The Rules of Ensemble through the Rules of Attraction

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Written by Peter Forbes @mrpeterforbes

Frank Daniel defined dramatic story structure as “Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.” Simple, clear and concise, well certainly in single protagonist films but how does it work if you have a multi-protagonist piece?

Story for screenwriting has also been described as chasing your hero up into a tree and throwing stones at him/her but if you have several protagonists, do you need an orchard of trees, or is it essential that everyone be chased up into the same tree?

The Rules of Attraction (2001) was written and directed by Roger Avary and is based on a 1988 novel of the same name by Brett Easton Ellis. It is an ensemble or multi-protagonist film and clearly demonstrates the challenges that multiple protagonists can pose to a screenwriter as well many of the techniques that can be employed to resolve those issues.

To aid in the analysis I will also be looking at The Dreamers (2003, Bernardo Bertolucci), as both films are ensemble pieces with the same number of leads, are from the same time period and deal with similar themes and topics, but are markedly different in visual style, tone and structure.

The Rules of Attraction was released in 2001 and deals with the lives, loves and lusts of affluent college students at Camden University. The marketing for The Rules of Attraction and its DVD menu suggests it has six lead characters, however, once you examine the actual amount of time spent on screen by the characters (Fig 1) it becomes clear that there are only three main protagonists. Sean, Paul and Lauren.

Victor is essentially a one string character who has less than ten minutes of screen time, however as he is given a highly stylized sequence of his own and his influence is felt throughout the narrative I have listed him as a forth protagonist. Before we continue with the breakdown, however, it is worthwhile investigating what an ensemble film actually is.

Howard (2006) asserts that generally in film there will be two main characters sharing the screen but that one of the characters will dominate. We can easily see this evidenced in a film like Lethal Weapon (1987, Richard Donner). While on the surface it appears that the characters of Riggs and Murtaugh have roughly the same amount of screen time and importance, once examined it becomes evident that the character of Murtaugh is simply reacting to the behavior and actions of Riggs. The pair has to have a common goal but Riggs is the only character capable of achieving it.

Howard (2006) therefore defines an ensemble as a group of stories that are intertwined. Each story will have its own protagonist and will be thematically linked to the other stories within the overall screen work.

He does not mention antagonists within ensembles and it would seem the antagonistic force is largely dependent upon the type of film being created. If we examine Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay) the antagonistic force is the approaching asteroid and the challenges it presents. In The Rules of Attraction however, the antagonist varies from the other protagonists too, potentially, every other character. This being possible due to the varying protagonist’s unique points of view.

Upon examining ensembles it would appear there are three types possible. I have been unable to find any theory that satisfactorily breaks the ensemble down into type so I shall attempt to do it below.

2The first ensemble I noticed was what I refer to as The Event Ensemble; a group of disparate characters must unite against a common foe (often environmental). Examples would be Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay), X-Men (2000, Bryan Singer) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972, Ronald Neame). The characters in event ensembles are first linked by a physical threat but also by a common theme tending to relate to connection or acceptance and learning to work with others.

Next is The Occasion Ensemble where a group of characters are brought together in the same place and time for an occasion. Often this will be a reunion as that allows for already existing character back-story to become elements of the narrative. Examples would be Festen (1998, Thomas Vinterberg) or Peter’s Friends (1992, Kenneth Branagh). The characters could be meeting for the first time, however and in this case, the plot element of the film will occur during the narrative rather than before. For example Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman).

Finally The Societal Ensemble where characters are less connected by a single strong plot element or being in the same location but are very heavily connected in thematic terms. This thematic connection will often be relating to a problem within society or in the character’s inability to relate to society. Often within this ensemble the wants and goals seem obscure for the majority of the piece and it is only when viewing all the stories that the theme may be revealed. Examples would be Network (1976, Sydney Lumet), Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman) and The Rules of Attraction.

So an ensemble is a multi-protagonist film where the protagonists may be connected in no way what so ever except through the works overall theme. Parker (2010) agrees with Howard that theme is by far the most important element when it comes to making an ensemble work.

