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The Secret Sauce of Memorable Movies: Truth

It’s now a week before the Oscars, so some movie talk is in order. I will be releasing my formula for picking an Oscar winner, but first… let’s get to the truth of the matter, so to speak.

As elusive as it is to try and find ONE quality over others that makes a good movie a GREAT, memorable movie… I think there’s one such quality.

And that’s what I like to call TRUTH.

Not THE Truth, but the distinctive air of Truth… something that rings true and real and convincing… seemingly without even trying.


(and no… I’m not going all Depeche Mode on your a**…)

Finding the truth in movies isn’t easy, but let’s give it a shot.

Truth in movies doesn’t mean just documentaries. On the contrary, documentaries are often manufactured to present a certain point of view – designed to give a certain account of the truth. Not the same thing at all.

Terry Crabtree, the erratic but brilliant book book editor from Wonder Boys (played to perfection by Robert Downey Jr.) cuts a whole lot closer:

- His book? You read his book? - Yes.  - Is it good? - It's good. It's very, very good.                     - It's... It's true. - I knew it.
- His book? You read his book? - Yes. - Is it good? - It's good. It's very, very good. - It's... It's TRUE. - I knew it.

That’s about as perfect a description as I’ve ever seen, whether we’re talking books, movies or art in general.

So how do you know it, does it leap out of the screen in some way?

Not necessarily, but maybe a few examples will give you a clue:

  • Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown had it… Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, not so much.
  • David Lynch pulls it literally ‘out of the air’… pieces it together, one thing after another, like threads in a cloth. Not forcing anything into being, let alone into some accepted frameworks (he started out as a painter) – just one true thing appearing after another.
  • Tarantino has said his characters start talking and interacting.. he doesn’t interfere with their truthful reality. That’s why he writes the best dialog around. It’s not engineered, it’s organic and self-interacting. A.k.a. true.
  • Best Picture winners with Truth in them: American Beauty, Gladiator, Crash (this is the real reason for the upset against Brokeback Mountain), LOTR: The Return of the King (yes, even though it’s fantasy, it has Universal Truth in it that audiences recognize and resonate with.)

Starting to get the idea?


It’s an elusive quality to produce for sure, but easy to spot when it’s up on the screen, at least you know it after you’ve seen the whole film. And sometimes from the first beats of a truly great film, such as Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

Even in marketing, truth based stories always, always win. A true story, a situation derived from a true stoy, any element of truth really… people recognize it, connect with it, and act with more consistency.

So if you’re developing a movie script, tv treatment, or any kind of storyline at all… why not begin with the element of Truth, when you look for that next concept?

After all, we’re nearing the magical year of 2012, and people will be more hungry for Truth, not less.

Agree or disagree? Leave a comment below and we’ll discuss!

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