And Nothing Much Happens

When I’m planning scripts one of the main things I get paranoid about is making sure something is happening in each scene. It might be my lack of confidence in just having conversations between each character but there’s always the nagging need to have some kind of threat. I’m currently looking at the complete scene by scene of Parallel and getting worried that some parts are just conversation. Act one is establish paradigm, act two is breaking it and act three is resolving it but making it different to the start. That’s the classic Hollywood way.


I was watching the Studio Ghibli classic ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ for the first time last week and I loved it (as did my nine year old son). What struck me was that not a great deal actually happens in the hour and a half long film. There’s also a lot of plot points that aren’t explained fully in any way.

Two girls move into a new family home alongside their father. Their mother is absent as she’s sick in hospital. What disease has struck her down remains a mystery for the entire film. The house they now live in looks haunted and they discover soot sprites almost as soon as they arrive.

Whilst the older girl is at school the younger discovers two small creatures in the garden. One is like a small rodent and the other is a smaller, ghostly version of the same thing. Why one of them is a spirit is not explained. She follows these creatures into woodland when she discovers Totoro, a much bigger version of the creature who doesn’t talk and seems to like sleeping.

Usually, if this were a Western film, there would be some form of danger straight away. Totoro would be under threat somehow, the local village would see him as some kind of ghostly monster. The family would stand in front of the tree defending their friend. Instead, not much really happens until they receive a telegram from the hospital and the family all try to make it there in time. Totoro conjures an imaginary bus which is shaped like a cat to get the girls there in time to they can deliver corn on the cob (no, really). You never find out of the Mother recovers or if she manages to join the rest of her family in the new home.

cat bus

Totoro seems like a wistful dream in which events move along at a steady pace only really to pick up for the last fifteen minutes. I imagine a scenario if them doing a Western remake and a producer tearing his hair out asking where the danger is and how all this resolves. As stated before, this doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the film but it does make me think about how I lay out my scripts. Do I, as a writer, back away from the power of human relationships?

2 thoughts on “And Nothing Much Happens

  1. I think some films break the rules of structure completely and manage to get away with it with ease. I’ve never seen the film that you were talking about, but from what I’ve heard about it, it always sounded a bit wacky. But, then a lot of anime stuff sounds a bit wacky to me. Maybe it’s just the western world and the conventions we’ve set so far as structure goes, whereas they don’t really see restrictions. So, we’ve just got used to what we’ve been shown. If I can give some advice, I’d just go with what works. If dialogue and conversation works, then so be it.

    Yeah sorry, I know….it’s me again. You just talk about interesting stuff.

    1. I think it was Tarantino who once said that films must have ‘a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order’. Structure is important to many films released by larger studios and bigger budget film makers. I was just surprised that this Japanese film, which had also been successful outside of Asia, had such a different style to it.

      There are a few other filmmakers who seem to specialise in making film where not much happens though and they can still be brilliant. Jim Jarmusch would be the first name that comes to mind. Mystery Train is a good example of one of his but I haven’t seen it in years.

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