Mother!: Intellect vs. Intution as Screenwriting Tools
Before we get started with this week’s podcast, I want to take a moment to remind you that you still have a few days left to register for our Annual TV Writing Retreat, October 11-15 in Manchester Vermont. This is our biggest event of the year. We bring our entire faculty– including Jerry Perzigian, former showrunner of Married With Children, The Golden Girls and The Jeffersons, our Pulitzer prize nominated TV Drama teacher Steve Molton, me, and of course the rest of our award-winning teachers–and we all head up to ITVfest, the second largest TV festival in the world. You get world-class TV writing workshops all morning, a VIP Content Creator pass that gets you into all the screenings, parties and events in the afternoon and evening, and a special one-on-one pitch consultation with one of our incredible teachers, so you can develop your show, get out there and pitch your heart out to everyone you meet. Plus, we team with the festival to get you hours of exclusive access to the producers, managers, and agents in attendance at our exclusive Secret Producer Pitch Party! It’s the best event of the year for TV writers, so I hope you can join us. You can find out more at our website: writeyourscreenplay.com/vermont. Hope to see you there!
This week we are going to be talking about Darren Aronofsky’s new film, mother!
mother! is probably one of the most frustrating movies of the year.
It is frustrating because of its ambition. It is a movie that shoots so big, and attempts to do so much– filmically, thematically, visually, structurally, societally, politically, psychologically– that you desperately want to love it.
It’s a movie with a first half that’s nearly perfect (at least for those of us open to magical realism in films)– an ending that should move you to tears…
But it suffers from a sequence about ⅔ of the way through that makes you want to scream. And not for the right reasons.
It’s a movie that, despite its profound message, is having a hard time connecting with the emotions of its audience– that often elicits unwanted groans and laughs at what should be it’s most haunting and disturbing moments– rather than the emotional and political response it’s shooting for.
I would like to suggest that what’s brilliant and what’s problematic in mother! both come from the same source, and can actually be boiled down to three really simple concepts.
So, I would like to walk you through mother! today.
I would like to walk you through what is brilliant about the film, and I would like to walk you through where the film stumbles.
That way, if you are ever working on a screenplay whether it is an experimental movie that is breaking the mold like mother! or something much more traditional– if these really common problems were to happen to you, then you can anticipate them and be aware of them and address them in an early draft, rather than try to explain them in interviews after the film is out.
Now, I want to say that none of the issues I am going to raise with mother! have anything to do with the surrealism of the film. There are a lot of people who don’t like mother! because of what it is trying to do; there are a lot of people who don’t like mother! because it isn’t living in the world of naturalism. They don’t like mother! because it isn’t telling a traditional story.
And if that is you, then it is important to understand that this is a taste issue, rather than an execution issue. And pretty much any film that gets made–if your film is good enough to deserve to get made–the truth is you are going to piss some people off. There are going to be some people who hate your film.
And there are some people who hate mother! And then there are some people who love mother! despite its pretty obvious flaws.
So what I want to do first is to separate the taste issue out. Separate the genre issue out.
And I am going to encourage you to do that with your own scripts as well.
When you get feedback that is about taste, that is about genre– when you get feedback that isn’t in keeping with the intention of your script– you have to recognize that that feedback isn’t really for you– that isn’t your audience that you are speaking to.
mother! is a $30 million dollar movie with huge star power in it, so this isn’t a $200 million dollar epic that has to appeal to everybody.
Rather, mother! is a movie that has to deliver for its very specific audience– the people who connect to the world in the way that Darren Aronofsky sees it.
In some ways, it succeeds in that tremendously. And in other ways it falls short. And the same is true with your writing.
In order to find that producer, that director, that executive– in order to get a star like Jennifer Lawrence (at first, Aronofsky actually thought was a mistake to even go down and meet with her because he thought there was no way she was going to get attached to this tiny little movie)– in order to attract those kinds of stars, you have to write the movie that only you could write.
And sometimes that means that you are going to alienate some people.
In order to write the movie that is going to get somebody passionate about your work, get a producer passionate enough to back a new writer, get your dentist friend passionate enough to write a check to you for ten grand for your independent film, you are going to have to write a movie that pisses some people off.
