Thursday, September 30, 2010

Oh Well

Well that’s that. The TV season is already over for me.

(Must hide from my audience that I’m still watching the very silly show that killed “Lone Star”, NBC’s “The Event”… Must maintain my carefully crafted image as a New-Yorker-critiquing pseudo-intellectual…)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Storyteller's Rulebook: The Rule of Evidence, Part 2

Yesterday I talked about TV’s current obsession with evidence, but it wasn’t always thus. If this has been the “evidence decade” then the ‘90s was the “talk decade”. At its best this gave us shows like “Homicide”. The third episode of that show, “Three Men and Adena”, written by my old boss Tom Fontana, is possibly the greatest single episode of any American TV show. It’s almost all in one room: two detectives question a creepy old man about (once again) a dead girl. They parry, dodge and thrust, they gain the advantage and then lose it and then gain it again, but they never get anywhere. He doesn’t confess, they have no evidence, and they have to let him go. They never know whether or not he did it and neither do we. All we know is that we’ve seen a great hour of TV.

But “Homicide” had the luxury of playing out consequences over the long term. (Kyle Secor’s character never got over that case.) On episodic shows the talking cure was more problematic. After Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991, fictional policework became synonymous with “getting inside the mind of the killer”. It got to the point that there were two shows on simultaneously in the late ‘90s that both featured detectives who were so good at their job that they could literally know what killers were thinking: “Profiler” and “Millennium”. The rule was simple: the more you verbally sparred with the killer, the closer you got to understanding them, and then breaking them.

It was time for empiricism to make a comeback. When it did, it hit like an atom bomb, starting with “CSI” in 2000. In the first episode, Grissom is collecting evidence and building his case. Someone asks him, “But aren’t you even going to talk to the guy?” Grissom answers, “Why? He’ll just lie to me. The evidence never does.” It made sense. A year later, the new empiricism spread to medical shows with “House”, which copied that exchange almost word for word in its own pilot, except that House was talking about lying patients and trustworthy medical tests.
I don’t want to get overly political here, but it’s hard not to connect these two trends to larger cultural and political phenomena. The ‘90s were the decade of “I feel your pain.” Listening and empathy were our preferred solutions. Then came the polarization of the ‘00s. Both the supporters and the detractors of America’s response to 9/11 had the same motto: “judge deeds, not words,” even though they meant it in opposite ways.

The New Yorker magazine spent most of 2002 trying to drum up a war in Iraq, through a series of neocon editiorials and falsified lead stories that were later debunked. The March 2003 issue marked the long-hoped-for beginning of the war, and it was kind of a victory lap. Along with their report on the “shock and awe” bombing, they ran a nasty hit-piece on one of the war’s naysayers, Noam Chomsky. Breezily dismissive and dripping with contempt, the piece didn’t actually tell us much about Chomsky, but it did reveal a lot about mindset of the magazine’s editors. Here’s the centerpiece of their criticism:
In short, they were infuriated by Chomsky’s insistence on looking only at the result of a bombing, without considering the justifications that the government offered. Why ask the president why he’d bombed the Sudan: he’d just lie. The evidence doesn’t. The New Yorker was baffled by Chomsky’s newfound popularity in the neocon age, but he was just echoing a larger cultural shift. He’s the spiritual cousin of Grissom and House. Of course, it worked the other way as well: the right was equally unwilling to listen to Al Qaeda’s stated reasons for their attack on America. Both sides concluded that the war of words wasn’t fun anymore when real people were dying.
But now we’ve moved into a new era. “CSI” and “House” were bracing and exciting shows when they first appeared and the newfound focus on empirical evidence was a welcome shift, overall, for TV procedurals. But network execs have gotten addicted to the “closure” that evidence brings, and procedurals have gotten stale again. It’s time to rediscover some ambiguity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Storyteller's Rulebook: The Rule of Evidence, Part 1

As I watched a bunch of TV pilots last week, I noticed that one of the big problems that killed the stillborn crime dramas was a continued obsession with evidence at the expense of ambiguity.

Once upon a time, you could have a show like “Law and Order” in which they got their convictions the old fashioned way, without ever “confirming” the truth. They didn’t empirically prove the guilt of the suspects with any one piece of damning evidence—most of the time they never even got the satisfaction of a confession. They presented a theory of the crime to the jury (and the audience) and hoped for a guilty verdict. By the time they got to the third version of “Law and Order”, the producers had lost their faith in trials and the only satisfactory conclusion was a full confession, which provided more closure. Then came the CSI shows, and they showed how much more satisfying it was when you could “scientifically” prove guilt or innocence. I loved the original episodes of CSI, but the problem was that that standard of proof proved so seductive to network execs that they started demanding that it be applied to all shows, even ones where it doesn’t fit—in fact, they seem to demand it especially on shows where it doesn’t fit.

