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.
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: