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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Humans of New York Week: Out of Character Intros

I’m still working on long-term stuff, but in the meantime I figured we could do another week pulling from the “Humans of New York” site. As I said last time, I am endlessly amazed at the ability of Brandon Stanton to do quick interviews, elicit interesting details, and then find the one that instantly humanizes his subjects. This is very similar to the job of a fiction writer, so let’s look at how he does it and how it’s applicable to our work.

Let’s start with some “always likeable” moments. One of his best tricks is to look for an instantly “out of character” detail.  We all make snap judgements, and then we love to have those presumptions upended. So here we have a Marine getting dragged around by his toddler daughter:
Young people who talk like they’re old:
Or vice versa:
This one only seems likable because of how he’s dressed. What a confident (and oddball) guy to casually humble-brag about this to a stranger:
When we meet a character, we instantly put up our guard: Is this going to just be a “type”? Will he be just what he seems, or worth paying attention to? As soon as you can set up and upend an expectation, we put down our dukes and take an interest.

Next: Nailing the one-line backstory

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Under Construction

Hi guys, I’m working on some longer-term blog stuff, so give me a bit.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

TV Checklist Updates!

So I’ve updated all of the older v2 TV checklists to the current v3! Check them out to see lots of new answers and relive the oldies but goodies:
I’m feeling pretty good about our TV checklists. We have 12 shows: 3 hip dramas, 3 unhip dramas, 3 hip sitcoms and 3 unhip sitcoms! If I add one more movie now, we’ll have 24 movies to match our 12 TV shows, so we may be wrapping up this whole phase of the blog soon! What’s to come after? Just you wait!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The One Great Character Intro Scene

As I mentioned last time, Michael Lewis creates great characters from real-life material. He interviews his subjects at length, interviews their friends and family, collects piles of information, then culls that down to ten great “formative anecdotes” about each one. Each of these is pithy, ironic, funny, and a little sour. Let’s look at the book of “The Big Short” at some of the formative anecdotes of Steve Eisman (who was renamed Mark Baum in the movie)
  • He considered going to Yeshiva just so that he could poke holes in the Talmud.
  • The main “charity” he supports is one that helps people flee Hasidic life.
  • He leaves his high-stakes job every Wednesday afternoon to be there when the new comic books come in a Midtown comics, and he’s obsessed over the parallels between his life and Spider-Man’s.
Now let’s look at the job of the screenplay adapters. Screenwriters don’t have the luxury of ten background anecdotes: We have to select just one to do the whole job in one surgical strike. Which one do we choose? Of the ones listed above, the first two (though great) might be considered “too Jewish”, but it must have been tempting to include the third. Ultimately, however, it’s not ideal. Out of character moments are great, but in a movie with this many characters, where you only have time for one intro scene, it’s better to use one where he remains in character. The one they chose, which is right out of Lewis’s book, is brilliant:
  • The Scene: At a therapy group for Wall Street types, a sad broker is telling a painful story, when Baum breezes in, ignores him, rants angrily about a colleague screwing over the poor, realizes he’s acting inappropriately, tries to listen for one second, fails, then gets confronted about his own tragedy, refuses to talk about it, then takes a cell call and breezes back out with a “Bye, folks”.
This is the ultimate surgical strike: We breeze through the checklist in two entertaining minutes: language, attitude, flaw, strength, philosophy. Instead of the “out of character” moment of humanity, we get one that is funny, oddball, compassionate to victims of his profession (though not to those around him), and comically vain, which is just as good. It was brilliant of Lewis to dig up and identify this anecdote as worth including, and it was great work of the adapters to choose it as an ideal intro scene.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Give Them a Big Hole to Fill

How do you make heroes sympathetic when they’re well-off and getting much wealthier? This is a problem in movies like The Big Short, as well as and shows like “Mad Men” and the later seasons of “Breaking Bad”.

A writer’s first instinct is always the same: Make them nicer. It’s okay that this guy is getting filthy rich, because he saves cats! But the audience will reject this outright. Nobody is nice enough to deserve a million dollars, much less a billion (as the real guys netted). In fact, it drives me crazy when a movie implies that someone “earned” a million dollar check by doing the right thing, in movies such as Erin Brockovich.

