Thursday, October 28, 2010

Storyteller's Rulebook #50: The Tyranny of Purity

As I was saying yesterday: once someone makes it big, the danger is that they will think that this proves that everyone who ever gave them a note must have been wrong. “See? You questioned my instincts, but now I’ve been proven right!” It doesn’t always occur to them that they might have made it big because all those note-givers set them straight. This is why so many second albums and second movies and second novels are so terrible. “I don’t have to listen to the haters anymore! I can make the thing I really wanted to make!” Watch out for that guy.

The presumption that bad art could never become good art because of someone else’s notes pervades our whole culture. There is a misperception that art becomes better only if it’s been purified, boiled down to its essence, restored to the artist’s true vision. All sides conspire against admitting that art is sometimes made great by collaboration.

These days, between DVD and legal downloads and bit torrent, almost every movie ever made is finally available for home viewing, even obscure old films from the ‘30s that were never on DVD. But even on the pirate sites, there’s one category of film that is excruciatingly hard to find: the theatrical cuts of movies that subsequently had director’s cuts.

One movie that I actually found underrated when I saw it in the theater was Wolfgang Petersen’s much-maligned Troy. I was going to write it up for this blog, but I discovered that the already overlong movie had swelled up another 40 minutes on DVD, which is just too much Troy, even for me. No problem, I thought, I can still find the original, even if they dont want me to. In these lawless days, nothing can be suppressed anymore… Oh, but it can! I could download true samizdat like the Star Wars Holiday Special in mere seconds, but the theatrical cut of a recent Brad Pitt film has already been lost to history, due to our obsession with purity of vision.

In fact, almost every movie for which I own a “director's cut” DVD (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, JFK, etc...), I now wish that I just owned the original. Those scenes were cut for a reason.

Storyteller's Rulebook #49: The Writer and the Naysayer Should Be Friends

There was a story that made the rounds of the writing blogs recently, thanks to some eager press agent, about a new novelist named James King. The hook was the “inspirational story” of how King was rejected by 54 agents before he found a publisher. Naturally, I’m happy for the guy, and more power to him, but these sorts of press releases always leave out one itsy-bitsy teensy-weensy impossibly-huge detail: Was he revising his manuscript the whole time or not?

It’s no accident that they neglect to ask that question. These stories seek to feed our fantasies that we, too, might be an undiscovered genius. The last thing they want to do is give the impression that art-making is a humbling, collaborative process.
Especially in stories that focus on great authors and their rejection slips, the implication is always that the rejecters were abject fools who failed to see the author’s inherent brilliance, but the author “stuck to his guns” and “refused to listen to the naysayers.” Finally, one brave agent and/or publisher saw the value that everybody else missed, proving that the author had been right all along. 
But isn’t there another possibility? I know that if I had a novel rejected by 10 agents, much less 54, I would start listening eagerly to the naysayers, pumping them for notes and rewriting my text to fit what they had to say. And I assume that that’s just what Mr. King did. Isn’t it possible that agent number 55 didn’t prove the previous 54 wrong? What if he proved them right? I’d bet that their rejections were the kick in the pants that King needed to fix his manuscript. 
Of course, you can’t listen to every note, but they quickly form a critical concensus. As Bob Gale says on the Back to the Future commentary: “If we got a note from only one person, we would assure each other that that was the only person who felt that way. But as soon as we got the same note from two people, we knew that there would be millions who felt that way.”
Updated: A year after I ran this piece, we got this excellent article by Kathryn Stockett about her many attempts to sell “The Help”, which was far more honest about the relationship between rejection and revision:
  •  “By rejection number 45, I was truly neurotic. It was all I could think about—revising the book, making it better, getting an agent, getting it published. I insisted on rewriting the last chapter an hour before I was due at the hospital to give birth to my daughter. I would not go to the hospital until I’d typed The End.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Epilogue

I just broke down some of the hidden reasoning people may have when they say they like or dislike your screenplay. Well, once upon a time, things were simpler. Regular reader Hans noticed this artifact that recently turned up on Boing Boing. Essanay was the short-lived silent film studio where Chaplin made his best shorts. It seems that they were very upfront about what they liked and disliked in a submission. A lot of their checkboxes aren't that dissimilar from my modern version...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Beyond Good vs. Sucky, the Conclusion: Theme

Okay, so now we’ve arrived at the last and least. No one is ever going to say “I hated your script because I hated the theme.” They might complain about the tone, which isn’t the same thing, but the best way to maintain a consistent tone is to know your theme.

I addressed theme recently and mentioned that the best summation of a movie’s theme should take the form of a question, not a statement. A theme is a sphere of discussion. It’s an organizing principle. Is this vague enough for you? Well, that’s fine, because your theme, unlike everything else we’ve covered, is allowed to be vague. Theme is a feeling, not a fact. When they criticize you by saying, “I didn’t know why I should care about anything that happened”, you may have a theme problem.

