Film psychology and character development are considerable factors that compel audiences to keep tuning into movies and TV shows.
In this article, Filmmakers Academy member Oleg Kirshul explores the nature of psychology in our favorite media for writers, directors, and cinematographers.
Oleg is a cinematographer from Cologne, Germany, and has been a part of our community since 2015. Not only is psychology Oleg’s professional focus as an artist, but he also wanted to share his insights and perspectives on story and character development.
Pay close attention! This article will help cinematographers understand the director’s vision more deeply so they can make better suggestions during the collaborative process.
BOOKS AND MOVIES ON PSYCHOLOGY DISORDERS
In this article, I will share with you some therapists on YouTube that you could follow to better understand the inner life of your characters, their relationship dynamics, and their needs.
But before we get started, I’d like to recommend a couple of books that will give you an overview of the common psychological theories and personality disorders.
- Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick
- Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology and Psychotherapy by Danny Wedding, Mary A Boyd, Ryan M Niemiec
I would also recommend that you watch this four-part documentary about the main themes and archetypes of American Television.
FILM PSYCHOLOGY GUIDE
In its first part, “The Man of a House,” the docu-series explores the role of family — more precisely, a dysfunctional family. This kind of device creates everlasting conflict and dramatic tension.
Its main principle stands as “a house divided from the inside will not stand.”
Many of Shakespeare’s most notable works use such devices as the Machiavellian Plot. Modern examples include The Godfather, Succession, and Game of Thrones, where dysfunctional families battle for power and influence.
There are also troublemaker archetypes. They can come in the form of:
- Cheating husbands/wives
- Lost sons/daughters on the wrong path
- Children in a stage of teenage rebellion
- Desperate housewives
- Unholy relatives
- Annoying parents
What makes the troublemaker archetype so compelling to audiences is how they threaten to destroy The House.
Whether it is drama or any analogous film genre psychological thriller, for example, you must explore psychological mechanisms like:
- Family systems
- Toxic parenting
- Narcissistic abuse
- Family triangles
- Sibling rivalries
I would like to begin our Film Psychology Guide with this sweet therapist couple behind Marriage Therapy Radio. What makes the hosts Laura Heck and Zach Brittle so engaging to watch is their chemistry together.
Their approach is particularly effective for those who wish to learn about psychology. The two experts take a scene and step-by-step show how some destructive effects work and how they ruin a couple’s relationship.
As you will see, at first they talk to each other as if to the wall. One doesn’t listen to the other. Then, they try to bend each other – who wins? And only then do they say to each other – “What I want from you…”
While it’s a very intense rehearsal technique, its effect speaks for itself. The scene is initially from American Beauty. Here is the beginning of it:
Another therapist on YouTube I wanted to show you is Dr. Ramani – she is an expert on Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Below is the entire playlist of her reviews on the hit HBO series, Succession:
Next, we have Dr. Eric Bender who is a physician with a focus on child and adolescent psychiatry.
Below are his takes on Succession:
After his analysis of Succession, Dr. Bender shines a light on some of the most notorious antiheroes of the “Man of a House” genre. These include Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper.
Dr. Todd Grande has a Ph. D. in Counselor Education and Supervision and is a Licensed Professional Counselor of Mental Health (LPCMH), as well as a Licensed Chemical Dependency Professional (LCDP). So, it’s no surprise that Dr. Grande has a unique yet authoritative view of the TV character Walter White from Breaking Bad.
With over 20 years of experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Psychotherapy, Georgia Dow, MA, specializes in treating anxiety and stress management. Dow also has degrees in Psychology and Education and a Master’s Degree with Distinction in Art Therapy.
Follow the playlist below where Georgia Dow discusses The Boys:
A quick exercise on film psychology…
|If you were writing a story about two monsters who under the pressure of circumstances temporarily become situational allies but in the end, knowing each other’s vulnerabilities, come to a showdown. Who do you think would be a bigger challenge for Homelander in such a story: Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) or Commodus (Gladiator)?
What’s the difference between narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy? How could these two exploit each other’s weaknesses?
Have a look at the scenes below. What does your intuition tell you?
Homelander Has A Meltdown And Kills Everyone | The Boys
“Am I not Merciful” | Gladiator
A narcissist is very much concerned about what people think of them. They are obsessed with themselves and are very dependent on the opinions of others.
A psychopath doesn’t give a damn about what others think or feel. They are closer to cold-blooded reptiles. If you get in their way, you will be wiped out immediately without their blood pressure so much as rising.
Hotel Scene | No Country for Old Men
Another interesting point on film psychology…
What kind of recurring pattern do we notice in the scenes where someone is trying to interrogate or question a psychopath or someone with antisocial personality disorder?
Then, ask yourself: Why is that happening?
Coin Toss | No Country for Old Men
Meet Charles Manson | Mindhunter
Clarice & Hannibal’s first meeting | The Silence of the Lambs
It’s not you questioning them, it’s them questioning you!
INSIDE THE MIND OF A PSYCHOPATH
What I suggest next may come off as over-simplified and over-generalized, but the approach is as follows. The classic psychopaths cannot feel empathy. Such parts in their brains are either underdeveloped or “dead.” They process reality differently. The rules they follow such as “play or be played,” mean that you play them or they’ll do the same to you.
Those with antisocial personality disorder are also predators. But they are not born with it, rather raised that way.
They can experience empathy for those who have a close relationship with them. Also, some of them have extraordinary insight and connection to their subconscious self. They are aware of their dark urges, even enjoy them, and are keen to play with the doubts and inner struggles of their prey.
Interrogation | Basic Instinct
Interrogation Scene | The Dark Knight
In the videos below, the CoEd killer, Ed Kemper, is put on display to get into the mind of a serial killer.
Psychiatrist Analyses The CoEd Killer Ed Kemper 1984 Interview
Flashback Forensics: Psychologist Analyzes Behavior and Body Language of Ed Kemper
What do you think about Ed Kemper? There is an ambiguous feeling, isn’t there? It’s interesting to listen to him and it’s quite obvious that he has an insight into the nature of his feelings, but you also feel how he manipulates you.
We need more of this in screenwriting — complex, contradictory, three-dimensional villains. The era of flat, primitive baddies has thankfully passed.
Here are some more videos on this topic from Dr. Bender:
Psychiatrist Breaks Down Psychopaths From Movies & TV, Part 1
Psychiatrist Breaks Down Psychopaths From Movies & TV, Part 2
Dr. Elliott is a junior doctor specializing in psychiatry. He developed his channel to cut through the pseudo-science and discuss topics around mental health and psychiatry.
In the video below, Dr. Elliott reacts to the film psychology of The Silence of the Lambs.
Now, compare this reaction to his analyses of the Hannibal series.
If you want to see how Dr. Elliott’s analysis of a fictional character stacks up against an adaptation of a serial killer, check out the videos below.
The Bottom Line on Film Psychology
Apologies if today’s material seemed too dark. But what can we do, there is no story without a strong, capable antagonist.
The best way to understand film psychology and character development is to compile a psychology movie list. You can start with the movies on psychology disorders featured in this article. Follow each viewing by watching a film and TV psychology breakdown from the experts.
There’s a lot of great writing on streaming services in the era of streaming. So, do yourself a favor and create a watchlist for psychology movies on Hulu, psychology movies on Netflix, and the best Apple TV psychology shows!