The reason for this Howard (2006, p74) argues is because the price filmmakers must pay for multiple protagonists is in the amount of story that can be told. Less time on screen means less time to develop characters that have fully realized wants with suitable obstacles, let alone “build dramatic scenes that reach satisfying resolutions.”

This would certainly seem to be the case with The Rules of Attraction. If we break the film down into scenes of between three and five minutes and analyse how many of those scenes are given to each character (Fig 1) we can see that the three leads are on screen for approximately 30 minutes each. The character of Sean has extra screen time not because he is more developed but simply because he is the object of desire for the other two leads.

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Interestingly The Dreamers (2003, Bernardo Bertolucci) on initial examination of the visual breakdown appears to be the same, however the three leads in The Dreamers actually each have screen time of between 70 and 95 minutes. The reason for this disparity between the two films is that in The Dreamers the leads share virtually every scene together whereas in The Rules of Attraction the leads tend to split the time between them and only share a few actual scenes.

Due to The Rules of Attraction’s structure then (which I will return to later) there is little connection between the characters, despite their desire for each other, and often they are on screen alone.

Indeed in a film such as Night on Earth (1991, Jim Jaramusch) the characters are connected only by doing the same job and are separate in every other way including differing parts of the world. That is why Parker (2010) insists that each character and every scene must be working towards the same theme. With theme being even more crucial than normal, as it is the one thing that can unify all the action occurring irrespective of time and place.

The theme of The Rules of Attraction is that “nobody knows anybody.” This is explicitly stated by Lauren to Sean and then reinforced when Sean repeats it to Paul, then finally a visual metaphor is used to demonstrate the theme at the very end as Paul and Lauren look at Sean on his motorbike and Sean is entirely in silhouette.

In a way the idea that ‘nobody knows anybody’ is extended to the audience as well. Each character is given an extensive voice-over however there is argument that the characters are not being honest in their own minds, as the voice-over tends to lean towards the dramatic, almost allowing the characters to construct their own legends in their minds. They portray themselves as predators rather than people and even the final line of voice-over, given to Sean that is about to reveal to the viewer what he truly wants is left incomplete, so the viewer is never let into the secret.

Snyder (2005) argues that someone at the beginning of the film must always state the theme. He goes on, that while it may be a line of dialogue given to a minor character it will always be done in a relatively explicit way. This does not seem to be the case in The Rules of Attraction however and if we take the theme from the beginning it would be that the passage of time cannot be stopped and that everything is inevitable. Indeed there are visual elements within the film, where time runs backwards, that seem to support that as a theme but I would argue these are being used to connect the characters rather than reinforce the theme.

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Ransome (2003) in attempting to apply Vogler’s (1998) mythic structure to The Rules of Attraction somewhat hedges his bets and suggests that the inevitability of time is the films motif while ‘nobody knows anybody is’ the elixir, or precious knowledge, that the heroes return with at the end of their journey. To support this duplicity he uses the time reversal sequences as backup for the inevitability of time while the frequency with which characters wear masks to support that ‘nobody knows anybody.’

While the notion of ‘nobody knows anybody’ is not stated out loud in the opening few minutes I would argue it is repeatedly reinforced by the behaviour of the characters and the events occurring.

In the opening fifteen minutes all three of our protagonists have encounters where identity is called into question. Lauren agrees to sleep with someone who may be lying about his identity and is instead effectively raped by a different person. Paul attempts to get together with someone whom he believes to be gay and who we are informed by voice-over actually was, so didn’t know himself whereas Sean lies about who he is in order to sleep with someone. These behaviours lead me to conclude that the theme is identity, or lack there of, rather than the unstoppable passage of time or the inevitability of fate.

The use of time within the film however is significant and the sequences where times runs backwards are extremely clever devices which are being used to connect the three protagonists together. As previously mentioned a great amount of character screen time can be lost due to having a several protagonists, all of whom are vying for attention. To deal with this a screenwriter must employ several different strategies and tools. First and foremost being structure.