So what is theme anyway?:

  1. Something to say: Pretty simple. Why did you write it? Why did you choose characters with these problems? Why did you choose this setting? Are these people and places and problems you know something about? Do you have a healthy respect for the complexities of this problem? Is the problem just an obstacle or is it a real conflict? Does the hero have to confront himself or merely confront someone else? Is there a nut buried deep inside your story that you yourself don’t know how to crack? There should be. Shakespeare was the all-time master of theme. He only wrote tragedies about problems that he had no idea how to solve, and we love him for it.
  2. Morally coherent: Not the same thing as “a moral”. Now, obviously, if you read the latest spec screenplays that sell these days (most of which are helpfully posted as pdfs over at ScriptShadow), you’ll notice that this one has pretty much gone out the window. I don’t mean to sound like a crotchety old man, but you don’t need to be a Calvinist to be concerned about the current trend towards nihilism in big-money screenplays. Producers are betting big on an endless torrent of gung-ho hitman movies, despite the fact that America has shown little interest in this trend at the box office. Of course, you can make a great movie about anybody, even a hitman—just ask the French poet laureate of hitmanship, Jean-Pierre Melville. But Melville was not himself a nihilist. He was making movies about nihilism. There’s a wee difference. You need to have a coherent moral position in relation to whatever subject you’re writing about.
  3. The way the world works: Or another way to put it: sophistication. This one is tricky. Obviously if everybody acted the way real people act, then nothing very exciting would happen. You’re allowed to push that line, but your story becomes much stronger if it still somehow reflects the realities of fate and fortune and human nature. This is why they don’t like to hire writers who have undergraduate and graduate degrees in filmmaking: The fear is that they’ll have no sense of how the outside world works.

So that’s a round up of nineteen different qualities that your readers may have in mind when they tell you your script either rocks or sucks. Remember back when you thought this would be an easy job? At this rate, you might as well work.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Beyond Good Vs. Sucky, Part 5: Dialogue

Every year, no matter which movie wins the “Best Editing” Oscar, some chucklhead says “How could you say that that movie was well edited—it was over three hours long!”—as if all an editor did was make movies shorter (and the shorter the better). Likewise with the Best Screenplay Oscar: “How could that movie win best screenplay, the characters all sounded stupid!” Because that’s what writers do: craft flowery dialogue. “Forsooth! I am wounded mightily!”

On the other hand, it’s amazing the degree to which nobody mentions dialogue during the development process. The fact is that dialogue, before it’s in the mouth of an actor, is embarrassing. Nobody critiques your dialogue because nobody feels qualified to discuss it. Only actors care about dialogue. They’re the ones who have to say that crap.

But just in case you end up with that rare producer who cares about dialogue, what are they really talking about?:

  1. Bounce: You’ve got to hit the sweet spot. On the one hand, you can’t allow people to listen to each other too much—each character only wants what they want, but you don’t want them to just talk at each other either. They listen to each other just long enough to bite back. The dialogue needs bounce. Nobody gets to run with the ball—this is hot potato, not football. No speeches. Let them step all over each other. Bounce is the number one way to make a screenplay readable. It’s fun to read dialogue that bounces.
  2. Verisimitude: BUT, people also want dialogue to sound realistic—sort of. Really, they just want it to feel realistic. We want the ring of truth. Leave out the ums and the ahs and the coughs, but pay close attention to the things that people don’t talk about. Re-create the circumlocutions that people use to avoid topics— That’s the sort of quirk that you want to capture. Transcribe actual dialogue and identify the little tricks, traps and euphemisms that people use when they talk—that’s how you give the reader the pleasant buzz of recognition.
  3. Pithiness: You’ll note what not on here: Floweriness or Profundity. Those are no-nos, even if you it means that you get laughed at when you win an Oscar. The closest you’re allowed to get is pithiness, also known as quotability. Little bits of dialogue that pop—that earn a “hell yeah” or an “awww” or a “that’s cold!” Trailer dialogue. Best-movies-of-the-decade-montage dialogue. You can’t try too hard to do this or you’ll fall flat on your face. The best way to get strong dialogue is to have a strong character. The best feeling in the world is when you’re shocked at what comes out of your own character’s mouth.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Part 4: Structure

So we’ve talk about nine different types of qualities that people might be evaluating when they say “I liked it” or “It blows.” Today, let’s talk about another whole bundle of worms: Structure. Most writers loathe structure. It’s the last thing they think about and the hardest thing to learn. On the other hand, you also have writers like me: structure junkies who enjoy breaking down the outline more than writing the finished product. Shun us all you want, society, we have our theories to keep us warm.