No, you need another trick. As always, you need to show that they “need” the money. When we discussed “Breaking Bad”, we looked at how they solved the problem
  • His real reason was that, long ago, he got kicked-out of a start-up company that made its other founders into billionaires. Now it all made sense: what kind of man isn’t content to be a millionaire? One who feels that he was cheated out of billions, and that the billionaires who did it are still mocking him.
The Big Short doesn’t resort to this trick, but it does a more generalized version of it: One way to justify greed is to give your “heroes” a big hole to fill. In this movie, one of the three sets of heroes is just motivated by money, but they’re sort of the comic relief. The two big heroes are “Mark Baum” and Michael Burry.

Mark Baum in the movie’s pseudonym for Steve Eisman. Out of respect for his privacy (he is, after all, a billionaire now) they renamed him and also fictionalized the nature of his great tragedy: In real life, his baby son died in an accident with the nanny, but in the movie they changed that into a brother who committed suicide.

Why create a new tragedy to replace the old (especially when every other aspect of Eisman’s life and personality is very much not-fictionalized)? Because the character needs a big hole to fill. He can’t forgive himself for not being there for his brother (aka son) and he’s transmuted that self-loathing into a loathing of his own profession, and now he’s determined to find an outlet for his rage: betting against everyone around him. Since the loathing is bottomless, his need is bottomless, and so we manage to sympathize with him even as he collects wealth that is bottomless.

Of course, this is even more true of Michael Burry, who has a literal hole to fill: an empty eye socket, left over from childhood cancer. Burry (who let them use his real name) blames this for all of his problems in life that have left him unable to communicate with anyone, hiding from the world in small office, surrounded by number that only he can understand, listening to heavy metal on large earphones. As it turns out, he’s wrong, (as we find out in the book but not the movie, Asperger’s, not his glass eye, is to blame for his state) but the confusion between the two is ideal for storytelling purposes, because it turns a metaphorical hole (a mental condition) into a literal one.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Best of 2015, #1: The Big Short (and the Courage Not to Adapt)

A few years ago, my best of list included The Campaign, which resulted in two of the most withering comments I’ve ever received. I, of course, feel somewhat vindicated that writer/director Adam McKay continued in that vein and made my list again, this time with a movie that has been much more widely hailed.

You might also recall that, a few more years ago, I quoted the book “The Big Short”, so I’m on record as liking that, too, but I will be the first to admit that I thought there was no way in hell it would make a good movie, much less a great one.

Like all Hollywood types, I dismiss such material out of hand: Too obscure, too hard to explain, too many characters, too unsympathetic, no strong central action, etc. I fear that if I had gotten the adaptation job, I would have resorted to the usual tricks: focus on just one story, graft a traditional arc onto that story, gloss over all the financial details, give them a reason they need the money, etc.

But it’s absolutely astounding the degree to which this movie did none of that.

Usually, in a non-fiction adaptation, you keep the character’s names and then give them made-up movie personalities. This movie actually did the opposite: they changed the names of all but one character, out of respect for privacy, but relied exclusively on personality details from the book, even for the re-named characters. Of course, it helps to have a writer as good as Michael Lewis, who habitually goes through and explicates the metaphor family and default argument tactic (“Explain that again. Explain that again.”) for each of his characters. Why make something up if you have that kind of never-seen-before gold?

McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph do none of the things I would have done: they keep almost all the characters, even though they’re on separate tracks and don’t meet. They mimic Lewis’s tactic of alternating illuminating character moments with straight-up direct-address descriptions of financial instruments. They don’t attempt to justify the character’s greed or pretty it up.

They do resort to some tricks, but each time they do, they actually stop the movie dead to point out that they’re tricking us! They blatantly bring in attractive celebrities to explain some financial details. They add connecting tissue and then stop to tell us that they just made that scene up. (They do that often enough that they then have to stop the movie even more to stress that the most outrageous scenes aren’t made up)

In short, this movie did the one thing that conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t do: they trusted the book, and delivered its abundant appeal intact.

But wait, it’s even more extreme, because I would argue that the movie actually jettisons one of the most movie-friendly emotional throughlines from the book, and I’m genuinely baffled by that.

