Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Meddler #9: Some problems With Flags of Our Fathers

Clint Eastwood is a great filmmaker and Flags of Our Fathers is a fascinating movie, but it never really grips the viewer.

We begin with the preparations for the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima island in 1944. As the battle begins, we start flash-forwarding to the aftermath of the battle, where three members of the invasion force have been dubbed “the heroes of Iwo Jima” because they were in a photo of a flag being raised on the island, seemingly against great adversity. For the rest of the movie, we see more of the original conquest of the island intercut with shots of the “heroes” rolling their eyes on the endless publicity tour that followed. Halfway through, in the island based-story, we see the ironic moment when the flag was actually raised, which turns out to have been a calm, utterly un-heroic moment of downtime between battles.It’s not that Flags of Our Fathers totally fails: we do feel the sense of irony that the filmmakers want us to feel, but we also feel patronized and bored, because this movie isn’t about the actions or even the realizations of the characters onscreen, it’s about the point the filmmakers want to make by intercutting the two stories. This focus makes the filmmakers into the heroes, rather than anybody onscreen.

In an essay film like The Atomic CafĂ©, the filmmakers are the heroes, and that’s okay. Each piece of footage is morally inert in and of itself, but the meaning comes from how the filmmakers juxtapose that footage together. When we watch that movie, we root for the filmmakers to successfully expose the cravenness of their targets. But nobody goes to a non-documentary drama to root for the director. We want to root for one of the characters onscreen.

But Eastwood leaves the poor actors helpless and hapless. None of the characters really wants or goes after anything. They don’t act, they just react. Whether they’re on the mountain or on their promotional tour, they’re just passively reacting to orders. On the island, they dutifully attempt to take the hill but you certainly never get the sense that they have any personal ambition or, god forbid, any animosity towards the Japanese.On the promotional tour, they resent the crassness and dishonesty of it, but the only result is a few snide remarks—they don’t do anything to stop or correct the misperception they’re creating. Instead, two of them just go along with it and the other descends into alcoholism until he’s forcibly shipped back to the front. That’s a bummer, but it’s not tragic, because nobody tried to prevent that from happening. Irony is a discrepancy between expectation and outcome. This sad outcome here was pretty much what everyone suspected.Another problem is that the central irony of the movie is made clear in the first ten minutes of the movie, and then the rest of the movie merely illustrates that same irony over and over again. If you’ve got a point to make, then you have to have that point hit unexpectedly, as a result of what we’ve seen onscreen. First you have to create the impression that things are going to turn out the other way, and only then you can ironically reverse those expectations later.Also, way too much time is spent on a pointless subplot about a mix-up regarding which dead man’s butt was in the photo. There’s no bad guy in that subplot, just a misunderstanding, so who cares? And ultimately this bizarre digression undercuts the overall point of the movie. If it was unjust to misidentify one of the men in the photo, that contradicts their larger point that it was silly to single out the men in photo for praise in the first place.

So is there a version of this movie which would have worked better? I’ll try to find it tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #98: ...But Don’t Play Favorites

Yesterday, we talked about the need to have polarized protagonists. The trick is that you have to avoid the goofus and gallant problem, wherein one does everything wrong and the other does everything right, like on The Mentalist, where poor Robin Tunney has to be proven wrong week after week by Simon Baker.

In Star Wars, Luke and Han are bi-polar opposites. So which one are we supposed to like? We don’t choose--we like them both equally. And how could we do otherwise? They represent the split halves of the human psyche, so to denigrate one and elevate the other would be to deny half of our own humanity.On “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, Sokka, Katara and Aang are tri-polar opposites (once again: id, ego, and super-ego, although they sometimes trade those roles back and forth). They all disagree constantly, but the resolution of the plots rarely proves that one was right and the others were wrong. When they get trapped in the Cave of the Two Lovers, each uses his own methods to escape: Aang: “Just like the legend says, we let love lead the way.” Sokka: “Really? We let huge ferocious beasts lead our way.”