What we talk about when we talk about structure:

  1. Beginning, Middle and End: Sounds simple, right? Oh, but it’s not. The hardest thing for many people is figuring out how to start at the beginning and end at the end. As John August said: you don’t have to win the war, you just have to blow up the Death Star. The Iliad ends abruptly a few days before the Trojan horse gambit. What a deleted scene! But Homer had come to sing to us about the wrath of Achilles. And so the poem begins the moment the wrath begins and end the moment the wrath is sated, lopping off the end of the war. Kill your darlings: Serve one story. Begin at the beginning. End at the end.
  2. Escalation: But before your story ends, it’s got to build. The more you focus your story on one problem the more you realize that this one problem has to grow large enough to carry your whole world on its shoulders. They only way to get it there is to escalate like crazy. Throw away the map, take away the safe spaces, and never, ever apologize. The world you’ve created is going to end in two hours, so there’s no reason that it shouldn’t feel like the end of the world.
  3. Set Up and Payoff: Producers love set up and pay off, but writers, directors, and especially actors all secretly loathe it. It’s a lot of work and it’s not very natural to mention something just to set up a reference later, but you know who really loves to see it work? Audiences. Back the Future is the all-time king of the clever pay-off. I counted 32 different facts that get causally mentioned in the first half hour, every one of which gets a super-smart pay-off once Marty is in the past. When it’s done well, it’s sheer delight to watch. Another example: at the end of Aliens, weren’t you glad that you had seen her use that loading contraption before? And when she put it on again, didn’t you say “Aw hell yeah!”
  4. Tautness: And it all adds up to this, the most elusive quality of all. Cut out the fat, make every scene dependent on every other scene, come up with an ending that’s unexpected and yet inevitable… Do whatever you can to earn the most prized compliment in the business: “It’s taut!” The best thing about a taut screenplay? They’re terrified to re-write it for fear of unraveling the neat little bow you’ve tied for them.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Part 3: Story

As I discussed yesterday, your story is the sizzle, and the characters are the steak. This is the sexy part. And it’s the democratic part. Anybody can come up with a good story, and if you’re a good talker you can even get people excited about it. This is why swindlers run “pitch fests” where they invite one and all to pitch their ideas to Hollywood producers. Such shenanigans are based on the concept that an idea does 90% of the job. Unfortunately, the original idea will only provide about 10% of the ultimate quality if the movie ever gets made.

But... a good story idea is the best way open doors all up and down the line. Even big time agents, managers, producers, and studio heads can get seduced by the notion of latching onto a unique idea so clever that the movie just writes itself. They should all know better, but they don’t. So ideas are huge—for getting you in the door. But if you want to stay there, you’d better learn to actually write.

What we talk about when we talk about story:

  1. Hook: A great hook is a simple premise that nobody has done yet but everybody who hears it thinks “why didn’t I think of that??” Wedding crashers? Sold. With two words, it’s already a funny concept—one that you may never have heard of but you can imagine how it would work. You can see the poster in your head and guess half the jokes that will be in the trailer. For better or worse, movies are more and more hook-driven because there are so many chefs in the kitchen. The person you pitch it to has to re-pitch it to twenty other people. Only strong, simple ideas survive that process. Of course, even if you don't have a great hook, you can still tell a great story, but you'll need to cash in a lot of pre-established clout in order to get it made. If your concept isn't the hook then your name has to be the hook.
  2. Size of the Stakes: Some ideas are too big and some aren’t big enough. Sometimes too much is at stake: “We need to defeat evil itself!” Other times, too little is at stake: Shattered Glass is a well-made movie, but the stakes are laughably low-- “You’ve endangered the reputation of a vanity-project magazine that they stopped selling on the newsstands twenty years ago!” As Iago might say: “He who steals that purse steals trash.”
  3. Linearity: You can have as many subplots as you want, but ultimately there needs to be one big story that starts in the first scene and ends in the last scene. Sorry. 99% of good movies made anywhere in the world are about one person’s problem. Why try to squeeze though the 1% gap?
  4. A Steady Stream of Reversals: One problem with hook-driven movies is that they get sold based on one big twist. But then the studio that bought it has to sell it to an audience, and the only way to do that is to repeat the process: reveal the one big twist in the trailer, at which point the movie isn’t worth seeing. Great narratives don’t just turn on a dime, they bend and twist and unravel and snap back together. A good story has five or six great reversals in it, enough so that they don’t all end up in the trailer. See again: Wedding Crashers. They exhausted their hook a half hour in and didn’t have enough reversals to get through the movie. Great trailer though.
Coming back to the original point: Some people will read your whole script but judge you only on the inspiration and not at all on the perspiration. So when they say “It’s great!”, be aware that they might just mean “I can already see the poster!” (And when they say “It sucks!”, they might just mean “Who’s going to want to see a movie about a bunch of coal miners in flyover country?,” no matter how well you told that story.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Part 2: Character

So let’s break down 19 different kinds of quality that every story gets judged on. Every single one of these is the going the very most-est important thing to some reader you encounter somewhere along the line, but totally meaningless to someone else. You have to please them all, if you want a sale.

