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How do we know when a film is great? It is the well-crafted shots, the storytelling, or maybe the audience’s reaction to it? 

In the days of the streaming giants, I can’t help but feel like something is missing when I am watching a movie. Maybe it’s the isolation I felt while watching The Lighthouse, which is a movie that should be seen with others, or the moments where I can actually pause the movie and walk outside to take breaks from movies like Raw.  

Filmmakers Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino miss that experience, too. Both sat down with The Empire Film Podcast to talk about why they miss theaters, and why a paying audience can tell you if your movie was a hit. Although many factors make a movie great (editing, cinematography, dialogue, and storytelling), Tarantino and Wright say that a film’s ability to subvert the audience’s expectations is the telltale sign that the film works.

When I say subvert the audience, I mean eliciting some sort of reaction out of them. That reaction could be the giggles of excitement when Steve Rogers (Chis Evans) catches Thor’s hammer in Avengers: Endgame and the sobs of many teenagers (and adults) in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s a few different elements of filmmaking that draw out such intense emotions from the crowd. 

Tarantino loves revenge

For Tarantino, the greatest films that achieve this are British crime films and revenge films.

It’s the moments of witty dialogue and great storytelling that allow the audience to feel that the main character (no matter their motive) is validated in their actions. In Rolling Thunder, the greatest moment is when Charles Rane (William Devane) pulls Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) to the side to tell him that he has found the man who killed his wife and son. Vohden holds for a beat, looks at Rane, and says in a cool and casual tone, “I’ll just get my gear,” which causes the audience to erupt with joy.

It’s the thrill of bloodlust and revenge that makes scenes like this so great. The audience wants Rane to exact his revenge; therefore, we are thrilled when Vohden validates his want (and our want) for revenge. We everyday people can’t go out and get revenge on those who’ve crossed us because there would be real-life consequences. But, for just a little bit, we can live vicariously through those who are out for blood. That is why Tarantino loves making revenge films; there is something beautiful about an audience uniting together to support the downfall of a bad person. 

Wright loves impactful moments

For Wright, subverting the audience is apparent in those “Oh my God, it’s fucking on!” moments.

Wright recalls a memory of watching Fatal Attraction and having this feeling when Beth Gallagher (Anne Archer) tells Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), “If you ever come near my family again, I’ll kill you. Do you understand?” It was the simplicity of the cinematography that made the wide shot feel raw and casual while the line of dialogue was so impactful. That moment was the turning point for the entire film, and he could feel it. 

These collective moments that an audience experiences during a film are why filmmakers do what they do. The ability to draw emotion out of multiple people in a room not only validates your work, but it tells you that your film is doing something right. 

Be confident as a writer

As a screenwriter, knowing when a moment is going to work or not is based on your confidence in the scene.

For example, the famous bag scene in Django Unchained was almost cut entirely because Tarantino didn’t think the audience would respond to it at all. He showed a few other directors and interviewers the scene out of context and, to be frank, they weren’t impressed. The issue was, the scene provides a comical break from the heaviness of the rest of the film. It allows the audience to have a moment to laugh at something that is completely out of step with the film, and that is why it works. Obviously, Tarantino ended up leaving the scene in the film, and the rest is history. 

Create characters that are relatable or so mad that they draw the audience in

Wright is a wiz at creating characters that feel like people that could exist. They aren’t special in many ways, but the audience still finds themselves rooting for the best ending possible for them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, think of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. He is so detached from the world that we can’t relate to him, yet we find ourselves rooting for him to shoot a late-night talk show host. It’s crazy to want a madman to kill someone who just cracked a joke about the Joker’s failed stand-up show, but that is the beauty of watching a character become the person they want or need to be. 

Don’t worry about making sure the film is liked by audiences

This shouldn’t concern you, because even if they have a negative reaction to the film, that experience is going to stick with them and have an impact on their life (which is pretty dope, if you ask me). Just be confident in what you want the audience to get from your film.

Most people don’t like Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom because of how crude and disturbing it is. Wright even had to take a fifteen-minute break to just sit outside in the sun from this film. Tarantino shows this film at one of his theaters just to watch the audience’s reaction because it is a treat for him to watch the audience squirm and get up and yell, “Fuck you,” at the screen. 

That’s the greatest trick of all time—getting the audience to respond to it. If you can do that, then I think you’re doing a fine job. 

In the current world where streaming services are dominating over theaters, subverting the audience is a lot harder. We don’t have that luxury of having our emotions that the movies draw out of us being validated by strangers in the darkness. But don’t give up hope! Through great…

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