“The Whole Truth” is a great concept for a TV show: what would happen if you intercut Perry Mason with Sam Waterson? We see the same case from the point of view of both the defense and the prosecution. This is a marvelous engine for generating ambiguity and possibly even profundity. When we’re with the prosecutor, the accused should look like a monster and the defense like an oily liar. Through the defense’s eyes, however, we see an innocent person falsely railroaded by an out-of-control police state. We’re used to agreeing with whoever’s show it is, but if we have to alternate we should get a pleasant sort of moral whiplash. Even better if we end up with an unexpected verdict that upsets the pieties of both sides.

But the actual show, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer of CSI fame, runs scared from its own premise. In the pilot, at least, the accused is pretty clearly guilty the whole time, the prosecutor (the great Maura Tierney) is justifiably righteous, and the defense (Rob Morrow) is a blasé weasel who doesn’t really want to get the guy off-- he shrugs when he loses. So much for ambiguity. But where the show really drove me crazy was the tired over-reliance on lock-solid evidence. As is almost always the case on these shows the victim is a highly-sexualized young woman. Her attacker took the crucifix from around her neck. Tierney announces early on, in dialogue that was pretty clearly put in her mouth by Bruckheimer, not the writer, “So the cross is the key to the whole case, whoever has it must be the killer!” As soon as I heard this, I knew that she would never find the cross, but we the audience would see it at the end and know for certain who did it. That’s just the sort of thing they love to set up and pay off.

Another pilot, “Blue Bloods”, wanted to establish that they will debate police tactics on the show, so they simply borrowed the plot, beat by beat, from the pilot of “The Shield”: a young girl is kidnapped, detectives have a ticking clock to get her back, they beat up a suspect to get the info, save the girl, and then debate whether it was worth it. On “The Shield”, this was all a clever trick: they intentionally created the sort of extreme (and extremely unlikely) situation that might “justify” a beating in order to get us thinking that Vic Mackey was a necessary evil, then walloped us by having Mackey murder a fellow cop. They were letting us know that we would never know who to trust on that show.

“Blue Bloods” does the opposite: they bend over backwards to make sure we agree with the abusive detective. Yes, they pause for a little straw man debate about torture, but then they resolve the debate by finding additional evidence that’s “clean”. What evidence? Well it turns out that the victim was yet another catholic schoolgirl with yet another crucifix necklace and once again the killer kept it! On “The Whole Truth” the cross still had the victim’s blood on it. Here the victim’s name was inscribed on the back! That settles that!

This is nothing new. A few years back, there was a great pilot that never aired for a detective show starring Stanley Tucci. The creator, playwright Teresa Rebeck, had been writing for “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” but she got tired of how neatly she had to wrap up each week’s story with a full confession. She wanted to do a “Rockford Files”-type show with Tucci as a morally conflicted whistleblower-cop turned private eye. In the final scene, Tucci confronts the killer and catches him in a lie on tape, collecting enough proof to hand over to the cops. But the network drove her crazy with notes insisting that there be a piece of evidence that Tucci confronted the killer with that visibly proved that he did it. She pointed out that then there was no need to catch the killer in a lie, but they thought that talk was cheap. By the time the network decided not to pick up the pilot, Rebeck was half-glad.

So where does this obsession with evidence come from? I think it has a lot to do with what’s happened in this country over the last 20 years, which I’ll go into tomorrow.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Underrated TV (To Watch Tonight) #15: Lone Star

So I watched a lot of pilots last week. Only two were flat-out bad (Undercovers and Blue Bloods), but most were just good enough that it was frustrating they weren’t better (Boardwalk Empire, The Event, Running Wilde, The Whole Truth, Better With You). There was, however, one great hour of television. Unfortunately, it got such poor ratings that it may be cancelled after tonight. So I thought I would try for once to recommend a show in time to help save it. The creator has an impassioned blog post begging people to watch it tonight and give them the bump they need to survive. I encourage you all to watch the pilot online and check out the second episode live tonight.
Series: Lone Star
Years: Last week and this week and hopefully more weeks
Creator: Kyle Killen, who wrote the pilot
Stars: James Wolk, Adrianne Palicki, Eloise Mumford, Jon Voigt, David Keith
The Concept (a.k.a. Sample Episode a.k.a. Only Episode So Far): Raised by his father to be a conman selling fake oil fields, Wolk turns out to be too soft-hearted for the job: he keeps falling in love with the marks of his cons. He marries two of them in two different towns. In order to save both marriages, he extends one con so that he can pay off the marks from the previous swindle, who were about to get burned.

