Prison Break and The Importance of Conflict

I recently cancelled half of my Netflix subscription, the one that gives you access to DVDs. I figure they’ll be out of of existence in a few years anyway. That leaves me with Netflix Instant, which isn’t much of a selection. So to compensate, I’ve been checking out some old shows from a few years ago that I missed.

I’m currently hooked on “Prison Break”. It’s freaking awesome. Simple pitch: engineer smart guy gets himself thrown in prison with a map of the prison on his body, to break out his brother from death row.As Jon Stewart mused in a old episode of the Daily Show, “Seems like hard concept to extend over a full season”. But they managed to pull it off. And they do so by using the meat and potatoes of good episodic TV in the new millennium: conflict.

Each episode is a lesson in and of itself of how to write a compelling story. And its a lesson few film school students ever seem to get. Film student festivals have been likened to “sitting through a 3 hour prostate exam”. Why? Because student films are notorious for being BOOOOORING. Slow. Where nothing happens, it takes forever for something to happen. But most of all, the problem with most student films is that you don’t care about what is happening. You combine characters nobody connects with or cares about with stuff that nobody cares about and nothing at stake, you get lame student films and dead end film careers.

Compare this to more good television, including Prison Break. You got an innocent guy on death row. A brother who gets himself thrown into Prison to break him out. Holy shit! This is exciting! From day one you are wondering “how are they going to pull it off?”

A lot of film students confuse good storytelling conflict with yelling and pushing story forward, or outrageous action. At the same time, many film schools write off Hollywood movies for having excessive action and explosions and go in the complete opposite direction: having stories with no spine or reason for being made.

The “beats” that Hollywood films tend to stick to so religiously do serve a function: to keep the story moving and viewer engaged. Even Tarantino, though he allows his scenes to go on for a long time, creates overarching conflict that draws you in and keeps you spellbound.

Prison Break has its own beats that film students should learn from. The opening 4 minutes sets up one point of tension. Then after the credits there’s a little lull as the next “holy crap, things are going wrong” thing is about to happen. Over 40 minutes about 4 or 5 situations are created and either get resolved or are set up for the next episode. Some points of conflict will take the whole season to resolve and others get wrapped up by the end of the scene. But it’s a game of cat and mouse with the viewer that keeps us constantly wondering what is going to happen.

This isn’t accomplished with explosions or over the top caricature. In fact, Prison Break may have been a guy’s show but it features some really nice moments of vulnerability and realism mixed up with the action fantasy. Michael, the show’s protagonist, acts the smart untouchable hero but is driven by his need to help others and a feeling of inadequacy. Each character has flaws and their own desires that need to be fulfilled.

Film students might right this kind of writing off as obvious or too formulaic, but it’s a formula that many aspiring filmmakers should learn before trying to just wing it. Conflict and tension are part of answering the question “why do we care about what is going on enough to watch this?” Just because you fire up the camera and show an old woman eating cottage cheese with some sad music isn’t enough to make the audience give a damn. You need to give your audience a reason to pay attention. Otherwise, your films as going to look like this, a typical NYU student film.

To learn how to make movies people actually like watching, check out Film School Secrets.


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