When you can create two or more personalities, each of whom has a radically polarized point of view, and yet still allow each point of view to be equally valid, then you’ve made a huge breakthrough. You have discovered the ability to be not just all-powerful but also all-loving, like a good god should be. The dichotomy (or trichotomy) you’ve created will be a perpetual motion machine, churning out honest dilemmas and genuine conflict for as long as your story lasts. 

But if you simply have a goofus and a gallant, your story will be inert, your dilemmas will be no-brainers, and your finale will be a foregone conclusion.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #97: Polarize Your Protagonists...

Another reason not to base your story too strictly on a true story is that you lose your ability to polarize your protagonists. As I discovered here and here, co-protagonists work best if they represent opposite poles (two poles in the case of Bauer and Palmer, three poles in the case of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy).

Is this realistic? No, it isn’t, but it is good storytelling. As I discussed before, relationships onscreen don’t always have to resemble realistic interpersonal drama. They can also reflect our own inter-cranial drama: The debates that go on inside our heads, where we pit extreme points of view against each other. This is why characters tend to be more polarized onscreen than they are in real life. It won’t ring true to our social experience, but it will ring true to our internal thought process.

This is an easy rule to implement if you’re writing about people with different backgrounds. The Big Easy is about a cop who gets recruited by a D.A. to take down police corruption. It’s not hard to figure out that the cop should be street-smart and morally loose, while the lawyer will be by-the-book and priggish. Their different professions make their personalities easy to polarize.

L.A. Confidential has a similar story, but this time both protagonists are cops. It doesn’t matter: you get the same dichotomy. One cop is street-smart and morally loose, the other is by-the-book and priggish, despite the fact that he’s a cop. Even if they have the same public identity, you don’t have a story unless you can polarize their personalities.

American Beauty is about an unemployed middle-aged guy married to a real estate saleswoman. Not surprisingly, she is slick and manipulative while he’s earnest and frustrated. But Glengarry Glen Ross is entirely about real estate salesmen. They can’t all be slick and manipulative or there’s no story: we have to contrast them with the one salesman who is (or seems) earnest and frustrated.
But polarized protagonists present another challenge, which we’ll get to tomorrow…

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Underrated Movie #129: Letters From Iwo Jima

Title: Letters from Iwo Jima
Year: 2005
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Screenplay by Iris Yamashita, story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis
Stars: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase

The Story: A brilliant general arrives on Iwo Jima island to prepare it for an American invasion, only to discover that no reinforcements are coming, dooming the mission. Nevertheless, he and his men dig tunnels to prolong the fight for as long as possible, as each deals with the horror of the situation in his own way.

How it Came to be Underrated: When I saw this I thought it was a shoo-in for best picture, and it was nominated, but everybody immediately laughed it off as the no-chance pick of the year. Sure enough, it won nothing. It didn’t help that it was paired with Eastwood’s misconceived companion movie about the American side of the battle, Flags of Our Fathers, which will be the subject of this week’s Meddler.