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In The Dreamers, even though it is an ensemble piece the characters have roughly the same amount of screen time, as you would expect them to have in a single or dual protagonist film. As a result The Dreamers exhibits a simple linear structure where events occur in chronological order. In other words the beginning of the film is the beginning of the narrative and the end of the film is the end of the narrative.

The Rules of Attraction on the other hand is a non-linear episodic narrative, as defined by Parker (1998) and this structure has been employed as a method of allowing the screenwriter to skip back and forth between the protagonists and to link their actions on screen.

As each character has about a third of the normal time on the page that a screenwriter may expect to be able to utilize, employing an episodic structure allows the screenwriter to focus the viewer’s attention more acutely. In fact The Rules of Attraction can be analyzed for episodes in several ways.

Firstly if we look at the film in terms of sequences as defined by Howard (2006) and expanded upon by Gulino (2004) I would argue that this film contains 9 sequences.

Generally a film of this length would contain eight but my argument for a ninth is due to the forth character, Victor, who receives a sequence of his very own (Fig 1). Although this could be considered as simply a scene within a sequence, I believe that as the events of that scene are entirely removed from all other events in the film and all other characters that the scene does not sit comfortably as a scene within a sequence.

If we look at the first sequence, however, which takes us 15 minutes into the film the three scenes within that sequence are all directly related to each other and therefore function as a sequence overall. Victor’s single sequence is an example of using sequences within ensemble as character specific tools as described by Daniels and Webber (2006).

If we go deeper however we discover that within the sequences there are character specific collections of scenes. For clarity I shall simply call them scenes. In sequence one, each of the three leads is given their own scene as a method of introduction by the screenwriter. These scenes are then linked using an element of visual style i.e. a transition scene where time reverses.

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Initially we begin with Lauren and when her scene ends we follow the journey of a party beer keg in reverse through the night. Time switches to moving forward again and we shift attention to the character of Paul then once Paul’s scene is over we have another lengthy transition scene which then moves the audience’s attention to Sean.

These first two transition scenes are approximately 90 seconds each and they key the audience into a switch in character point of view and the audience understands that these events are happening to these three characters simultaneously.

This element of visual style is repeated several more times during the film but the transition scene gets progressively shorter as the audience already understands, even if only in the subconscious, what its purpose is. The final time a transition scene is used, at the end of act two it is no more than five seconds long.

So sequences are used to give characters more significance within the viewer’s eye, in addition however The Rules of Attraction has a significant rearrangement of the three acts.

When we begin the narrative we are essentially in the third act of the film (Fig 1). In fact the first fifteen minutes is all part of the third act and the characters we are introduced too are actually the results of the events still to come. At the end of sequence one the opening credits is also a time reversal sequence which spins the narrative back to act one and the beginning of the school year.

We then have a single scene of the students getting ready for class that is essentially demonstrating the last element of the status quo required by the audience for understanding the student’s ordinary world, the academic side of college. It is at the end of that scene where I believe the film moves into a long second act. Before wrapping up with a single sequence third act.

Act three contains only one sequence, as the second sequence of act three was the opening sequence of the film and it is worth noting that this opening sequence once examined is largely dénouement.

Parker (2010) discussed that when structuring the stories of an ensemble the order in which stories climax should be in direct correlation to the emotional resonance of the stories themselves. So the least important story, emotionally, should conclude in act two leaving act three clear for the more significant stories.

Within The Rules of Attraction it is difficult to conclude if this is the case, however, as it would seem the stories of all three characters conclude within a few minutes of each other during the scenes where the theme is explicitly stated.

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This may be possible however because if we examine the characters of Lauren and Paul they are relatively similar in their desires and the end of their stories are essentially the same. While there are differences in their attitudes to sex and vanity they are both essentially after the same thing, Sean. The final scene featuring the two characters even seems to suggest they are two halves of a whole.

After Lauren has rejected Sean and Sean has rejected Paul, Lauren and Paul walk away from the party. Both characters are relatively androgynous in appearance and are dressed in a similar way and have similar hairstyles and both smoke a cigarette while discussing their place in the world with a relative lack of passion. Although none of this detail is in the screenplay as it is a writer/director this was surely a conscious decision.

