The Screenwriter's Column

Ensemble Films: The Gang's All Here

By Linda Cowgill

Great films come in all shapes and sizes. They can be about one person trying to accomplish a specific goal or about several people with their own special wants and needs. The ensemble, or multi-plot, film follows a number of different protagonists as they each attempt to reach their goals or solve their problems. Many filmmakers attempt this type of film, and many fail. But when an ensemble film succeeds, it can be sublimely satisfying for we, the audience, generally feel we've had a real look at life. 

The multiple plot film is as old as feature movies. D. W. Griffith made the first feature length film, Birth of a Nation, in 1915. The next year Griffith made Intolerance, an interwoven, four-story, three-hour epic about bigotry and prejudice throughout history. Since then, ensemble films have become a staple of filmmakers. From Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight in the '30s through Gosford Park and Love Actually, writers and directors continue to explore their worlds through the tapestry of interwoven stories and character relationships that the ensemble film allows.

Ensemble films are essentially subplots, which have to be connected without the benefit of a main plot to hold them together. These "mini-plots" have their own individual protagonists, conflicts and resolutions, but are not strong enough to carry the momentum of an entire film; they are simpler story lines, though not necessarily less dramatic. Separately, these mini-plots don¹t need as much development as a single plot driving a film because intercutting among them diverts the audience. Still, a core must be created to take the place of the main plot and to bring the mini-plots into an overall relationship.

The difficulties in writing and making an ensemble film are numerous. How do you focus the story and keep the audience's attention? How do you shift from one plot line to another? How do you create a synthesis which holds all the plot lines together? There are no hard and fast rules for an ensemble film's construction. One film may find the unifying agent in a setting (Nashville) while another finds it in an object (The Yellow Rolls-Royce). But the key ingredient in all great ensemble films is dramatic unity -- the synthesis of thematic ideas and plot movement -- which enables the screenwriter and filmmaker to integrate the lines of action and construct the framework for the film's plot.

Dramatic Unity

The ancient Greeks defined the parameters of Greek tragedy in the "three unities" -- the unity of time, place and action. This meant that a play unfolded in one locale, during the course of one day, with a single protagonist pushing the action to its climax. Obviously, theater and film no longer restrict play and screenplay construction this way. The fluidity of film especially allows screenwriters and filmmakers to explore their worlds to the limits of their imaginations, moving through numerous locales, back and forth in time, following several lines of action -- to depict whatever the story demands. But in order to take advantage of these special properties of film, a filmmaker must have some way to focus the material and manage the information so that even as he breaks with the more conventional story telling techniques (a sole protagonist, linear narrative structure), he winds up with an intelligible, unified whole for the audience.

Typical plot design for most films focuses on a single protagonist pursuing a goal, and this provides the fundamental plot unity (unity of action: the first act establishes the protagonist's goal, the final climax shows whether he achieves it or not). In an ensemble film, which allows a number of characters to share the spotlight, each with his or her own story to tell, this standard plot design tends to be insufficient for constructing a framework which will hold all the stories together. Unless a film centers on a group of characters with a common goal -- The Seven Samurai, The Great Escape, Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact -- finding unity in a centralized action for all the characters can be difficult. The reason is such unified action usually contradicts the very nature of the ensemble story. Ensemble films are generally tapestries of intertwining stories, each with its own definite action. The key to a good ensemble film is in how seamlessly the plot lines weave together and intersect, and how they pay off at the end.

To create a seamless intertwining of plot lines, a filmmaker needs three things.

  1. A clear issue or theme for the characters 
  2. A context in which the characters relate
  3. An event that frames the story

(For a list of classic ensemble films, check here, Ranker.)

What's the Story About?

Most great ensemble films are based on clear issues the characters must face, and these issues combine to form a unified theme. Whether it's war veterans coping with coming home or young men making the transition to adulthood, ensemble films use these issues to create a common denominator between the characters and their problems for the audience. In The Best Years of Our Lives, the three main characters are returning WWII veterans facing readjustment to civilian life. Diner deals with a group of immature young men confronting adult responsibilities. A great ensemble film is one where diverse character paths to different outcomes all work together to develop the theme.

