“Movies struggle to find ‘the end’”

January 2nd, 2013 by

I thought Lincoln was excellent in all respects… except for the ending, so I was pleased to read this LAT article by Steve Zeitchik:

The filmgoer was noticeably upset. He didn’t like a moment in “Lincoln.” More specifically, he didn’t like the final moments of “Lincoln.”

“I don’t understand why it didn’t just end when Lincoln is walking down the hall and the butler gives him his hat,” he said. “Why did I need to see him dying on the bed? I have no idea what Spielberg was trying to do.”

The man on the mini-rant wasn’t some multiplex loudmouth. He was actor Samuel L. Jackson, and he was just getting started. “I didn’t need the assassination at all. Unless he’s going to show Lincoln getting his brains blown out. And even then, why am I watching it? The movie had a better ending 10 minutes before.”

That ending, the one Jackson wanted, I wanted, and I expect thousands of other movie fans wanted was this moment:

Not just the image of Lincoln walking away, but the echo of the character’s final words: “I suppose it’s time to go, though I would rather stay.” The line works beautifully on so many levels. As text, Lincoln is simply saying he would prefer not to go to the play. He’s exhausted from the events at the close of the War and in general he’s not much of a socializer. But subtextually it is both a portent of the horrible occurrence upcoming and a haunting message about a man’s simple request to continue with his life.

Unfortunately the movie continues on with a scene we do not – in my view – need: the President’s death [although not seen], his death, and a flashback to a speech by Lincoln.

This circumstance raised a question in Zeitchik’s mind:

Jackson was offering a sentiment common among people who’ve seen “Lincoln” and moviegoers in general: Hollywood films are struggling to find the exit. Stories that seem to end, end again, and then end once more. Climactic scenes wind down, then wind up. Movies that appear headed for a satisfying resolution turn away, then try to stumble back.

The definition of a good ending is as hard to pin down as Keyser Söze. But there has been no shortage of filmic finales for people to shake their fists at this season.

He considers Les Misérables and Life of Pi, then digs into possible root causes, one of which is voiced by Ben Affleck:

“We now develop so many movie ideas based on pitches. And the thing about a pitch is that it does a pretty good job figuring out the first and second acts, but no one ever sits down and works out the third act.”

There’s some takeaway slapping us writers smack in the face: Work out the damn ending! I wrote about this at length in my most recent post on the 1920 book “How to Write a Photoplay.” If you missed it Sunday, check it out.

What do you think of the ending of Lincoln? What other movies — in your opinion — suffer from the ‘when to end’ syndrome? How would you choose to end those movies?

Finally how do you go about crafting the end of your stories?

For the rest of Zeitchik’s article, go here.

21 thoughts on ““Movies struggle to find ‘the end’”

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    Screenwriter David Hare had interesting things to say about this in a BAFTA interview, and he makes a distinction between what he calls outcome movies and proposition movies.

    One advantage I find that comes out of a background in writing sketch comedy (especially for live performance): you have to put a button on the scene, you have to motivate the exits, you need energy in the ending. So I’m used to writing with momentum that points towards an energetic finale. (And I’m terribly critical of films and scripts that fall flat in the third act or the coda.)

    I really enjoyed the piece you posted on the ending of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I saw it in the theatre and thought it deserved a better ending. The final scene does manage to tie up the storylines of the different members of the ensemble cast–but it ties them all off separately. The ending would have been much more powerful, and produced a far greater emotional payoff, if their storylines had crossed and the finale was about them coming together in a common cause–which is what the tone and structure of the film had lead me to expect. (It’s a good movie and I’d love to write something even half as good, but I felt like the ending undercut so much of what had come before and left the movie falling short of its great potential.)

    > how do you go about crafting the end of your stories?

    Great question. I hope it gets a lot of answers.

    I ask the following questions (although not always specifically or consciously):

    - What is the mirror image of where the protagonist starts in Act I, both figuratively and in visual terms?
    - What set-ups from Act I and Act II need to pay off in Act III?
    - What expectations does this genre set up about the ending? How do I honor or subvert those? What best serves the story?
    - What does the logic of the story world, the theme, and the nature of the protagonist’s character dictate about how the story should end?
    - What is the emotional payoff of the ending?

    If I can answer those, I have my ending. If I can’t… the problem isn’t Act III, it’s in Act 1 or Act II or even in prep.

