Anyone Can Cook

Earlier this year, a friend of mine bought an expensive High Definition Video camera. He had saved up for it for a long time. In stead he could have bought a second hand Subaru. But he doesn’t care he doesn’t have a car. He has a dream. The Australian Dream.

Australia is a hands-on type of nation. When I arrived in 2001, it didn’t take me long to get my first short film off the ground. So many wonderful people, eager to get their hands dirty and help me out. After all, filmmaking doesn’t have to be the cumbersome, expensive art it used to be. In a way it is still cumbersome but the essentials to capture and reproduce images have become so cheap they are now within reach of anyone with a job or a credit card.

The largest short film festival in the world started in Sydney. Meanwhile Tropfest has spilled out to all major Australian cities and even the rest of the world . The fact it started here in Australia is no coincidence. When an Australian wants to do something, he doesn’t first sit down to ponder about how it is usually done and then wait for an opportunity to arise so the job gets a bit easier. The Australian goes for it. ASAP.

You can hear me coming: despite all the good intentions there is a downside to this “let’s just do it” attitude. In the case of filmmaking, I cannot shed the impression the Australian believes there are shortcuts. What is the easiest way to get your idea on the screen? You hire or buy a video camera, get some mates to stand in front of it and “just do it”. We are all made to believe this is how it works. Practical guides to the use of digital equipment make it seem like child’s play.

It is an illusion that has cost us dearly in recent years. I have seen a fair few movies lately that were all made with lots of enthusiasm but not a lot of thought gone into the screenplay. What is it with movies that people just cannot stop believing the illusion? At this point I must add that what sets my friend with the HD camera apart from the crowd, is this: he had first invested a significant amount of money in learning the craft of screenwriting.

FINAL GOODBYE FINAL DRAFT?

Only yesterday I received an email from which I quote:

“I have about 3 ideas for scripts, they would be produced entirely by my friends and I. I need to put the first drafts down I am trying to round up a script writing program to make it easier.”

There is the other myth: Final Draft will help you write your script. (On a separate note: soon that myth may be forever buried, when Celtx takes over. They have just released version 0.995 and it is starting to look better than anything on the market. Interesting detail: Celtx is free. At least no money will be wasted on the illusion that software could spit out a story.)

In his book STORY, Robert McKee makes the point:

“If your dream were to compose music, would you say to yourself: “I’ve heard a lot of symphonies… I can also play the piano… I think I’ll knock one out this weekend? No. But that’s exactly how many screenwriters begin: “I’ve seen a lot of flicks, some good and some bad… I got A’s in English… vacation time ‘s coming…”

The essence of story is not rocket science. I keep repeating: it is a learnable skill. But a skill that must be learned nonetheless. What you cannot learn is the inspiration, the need to tell a specific story. Yet so many people with the desire to tell that story believe they can get away without properly mastering the craft. They want to build the house without a notion of engineering. They want to compose a symphony without knowing a C from a Cis. They want to serve a bouillabaisse but can’t even cook a ratatouille.

If you were hoping there might be a new generation waiting to jump in and rejuvenate this general malaise, the following might put a stop to your optimism. At a networking event earlier this year, I spoke with a university student who had taken a screenwriting class the previous year. Asked about the one thing she took away from that class, she answered:

“I guess, that you can break the rules and still get away with it.”

THE OMNIPOTENT FUNDING AGENCIES

Having recently caught up on some Australian films of the past few years (see my previous post) and listening to feedback from others on more recent films (Clubland, West, Suburban Mayhem etc.) it seems these pictures are unable to connect with a mainstream audience. Or any audience, for that matter. It’s no longer an issue of getting the audience into the theater, if those who saw the films are not entertained. There are strong indications the problems don’t lie in the execution but in the bare essentials of story. Yep, they are breaking the rules.

But where did things start to go wrong? I believe the lack of understanding of the principles of story has become endemic for our entire industry. Not only do writers lack the skills: producers and funding decision makers fail to see the flaws in screenplays. As long as the ‘elements’ are in place, the film will get made. The ‘elements’ being: cast, technically experienced crew, government funding etc.

On the government’s role: while preparing development notes for a government funding application, a particular paragraph in the guidelines struck me.

“What is the point of view (POV) of the script? That is, where is the audience positioned in relation to the script? Are they close to one central character? Is it an omnipotent POV?”

An “omnipotent POV”?? Somebody has lost the plot here. Point of view is crucially important in a story. The terminology should be second nature to anyone even remotely involved in screenwriting, let alone the funding of it. If even the funding agencies cannot get their act together, why would anyone expect the writers would? Interesting to note that the same funding agency has been reported to have feature drama screenplays assessed by documentary film makers. Go figure.

Recently a young filmmaker submitted a rough cut on DVD with an application for post-production funding. The application was rejected. The assessor didn’t like the film? Correction: the assessor didn’t like the screenplay. The rejection was justified in a multi-page assessment of the screenplay. The assessor did reference the DVD but the brunt of his tirade was directed at the script.

Why am I concerned… Very concerned…

Elephant in the Room

“Babies don’t come from babies”, Keith Jarrett said when he meant that great art isn’t inspired by other art but by life itself.
This quote shot through my mind tonight while watching the Australian film 2:37 by Murali Thalluri.

I had ordered 2:37 from Quickflix, as reference material for a feature film in post-production I am currently working on in the capacity of co-producer and story consultant. Because of some friends’ recommendations, I was really looking forward to watching young Thalluri’s directorial debut. Imagine my joy when less than forty-eight hours after putting it on my wishlist, the DVD tumbled in the letter box!

Thalluri is obviously infatuated with Gus Van Sant and more specifically ELEPHANT, of which 2:37 is a blatant pastiche. The school, the parallel points of view, the moody light, the school massacre reference, etc. How much more derivative can you be without breaking the law?

But all this could have been forgiven. Other great directors have copied shamelessly, to create something better or at least equally entertaining. I hate to admit but this umpteenth Australian case of the emperor’s new clothes is boring as hell. The best five minutes are the opening scene and this is indeed great cinema: a promising naturalistic build-up of suspense, leading to the discovery of a student’s suicide.

The dead body is not shown in the opening scene and most if not all of the movie’s anticipation (or lack thereof) hinges on that single question: “Who died?” For most of the 98mins running time, the filmmakers are trying to outsmart the audience, ultimately delivering a twist nobody could have possibly seen coming. It may work in novels but it doesn’t in movies, as evidenced by that obscenely successful whodunit whose screen adaptation embarrassed even the die hard fans: THE DA VINCI CODE. Too bad 2:37 didn’t have the same marketing pull to defy any story sense and make hundreds of millions nonetheless.

ANOTHER ELEPHANT: LACK OF DRAMA

The mystery around the identity of the suicide victim in 2:37 is equivalent to that bad whodunit in which a totally uninteresting character we have hardly seen, suddenly shows up with motive and weapon. Even when a whodunit is done well, it often lacks suspense. On this subject Hitchcock once said:

“Mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.”

That said, 2:37 might still have worked, if only the screenwriter had made the least effort to entertain or excite us along the way. Instead we are witnessing a never-ending tirade of profanities and artful but empty cinematography. Unfortunately I wasn’t impressed either by the performances of the army of young and gorgeous actors. But you can’t blame them, with this poor material.

The film does make various attempts to convey emotion but most of those lack drama. When the main characters talk about themselves and their youthful angst, the effect is theatrical, not cinematic. And until we know and understand the circumstances of these confessions, we will not fully invest emotionally in their content. That is why the ‘talking heads’ in this film don’t work, no matter how desperately the actors try to convince us.

Bottom line: there are some basic screenwriting rules you break at your own risk such as: “you must not deceive the audience.” I suspect Thalluri was considered an auteur and a prodigy, who de facto transcends the principles of storytelling. Here’s my two cents: beginning writers should not try and outsmart their peers, let alone the audience.

WE DON’T GIVE A SHEET

Mysteriously despite all the above, the film was selected for the 2006 Cannes Film Festival where it received a 17 mins standing ovation, effectively paving the way for a successful theatrical release. Or so you would expect. Banking on the festival response, quick international sales were achieved reportedly bringing in three times the film’s production cost.

The reality of the film’s performance at the box office was sobering: at home it hardly grossed $500k. Of course some sources blame the distributor’s bad release campaign. Or the exhibitor’s marginal programming. And finally the audience, for not wanting to open up to the film.

And tomorrow me, for not supporting Australian cinema.

The Good Read

Recently I had the privilege and honour of reading a script by one of the most hyped young writers in this country, face on covers of magazines and all that. My expectations were high and yes: it delivered! I spent an amazing two hours reading it as the characters really jumped off the page and the writing was beautiful. Then I put the script down and I knew the movie would fail.

What I had read was a great short novel. Brilliant prose, lively detail and sharp dialogue. But the story didn’t work because we would not care for the protagonist. This is a typical mistake: confusing a good script with a good story. Beware of the ‘good read’. Or as my best friend Chris always says: “Armaggedon was a good read too.” In the case of this Australian hopeful, the story was told from a protagonist without any clear objective. Ironically, a character close to the protagonist would have much better fitted that role without the need to significantly change the premise.

The joy of the ‘good read’ is truly a danger and one of many reasons why you don’t rely on friends for script feedback, even if they work in the film industry. I have heard of aspiring screenwriters asking advice from assistant directors, decorators production managers. Although like everybody in our industry, these people SHOULD have a notion, in reality they hardly ever do. (As a matter of fact, a lot of decision-makers don’t have a clue either.I could give you a recent example of a script where even the writer admitted ‘there was no story’. Still he got the money to develop it. Develop what? The novel? I won’t name the example or I would be dead. Fact is that the writer in question ironises about this reality when he says that

“to get your hands on delicious development money you don’t have to have a great script, it only has to be a little ‘better’ than the norm. And if you can do that with no story…good times.”

THE WISE AND THE NOT SO WISE

As somebody who takes the craft very seriously, I’m sometimes frustrated to see how people who should know better send out confusing messages. Now take this quote, which I found on a web site claiming to give story advice and tips to writers:

“As for the content of your screenplay; structure counts, usually. Have a clear Act I, II, and III. Try to hook the reader on the first page! Make the first five (or ten pages at most) be Act I, wherein you introduce all the main characters and show the reader the who, what, where, when and why of your story. Notice that I said SHOW. Telling is not so good. Film is a visual medium and you should actually be writing a FILM, not a script. Act II is the rest of the story, where you build on what you started, and it climaxes at the clear end of Act II. Act III should be five or ten (max) pages, where all loose ends are tied up and all conflicts are resolved.”

I must admit I had never heard of the Ten Minutes First Act. And the second act being “where you build on what you started“. How can you be more vague? You know what is REALLY frightening? The person talking is the director of an internationally renowned film festival. And as for: “structure counts, usually”… The festival director is probably hoping of getting the new KOYAANISQATSI.

Let me counterbalance the nonsense with a solid quote from Chris Vogler, the man behind The Writer’s Journey. This time not about the ‘big structure’ or the Journey Stages but about scenes:

“A scene is a business deal. It may not involve money but it will always involve some change in the contract between characters or in the balance of power. It’s a transaction, in which two or more people enter with one kind of deal between them, and negotiate or battle until a new deal has been cut, at which point the scene should end. It could be the reversal of a power structure. The underdog seizes power by blackmail. Or it could be the forging of a new alliance or enmity. Two people who hated each other make a new deal to work together in a threatening situation. A boy asks a girl out and she accepts or rejects his offer. Two gangsters make an alliance to rub out a rival. A mob forces a sheriff to turn a man over for lynching. The meat of the scene is the negotiation to arrive at the new deal, and when the deal is cut, the scene is over, period. “

THE POWER OF A PARADIGM SHIFT

Years ago a good friend returned from L.A. where he had attended a much hyped screenwriting seminar. The speaker made a point by asking the room who would visualise the scenes while writing. I agreed with my friend’s astonishment when he reported that only half of the writers raised their hands. What were the others thinking? What idiots to believe you can actually write movies without thinking visually???

I have come to fundamentally change my view on this. Did Alan Ball necessarily think visually when he wrote SIX FEET UNDER? Or AMERICAN BEAUTY? The last boasts wonderfully visual scenes but most of the script’s power lies entirely not on its visual level. We do indeed need visible elements to show character subtext, but not necessarily a visual context. Think about CRASH or more recently THE LIVES OF OTHERS. On what level do these movies make an impact?

Whether a movie works or not, is decided on an entirely different, almost abstract and non-visual level. Until a late draft, a screenwriter doesn’t always need to visualise. And you can take this right through to very visual action flicks such as DIE HARD, THE FUGITIVE or even SPIDER-MAN. Visual elements such as setting, time of day, camera angles etc. could have been easily replaced without really changing the story. They might have even worked without the eye candy but they surely wouldn’t have without the character drama underneath.

Recently I was recommended THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE. Early in the book Stephen Covey speaks about the Paradigm Shift. (Beware: this Paradigm has nothing to do with Syd Field.) It’s about looking at something from a specific angle and (not) seeing what others see. I found this concept very similar to reading text vs. reading subtext. I had been reading screenplays on the surface for years before it most literally ‘clicked’ in my head; it felt as if a ‘sixth sense’ had switched on, as if I was suddenly reading with an infrared eye.

Switching on the understanding of this subtextual level is a skill writers, just like producers or directors, need to develop before they can become successful. It is just as essential as switching on your desk light at night to read.

THE LOGLINE

“A logline is a one-sentence summary of your script. It’s the short blurb in TV guides that tells you what a movie is about and helps you decide if you’re interested in seeing it. It’s the grabber that excites your interest.” (-Scriptologis.Com)

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The logline shouldn’t be confused with the tagline (marketing one-liner for the poster) or even slugline (“EXT. KAREL’S OFFICE – DAY”).

Once I believed you can only write your story’s logline when you have finished your script and even the one page synopsis. Until then, it may not even be clear what the story is about.

Here are a few good reasons why you should start thinking of the logline earlier. First of all: a good logline is a good indication that you have a story. If after a few drafts you still can’t find a logline that captures what your movie is about, you really need to think hard about the story again. Secondly: it will become an essential selling tool for your script. A strong logline will give you the confidence that you have a story: you’ll be able to pitch it with passion! In both senses the logline does pretty much what I promote about the synopsis in my consultancy services: it helps you improve AND sell the story. All that with the economy of one simple sentence.

I am currently working as a consultant on an amazing high concept story with some major story issues. It is always nerve-wrecking having to break the news that to unleash its potential, a story needs to be significantly reworked. But when I found out the writer had already written a logline expressing exactly what I believed the story should deliver, I sighed: we were on the same wavelength.

The moment you find a logline expressing your intentions, you have found an invaluable tool to stay on track. It could be the road map saving you from disaster. If the logline is selling and you stay true to it during the writing of the draft, chances are you will have a selling story.

THE $5 SCRIPT SOFTWARE: ASHAMPOO’S TEXTMAKER:

I recently had a computer scare when it looked my four year old laptop was about to die. That would have been a disaster in a few ways, not the least because I recently bought a – legitimate – OEM version of Office Standard. I lose my laptop, I lose that.

No wonder I was interested when recently I received an offer to an elegant software program called ‘Textmaker’, which does everything I use MS Word for. Only for $4.99 only. And legitimate. If you are looking for a good quality text processor, which is BTW faster than MS Word and whose license won’t expire if your computer dies, have a look here:

http://www.ashampoo.com

I believe the offers on these newsletters remain open for at least 1 purchase per customer.

BEATS VS. TURNING POINTS

While working on a step outline with one of my clients, it bothered me a number of scenes ended in the exact same way: the protagonist would respond to a situation by rejection or reluctance to respond.

None of these scenes really ended in a plot point, there was no hook nor change to the story’s direction. So I didn’t find the scenes’ ending strong enough and almost suggested to cut them altogether. Still, the point the writer was trying to make about the protagonist was a valid one: it gave us important information we would need later in the story.

The solution we came up with: keep the protagonist’s reaction as a scene beat but work towards a stronger scene ending by creating a new plot point for each in order to turn the scene, create anticipation and propel it into the next one. Not an easy task but ultimately better than cutting.

THE QUIZ

As part of a Google Adwords campaign I’ve created a quiz about the craft and – to a lesser extent – history of screenwriting. If one or two questions are a matter of opinion rather than fact, you will find the answers in The Story Dept. Twenty challenges, definitely not for beginners (and neither is this blog, apparently) but essential knowledge for whomever is serious about the craft. Anyway, if you consider yourself an expert, or at least intermediate level writer, you shouldn’t be intimidated. Click through until the very end of the quiz and you’ll land back on the OZZYWOOD web site after seeing all the right answers. Have fun!

http://ozzywood.com/quiz