We noticed Love Actually on basic cable last night and it inspired us to call up the non-TV edit on Netflix and watch it all the way through. I’d enjoyed the movie the only other time I’d watched it, but watching it this time felt like attending a master class in the craft of modern pop storytelling.
There’s a good chance you’re not a fan of Love Actually. Reviews of the 2003 film were mixed, and the critic-meter at Rotten Tomatoes (where the verdict reads “A sugary tale overstuffed with too many stories. Still, the cast charms”) is just 63 percent positive. The audience average is about 10 percent points better.
How you feel about it the movie as a finished product, though, really isn’t my concern here. What interests me is how screenwriter Richard Curtis — who was also the director — uses sophisticated techniques to weave nine stories into one film in just 134 minutes.
Two hours and 14 minutes is long by movie-going standards, but it’s actually not THAT long. Hollywood likes to claim that 90 minutes is the standard, but that’s not the case for the top-grossing films, which tend to be longer, and most successful modern films tend to run around 110 minutes.
I don’t have an objective average for how many storylines and subplots make up the average modern movie, but I’d guess that it’s generally between three and five. So let’s call that an average of 4. With four storylines/subplots to resolve in 110 minutes, that’s an average of 27.5 minutes of film (or pages of script — they’re formatted to correspond one-to-one) per subplot.
In Love Actually, Curtis gives us nine storylines in 134 minutes, or just under 15 minutes per tale.
Now, if you’re one of those people who didn’t like Love Actually, you’re probably screaming “That’s a bug, not a feature!” at this point. Where’s the character development? Where’s the … well, it’s just TOO MUCH!
Except as Steven Berlin Johnson argued in 2005, popular entertainment is becoming more complex in the 21st century. Give his Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter a read, but here’s a quick summary: Popular culture — particularly television — has evolved from straightforward “Leave It To Beaver” storytelling with few subplots and no “cross-threading” to a thrumming network of connections and links. Characters are ambiguous. Motivations are inferred by the audience. An isolated reference introduced in Season One might not become relevant until Season Three. And if you’re looking for “flashing arrows” that tell the audience that what’s being said is Supremely Important to Subplot 3B, good luck. Those devices are looking quite dated these days.
This can be done well, as with The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, or poorly, as with Lost, Heroes, or the cult-indie sci-fi picture Primer. The point is that the tug of simple melodrama is fading as our brains become accustomed to a cross-threaded life (and I mean that in the sense of story threads that can be woven into a complex piece, not a screw that’s driven into a machined part and ruins everything, which is just unacceptable to me as a mechanic).
Sure, some of us retreat toward simplicity — whether via fundamentalism, reductionism, Ludditism or isolationism — but the culture and our individual brains are changing.
Which bring me back around to Love Actually. Because it illustrates so many of these issues.
1. Be complex, but be about something
Curtis’ script begins with a thesis, delivered via a voiceover narrator (Hugh Grant) as we watch average people hug and kiss at an arrival gate:
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.
And, well, that’s the movie. Totally simple. Love is all around us in lots of forms, and if you look for it, you’ll see it. And then for roughly the next 130 minutes, he shows it to us (before looping back to the original scene for an incredibly powerful conclusion that I’ve seen a few times, and which always makes me cry).
This interplay between complexity (nine stories, plus the great Rowan Atkinson flitting about) and simplicity (love is all around us) works, because if you’re along for the ride, you come out of Love Actually with the sense that you’ve explored the thesis from nine angles. It’s also necessary, in a sense, because none of the nine stories “prevails” over the others, and some of the stories end happily and others are sad. Hence the decision that the arc of the movie needs to loop back to its premise for closure.
If you want to experiment with this, here’s a suggestion: Watch Love Actually from the beginning, and notice your emotional reaction to the people at Heathrow in the opening and your reaction to them at the conclusion. Granted, the tone set by Brian Wilson’s great composition God Only Knows is certainly coloring your reaction, but that’s part of the filmmaker’s craft. If you’re more moved by the same visual at the end of the piece than you were at the beginning, then the storyteller has done his job.
Also, remember this: While the complexity of Love Actually resides largely in the connections and the few bits of emotional ambiguity in some of the stories, the stories work because they’re so bloody simple. That’s all-important for a romantic comedy. But you could break that rule if you were dealing with, say, a spy story like the Bourne franchise.
2. Surprise me
Granted, there are a few Love Actually storylines that don’t work so well for me, and much of what happens is absurd. But I forgive much of that because Curtis does such a nice job of twisting conventions.
Did you see the Juliet, Peter and Mark story coming? Did you think it was headed in the other direction? Once the triangle conflict was established, did you foresee the way it would ultimately be resolved?
I didn’t. And I appreciate that. In fact, one of the delights of reading (or watching) stories are those moments when the storyteller surprises the audience with something that was carefully established but well concealed. In those moments — when a thing we thought had one meaning is revealed as having another — our brain rewards us for seeing the underlying pattern with a big shot of dopamine.
Good storytellers go for the surprise, but take care not to do it cheaply or with cheats and trickery. No one likes to be fooled. Everyone likes to be surprised.