    1. MakerCK says:

      Thanks for the link to the David Hare piece. That was great.

      it reminded me of something I’ve encountered around town several times now, in meetings with Producers and studio Execs.

      They always ask, “Why would someone want to see this?” when we’re kicking around ideas. Now, I don’t take offense to this question. You better know what about your project might hook an audience member in.

      But they never seem very interested in “Why would anyone have been glad they saw it?” Which is a very different question.

      I get the feeling these days the studios are a bit like snake-oil salesmen. They want a great pitch so they can get some rubes to pay up for a cure… but they don’t care if the cure works, and are planning on being lit out to the next town before a customer finds out he’s been had.

      1. Shaula Evans says:

        Glad you liked it, MakerCK.

        Those are two great questions to ask–whether producers ask them or not.

        I don’t have a quick answer for the second regarding my GOYOQ script, but you can bet I’m going to figure them out.

        Sorry it’s all feeling so oily. Good luck with your meetings!

        1. MakerCK says:

          Oh, things are going great. I’ve got a show I created on Hulu and am walking the wilds of indie features and streaming. I’m a happy and content man.

          I worry mostly for the audiences. We owe them good stories. They’re paying, they’re giving us their time.

          By the way, as to the second question, the way I always think of it is this:

          After the opening weekend shenanigans (which is pretty much guaranteed by the marketing dollars through into the wind) what makes a movie stick around?

          People talking about it.

          The after you get people to show up, the question is, “What about this movie would make people talk excitedly about it to their friends and loved ones?”

          That’s how I think of it, at least.

  2. I haven’t seen it yet. But my buddy has.

    He said the EXACT same thing. Funny that, he also would have ended it exactly where Samuel L. would have as well.

    Now, I don’t think my bud and Samuel L. hang out (would be cool, right?) — but doesn’t that speak to the power of the audience? And endings?

    They both had probs with the ending, and chose the same place where they expected the ending to be.

  3. “We now develop so many movie ideas based on pitches. And the thing about a pitch is that it does a pretty good job figuring out the first and second acts, but no one ever sits down and works out the third act.”

    That’s sort of the problem, but it is a symptom of something larger.

    The problem is DAMON LINDELOF.

    No seriously. Dude, writes incredible openings. Knows how to sell a hook, and tug the shit out of you.

    He has no idea how to write an ending. LOST, PROMETHEUS… seriously. Guy needs to work with someone that can tie up all his loose ends.

    His style makes for EXCELLENT TV, btw.

    Thing is–the way we do business, endings aren’t the commodity. It’s the premise… which is essentially the hook. It’s that poster. In the Damon Lindelof world, he is king. Again, dude can write a hook like no other.

    It’s not a problem with pitching.

    If endings were what sold scripts, we’d pitch endings harder. It’s simply that all execs want are the hook, the movie poster, the trailer, the thing that’ll get people’s butts in seats — and most of your trailer moments come from the first two acts.

    So that’s what they are buying.

  4. John Arends says:

    Great stuff, Shaula, on the questions to ask about Act 3. Thank you!! I’m in total agreement with you, James. To pile on:

    My heroes in Hollywood are the paid readers who write coverage. They’re at the bottom of the food chain, but they read front to back, and are the first to “experience the experience” — the emotional impact and cathartic release of a great ending. Obviously an exec cannot get that from reading coverage, even if that document is superbly written.

    Another obvious item: There is a rare exception to William Goldman’s axiom “Nobody knows anything” and it is this: “Everybody knows that everybody loves a great ending.” And yet, Pixar is the only studio to successfully ingrain this truism into their development process…

    Boogles the brain cells…

    1. Even when Pixar gets it right, it doesn’t always get ALL of it right.

      Case in point the following article: when Toy Story 3 came out, I had a bit of a bad taste in my mouth from this one particular story point and was very relieved to find it wasn’t just me:

      http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-caveman-goes-hollywood/201007/vengeance-in-disneyland

  5. I haven’t seen Lincoln yet but I felt the same way about Source Code – it had a perfect moment to end on and then it kept going. Everyone should follow Billy Wilder’s rule #10: “Don’t hang around.”

    How about we list our favorite movie endings and dissect why we like them and why they work?

    1. Scott says:

      That’s a great idea, Teddy. I’ll start a thread on that tomorrow.