How it Came to be Underrated: This premiered last week up against two pieces of “event television”: “Dancing With the Stars” and a new megabudget show actually called “The Event.” It got slaughtered.
Why It’s Great:
  1. Wolk is like a young George Clooney crossed with… well, okay, not crossed with anything: he’s just a young George Clooney. Now just imagine that the con man from Ocean’s Eleven had the crisis of conscience from Michael Clayton. Wolk’s got the quality you need to make this show work: he’s seductive.
  2. I was always impressed with the craft of “Friday Night Lights” but I just couldn’t bring myself to care about football. This show borrows some of the people and places and a lot of the naturalism from that show, but in service of a story that is closer in spirit to There Will Be Blood, which is more my speed.
  3. This show got a lot of promotion but the marketing was awful. Here’s the ad:

    This ad says: “Come watch a show about a smarmy cad and the women he tricks into bed.” You would never guess how sympathetic, tragic and compelling the character is (or how sympathetic his wives are, for that matter). The key missing fact is these were intended to be fake quickie marriages but now he is quixotically trying to make real. People loved Sawyer on “Lost”. They should make it clear that this is the same sort of character.
  4. I’m happy to join in the campaign to try to save the show, but I secretly hope to pull a “Southland”: I hope that Fox drops it but it gets enough clout to get picked up by Fox’s artier sister network FX, where this would be a much better fit.
How Available Is It?: The pilot is viewable right now on Fox’s website. The second episode airs tonight in the U.S. at 9/8 central.
But Don’t Take My Word For It: Watch the pilot here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Underrated Movie #93: Love and Death on Long Island

Title: Love and Death on Long Island
Year: 1996
Director: Richard Kwietniowski
Writers: Kwietniowski, based on the novel by Gilbert Adair
Stars: John Hurt, Jason Priestley, Fiona Loewi, Maury Chaykin

The Story: A tweedy English novelist and widower goes to see an E.M. Forster movie but accidentally walks into a theater showing a movie called Hotpants College 2. To his great surprise, the heretofore heterosexual author finds himself instantly smitten with the hunky young teen idol star. His new obsession takes over his whole life until he decides to move to the Hamptons town where the young star lives and lie his way into his life.

How it Came to be Underrated: This got great reviews at the time but Kwietniowski disappeared again afterwards as quickly as he appeared, and his promising debut was mostly forgotten. He finally had a second movie that came out a few years ago, Owning Mahoney, which got pretty good reviews but I haven’t seen it.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Hurt has had a long, great career as a character actor, but this was a rare, wonderful chance for him to finally take the lead and he proves more than up to the task. He’ll probably always be remembered most for his fatal stomachache in Alien, but this is his best screen role.
  2. The central joke here is that De’Ath is merely the last name of Hurt’s character. Let’s say that you’re a British writer. You know that there are people living on your island with the actual last name De’Ath (pronounced Day-Oth). But do you dare name a character that? It’s a bold move. Here it’s used cleverly to falsely foreshadow an unhappy ending that never comes. The title is not just a reference to Death in Venice, but also a pun on how these things usually go. Even in independent film, hell— especially in independent film, repressed gay desire unleashed usually results in a bloody end. In real life, it tends to make people much, much happier.
  3. In order to pursue his absurd quest to befriend his Hollywood crush, Hurt must surmount obstacles that would challenge anyone, but especially a hapless twit like himself. Nevertheless his unacknowledged desire is so strong that he manages to solve them all with ever-increasing cleverness. We the audience come to cheer each of his mini-triumphs. Even the most illogical problems must be solved logically, and that’s always fun to watch.
  4. This is a hard movie to make because the problem is so internal, but Hurt’s benign obsession is dramatized in all sorts of entertaining ways. In order to test his newfound knowledge, he imagines himself on one of those very tough British quiz shows, giving all the answers he’s memorized about his crush from “Teen Beat” type magazines.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Other underrated “late coming out” movies include John Sayles’s Lianna and a Canadian movie called When Night is Falling.

