A Director’s Approach

Following my post on SYRIANA writer/director Stephen Gaghan, I came across an interesting discussion on the necessity of rigorous structuring vs. a more liberal, visual approach to screenwriting.

Jim Mercurio makes the following point about Gaghan’s comments in the notorious CS podcast: “Gaghan’s comments are showing that he is evolving from a screenwriter into a filmmaker. “

With ‘filmmaker’, he undoubtedly means ‘director’ and with his quote he hits the nail on the head. However, Mercurio makes it sound as if this is a natural evolution, when he goes on to explain how his own latest script too is told with transitions. All of a sudden Gaghan is fashionable, and screenwriters are re-inventing Tolstoy. Now let’s not forget the following facts:

1. Tolstoy was a novelist
2. Gaghan is NOT a meanstream screenwriter
3. Transitions do not stand in the way of proper story structuring

What everybody seems to be missing in this discussion is that transitions play on a shot level, or at best on a scene level. Story structure goes way beyond that. Whatever Mercurio may think, a screenplay written solely from transitions will most likely end up in the same tiny niche market as KOYAANISQATSI.

DVD: THE MANN SPEAKS

The same day I stumbled on the discussion above, I heard writer/director Michael Mann’s commentary on the Restored Director’s Cut of MANHUNTER.

Mann’s comments focus mainly on the parallel psychology of the serial murderer and the cop, besides a few killer anecdotes about production nightmares. My favourite: the airplane scene with the little girl freaking out over Will Graham’s bloody crime scene photos. The only way to shoot this was to book the entire film crew on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Orlando without informing the airline of their plans, keeping all equipment as hand luggage. Mid flight suddenly these hundred or so people got out of their seats and started filming. No need to say that Mann could kiss his United air miles goodbye.

But let’s skip to the last few minutes of the commentary in which Michael Mann summarises his approach to filmmaking. “Film is made in the editing room. In the writing and in the director’s preparation you’re planning what you’re gonna do in the editing room.” He then refers to the Russian theory of montage from the 1920’s, which was followed by the Brits in the next decade (and used later to great commercial success by Alfred Hitchcock a.o.).

I don’t want to get too theoretical here, but anybody with a real interest in the effect of montage, should really do some reading on Lev Kuleshov and what is still known as the Kuleshov Effect. Using this, I could easily build a case to prove that transitions are structure. I’ll spare you that one for now. But isn’t it remarkable that seventy years apart, two Russians were telling the world about transitions in their respective art forms?

To conclude: Mercurio is right when he says that Gaghan writes like a filmmaker. Like Michael Mann, he is already thinking of what he will do in the editing room and therefore writes his story from scene transitions rather than starting from an overall dramatic arc. This approach to script writing is indeed in many ways similar to that of Hitchcock or Mann but I am sure those last two went through far less drafts than Gaghan.

BTW: Don’t rush out to get Manhunter from HMV or Amazon.com: unfortunately Mann’s commentary only features on a rare DVD which has been out of print for a while, which limits your options largely to eBay. But as a bonus from OZZYWOOD, you can download the last four minutes of Michael Mann’s director’s commentary here.

LOOSE ENDS: The First Act Monolith

Recently I watched BRUBAKER, not knowing anything about this 1980 drama directed by Stuart Rosenberg. If you haven’t seen the film but are planning to do so in the near future, don’t read on as I will spoil the pleasure (and surprise).

The film strays from the traditional structure mainly because of its offbeat First Act. For the life of me, I could not detect an Inciting Incident, nor any significant protagonist characterisation. Instead we witness from Robert Redford’s detainee character’s POV how the most appalling injustice and brutality is inflicted relentlessly upon the inmates.

Over thirty minutes into the movie, Redford’s character identifies himself as the new warden and announces in the same scene that he wants to force through some serious reform. Finally we have our 1st Act Turning Point. I am still trying to understand why the warden’s identity was kept hidden from the audience all along. Apart from a sudden surprise, it doesn’t add a thing. The use of dramatic irony (i.e.: the audience knows, but the other characters don’t) would have been much more powerful and it would have allowed for the badly needed character development.

