Multiple Plots in Recent Cinema
November 1997, Script Magazine
by John Egan
A new style of film emerged in the 90’s which violate the usual constructions of screenplay formula. These are films with multiple plots in which there is no central lead character in the tradition sense. The best recent examples are Secrets and Lies, The English Patient, Pulp Fiction and Kansas City. They are radically different from the formula film. The traditional Hollywood formula film focuses on the central lead throughout the film. At certain plot points something will happen to the lead and develop the plot. All other characters are subordinate to the lead and they exist only to develop the lead and the lead’s relationship to the plot: Hence the term supporting actress and actor. The finest recent example of the formula film is Jerry Maguire.
Jerry Maguire would have won the Oscar for Best Picture in a year without a masterpiece like The English Patient. Jerry Maguire is marked by great dialogue and direction by Cameron Crowe with superb performances by the entire cast. It is a formula film in that there is one plot which entirely revolves around the sports agent Jerry Maguire played by Tom Cruse. All other characters in the film are defined by their relationship to Jerry. Sure the football star Rod Tidwell has his own persona and cast about him but the development of his character, played by Cuba Gooding, is significant only in how it relates to the lead. For this role Cuba deservedly got the Best Supporting Actor award. However, his loving relationship with his wife and family are essentially irrelevant to the plot. Nice touches to be sure but his wife could have been a complete bitch and it wouldn’t have made one bit of difference to the plot and lead, ditto Jerry’s girlfriends and the characters about them. When Jerry breaks off his engagement with his rock and social climbing fiancee, she’s out of the picture. When Jerry falls for Renee Zellweger, she and her circle are in, but they play only off Jerry and assist only in his development. I guess 99% of the films out of Hollywood are formula films and, like Jerry Maguire, some of them are really good.
In the New Wave there are no easily recognizable leads and no clearly defined plot in relation to a lead. In Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies we are first introduced to the Black Englishwoman, (Marianne Jean Baptiste), whose mother just died. Then we meet Murice, a middle aged photographer played by Timothy Spall. He has relationships with his wife, secretary, and former employer, all of whom support his character which is a lead in search of a plot until it finally comes to him in the third act. He also has an initially mysterious relationship with his sister Cynthia, played by Brenda Blethyn, who only much later is revealed as the female lead. We still have plot points. Something’s gotta’ happen or the audience won’t stay long. By the thirty minute mark, Secrets and Lies begins to bring the hitherto three separate plots and their separate casts slowly together. This is the essence of the method: Multiple plots and casts fusing in spurts of action in which the true plot is revealed in the final act.
In The English Patient there are two plots concurrently in play with the true plot only revealed in the finale. There are four lead roles here with Ralph Fiennes in two of them. There is the story of the explorer Count Almasy (Fiennes) and his desperate love affair with Katherine played by Kristen Scott-Thomas. Equally significant, though less visually magnificent, is the story of the nurse Hana (Julliete Binoche) and the patient, played by a heavily made up Mr. Fiennes. As a sub-plot there is the love story between Hanna and the Sikh warrior Kip (Naveen Andrews), whose character assists in Hana’s evolution. I don’t know how it was determined that Julliete Binoche, who had second billing, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Miss Scott-Thomas, billed fourth, for Best Actress. There normally aren’t situations like this but with multiple plots there are multiple leads. I’m guessing when I say Miss Scott-Thomas got the Best Actress nomination because her role was most glamorous and in that role her presence was more powerful. If this screenplay were filmed by a major studio and forced to conform to formula rules the plot starring Miss Binoche would have probably been greatly reduced with the Sikh character eliminated. The genius of Anthony Minghella’s screenplay is that there remain two equally compelling plots in play at once throughout the film with the true plot, map making and Almasy’s betrayal of his principles, not only a mystery but unknown until the close. Artistically superb and technically perfect in every aspect of film making, The English Patient may be the single greatest film ever produced.
In Pulp Fiction it seems that the plot revolves about the two gunmen; Vincent, (John Travolta), and Jules played by Samuel L Jackson. But when Mia enters, Jules departs until Act III when he returns and is revealed to be the lead! Mia is a welcome touch who brings some diversity as the film delves deeper into the LA underground scene. Beautifully played by Uma Thurman, it’s a big surprise that she serves only to develop the mood. When Act I ends, Mia disappears. In Act I we also meet the boxer Butch played by Bruce Willis. He has a brief encounter with Vincent; a brush stroke from the oil of one plot to another. This is the method of the New Wave: The two or three plots are broad brush strokes, separate but merging, like very wet water colors, streaks from one plot touching another, until they amalgamate as the true plot is revealed in the very final moments of the film. In Act II, Butch powers another plot and he meets Vincent again with deadly results. The beauty of this construction is that the whole of Act II serves to reveal the ultimate consequences of the true plot, Jules’ moral redemption, which is only unveiled in the final moments of Act III.