How Available Is It?: It has a bare-bones DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Monster At My Window!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Underrated Movie #92: Metroland

Title: Metroland
Year: 1997
Director: Philip Saville
Writers: Adrian Hodges, based on the novel by Julian Barnes
Stars: Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Lee Ross, Elsa Zylberstein

The Story: In 1977 suburban England a married couple is visited a wild old friend who makes them wonder about their bourgeois choices in life. Soon the husband is flooded with memories of his first girlfriend, in Paris ten years earlier.
How it Came to be Underrated: This was the only feature by a TV director, and it shows-- all of the Paris flashback scenes have a gauzy filter, which is tres annoying, but you get used it. The script and the performances are certainly big-screen-worthy.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Nothing flashy or edgy here, just a simple bittersweet story about growing up and moving on, haunted by regrets. Bale is great in a role that’s far more subdued than his recent work. He was so much older then, he’s younger than that now.
  2. The long Paris flashback that makes up the middle of the movie is its own beautiful coming-of-age mini-movie. His Paris lover, played by Elsa Zylberstein, is so impossibly adorable that we instantly understand why he fell in love and why it could never last. And the sex will make you blush
  3. Whatever happened to Emily Watson? She was in everything for a few years and then disappeared. She always had a lot going on behind her little smiles. She’s great as the passive aggressive wife here. Her husband assures her, “He really likes you, you know.” She responds with withering deadpan sarcasm: “Gosh. I feel somehow validated.”
  4. The movie has a fine score by Mark Knopfler with a great original title track. He even puts “Sultans of Swing”, his own 1977 breakthrough, on the soundtrack, but he’s got the self-awareness to admit that these guys wouldn’t be listening to it: it plays in a suburban café. These people may have sold out but they haven’t gone that soft: they still listen to punk.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The French are the masters of these small stories with big emotions. It’s a great compliment to say that this is reminiscent of Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon.

How Available Is It?: It’s only on Watch Instantly but it’s unfortunately present as ‘Pan and Scan’.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Commuter Widow!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #46: Sometimes You Have To Write Deleted Scenes

I was writing a monster movie: a classic story of a young guy, a young girl, and their friend who turns out to be a supernatural killing machine. All well and good. Then I realized that I was confused about what drives the second half of these movies: Who’s chasing who?
A beast targets you and your date. You discover the danger that it poses to everyone. One way or another, this is going to build into a big satisfying confrontation at the end, but who’s chasing who? The beast wants to kill you, so it’s obviously chasing you—but you’re the only one who knows about this great danger, so even if it stopped chasing you, you’d want to chase it, right?
When I was writing my version, I realized that I didn’t know who should instigate the final fight. It would be easiest for me if the monster remained the driving force the whole time. Otherwise, I would have to motivate a big change in my hero: they would have to shift from reactive to proactive, from victim to victimizer. That sounded like too much work! So, as always, I looked for movies that had tackled this problem in the past to see how they handled it. I thought about The Terminator... As with my script, this was a movie where both sides had a strong motivation to stop the other. So who attacks who at the end? I realized that I couldn’t remember...
So I rented the DVD and re-watched the movie. I saw clearly that the robot was chasing the heroes the whole time.Yes, the heroes want to stop it, and they even take the time to make some explosives, but they wait for the robot to attack.The robot spots them on the highway one night and comes after them.They toss the bombs at him in self-defense.When that fails, they hide out in a random factory.When it finds them there, they use the machinery there to finally kill it.(But at the end there’s a very ironic reveal: this factory was a predecessor to the very company that would one day invent the robots. It’s implied that they would launch this new production line by reverse engineering the robot skeleton the heroes left behind.Holy time travel paradox!) Okay, so that answered my question, right?Yes, you can get away with a creature feature in which the heroes never turn proactive, and just react to the monster the whole time.
But then a funny thing happened: I watched the special features. I discovered that there had been a proactive turn, but it had been cut out. In fact, a lot of plot twists that later wound up in Terminator 2 were re-used from the deleted scenes of the first movie. In the original cut, the good guys realized that they couldn’t just run from the robot forever. They decided to blow up the factory that would one day invent the robots. That’s why they made those bombs. They didn’t ironically wind up in that particular factory—they had gone there intentionally to blow it up! But in the editing room, the filmmakers had decided that this big turn wasn’t coming across strongly and they made a radical decision: Just cut it out. After all, what does it matter? You can have the same final battle without the shift in motivation, just re-cut it as if the robot attacked them. They didn’t even have to do any re-shoots.
So how did this affect my own decision? The final cut had proven that you could make a beloved monster movie without a proactive turn— but those deleted scenes made me wonder… Fans of the movie don’t complain that the heroes never take charge— we love them even though they remain reactive... because the movie is so damn exciting! Who has time to stop and worry about that stuff?
But would that have worked on the page? Screenplays are never as exciting as movies, no matter how action-packed your prose is. We read them slowly and contemplatively and we miss things that aren’t there, like proactive heroes. I realized that they might have been able to sell Terminator: The Movie without the escalation, but they probably never would have sold the screenplay in the first place if they hadn’t written those deleted scenes. I put a proactive escalation into my script, just to be safe.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #45: Kitchens Are Better Than Bedrooms

