7 Story Lessons from the Films of A24

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

A24 might not be a household name in the tradition of Warner Bros or Paramount Pictures. However, few companies have brought as much high quality storytelling to the screen as consistently as they have over the past few years. When sophisticated movie goers see their logo before a trailer, we know what we are about to view will be worth the price of a ticket. That sort of trust has become rare in an industry that often churns out content for a thousand reasons beyond the quality of the storytelling.

So, what can we learn as creators about crafting narratives by looking at the work that they have brought to the screen? Here are seven story lessons that can be garnered by watching the films of A24.

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1. METAPHORS ARE POWERFUL WHEN FILLED WITH LAYERS

American Honey

The newest addition to A24’s stable relies on an idea we’ve seen often in storytelling – a journey on the road. It’s who is taking the journey and the characters she befriends that we’ve never seen before. Teenage girls often get boxed into stereotypes on screen. American Honey breathes new life into the character archetype and provides layer after layer about how a road trip really is the perfect template for our human journey. Sasha Lane will soon breakout in the way other A24 alums have, because she was given a story filled with metaphoric potential that keeps us thinking long after we’ve left the theater.
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2. STORY CAN TRUMP STAR POWER

The Spectacular Now

When we look back at the cast of The Spectacular Now today, it seems like a no-brainer for viewing. However, Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, and even Bob Odenkirk were not the draws that they are today. In fact, several of these actors got their career-defining opportunities because of their performances in The Spectacular Now. So what drew such amazing talents to this project? The story. It’s always about the story. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s top-notch script brought future stars to the project because it was compelling, human, and felt true.

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3. DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL, BUT GIVE IT A NEW SPIN

Ex Machina

Speaking of future stars, Alex Garland’s script about a young programmer who evaluates a humanoid AI brought Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander to the screen well before they were standing beside C3PO and Jason Bourne. Exploring the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence and the Turing Test was not a new idea. Plenty of films had explored similar premises. Instead, it was the way that the film expanded on the relationship between Caleb and Ava that made this one of the most talked about films of recent years. The character of Nathan and the surprise conclusion that reinforced a relevant theme combined with all-star performances is what made audiences sit up and take notice.

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4. DIALOGUE-DRIVEN SCRIPTS CAN WORK, BUT ONLY IF THEY ARE UNIVERSAL & INTERESTING

The End of the Tour

Often compared with the cinematic classic My Dinner With Andre, The End of the Tour is basically a film about two men having a conversation. The brilliance of the film, however, is just how interesting and important that conversation is.  Sure, the David Foster Wallace fan base — and those who wanted to see Jason Segal and Jesse Eisenberg interact on screen — brought more than a few viewers into theaters. But it was the exploration of celebrity, humanity, and loneliness that kept them talking long after they left their seats. The universal themes and topics the film offers were prime rib for the mind in a season where audiences were mostly offered popcorn.

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5. UGLY CAN BE BEAUTIFUL

Room

Reading the premise of Room on paper doesn’t give us much assurance that we are in for a good time when we watch the film. We are promised characters, scenarios, and feelings that are downright ugly. And yet, somehow we can’t escape feeling as though we’ve seen something beautiful when the credits roll. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay certainly blow the paint off the walls with their acting talents (obviously the Academy agreed), but there had to be something on the page to provide the structure, environment, and words for their performances. The story is beautiful because we show how ugly and complicated life can be, especially when we sense hopefulness in how the characters move forward at the conclusion of the film.

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6. COMPRESSING SPACE RAISES TENSION AND CONFLICT

Green Room

Not to be confused with Room, a film that also uses the compression of space to create tension and conflict, Green Room is a study in how to effectively tell a story in basically one location. Keeping characters inside a confined space with danger looming just outside the walls, and occasionally inside them, has been a useful trope for storytellers for centuries. Like many other A24 films, it’s the characters in this scenario that we can’t stop watching. They feel unique because it’s rare to see those at their station in life given much screen time. There are a million people in indie bands out there. If their story gets told at all, it’s usually about their struggles to get their art to the public. It’s certainly never been about getting out of a room with a dead body inside and past the neo-Nazis waiting outside.

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7. WEIRD CAN BE GOOD IF THERE ARE DEEPER THEMES AT PLAY

The Lobster   –   Swiss Army Man

When reading the loglines of Swiss Army Man and The Lobster, many chuckled – until they saw the films. A stranded man befriending a farting corpse and another obliged to find a romantic partner before legally being turned into a beast and sent to the woods sound like the pitches for long-forgotten middle school student films. Even the weirdest among us would cop to the innate oddity in these stories. So then why are they so powerful? Perhaps it’s because the stories in both films are not really about the weird premises that call so much attention to themselves. Both are critiques of who we have become as human beings in current culture. Both are explorations of who we have become when our lives are being lived out primarily in digital space, though neither barely mention that idea. Both are weird. And both are well-told stories that offer themes audiences are still grappling with.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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