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

The Main Man (m/f)

“Most writers work alone. They send in the script and it gets rejected. And they never find out why. The fact is, you can’t succeed as a professional writer if you don’t get professional feedback. You must find out the weaknesses of your story or script before you send it in.” This is not me talking, it’s John Truby.

People who, like me, get to read a great number of Australian screenplays are astounded how poorly developed most of these works are. The ones that stand out are often the ones that have had and taken on board professional feedback.

Really baffling is how many writers seem to have trouble with the protagonist. Writing for the screen is ALL about the protagonist. You can mess with pretty much everything else, not with your hero. When script gurus talk about the structure of a story or a script, they almost always mean: the structure of the protagonist’s journey. Before you can build a journey, you need a protagonist and that, so it seems, is not as simple as it sounds.
I have listed below six of what I believe to be crucial principles against which budding writers are often sinning in terms of their heroes. Although these principles are to a certain extent flexible and extremely skilled, talented and experienced writers have bent the rules with great success, you cannot ignore them altogether. If you take liberties on one, you must compensate on the others or your script will be rejected. Please note that I will be using the ecumenical pronouns “he, him, his” in a unisex fashion when referring to the protagonist.

0. Desire: Driver of all strong characters’ actions and decisions.

Drama is based on character, desire and conflict (and if you have trouble with these, check out THE HERO’S TWO JOURNEYS, there is a link in the right hand margin of this blog). Desire is the central one as in a screenplay it defines both character and conflict. It is so important it precedes everything else: if your protagonist does not have a strong desire, whether internal or external, you don’t have a movie. As a writer, you will need to know at any point in the story what your hero’s objective is. To find out who is the protagonist, most of the time you only need to find out who has the strongest desire in the movie. And don’t forget that it takes great obstacles (conflict) to prove a strong desire.

In HALF NELSON with Oscar® nominee Ryan Gosling the protagonist gradually shifts from Dan (Gosling) to Dray (Shareeka Epps), depending on who has the strongest desire or more accurately: with whom we share the desire. Interestingly this transition doesn’t happen for every viewer in the exact same way as we don’t empathise in identical ways. The writers keep tight control as we see how the movie’s POV shifts with the centre of desire. These things are not coincidental. In a subtle and complex movie such as HALF NELSON, the understanding and careful manipulation of these elements makes the difference between an unbearable arthouse bomb and a quality indie with Oscar potential.

1. Single vs. Multiple Protagonist: Hardly a matter of choice.

Here are two questions for you. 1)“Are you an experienced writer with produced feature drama credits?” 2)“Are you targeting an audience of intellectuals?” Multiple protagonist stories are risky business but if your answer to either question was NO, it would be insanity to even contemplate going there. The emotional impact of multiple protagonist dramas is limited because empathy jumps from one character to the next, resulting in a more cerebral experience. The lovers of these movies will almost always be an audience of intellectuals. Think about directors such as Paul T. Anderson and Robert Altman.

2. Screen time: Stay with your hero.

It is not good to abandon your protagonist. This goes hand in hand with the principle that single POV movies have a stronger emotional impact than omniscient or multi-POV movies (see below). If you divert into a subplot, keep it lean. A great example of an amazingly tight subplot arc is the one of the executioner in QUILLS. On the other hand I seem to remember that the last movie in the Matrix Trilogy failed miserably, partially because protagonist Neo suddenly disappeared to make place for a gargantuan subplot diversion. The Wachowskis couldn’t care less for their hero. What were they thinking!!?? By the time Neo returned into the story, the movie had flopped. A successful movie is all about the protagonist. Once he’s gone, your movie is too.

3. Action: The protagonist drives the story.

Screentime is essential but not sufficient. While the protagonist is on screen, he should be driving the scene. Or rather: his desire/objective should be driving it. Any other character can be central to the scene but the objective should be related to the protagonist’s. If this sounds too technical, try an example: say the hero’s objective is to save her son from the hands of his kidnappers and a particular sequence is about finding the last person who saw him. A scene may show how the antagonist prevents the hero from finding that person. Though it may seem as if the antagonist is driving the scene, its purpose can be easily traced back to the protagonist’s main objective. Action can also be: resisting strongly to act. Andie MacDowell’s character in SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE is a good example of that.