And the fact that it pisses some people off means that there is enough to it that the person who is moved by it is going to be deeply moved, passionately moved.
They aren’t going to say, “Oh this is a perfectly decent, good movie,” they are going to say, “Yes, this is a movie that I need to see on the screen.”
At the same time, you’ve got to make it work. And the truth is Darren Aronofsky comes very close to making it work in mother! But he doesn’t totally make it work.
And he doesn’t totally make it work for reasons that were actually very avoidable.
So, first I want to walk you through the concept of what Aronofsky is trying to build. And then I want to talk you through my experience of what he’s actually built.
If you haven’t seen the film yet I am going to warn you that there is no way to do this for real– there is no way to do this in a helpful way– without spoilers. So, if you haven’t seen the movie and you don’t want anything spoiled for you, you may want to watch the movie and then come back to this podcast.
Here’s what mother! is really about.
Darren Aronofsky is a huge environmentalist. That is a really big deal for him. And he feels a lot of rage about Climate Change; he feels a lot of rage about the way that people don’t care for the earth.
He feels a lot of rage that we are basically destroying our own planet through our narcissism and our self-involvement.
And he is very aware of the myriad causes and hypocrisies that make this possible– the bizarre scenario by which deeply spiritual and religious people whose beliefs are based in the idea of caring for the earth and for one another, have somehow become allied with a political party of climate change deniers that seem bent on their own destruction.
The rare confluence of our media and our art and our religion– our desires and our egos– separating us from our home, and destroying the very home and the very peace that we want to live in.
And that is a really emotional place to start a film.
So this is a lesson you can start with for yourself, even if you aren’t doing experimental films– start your movie with something that matters to you.
If you start your movie with something that matters to you, you are going to end up writing something that also matters to your audience.
So, here is the conception of the film according to Darren Aronofsky.
Darren Aronofsky gets pissed off about Climate Change, so he decides to write a movie about it.
He comes up with this idea that the Jennifer Lawrence character is going to be Gaia. She is going to be Mother Earth. And the Javier Bardem character is going to be God.
And he’s going to do a relationship piece about God and Mother Earth trying to live with each other.
All Mother Earth wants to do is rebuild and renew God’s broken home, and help him to be the creator he was meant to be.
Except that God’s got this really self destructive streak in him.
He’s a blocked artist. And when he finally does create, instead of building a beautiful life with Mother Earth, he keeps on populating the earth with assholes, inviting them into the beautiful home Mother Earth has worked so hard to build and rebuild, because of his desperate need to be worshipped and adored.
So this is an intellectual conception, but you can see that already it is growing out of something that is real for Aronofsky, his rage about the earth.
And the central question that Aronofsky is asking is this: What does it feel like to be Mother Nature?
What does it feel like to be powerless? To defend yourself against human greed and narcissism and self-involvement and violence against you? To give and give and give to people (and to a God) who only seem to take.
He was inspired by the mythology of Gaia, he was inspired by the Bible, he was also inspired by a book called The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, which was about a tree that gives and gives and gives and gives and gives to a little boy. And if you’ve seen the film you can see how Jennifer Lawrence is The Giving Tree.
So that’s the conception. Mother Earth and God are living together in this beautiful octagonal house.
He became obsessed with the octagonal house not only because it looks really beautiful when you shoot it, but also because the number eight is a number that in the Bible is associated with resurrection.
So, here is Mother Earth, the symbol of life and renewal, trying to renew this house, trying to build this house that God and man seem intent on destroying– trying to build God’s house, to keep God’s house alive.
And meanwhile, God, who in Aronofsky’s conception is a blocked artist, starts to create characters, just like God started to create man in the book of Genesis.
He starts to create characters, and he invites them into Mother Earth’s perfect Eden– the Eden that she has worked so hard to build and restore.
And God’s need to be idolized, the artist’s needed to be idolized, allows his creations to run rampant.
So, you have Adam, played by Ed Harris, who shows up as God’s biggest fan, and gets invited into the Garden of Eden.
And then you get Eve, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who causes even more havoc.
And even though you’re never told they are Adam and Eve, as you’re watching, you slowly start to put the pieces together. That these aren’t normal characters who are showing up in a naturalistic world– but rather some kind of expression of whatever Javier Bardem is writing.
