Hollywood Is Working Hard to Make You Cry
Several Movies With Scenes Primed to Unleash the Waterworks Will Hit Cinemas Soon. But Getting Audiences to Cry is Getting Harder.
By Don Steinberg in the Wall Street Journal
These are happy days for people who like to cry at movies.
Opening this weekend is "If I Stay," about a cello-playing teenager who falls into a coma after a car accident. In the hospital, Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) has flashbacks about winning the heart of Adam (Jamie Blackley), a super-cool boy given to impossibly romantic lines.
At one point, timid Mia goes to a party dressed like punk-rocker Deborah Harry in hopes that Adam, who plays in a band, will like her more. It's hard not to choke up when he tells her that the clothes don't matter: "Don't you get it? The you you are now is the same you I was in love with yesterday, the same you I'll be in love with tomorrow."
Coming this fall: more opportunities to get out the handkerchiefs. "The Skeleton Twins," "This is Where I Leave You" and "Men, Women & Children" delve into the emotional minefields of parents and children, fraying marriages and estranged siblings trying to reconnect.
Over the summer, viewers teared up at "The Fault in Our Stars," the story of terminally ill teenagers Hazel and Gus (Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort). "Fault," which opened in June, has brought in $124 million in the U.S., making it the highest-earning teen-romance flick not powered by vampires.
"I have people coming up to me on the street and crying," Mr. Elgort says. The 20-year-old actor is following up his role of star-crossed lover in "Fault" by playing an anxious teenager in "Men, Women & Children."
Audiences love tearjerkers, but why? How do they work? Horror movies have their clichéd "jump scares" that can get us every time—the demonic face in the bathroom mirror, the knife-wielding maniac suddenly in the doorway. Tearjerkers have triggers, too, but they are more complex, wrapped up in how characters make us feel, with their awkward attempts to connect with each other, their bravery and fears, regrets and unspoken burdens. Other hot-button themes are faith redeemed, struggles rewarded and love requited.
Filmmakers say there is no surefire trick to make viewers cry but certain techniques help. And since audiences have seen it all before, it's not getting any easier.
Some tearjerkers made years or decades ago are still vivid. Think of "Terms of Endearment," in which Shirley MacLaine's overbearing character clashes and ultimately reconciles with her dying daughter, Debra Winger. Or "Jerry Maguire," where Renée Zellweger interrupts Tom Cruise's attempt at reconciliation by saying, "Shut up, just shut up. You had me at hello."
Crafting a scene that touches emotions is "not about putting the sugar in the sauce. It's about every ingredient and decision that you make," says R.J. Cutler, who directed "If I Stay." The movie, like "The Fault in Our Stars," was adapted from a young-adult novel. Before shooting "If I Stay," Mr. Cutler says, "I read the book again to identify the moments that moved me, and I made a list of those moments."
One such moment unfolds when Mia's normally stoic and critical grandfather breaks down at the comatose girl's bedside, saying how proud he is of her. It works, Mr. Cutler says, thanks to a mix of story context, dialogue and the casting of Stacy Keach in the role of Gramps. All those factors help the viewer relate and feel moved.
"The power of the emotion comes from the fact that Gramps is fighting the emotion as much as possible," the director says. "We know Gramps, in the parenting of his own child, was unable to connect emotionally. Not a man of many words. You want to cast a man for whom that seems to be true."
Then technique comes in. "Part of the strength of the scene is that there's no music in it," Mr. Cutler says. "What the moment needed was no embellishment. And there's a camera movement that is done there and nowhere else in the film, which is this extremely slow push in that gets tighter than we are pretty much in any other moment—a sustained, single shot that pushes in on Gramps to a very tight close-up."
That shot with no cuts builds the tension and the reality—the audience doesn't get a break.
Shawn Levy did something similar when directing "This Is Where I Leave You." In that film, which opens in September, adult siblings including Jason Bateman and Tina Fey return to the home where they grew up to comfort their mother (Jane Fonda) after their father dies. In one scene, Mr. Bateman's character, who has lost his job, tells his mother he thinks his father would consider him a failure.
She says: "Your dad didn't love your job. You were his boy… As far as your father was concerned, the sun rose and set on you and your siblings."
"And we hold on a close-up of Jason," Mr. Levy says. "You see his eyes just thicken and fill, and the rims of his eyes go red and the tears come. A lot of times an actor will work himself up to tears... and you call 'Action' and they're crying. But it's a rare thing to see it happen in real time from zero to 60 within the take. There's no respite. You are with that character in real time."
Mr. Levy accompanied that scene with moving music by Michael Giacchino, who has scored films including Pixar's animated "Up."
