Generally, when I need to find something out, the first place I go is Google or Wikipedia, like most people today. It’s not always what you need, but for some little piece of information, it really can’t be beat. What are the ranks of the NYPD? How does New York get its water? This stuff used to mean a trip to the library where the book you needed wasn’t always there, or a phone call to a professional. It was research.
Those boundaries don’t exist anymore. There is no struggle to get information. Not only can you find out what you need to know, you can probably watch a video on it. Our lives have become easier. Is that good or bad? Maybe a little of both, but for a screenwriter, it’s a real pain in the ass.
It’s easier to find things out, as I said. But it’s harder to think of obstacles for your characters to find things out. Realistically, your characters would spend an hour or two on the internet and find out what they need. It’s not very cinematic. The life blood of narrative film is conflict and when there is no challenge for your character, things get pretty tricky balancing reality and film reality.
Which is why films can seem so dated. It’s not just that it takes two years to make a film and technology changes so fast these days that it’s hard for filmmakers to keep up. It’s also that it is less interesting. A character going to the library is infinitely more interesting than a character sitting at his computer.
Watch White Heat, which is a fabulous old film about cops and gangsters, and watch how they use the cutting edge technology of the time, the 1940’s. Today, all the information that the cops are getting is available in far less interesting ways.
On the other side, getting away with crime is nearly impossible now. Everybody has a cellphone camera. There are surveillance cameras all over. There are tracers on dollars, we can see through walls, we can tap any phone, trace any call instantly. It’s all great for stopping crime, and crime has gone down in part because of all that stuff. But filmmakers choose mostly just to ignore the stuff that doesn’t fit in. It’s not that they don’t want to be realistic. It’s that it isn’t that dramatic.
There needs to be some risk, some conflict. As our lives become easier, our conflicts become harder to dramatize.
Unless, of course, you are doing a nice human drama about characters and relationships. Good luck getting that financed today. I’m trying to get mine done, and unfortunately there is no harder kind of film to get made and seen right now. Despite the fact that this is only kind of film most of the people I know want to see. But that’s for another post.