Why It’s Great:
  1. When writing a historical piece, you have two jobs that you have to do right away: you have to make the familiar strange (to re-orient your audience to the rules of this new setting), then you have to make the strange familiar (to let them know that they can still identify with these people). The script does this beautifully in the first line of Watanabe’s narration as he writes a letter back home: “I am determined to serve and give my life for my country (this guy’s not like us, folks). I believe that I have organized everything at home, but I am sorry I wasn’t able to attend to the kitchen floor before I left. (Or is he?)”
  2. This is a classic split-protagonist movie: We have one bold, honorable hero who acts the way we wish we would act, and then we have a scared, easygoing hero who acts the way we’re sure we actually would. In the bad version, the moviemakers arrange the events so as to make it clear to which guy is right and which guy is wrong. (See: Saving Private Ryan) Eastwood lets the audience decide.
  3. We see one of their commanders callously tell his men to shoot at the American medics first, then in the next moment we see faceless American bombers kill the camp’s beloved horse. Done poorly, this sort of juxtaposition causes the audience to check out and say “What do I care who wins?” But done well, it sends us on an emotional rollercoaster. In scene after scene, Eastwood masterfully jerks our sympathies back and forth, and it’s thrilling.
  4. One of the many problems with Flag of Our Fathers was that it was hampered by the participation of the men involved and their families, denying the moviemakers the necessary ability to manipulate personalities and events so as to better serve the story. The deaths of almost all the Japanese liberated this to become a real story, not just a hagiography.
  5. Another problem facing Flags of Our Father was that it was about honorable guys fighting in a righteous cause and winning. It tried several tricks to generate irony, but it never could overcome that fundamentally unironic set up. On the other hand, nothing is more ironic than the sight of men fighting honorably for a dishonorable cause, which is the engine that gives this movie its tremendous power.
  6. Eastwood got his start playing an American antihero for an Italian director who didn’t understand a word he said, but still found a way to show us a vision of our own West that was more honest in its moral ambiguity than most of our own Westerns. It is only fitting that his greatest achievement as a director is in a language he himself does not speak, finding in our enemies’ story a universal tragedy that transcends nationality.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Eastwood learned his clean, honest, no-nonsense style of directing from his mentor Don Siegel. Two underrated movies they made together are The Beguiled and Two Mules for Sister Sarah.

How Available Is It?: There’s a nice two-disc special edition with several documentaries.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The American Crusader!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 12: True Stories Are Bought From Self-Interested Hustlers

I recently spent some time talking about how hard it is to pair the right hero with the right concept. The hero needs to have a volatile relationship to the story. They have to be able to transform the story and the story has to be able to transform them. They need to have the power to resolve the dilemma. They need to be the only one who can solve the problem.

This is true for fictional stories and even more true for docudramas. One question they asked us all the time in film school is “whose story is it?” But when it comes to docudramas, Hollywood has gotten too lazy to figure out the best answer to that question. Instead they wait until a hustler comes knocking on their door trying to sell his own “life rights”. If the pitch is good enough, Hollywood bites, without ever asking is this person is actually the real hero of this story.

The hard-fought efforts to mount the Woodstock festival (and the unsuccessful efforts to control what it became) could make for a great story. The story of the local non-rock-fan slacker who briefly tried and failed to rent his farm to the organizers? That’s not a good story. But that’s the guy who sold his life rights. Once again, the poor marketers discovered that they could have sold “the Woodstock story”, but they couldn’t sell Taking Woodstock, which was “sort of the Woodstock story, but… not really.”Another example: I liked Breach a lot. It’s an underrated movie, due to Chris Cooper’s amazing performance as real-life traitor Robert Hanssen. But it has the wrong hero. The FBI agent Ryan Phillipe plays was brought in at the last minute to gather some additional evidence, after Hanssen had already been exposed. In real life, he did so without ever confronting Hanssen, then instantly quit to sell his story to Hollywood. Nobody would have picked this guy to be the hero of this story, if he hadn’t brought in the pitch.At least those two were about movie-worthy events. Even sillier are those movies that have no business being made, but some enterprising hustler convinced Hollywood that their story “had to be told”! Remember that guy who spent twenty years suing the car companies, claiming that he had invented variable-speed windshield wipers? Probably not. He eventually got a pay-off, then got another pay-off from Hollywood, when he suckered them into making a bio-pic about him called Flash of Genius. Nobody cared.

One of the reasons The Social Network and The King’s Speech worked so well is that they were not based on books written by the actual people involved, all of whom would have had a vested interest in warping reality into a too-tidy narrative.

The best recent example of how to do it right was Milk. The screenwriter simply decided that this story ought to be told, so he did the research himself. He didn’t buy anybody’s life rights, as far as I know. The surviving participants just shared their memories because they agreed that this was a worthwhile project. The hero of the movie was the actual hero of the story: Harvey Milk.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 11: Movies Apologize For Themselves

Too many movies these days apologize for what they are. I think this has something to do with the New Yorker Caption Contest Paradox: development people are tired of hearing straightforward pitches that actually try to capture the appeal of the property. As soon as they hear about a “edgy new take” on a property they own, they wake up from their stupor. Finally! This isn’t your father’s [franchise name]! This one’s hip! 