In both the book and movie, investor Michael Burry has a glass eye and blames his social awkwardness on that. However, in the book, just at the point where everybody thinks he’s crazy for making this big trade, his son gets diagnosed with asperger’s, and Bury belatedly realizes that he has it, too, quite acutely. Suddenly, he realizes that, uh oh, maybe there is something wrong with my  self-perception, maybe I can’t trust myself on this trade. Ultimately, however, he accepts his diagnosis and himself and sticks to his guns on the trade, with a big pay-off.

Why oh why was this cut? I can’t rightly say. The best I can come up with is that they got Christian Bale to play the part, and so they couldn’t have this be a big reveal, because when Christian Bale plays an aspie, you know right away, and indeed it is immediately obvious in the movie. So that’s why they cut it? I don’t know. Any thoughts?

Next: A look at the character intros

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Cutting Out the Downhill Side of The Martian


It haunts me still, that baffling dismissal I got from my manager: “At a certain point it all rolls downhill.” I’ve spent years trying to understand it. One big clue comes from comparing the book and movie of The Martian.

The movie is very faithful to the book in the first half (the biggest change is that we get to see the evacuation sooner rather than later), but it has much bigger changes in the second half, which is to say that much of the second half was just lopped off. It almost feels like screenwriter Drew Goddard was simply typing up the book as he went, realized he was running out of pages, and abruptly cut to the climax. For instance, in the book, Watney accidentally shorts out the communication system, leaving him on his own again for months until he can reach the new site, and then his rover flips over on the way.

The change works fine. Once they’re gone we don’t miss those additional incidents, but does that mean that the book didn’t need them either? No, I still like having them in the book, because they return us to the grizzled-loner status of the first hundred pages, and put Watney back in charge of his own story, but in the movie, it would feel like a repeated beat, and a ramping down of the story when it should be ramping up (the flipped over rover, in fact, happens because Watney is literally on a downward ramp!) Books can ramp down, but movies can’t. In movies, you have to keep the pedal to the metal until you go off the end of the cliff.

Or, put another way, we expect our movie heroes to climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in only one direction: Watney gets physical survival, then connection with others, then a greater moral dilemma (is it worth having the others return for him on the slim chance he’ll live?). Once we get to the top of the pyramid, we don’t want to descend again, losing communication and then losing safety before finally re-establishing both just in time to take off.

Like Watney, screenwriters must beware when going downhill, lest their rovers flip over. Best not to risk it.

Next: #1!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Foreshadowing Too Much in The Martian

Now let’s look at one aspect of The Martian that was stronger in the book than the movie, and figure out why. I saw the movie first, and one problem I had was with the scene where they decide to skip the safety procedures on the launch of Mark’s food re-supply. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know what’s going to happen just from reading that: it blows up on the launch pad. And indeed, in the movie, it’s too obvious what will happen, ensuring that the explosion gets more of an eye-roll than a gasp.

Nevertheless, when I read the novel, even though I really knew what was going to happen, that scene didn’t spell its own doom, and the explosion is genuinely heartbreaking. What did novelist Andy Weir accomplish on the page that adapter Drew Goddard couldn’t accomplish on the screen? First let’s look at the book scene:
Then let’s look at the movie scene:
Most obviously, the book scene is much longer, with much more detail, so we get to focus more on the little dramas, without having to step back and consider the larger impact (and inevitable result) of the scene …but it’s more than that. In the book, Teddy feels like the hero of the scene: he’s willing to do anything to save Mark, even get creative with the timeline, and we admire him for it. In the movie, he just seems like a dick who’s heedless of the science.

One problem in the movie is that we don’t really feel Mark’s potential hunger (and therefore the urgency to resupply quickly) as much as we do in the book scene, but an even bigger problem is what Teddy says instead of talking about the hunger. It had to re-read the two scenes a few times to spot the key word: In the script, Teddy begins the scene by asking:
  • Let’s ask the very, very expensive question: Is this probe going to be ready on time?
It’s the word “expensive”, which wasn’t in the book scene, that gives the game away. In the book, he’s going to extremes to save a life, which usually pays off in fiction, so it’s shocking when it fails. In the movie, it sounds like he’s risking all to save money, which never works in fiction. The result is a series of scenes that are drastically inert, ending in an anticlimactic accident that generates no sadness.

