Having worked in ‘filmmaking education’ I have had the opportunity to sit through a fairly large number of student film pitches and read more student short scripts than you would like. The biggest sin I repeatedly encountered was the total absence of a theme. That is scripts that involve a series of actions, some of them entertaining for sure, but sadly without any real substance. The words of David Cluck come to mind:
It reminds me of a short script I wrote many years ago when I was a student myself. It was a 10 pages script where a coffee addict becomes embroiled in a series of nasty cause and consequences after waking up to a broken espresso machine. It was a script about cause and consequences, because series of causes and consequences are cool. But, the script was not. It failed to explore a theme. There was no morale, no deeper message or central idea. The plane of discourse between myself and the potential audience was left empty. The film had no meaning.
I later learned to appreciate this other important layer of communication between the filmmakers and their audience, where social issues or deeply rooted human needs are discussed and carefully explored. A theme needs and deserve a careful exposition through the characters and their actions. The first question I would ask myself is:
Should I make the theme plot-centric or should I use the theme complementary? I could also try to be very subtle but I risk being too smart for my own good and end up burying the theme too deep for anyone to ever find it. Let us take my coffee addict as an example.
Should the film be about addictions with the theme central to the main plot? Or, should the film be about consumerism and the theme be layered with the actions of a coffee addict? Finally, should the film be about Italian politics? What? Can you not see it?
Keep a playful approach to the creative development of your theme.
Imagine a world full of the essence of your theme. Imagine your character and objective(s) in this world fully packed with the essence of your theme everywhere they look.
Now, imagine a world totally deprived of your theme. Again, imagine your character in this world. Study their reactions and how their goals fit in this new world where the essence of your theme is now absent.
Play the same ‘game’ with characters. Imagine a character that is full of the essence of your theme. Who would they be?
Now, imagine a character that does not possess any of the essence of your theme. Who would they be?
Could any of these characters be your protagonist or antagonist? or could they be a secondary character that could help moving the plot forward and exposing your theme?
A final ‘challenge’ is to convey the essence of your theme with three images and one color.
Enough ‘playing’, for now. Your characters and the way they change need to reflect or at least strongly interact with the positives and negatives of your theme. ‘It is a film about x that says y’, where x is your theme and y is what you have to say about it. You need to know your theme, explore, research, experiment… then your theme becomes your best advisor. As Francis Ford Coppola once put it “knowing the theme helps you make a decision when you’re not sure which way to go.”