Colossal: Externalizing the Internal
If you haven’t seen Colossal yet, this is definitely a movie that you need to check out. Because whether you love genre-bending monster movies or not, Colossal is a film that shows you just how much you can get away with if you are willing to trust yourself.
This is an example of a movie that simply should not work, so let me give you the premise really quickly. And for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, it’s important to understand that this is not some experimental art film. This is a mostly naturalistic character-driven drama about alcoholism.
Except instead of exploring alcoholism in a traditional dramatic format, it explores it by mashing up B-Movie, sci-fi elements, with a mostly naturalistic script that seems like it’s going in a romantic-comedy-with-some-dramatic-elements, direction.
In the simplest terms. it’s the story of Gloria, who is a raging alcoholic, total mess of a character, who seems to have some strange connection to a Godzilla monster that keeps on attacking Seoul, Korea every time she gets drunk.
As if that weren’t hard enough, this movie seems to break pretty much every other rule as well.
For example, the common wisdom is that you’re supposed to have a likeable main character in your movie, but this main character is far from likeable. Her alcoholism is so out of control that we find ourselves actually sympathizing with her nasty ex-boyfriend.
This is a character who uses people, who is irresponsible, who is out of control. At the beginning of the movie, gets kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment and is forced to return home to the abandoned house of her parents.
Arriving there, she meets Oscar, played by Jason Sudeikis, a guy who has always been in love with her since they grew up as kids, who keeps showering her with gifts, who gives her a job at his bar, who tries to do anything he can to be nice to her… (Even if there is something that feels just a little bit stalkery about him, just maybe a little bit too nice, maybe just a little bit controlling).
We feel like we’re going in a Romantic Comedy direction– like the film is making a promise to us. And again, the common wisdom is that once you start to to set the rules of a Romantic Comedy genre, that’s what where we’re supposed to go! We’re supposed to watch the story of two troubled souls coming together. We’re supposed to watch this story of the guy who always loved the girl, finally finding a way to connect. Of two broken souls healing each other. We’re supposed to have a happy ending, right?
Mild spoilers ahead…
Instead Gloria responds mostly by playing mind games with Oscar. By taking advantage of what at least at the time seems like is generosity.
She does this by attempting to seduce his best friend Joel, even knowing how Oscar feels about her. And she does it again much later in the film when she shows up at his bar with her ex-boyfriend, Tim, even knowing what that’s likely to mean for Oscar.
But of course, Oscar’s not really such a nice guy either. He’s not gonna play the likeable, romantic, comedy role that we expect him to play. Instead, he turns out to be the real villain of the piece. Whereas Gloria turns out to be the real hero.
And though we start off on a Romantic Comedy trajectory, we soon find ourselves going in a much darker direction.
On the playground of their childhoods a battle is playing out, a battle not for love, but for control– a battle between sobriety and alcoholism, a battle between two children and two adults, a battle between a giant robot controlled by Oscar, and a giant monster controlled by Gloria, a battle between past present, between childhood and adulthood, between the psychological programs and patterns that were built in the past, and the people that these main characters want to become.
So I think it’s safe to say that all these things are about as far as you can go from a traditional Romantic Comedy structure.
In fact, this might be just about as weird a premise that you could come up with for a movie. Which is why it is so beautiful to see how well it actually works.
So often, as screenwriters, we think our idea isn’t good enough, or commercial enough, or no one will understand it. We think that no one will find the real story that we want to tell. We think that the crazy flights of our imagination will not make it on the screen.
And I’m not saying that everybody has to be Charlie Kaufman or Nacho Vigilando, but learning that you can push on any premise and make it work is one of the most valuable lessons you can have as a screenwriter. Learning that your own instincts, even when they take you to totally crazy places, are actually the only thing you can depend on as a writer is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn in screenwriting.
Now, does this mean that all of a sudden every crazy idea you’ve ever had should make it into your movie? Absolutely not. If you’re writing a traditional Romantic Comedy and a monster shows up, you have to ask yourself: is this really the film, or is this the metaphor?
But in this case, Colossal is actually a movie about monsters.
It’s a movie about the monsters that live inside of us. It’s a movie about the monsters that we can become. It’s a movie about the monsters who appear like monsters, and the monsters that appear like friends. It’s a movie about the monsters from our childhood that we internalize. It’s a movie about the monster of addiction. And it’s a movie about the monster that is rampaging in Gloria’s soul. And wreaking havoc on every life that she touches.
Our job as screenwriters is actually very simple. Our job as screenwriters are to look inside of ourselves and find the emotions, the characters, the questions that live there. To look inside of ourselves, find the things that are true.
In other words, our job is to externalize the internal. To take the things that live under the surface for us, and put them up on the screen where everyone can see them.
Sometimes that means our job is to look at our own monsters. And sometimes that means our job is to claw past the monsters that we believe ourselves to be to find the beauty that lives under the surface. Sometimes our job is to dramatize the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of. And sometimes our job is to dramatize the parts of ourselves that we find most beautiful.
