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Smile for the (movie) camera: An intern experience

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By Andie Aiken

While interning in Los Angeles, I attended a lecture at UCLA called “The Psychology of Storytelling,” presented by producer Lindsay Dornan, whose films include “Stranger than Fiction,” “Nanny McPhee” and “Sense and Sensibility”. She is known throughout Hollywood as “The Script Whisperer” for her ability to render outlandish scripts into workable material.

Dornan argued that movies can spark psychological well-being, and thinks we should celebrate positivity in movies more often. Dornan spoke about the field of positive psychology, pioneered by the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Martin Seligman. Positive psychology seeks to identify the psychology of happiness: what mental habits correlate with exceptional well-being? Seligman identifies five pillars of positive psychology: Positive emotion, engagement, accomplishment, meaning, and positive relationships.

Dornan is not a psychologist, but she found a way to combine her experience in filmmaking with the studies of positive psychology. As her own personal project, Dorman took the five pillars of positive psychology and applied them to film. She emphasized that, out of all these pillars, Positive Relationships had the most impact on audiences. Audiences have a genre bias: We flock to dramatic movies more than lighthearted, happy films. Oscars tend to go to serious dramas, and happier, lighthearted comedies are dismissed as too frivilous to win awards. Dornan argues that the industry should celebrate these uplifting movies with the same respect we always reserve for dramas.

According to Nielsen surveys, a movie ending with a successful relationship at the end determines audience satisfaction more than whether or not the characters were successful at the end. Dornan pointed out that movies aimed at female audiences (often romantic comedies) face criticism for their simplicity. But interestingly, those ‘feel good’ movies are often the ones that make the viewer feel happy, because they are most likely to resolve in a positive relationship. This implies that our culture’s gender bias discredits these more “feminine” films simply because they have female characters, or a more stereotypically feminine plotline.

Dornan told us about how she once cited “Mamma Mia” at a meeting with other directors and producers, trying to make claim for financially successful “happy” movies. She pointed out that ”Mamma Mia” made $400,000,000 at the box office. One of her male colleagues said “Mamma Mia”?! No one even remembers the guy who directed that!”

Dornan reminded him that a woman, Phyllida Lloyd, directed “Mamma Mia.” Dornan’s lecture made me think about the many social groups been historically under-appreciated by the film industry. Dornan’s lecture was a wonderful reminder to challenge how we experience movies.

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