Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Disagreeing with Robert McKee in public

An excellent interview with Robert McKee on this site:

">Sramanitra.com Robert Mckee Interview

Not a writing site, but an Indian site about enterpreneurship, of all things. The topic is the crisis of content which is affecting mainstream Hollywood productions, but it quickly addresses the art vs. business dichotomy and regional versus international storytelling. The interview is notable for talking about screenwriting and storytelling from a different perspective than usual, and because site owner Sramana Mitra disagrees with Mr. Mckee during most of the interview (must be quite a novel situation for him, I suspect).

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009) - Whatever Doesn't

After his European sojourns, Woody Allen returns to New York and to his earlier favourite topics: misanthropic Jewish liberal intellectuals and the beautiful, young, pliant girls who fall for them. It's been done in Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah And Her Sisters, heck, even in Bananas - so this should be a return to greatness, right?


And for very basic reasons which have everything to do with screenwriting (though the casting may also be somewhat responsible).

A short synopsis: Boris Yelnikov (Larry David), a misanthropic physicist reduced to teaching kids chess for a living (whilst bullying his charges mercilessly) encounters a Southern waif one evening and allows himself to be convinced to take her in. She's sweet but stupid, and he teaches her his views on life, love, the universe and everything. After a while they get married, and everything is swell, until her mother shows up, having been deserted by her husband. The mother is a Christian fundamentalist who hates Boris, but she quickly becomes seduced by New York when she finds fame as a photographer, and ends up living with two men.
Then the husband shows up, similarly fundamentalist and anti-Boris, but when he discovers how his ex-wife has changed, he ends up bemoaning his fate in a bar where he meets a gay man and admits he's been gay all along too.
Boris' wife, in the meantime, meets an attractive actor who is interested in her, goes to bed with him, and divorces Boris, who tries to commit suicide but lands on a woman who turns out to be his ideal mate, even though she's a psychic (something he as a rational scientist has great aversion to). Bottom line: life is short, so do whatever works to make you happy and find love.

Let's take the flaws of the movie in ascending order of severity.

First, there's expositional, explicitly on the nose dialog. And not a little, either. People are extremely literal and literate in analyzing themselves and each other, and it comes across as fake. To be fair, this has been the case in earlier Woody Allen films as well, but there he was able to sell it better, somehow. If only by using more hesitations and stammering in the delivery of the lines.

Secondly, several characters go through huge arcs - but at an incredible speed. While the mother has some screen time to go from fundamentalist to hedonist, it's still far from convincing. And the father literally changes his entire belief system and sexual orientation in the course of one scene! It's impossible to take this even remotely seriously. Similarly, Boris' wife immediately sleeps with the actor after meeting him, and this one encounter is enough for her to immediately ditch Boris (to be fair, he immediately throws her out upon learning of her infidelity, but she doesn't to anything to change his mind - even though she's been the one who's initiated the entire romance). Because so many characters change so unconvincingly during the film (especially its second act), the audience is no longer engaged with the proceedings. And the plot suffers too, as there is no driving conflict, no extra complications added to the situation - just vignettes to prove the theory 'whatever works'.

But most importantly of all, Whatever Works is sabotaged by its protagonist. Boris Yelnikov has a lot in common with earlier Allen characters - he's neurotic with a morbid fear of death, he's bitingly sarcastic (whatever the film's flaws, it does have a couple of very good one-liners), his marriage has been a disaster, he likes old jazz, classical music, Fred Astaire, and he finds himself involved with a beautiful, loving young woman who eventually deserts him.

However, Boris is different from previous Allen characters (both played by him and other actors) in that he is invulnerable. He's a loud bully, proclaiming his distaste of anyone and everything around him - and he's right. Not only in his own mind, but the story constantly proves him to be right too. In the end, he even proves to the audience (which he addresses throughout the film, and only he can see) that he's a genius because he sees the whole picture (i.e. that he's part of a movie).