  6. After reading the last few pages of the Lincoln script I couldn’t agree with you more about where the movie should have ended.

    The last piece of scene description we get is this (during the Capitol Dome speech):

    He glances at his audience: 40,000 people from all over the country, wounded soldiers, civilians in black. And for the first time, in the crowd, not at its edges, hundreds of African Americans, civilians and soldiers.

    To me that sounds like someone (cough*Spielberg*cough) said: “We have to show that he made a difference and how important his contributions were. Let’s add a coda where everybody holds hands and sings Kumbaya.”

  7. Spielberg has always had a bit of a problem with endings.

    War of the Worlds gave us Tom Cruise’s improbable reunion with his son.

    Munich had that strange love-making scene and the Twin Towers shot.

    Jurassic Park had T-Rex, previously established as sending ripples through a cup of water from afar as it stomped noisily around, apparently donning slippers and finding an extremely large handicap entrance into the building, scooping down and saving our gang from those pesky raptors.

    I know there’s more, but these were some others that stuck out for me.

      1. I saw that in the theaters and to be honest, I remember very little – but I do seem to recall it felt like it had several endings.

      2. Erica R Maier says:

        I was thinking A.I., too — I vaguely remember an underwater scene, and thought the movie was ending. It didn’t. My husband felt the same way, and he’s not a “movie person.” That speaks volumes to me if someone “disconnected” from moviemaking feels it, too …..

      3. Bryan Colley says:

        But conceptually A.I. had the right ending. He finally became a real boy, but in an artificial world. Getting to that point was a bit of a stretch though.

        1. Erica R Maier says:

          Man, that shows just how little I retained of the movie. Completely forgot he became a real boy at the end … :-/

  8. [...] for that metaphorical twist, I probably wouldn’t have liked it so much. Hat tip to Go Into The Story. Share Endings, Filmmaking 360, Hollywood, Screenwriting, [...]

  9. The heavy focus on buying concepts seems like part of the answer, as does the L.A. Times’ brief mention of the demand for more and more spectacle in movies. But I also wonder if this has something to do with the difficulties of adaptation? Of the four main examples, three are not original works – they’re all adaptations of sorts, of a novel, a musical, or a true story.

    There was a post on GITS once that was talking about adaptation and how in a successful adaptation, at some point you have to let go of the source material, literally put it aside, and let the screenplay be its own thing – which is really hard. It seems like these writers/directors struggled with the concept of doing justice to the original sources (and real person, in the case of Lincoln). They don’t say that in their quotes, but the issues cited in the article with Life of Pi and Les Miserables are issues with the storyline of the book and musical, respectively, and not having it effectively translate to the screen. Above, Teddy Pasternak points out that perhaps Spielberg felt he needed to hammer home Lincoln’s greatness, even if it went beyond the immediate scope of the storyline.

    It seems like a legit fear (not doing justice to the source material, that is) because you don’t want audiences to go berserk if you stray too far (and there are a few comments about that in the L.A. Times piece, regarding staying true to Les Miz), but at the same time, each medium is its own art form and you can’t perfectly adapt one to another. It seems tough to balance. One adapted-from-life movie that worked this year was Argo, and one reason is because the screenwriter put the story first.

    Having said all that, the most egregious example of a movie struggling to find its ending that I can think of is the Dark Knight, the second film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, which I wouldn’t call an adaptation. The movie seems to be coming to a close – Batman has to choose between his personal life (saving Rachel) and the good of the city (saving Harvey Dent), both for himself and thematically. He does, so movie over, right? Nope. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why there’s another 45 minutes to the Dark Knight – it was like having a second movie attached.

  10. Ben Jacoby says:

    There was a lot I disliked about Lincoln, especially the ending.

    Spielberg should have taken a page from the great ending of Thirteen Days, where the shadows of the Kennedys walk off into history after accomplishing the task at hand. That walk down the hall for Lincoln would have been the perfect parallel.

    Spielberg has that need to show things from a child’s perspective (the son crying at a different play might have seemed like a cool device, but for me it was a lame cop-out), and also to show things in terms that can be absorbed by an audience of children. These moments just add up to a lot of eye rolls for me.

  11. Daniel Smith says:

    The second Christian Slater batman film has the same problem. The movie feels like it’s ending before any of the boat scenes happen. Instead, we get taken on an additional 30-minute journey with the Joker just so Batman can make a funny.

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