That they are something he is inviting in.
They invade the home Mother Earth is building– they violate the sanctity of the Garden of Eden, his study, the one place no one can enter– the home of the forbidden fruit–that perfect diamond-like crystal, the one thing that he truly adores.
And of course, they destroy that “apple”. They break that crystal. And they are cast out from Eden. And paradise is lost.
Their children, Cain and Abel show up. Cain slays Abel in a fit of rage over his inheritance. And the funeral that follows devolves into chaos as more and more people show up to destroy the house that Mother Earth has worked so hard to build– until finally they cause their own Great Flood, when they destroy the pipes of the unbraced sink Mother Earth has been trying to protect– and she finally snaps and casts them out herself.
But in the domestic quarrel that follows between Mother Earth and God, a new love is rekindled– a new attempt at creation. God impregnates Mother Earth, who gives birth to the messiah, a little baby that ends up getting sacrificed and destroyed by his worshippers in what is arguably one of the most disturbing scenes in film history…
And there is more. But just in case you haven’t seen the film, I’m not going to ruin it for you.
But you can probably agree that there is something really cool going on there!
At the same time, despite all that brilliant structure that underlies Darren Aronofsky’s attempt to write a film of Biblical proportions about the horror of Climate Change…
If you saw mother! and didn’t hear Aronofsky speak about it, there’s a good chance that you had no idea that this was a movie Climate Change.
You probably understood the God theme, the Cain and Abel themes, even the Adam and Eve themes– you probably understood the way that worship and narcissism and artistry and creation all come together in this film.
But you probably had no idea that this was a film about Climate Change. And you probably had no idea that the sink was Noah’s ark. And you probably had no idea that the flooding of the sink was the flood of Noah.
And while you may have known that the little boy was the messiah, you probably didn’t take that as an allegory for Climate Change.
And why is that?
I believe that is because ultimately, even though consciously Aronofsky is writing a movie about Climate Change, subconsciously, he is really writing a movie about so much more.
Any time you write a script, you are always writing two different levels of structure.
There is a secret structure, a secret inspiration, the secret rules around which you are building– and the truth is the audience doesn’t ever need to know those rules.
There is that secret metaphor that maybe a couple of film critics will actually understand, but that you use as a guide for yourself– as the central metaphor– so you can make the right decisions about what needs to happen, and what can’t happen.
Aronofsky himself has talked about how quickly he was able to write the script because he had set a strong metaphorical understanding of what he wanted to build.
And at the same time, there comes a point where your conception can actually get in the way of what you are writing. Where what you think the movie is about can actually get in the way of what it is meant to become.
I am reminded of an experience I had with a brilliant art teacher, Esmé Thompson, who was one of my mentors.
Esmé taught me about drawing at the time when I didn’t even think that I had a lick of art skill, but I desperately wanted to learn to draw.
Esmé was really the first person who taught me that drawing was a way of seeing.
And I remember she had given me this animal skull to draw, and I had this idea, since the skull was white, to instead make the drawing black — a black skull on a black charcoal background.
It was a giant drawing– probably six feet long by about twelve feet wide. I made this giant black background with these incredibly subtle shadings of black on black, that I was so proud of– you had to look and look and look and look to see the skull. To realize it wasn’t just a black background.
And I will never forget this, Esmé stood about six feet away from it and she said something that stayed with me forever– that actually affected the way I think about writing.
She said, “Jake, if I can’t see it, it isn’t there.”
And what I realized was that often my inspirations needed to be brought more to the surface, if I really wanted my audience to experience them with their full force.
If I am writing an allegory about Climate Change, I have to hit that idea hard enough. I have to come back to that idea clearly enough– I have to come back to that theme of nature again and again and again and again and again.
If I don’t do that, my audience isn’t going to get it. It’s just going to be a secret for me.
And that doesn’t make me a cool artist. That makes me an artist who isn’t communicating what really matters to me in my art.
That doesn’t mean that I have to spoon feed everything to everybody. In fact there are elements of mother! that do feel spoonfed to the audience, and those are the least effective moments in the film.
But what it does mean is that if my audience can’t viscerally experience whatever is most important in the film to me– if they can’t see it yet, I haven’t actually accomplished it.