"Music is a key tool. But it has to be used judiciously," Mr. Levy says. "The score needs to accent the emotion, but if it underlines it too boldly the audience feels overtly manipulated. Music actually needs to be subliminally manipulative."
Craig Johnson, who directed "The Skeleton Twins," about siblings (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader) who have grown apart, agrees. "You have a music cue that comes in a little bit overwrought, suddenly you're in melodrama territory," he says.
Mr. Levy says it is crucial not to overdo the sentimentality. "I remember as a theater student at Yale, the teacher once said if you cry for yourself too much the audience won't cry for you," he says. "The character can't be too self-pitying because then we don't pity that character. That character is doing our job for us."
This explains why watching characters contain their emotions while braving adversity—like Tom Hanks enduring a pirate hijacking in "Captain Phillips" and Sandra Bullock surviving a space-shuttle disaster in "Gravity"—can be powerful, especially when these characters finally let themselves give in. As viewers, we hung tough with them and we release with them.
Researchers are applying science to answer questions about movie-induced weeping. Princeton University psychologist Uri Hasson, who coined the term "neurocinematics," led a 2008 study that used a type of magnetic resonance imaging to study brain activity while watching a film. The researchers used "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"—hardly a tearjerker—in their project. Mr. Hasson and his colleagues identified similar brain activity among people watching the same film, and suggested such research might be useful for the movie industry.
In emotion-research labs, one clip that has become standard is the death scene in the 1979 boxing film "The Champ," a remake of the 1931 movie. A young Ricky Schroder weeps inconsolably over the body of his father Jon Voight, wailing "Wake up, Champ!" Viewers cry, too. The film has been cited in hundreds of scientific papers.
Scholars also have studied why some scenes strike a chord with women and others affect men more. In "Sleepless in Seattle," Rita Wilson gets misty describing "An Affair to Remember," while Tom Hanks counters that he cried at the end of "The Dirty Dozen." Mary Beth Oliver, a Penn State professor who has studied tearjerkers, asked students to propose movie ideas designed to make men cry. "There were a lot of father-son kind of things," she says. "There were a lot of athletes. There were a lot of war films."
When asked which films choke them up, many men cite depictions of against-the-odds valor or understated affection, like "Rudy," "Brian's Song" and "Saving Private Ryan." Women name relationship dramas like "Steel Magnolias" or "Beaches" or "When a Man Loves a Woman," in which Andy Garcia tries to preserve his marriage to an alcoholic Meg Ryan.
Men and women may sob at different parts of the same film. In "Gravity," some women react when Ms. Bullock, while stranded in space, talks about her daughter who died in childhood ("Can you please tell her that Mama found her red shoe?"). Men may be more stirred by the dénouement, when the astronaut, having survived her journey, walks triumphantly ashore.
A 2008 Stanford University study found that complex emotions can arise when we are reminded of the passing of time. One illustration is in "The Notebook," where Gena Rowlands, stricken with dementia, hears the tale of two passionate young lovers from an aged James Garner. Just for a moment, Ms. Rowlands' character remembers their past together.
Some tearjerkers pack a powerful punch by compressing characters' lives. Think of the heartbreaking opening sequence in "Up," which takes Carl and Ellie from childhood to old age in about 10 minutes. Or this summer's "Boyhood," which was filmed over 12 years and literally shows children growing into young adults. What parent doesn't feel a pang watching childhood flash by in less than two hours?
"When I'm in a movie, what usually gets me to cry is identifying with a completely vulnerable human moment," says Jason Reitman, director of "Men, Women & Children." "As a filmmaker, if I want a moment to land emotionally, the key is for it to be completely truthful."
The Stanford study emphasized "meaningful endings"—the sense that a phase of life is coming to a close. Such moments can be anything from the relatively familiar sight of a father dancing with his daughter at her wedding to the scene near the end of "Good Will Hunting" when Ben Affleck goes to pick up his best friend Will (Matt Damon) and he isn't there. Realizing Will has moved on from their shabby neighborhood to pursue bigger and better things, Mr. Affleck just smiles wistfully.
Tom Lutz, author of "Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears," says we sometimes cry watching movie characters behaving in storybook ways that we may feel we can't match in our real lives.
"I watched hundreds of these films trying to figure out where the flashpoints were, what it was that got us crying," he says. "It started to seem to me that it was the moments of perfect role fulfillment.... Nobody is a perfect son or daughter, husband or wife. These [movie] moments are a combination of perfect aspiration, sense of failure, sense of impossibility, guilt. This incredible mix of emotions gets stirred up, and that's what ends up making us weep."