4. Empathy: Share the desire

Most paying audiences want to forget they are watching a movie. They want to be absorbed by it. To achieve this, ideally you should make them feel as if they have moved into the hero’s mind, as if they become the protagonist for the duration of the movie. This complete identification is ideal but not essential. Empathy is. Where lies the distinction?

Michael Hague (photo) has a five point test to create empathy with the protagonist: likability, sympathy, jeopardy, humor and power. Those elements certainly help but I believe the real test for empathy lies in the degree to which we share the protagonist’s desire. If identification means wanting to be the hero, than empathy means wanting to be what the hero wants to be*.

(*Note after publishing: Rightfully, Jack Brislee points out although he loved KENNY, he did not share the ambition of wanting to be a top rate outdoor toilet contractor. He is right, but not until the credits roll. Until that point, you think and feel with the protagonist and you share the desire. Take DOWNFALL, about the last days of Hitler. Some perfectly sane people have told me how they felt sorry for the character in the movie, although that very character explicitly expresses how he doesn’t care if the German people would be wiped out. If they can’t win the war, they’re too weak to deserve the Third Reich anyway. Wow… Why do we feel sorry for such a character? Because for (at least part of) the duration of the movie, we feel his desire and the pain of not being able to fulfill it.)

5. Point of view: Single vs. Multi vs. Omni

In his book STORY (link on the right) McKee says: “the exclusive Point of View of the protagonist is a creative discipline. […] The result is a tight, smooth, memorable character and story.” Seeing the world through the eyes of the hero often helps us understand his desire and therefore it enhances empathy. It makes it easier to plot the hero’s main story arc and it guarantees ample screen time.

McKee claims “[single PoV] is the far more difficult way to tell story.” Here I disagree. Not limiting yourself in this way will make it infinitely harder to write a story that works for the screen. Bottom line: if your story is in trouble, try rewriting it from a single POV. It may be a shortcut to resolving a lot of issues…

PARALLEL NARRATIVE: BABEL

Writer Arriaga bends the rules of screenwriting but compensates by telling each of the four parallel stories as a class example of traditional narrative: four protagonists with strong desires, major obstacles and a three act journey each.

Despite its nomination for best screenplay, BABEL’s breaking the code has caused controversy. Just compare the top four ‘external reviews’ for the film (IMDb)! I found the Tokyo story’s connection to the events in Morocco manufactured and to me it worked on a logical level but not on an emotional one. However, in this movie it’s the only story about the search for love and therefore inevitably the most powerful of all four. No wonder its resolution concludes the movie.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Great traditional narrative. When Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) finds out somebody is controlling his life, he wants to stop her from killing him. The conflict: antagonist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) needs to finish her book and can’t without doing exactly that. A beautiful example of a strong inner and outer journey for protagonist Crick plus an exemplary ‘relationship line’ around the Ana Pascal character (Maggie Gyllenhaal). As Michael Hague puts it: the hero needs to complete his arc in order to get the girl.
From the trailer I believed the antagonist would have had more screentime but this is another case of a story arc told with the greatest economy. Everything we need to know about Kay Eiffel is there in a handful of brief scenes. Instead the writer focuses increasingly on the love thread, which is the smartest way of getting an audience head over heels involved in the drama.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but the ending left me confused. It turns out that I’m not the only one. Some reviewers hinted that Miller had reached Pixar levels of perfection with this film but to my taste this is not entirely so on a story level.
HAPPY FEET is a hugely successful movie, and deservedly so. Still I suspect the ending could have been more gratifying had Miller stuck to the Pixar way of developing story.
In case you have seen HAPPY FEET, ask yourself: What is Mumble’s journey? What is his main desire that drives the whole movie? Does he want to fit in with his peers and be accepted by the penguin colony? Or does he want to prove that he is not the cause of the food shortage? From the first scene with Lovelace, I would have thought he actually wanted to resolve the mystery of the Aliens.
Of course it is a combination of all three and each has its own resolution in one way or another. But had it been set up more clearly, I believe we would have had a more satisfactory feeling at the end. Right now the ending is kinda cool and happy and euphorious and all that, but you somehow feel the climax is slightly off the mark. As a matter of fact, the whole third act felt a bit messy to me, probably because of the lack of a clear Act One Turning Point. I have never had that feeling with a Pixar movie.
I may be completely wrong here and I’ll surely have another close look once the DVD is out. Meanwhile I’d love to hear some other opinions on this one!