3. Connect everything
There’s another approach to telling multiple stories in film — and in books, for that matter — and that’s the anthology. I generally like themed short-fiction anthologies, and I’ve enjoyed some similar film collections (particularly Radio Days, which is a hybrid between a cross-threaded multi-story and an anthology, but also Night on Earth and New York Stories).
But here’s the thing: An anthology keeps its stories in silos. Modern pop storytelling takes the extra step of imagining a more complex world where understanding the connections between people and conflicts and desires boosts the emotional and intellectual payoff of each separate storyline. Those relationships also imply character traits and motivations simply via reference — a nice way to solve the ‘Basil Exposition” problem.
Human intelligence is based on pattern seeking, but we store the information we derive from patterns in narrative. Consequently, our brains reward us for every pattern we spot and every sorted pattern we fit into the larger pattern of a story. Increasing the complexity of a story while carefully providing all the information necessary to resolve it is the best way I can think of to give your readers a series of pleasurable experiences.
Not every character in Love Actually has a connection to a character outside his or her story (the Billy Mack and Joe story is self-contained, and Atkinson simply shows up and steals scenes in two separate stories), but Curtis does such a good job of staying true to his “everything is connected” premise that he weaves the Billy Mack story into the lives of the other characters (via television inserts) and recycles Atkinson to play a role in the resolution of one of the other plots.
Not sold on the value of this device? Consider this: Atkinson’s short turn as an annoying jewelry sales clerk establishes his character as a man who takes an absurd amount of time to do a simple task. It’s tremendously funny the first time. Later on, when the writer needs a distraction to allow someone to slip past airport security, the slow-moving man who distracts the security personnel is revealed as Atkinson’s character.
In that moment of recognition, what was your reaction? Not what you thought, but your reaction? Not only does the character’s return serve as a wordless punchline, he also gives the audience that jolt of “Hey! I know that guy! He’s totally slow!” and with it, another jolt of dopamine.
4. Keep it moving
Not all stories have to move to a modern beat. Sometimes we all like to slow down and look deep inside a person or a subject. But very few cinematic stories unfold that way anymore, and to be blunt about it, books that unfold slowly often leave me cold.
Which brings me to one of my favorite things about cross-threading. If you are telling only one story, then the camera — so to speak — is always focused on the same characters, the same conflicts. There are devices that offer us ways around that tyranny of singular attention (a narrator can skip around, gloss over the dull parts, etc., and shifting POV, as in Clyde Edgerton’s great Raney, can be extremely effective), but I often find myself struggling to keep the boring out when I’m limited to one story.
Whereas when you’re cross-threading, you have the freedom to skip ahead to the good parts. Feel the boring coming on? Cut! Next scene! Move on!
Think about the Billy Mack and Joe story for a moment. If the movie was just their story, then we’d have to see them talking about the recording, and backstage at the television studios, and riding in cars. Instead, we know from the first that Billy Mack is a has-been rocker and former drug addict who needs money but goes around telling the truth in public, while Joe is his long-suffering manager. Though their story arc is simple, it could be padded out to feature-length and given greater resonance. But why bother?
When you pop in and out like Love Actually, it’s easy to posit that things have advanced since you last dropped in. Which means we are spared watching Colin Furth fly to Portugal, and don’t have to suffer through middle-aged Harry and Karen discussing the painful details of their threatened marriage. We can introduce plot points in reference and move on.
5. Think economy of words and action
The big convergence point in Love Actually is a school Christmas pageant. Think about how much time the writer saved by having that one event figure in so many stories. The Prime Minister’s relationship with Natalie advances and is publicly revealed. Karen confronts Harry. We finally get to meet Sam’s Johanna, and Daniel bumps into his future love interest (played by Claudia Schiffer, another visual punchline and connection from an earlier reference). The innocent John and Judy enjoy their first date.
Here’s how you tell nine stories in 134 minutes: In the same spirit in which Strunk and White declared “Omit needless words,” build your story so that each event operates on as many levels — and across as many subplots and storylines — as possible.
That, my friends, is craft.
Oh, and before I go, here’s a bonus lesson:
Let your characters enjoy speaking
Dialog is a great way to advance plot and reveal character, and with everyone out there demanding that we “Get On With It!’ it’s just too easy to treat all dialog as utility. So yes, it’s important that storytellers stay disciplined to their original concept, but from time to time that buys us the freedom to enjoy dialog for its own sake.
Karen: So what’s this big news, then?
Daisy: [excited] We’ve been given our parts in the nativity play. And I’m the lobster.
Karen: The lobster?
Karen: In the nativity play?
Daisy: [beaming] Yeah, first lobster.
Karen: There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?
[talking about her ex-boyfriend]
Natalie: He says no one’s gonna fancy a girl with thighs the size of big tree trunks. Not a nice guy, actually, in the end.
Prime Minister: Ah! You know, um, being Prime Minister, I could just have him murdered.
Natalie: Thank you, sir. I’ll think about it.
Prime Minister: Do. The SAS are absolutely charming. Ruthless trained killers are just a phone call away.
Are there other lessons? Sure. Know your genre, and then fuck with it mercilessly. Don’t give all your storylines equal weight. Give the reader someone to like. Create tension and break it, then lather-rinse-repeat. But I think the ones that Curtis got right –regardless of what you thought about the bubbles and baubles of Love Actually — are worth remembering.
In fact, I think I’ll make use of some of them myself.