In the latest instalment of Flickering Myth’s film class, Tom Jolliffe looks at how to pull off an ensemble film…
The art in pulling off the ensemble film. It’s a tricking balance. In the vast majority of cinema you may be limited to one or two clearly defined protagonists with a cast of supporting artists. On occasions though, a writer wants to create an ensemble piece. It may have one particular character who dominates the screen a little more than the others, but you could have four or more characters who share screen near equally.
How do you do it right? Well firstly, whether you have four characters, six, ten, or whatever, the most important element is to have clearly definable characters. You could call them archetypes certainly, but it is important to ensure that ‘character one’ is different from the rest. If you craft one character who is loud and brash as an example, if you have another of exactly the same type, then one becomes redundant. The balance is lost. Things get tiresome.
If you want to look at one of the finest examples of the ensemble film, then look no further than 12 Angry Men. Watching the film you would probably say that things tend to gravitate toward Henry Fonda. Even in an ensemble piece like this with twelve characters, there needs to be a core returning point. Call it ‘head protagonist.’ Fonda is this. Still, you watch the film and there’s a clear distinction between all the characters. The fact is, Sidney Lumet’s film (written exquisitely by Reginald Rose) is one of the finest pieces of cinema ever made. A key reason for this is the beautiful balance between characters. Some get more time rationed then others. Some have bigger personalities, but in 11 of the 12 jurors, everyone has their moment. They all serve their purpose in the film.
So the characters need to be interesting or attention grabbing in some way. The key difference between an ensemble piece and something entirely focused on a single protagonists story, is that the single character is devoted more time and a more (in theory anyway) rounded arc. The delicate balance a writer needs to find with multiple characters is to inject enough character into every significant role. Some may not get a clearly defined arc in start to finish but in their moments within the film, they have to grab the attention of the audience. That requires interesting dialogue, characterisation and ultimately, the director and cast must combine effectively to bring what is on the page, to life. Lumet and Rose got this balance perfectly. In fact it probably set the bar that any ensemble piece must aspire to. Fonda aside there are great performances from Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman and E.G. Marshall (in fact there’s not a weak performer among the main eleven jurors).
There have been plenty of disappointing attempts at the ensemble that is for certain. Ultimately the balance is difficult and occasionally characters are sacrificed for set pieces or gags. Action films and comedies seem to lend themselves well to ensembles and in particular with the age of Marvel heroes and mass team ups, it’s the in thing. However, it becomes more about squeezing things in around the action than developing every character sufficiently. If you look at the masses of teen comedies that will offer you five or six main characters, in all too many occasions, most of them blend into the same weakly sketched character. American Pie isn’t a brilliant film by any stretch and not a fine exponent of the ensemble, but it’s one of the better of the comedy genre in the modern era. That in itself probably says a lot about the general standard. It just points to the fact that the scattershot firing of gags takes precedent over character. As far as action goes, if you look at The Expendables, that is a franchise where the ensemble element is very badly handled. No one, not even Stallone’s main character at the core, has much characterisation.
One other fantastic example of character balance is in Glengarry Glen Ross. Based on his stage play, writer David Mamet and director James Foley oversee a great big screen transition. The minimal and intimate settings allow us to focus on the engagement between these core characters. Jack Lemmon is the planet with which the moons gravitate, but between he, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris and Jonathan Pryce, by the time the film ends we have a clear notion of each character. We know their strengths and their weaknesses and what makes them tick.
Mamet’s tale is simple and confined to the actions of a single night. It’s engrossing though. We rest our emotional engagement upon Lemmon. Then we give over our attention to the other characters, each with a clearly defined personality. Everyone is exceptional in the film. Yes Pacino and Baldwin might get the showier roles. Baldwin in particular storms in with a cameo that leaves a lasting and iconic impression. Even if you haven’t seen the film, there’s a chance you’ve probably seen Baldwin’s barnstorming, testosterone dripping (eww) and scenery chewing performance. However we still clearly identify the traits that make the others tick too.
Pennywise the clown is currently terrifying the public senseless in the monster hit, It. The film is being regularly compared with another film that beautifully managed to strike that perfect ensemble balance. That film is Rob Reiner’s coming of age masterpiece, Stand By Me. It’s charming, funny, heart-warming, identifiable and dramatically enthralling. Why? Because though we focus on a very young core cast. Each character is well crafted and the screen-time perfectly balanced for the requirements of each. We realise that as the “protagonist” Wil Wheaton has the biggest emotional arc and the biggest personality defining journey. Then you have the most inherently interesting and effecting character in River Phoenix. He’s the troubled kid of the group with the difficult background. So with that, he needs to be doled more significant moments than Jerry O’Connell and Corey Feldman for example. They all get their moments but there’s an order of play and significance. Again, good writing is about finding balance and working out which characters in your grand tale need to be given the most screentime or significant moments. Ultimately much of what happens to Phoenix and what he does which defines him, is going to effect the protagonist. Without that balance, a little like cooking if you decide that 100 grams of sugar and 5 grams of salt is the wrong way round, it wouldn’t work. You can’t devote 100 grams to the salt in your recipe. You need that certainly, for its seasoning touch but you use no more than you need.
In film it’s difficult enough writing one engaging character that will capture the audience. To effectively do so with four or more takes care and precision. There are masses of fine examples like The Breakfast Club (which wonderfully offered an archetype for almost every viewer to identify with), Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Seven Samurai (and The Magnificent Seven). Strong, interesting characters given exactly the right balance required. Let us know your favourite ensemble pieces.
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