In the past, Allen has been quite aggressive too in his comedies, especially towards the objects of his affection, but his own neurotic, cowardly persona softened the blow and made it look like the defense mechanism of a character suffering from an inferiority complex. Now, Boris towers above all those around him, spewing his hate and never being corrected, whether by other characters or fate. He doesn't really change (even when he's in love he's still the same miserable curmudgeon), and he isn't really a character you like to spend much time with. In casting Larry David, whose style of comedy is abrasive and confrontational, Allen has compounded the problem. The part fits David very well - but it amplifies his most obnoxious tendencies. Even in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is often in the wrong (though he never thinks so, obviously).

In this movie, we get to see just how irritating a protagonist can be who is invulnerable. Sure, Boris gets so depressed he attempts suicide after the break-up but once again, that's handled in just one scene - and as a surprise, without any build-up towards that act. He finally comes across as an obnoxious, bossy bully who needs to be taken down a peg or two. And if that's the character who is your window into the story, it's no wonder the film really doesn't work as a whole.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Simon Beaufoy secret

Simon Beaufoy is one of the most interesting screenwriters active today.

His work has been both massively succesful, turning uncommercial concepts into award-winning megahits (which, because of the lower budget, turn out to be extremely lucrative), and he's also written very personal scripts which didn't attract a huge audience. And the films made from his scripts are wildly different in tone.

So what's his secret ingredient?

Looking at The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, and comparing them to a recent in-production script, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, we find there is a common ingredient.

Simon Beaufoy manages to turn his underdog lead characters into Heroes.

Heroes in the literal sense of the word: characters who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a commendable goal.

The unemployed men are willing to sacrifice their sense of dignity and power in order to get out of the disastrous situations they find themselves in at the beginning of the story. And they are rewarded by the adoration of an audience of women who appreciate their bravery in displaying themselves as sexual objects. THey rediscover a sense of self-worth and selfrespect by risking all.

In Slumdog Millionaire, a young man without any formal education or social status gambles all by appearing on the quiz show which can make dreams come true. His dream is to escape with the love of his life, Latika, and he is determined not to let anything or anyone stand in his way. From a textbook underdog character, he is transformed into a Hero for the ages. And his goal - true, eternal love - is the highest to which human beings can aspire. Interestingly, the huge love story which drives the narrative is not really present in the original novel (which is more of a collection of short stories rather than one strong plot). And in the screenplay, the mythological nature of the love story is made even more clear than in the movie. In a deleted sequence, Jamal gets to watch an open-air performance of the opera Orfeo e Eurydice at the Taj Mahal, and he finds himself spellbound by the story of the hero who travels to the Underworld to bring back the woman he loves. Which just happens to be the task which Jamal will undertake too.

In Salmon Fishing, another adaptation of a novel, everything turns around the apparently mad desire of a Yemenite sheik to introduce salmon fishing to the Middle East. The lead character is a repressed government scientist trapped in a loveless marriage with a very careerist wife, who is ordered to assist the sheik in developing his scheme. The scientist refuses at first, is forced into complying, and meets with the sheik who turns out not to be a mad tyrant but a visionary who hopes to bring peace to the region. The scientist, who is all about facts and figures, starts to learn the value of faith from the sheik, and also falls in love with the exceptionally beautiful young woman who is the liaison between the sheik's British real estate developers and the government.

Once again, Beaufoy adds the power of Myth to his writing to transcend its origins and give it far greater resonance. The science vs. faith dichotomy is present in the original novel, but more as a philosophical debate - the finale is also far more ironic in its impact, even though the event which takes place in book and film is basically the same. And the romance element also ends on a totally different note: realistically in the novel, and in the script - well, I won't spoil it for you but when you look at Beaufoy's track record it's pretty easy to guess in what direction he takes it.

Now, what is interesting is that Salmon Fishing In The Yemen becomes a note-perfect example of the Hero's Journey structural paradigm - whereas the book is told in a number of letters, e-mails, reports and the like. It's a fractured way of telling the story, forcing the reader to puzzle everything together.

