This blog started when a certain analysis of Michael Mann’s THE INSIDER sparked my frustration. Discussing BLADE RUNNER in a story workshop recently, I felt I was close to doing the exact same thing. To this date I don’t fully agree with her INSIDER analysis but Linda Aronson taught me this: to learn story, you will have to be ready to tear your favourite films apart.
REPLICANTS, SCREENWRITERS AND DOGSWhen last year the restored BLADE RUNNER screened in Sydney in all its 4k digital splendour, I was present at the Cremorne Orpheum, on the hunt for story weaknesses. It didn’t take me long. After fifteen minutes and thirty seconds, I put the scalpel aside and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the film, i.e. Act Two and Three. (For Premium Subscribers, my brief analysis is here.)
This year the Coen brothers snatched the top Oscars despite issues with the ending of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. I won’t add to that discussion but if you would like to read some incisive thoughts, check out this article on the Mystery Man on Film blog.
Long before the Coen brothers won their first Oscar with FARGO, they had established themselves as favourites of the Cannes film festival with a Golden Palm for BARTON FINK. I have watched it a few times since and I still enjoy its Faustian slant, the flamboyant performances of Michael Lerner and John Goodman and the wonderful production design.
Why could BARTON FINK never appeal to a mainstream audience? It is about a screenwriter. But more importantly, the end of Act One makes a promise, then Act Two doesn’t deliver. Variety wrote at the time:
“After a little more than an hour, the pic is thrown in a wholly unexpected direction. There is a shocking murder, the presence of a mysterious box in Fink’s room, the revelation of another’s character’s sinister true identity, three more killings, a truly weird hotel fire and the humiliation of the writer after he believes he’s finally turned out a fine script.”
In essence there is nothing wrong with ‘a wholly unexpected direction’ but the problem is: no new promise is made. What do I mean by that?
The end of act one shows us what the protagonist’s objective is: Fink wants to write a screenplay. It promises a clear direction for the film. Once the murder is introduced, Fink doesn’t really have a clear objective and the story suffers from that. The film as a whole survives because of the exquisitely funny references to the real world of Hollywood in the 1940’s, the sensational performances, the amazing sound design etc.
Recently somebody mentioned WAG THE DOG (1997) to me, written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. In my memory, this movie was a hilarious touch of genius. Upon re-viewing, I was dumbfounded as not much of the exhilaration from ten years ago had survived for me.
Again, problemo numero uno: Hollywood behind the scenes. No matter how important we believe the workings of Hollywood are, no-one cares.
Secondly: no matter how clever, genuinely funny and genuinely TRUE the premise – don’t trust your president when he goes to war, the story is preaching to the converted. I don’t believe one single vote was gained or lost because of this film.
The core problems with this film lie on a pure story level. It seems Robert De Niro is the protagonist, his objective: fix a potential presidential scandal. Then we shift to Dustin Hoffman. His objective: stage a war. Soon, however, it appears neither are really facing any seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. Problems are solved as quickly as they arise.
Ultimately the film industry outsider is left with a self-indulgent, unsatisfying and uninvolving story. Mamet’s dialogue is brilliant but this is not the type of film I can watch more than once without an element of disappointment.
PAGE RANK FOUR!
The Story Dept.’s Page Rank has gone up a full notch and I’m now in the company of such excellent PR4 blogs as The Unknown Screenwriter and the above mentioned Mystery Man on Film.
If you have the Google Tool Bar installed, you can see a white/green strip indicating the PageRank of the page you are visiting. It is usually located in the top middle of your page, under the address bar.
In all fairness and humility, this web site may be on par for PR with Mystery Man and UNK, but no need to say yours truly will have a long way to go to deserve equal status with these boys.
THE LAW OF DIMINISHING RETURNS
Your second draft is the easiest of all. Why? Because the first draft is so bad each problem sticks out like a sore thumb. It is full of great ideas, but the execution stinks. To your editor/consultant it will be instantly obvious what needs fixing first. Hence, improving your story massively, immediately is actually a breeze.
On the other hand: the final draft is the hardest. Almost everything is as almost good as you can get it. Still, those few minor details that need fixing, jeopardise the entire rest of the script. Not only is it technically challenging, you aren’t quite sure which one is the right move. You can’t see the wood for the trees any longer.
Worst of all: after a long development you are so worn out you may be sick of this script and want to move on. You will need all the support and encouragement you can get, from your producer, your editor, your mum and dad (or wife and kids).
To move from draft one to two, it really takes only basic to intermediate skills. To move from draft eleven to twelve, it takes tremendous craftsmanship, talent and arduous persistence. Early on you will get heaps of great tips and advice from your story/script editor; towards the final draft more and more decisions will be yours: here is where your instinct comes into play.The comforting factor: it is often no longer a matter of working or not working, but of good or great. At this stage, you might have also shown the script to a few industry people, who should be encouraging you to run the last mile.
With Michael Hauge’s Australia tour in May, I’ll be publishing a podcast and interview transcription, in conjunction with Inscription.
– Movie structure breakdowns (Premium)
– RATATOUILLE’s deleted scene
– Why the ‘3 Act Structure’?