Let’s start with the most important category: character. (Although there’s a big caveat here: character is the biggest factor that determines whether or not they like your story, but it’s the least important in determining whether or not they read your story. Everyone, from producer down to consumer, selects stories based mostly on plot, but how much they enjoy them is determined by how much they liked the characters.)

But what does the reader mean when they compliment or put down your characters? Remember: they don’t know. They just know if they liked them or not, but they won’t know why. You, with your super-special training, have to ask the right questions to determine which aspect of character creation you either aced or flubbed.

Aspects of Character: (this isn’t every aspect, but these are the top five...)

  1. Sympathy: I talk about this a lot on this blog. It’s important. It’s huge. It’s also something they never mention in film school. (It’s gauche, dontcha know?) Not the same thing as “likability”. Read my Hero Project posts and many more.
  2. Amount of personality: So what’s the difference? This second category isn’t about quality, it’s about quantity. You can send your characters on the most painfully true-to-life journey in the history of fiction, or give them brilliantly incisive wit, or whatever, but it still doesn’t matter if they’re not big enough. Nice or mean, funny or grave, they need to pop. Don’t be afraid to make your character a little over-the-top on the page. A good actor will know to tone it down, and a bad actor will only convey half of the personality you’ve created, so either way, you’ll be covered. Here’s a classic test: read the screenplays without the character names. Can you still tell which character is talking? If not, they need bigger personalities. But keep in mind, the goal is usually to make them big without being overly broad. Indiana Jones has a lot of personality, but he’s still not a broad character.
  3. Uniqueness: “I’ve never met anyone like your character before” isn’t always a compliment. On the other hand, it’s never bad to hear something like: “I’ve met people like this but I’ve never seen one in a movie before.” I’ve known quite a few acid-tongued misanthropic doctors, but I didn’t see a great one onscreen until House. He was totally original but instantly recognizable.
  4. Motivation: This is very, very tough. The audience doesn’t always have to know why every character does everything they do, but you have to know. This is where it’s better to show and don’t tell. I’ve written many posts about it and there will be more to come.
  5. Depth: Very hard to get across on the page. Give the character tough decisions to make and them let surprise us in the end. But don’t let them change quickly—Roll the rock way uphill before you release it. (And don’t mistake murky motivation for character depth—they’re not the same thing!)
Put it all together, and hopefully you’ll end up with a great performance like this:
Dare to dream.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Storyteller's Rulebook: Beyond Good vs. Sucky

So it’s time I came clean: my movie watching time is just gone, man, gone. Through December I’m gonna be pretty damn busy. So how do I keep the blog going? With a lot more of what Lou Grant derisively called “think pieces”. If that doesn’t float your boat, come back in a few weeks. But otherwise...
So you’re finally ready to show off your manuscript. And… And… And… ...they like it! They say “It’s really good!” Your first inclination is to say “Great!” and hang up. Lock that praise away. Put it in the bank. Let it appreciate. But then you call back that other friend you gave it to and ask them what they thought. They hem and haw, but finally they come clean: “I thought it kind of sucked.” Now you want to hang up even quicker, and never call back.

But both conversations are just beginning. The good/bad report is somewhat useful to you. It’s nice to know what overall impression certain individuals are getting from your story at this stage, but it’s not exactly news you can use. And it doesn’t mean very much. Because every reader has different unconscious priorities. Those qualities that ring the “good” bell for them may not be appreciated at all by someone else, and vice versa. If someone is nice enough to read your stuff and let you know what they think, see if you can’t push them a little further and figure out what they really meant by “good” or “sucky”. By my count, there are at least 20 different qualities they may have in mind, divided up into five categories. Yes, folks, it’s time for another list:



Amount of personality










Beginning, Middle and End


Set Up and Payoff







Something to Say

Morally Coherent

Reflects the Way the World Works

This week I’ll define the twenty parts and give some example of movies that succeed and/or failed to deliver on each.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Storyteller's Rulebook #48: The First Rule of Write Club is You Do Not Talk About Write Club

I had an email exchange with a screenwriter I like a lot, Jonathan Auxier, and he had this to say about the Hero Project: “I've heard people argue that analyzing story hinders the creative process; I would argue that it gives a writer the ability to copy things he's seen without just copying things he's seen.”