There’s just one problem. Moviegoers aren’t hip. We’re square. When we order a steak, we don’t want to find that it’s been stuffed with wasabi sauce. We just want a steak. Ironically, this is one area where developers disagree with their own marketing people, and marketing, for once, is firmly on the side of the audience.
Disney recently made the wise decision to cancel their upcoming big-budget relaunch of The Lone Ranger, and I’m sure that the marketing department helped to put a stop to it. The last thing they wanted to have to say was: “Listen up, America, it’s the Lone Ranger! He’s a cowboy who’s been framed for a crime so he wears a mask! But it’s not really about him, it’s about his Indian sidekick Tonto! But don’t worry, Tonto is played by a white guy! Oh, and did we mention that they’re fighting werewolves?? Awesome!”

It’s hard enough to remind people who the Lone Ranger was. It doesn’t actually help to say “It’s the Lone Ranger, but…” A “but” never helps any marketing message.

There was a revealing quote from Jerry Bruckheimer about his 2004 version of King Arthur. He said that they had developed the movie on the assumption that audiences could only show up if they had a new twist on the old story (This time it’s grim, grimy and pseudo-celtic!) To his surprise, in the test screenings, the feedback he got was that people were disappointed it wasn’t a straight up Camelot movie. He had a flop on his hands.The recent reboot of Sherlock Holmes was originally pitched as an “edgy twist” version, but once it came out, they found that it seemed to be popular despite the edgy stuff, not because of it. Audiences responded positively to the classic characters and tolerated the supernatural/steampunk elements. The studio told them that they could have a sequel if it was more down to earth and stuck to the original stories more. It turns out that people go to a Sherlock Holmes movie because they want to embrace the concept, not reject it.
I knew Thor would be a hit when I saw this poster. If you’re making a Thor movie the concept is four words long: “The God of Thunder.” Either people say “Hell yeah!” or they don’t. In this case, the movie itself actually did have a twist on the concept (nudging it from mythology into science fiction), but they were smart enough not to promote it that way.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 10: Technical Innovation Doesn’t Require New Technology

After reading my last four entries, you may be thinking “Gee why are you so opposed to technical innovation? Do you think that movies should be stuck in the silent era? Did you sign the Dogme 95 manifesto? Not at all--I love technical innovation. Unfortunately, most innovations that strive to make movies more believable end up having the opposite effect: the resulting movies only seem more artificial. But there are those rare leaps forward that genuinely improve the movie-going experience.I, too, hate to watch old movies with “day for night” shooting, and I’m ecstatic that we now have better ways to create that effect. Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia were considered technologically cutting-edge movies in their day, but the long day-for-night sequences in each are painful to watch. Thankfully, those scenes could have been done better today with digital-sky-replacement and other tools.

But moviemakers over-rely on new tools and end up trying to fix things that were never broken. Instead, if they really want to better emulate the real world, it would be more effective to simply find clever new ways to utilize pre-existing technology.

In Wallace Terry’s classic oral history of black Vietnam veterans, Bloods, one veteran complains about the unrealistic portrayal of war in the movies, which had not prepared him for the terrible reality of battle. He points out one thing that movies always get wrong is the sound of being shot at. When you fire a gun, you hear a rapidly-decreasing doppler effect: the classic “pew-pew” of imaginary schoolyard gunfights. This is the sound of the bullet speeding away from you.

But when you’re being shot at, you actually hear the opposite sound. A rapidly-increasing doppler effect: “vvvip-vvvip!” Instinctively, that’s a lot scarier sound to hear. It is literally the sound of tension being ratcheted up. Unfortunately, since most sound effects men had never been shot at, they tended to use the same sound effect whether the hero was on the giving or the receiving end of the bullets.