So the secret of Simon Beaufoy's success, apart from his skill at crafting likeable characters and being a very efficient and smart storyteller, is the ability
to imbue his underdog characters and their everyday struggle with a sense of Mythical Grandeur. He manages to inject this larger-than-life quality in stories which are essentially small, intimate and realistic in nature. And even though the sense of reality may be diminished at times, the power of mythological archetypes and fairy tales ensures the scripts (and the resulting movies) resonate very deeply with their often massive audiences.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Storytelling and Entre Les Murs (Laurent Cantet)

Entre Les Murs, which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes in 2008, is a very interesting film which breaks most of the screenwriting rules and yet is riveting from the first minute to the last.

The screenplay, written by the director Laurent Cantet and the main actor, François Bégaudeau, is based on Bégaudeau's autobiographical book chronicling his experiences as a teacher in Paris.

Bégaudeau plays François Marin, a French teacher in a Parisian school with an ethincally very diverse population.
The film never leaves the school: we know nothing about the characters except for what we see of them within the scholarly environment. We have no idea about Marin's personal life, his relationships, his troubles outside of the workplace.

Though the film covers an entire school year, there is no major plotline which develops as its driving force, and we don't really get much of a sense of time passing. There's no structural model with clearly discernible turning points or story pattern with

And character arcs are conspicuous by their complete absence. Marin doesn't change his approach to teaching, even though it's only intermittently succesful. Nor does he get to understand his pupils better, no matter how hard he tries, or does he effect a miraculous change in one or more of them. And there's certainly no uplifting moral victory anywhere in sight at the end of the film.

So what does this film have that makes it so compelling?

Two things. The first is realism: the script was workshopped and improvised over a period of about a year with teenagers who basically play themselves (all but two use their own names in the film) and who attend the sort of school portrayed in the film. Bégaudeau naturally is totally convincing as a real teacher. The class sequences are so true to life they seem to be part of a documentary. By contrast, the scenes of the teachers among themselves feel (slightly) more staged.

The second thing? Conflict.

The film is filled to the brim with it. The class sequences are a never-ending confrontation between the well-meaning teacher who tries to interest his pupils in the topics he teaches them, and looks for ways to link it to their own experiences; and the pupils who for the most part seem to resist learning anything at all to the best of their ability, and who freely vent their disrespect of their teacher and their racist feelings towards each other. Though there is no sensationalism whatsoever (no headline-worthy excesses of violence), these sequences are unsettling by their intensity and their truthfulness.

But even the scenes outside of the classroom nearly all have some sort of conflict (teachers vs. parents, teachers vs. the principal, teachers squabbling amongst themselves...). Though these scenes are far less intense than the classroom scenes, they certainly aren't flat or harmonious.

I don't want to imply there is absolutely no plot in Entre Les Murs - the strongest narrative thread concerns a rebellious African pupil, Souleyman, whose seething anger and resentment boil over near the end of the film when Marin gets mad at the girls who, as class represetatives, have leaked end-of-term results to their classmates. There's an altercation in class, Souleyman faces the disciplinary board and is expelled from school, possible to be sent back to his homeland, Mali, by his dad.

But this is told more as an incident, a sequence of events which follow each other chronologically rather than as the strongly causal narrative we find in, say, Dead Poets' Society. In the climactic hearing, Marin is silent the entire time and Souleyman only translates his mother's heartfelt but misguided plea in favour of her son. So there is no ultimate effort by the parties involved in the conflict to triumph.

Of course the conditions in which this script was created are fairly unique, and will rarely if ever be available to other writers. But the film serves as an object lesson to the power of conflict to carry a film, even in the face of the absense of a strong conflict or traditional story patterns.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

DVD Review: The Write Environment - Damon Lindelof

This installment of the Write Environment-series will make Lost-fans very happy. And even for those who do not count themselves as Adepts of the Island, this interview will prove very enlightening. I'm no big Lost-fan - season 1 went too slowly for me and season 2 seemed to lose its way, though by now it's back on track. But it's a hugely complicated series to run, and Lindelof provides an excellent look into the inner workings of the Lost writing process.

He's also refreshingly honest, claiming that in his opinion the series would have been better at 80 episodes rather than at 123, and admitting there were filler episodes in the first two seasons. And it is revealed that there was an idea about what the island was from the start, but that the exact nature of what it is has evolved over the years, though it's still connected to that original concept.