It means I need to do another draft.
If mother! is really a movie about Climate Change, if this is really the movie Aronofsky wants to make, it desperately needs another draft before it goes into production.
If you’ve taken my Write Your Screenplay class, you’ve heard me refer to this as The Audience Draft.
Writing doesn’t happen in one phase. It happens in multiple phases.
There are actually four phases that we discuss in our classes. But for the purposes of this podcast, we’re going to focus on the first two.
The first phase, I call The ME Draft.
And in that first phase, in my first draft, I don’t really care if the audience is getting it at all. In The ME Draft I only care if I get it. Because if I get it, I know I’m building on something real.
The second phase, I call The Audience Draft.
And that’s where we bring some order to the chaos, to make sure our audience’s experience is as powerful as ours is.
Darren Aronofsky has talked about how quickly he wrote this script. And I think that’s why it’s so brilliant, and also why it’s so flawed.
He did a brilliant job with the first phase of writing, The ME Draft.
But he really never finished The Audience Draft.
In The ME Draft, I am looking for my internal structure, my internal way of understanding the script, my internal metaphors, what is really happening for me, what is the movie that I want to write?
But in the second pass, I want to go back through each act, each scene, each page, each moment, each line of dialogue, and I want to ask myself, “What story is the audience telling themselves now?”
In the first draft I don’t care about the audience at all, but in the second draft they’re the only thing I care about.
With just a couple more mentions of the environment, just a couple of moments of clarity, Aronofsky’s audience might have been able to leave mother! understanding what the film was actually about.
And that would have meant a lot less explanation for Aronofsky afterwards.
And it probably would have also meant a more successful movie.
That is, assuming your movie ends up being about what you thought it was about.
Because as both the God and the Mother Earth characters learn in mother!, you can start a creative project with a strong conception of how it’s going to turn out. But eventually your characters are going to take over. And if you try to fight them, they’re gonna tear the house down.
There are two things that happen. Sometimes you look at The ME Draft of your screenplay and you think, “Yep I set out to write a movie about Climate Change and I wrote a movie about Climate Change…and it’s awesome.”
And in that case, all you have to do is make sure you’re landing your punches. That you’re hitting that theme in a clear way– not without subtlety, not with a giant sledgehammer, but clearly enough that an intelligent audience, a thinking audience, can pick it up, can piece it together.
Other times, you look at what you wrote and you realize, “Wow I thought I was just writing a movie about Climate Change… but it turns out the characters are doing something so much more interesting than that…”
There is a point in every script at which the characters take control and it isn’t about what you want anymore.
And when that happens you have to listen to the characters.
If you think about the first half of mother!, maybe even the first two thirds of mother!–everything up to the moment where she gets pregnant– you can see that for all those movements, Aronofsky is really trusting the audience, and he’s trusting the characters.
He isn’t spoon feeding us anything; he is giving us very little explanation. He is just kind of dropping us into a world, and letting the characters do their thing.
In fact the structure of the first half of mother! is pretty much just a much darker interpretation of the opening of The Hobbit.
If you guys have read The Hobbit or seen the movie, basically Bilbo Baggins is living a nice, boring, happy quiet life in his little hobbit hole, and one day a bunch of dwarfs start showing up and inviting themselves in. They want to go on an adventure, and all he wants to do is to keep his life orderly.
And finally Gandalf the magician shows up and he pretty much just pushes little Bilbo Baggins around and says, “Hey, look dude, this is what you are doing.”
So, the first half of mother! is really just that first scene of The Hobbit— we are going to keep on bringing in characters who interrupt Mother Earth’s life.
And it works wonderfully. And slowly, you start to piece together, “Oh my God, so all she wants is for her husband to write, and he is blocked, and she is doing everything… she is trying to resurrect the house that he destroyed, she is trying to fix that broken thing in him.”
And at the same time you start to realize, “I think this house is a metaphor for her and I think that that bleeding orifice that she keeps hiding under the rug is that broken thing in her– that thing in her that she doesn’t want to look at, the reason she is looking at the house, looking at him, trying to help everyone and everything else, so she doesn’t have to look at that thing in herself.
