Monday, October 03, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 8: The Sequence Approach (Daniel via Gulino)

The Guru: Frank Daniel, via Paul Joseph Gulino
The Book: Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach
The Year: 1970s / 2004

The History: Frank Daniel was a Czech film producer who emigrated to America in 1969, then taught screenwriting at three of the country’s biggest film schools: AFI, Columbia, and USC. At each school he preached the “sequence approach”. He never published these ideas in a book, but instructors at these schools spread the word. Finally, in 2004, one of his protégées, Paul Joseph Gulino, published a book that summarized Daniel’s approach.
Thing that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: Well, before you read a word, there’s Gulino’s author photo (above), which is exactly what you fear a guru will look like.
Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:
  1. As with most books, the description of the structure is too vague and generic, while the definitions of the jargon are too specific and arbitrary.
  2. In general, this theory gives too much equal weight to each of the eight sequences. There’s no sense of rising action. Unsurprisingly, devotees of this approach tend to write episodic screenplays.
Useful Wisdom:
  1. If you look at what we’ve studied so far (please enlarge!), you’ll notice right away that this one’s significantly different. The sequence camp deserves credit simply for stubbornly resisting the three-act orthodoxy, and reminding screenwriters that there are totally different ways of looking at things.
  2. In sharp contrast to Field, Daniel/Guilino stress that the hero, rather than meandering through the second act while waiting for the climax, should always be trying to solve the problem right away and the only reason that it takes so long is that everything keeps getting turned on its head, which makes sure that the screenplay keeps expanding in scope.
  3. I love the idea presented here that, after the ¾ mark, the “dramatic question is answered” and now the hero starts working against everything they’ve worked for up until that point. This isn’t always true, but once Gulino pointed it out, I realized how often this happens. Basically the hero realizes that he/she’s been building a house of cards and spends the rest of the movie trying to tear it down.
  4. It took me years to figure out that the main difference between the second quarter and third quarter of a screenplay was “the easy way vs. the hard way”. Gulino, unlike Field, does mention this, though he doesn’t emphasize it very much.
  5. I like how Gulino explicitly focuses on the audience’s experience of the story, and the need to build false expectations in order to create irony.


j.s. said...

The number one most useful thing to me about this approach it that it breaks the story into smaller, somewhat discrete, and therefore more approachable units.

I also like the idea, presented in the book, of looking at each sequence as a separate mini-movie with its own protagonist/antagonist/goal which may not necessarily reflect the film's overall hero/villain/objective. This way of thinking about movie stories seems especially relevant when you're dealing with large ensembles, epic scope and/or historical figures, where there might be large chunks of story during which the main character may not be strictly driving the action. (See the book's analysis of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, for instance.)

Thinking about your story in sequences also forces you, when you're writing genre fare, to pony up and deliver the goods -- whether it be action set pieces, horror chills/kills, etc. It's the only structural approach that has the every 8-10 minute rhythm of genre payoffs built into it. Consciously designed this way or not, THE DARK KNIGHT is a pretty good example of what I'm talking about.

I've heard filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino say "All you need to make a movie are eight great scenes." Change that to sequences and he's just about right.

Matt's certainly correct about the potential pitfalls of writing something too episodic. So I'd say it's best to use the sequence approach in tandem with other structural systems that have a clearer line of rising action throughout the larger story.

Or think of it this way: If the other structure gurus are about strategy (the war), then Daniel/Gulino are about tactics (the battles). Do whatever you have to do to win the battles as long as you don't, in so doing, lose the war.

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