After all the weeks and months and sometimes years of slaving over your script-to-screen adventure, it would be nice if your audience affirmed and validated your efforts by feeling satisfied by your ending — satisfied by the experience and the landing zone you provided for them; satisfied that the right or wrong choices your characters have made in their journey are real and earned.
If you have not read my previous blog post, “Dracula Sucks”, about how Francis Ford Coppola and I found the satisfying ending for Dracula months after principal photography wrapped and with a release date looming, please do.
The quest for the satisfying ending is what the collective “We” are all seeking — in life and in our art.
How do you want your audience to feel at the end?
In the HartChart Signposts, I frame it this way: How do you want your audience to feel at the end and have your delivered a satisfying ending that has been earned and properly anticipated?
I enjoyed having this discussion with Damien Chazelle, the Academy Award winning writer-director of LALA Land, as part of the 2017 Austin Film Festival HartChart LALA Land session.
Damien Chazelle’s vision
Damien, the youngest Oscar winning director in Academy history, sparked a wave of controversy and mixed emotions with ending of LALA Land:
Should Seb and Mia have stayed together? Why didn’t they stay together? Why did the film end on an acutely somber note after such a fantastic uplifting experience?
I asked Damien why he made the choice to deliver a very sobering, grown up ending to this stunning uplifting musical experience.
Damien, who is extremely thoughtful and a serious film historian, said quite convincingly that for him the film ends with the scene on the bench where Seb and Mia first danced just after Mia’s amazing audition [best song in the film].
Mia asks “where are we?” Seb, who has redeemed himself by fetching Mia from Nevada and making her do the audition, knows great things are in store for Mia, but not for them as a couple.
There is a finality to this scene — that their relationship is either over or on hold. The view that was so magical at sunset when they first danced is now ugly and garish in the daylight. The scene ends and we cut to “Five Years Later”.
Surprisingly, Damien described everything after the bench scene as a “musical mood piece”.
As the audience, I needed more. Had the film ended at the bench scene, I would have thrown popcorn and worse at the screen. The “mood piece” as Damien referred to it, the “happily ever after almost moments”, are Damien’s brilliant gift to the audience — to give us that emotional satisfaction of seeing Seb and Mia together, which is what the film has promised to deliver and we, the audience, have been wanting to happen. Without this fantasy “what if” ride, and just seeing Mia married to someone else with a baby and seeing Seb at his club, would have been extremely unsatisfying. A genuine downer.
As you will see in the interview, Damien wanted a mature ending for Mia and Seb. Damien brought reality back into his musical dream by sticking to his convictions that sometimes things don’t work out the way they do in the movies. Sometimes we don’t get what we want even when we get what we need.
I applaud this brilliant young writer/director for staying true to his characters and giving his audience the cake, and the icing, and the heartburn with this very grownup, satisfying ending.
Do you have a satisfying ending? Not happy, sad, good, bad, uplifting, depressing, etc. But a satisfying ending.
Apply the audience test to your ending. Also, find film examples of both a satisfying ending and an unsatisfying ending and write down a list of reasons why.
Let me bring this back to my own work. I just typed “the end” on my third adaptation of R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, entitled “Long John Silver”. David Oylelolo [Selma, The King of Katwe, Star Wars] is attached to play the early adventurous years of Long John Silver, when he had both his legs and found his calling as a “Gentleman of Fortune” (a term Silver preferred over “Pirate”).
The satisfying ending eluded us in the first draft. There was a big emotional ending, but not ultimately a satisfying one. David wanted more and so did I. The audience [at this point David and our Producer/Reps] missed a main romantic character and a pivotal one who only had one scene in the script. When I proposed the solution that scared me – to bring these two characters back in the end, my “audience” exalted and said “make it so.”. The “satisfying ending” to Long John Silver came from what I was afraid to write; from what I was scared to commit to!
Hopefully you will have a chance to weigh in on our “satisfying ending” in 2019.
I will leave you with this “satisfying ending” piece of advice: “Write what scares you.”
To be continued
JVH – HartChart.com
Watch the entire video interview here: Damien Interview