In a similar way, our job as screenwriters is to dive into the psyches of our characters. To dive into the characters that exist within them.
The reason that Colossal works despite its crazy premise is not because it’s a perfect movie — it isn’t, and there are certain moments, especially, towards the beginning and towards the end where you can feel a certain bumpiness, where the writer still is trying to figure out what the structure means to the real world.
The reason that Colossal works– the reason that all these disparate elements that feel like they shouldn’t go together still do– the reason that this film works is because of the way that all of these characters grow from inside of Gloria.
Carl Jung wrote about the idea of the Collective Unconscious. When Jung’s spoke about the collective unconscious, he was not speaking as a screenwriter; he was one of the fathers of modern psychology. When he talked about the collective unconscious, what he talked about was the idea that there is a fabric that weaves us all together– A fabric that he believed that we could tap into in our dreams.
And when we tapped into the Collective Unconscious, that fabric that unites all of us, we could tap into the metaphors that meant the same thing to every person, the metaphors that we all shared.
So if you imagine the world– if you imagine every character in the world, and every situation in the world, and every metaphor, and every emotion, as a giant, giant, giant circle, you could imagine that your known world, the little bit of you that you know, is like the tiniest little dot in that circle. It’s tinier than a pin.
And the process of writing is about looking inside to find the parts of ourselves that we don’t actually know.
Looking inside to expand the amount of the Collective Unconscious that we can tap into as screenwriters. In other words, looking inside to find the outside.
Similarly, when they begin their journeys, our characters are like a little dot in a giant circle of the universe — a little tiny dot that’s only aware of a tiny piece of who they can actually be.
And our job as screenwriters is to take the journey with them.
That journey isn’t always a logical journey. Sometimes it’s a metaphorical journey or an emotional journey. But to take a journey with them, looking inside of them in order to look inside of ourselves. Tapping into the Collective Unconscious in them to unmask and reveal the pieces of them that they’re not even aware of.
When we begin Colossal, there’s a part of Gloria that thinks she is the monster. Just like there is the part of every alcoholic that thinks of themselves as the monster.
And, similarly, there’s a part of Gloria that thinks of others as the monster. Who thinks of alcohol as the monster. Who thinks of her boyfriend Tim as the monster. A part of her that feels victimized and a part of her that truly hates herself.
And, of course, whether you’ve ever been an alcoholic or not, you can connect to that. Because we can all connect to that feeling. We can all connect to that feeling that we’re a monster. Just as we can all connect to that feeling that we’re the one good person in the universe and we’re oppressed in some way.
We can all connect to the feeling of wanting to do right and finding ourselves doing wrong. We can all connect to the feeling of hurting someone accidentally, or hurting someone on purpose.
So, by tapping into the Collective Unconscious of Gloria, Nacho Vigilando doesn’t just tap into her Collective Unconscious, he also taps into our Collective Unconscious.
He taps into the parts of us that are under the surface– not the parts of us that we invite to the table, not the parts of us that we want to have dinner with, that we want to hang out with, that we want to present to the world, but the parts of ourselves that we are pushing down.
For everything that you’ve expressed in the universe. there’s an equally strong part of you that you’re repressing.
If you go through the universe as a generous person, there’s a selfish part of you that’s being pressed down. If you go through the world as a selfish person, there’s a generous part of you that’s being pressed down. And similarly this is true for our characters, if we look inside our characters, we can find the pieces of them that they’re not aware of. And we can force those pieces of them out into the universe.
The way that we do that through the characters and situations that they encounter.
A way of thinking about this is that every character in your movie grows from the collective unconscious of your main character.
Every character in your movie is simply a very concentrated expression of some expressed or unexpressed part of your main character.
So if we look at the cast of Colossal, the monster, of course is obvious. The monster is the part of her that is both willfully and accidentally hurting people, the part of her that is dancing like a puppet on a string, rather than controlling her life. The part of her that is out of control and unaware.
It’s also the part of her that she sees as a monster. It’s the way that she sees herself– her hatred for herself, expressed in a physical form.
And although a lot of people think that it’s attacking Seoul, Korea because of the lawsuits that came up between the people that created Godzilla, and the production company of this film, I think there’s another reason she’s attacking Seoul as well, which is I think this is an expression of Goria’s soul. The way that self-hatred affects our soul.
Similarly, we have the robot– and the robot is obviously an expression of a part of Oscar– but it’s also an expression of a part of Gloria: the part of Gloria that is Oscar, the part of Gloria that has internalized Oscar. The part of Gloria that is connected to Oscar in some way, the same way she’s connected to the playground from her childhood, and the memories from her childhood, the way the memories from her childhood are still playing out in her real world life.
And I don’t think that it’s an accident that it’s a robot. Because I think it’s a robot as an expression of the part of Oscar that is no longer under his own control. And also the part of Gloria that is no longer under her own control. That is acting out an old program rather than making choices in her life.