In addition to the structure being adjusted to help the audience connect with the characters another technique employed was an extensive use of voice-over. Both The Dreamers and The Rules of Attraction use voice-over but again like the structure they use it in a very different way.

The Dreamers uses voice-over only in the first act after which it disappears completely from the narrative. It is used by the screenwriter to contextualize the time, 1968 and place, Paris, that the young American student Matthew finds himself in. It shows him to be a relative innocent abroad and gives the audience a chance to empathize and therefore he becomes their way into the events that are to follow.

The Rules of Attraction on the other hand embraces voice-over from the very beginning and continues elements of it all the way through to the very last frame. In this case it is being used to convey the character’s inner thoughts as on the whole, throughout the film, the characters do not have honest conversations with other people and it could be argued, as previously mentioned, that even their inner thoughts are lies to themselves.

Giving each character their own voice-over does immediately give the audience that character’s point of view but unlike the dreamers it does not allow you to empathize with them. In general an audience member would like to consider themselves more genuine and moral than the characters that are being drawn on screen within The Rules of Attraction so the audience views the characters more as curiosities that while compelling to watch are not like them.

In conclusion The Rules of Attraction is successful on the whole as an ensemble piece and effectively conveys the nihilistic view of the world that I believe the original author and the screenwriter/director was attempting. The complex structure is effectively enhanced by elements of visual style and voice-over used but there is argument to be made that it also takes away part of the film’s potential emotional resonance.

As we first meet the characters after they have gone through the changes that are yet to come on screen, when we finally reach the film’s conclusion there is a risk that any feeling an audience member may have had for the characters is significantly reduced.

The characters we are with at the end of the film are identical to who they were at the beginning and it almost negates any of the events that have occurred in-between.

On the other hand this could leave the audience feeling as nihilistic as the characters and in the case of The Rules of Attraction that would be the true empathy.


Bibliography

Daniels, M. Webber, D. (2006) North By Northwest. Hotel Siemsens Gaard. Bornholm, Denmark.

Howard, D. (2006) How To Build a Great Screenplay. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Herman, D. (2009) Twelvepoint. Learning from the Masters – Crash Available from http://www.twelvepoint.com/?q=articles/learning-masters-crash [Accessed 27/04/10]

Gulino, P.J. (2004) Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. New York: Continuum.

Parker, P. (1998) The Art and Science of Screenwriting. Great Britain: Intellect.

Parker, P. (2010) Training the Trainers: Feature Film Conference. The Millennium Hotel. Glasgow.

Ransome, N. (2003) Scriptwriter. Chris Vogler takes the Writer’s Journey. Available from http://www.twelvepoint.com/?q=articles/chris-vogler-takes-writers-journey [Accessed 27/04/10]

Snyder, B. (2005) Save the Cat. California: Michael Wiese Productions.

Vogler, C. (1998) The Writer’s Journey Mythic Structure for Writers. California: Michael Wiese Productions.

Filmography

Armageddon. Dir. Michael Bay. Touchstone Pictures. 1998

The Dreamers. Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci. Recorded Picture Company. 2003

Festen. Dir. Thomas Vinterberg. Nimbus Film Productions. 1998

Gosford Park. Dir. Robert Altman. USA Films. 2001

Lethal Weapon. Dir. Richard Donner. Silver Pictures. 1987

Network. Dir. Sydney Lumet. MGM. 1976

Night on Earth. Dir. Jim Jaramusch. The Victor Company of Japan. 1991

Peter’s Friends. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. BBC. 1992

Short Cuts. Dir. Robert Altman. Avenue Pictures Productions. 1993

The Poseidon Adventure. Dir. Ronald Neame. Kent Productions. 1972

The Rules of Attraction. Dir. Roger Avary. Kingsgate Films. 2002

X-Men. Dir Bryan Singer. 20th-Century Fox. 2000

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FIG 1

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FIG 2