Other topics covered are Lindelof's career, his comic book scripting (and he makes a great point about the difference between screenwriting and writing for comic books), and the Star Trek relaunch.

This disc runs slightly shorter than the others in the series, but it's all excellent stuff.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Protagonist, antagonist & genre

As I mentioned in the review of Reflections of the Shadow, Steven De Souza causes a major scriptwriting uproar by stating in his interview that in genre scripts (action horror, science fiction, perhaps also comedy) the villain of the piece is really the protagonist, instead of the hero fulfilling this role.

Whoa. That kind of sort of invalidates a whole bunch of books and classes right there! But is this statement correct?

De Souza's argument is that in genre scripts, the villain is the active character and the hero is reacting to the actions the villain takes to achieve his/her nefarious goal. And as we all know, the protagonist is the character who is active and drives the story forward.

And when we consider genre movies, we find that in many, many cases it is correct that the villain of the piece is the one who remains active. In Die Hard, obviously, the driving force is the villain's plan. Likewise, all Bond movies start off with a villain with a nefarious master plan committing a criminal act in order to set the plan in motion. The shark in Jaws decides to eat people and continues to do so, always having Chief Brody play catch-up. In Star Wars, the Empire is poised to destroy the Rebellion once and for all, and continues to execute its ostensibly last major assault.

However, if we look at other genres, we find the picture to be less clear-cut. In several Westerns, spaghetti and otherwise, the hero is on the trail of bandits (he might be a lawman or a bounty hunter), and so he's the one hunting down the quarry.
In A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood arrives in a rundown village run by two clans of criminals living in an uneasy state of equilibrium, and he decides to upset the apple cart and play off both gangs against each other, ultimately eliminating them both. He enters a stable situation and conciously goes about upsetting it.

Similarly, in a lot of police thrillers, the hero is working to catch a killer or unravel a mystery, and often it is this investigation that causes the bad guy to have to take additional steps in order to evade pursuit.
And quite a few horror films have a monster which is unleashed by someone either trying to control and use forbidden knowledge, or by someone innocently breaking some taboo or rule. So there the villain is only activated later in the story - at times quite late, even - and often isn't the real driving force behind the conflict.

It's clear that this 'villain is protagonist'-theory isn't applicable in all cases, even in genre scripts. But there's more.

The protagonist is traditionally described as the active character who takes all the most important decisions in the script. AND - this is really crucial - he or she is the character the audience identifies with and who we 'become' while watching the film.
And there's the missing element in De Souza's claim. Yes, Hans Grüber may be the one who is constantly active in Die Hard, forcing John McClane to react - but while we love watching Grüber, a very well-developed villain played to perfection by Alan Rickman, we certainly don't ever want to be him. Generally speaking, there is no audience identification with the villain of the piece by the mass audience.

Sure, there are some individuals who do identify more with villainous characters, and in some movie series, especially of the horror genre, the villain becomes the main attraction, and the audience doesn't come to watch evil get its comeuppance once again, but to see what gruesome and revolting kills the villain will come up with next (the Saw-, Nightmare on Elm Street- and Friday the 13th-series come to mind). But apart from these exceptions, the villain is not the one who engages the audience's emotions and imagination.

Also, we must not lose track of the fact that the protagonist is the character making the most important decisions during the story, and that the development of their character arc forms the structural spine of the story. In Die Hard, John McClane makes all the important decisions. If he decided to surrender, or to back down and wait everything out, the master plan would go off without a hitch. The fact that he decides to interfere and to keep on interfering, proves that he is the most important character in the entire story.

So, whereas in genre scripts your villain can and usually should be the most active character, the hero remains the protagonist because of the fact that they are always the character through whose eyes we experience the story and who we are emotionally connected to; and because their personal evolution is the foundation of the script's structure. The only time this 'rule' truly does not apply is when you make the villain the focus of your story, and you are presenting the events from his point-of-view.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Review: Reflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TV by Jeffrey Hirschberg (Michael Wiese Press)

As the title indicates, this book focuses on creating powerful and memorable protagonists and antagonists. Jeffrey Hirschberg starts off with analyzing what makes a hero and a villain, and then illustrates his findings with portraits of ten unforgettable heroes and villains. Heroes include Peter Parker, Rick Blaine, Atticus Finch and Indiana Jones among others, while the villains count Darth Vader, Hans Gruber, nurse Ratched and the Joker in his most recent screen outing among their lot.

