This Week we have an exclusive guest piece from the wonderful Kenton Hall, director of critically accalimed children’s drama ‘A Dozen Summers’. Read it here:
How to Write a Children’s Film
I typed it about fifteen seconds ago, but I’m already angry at the title of this article. Quite visibly angry, because I am not English and quite politely angry because I am, in fact, Canadian.
In case you were wondering, I wrote those sweeping national stereotypes to give me something else at which to be enraged. It’s a technique I developed over the years, to prevent me from exploding every time I hear some use the word “literally” incorrectly.
Don’t worry, I’m building up to something here. Specifically, a question.
Why am I angry?
I mean, specifically now, of course, or we’d be here all week.
Okay, I’ll go first.
For starters, I loathe pieces that suggest that there is one way to do anything. (I’m largely referring to the arts here; I’m prepared to believe that there are a limited number of ways to successfully perform brain surgery, for instance. So, salad tongs down, talented amateurs!)
I would posit that no one has ever successfully created anything by conforming entirely to rules laid down by someone else, who does not own their brain or heart.
But this is not the primary reason why I am spitting tacks at my own title. My fury is driven, at its core, by the suggestion that children are not like other people.
It’s the same issue – and the same fury – we all face when click-bait happy scribes decide to bang on about how to write for women. As though they were a different species, so terribly mysterious and lacking in common desires, thoughts or feelings.
That kind of thinking leads to appalling phrases like “chick flick” and, while it may not be as anchored to a deplorable history of oppression, we have been inflicting sub-standard cinema experiences on our children for decades under similar pretences. We assume they want different things than us, and we can only identify them in the broadest possible strokes.
Kids like bright colours. Kids like adventure. Kids like, I don’t know, mild peril.
Many people like those things. Some of them are children, some of them are not. The only difference between children and ourselves is that they are in a different place in their lives than we are, a condition, I believe, that afflicts approximately 100 percent of audiences watching a film.
But they feel what we feel. They like to laugh, they like to see a mixture of familiar things and unfamiliar things. Most of all, they want to be taken seriously, they want to feel as though we accept that they are smart, capable of understanding complex things and, most of all, that they are complete, real people, not prototypes of a hypothetical adult version of themselves.
A film aimed at a younger audience or, better still, to include a younger audience, may need to remove some of the window-dressing we associate with “adult” cinema: sex, violence, swearing, et cetera. We may choose to concentrate on issues that may uppermost in the minds of a younger audience, we may choose to exclude others that have not yet impacted them. I suspect Toy Story 4 will not contain a B-plot exploring Andy’s investment portfolio, for instance.
But in terms of writing characters with rich, interior lives? Stories that challenge an audience to think, feel and experience in a complex way? Jokes that are actually funny?
Why on Earth would we short-change children by writing, at best, what we think we can get away with, provided the colours are bright enough and the peril is sufficiently mild?
The films we remember best from our own childhoods, the ones we drag out of the cupboard to show our own children (possibly on VHS, which will take some explaining and make you feel very old indeed) and the ones that, in the case of those who write and make films, likely fired their desire to create in the first place, have one thing in common.
They may not have treated us like adults, but they treated us like people.
And that’s how you write a children’s film.
Other opinions are, of course, available.
Kenton Hall is the writer/director of “A Dozen Summers” – coming soon to DVD.
Twitter: @KentonHall, @ADozenSummers