The collective issue facing the characters focuses the film, helping viewers understand the overall meaning of the material. Even a film such as Grand Hotel, which deals with a broad spectrum of characters with particular problems, the overriding goal is a search for happiness. At the end, the disparate character outcomes show us who finds it and who does not.

In ensemble films, themes are often realized in a fuller, truer sense than in films driven by a single protagonist. Many ensemble films end without tying up every plot line positively. Since some plot lines conclude ambiguously and others unhappily, this view of life seems more authentic than standard Hollywood fare with its "happily ever after" endings. Consider the close of Diner, where Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) marries Elyse and Boogie (Mickey Rourke) brings his dream girl to the wedding. Billy (Tim Daly) never resolves his situation with Barbara (Kathryn Dowling) and Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) hasn't dealt with his problems at all. Shrevie (Daniel Stern) and Beth (Ellen Barkin) have moved on in their marriage, but without confronting the differences between them. This ending more accurately reflects the world we live in, where some things work out and others do not. We see in Grand Hotel, Nashville, Short Cuts, the French films Children of Paradise and Grand Illusion, and many more, the same thing: some plot lines end happily and others tragically, which is essentially a description of life.

Not all ensemble films use a central issue to create the primary focus for the plot and the basis for a theme.  Nashville and Short Cuts follow numerous characters with separate problems and goals. Lives touch tangentially as each film intercuts separate plot lines, yet the characters do not really face similar issues. Instead these films weave together their characters and plot lines in the service of the theme. Nashville comments upon the corrupting influence of commercialism on American society. Short Cuts deals with the difficulties human beings have communicating with one another.

A universal theme or issue alone, however, is not enough to integrate an ensemble film. Griffith's Intolerance is unified by theme and is an amazing work, but more as a historical curiosity than as an example of timeless storytelling. The most enduring ensemble films have solid structures (even as some stretch to 3 hours or more in length) based on their integration of theme and action. But the action must play out in a believable context, allowing the characters to logically interact as they pursue their own individual goals.

Story Context

Story context is another way of saying "unity of place," but without restricting the backdrop, as the ancient Greeks did, to one locale. Ensemble films work best when characters cross each other's plot lines and play supporting roles in other characters' stories. The easiest, most believable way to bring this off is to utilize a setting where all the characters can logically meet. The action of Grand Hotel takes place in the Berlin hotel during a 24 hour period. Diner brings the group of friends together for Eddie's wedding in Baltimore during Christmas week, 1959.  The Best Years of Our Livesis set in Boone City, 1945, somewhere in Middle America, home to the three returning WWII vets.

The context for a story does not have to be a place, though often it is. Context can be created by an object (the car in The Yellow Rolls-Royce, an overcoat in Tales of Manhattan, a family in Hannah and Her Sisters or the twenty dollar bill in Twenty Bucks). Context can be formed by relationships or work, even if vast distances separate those involved during the course of a film (The Right Stuff). What the story context does is create a believable set of circumstances for the characters which keeps them interacting with each other until the climax and resolution of the plot. 

Event Frame

In order to manage your material and construct an effective plot for an ensemble film, all the protagonists must have clear wants and needs driving their actions -- just as in standard plot design. These wants and needs direct the construction of the characters' mini-plots so that the action in each rises and falls, and holds the audience's interest. And just as in most films with a single protagonist pushing the plot, in an ensemble film, the action generally leads to an event that incorporates the main climax or resolution. With a single protagonist, it is easier to see where a film is heading, not literally, but in the sense that most films have a protagonist who's trying to accomplish something, to reach a goal. This is Aristotle's "unity of action" rule. Because the protagonist meets with conflict, we know he must face the forces standing in his way (usually the antagonist), eventually in a final confrontation (the main climax). Even as we anticipate the final clash in great films, their endings surprise us because we can't predict what will happen or where it'll occur. When the climax comes, the result feels true to the characters involved in the story. 

In an ensemble film, with its multiple protagonists, viewers find it harder to anticipate where the end will take them. Each protagonist must push the action of his mini-plot through confrontation to climax. Even if one character seems slightly more important than the others, the audience can't expect the main climax to always involve him. This character will need a main climax to his story, but it may not take place at the very end of the film. This unpredictability is sometimes what's most surprising and inspiring about a great ensemble film. Just check out what happens to the Baron in Grand Hotel.