A few years after I read that, I smiled when I realized I wasn’t the only one who had heard this complaint. Everyone was astounded by the terrifying realism and immediacy of the first reel of Saving Private Ryan. Sure, they used Surround Sound, and digital processing, but the sound mixer also used some smarts: this was the first movie in which we heard the sounds of approaching bullets accurately, and I’m convinced that this had a lot to do with the unprecedented visceral impact that this sequence had on its audience.

Visual and sound effect designers have always felt a responsibility to find new ways to more faithfully re-create reality onscreen. Rather than over-rely on new technology, I wish that they would simply open their eyes and ears more to those differences between reality and cinematic convention that could be eliminated with the tools at hand.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 9: Art Requires Distance

Yesterday we talked about how 3-D and Surround Sound short-circuit our identification with the character, but the problem is actually even worse than that. These processes represent a failure to understand the way that art creates meaning.

Quite intentionally, 3-D and Surround Sound have turned moviegoing into an ordeal. That’s the whole point. The first time I ever noticed Surround Sound was when I saw Forrest Gump in the theater. Forrest went to Vietnam and got shot at, and suddenly bullets were whizzing past his head… and my head.

I didn’t know that Surround Sound even existed, so I was really shocked when I heard bullets whipping past me and landing somewhere behind me. I jumped out of my seat! “Wow,” I thought, “I really feel like I’m in Vietnam!” And my next thought was, “But I don’t want to be in Vietnam! I want to watch a movie about someone in Vietnam!”

I’m going to say something controversial here, but I think it’s true: art cannot be interactive. That’s right, I just said that videogames aren’t art (which often causes flame wars on the internet, but there it is).

Art must be received at a distance to have meaning, because meaning is created in the space between the viewer and the art, both the literal space and the figurative space. We contrast our point of view with the point of view of the art, and that gap teaches us about our own lives. A video game may have a story, but there is no distance between the viewer and that story, so there is no greater meaning, only the thrill of a first-person experience. We learn nothing about our own lives, because we do not contrast our lives with the character’s life.

(For a different perspective, let’s compare video games to painting. When you see a piece of modern art that you hate, you think “That’s not art: I could do that!” The modern critic responds, “Sure you could, but it never would have occurred to you to do it!” Combining those two points of view, we could say that art is either what you can’t do or what you wouldn’t do, for lack of imagination. Either way, art is something greater than yourself and outside yourself. Video games are very intentionally limited to what you can do and would do if placed in that situation.)

3-D and Surround Sound attempt to turn movies into video games. When the bullets land behind us, there’s no space left between the viewer and the screen in which meaning can be created. We’re not considering Forrest’s experience in Vietnam, we’re having our own experience in Vietnam.

Okay, so that’s been four days of me ranting about modern technology. So am I just a luddite? Am I opposed to all technical innovation? Nope. Tomorrow I’ll explain how to do it right...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 8: The Real Problem with 3-D (and Surround Sound)

You hear lots of complaints about 3-D these days: it’s headache-inducing, it’s muddy, it’s dark, it’s not worth the mark-up, etc… and those are all true, but they’ve been discussed in depth elsewhere. I’d like to talk about the fundamental misconception behind the whole idea.

It’s easy to dislike 3-D, because it simply doesn’t work. But I’m a true stick-in-the-mud: I don’t even like Surround Sound. Surround Sound, unlike 3-D, works just fine. It’s unobtrusive and does exactly what it’s supposed to do. But it represents a failure to understand the way we process movies.

Most people, when they go to the movies, don’t want to think about the abstract nature of moviegoing. Movie theorists, however, love to ponder questions like these: What is the relationship of the viewer to the character? The character acts as our figurative “point of view”, leading us through the story, but when the camera actually takes on their literal POV (in movies like Lady in the Lake), the identification process fails. For some reason we identify with a characters “point of view” far more when we look at that person than we do when we look through that characters eyes.