I think one reason the movie did this was to try to turn Teddy into a little bit of a villain, but it was a bad decision: Adding a villain usually sharpens our emotional connection to the events, but in this case it dulled it. Weir knew what he was doing: Nature (and its close cousin chaos) is the only villain here, and the emotion comes from the pain of trying and failing to overcome it, despite everyone’s best intentions.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Never Let Anyone Compliment Your Hero

One of the many charges that was leveled against The Force Awakens was that of Mary Sue-ism. Wikipedia defines a “Mary Sue” as “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities.” The term comes from fan-fiction, where many writer insert versions of themselves into their stories, so as to receive praise from their heroes.

To many people, that seemed like a good description of Rey, the movie’s plucky young heroine, and I agree, to a certain extent.

The movie simply tried to hard too sell the character to us. Not only was she instantly great at everything she tried, from flying to Millennium Falcon to wielding a lightsaber, but, just in case we didn’t notice, each of the other characters gushed about how great she was: Han, Maz, Finn, and Kylo Ren all expressed amazement. Even Chewbacca seemed to instantly switch his allegiance as soon as Han was dead. (Shouldn’t she be his co-pilot?)

Now compare that to The Martian. One thing that’s there in the movie but is even more clear in the book is just how smart the character of Mark Watney is. I would go so far to say that he is, quite possibly, the smartest character in the history of fiction. In order to survive, especially in those periods without contact with Earth, he needs to be not just a genius-level botanist but also show genius in mechanical engineering, astrophysics, physiognomy, and about a dozen other specialities.
In both versions, we follow along with Mark on Mars, but we also cut away to Earth, where NASA is trying to help him and the media is speculation on his odds of survival. In both of those discussions, they never mention the elephant in the room: that everything Mark has done so far shows him to be a 99th-level genius who can pretty much figure anything out.

At a certain point, this gets weird. Isn’t anybody impressed?? What does this guy have to do to make people, “Wow, what the hell, Why are you so smart?”

But the novelist and screenwriter knew what they were doing. We do not want to hear our heroes complimented. We want to find our own place in the story. We want to choose whom to like and dislike based on our evaluation of the actions of the characters. We want characters to earn our trust and admiration, without the writer’s thumb on the scales. We are always highly reluctant to care about heroes because they usually let us down. When a writer praises his or her own character, that sounds like self-praise, that always sounds bad.

This is especially problematic in stories like The Force Awakens, where the character garners praise that seems unearned, but even in stories like The Martian, where it’s downright weird that people aren’t awed by the hero, we appreciate the ability to make our own judgment.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Best of 2015, #2: The Martian

I have so much to say about this movie that I’ll spend the week on it, but, as with the other movies, let’s start with a rule it exemplified: This rule was originally called “Say No Way to Melee”, but more broadly stated, it could be “Human Scale is Better.” I actually cited another Mars movie as the problem here:
  • In the book, John Carter defeats a normal-sized white ape bare-handed, which makes for a thrilling action scene. In the movie, he defeats two 50-foot high white apes, which is just boring. In order to root for a hero, we have to be right in there with him, helping him figure out his next move.
This is the heart of the appeal of The Martian, and a stark contrast to a superficially similar movie from this year, The Revenant. Leo will almost certainly win the Oscar, while Damon will remain prize-less, but Damon deserves it. As an actor, it’s always tempting to go the register of “inhuman suffering” rather than “human suffering”. After all, you can’t conceive of how someone could live with this calamity, so why try? Just do a wild-eyed hyperventilating freak out the whole time. And why not? The Academy loves that.

But Damon makes the braver and more difficult choice. Rather than play up the unbelievability of his situation, Damon somehow makes us believe this is actually happening. This movie, after all, is not shot in real time. We’re watching more than a year on Mars. Damon gets a few freak-outs, but you can’t freak out all day long. The rest of the time, he’s doing something remarkable: showing us that a guy is making it work on Mars, complete with what, how, when, where, and why.

And not just any guy: a guy’s guy. A canny, jokey, ornery, and super, super smart guy. So much of Damon’s solo performance just consists of thinking, which is one of the hardest things to do onscreen. This brings up another direction he could have gone: the Cumberbatch direction, in which geniuses are all intense, twitchy and anti-social. But Damon, taking his lead from the wonderful novel, reintroduces a lost icon: the genius as grease-monkey. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough for this movie, because I finally get to show them a science hero who’s not a jerk!