Leading US critic Roger Ebert wrote about this film: “There’s no room for the spontaneity of real human personalities caught in real situations. That’s especially annoying with the character of Brubaker himself, played well but within a frustratingly narrow range by Robert Redford. “

Redford’s performance is rock solid given the material. BRUBAKER’s real problem is its flawed structure: half an hour into the movie, we have run out of screentime to sufficiently set up the protagonist’s character and potential internal conflicts. Redford didn’t have anything to work with, which makes Ebert’s comment rather unfair.

What the screenwriters did achieve quite well though, is the setup of antagonists and external obstacles in the way of the protagonist’s objective. Perhaps this explains why the film did work for me.

It still beats me though why BRUBAKER was nominated for Best Screenplay back in 1980. Perhaps it was a fluke. In my view, this theory gains strength when we look at co-writer W.D. Richter’s latest work: STEALTH…

NOT Story

Last year I attended Linda Aronson’s PLOT CONSTRUCTION WORKSHOP and was disappointed with her analysis of Michael Mann’s THE INSIDER. Indirectly that disappointment would lead to the creation of this blog.

Rather than opening a dialogue about why THE INSIDER works for some people and not for others, Linda treated it as an example of a failed script. To her defense: it was only part of that night’s workshop and time constraints didn’t allow her to divert.

THE INSIDER not only put Russell Crowe on the celebrity map with a Best Actor Nomination, the movie was also nominated for another six awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. That’s a pretty good result for a ‘failed script’. As a matter of fact, it smells a bit like my not so smart move to call WOLF CREEK a ‘missed opportunity’ in terms of screenwriting at the offices of Australia’s Film Financing Corporation.

Linda Aronson’s workshops got me thinking and inspired me to the idea of an online forum about issues like this and about story structure in general. Australia doesn’t have a screenwriting culture which recognises the importance of story development as opposed to script development.

We have an abundance of script assessment services happily charging writers hundreds of dollars for a full screenplay assessment without assessing the story’s overall dramatic structure first. Does any established producer / government funding body / Hollywood Studio read a full-length spec script without judging the story outline first? Right.

But enough of this sub plot for now. Back to the main story.

THE INSIDER – SCHINDLER’S LIST

I don’t recall Linda’s argument about THE INSIDER in detail as I have the arrogant habit to shut down when I am not allowed to argue my point. In essence, I believe the bottom line was: the casting of Al Pacino shows that the filmmakers considered his character the protagonist (Russell Crowe was pretty much a nobody on the international scene until that movie) but Pacino’s character is too weak and underdeveloped to carry the movie for its runtime of over two and a half hours.

A lot of movie buffs (including members of the Academy) will agree that THE INSIDER worked, despite its slightly unconventional structure. Linda is right: the script does not follow a straightforward three act plot.

Instead I believe here are two main stories with three acts each, hooked into each other very much like SCHINDLER’S LIST in which we first follow Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who’s objective it is to get as many Jews into the factory as possible. Once we are well into his journey’s second act and over an hour into the film, Schindler (Liam Neeson) witnesses the clearing of the Krakow ghetto which demarcates his first act’s turning point. Now his objective is to get the workers out of the factory and into safety. Think about it: the Schindler character doesn’t really have a strong enough dramatic objective to get the story to that point. But Stern does.

Similarly, in THE INSIDER it is Wigand’s (Russell Crowe) Second Act objective to get his inside information safely to Bergman (Al Pacino), at which point we’re already into Bergman’s Second Act, which is all about getting the information to the public through his television show. Obviously we are now only talking about what Vogler would call the Hero’s Outer Journey, i.e. the ‘visible desire’. But I believe the Inner Journeys of these characters very much follow the same structure.

I would love to hear your view on these (admittedly rudimentary) story analyses. To me these two movies illustrate that:

– it is a myth that a movie should have three acts.
– it is a must that major characters have three acts.

However…

SYRIANA recently scratched a thin layer off my confidence in the traditional three act story structure. For a short while at least. To say that writer/director Stephen Gaghan is not really a slavish follower of the Syd Fields and Robert McKee’s of this world, is a bit of an understatement. Instead he learned from reading Tolstoy’s diaries in which the novelist explains his four main driving principles, the first of which is NOT “story”. Instead, in order of priority Tolstoy lists: Transition, Context, Story and Character.