And yes, she may be a metaphor at that moment, but she’s also a character. Dealing with a real problem that millions of people deal with. Being a person who gives, gives, gives, in love with a person who takes, takes, takes… who just can’t look at that broken thing in herself, or allow herself to perceive that broken thing in the man she loves.
And that’s why you connect with her.
You start to realize, without any explanation, “you know, I am pretty sure these are actually his characters who are invading his world… I don’t think that these are just random people from the street, random fans and admirers… I think these are actually the characters of the book that he has started to write, or of the poem that he has started to write.”
You start to realize what the game is… “I am pretty sure this is a Cain and Abel story.”
You start to realize that eventually, by the end of that first half, the moment that we would call the Sea Change of this film in a 7 Act Structure, he has pushed her to a point– through his narcissism, through his selfishness, by doing so little– there is that incredible moment where he says, “I have completed it!” and you see that “the great manuscript” is like one page that he has written compared to this entire house that she has built.
And at that point, he might be a metaphor. But he’s also a person. A person many of us have known. And many of us have been. The self involved artist who is holding their own work so preciously that they can’t perceive what it really is– what is beautiful, and what is flawed about it.
And that’s why we connect with him.
So, you understand halfway through that she has finally had enough, she is finally fed up, she is finally going to stand up for herself.
And you are with her.
And even though you are in a surrealistic magical world, and even though nothing has been explained to you and mostly it feels like ME Draft rather than Audience Draft writing, you know where you are and you are engaged.
You aren’t thinking about Climate Change. But then again, neither is she. Because there is a point at which your characters stop being manifestations of your idea, and start living and breathing as actual characters.
Yes, she is Mother Earth and he is God, but also she is a woman who loves her husband, who has fallen in love with a total narcissist. And he is a blocked artist who gives nothing to anyone, who is so consumed with his own greatness and so incredibly self-destructive that he is going to undo any of her best intentions, that he is going to bring ugliness into her life, and keep burning down his own house no matter what, because of that destructive impulse in himself.
And you can see that– if we could somehow find a clearer path through that messy final crescendo, a path that kept us connected to the characters, rather than bouncing them about through plot and spectacle– if we could arrive at that nearly perfect ending in a structural, character driven, rather than purely thematic way– you can see that this movie would be nearly perfect.
Because that ending carries us to a place that’s far more rooted in our world than any of the Biblical or thematic or symbolic exploration. And with a few small changes, could have turned this movie into one of the most brilliant explorations of narcissism in art and relationships ever written.
That moment when we find out what that magical crystal, that forbidden apple, actually is in her–that ending where we realize that this is the recurring cycle, the thing that this man does again and again and again and again and again, falling in love with the precious object inside the woman but not the woman herself– putting her on a pedestal to be loved and mourned and adored as a symbol– but never truly connected with as a person–
Well let’s just say that we’ve all been there. We’ve all done that. And we’ve all allowed that to happen to us.
In this way, the sin of the character is the same as the sin of the artist.
Because even though it’s only for a brief 25 minutes or so that Aronofsky loses touch with his characters– starts treating them purely as symbols rather than as people that fully live and breathe– starts trying to recreate the violent crescendo of Black Swan complete with stabbing with shards of glass– rather than allowing his characters to guide him organically to the place that only they can go– even though it only goes on for 25 minutes– it turns out to be an incredibly painful 25 minutes, that severs not only his connection to his characters, but also the connection of the audience.
And you can see that actually by choosing either path in a revision, so much of that 25 minutes could have come into focus.
He could have focused the revision by saying “Okay how do we really make the second half about Climate Change? How do we bring the environment into the second half? How do we see the effects on the environment? How do we bring in seasons and wind and cold and hot and—how do we bring that in and really learn that idea in the second half?”
He could have focused the revision by stepping into his characters, by stepping into the Jennifer Lawrence’s character and saying, “Okay this is a woman who has tried everything, who has come this close to leaving… only to seduce herself back into that old fantasy– the idea that their child will change everything…”
If only he had allowed her to have a new plan to navigate the selfishness of her husband and build that perfect life together– to try something different–you can see how this would have rooted the second half of mother! in a reality anyone could connect to.
Because, no matter how magical the execution, this is not a fantastical scenario.