I certainly agree. I hear people say that one shouldn’t know one’s own process because then one pollutes the purity of one’s own fountain, or something like that. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I don’t feel that way. Understanding the process makes you a better writer, and it should also make you highly suspect of all that “pure” work you were doing before. As Jonathan implies, that wasn’t pure writing, it was pure copying.

All writing has structure, so if you’re not being intentional with your structure, that means that you’re unconsciously regurgitating structures you’ve seen before. And that’s fine. Everybody starts out that way. It’s called pastiche and it’s a legitimate form of storytelling. And it’s painful to abandon that, because it was so cool and mysterious. And often, when you start outlining and getting all intentional about everything, the quality of your writing does indeed go down at first. Like a bowler or an archer, you get worse the more you think about it… until you finally figure it all out, and then you get much better.

When you start outlining, it can feel gross and phony and mechanical. It was so much more fun when you used to say “I don’t know where it comes from! It flows into my pen straight from the music of the spheres.” But that can’t last, for several reasons. First, as I mentioned before, you can’t repeat those results reliably enough to make a living. But really, you can’t even sell the first one that way, because, if you don’t want to know your own process, then it’s really hard to make revisions. You can’t knock out a few walls because you don’t have the blueprints and you can’t tell which walls are load-bearing. But making a sale involves an endless number of revisions. You’re not selling them your story, you’re selling them the right to make your story into their story. They who buy the canvas call the shots.

Some people don’t outline, but those people have to do even more re-writing than everybody else. Save yourself the trouble. I go through several outlines before I write each script. The first is just a list of every cool thing that could possibly happen. Then I figure out who the characters are and make some decisions and compose a reasonable list of scenes with a beginning middle and end. I cut and paste and rearrange those scenes until if feels like a movie. But I still won’t let myself write yet. At this point, my outline is a list of events. X and then Y, and then Z. That’s the “and then” outline. But before I write I have to create the “and so” outline: X and so Y and so Z. Each scene causes the next scene, or at least demands the next scene. Even if I’m cutting between different locations, then each scenes should still be a direct counterpoint to the scene that came before, answering some question that was posited by the cut. Then I’m ready to write. (You can see this process in action in my previous post, by the way, if you look at the two three-point mini-beatsheets I showed.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Talk of the Town

So in case you hadnt figured it out yet, its a low-content week here at Cockeyed Caravan. Oh the plans I had, oh the pile of Netflix movies thats staring me in the face, but its not to be... Instead, this blog has been becoming kind of... like a real blog. I dont want to go too far in that direction, but heres my bloggiest blog post yet, in which I blandly boast about the chi-chi parties Ive been to around Old New Amsterdam...

Some friends of mine had a launch party for the latest issue of their zine, I Love Bad Movies. This one has a piece from yours truly-- Their theme was Visions of the Future so I adapted and expanded my write-up of Demolition Man. We all got together to launch it last night over beers at the great Brooklyn bar Sharlenes. (Okay, full disclosure, I know Sharlene, too, but I can still make an independent judgment about the quality of her bar) If you like reading about movie-love, and I know you do, order yourself a copy of the zine here.

I also discovered that a ludicrously over-the-top party I attended a week or two ago wound up getting write-ups in all sorts of places. And of course there was Old Owl Eyes in the corner, looking on disdainfully at all of the wickedness...
I had heard them singing, each to each, but then I realized that they were singing for the popcorn guy behind me. That’s our hostess on the left, by the way. And okay, here’s another:

This is me, my lovely wife (looking oddly worried, but you can see her having a better time above) and a couple next to us that we didn’t know-- well it turns out that the guy is the massively talented keyboardist Franz Nicolay, recently departed from one of my favorite bands, “The Hold Steady”, so that's pretty cool.

Storyteller's Rulebook #47: Embrace Coitus Interruptus

One time I was helping a fellow student go over the scene-by-scene summary of his screenplay (called a “beatsheet”). It was a family drama, with lots of arguments back and forth. Just scanning down the list, I said, “Well, first of all, you need to cut out beat #8.” Beat #8 was “Everybody apologizes.” In our real families and relationships we apologize all the time. That’s why nothing really exciting happens to us. We defuse emotional situations before they get too big. In real life, love means that you always have to say you’re sorry. If we want to experience big cathartic emotions, we do it vicariously at the movies, where we see what would have happened if we hadn’t apologized.

In movies, people never get to apologize. Not until the very end, anyway. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to be a jerk. You can have a bunch of well-intentioned characters, but the fickle finger of fate intervenes to stop them from saying the right thing to each other. Imagine a beatsheet that looks like this:

  1. Father and daughter have a big fight about whether or not to get her an iphone, with mom caught in the middle.
  2. The next day they all apologize to each other. Maybe they will get that phone.
  3. But the day after that the daughter comes home drunk and they’re right back at it.

