Father’s Day is coming up. Yeah, I know it’s one of the non-holiday holidays that sneak up on you and if you have a dad, I hope you at least got a card off on time and if you are a dad, I hope you get a nice mug to go along with that made-in-art-class ashtray your eight-year-old sculpted so brilliantly. I am neither a father nor a son, but I am an emerging screenwriter fascinated with the dynamics of the father/son relationship. In fact, the feature spec I am working on now is an indie coming-of-age effort that hinges on a teenage boy’s disappointment in his dad.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that writers often write about themselves. (No, really?) We are constantly searching for what we’ve lost or what we’ve longed for. That includes a perhaps subconscious theme of parent-child estrangement, especially fathers and sons. I believe it’s because Hollywood is still run by men who want to find a way to reconcile the myth of their fathers as mighty sons of bitches with the desire to break the cycle and become fathers who are nurturing and committed to raising their sons as they would have liked to have been raised.
“If you build it, he will come.”
This is from Psychology Today
“The pain and grief and shame from the failed father-son relationship seem universal, as evidenced in the popular movies of the past few decades which had father-and-son themes that overshadowed anything going on between men and women. Men feared being like their fathers, but they wanted desperately to bond with them even if they could never really please them enough to feel anointed.
In 1989, the film that set the tone for the Men’s Movement was Field of Dreams. Baseball, with its clear and polite rules and all its statistics and players who are normal men and boys… is a man’s metaphor for life. In this magical fantasy, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) tells us his life story: how his mother died when he was two so his father gave up his efforts to play pro baseball in order to raise his son.
Costner hears a voice from his cornfield telling him “If you build it, he will come.” He understands the message to mean that if he mows his cornfield and builds a baseball diamond, his father’s hero, Joe Jackson, will appear. He does. Then Costner’s dad appears in his baseball uniform, and father and son solemnly play a belated game of catch. Father and son don’t talk much, they just play catch with total solemnity. And it is quite enough.
Father-son screenplays always attract an audience, especially those done well. What goes on between the father and son-and what does not go on between them–is surely the most important determinant of whether the boy will become a man capable of giving life to others or whether he will go through life ashamed and pulling back from exposure to intimacy with men, women, and children.”
After generations of fathers Missing-in-Action, Millennials have deemed fatherhood as the one occupation that gives a man his self-worth. The way a father values his son as a child determines the boy’s future. It is no longer about providing for the family, or simply paying child support, it is about nurturing and being there to love and teach love as an expression of masculinity.
I think I’ve got most of the character development for my screenplay done. As an emerging screenwriter we need to remember the son’s arc and overall journey is determined by the father, whether he’s a dynamic bastard, lovable nurturer or M.I.A. The attitude leads to the action and the action produces the relationship.
For Your Inspiration
Field of Dreams is only one example of the power of the Father-Son screenplay. If you’re looking for inspiration for your own work or just want to see your favorite guy get all misty-eyed put on one of these sure-fire Dad’s Day DVDs:
The Champ – (1931) This champ is set in the boxing world but pays homage to Charlie Chaplin’s silent classic The Kid. Both tell the story of a ne’er-do-well dad trying to do the best he can in order to take care of his young son, the cutest kid ever. The 1979 remake starring Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder was not as well received critically, but packs the same emotional punch.
Bicycle Thieves – (1948) The Italian classic by Vittorio De Sica about a father and son searching for their stolen bicycle the father needs for work to feed his family.
East of Eden – (1955) Even if you do not get the magnetism of James Dean, it is hard to deny the powerful performances in this classic Cain and Abel story about the competition of two brothers for the affection of their conservative father in WWI.
Hud – (1963) Paul Newman as an asshole. He plays the titular Hud who clashes with his noble father on the family ranch which has to be saved when disease infects the livestock.
The Godfather – (1972), and The Godfather Part 2 (1974) Uh, duh. The circle of patriarchy shifts from Don Vito Corleone to the transformation of his youngest son Michael who evolves from military hero and family outsider to ruthless mafia don .
Life As A House – (2001) An underrated Kevin Kline film about a man diagnosed with terminal cancer determined to repair and rebuild his relationship with his pain in the ass teenage son.
Road to Perdition – (2002) Based on the graphic novel, the film is beautiful to watch. Sam Mendes second film and Academy Award winning cinematographer Conrad L.Hall‘s last is about a mob enforcer in 1931 Chicago who tries to protect himself and his son as they seek vengeance against a mobster who murdered the rest of their family.
Big Fish – (2003) Father and son storytellers relate tall tales while trying to reconcile their relationship.
Beginners – (2010) A man’s beliefs about his father and himself are shattered when he learns that his senior citizen father is gay, has a young male lover and is dying of cancer.
A Better Life – (2011) A Mexican-American Bicycle Thieves. An illegal immigrant (Demián Bichir) can’t go to the cops when his truck he needs to work as a day laborer is stolen. He and his teenage son set out to locate it on their own.
Footnote – (2011) This Israeli gem is about father and son professors of Talmudic Studies whose complicated relationship is mostly rivalry that becomes the main way they communicate personally and professionally.
Tree of Life – (2011) Terrence Malick‘s enigmatic film about a man contemplating the meaning of life by flashing back to his childhood in Waco, Texas and how the origins of his strained relationship with his father influenced his disconnected world view.
The Judge – (2014) Robert Downey Jr. plays an attorney who defends his estranged father (Robert Duvall) on trial for murder.