Story Is What Matters

Food for Thought

Tonight, I had dinner with my filmmaker friend at my favorite Hong Kong restaurant serving such delightful abominations as melted cheese and pork chop over instant ramen noodles. If you are still hung up on the quality of ingredients, avoid this postmodern cuisine. But I love it.

My friend is about to direct his first film, so I asked him how anyone would finance a film by a first-time director. It’s like getting surgery by a first-time surgeon. Obviously, all surgeons had to find patients who were willing to let them cut into their bodies without any prior experience. My friend said nobody asked to see his previous films, and his other filmmaker friends also told him that nobody asked. His theory? Because good stories are hard to find. If financiers like the story, money can always buy competent technicians who can make it work. The director just has to be a good storyteller.

It’s true. Take George Lucas; he is a master storyteller but pretty much everyone agrees that he is a bad director. As long as the story is great, apparently the rest is secondary. Alfred Hitchcock too didn’t care about directing actors. He just hired competent actors. I think talented people are naturally drawn to great stories. That is, a great story directs itself because everyone can easily align to it.

In contrast, try watching films made by competent people without any stories; they have all the trappings of great films—beautiful cinematography, music, editing, acting, and art direction—yet you are bored after ten minutes. “Story,” as opposed to “plot,” is the artistic substance—the moment of emotional truth that gives a concrete form to the ineffable experiences of our lives. A great film is filled with these moments; we only need to watch a few minutes to know if there are any.

The same is true for cooking. High-quality ingredients are often used as a psychological crutch, to mask the lack of soul. Because quality is objectively measurable, it can be used to defend yourself against criticism. But if you keep holding on to it, you will never develop as an artist. After all, anyone can buy high-quality ingredients if they have enough money.