You don’t have to cut out beat #2 entirely, but what happens when you let beat #3 step on (and squash) beat #2?

  1. They have a big fight. They slam their doors and don’t talk.
  2. At home the next day the dad decides to relent and goes to the iphone store, but while he’s there, he sees her across the street drinking with her friends.
  3. That night, he confronts her. He finally mentions that he had gone out to get her that phone, but she doesn’t believe it and thinks that he was just spying on her.

Never let up. In movies, things have to go from bad to worse, even if nobody wants them to. It’s not like real life. Nobody gets to apologize. If they want to apologize, interrupt them. Whenever anyone is about to release tension, interrupt them. Is the couple on the date about to kiss? Interrupt them. About to have sex? Pull them apart. You might think that the audience will love you if you give them what they want. Not true. Make them want it and then yank it away.

What’s the real reason for all this coitus interruptus? Why not let your characters act like normal people and give the audience the release they’re looking for? Because if you gave it to them easy, then they wouldn’t want it. Audiences are like everybody else: they only want what they can’t have. This is the secret of foreshadowing. You tease the audience with details about the future, which makes them feel cheated, which makes them demand to know what you’re not telling them. But if you hadn’t teased them, they wouldn’t care in the first place.

Monday, October 11, 2010

All the Unreal Girls

I recently did a post about types of love interests, and warned against the dangers of “default mode”. Well the fine folks at Overthinking It, as their name implies, like to go way more in depth with these things. Here's their massive “Female Character Flowchart”, and their explanation. Dive in and enjoy.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Hero Project #25: Two Villains, Two Heroines, One Good Movie

One final Hero Project essay has spilled over from last week…
Of course, it’s hard to compare the plot twists of different movies made in different times with different concepts. If only there were a way to scientifically study the effect of good or bad plot twists in a pure environment, eliminating all other differences… Oh wait, there is! Here are two movies made the same year with very similar stories. One had an underwhelming twist, but the other pulled it off very neatly. 

2005 saw not one but two movies about confident career women who board overnight flights only to find themselves the target of an international super-criminal. In both cases, he has been watching her for weeks, hoping that, by endangering one of her family members, he can force her to help him with a bomb plot. The part of Goofus in this pairing is played by Flightplan. In this pseudo-remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Jodie Foster goes to sleep on an international flight and wakes up to find that her daughter has disappeared. The one friendly face who helps her out is a flight marshal played by Peter Sarsgaard, but, of course, he turns out to be the bad guy—after she runs around in a panic for a while, he tells everyone one else that she’s a hijacker and they have to pay her off. He doesn’t let her in on the plan, and she doesn’t know that he’s framed her, which keeps too far behind the audience for way too long.
Ultimately, this is another situation like Total Recall, where we discover that all or our hero’s clever actions were totally predicted by the villain, weeks in advance, and everything she’s done has merely fulfilled his plan. But for the life of me I can’t spot the moment in which his plan falls apart. She finally realizes that everybody else is speaking to her as if she’s the terrorist and so she demands that everybody but Sarsgaard get off the plane. This hardly gives her the upper hand, but it seems to baffle him, and while he thinks about it, she whaps him in the head with a fire extinguisher. Then they chase each other around the plane until he dies.
Jodie Foster is hardly the worst possible pick to be the heroine. In fact, she designed the plane, but that knowledge doesn’t seem to be either the cause or the solution to her problem, as far as I could tell. When she should be succeeding due to those special skills, she instead relies on blind luck or predictable reactions. We never know why she was chosen to be the target of this elaborate plot or what unpredictable personality trait allowed her to get out of the trap. And there’s certainly no “Wrong Person to Pick On” moment.
Goofus did everything wrong, but, as usual, Gallant got it right. I’ve already written up Red Eye as an Underrated Movie. As you may recall, Rachel McAdams is a hotel concierge who rushes through an airport while chatting on the phone with her overprotective dad (Brian Cox). Though she’s coy, she slowly gets to know her cute-guy seatmate (Cillian Murphy), who claims to know women so well that he can guess everything she’ll do, which, despite herself, she finds charming… But it soon turns sinister: as soon as they take off, he admits that he’s been watching her for weeks and he’ll have his men kill her dad if she doesn’t call her hotel and help him arrange an assassination.
McAdams tries a number of clever stalling tactics but eventually it all comes down to a final do-or-die moment. All along, he keeps reminding her that he knows everything about her from watching her. But she has a secret. And this secret doesn’t come out of nowhere, either—it sheds new light on everything we’ve seen so far (over-protective father, wariness about flirting)… Her secret is very simple: She’s been the victim of random violence before, and she promised herself that next time she would fight back. That’s it. 

