How Directors Make Audiences Cry

By Alec Nunez

Sadness is difficult for a director to convey and have the audience feel. Emotions such as grief cannot feel forced or it will negate the director’s original goal of making the audience cry, nor can it be lacking as a result of attempting to prevent a forceful feeling. A bad filmmaker will make the audience understand that the character is sad, however, an exceptional filmmaker makes the audience understand why the character is sad and displays the inner workings of a their mind.  This incredible feat has been achieved and executed precisely by only a handful of directors and their films.

Stephen King’s The Green Mile (1999) follows a prison guard, Paul Edgecomb (portrayed by Tom Hanks), who meets an inmate, John Coffey, a black man accused of murdering two girls. Coffey appears as a reasonable suspect with his large size and stature, but as Edgecomb learns, he does not possess the demeanor of a cold-blooded killer. The prison guard then begins to doubt the validity of the accusation. Edgecomb’s realization allows the audience to connect to Coffey as they know he is not a murderer, but an honest man who deserves justice. Coffey is simply an innocent man facing execution for a crime he didn’t commit, all his rights stripped away— injustice being all he is granted. The final scene of the movie shows Coffey strapped to the electric chair with tears running down his face. Accepting his fate, Coffey’s execution is finalized with Edgecomb’s hand meeting his for a final, cordial shake. In contrast to the story’s central plot, The Green Mile is a relatively light-hearted movie. This contrast is what makes the resolution of the movie so sad—the audience sees characters go from the highest of the highs, to the lowest of the lows.

Movies often forge their characters in situations of significant injustice. Their basic human rights are revoked, rendering them to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy of status. Without the rights every human is entitled to, the characters become broken, allowing the director to utilise injustice to create a grief-stricken tale that the audience takes to heart, walking away with possibly a new outlook on life. This emotional tool is exemplified best in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

Like The Green Mile, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is based around the theme of injustice. The story follows professor Brand, a NASA physicist, who leaves Earth to find a new home for the human population. In doing so, he also leaves his family. Over the course of the trip, Brand sees (through video messages) his children go through years of their lives without him, though it has only been a few months to Brand due to time dilation. His emotions transition from grief to rage, to finally hopelessness. Just like Coffey from The Green Mile, Brand is stripped from his rights of being a caregiver and supporter to his family. He is forced to watch his children grow without the ability to return home and experience life with them—something, unfortunately, a lot of parents can relate to.

It is commonly thought that in order for the audience to feel sadness, they need to be connected and relate to the character(s). These two films boldly seek to eradicate this idea. Not everybody has known a wrongly convicted inmate, nor has everybody missed years of their children’s lives. Ultimately, this shows sadness is not dependent on woeful storytelling, but entirely dependent on the reaction of the characters to a situation everyone can agree is too cruel to experience, because when it comes down to it, everyone’s heart experiences grief, and that is something we can all relate to.

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