The second part of the book starts off with a number of shortish but excellent interviews with screenwriters David Koepp, Steven de Souza, David Franzoni and James Dearden about their heroic and villainous creations. Hirschberg then offers help in developing your own villains and heroes and proposes his Persona-tool to aid with the job (a character-building list of questions). He then compares the 'treks' of the hero and the villain in a couple of films, applying their development to the three-act structure, and his finishes off (somewhat incongruously) with his 11 Laws of Storytelling which obviously cover a far wider range of topics.

Hirschberg writes in a very accessible style, and this book can also be read and enjoyed by film buffs who want to know more about how movies are put together. There are some interesting analyses to be found here, and Hirschberg's definition of what constitutes a villain and a hero can be applied practically to any script development process. His concept that villains are basically outsiders who want to belong but are inherently unable to is well supported by the examples he gives here, though there have also been villains who are part of society and authority and who find their power base there (the Emperor from Star Wars is a good example).

I must single out the description of Indiana Jones as a great hero though, as Hirschberg doesn't mention one of Jones' most important aspects: he is extremely unlucky and extremely lucky at the same time, rarely wins a fight by himself, and at times he's more of a parody of the idealized square-jawed hero rather than the real deal. Personally, I think that James Bond is a far more interesting hero figure to examine than Indiana Jones, but even so, I was disappointed that this apparent dichotomy in the character was simply ignored.

Steven De Souza in his interview mentions something which turns conventional screenwriting wisdom on its head: he claims that in genre screenwriting, the villain is the protagonist (the active character) whereas the hero, who generally reacts to the misdeeds of the villain, is actually the antagonist! Later on in the book, Hirschberg follows this train of thought in a couple of the three-act analyses he does. I'm going to write a blog post about this, as it definitely bears looking into; but no matter whether you agree with this or not, it does point out that in a good genre film, the villain must be active throughout the script.

I feel that Reflections of the Shadow is best suited to screenwriting students and beginning writers overall, as the concepts discussed here will be most valuable to people still learning the screenwriting ropes and coming to terms with some of the basic concepts of storytelling and development. The interview section is valuable for any writer regardless of level - it is for me without a doubt the highlight of the book.

You can get it here:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Coming up in September...

On September 9, next Wednesday, I'm scheduled to hold a talk on television comedy for the Scenaristengilde at the Huis van de Vlaamse Film, Bisschofsheimlaan 38, 1000 Brussels. It starts at 8 pm and is followed by a Q&A session.

And at the end of this month, I'm starting the second session of my screenwriting basics course at Miles Academy in Vilvoorde (100m from the train station). Beginning on Saturday September 29, this course will run until November 21 in 7 day-long sessions, and will provide a very thorough look at all the fundamental elements of screenwriting. More information can be found over at the Miles Academy website. Hope to see you there!

Monday, August 24, 2009

DVD Review: The Write Environment

Okay, apologies again for leaving the blog dormant for so long, but I've been busy (and still am) writing a monster of an article about writing the miniseries, and until that's finished (early next week, I hope!) I'll be forced to keep things fairly quiet on this front.

However, let's weigh in with another Write Environment DVD review, this time featuring Heroes head honcho Tim Kring.

The interview takes us through Kring's entire career: he didn't start out planning to be a writer (shades of George Lucas there), then one job for a Knight Rider episode led him into the freelance writing game which meant writing movies-of-the-week for television for a number of years.
Later on Kring moved into series television, writing for Chicago Hope among others, which led him to create Crossing Jordan, which ran for 6 seasons, and then achieve a huge success with the first season of Heroes.

