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Wes Anderson Describes How He Avoids Writing Themes on 'The Treatment'

Some screenwriting resources stress that a theme must be clearly stated or emphasized in a screenplay, preferably near the beginning, sometimes even on a specific page. This has never made any sense to me. While I won’t argue that a theme can’t or shouldn’t be explicitly stated in a screenplay or film, a good story well told reveals its theme over the course of the entire story arc, in my opinion. In fact, writer/director Wes Anderson claims he never consciously writes his screenplays around any particular theme in a recent episode of Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment.

Here’s the full length podcast of Elvis Mitchell’s interview with Wes Anderson about Moonrise Kingdom from KCRW’s The Treatment:


When Mitchell asks Anderson about particular themes illustrated throughout Anderson’s films, the filmmaker eschews the question:

If somebody asks me about the themes of something I’m working on, I never have any idea what the themes are…. Somebody tells me the themes later. I sort of try to avoid developing themes. I want to just keep it a little bit more abstract. But then, what ends up happening is, they say, “Well, I see a lot here that you did before, and it’s connected to this other movie you did,” and…that almost seems like something I don’t quite choose. It chooses me.

What I find particularly refreshing about Anderson’s response is his admission that the audience members tell him what the themes of his movies are, not the other way around. What resonates from a film for one audience member may not impact the next audience member with the same magnitude, which in turn means audience members may discover different themes from the same movie (assuming the movie tells a story rich enough in content and details to provoke an audience to think about it and discuss it long after the credits have rolled).

Do you start your screenplays with a central theme in mind, or do you let themes evolve over the course of your writing process? Do themes even factor into your creative process or do you discover them after your story is complete? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Oh, and for the camera aficionados out there (I think there a few of you among the regular NFS readers), Anderson briefly discusses how using digital intermediaries to blow up the film to 35mm had little impact on picture quality because of the fine grain of the slow 16mm film stock used, essentially maintaining the right amount of grain for the mid-sixties Kodachrome look of the film.

Finally, because everybody likes a video, here’s the Moonrise Kingdom trailer to refresh your memory:

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  • That’s probably because Wes practically has his own theme.

    • Christopher Boone on 07.28.12 @ 10:40AM

      But according to him, he doesn’t know what it is.

      • Anderson isn’t particularly known for actually acknowledging his own styles and themes. It’s like the Coens, who keep on insisting that they don’t write for symbolism, but alas, their films tend to hint at tons of symbolism.

  • “Do you start your screenplays with a central theme in mind, or do you let themes evolve over the course of your writing process?”

    Yeah, I really do start with a theme.

    To me a theme is a loaded constellation of associated fragments- those fragments are both personal (memories, emotions, ideas and motivations) and impersonal (mechanics of the story, the structure, genre, representation, style etc.) and give birth to a research pool that I use to construct the universe of the script. Not only does it help me write the script and adapt it into a film as a director but also market it to others, so I can get a crew, producer, money, interest etc.

    At the end of the day, when I am writing a script, I am attempting to take many elements and organise and synthesise them in a way that it can be hypostatized into a film. So for me developing a strong theme is an important starting point and helps me along the way.

    I find that the process of making a film is filled with so many happy accidents, coincidences and uncontrollable factors that cause me so much anxiety already, that I will inevitably end up with something that has more things in it then I am consciously aware of, which audiences will pick up on and I’ll get that “I never thought about it that way” kinda reaction to my own work.

  • Lliam Worthington on 07.28.12 @ 1:05PM

    Good blog/discussion. I think I used to confuse “controlling idea” with theme.

    I think many scripts truly struggle to have a “theme”. Making the same mistakes I have made. Focusing on plot with grafting’s on of what I believed were powerful/worthy notions, pertinent points and or social commentaries. And in their own right, they may have been. Yet the script does not end up feeling organic. Because it isn’t. It’s artifice. And so it fails to truly move or connect as a whole.

    Theme seems to live between the pages. And if your exploration of your subject has enough depth and skilful execution, it emerges… and if your lucky, goes on to resonate with people strongly enough that they can be bothered to consider what it is that they are feeling. And if enough people are having similar shared experiences and feelings, I guess you can start to define it.

    It’s the nature of art really. One of my favourite Joseph Cambell lines, is “…an artist won’t tell you what his painting about. Unless he really doesn’t like you, then he might. :)))

    So I very much agree with Mr Anderson. Theme is something which may emerge inside in your work, but even if it’s in there, I believe it lies dormant without relationship and meaningful connection to the observer.

    Subsequently, I think I am learning that the single most important thing is always to write about what truly moves/interests you as a human being. Then explore those interests as fully as you are able. Connect with yourself first. And then, again if your lucky, people might just love your theme/film enough, to be bothered to actually think about it 5 minutes beyond the duration of the film and possibly even discuss it with others. Wouldn’t that be nice :)

  • If one starts with a theme or one declares that one works with a theme, if that theme is not fully explored, then, the director or writer would be criticized. Thus, it is best to not admit from which point one works.

  • This article enlightens me in so many ways, but I wonder does “cause and effect” is also considered a theme? Or it is the “child” of the main theme, making it the secondary theme of a particular screenplay?

  • I do start with a theme, but I write a lot of stuff without sticking to that theme and if the theme changes I’m not that worried about it. The big value behind defining a theme is when you get stuck and wonder what your story is about or how to approach a scene you can look at what your theme is – usually sets me on the right the track.

  • Themes are really just whatever things you care strongly about. As such, they are going to be behind every story and character decision you make, every great idea you have for a twist, every sentence you write. You can’t avoid it. Everybody cares strongly about something, and when that starts coming across in your stories, that’s when your stories start to be good stories. So you don’t need to consciously be aware of them, and I would say when you start writing it is best not to try to be. Just write things that you feel strongly about yourself. But as you get more experienced, being aware of what you care about can help you be critical of yourself, create believable characters that have opposite opinions to you, and really go deep into your own beliefs and feelings. And then your good writing starts to move towards being great writing.