realistic savior-men, Godzilla stands out in direct contrast. He is not beautiful, handsome, or charming. He could never be accepted or understood. He is an unadulterated force of nature, belonging to the highest order of predators and nearly indestructible.

To stop grotesque power-filled monsters, something necessarily monstrous itself is needed. We can chalk up Superman’s incredible powers to the mysterious magic of science fiction, but it is the sheer creaturely might of Godzilla that makes us believe in him.

He does not fight with any hint of rationality or ethical motivation. He does not fight to save humanity. He simply fulfills his preordained purpose in the world.

Godzilla is nature’s response to imbalance and disorder. He does not care about the bridges and buildings he tramples. He does not seem to notice the missiles aimed at his head. He carries out his biological duty, his genetically determined obligation to the earth and its ecological structures, to defend it against chaos.

To imbue this impersonal creature with the humanizing elements he lacks, the film expert mirrors Godzilla’s actions with those of the protagonist Ford Brody. Right as Ford is in the middle of protecting a child in Honolulu, Godzilla arrives to unwittingly drive off the MUTO from crushing the rest of the city. They are two species performing the same function for two different reasons.

When Ford blows up the nest, he does so in the interest of protecting humanity from more MUTOs. At the same time, Godzilla fights off the pair. They are working together to bring the natural world into balance in service of life.

At the end of the film, Ford sets the boat carrying the nuclear bomb to auto-pilot and collapses in exhaustion, sparing the city from the blast. Immediately afterward Godzilla defeats the female MUTO but succumbs to what looks like death. This is also not long after an entire building falls on him, burying him under countless tons of steel. Each in their own way make life-threatening sacrifices in order to follow their protective instincts. These layers join together neatly, informing and shedding light on the other.

Godzilla defends his title as top of the food chain and apex predator. Ford uses his intuition and skills to preserve his family, his city, and the humanity at large. In the end, these two main characters are each assuming the same duty carried out by Joe Brody, the MUTOs, and the military: they are protecting others at their own expense.

In this film the things worth protecting are family, urban populations, nests, and the balance of nature. By tying all these various goals under the same umbrella, it allows what is in essence just a big monster movie to create a story that resonates on a higher thematic level. If there is any greater meaning to be found in a movie like this, it is  at the risk of sounding overly sentimental — a reminder that our world has things worth defending, sacrifices worth making, and many creatures worth loving.