The first part of the interview is not that riveting, to be honest - but once it hits the 20-minute mark it becomes very good indeed. Kring gives some very honest advice and opinions on the business(if you're an outsider and you're thinking of pitching the next Heroes to a network? Forget it, can't be done), and he offers some excellent insights into what makes a serialized show like Heroes work, and what he and his writing team had to learn in order to make it a success. Pacing is incredibly important - and it's ironic, then, that the lack of good pacing basically ruined the second season.
Another very interesting part is where Kring discusses how the show's enormous appetite for story material didn't lead to the writers running out of gas and ideas, but on the contrary kept generating new possibilities and options all the way through. Great advice many shows could benefit from!

So, after a fairly slow opening this turns into one of the most interesting and thought-provoking releases in the series. And one I have no qualms about recommending to anyone interested in contemporary television writing techniques.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Curious Narrative of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an interesting film to look at for writers, because it's one of the few mainstream Hollywood films to 'disobey' some of the cardinal rules of screenwriting. But how succesful is it in doing so?

The film is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald but obviously credited writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (there have been many others during the development phase, including Charlie Kaufman) have created a ton of extra material, as there's a framing story which takes place during Hurricane Katrina, and Benjamin Button's life lasts from 1918 to 2003, whereas Fitzgerald died in 1940 and had his protagonist born in 1860 - in Baltimore.

I'll try to focus on the storytelling aspects of the film and leave the other factors out of it as much as possible. Just to get a few things out of the way, the film looks amazing, digital effects are used (as with Forrest Gump) not to create empty spectacle but to tell a story in live-action which would have been impossible to do without the use of CGI, the make-up making Brad Pitt and Catherine Blanchett look old never looks real (sorry, make-up department, I know you've won an Oscar for this, but it just wasn't convincing) and Pitt and certainly Blanchett are miscast.

So onto the film. And of course major SPOILERS! If you haven't yet seen this and intend to go into it 'virginally', stop reading now.

The curiousness of Benjamin Button is that he is born as an ancient baby, and grows younger all the time. So we have a protagonist who suffers from a unique predicament, which is never explained except in terms of magic realism (the story of the clock which ran backwards). Mentally though, he ages normally - at first he's a child trapped in an invalid body, at the end he suffers from dementia while looking like a child and, finally, becoming a real baby.

The film chooses to use a framing story in which a dying elderly woman, in hospital in New Orleans, asks her daughter to read her from a diary - the diary of Benjamin Button. We shift from present to past quite regularly.

Let's focus on this framing device first. In the beginning of the script, there is absolutely no conflict between mother and daughter. She tries to comfort her mother and does whatever she can to please her - i.e. she reads to her from the book.
At first we don't quite know the relationship between Benjamin and , but we surmise they must have been lovers, so it's no great surprise when this turns out to be the case. So there's no mystery and no conflict - the only element of suspense is the arrival of the hurricane - and that only because we know what happened to New Orleans in real life. To be honest, there doesn't seem to be any compelling narrative or thematic reason to use Hurricane Katrina in this film.
Only during the last third of the film is there any conflict when the daughter discovers Benjamin is her real father, and he deserted her when she was only one years of age. She's angry at her mother for making her find out the truth like this, but it lasts just a few moments (the time to try and light a cigarette), before she's okay again and continues reading from the diary.

Benjamin is born on the last day of the First World War. His mother dies in childbirth, and his horrified father leaves him at a nursing home for the elderly which seems to be run by Blacks (the entire film completely sidesteps the racism issue). Benjamin is taken in by a young woman, Queenie, who becomes his de facto mother.

Benjamin grows up among the elderly, so he doesn't stand out. Bit by bit, he is cured of his arthritis and learns how to walk after visiting a prayer meeting. Soon he meets Daisy, a little girl at the time, and falls in love right off the bat. However, they're far too young to stay together forever at this point, so first he goes off to work on a tugboat with an alcoholic Irish captain, sees action in World War II, learns the identity of his real father and inherits their button factory, meets Daisy again who is now a ballerina and temporarily no longer interested in him, sails the open seas with his father's yacht... and finally, in 1962, Daisy returns to him after she's recuperated from a traffic accident that has left her unable to dance again.

So what's wrong with this picture so far (we're now two thirds into the movie)?

Benjamin Button is a protagonist who has it extremely easy.