It may be happening in an expressionistic way– it may look like what it feels like on the inside– but this is something that millions of people do, trying to save a broken relationship through a child, trying to imagine that sex and passion and family are going to somehow allow them to magically deal with the flaws that they don’t want to look at in themselves, and that they don’t want to look at in each other.
So, you can see that we are locked into something really beautiful here– something that really transcends just the environmental issue.
The problem is that Jennifer Lawrence’s character experiences exactly the same thing in the second half of mother! as she does in the first.
In the first half she enters with a strong want and a strong plan– to get her husband writing again, to restore his house, to protect his sacred crystal. So even though she gets bounced around by her husband’s narcissism and all the characters he’s invited into their life, the pressure between her desperate desire to heal her husband and the way that healing is disrupting her life, keeps her from just becoming a helpless victim. She’s giving, giving, giving, but that giving has a structure to it.
But in the second half, she no longer has that forward motion– now that her husband is no longer blocked and the house is no longer saveable, she has nothing to do– she spends most of the sequence helplessly trying to protect her home and her child from the invaders, but never really confronting her husband. She turns into a helpless victim. And we stop caring about her.
Aronofsky basically tries to play the same The Hobbit game all over again.
All right, let’s bring new people in, let’s bring the publicist, and let’s bring new kinds of worshippers and priests and armies and all that kind of stuff.
He is trying to build the same kind of crescendo that he built in Black Swan. But the result is not as powerful.
In Black Swan everything that happens in that final crescendo is driven by the main character’s desperate desire to become the black swan. To finally be perfect.
But in mother! the final crescendo happens to her rather than by her. It’s not until she finally makes a decision that the movie finally starts moving again.
And that’s why, even though you are incredibly disturbed by what happens to that baby, you aren’t moved. You aren’t weeping. In fact, despite yourself you may even find yourself laughing. And you aren’t laughing with discomfort. You are laughing because you aren’t connected to what is happening, because it is pushed so far that it almost starts to become satire.
And the thing that is causing that loss of connection is the lost connection to what the character wants.
Because Jennifer Lawrence, Mother Earth’s actions stop driving the movie– because she just makes the same decisions all over again, the film actually becomes redundant. It stops moving forward with the character, and starts treading water, covering the same ground all over again.
And even though it is outdoing itself visually– the spectacle of this film is amazing– even though it is outdoing itself visually, it isn’t outdoing itself structurally.
Yes, she’ll play some lip service to, “I am going to leave,” but until she snaps at the end and destroys the whole damn thing, she doesn’t do much to actually play that out.
Instead, she gets led around like a passive puppet, trying to protect her baby and her home from a situation that she and we both know it can’t be protected from.
It’s been said that Ideas are anathema to Art.
And I believe that what doesn’t work in mother! is unfortunately a case of the writer’s brilliant intellect getting in the way of his subconscious impulses.
Aronofsky has conceived of this character as Mother Earth who gives, gives, gives, gives, gives.
And so he has locked her into a structure from which she can’t escape, because she is a character that in his conception cannot change.
Because no door is open to her, because (until that final sequence) there is literally nothing she can or is willing to do, it’s hard in that last third of the movie to connect to what is happening.
We connect to characters who pursue the things they want. Characters who go through profound change. Because we, as human beings, all desire to change. That’s what makes us human.
This is where structure comes from. Not from bouncing your character around inside of a plot, but by finding the process by which they come to the great changes in their lives– stepping into a character who we believe can only be one way and saying, “okay what if she did change? What if instead of giving, giving, giving, giving even her own child, what if she tried a different tactic?”
What if she tried a different strategy to deal with the narcissism of her husband, to protect her child? What if she took a completely different road only to end up in the same place?
What if she had a desire and a plan as strong in the second half as she had in the first?
That, rather than giving the feeling of powerlessness, would give the feeling of structure.
What is so interesting is that, despite all the magic happening, the real thing that keeps mother! from being a transcendent movie is the same problem that most screenwriters face even in their most simple scripts: a main character whose want isn’t clear because they aren’t pursuing it in a clear way.
In the first half, her want is super-duper clear: she wants to get her husband writing again, she wants to have a child, and she wants to restore this house.
But in the second half, because the character fails to change, fails to adapt, fails to grow, we lose track of her want, we start to see her as a puppet.