Robert Altman experimented with a similar method in Nashville and Short Cuts, both a series of individual vignettes, some very powerful and compelling. They tell a story about life in the country music scene and LA without a central plot or lead. In Kansas City, which may one day be seen as Altman’s greatest accomplishment, there are a number of real plots with a primary plot, the robbery and subsequent hostage situation, revealed in Act II. At that point there is no further mystery about those plots other than resolution but the true plot, the utter social and political corruption of Kansas City, is only revealed in the final scene. Afterall, the name of the film is Kansas City. It’s a disappointment that the film was so hugely unsuccessful. I saw it with a packed house in an artsy smartsy theater in Santa Barbara. There was heavy applause and the whole house of 300 stayed, transfixed, throughout the final credits. I heard later there were problems with distribution and the backers.
Surely these scripts are more complex than the formula film. To create them, a writer needs to clearly comprehend the fundamental premise which underlies the play and before anything, have a completely defined ending in which the fundamental premise is finally revealed. Every plot must promote the essence of the true plot without revealing it. One way to do it is in historical drama. For a writer, the beauty of historical drama is that the plot is already structured by a course of events that can be completely known to the audience. For example, almost everyone generally knows the story of Helen of Troy. But within that story are ready-made multiple plots. There is the fabulous love story between the matronly but still beautiful Queen Helen and the youthful Prince Paris of Troy. Another separate plot revolves about the aging, jilted King Meneleos and the alliance of Greek nobles intent to retrieve the stolen Queen. The third plot is that of King Priam, his son Hector, and the Fall of Troy. The author only needs to keep in mind the fundamental premise and drive all three plots inexorably to the finale which would have to be something other than the known Fall of Troy, since the true plot must remain secret; which is the trick.
Multiple plots are also perfect for stories in which the main character is objectionably loathsome. No formula film can ever focus primarily upon someone like Hitler. A formula film in which Hitler were the lead would necessarily watch him promote and act upon doctrines which make most people gag, right down to the inevitable Gotterdammerung in the flaming ruins of Berlin. It’s clear very few want to watch something like that in technicolor. However, with multiple plots, Hitler would be just one character in the film, with lightness and love angles in other plots. In fact, given the abhorrent nature of Hitler’s persona, this might be the only way a writer could sell a screenplay about him. Necessity being the mother of invention, it might be inevitable that more writers turn to multiple plots to make some bucks that ordinarily wouldn’t be there in formula treatments. Films about huge historical characters like Hitler or Atilla, which work on a multiple plot level, can be 500 million dollar pictures, with huge international appeal.
Multiple plots allow the writer to easily and effectively tell the story in a non linear manner as The English Patient and Pulp Fiction attest to. There’s an old adage that when you have to resort to flashbacks your film is in trouble. This is probably true most of the time with Godfather II a notable exception. The new method grants the writer the creative latitude to express ideas that normally could not be treated in a completely linear development without flashbacks. For example, a film entitled The Spanish Armada would have a fabulous cast perfect for multiple plot layers. The jilted King Philip II of Spain and the Spanish decision to make war would be one plot, and the English sea captains Drake and Hawkins who occasionally play with Elisabeth I of England would be another. Multiple plots would also allow the writer to tell the story of Elisabeth’s judicial murder of her own cousin Mary Queen of Scots, which happened one year before the Armada in 1587! The film could begin with Mary’s entrapment. Her subsequent beheading and Elisabeth’s trauma would be the true plot with the ships, royal diplomacy and battles establishing the mood.
It’s important that agents and producers recognize the true art of the multiple plot. Screenplays that breach the formula can’t be automatically rejected just because this art is unrecognized. Five Easy Pieces is a great formula film that violates just about every screenwriting principle there is. Jack Nicholson’s lead character has a friend, his friend’s wife, as well as two silly young girl friends, all of whom exit at the end of Act I, never to return. In Act II he meets two hitchhikers who loudly do their thing until they too permanently exit at the end of the act. Mr. Nicholson’s female lead (Karin Black) isn’t present for most of Act III when, incredibly, a whole new cast enters. A writer could change the name of this play to Piano Sonata, try to sell it and not have any luck just as someone did a few years ago with Casablanca. As an experiment they changed the name of the screenplay to Rick’s Place and got no positive response after hundreds of submissions. Film teachers now talk about the classic structure of Rocky. But Rocky was only recognized after 200 wise guys rejected Stallone and his formula script as unimaginative and unsellable. Stallone prevailed because he knew that great characters, dialogue and story will always drive a successful film no matter what the structure. Screenplays centered upon multiple plots are already proven winners. If you’ve got one, just keep pushing like Stallone did when he was nobody. You’re on the right track.
Films like The English Patient and Pulp Fiction are unlike anything Hollywood’s ever done before and it is already shown that there is a sophisticated enough audience out there for a market. Multiple plots are just a new angle. Not only great art but real box office too, which is the bottom line In addition, the artistic beauty inherent in the method is something we absolutely must recognize for film to keep its share of the entertainment market. Eventually, the public will grow tired of films structured around explosions. When they do, and that process has already begun, a very hip 21st Century public will demand more of the new wave and gladly pay for it when they see it.