At no time in the narrative is he thrust into a direct conflict. His youth is ironically fairly idyllic, he becomes rich through no effort of his own, the woman he loves finally comes to him of her own accord. And when earlier on she treats him badly, he just takes it with the same air of benevolent detachment which seems to be his only emotional state for most of the film.

In fact, Benjamin almost seems to be a Buddhist sage at times, though unlike Forrest Gump he doesn't really create major changes in the people he encounters throughout his life. He's more of an observer, even when he takes action (as when he decides to go and work for Captain Mike).

So the film's narrative thrust is hampered by a protagonist who, though he doesn't exactly doesn't want anything (he wants Daisy), does precious little to get to his goal. Good things come to those who wait seems to be the unstated theme of the film - but that's not exactly conducive to keeping the audience emotionally involved.

Moreover, two thirds along the way Benjamin gets his goal - a relationship with Daisy. At this point, the narrative slows to a complete halt.
However, soon after it starts up again, with the first real problem for Benjamin since the film began.
Daisy becomes pregnant, and Benjamin is afraid he won't be able to function as a father because of his condition. He doesn't want Daisy to have to take care of two infants at the same time. So strong is his fear, that he leaves Daisy and his daughter, Caroline, shortly after her first birthday, before she can remember him.

I don't know whether Eric Roth was responsible for this structural twist, but it resembles the narrative of Forrest Gump very much. Forrest also gets his girl long before the end of the film, happiness is achieved, and then she turns out to have AIDS and dies.

In both films, a new problem pops up to give the third act a totally new narrative drive which comes out of nowhere. And here, it doesn't really work.

When Benjamin leaves his wife and daughter, he acts as a coward, even though the film tries to put another spin on his decision. But it's not even a remotely logical decision: when he runs away, Benjamin is approximately fifty years old, which means he's about thirty. So he has at least 15 years to be with his daughter, all the time in the world to explain what's going on with him (except for his father at birth, no one in the film ever reacts to Benjamin's condition as something appalling, horrifying or unacceptable, why should his daughter be any different?). And by the time he does regress, his daughter would be an adult herself and be able to help Daisy look after her dad.

Sure, there is a heartbreaking moment when the adult Caroline discovers all the birthday cards Benjamin wrote to her but never sent; but his "sacrifice", such as it is, comes across as shallow and selfish, rather than as a noble gesture. Moreover, we've never seen Benjamin upset or moved, not even at Queenie's funeral, and he considered her as his real mother. So why would he get so upset about his perceived inability to be a father?

The reason is: there has to be a plot. Although this film is largely character-focused, at this point all psychological realism or logic is ignored in order to have something happen to the main character. Because otherwise, he'd just have stayed with Daisy and Caroline, and there would have been nothing left to tell at all in either storyline up till the moment of his encroaching dementia and his death.

Interestingly, the original short story has Benjamin born as a mental adult, and he regresses to a child and eventually a newlyborn infant on both the physical and mental level. In his youth, his dad forces him to go to school and play with children even though he'd rather smoke cigars and ponder philosophy; when his wife gets older, he becomes disenchanted with her and leaves to fight in a war; and as he becomes a child again, he goes to kindergarten together with his grandson and finally shows interest in toys and games. It's a far more conflict-laden way of handling the material, and one cannot help but wonder why all these ideas were ditched.

Instead, we have - two storylines with nearly no conflict, and that conflict only coming in the third act of each story
- a largely non-active main character who almost never initiates action
- an epic love story in which one of the characters (Daisy) is actively unlikeable and not very interesting, making us wonder why Benjamin is so besotted with her
- a major decision by the main character which alienates him emotionally from the viewer.

On top of this, there's the matter of theme. Though many themes are mentioned throughout the film (you can do anything, fate cannot be escaped so just accept it), there doesn't seem to be one theme that binds everything together - and certainly not a theme which could only be told with precisely these characters in exactly these conditions. There is no pressing reason why Hurricane Katrina should be the backdrop of the framing story; and there is no big theme or metaphor which needs the reverse aging idea to be communicated to the audience. In Forrest Gump, the theme and the narrative did fit together. Here, it's almost like we're being offered a semi-sequel which doesn't really make sense. Benjamin Button is to Forrest Gump what Evan Almighty is to Bruce Almighty...