As always, Damon makes what he does look easy, which is why he may never get a statue, but humbly thinking and doing things onscreen is actually tremendously hard, so much so that few actors even attempt it. I think no one else could have pulled off this remarkable performance.

Next: What The Martian does right that The Force Awakens does wrong

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Best of 2015 #3: Carol

This time let’s talk about some of the things we covered in the Books vs. Movies series. 

In some ways, novelists have it much easier than screenwriters, and in some ways they have it much harder. It’s easier because they don’t have to pack everything into the dialogue, they can just tell us what the characters are thinking and feeling. It’s harder, of course, because they don’t get to hand that job over to the director and actors: they have to do all the character work, exterior and interior, themselves. Patricia Highsmith was a very interior-focused writer. Her primary influence was Dostoyevsky, and her characters too, are filled with raging torrents of self-hate and self-doubt under comparatively calm surfaces. Let’s look at how she writes the first scene between Carol and Therese: 
 

 For every word of (intentionally banal) dialogue, there are three words describing the thoughts and feelings that underlie those words. So what does screenwriter Phyllis Nagy do when she has to adapt that dialogue for the screen? Let’s look:
She doesn’t try to put all that subcutaneous emotion onscreen (and she doesn’t try to slip it in using parentheses, thankfully), but she does make the dialogue more compact and a little more sprightly. Most intriguingly, she changes the two purchases, (a doll suitcase and then a doll) into one (a train set). Why change it to a train? Most obviously, because this adds an “I understand you” moment, or at least an “I want to understand you” moment: Carol and Therese can’t express as much through looks, so Carol is forced to actually ask Therese about her life and discover that Therese was the sort of girl who preferred trains to dolls. The novel scene is purely subconscious gay-dar at work, but the train set dialogue brings that slightly out into the open.

Ultimately, Todd Haynes was the perfect choice to adapt this, because he knows how to pack power into meaningful looks better than almost any director out there, but Nagy subtly gives him a little more to work with.

 Next: Another great adaptation of an interior novel

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Best of 2015, #4: Mad Max: Fury Road

This movie does one of those things I hate, but it gets away with it, so let’s try to figure out why. I’ve complained in the past about movies in which the hero’s motivation is a tragedy from the past that we see in tiny glimpses of flashback. Why? Several reasons:
  • It feels like a cheat to place the motivation and emotional investment outside the bounds of the present story. It highlights the fact that the writer has failed to generate enough reason to care or act based on what the hero sees or experiences in the current storyline. We want to be on the hero’s shoulder and go on an emotional journey together. We want to share the motivation and emotional investment as it arrives. We want to feel it at the same time. We don’t want to be told, “Oh, sorry, you missed all that, but we’ll give you glimpses of it.”
  • It doesn’t really feel emotionally true for a hero to carry feelings about one group of good guys and bad guys over to another group of good guys and bad guys. Have you ever said, “I’m helping you because you remind me of someone”? No, that only happens in movies.
And yet, in this movie, it works. Why? Most obviously, because it takes advantage of the remake/sequel confusion, working in such a way that it can either be a flashback to the first movie (despite the fact that Tom Hardy looks nothing like Mel Gibson) or a brand-new character introduction. But would it work if this wasn’t a semi-sequel? I think so. Why?
  • In movies such as John Carter, the whole “trauma from the past” element comes in late, as a way to prop up the story once the original motivation turns out to be too thin. In this movie, we get the flashbacks right away at the beginning: It’s his initial motivation, not supplemental.
  • It takes advantage of the dystopian setting and writer/director George Miller’s ability to create surreal, iconic mythology. He convinces us that life has entered an elemental state in which “victim” and “victimizer” are both spelled with a capital-v. Max need not save his own family or confront their killers, because all good and all evil have become universal monolithic entities: Saving anybody saves his family, and fighting any evil become fighting all evil.
Based on a few quick glances of the past, we instantly get what happened to his family, how he feels about that, and why he would resolve to keeping it from happening to someone else. We buy it.

Next time: More girl power!