The magic of cinema is that we can look at the hero and with the hero at the same time, ignoring the actual position of the cameraman. Our perspective on the hero and the perspective of the hero merge.

“So what,” you say. You just want to go to the movies, you don’t want to think about theory! Well, neither do I! But processes like 3-D and Surround Sound force us to think about the position of the camera, short-circuiting our ability to identify with the protagonist and killing the magic of the movies. They call attention to the disconnect between our figurative point of view and the camera’s literal point of view.This is most obvious to me in shots like this one from Confession of a Dangerous Mind. Drew Barrymore is listening to sounds made by Sam Rockwell on the other side of the door. The sound mixer puts all the sound on the left, so that we in the audience are hearing it only through our left ear. But Barrymore, facing the door, is going to hear the sound equally in both ears. When we hear it differently than she would, we’re suddenly reminded that we are not the character.

3-D also privileges the point of view of the cameraman, not the character, which forces the viewer to think about which is which, if only on a subconscious level. It may not instantly ruin your movie-going experience, but it is going to cause cognitive dissonance, and that dissonance is going to subtly poison your enjoyment.

But wait, it gets worse: such gimmicks also deny the nature of art! Come back tomorrow...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 7: CGI Ruins Stories, Too

Lots of people argue that CGI has ruined special effects, but what’s less often pointed out is the way it can ruin the work of directors and even screenwriters. Screenwriters tend to live in their heads and forget about physical realities. But it used to be that we couldn’t get away with that for long, because someone was going to have to shoot it and they were going to make us fix it. No longer.

There’s no better example of how disastrous CGI has been for Hollywood than to compare the fourth Indiana Jones movie to the first three. Not only are the effects much weaker in the (far more expensive) fourth movie, but the laziness of the process has poisoned the entire production, all the way up to the script.

To make the first three movies in the series, Spielberg and crew flew all over the world, discovering wild new locations, coming up with neat new tricks on set, and just generally interacting with the landscape. The fourth movie was all shot in a studio in L.A. against a green screen with no sun, no weather, no landscape, no reality. Indy faced no believable physical challenges, because he faced no physics.

The script said our heroes should get into a truck chase through uncleared jungle. So Spielberg told his effects team to make that happen. The result was one of the lamest action sequences ever shot—Any two year-old knows that you can’t have a truck chase through uncleared jungle. Nobody bought it. Just because we see it doesn’t mean we’ll believe it.

If they had actually gone on location to do that chase, what would have happened? The teamsters would have said, “Gee boss, can’t do it, these trucks can’t make it two feet through uncleared jungle.” Spielberg would have said, “Oh, right, I guess we didn’t think that through,” and then they would have all looked around at the landscape and thought up a better way to re-write that sequence. The limits of production would have fixed the script.Ironically, movies have devolved back to the days of the old “Jungle Jim” serials, which were shot entirely on studio sets, without ever setting foot in a real jungle. Once again, everybody wants to just shoot a movie from 9-5 then go home and spend their salaries. They could care less if the result looks like crap (and yet somehow costs more than the GDP of Ireland).

When Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981, it seemed like a very artificial movie, compared to the naturalistic ‘70s movies everyone was used to, but compared to the movies made thirty years later, it now seems like a verite documentary. At least an actual human being was doing actual stuff on actual filmstock.

Next: Can I get even more crotchety? You bet! Up next: 3-D!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 6: The CGI Disaster

When CGI (computer generated imagery) first became convincing, with the one-two punch of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park in the early ‘90s, it seemed like a great leap forward in action/adventure filmmaking. When Braveheart used it a few years later to create fake armies, it seemed like it might save the historical epic, too. Then everything went to hell.

The problem with CGI was that it made not one promise but two: it wanted to make movies both cheaper and better-looking...Spend less, get more. But, as often happens when a business pursues two contradictory goals at the same time, Hollywood got its wires crossed, and somehow the process totally backfired: It soon became, “Spend more, get less.” We now have the first generation of Americans who have come to expect a lower quality of special effects than their parents did. CGI has lowered the bar.