Oscar, the character that the robot represents, also is a part of Gloria. It’s the part of her that feels that she hasn’t achieved her dreams. Or feels like she’s lost her dreams. The part of her that feels like a victim. The part of her that plays games with Tim, just as Oscar plays games with her. The part of her that allows her to see herself clearly by the end of the movie. The part of her that allows herself to see her own self-hatred. By recognizing for the first time this self-hatred in him.
It’s the part of her that allows her to reconcile with her own history.
Similarly, Joel is a piece of Gloria. He’s a piece of Gloria in that he’s a tool that she uses against Oscar. He’s a game that she plays with Oscar’s mind, knowing that Oscar cares for her.
And he’s also the part that she’s internalized of feeling unprotected. Or better said, the part of her that’s failed to protect others from herself. The part of her that is an enabler of herself, just as Joel is an enabler of Oscar, willing to watch wrong things happen, and never speak up, never stop it, just go along.
Even Garth, the Tim Blake Nelson character, is in many ways is an expression of a part of Gloria. The addict that believes that he’s hiding his addiction just as Gloria thinks that she might be hiding hers. The addict that lives in secret pretending that everything’s alright, when everything clearly is not.
And of course, the little girl in Korea is an expression of a part of Gloria. The part of her that’s damaged by this terrible event from her childhood– that’s acting out that same trauma again, and again, and again.
When you start to think in this way, you realize that your job as a writer is actually the same job as a psychologist. And this is way writing for so many people is so therapeutic.
But to write in this way you don’t need psychological training, you need truthful training. You need the training that allows you to find the truth in yourself.
And the challenge is that oftentimes that truth doesn’t come out in an acceptable form. Or doesn’t come out in a form that we believe is acceptable.
You’re writing a dramatic script and suddenly there’s a freaking Godzilla monster.
You’re writing a story about dealing with addiction, and suddenly there’s a playground where magic happens.
You’re writing a story that you think is a work of fiction and suddenly you realize it’s a metaphor for something true in your life.
And the hard thing as a writer is not saying no, it’s saying yes to that inspiration. It’s saying yes to the metaphor that doesn’t fit.
For some scripts like this one, that means taking that crazy metaphor and sticking it right into the movie, and going “ok, if this is true, what else is true?”
If a giant G-dzilla attacks Seoul, Korea every time she goes in a playground and gets drunk, maybe also a giant robot appears every time that boy from her childhood gets drunk.
Maybe in someway the destruction in these two people’s lives ripples and echoes throughout that fabric that ties us all together…all the way to Seoul, Korea.
If this is true maybe she has to go to Seoul to ultimately confront that demon.
If this is true, maybe this is really a movie about letting go.
Or maybe this is really a movie that’s a question of “will we, and can we?”
So for some movies that meditative inspiration ends up finding its way directly into your script.
In other movies we need to transform it.
Here at the Studio one of the ways we teach voice is a process called Meditative Writing, which is a way of looking at writing, of thinking of writing, that takes you out of your conscious mind, and into the realm of the subconscious– into the realm of the Collective Unconscious.
It’s an approach that says, instead of trusting them, trust you.
Instead of trusting the rules, trust what you see, hear, and feel.
In Meditative Writing, you actually do all of your writing in a meditative state– in a trance-like state– where you’re not fully conscious and aware of your writing as you do it.
But it’s important to understand that this is different than free-writing.
Free-writing is like an outpouring that happens to coming up from your body. Meditative writing is a highly focused way of writing, a way of connecting to your emotional needs– those expressed and unexpressed parts of you that need to find their way on the page– and getting them onto the page with hyperfocus that you could only find when you completely let go of all of the other intellectual goals.
But while successful writing begins with Meditative Writing, that is not the final step.
Successful writing is not just about your subconscious processes, because ultimately these are projects that need to communicate to a broad audience.
And that means that these projects are a dance between the two parts of our mind: the conscious mind and the subconscious mind.
These projects can’t just live in the dreamlike state of the Collective Unconscious; they have to be translated.
But before we can begin to translate it, we need to learn to truly go inside to find the material that our conscious mind can shape.
There’s a way to tell the story of Colossal in which there are no magical monsters. Where there’s only Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, Gloria and Oscar. Where we’re really just watching a young woman go back and deal with the trauma of her childhood so that she can finally live a different life.
And if you look at this script, you will see that story is also fully dramatized. And for a more naturalistic writer, that might have been enough.
So sometimes the monster appears and you say, who’s the real world character who can be that monster? Who’s the real world character that can be that robot? Who’s the real world character who can be that unexpressed part of me? That unexpressed part of my character that I want to look at?
A magical event happens on the page, and you say, ok so what’s the real world event that could mirror that, that could feel like that, that could be like that?
But in order to find that beautiful moment, you first have to learn to say yes to the inspiration. You first have to find the trust in yourself. To write something as colossally crazy as Colossal.