As hidden qualities go, it’s not much, --it’s not like she’s secretly a navy SEAL-- but it’s enough. We see the moment Murphy realizes that he’s misjudged her, that she had something he couldn’t see from afar. This was the wrong person to pick on. It’s a nice moment, because it works on many levels—it’s a plot turn and a character reveal and a theme moment. It foils the villain’s plan but it also refutes his worldview—he has contempt for who she is and what she is (a successful young woman) but he learns the hard way not to make easy assumptions about his targets.
Anybody can become a hero, but they can’t become a hero by doing what anybody would do. They have to succeed because of something unique about them, not just because you put them up in a tree and threw rocks at them.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Hero Project #24: He Knew You Were Going To Do That!

All this week, I’ve been talking about the false allure of a certain type of plot twist—those moments that jack up the conflict and intensify the main character’s motivation, but actually harm the movie by making both the hero and the villain weaker. One version of this twist is a particular pet peeve of mine…

I call it the “everything the hero has done is actually part of the villain’s plan” moment. I mentioned before that I always want to send a shiver of dread up the script-reader’s spine and pull the rug out from my characters with a big reversal. Well there’s no bigger reversal, I’ll admit, and it’s an undeniably chilling moment: All the heroic actions we’ve been cheering for are suddenly undone! Even worse, they’ve all been exactly what the bad guy wanted to happen! All of the clever things that the hero has done turn out to be totally predictable—the villain obviously knew in advance everything the hero was going to do. In fact, they were counting on it!

But these moments are risky. Not only do they weaken the hero, but they’re often very hard to believe. You start thinking back through the movie and trying to imagine how the villain could have guessed the hero’s every move. And they cause another problem as well: if the villain really planned this far in advance and predicted everything, then they must be a super-duper-genius! So how will they ever lose? Their plan so far has been utterly brilliant, so if it falls apart now, it had better be for a very good reason.

And that’s where these moments always fall short. So far the hero has done nothing but blunder into the villain’s elaborate trap. They’ve been ten steps behind. Now they need do something so brilliant that they instantly leap eleven steps ahead. But, inevitably, the hero gets out of it by doing something utterly obvious. The same villain who predicted their every move up until this point fails to realize that they’ll fight back after the big reveal.

I first noticed this problem in Total Recall. Nice guy Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to Mars and winds up leading the mutant revolutionaries against the big bad corporate overlord (Ronny Cox). But at the last moment our hero gets the mutant leader killed and gets himself captured. Then he finds out that his whole revolution was all part of Cox’s plan. Even worse, Cox’s partner was Schwarzenegger himself—he’s actually a bad guy who has had a false heroic personality implanted in his brain in order to infiltrate the good guys! Twist!

Cox successfully set this all up over the course of “a year’s planning” and the heroic version of Schwarzenegger, unaware that he’s actually a bad guy, walked right into the trap! Now all Cox has to do is restore Schwarzenegger’s evil personality. So he straps Schwarzenegger into the “re-evil yourself” machine, kicking and screaming the whole way. Cox cackles for a while and then leaves the room...

What could go wrong now?? What’s the one thing Cox didn’t count on? Well… nothing much. Schwarzenegger keeps struggling and gets his arm free. That’s what goes wrong. Cox guessed his every move a year in advance, but it never occurred to him that Schwarzenegger might try that. Cox just went from world’s smartest villain to world’s dumbest villain in about two minutes!

Okay, this is getting a little long, so we’ll push the big conclusion back to next week. Twist!

The Hero Project #23: Why Do They Fail?

If you want to write a big, exciting story, then you need a big, exciting problem. Your hero isn’t just in a bad situation, he’s in a bad situation from hell. The villain has all the cards! Our beleaguered hero seems to be at his lowest point, but at the last possible moment: victory! Why? What changes? So many times in movies, the villain’s plan falls apart without a good reason.

If your story has a villain who is clearly improvising, then we might forgive them if their plan has some holes. But if your story is about a villain who has spent weeks (or longer) laying a trap for your hero, then we are going to hold them to a higher standard. And if your villain describes their entire plan to the hero, then it should really be foolproof. There has to be a good reason for them to confess everything and we have to understand why they thought that this wouldn’t mess up their plan.

For examples, let’s go back to two thrillers I’ve already picked on before:

In Collateral, hit man Tom Cruise gets driven around by cab driver Jamie Foxx. When one of Cruise’s victims falls out a window onto Foxx’s hood, Cruise has to try to win Foxx over to the dark side. I’ll cut this one some slack because Cruise is clearly improvising. Still, why did he think that Foxx would go along with it? And shouldn’t he have figured out that you don’t want to threaten a guy and then leave him sitting in his cab to think it over?