Kitchens are better than bedrooms. Tennis courts are better than coffeehouses. Semaphore is better than the internet. Do your characters a favor: put objects in their hands!

Independent films love to set scenes in coffeeshops. Coffeeshops are easy to scout, cheap to shoot in, and they lend themselves to long-winded discussions. They’re also death on a movie. If you give your actors five pages of dialogue to deliver in a coffeeshop, you’re screwing them over. If you love them, put them on a tennis court, or digging a ditch, or attending a pastry class. Actors need something to do with their hands.

Giving actors stuff to do accomplishes so much. First of all, it gives them a secondary goal, rather than merely “I need to have a conversation.” This physical goal can become an obstacle to having this conversation, or a reason to get out of there, or an excuse to linger where they’re not wanted, any of which would amplify conflict. It also gives them a way to express their hidden emotions without using voice-inflection every time. The human voice is a crude instrument. It’s hard to say one thing but sound like you secretly mean something else. It’s easier to say one thing with your voice and imply a different feeling with your body language. But bodies don’t have much language when you’re sitting in a coffeeshop. You can’t play with the sugar cubes for that long.

Most importantly, for you the writer, picking an active location allows you eliminate a lot of talk. The characters can use body language instead of dialogue. The tennis scenes in The Squid and the Whale did a great job with this. At the beginning, they’re supposedly one big happy family, but we can tell how they really feel by how aggressively they play tennis. As a result, we needed fewer scenes of “honey, I’m unhappy”. For the same reason, kitchens are better than bedrooms. There’s only one thing to grab onto in a bedroom and you can’t even do that in a PG-13 movie. In the kitchen everybody always has something in their hands: that’s a lot of body language. Bonus: these are frequently dangerous objects. If a character is upset with themselves, they can accidentally cut themselves, so that internal emotion suddenly becomes external. If they’re upset with someone else, they can “accidentally” set them on fire. In a coffeeshop, of course, you can throw a cup of coffee in someone’s face, but that takes a lot of rage. The character has to have a huge emotion and totally own up to it. It has to be on the surface. In a kitchen, you can allow suppressed emotions to express themselves violently in unintentional ways. That allows non-violent people to have violent emotions.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Underrated Movie #92: Scarlet Street

Title: Scarlet Street
Year: 1945
Director: Fritz Lang
Writer: Dudley Nichols, based on the novel “La Chienne” by Georges De La Fouchardiere and Andre Mouezy-Eon
Stars: Edgar G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea

The Story: Robinson is a meek little bank clerk, unhappily married, who wants to be a painter, but he’s always had a problem with perspective. He falls under the spell of a femme fatale who falsely assumes that his odd little paintings are worth big money. Afraid to disillusion her, he has to support her with embezzled money. Things get complicated when her no-good boyfriend discovers that the paintings are worthless, and tries to get rid of them, but then the work belatedly gets discovered by the art world. In both situations, it is Robinson’s lack of perspective that ironically makes him a valuable commodity, for a short while, but it all comes crashing down.

How it Came to be Underrated: Like a lot of movies that have entered the public domain, this was available for years only in truly terrible prints. Only recently did Kino begin to distribute a beautiful restoration. This was the first time I’d seen the restoration and it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. It’s gorgeous and reveals the film to be a masterpiece…

Why It’s Great:

  1. I’m just going to say, this may now be my favorite Fritz Lang movie. Better than Metropolis. Better than M. Better than The Big Heat. I’ll go even further: it may be my favorite film noir! I’ve always loved it but the restored version finally reveals how perfect it really is: The script is ingenious. The performances are heartbreaking. The directing is passionate. This movie interlocks plot and theme and symbolism and character with a microscopic level of clockwork precision.
  2. Joan Bennett is certainly my all-time favorite femme fatale. In many ways, she’s the most pitiless and cruel lover to ever be depicted on the screen. (He begs to paint her portrait, but she forces him to get on his knees and paint her toenails instead, sneering “they’ll be masterpieces.”) But Bennett’s astounding performance grants her a deep pool of vulnerability and, against all odds, sympathy. Her love for her secret sleazebag boyfriend Duryea is so naïve, so overpowering, that the worse she treats Robinson, the more you pity her.
  3. Lang was known for his imperiousness on set and many today dismiss his body of work as overly cruel, but that’s not true at all. Yes, he loved to subject his characters to the worst machinations of fate, but only to show that any degree of suffering or cruelty can be humanized and understood. They say that Bertrand Russell loved mankind but hated actual people. Lang was the opposite: He hated mankind but he could sympathize with every individual person.
  4. Fictional movies about artists always have one huge problem: the art we see onscreen never matches the lofty things we hear people say about it. This time around, Lang, who collected many great painters before they were discovered, actually commissioned beautiful, richly modernistic work from a friend named John Decker. For once it’s nice to see a movie about a fictional artist in which people onscreen praise his work and you can actually agree.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This movie is best remembered for the bizarre stunt it pulled off. Lang used the same cast, playing the same basic roles, to make two entirely different versions of the same story, back to back, in the same year. The second exceeded the first, but the previous one, The Woman in the Window, is also great and well worth seeing.

How Available Is It?: It’s widely available on DVD but make sure that you see the restoration which should have the Kino logo at the beginning. It’s also on Netflix Watch Instantly and looks great there.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: From Park Avenue to the French Riviera!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #44: Leave A Question Unanswered

A classic trick of filmmakers is to have every scene end with a question. “You’re losing in the polls, what do you intend to do about it?” Cut to: the candidate knocks on doors in a sketchy neighborhood. This is a great way to trim out unnecessary dialogue. You don’t need to show someone answering the question and then planning their next move onscreen, just let the cut answer the question. The same trick even works for cross-cutting between different characters. “What else could go wrong?” Cut to—The villain’s underground lair.

But sometimes you can leave a question unanswered—then let it hang over the whole movie. This question then becomes the theme. John August’s blog discussed a while back whether or not writers should think about theme. Many writers don’t like to do it—because they believe that it’s the same as imposing a moral. But a good theme isn’t a statement, it’s a question, one that the audience has to answer for themselves. The easiest way to plant this question in your audience’s head is to have a character ask it aloud and get no answer. The whole movie becomes the belated response.

Election came up in the comments earlier this week and it’s one of my favorite screenplays. At the beginning, Matthew Broderick asks his civics class: “What is the difference between morals and ethics?”, but just then the bell rings and the class runs away before they have to answer the question. Instead, each character is forced to confront this question in much more difficult ways.

At the beginning of Bullets Over Broadway, one character asks something like, “If you could only save one, which would you pull from a burning building: an actual human being or the last remaining copy of the works of Shakespeare?” In this case, the characters do get to discuss it onscreen, but the underlying question --“Is great art worth more than any one life?”-- lingers on and colors every character’s actions.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

See, I'm Not Crazy

It occurs to me that Ive never used this space to sing the praises of one of my favorite screenwriting bloggers, Scott Myers at Go In The Story. Scott posts several times a day with anecdotes, news, links, and his own in-depth analysis of the art of writing. He recently did a piece on the relationship of Joseph Campbells Heros Journey to the work of Carl Jung, which is something Ive been ruminating on a lot myself recently, as you may have noticed. Check out his piece here and you'll see that Im not just making all this up (or if I am then at least I'm not the only one).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #43: Do As They Did, Not As They Say

Getting good advice can be tricky. Most insider advice-givers, even if they’re trying to be helpful, will lie to your face about how to make it in the industry. They don’t want to tell you to do the things they did. Instead they tell you never to make the compromises they made. That’s terrible advice! Of course you need to make those same compromises. Those compromises are the secret of their success!

Are they deliberately trying to sabotage you? Not necessarily. Now that they have enough clout to make what they want to make, they’re trying to achieve something great and daring and totally uncompromised, but first they have to unlearn all the people-pleasing shortcuts they used earlier in their career. They genuinely think: “Oh, if only I had never learned those shortcuts, then I wouldn’t have to unlearn them now!” So they tell you to never stray from the one true path of art for art’s sake. Of course, if you follow that advice, you will never make it as far as they did.