McKEE vs. TOLSTOY

Clearly, this approach to screenwriting works for Gaghan who won earlier accolades with his script for Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC. Showing structural similarities with the latter film, SYRIANA paints a multi-textured, multi-protagonist tapestry giving us a hint of an insight in the complex issues that govern the world of the oil trade and middle-eastern politics. If you dig it, it’s riveting cinema and you’ll want to watch it again. If you don’t, you certainly have a valid reason for that.

SYRIANA is a brilliant piece of screenwriting but it appeals to the mind rather than the heart. Because of that, I don’t believe this type of political manifesto will mobilise the masses any time soon. Audiences today firstly want to be emotionally moved rather than intellectually engaged.

The above consideration is only an introduction to what I find one of the most entertaining discourses on screenwriting I have recently heard. In a podcast of nearly 90mins, Gaghan talks to CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE about his journey to screenwriting stardom, about his writing process and of course: SYRIANA.

Go to CREATIVE SCREENWRITING to find out how to download this podcast as well as other Q&A’s with the writers of CAPOTE, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE etc. If you can’t find it, send me an email and I might point you to it.

DVD COMMENTARIES

Not a lot of DVD’s come with a commentary that is useful from a story or screenwriting perspective. Hence the excitement when we do find one that sheds a good light on the movie from the writer’s pov.

Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST comes with a commentary track by Hollywood legend Ernest Lehman. And although he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the actual writing process, he reveals a goldmine of facts and anecdotes about his working relationship with Hitch. Ironically, it’s another movie that wasn’t written following the screenwriting text books.

Speaking of which: a great analysis of NORTH BY NORTHWEST can be found in a work that I have been recommending a lot lately: Paul Gulino’s SCREENWRITING – THE SEQUENCE APPROACH. This book offers only about twenty pages of theory, followed by a thorough dramatic analysis of such great and diverse works as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DINER, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and TOY STORY. The basis is the Aristotelian Three Act model, the principles of drama and anticipation as taught by the late Frank Daniel.

LOOSE ENDS (potential spoilers warning)

THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN: Wonderfully crafted feel-gooder. The only problem with this movie is its title. A more appealing label would have drawn even more people to the Box Office and made word of mouth easier. Hopkins is sensational and most side characters go beautifully against cliche. Somebody on IMDb calls it “A Chick Flick for Guys”. So true.

V FOR VENDETTA: When your name is Wachowsky, you don’t have to worry about story structure or character development. As long as you have a strong concept, the fans will queue. I applaude the subversive concept of portraying Guy Fawks as a hero but I wish I could have loved this movie more. The story would have been helped with a more rigorous development of the V / Evey relationship. Also, the Wachowsky’s have the bad habit of leaving their heroes for too long, one of the problems I seem to remember sunk Matrix III.

THE PROPOSITION (DVD): Have a look at it from a story structure point of view. I sincerely enjoyed it until the scene when Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) throws the keys to the jail in the sand. To me this marks the end of the second act, which comes way too early in the movie. It also takes the wind out of the sails of the Stanley / Martha subplot which up until that point had been really nicely developed.

KING KONG (DVD): If you don’t like the 1933 original, you probably won’t like this one either. After all you’re expected to empathise with an ape and his consenting playmate. Despite the groundbreaking and breathtaking visuals in Jackson’s KONG, the real action after The Longest First Act in Human History (that is not counting SCHINDLER’S LIST) starts with a dino stampede which just briefly looks downright clumsy. But I didn’t mind it and the FX only get better towards the movie’s phenomenal finale on top of the Empire State.

In terms of Jackson’s (or rather: Fran Walsh’s) structure and drama skills, I’d like to refer again to a great article in Paul Gulino’s SCREENWRITING – THE SEQUENCE APPROACH in which the author makes a razorsharp analysis of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. It shows weaknesses that have been largely ironed out in the later installments of the trilogy and now also his version of KING KONG.

But I think I love this movie for a different reason. Peter Jackson is one of the very few living directors who can handle a colossal production like this and still retain a fresh, innocent and boyish feel. You forget the years of preparation and the sheer unmanageable machinery involved in getting this on the screen. It’s the type of magic which George Lucas has long lost.