Because she becomes a symbol rather than a person.
And the truth is, even this intellectual notion of that symbol is way too limited!
Because the truth is Mother Nature has got some power.
We have seen hurricanes, we have seen floods, we have seen lightning, we have seen storms, we have seen freezing, we have seen extreme heat, we understand. We understand the power of nature.
And yes, that destructive aspect does get revealed in the end. But it’s hard to watch a character pushed and pushed and pushed for two hours if they’re not willing to push back.
So you can see that for all the smoke and mirrors, the real problem of mother! actually boils down to three really simple concepts.
Number One, you can’t do the same thing twice.
You can’t build a redundant structure. If you are going to build a similar structure the character has to try to move through it in a different way.
In fact, even if you look at Aronofsky’s library of films– if you look at The Wrestler– in the first half of that movie, The Wrestler is moving towards integrating into a new life. And in the second half of that movie, The Wrestler is moving back to the ring, gaining it all and losing it all.
In the first half he gets the girl and he gets his daughter back and he gets the job at the deli that makes him feel like he used to feel in the ring.
And then the second half he loses the daughter, he loses the deli, he loses the girl. Not through the actions of others, but through his own choices.
We get to see the character as a different person on the other side of their Sea Change, rather than just going through the same movements all over again.
So this isn’t something that is new for Darren Aronofsky. This is simply a draft that is too early, that needs one more rewrite.
So we’ve got Number One: make sure your character’s want is clear, and make sure that your character is pursuing that want with everything they’ve got, that your character is changing as they move through your structure.
Number Two: don’t spoon feed your audience.
What is so fascinating is that throughout the first half of mother!, you actually understand almost everything that is going on, even though everything is surrealistic and nothing is explained.
But in the second half, because of the redundancy, we start to feel like the theme is being explained to us, like we are being assaulted and hit over the head with it.
Instead, what you want to do in the second half is to dig deeper into your theme: whether that theme is the theme that you started out with– “okay how do I get this concept of Climate Change out?”– or whether that theme is an internal theme, something you discover in the character, something that maybe you didn’t even know you were writing.
Or in Mother! you could see it could also have been a fusion of the two.
Making those subtle moves structurally helps you bring your ideas to the surface– allows you to take them further than you imagined when you first sat down to write, allows the movie to surprise you as you learn who these characters truly are.
Number Three: don’t get stuck in your conception, don’t let your intellect get in the way of the moment.
I think this is true in screenwriting and I think this is true in life.
We need our intellect to guide us. We need our intellect to point the way. We need our intellect to get us started, to give us a path—but ultimately the real writing happens in the moment.
The real writing happens by looking, not at who I plan my characters to be, but who my characters are.
The real structure happens by looking, not at where do my characters need to go, but where have my characters been, and where could they go from there?
For all its flaws, I actually think that mother! is a beautiful film.
I think it is a film, just like many other films that I see from independent filmmakers, that simply gets shot just one draft too early and without enough or without the right feedback– just a few revisions too early to fully land its punch.
Because I think in its purest form, in one more draft of revisions, I think Darren Aronofsky would not only have been able to write an incredibly powerful movie about Climate Change, that actually moved people to think about that concept and take action, but also to take a character on a journey in one of the most devastating explorations ever written about the link between narcissism and art.
In a way all of us as screenwriters are blocked creators.
And, in a way, all of us have the same flaw as Javier Bardem’s character.
We get attached to that one little page that we have written.
We get obsessed with the desire for worship, the desire to be the God over our characters’ lives, by the worship of the perfect crystal that we imagine, rather than who our characters really are in their hearts.
But I think great writing comes on the other side of that. It comes from letting go of your desire to be God and stepping into your desire to be human.
It comes from letting go of your desire to control everything, and stepping into your desire to be with your characters in the house you’ve built– to look under that rug at the thing that you are afraid to look at in yourself.
It comes from breaking our patterns rather than following them.
And it comes from surrendering our control.
It comes from letting go of our desire to be worshipped, and instead connecting to our desire to tell the truth, so that we can put who we really are on the page, and build that beautiful house that we have always dreamed of.
I hope you can join us us in Vermont and that we can help you find that truth in yourself.
*Edited for length and clarity