…So, let’s all pretend I didn’t disappear for four months and instead kick off a new series of reviews and commentary.
I went down to the Loft Cinema last week to see A Fantastic Fear of Everything, a British horror-comedy starring Simon Pegg. It’s about an author whose extensive research into 19th Century serial killers has left him barricaded in his apartment utterly paranoid and so busy jumping at shadows that he hardly seems aware that there’s an actual serial killer on the loose in his neighborhood.
The film has some really striking visuals, a compelling score, and some great comedic moments, but it is also very, very weird. For example, one of the major set pieces of the film involves the protagonist’s harrowing struggle to get his clothes washed at a laundromat. It works, marvelously, but I have trouble imagining a mainstream audience connecting with it.
Which probably explains why it’s only coming to select theaters now, despite the credits saying it was made in 2011. Definitely more of an art house flick than the movies of the Cornetto Trilogy. It’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of Simon Pegg and have a high tolerance for strangeness. I should also note that much of the film’s comedy is driven by what I like to call “embarrassment humor,” so if that’s not your cup of tea then give it a pass.
Things I Learned from A Fantastic Fear of Everything:
(This is the part where I talk about the storytelling lessons I took from whatever it is I’ve just watched/read/etc.)
- The most mundane conflict can be gripping if the audience is emotionally invested in the stakes. I’ve heard it said that if your character’s sole desire is to drink a glass of water, people will read a hundred pages to see them drink that glass of water so long as you are able to convey how powerfully the character wants that drink. This movie definitely proves that to be true. While the protagonist’s fears are more than a little silly, both the writing and Pegg’s fantastic acting gets us to buy into the notion that simply going to the laundrette to wash his clothes is a massive and harrowing obstacle for the character. We get a lot of build up beforehand that establishes how much he doesn’t want to go there but also the degree to which he wants to be free from his paranoia, which really sets the stakes once he confronts his fear. It’s a good reminder for me to make sure that my own characters’ emotional investment in the stakes should be intensely clear on the page.
- Know what time of year it is, even if 90% of your story takes place indoors. Living in a climate where the seasons are roughly divided into Hot and Not So Hot, I have an unfortunate tendency to automatically default my setting to Not So Hot whenever I’m writing a story. It’s always a missed opportunity not to spell out the exact time of year, as knowing the specific month or day grounds your world while creating more potential for storytelling. A Fantastic Fear of Everything takes place around Christmas time in London, though the only real time the holiday comes up is in an amusing little bit when a group of teenage carolers come by Pegg’s home. But although nearly all the action occurs indoors, the bleakness of winter suffuses the entire film and adds to the atmosphere of paranoid isolation. Plus, there’s a whole sequence involving an overcoat that wouldn’t work at any other time of year.
- Set things up, but trust your audience. There are a lot of carefully plotted setups and payoffs throughout the film, both dramatic and comedic. One of them, involving the waiter at the beginning, takes the entire film to pay off. It’s the sort of attention to detail that I can only manage after the second or third draft. But one of the most important set ups was ultimately overplayed–“Chekov’s cannon” my father called it–which undermined the surprise of the payoff. So it’s a reminder that foreshadowing and setting things into motion always requires a deft touch: enough so that the audience feels clever for following along rather than impatiently waiting for the punchline.
That’s all I’ve got for this week. It’s good to be back! I’ll see you all next time.