Training Day is a far more ludicrous example. Bad cop Denzel Washington spends the first half of the movie trying to corrupt a rookie played by Ethan Hawke. Hawke doesn’t go for it. Then Washington reveals his real plan: he wants to frame Hawke for all of his crimes. Okay… why tell him that? It makes for a big dramatic “raise the stakes” scene, sure, but it hardly helps him with his plan. And why is he surprised that Hawke fights back? Wouldn’t anyone? Maybe if Hawke had had a history of corruption himself, and today was the one day he unexpectedly decided to be a good cop… but no. This is a classic example of a plot twist that gives the hero more conflict and more motivation in the short run, but ultimately makes both the villain and the hero look weak.

Both movies lack that “this was the wrong person to pick on” moment. The hero just muddles through. It’s no accident that they both attracted a big-money star to play the villain and a smaller star to play the hero. The villain gets to run rings around the hero until the very end.

Nevertheless, both of those movies were nominated for Oscars, so what do I know? Here’s a movie that wasn’t nominated for an Oscar: the Steven Seagal vehicle Under Siege. Nevertheless this one makes a lot more sense. Tommy Lee Jones has planned his villainy down to the last detail, because he wants to highjack a battleship filled with Navy SEALs! That’s a big goal! Unlike Cruise and Washington, Jones has done his homework and thought of everything. He successfully disarms all the SEALs and locks them up. But there’s one thing he hasn’t counted on: the cook has a secret history. He used to be the toughest commando of them all before he got busted down to the kitchen. It’s understandable why Jones didn’t think of that. It’s his bad luck that he ended up a hero who happened to be the wrong person to pick on.

Tommorow we’ll look at the riskiest way of all to escalate conflict...

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Hero Project #22: The Wrong Person to Pick On

I pick my heroes a lot more carefully than I used to. I now sit down before I start writing and I go through my checklist. I give them a brief chance to stand proud before I start pushing them around. But, as I explained before, their strength leaches away as I write. When they won’t do what I want them to do, I respond by simplifying their motiviation. The easiest way to do that is to make them less proactive and more reactive. And whenever the script hits a dead spot, I amp up the conflict by giving the villain a bigger advantage over the hero. It’s hard to make the villain stronger (they still have to be defeated, after all) so I make the hero weaker. By the end of the first draft, I’m left with a limp noodle for a main character.

Here’s the problem: I never really wanted to make people cheer. Just the opposite: I always want to send a shiver of dread up a reader's spine, or to make them blush with furious indignation at unfair treatment, or to yank the carpet from under their feet with a shocking reversal of fortune. Whether I’m writing a bio-pic or a thriller or a comedy, I love to put my hero and my audience through the wringer.

Making an audience feel is great, but it becomes a problem when all they feel is pity. Nobody ever said: “I just saw a great movie, the hero was totally pitiful! I hope he comes back for a sequel!” The audience wants to invest emotion in a hero, and they only invest if they can expect a satisfying pay-off. To get that investment, you have to write about the person they would pick to be the hero, the person that they would choose to root for.

I had the wrong idea that the best way to amp up the conflict is to maximize the challenge to the hero. But then I figured it out: You’re supposed to maximize the conflict for the villain. This changes everything.

Take Die Hard. A building full of bankers is taken hostage by a terrorist (Hans), but there’s one off-duty cop in the building (John) who has just happens to be there to reconcile with his ex-wife (Holly). Who should we choose for our hero? John doesn’t actually have the maximum amount of conflict, does he? He’s having a bad day, sure, but the bankers are all having a worse day-- They’ve never even fired a gun before! If the goal was to pick a hero with the maximum amount of conflict, why not force one of them to save the day? What if John hadn’t been there visiting Holly that day? What if she had brought her kids to the party instead, and now she was the one person who was free to act? That’s a pretty exciting movie! A forty-something mom in a business suit has to crawl around in airducts and rescue her kids? Maximum conflict! Huge motivation! Lots of dread! Lots of tension!

But in that case, more conflict would have meant less excitement. Here’s the problem: if Bonnie, with no training and no experience, could take out Hans, then we would suspect that anybody could take out Hans. Ironically, we would feel less tension, not more, with every moment she remained free, because this whole plan would start to seem half-baked. After all, Hans knew that the building would be full of bankers. At the very least, his plan should be banker-proof!

The writers didn’t start out by asking “how do we maximize conflict for our hero?” They asked “How do we maximize conflict for our villain?” Hans drives the movie, and the audience secretly loves him, and he has a great plan. But then a terrible thing happens to him. Something he never could have prepared for: our hero. This was another a-ha moment: The hero needs to be the wrong person to pick on. Let’s pick up there tomorrow.