Aristotle's unity of action, however, applies to ensemble films where the multiple protagonists share a mutual goal or problem.  The Seven Samurai, The Great Escape, Independence Day, Deep Impact all use centralized conflicts to unite the characters in a common purpose. The problem -- to defend the village (The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven) or to save the world (Independence Day, Deep Impact, Armageddon) -- causes the characters to respond with a course of action that ends at an event (the main climax) where the opposing forces finally meet and resolve the conflict of the plot. 

In ensemble films that don't employ a mutual goal as unifying agent, another plan must be devised to structure the plot. Many ensemble films create an overall impression of unity of action by organizing the material within a story frame. A story frame anchors the plot to an event that will play out by the end of the film. The audience doesn't necessarily expect the event to play out at the end, but when it does take place, the event brings the film to a satisfying close. In a film with one unified goal -- to defend the village or save the world -- accomplishing that mission frames the development of the plot through to the climax. But in an ensemble film where the characters have different goals, a story frame can focus the action on a point that will draw the characters together by the film's end. Doubt may arise as to whether or not the event will occur, and doubt should arise to build suspense, but however the event is used, this climax functions as a focal point for both characters and audience as the film narrows in scope to approach the end.

In Diner, the framing event is Eddie's wedding. We learn about it 4 minutes into the first act, even though the action casts doubt upon its ultimate outcome with mention of the football quiz. The Best Years of Our Lives frames the story with a wedding, too. Seven minutes into the film, we learn Homer (Harold Russell) has a girl waiting to marry him. But Homer has prosthetic hooks instead of hands and he's not sure his girl still wants him. The film ends with Homer marrying Wilma (Gladys George) and provides the setting for Fred (Dana Andrews) and Peggy's story (Teresa Wright) to climax, resolving their plot line.

Parenthood uses a birth to end the film and bring almost all the characters together. But this event isn't foreshadowed in the first act. The idea is introduced in the first half of the second act when Susan (Harly Kozak) tells husband Nathan (Rick Moranis) she wants another baby and he responds by saying no. The idea is picked up again near the end of the second act when Helen's (Dianne Wiest) daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton) announces she's going to have a baby. It's reinforced at the end of act two, when Karen (Mary Steenburgen) tells her husband Gil (Steve Martin), who has just quit his job, she's pregnant. The film ends after the climax with the family gathered at the hospital for the birth of a baby -- but from the film's direction we don't know who's having it. We think it's going to be Karen. Before we know for sure, we see Susan is pregnant, then we see Karen holding her infant. So we think it's Julie. But then we see her with her child. It turns out to be Helen who has married her son's biology teacher. The film ends with all the families gathered, celebrating the new arrival, having weathered their crises and reaffirming the notion of family by extending it. 

Story frames often translate into questions about one or more of the main characters. In Diner, the story frame questions whether Eddie will marry Elyse. In Parenthood, the story frame asks if Susan can convince Nathan to have a second child, then builds from there. The Best Years of Our Lives sets up the question, Will Homer's girl still want him? One way or another, these questions are answered at the end of the films.

The ambitious film Short Cuts, which interweaves 24 characters' different mini-plots connected by the thinnest of threads, frames its story thematically.  Short Cuts starts with one of California's ecological problems -- a medfly infestation. A newscaster who becomes a character in the film comments on the problem right at the start. A helicopter pilot who sprays the Malathion is introduced early and becomes a character, too. The final climax brings the film to another natural disaster -- an earthquake. A newscaster is used again, although not our initial one, and he interviews the helicopter pilot from the start of the film who puts the trembler into perspective -- at least his from the air. The film closes with a kind of symmetry established by the bookending of similar actions.

A story frame gives an ensemble film a sense of completeness. By setting up early the reason all the characters will gather at the end or the idea which the climax or resolution returns to, the framing event feels organic to the structure instead of forced or farfetched. We come back to the question raised in the first act (or early in the second) about the characters involved, and complete the course started, like returning to the main theme of a symphony at the end to complete it. The answer at the end to the questions asked at the beginning helps create a sense of balance in the work.

For more ensemble films, check here, Flickchart.