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.”
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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.”
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.”
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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.