The first generation of CGI creators understood both the promise and the limits of the technology: it could do things that their models couldn’t do, but it couldn’t actually replace the models: T2 and JP were still filled with model work. CGI merely bridged the gaps where the models failed. But as CGI spread, the effects creators soon found actual models more and more annoying: Models made you deal with factors like gravity, light, and physics, while CGI offered the promise of a weightless, shadowless, free-flowing world, where hollow pixels could bounce around the screen at the same speed as the animators’ imagination.

In the original King Kong, the model had to be sturdy and support itself. It wasn’t sprightly. It had to lumber about—like a real ape. In the 2005 remake, Kong was allowed to skate on a frozen pond, swing on vines, even fall off a cliff only to land as light as a feather. And why not? He was clearly hollow: sunlight seemed to pass right through him. He was not an object anymore, he was an effect. The result was laughable. By 2005, we had managed to lose the progress that we had made by 1933.But before the ape even appeared, effects had already killed off any sense of believability. When the crew first disembarks in a small boat to row to the island, we see the CGI boat beating against the CGI waves, and we can see that the effects team added in all sorts of wave-breaking effects using the wave-breaking tool, but the final result bears no resemblance to what a real boat looks like in real water.So wait—I understand why they had to use effects to create a 30-foot tall ape, but why use effects to create a boat rowing to shore? Why not just film an actual boat rowing to an actual shore, which is something that movies have been able to do since the 1800s?

The answer would seem to be “because it’s cheaper,” right? Nope. CGI has inflated budgets to truly gargantuan levels. Unconvincing effects are no cheaper to produce, because a big part of the process is all the endless tinkering. Every effect can be done and redone and redone again. Each re-do jacks up the price, but only makes the effect worse, because they’re just adding artificial layers to artificial layers.

No, there’s a different reason that they didn’t put a real boat in real water: abject laziness. We’ll pick up there tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Ultimate Story Checklist v6!

Welcome to version 6 of The Ultimate Story Checklist!

I’ve used this list to evaluate my favorite stories and my own work. The result: my favorite stories all pass and my own work always fall short. This tells me what I’m doing wrong.

The goal is simple: Try to answer yes as often as possible. Of course, every story is unique and no story that I’ve evaluated has answered yes to all 122 questions, nor should it. Check out the Checklist Roadtests over there in the sidebar, to see how lots of great movies did. If you want to try it yourself, a downloadable version of this list as a word document is available here (link fixed!)

(This list is primarily for stand-alone stories such as
screenplays, novels and plays, but don’t worry, theres a separate “pilot” checklist for the first episode of continuing stories such as TV series, book series, web series, and comics)


The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
 Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?

Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
 Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life?
 Does the story present a unique central relationship?
 Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing? 
 Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Does this challenge become something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?

The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
 Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre? 
  Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?


Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
 Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or out-of-character, or compassionate, or oddball, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?

Care: Do we feel for the hero?
 Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
 Does the hero have one or two untenable great flaws that we empathize with? (but…)

Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
 Is the hero curious?
 Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Does the hero have general rules for living he or she clings to (either stated or implied)?
 Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 …And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?

PART 3: STRUCTURE (assuming that the story is about the solving of a large problem)

1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
 Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?

2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
 Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?

3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
 Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?

4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
 Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 By the time the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed.


The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
 Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?

The Conflict: Is this a compelling collision of competing agendas?  
 Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?

The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
 As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)


Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
 Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say (and doing things they wouldn’t do)?
 Do the characters listen poorly?
 Do the characters interrupt each other often?

Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
 Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?

Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
 Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?

Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
  Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?

  Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?


Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
 Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
 Is the story limited to one sub-genre (or multiple sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors)?
 Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?

Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
 Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story
 Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?


Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
 Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?

Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
 Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Do all of the actions have real consequences?

Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?

Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
 In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some smaller plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?

Whew! So how did your story do? Go check out the Checklist Roadtests to see how some great stories line up.