Compromise is usually an artist’s friend-- and clout can be deadly. Most writers and directors benefit from a strong producer who can keep them from becoming self-indulgent. Only great artists can keep making strong work even after they no longer have to compromise—these are the artists that truly love their audiences. They aren’t just waiting to get the chance to show the folks at home the kind of story they should like. The great Claude Chabrol, who just passed away, never broke his contract with audiences— for 50 years, without ever straying far from the thriller genre that made him famous, he still managed to made films that were personal, political, and profound.

When someone tells you “Never make the compromises I made,” don’t let them sabotage you. Smile politely, and then ask “Okay, now tell me how you made those compromises, so that I’ll know not to make them myself.” Because that’s the stuff you need to hear. You want to do as they did, not as they say.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Underrated Movie #91: Pulp

Title: Pulp
Year: 1972
Writer, Director: Mike Hodges
Stars: Michael Caine, Mickey Rooney, Lionel Stander, Lizabeth Scott, Al Lettieri

The Story: A blasé pulp novelist is hired to ghost-write the memoir of a mobbed-up Hollywood star in exile, who claims that people want to kill him. Nobody believes him, but then bodies start to pile up.
How it Came to be Underrated: After the success of ultra-gritty neo-noir Get Carter, the writer/director, the star and the producer reunited to make this nutty follow-up, which bitterly disappointed their fans. It still hasn’t found its audience.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Both this and Get Carter have the general outline of crime stories, but that’s all they have in common. The grim seriousness of the previous movie was replaced with absurdist humor this time around. It’s an utterly bizarre movie, and you either go with it or you don’t, but I love it.
  2. Caine totally skewers the grim and gritty image he earned in that movie, choosing this time to play a self-deprecating coward that only pretends to be a tough guy when it suits him. It was Caine’s way of letting the world know that, however much they wanted him to be a leading man, he would always be a character actor at heart.
  3. This was one of the few great roles that Rooney got late in his career. After finding huge stardom as a teen matinee star, Rooney became, all of a sudden, rather unattractive, but he never seemed to let it get him down. Whenever they let him back on screen, he happily used his newly-goofy looks to his advantage, specializing in raging buffoons and little Napoleons.
  4. It’s an ongoing debate—can a film have an unreliable narrator? Or is the camera inherently trustworthy? The Usual Suspects often comes up, but that movie is explicitly in the form of a story, with objective book-ends. This movie is entirely suspect—we begin as some stenos transcribe Caine’s lurid pulp novel, then he introduces himself and describes himself in the same exaggerated tone. Throughout, disinterested girls will suddenly hit on Caine, using the same purple prose that Caine prefers, as if he started re-writing their dialogue. We really don’t believe anything we see on screen 100%-- it’s obvious that Caine’s character has re-written the whole story he’s telling to favor himself.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Hodges was not able to re-create the success of Get Carter for thirty years, when he finally scored with another tough little noir called Croupier, which helped make a star of Clive Owen. You can’t blame this movie for the whole drought, however, he really wrecked his career with the truly terrible Flash Gordon.

How Available Is It?: It has a bare-bones DVD

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Baffling, Breathless Crime Novelette!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Hero Project #19: The Ultimate Question

Yesterday, I listed 25 questions you should be able to answer about your hero before you start them on their journey. But it all boils down to the biggest question of them all: Why him? Why her? Why is this person the hero of your story? Because they’re the best? Because they’re the most interesting? Because they have the most unique point of view? Do you even know? What you must know is this: You’re going to have a very hard time getting your audience to care about a hero unless they’re more extraordinary than their surroundings.

But this brings up another important question: what about all those people who don’t make it into the superlative section of the yearbook? Don’t they deserve to have their stories told? Why aren’t we allowed to write about them? 

Yes, they deserve to have their stories told, too. But you have to understand that it makes the writer’s job a whole lot harder. Audiences are hard-wired to care about extraordinary, proactive people who try to solve their problems in unique ways. And they’re hard-wired not to care about ordinary, passive people who succumb to their problems in generic ways. (You know: people like you and me). Are you good enough to overcome those prejudices?
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis is one of my favorite novels. It was a daring and revolutionary book in many ways, but it didn’t break the cardinal rule. In the hick town of Gopher Prarie, the one person we are most likely to care about is Carol Milford. She’s far from perfect, but she’s the smartest, the most sophisticated and the most compassionate person in town. Nobody every wonders “Why did Lewis choose her to be the heroine?”

But after the massive popular and critical success of Main Street, Lewis wrote another great novel that was similar in tone, but wildly more ambitious. Babbitt is the story of George F. Babbitt, a typical small-city businessman mired in the petty pursuit of Chamber of Commerce boosterism. Unlike Carol, George is a chump. And there is no point-of-view character who might allow us to examine him from afar. There’s nobody else to root for. Lewis asks us to care about George, even though there’s no good answer to the big question: “Why him?”. After Main Street, Lewis knew he was good, and he set out to determine how good: could he make people care about a bland little man? The answer was a big yes—the book was another hit with the public and the critics, and the character is so well-remembered that his name has become a word in the dictionary. But…few people love George, or Babbitt, they same way that they love Carol and Main Street.
Not everyone in life can be a hero. And not every story needs to be about a hero. But it’s hard enough to get audiences to care about anybody. Even if they’re a somebody. And it’s especially hard if they’re a nobody. You’re stepping into the boxing ring with one hand tied behind your back. If you’ve been the champ for a few years, and ordinary challenges bore you, maybe you can be courageous and try it. But if you’re not the champ, be prepared to wake up on the canvas, asking “what happened?”

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Hero Project #18: The Cockeyed Character Creation Checklist

On Friday, I listed six things you need to establish right away about your hero, but now let’s expand that to 25 things that you need to show (or at least know) about each lead character over the course of the whole script:
How well do you really know your man/lady/evil-creature-of-the-night? Find out before you commit—Don’t waste your precious time on another unlovable loser. Surprise them tonight with our first-ever CC quiz and figure out for sure if you’ve got a champ or a chump: If you can answer less then fifteen then you’ve got a dud. 15-20? They might be a fixer-upper. Over 20? They’re in it to win it!

  1. Age: You have to list this for every character, along with…
  2. The one-line description: Often in the pithy form of “the sort of person who…”
  3. Who might play them: Don’t put this on paper, but it’s vital that you have a general sense of this. (And if someone considers buying it, this is the first question they’ll ask you.)
  4. General role in the story: Are they the Hero, Villain, Love Interest, or Friend?
  5. Within this role, what is their type: As we’ve been discussing.
  6. Moment the audience decides to trust them or loathe them: You must know this. Don’t be ashamed to do your biggest and toughest job-- make the audience care.
  7. Stated Goal: What they say they’re after. (for instance: justice)
  8. Secret Goal: What they want out of it that they’re not telling anybody. (for instance: the love interest)
  9. Emotional Arc: How many emotional states do they pass through along the way?
  10. Profession: Yes, you always need to know this. Even if they find themselves being chased by a mad gunman on page 2 and never go to work.
  11. Where they work: Where is it and what’s it like and what are the hours? Of course, you don’t have to tell the audience all of this. Know more than you show.
  12. How they talk: This is the hardest thing to know in advance. When I prepare to write a new character, I always fear that they will never “talk” to me. Sometimes I have them talk like a friend of mine. Sometimes like a famous person. To a certain extent, their language will be determined by their job. One thing I like to do before I begin a script is to read a memoir by someone in that profession so that I’ll internalize the language. Obviously, however, that can’t be the only factor, because when we see them at work, they can’t talk like everybody else.
  13. Physical habits: Many scripts don’t list these, and the actors love to make them up themselves, but sometimes it’s good to actually put it on the page. For one thing, if you use more body language you can use less dialogue.
  14. Hobby: Not always mentioned, but good to know.
  15. Totem object: As discussed.
  16. Badass-ery, special skills: Likewise.
  17. Vulnerability, ordinariness: Maintain that badass/vulnerability ratio!
  18. Secret they’re keeping: No matter what kind of movie it is, this can add a lot. Secrets make it a whole lot easier to add subtext to dialogue.
  19. Secret being kept from them about their past: Which is sometimes, but not always, the same thing as:
  20. Biggest shock coming: Whether they’re the hero of villain, everything shouldn’t go according to their plan. Make them improvise!
  21. When the audience will really worry about the character: Hint: it can’t be the first scene. This is when you cash in the trust that you’ve built up. Just when you’ve gotten the audience to let down their defenses, stick a knife in them and twist it. They’ll love you for it.
  22. How their first action foreshadows their action for the rest of the script: This is always a great trick when you can pull it off.
  23. Moral center: What is the thing they just won’t do? This is an especially good way to define a villain.
  24. Their philosophy: An actual line of dialogue that sums up how they think about the world. Every character has a philosophy, whether they know it or not.
  25. Danger zone: Is there any reason that the audience may not react to this character the way that you want them to? Some reason they might not find your hero sympathetic? Or might be underwhelmed by your villain? Be aware of the uphill battles that you’ll have to fight to make this particular story work.