Could the narrative have worked better than it does now, even with the same non-active protagonist? I think it could have. There's one sequence (Daisy's car accident) which has a playfulness in the storytelling which reminded me of Amélie Poulain (another film with a very passive protagonist, and not one of my favourites though it probably is one of yours). It shows every detail which lead up to the accident and then also shows how it could have been avoided. If there had been (far) more risk-taking of this nature, the film would constantly have received energy from its narrative unpredictability.

Another way to render the narrative more powerful would have been to tell less and show more. The diary becomes a crutch. For instance, when Benjamin leaves his family, we don't see him suffer, have scenes where we see him regret his decision, or whatever. We just see a travelogue of India and then, somewhat later, a scene where he returns to Daisy for no special reason except to show Brad Pitt as a glowing twenty-year old. By jumping through time, and having the events in the story continually told to us even when they're being shown, the narrative keeps us at an arm's length even when we should be totally entranced by the 'great love story to transcend the ages' which it tries to sell us. But when your female character is cold and selfish and your lovable hero deserts the people who need him most, that sort of becomes a lost cause.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

DVD Review: The Write Environment: Sam Simon

Sam Simon may not be a household name to everyone, but his career is second to none.

He's worked on Taxi (becoming the showrunner in its final seasons), Cheers, The Tracey Ullman Show, The Drew Carey Show, The George Carlin Show and a little animated series you may have heard about once - The Simpsons. Add 9 Emmy's and 13 nominations to the mix and you have a career most writers don't even dare dream about.

On top of which he's running a dog foundation, he's Jennifer Tilly's ex-husband and he's a world-class poker player.

Truth be told, the two latter aspects of Simon's life aren't mentioned on this DVD. But as you may imagine there are more than enough topics to talk about which are of interest to screenwriters everywhere.

Simon entered the TV world via animation (he was a cartoonist in college), and from there on managed the incredible feat to write a spec script for Taxi which was immediately bought and produced.

On The Simpsons, he was responsible for developing several of the extra characters which make up the tapestry of Springfield. His observations about the difference in writing for an animated sitcom vs. a traditional one are quite interesting. There is no mention, however, of his leaving the show in 1993 (although his name remains on the credits and he still earns a lot of money from the show).

Throughout the DVD, Simon remains a friendly, soft-spoken and generous interview subject. The only person who he is not too enthusiastic about is Family Guy's head honcho Seth McFarlane, because of the similarities between the two series. It was quite surprising, then, to read a Sam Simon interview in which he admitted to becoming a monster while running a show, and it eventually made him quit the business.

If you're interested in any of the shows Simon worked on or ran, this DVD is definitely worth getting. To be fair, I should mention that there aren't as many immediately applicable insights or tips to be found here as on some of the others in the series.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Interview: Dirk Nielandt, writer of 'De Texasrakkers'

Dirk Nielandt is primarily known in Flanders as an author of children's books, and the last few years he's been quite active as a writer for television as well. Recently he added a major feather to his cap when he became the writer for the very succesful Flemish animated feature De Texasrakkers. Dirk graciously consentend to an interview, and shared his experiences on writing the first Flemish 3-D computer-animated feature with us and, through the magic of the internet, the world...

1) How did you get approached to write the script for Texasrakkers?

I was working on a television project for Skyline Productions, the production company of De Texasrakkers (Texas Rangers), when Eric Wirix (ceo Skyline and producer of Texasrakkers) and Mark Mertens (director of Texasrakkers) came up with the idea to make an animatied tvseries with Suske and Wiske (in UK known as Spike & Suzy or Bob & Bobette in French) as main characters.

For those who don’t live around here: Suske and Wiske are comic book characters that are world famous in Belgium and Holland. They have been popular since the fifties. Generation after generation grew up with their adventures.

Willy Vandersteen (1913-1990), the spiritual father of Suske and Wiske, sold millions and millions comic books of his action-adventure-comedy characters, and entertained whole generations with brilliant and often hilarious storytelling. Until today the books remain popular and are rock-solid sellers.

I was (and still am) not only a huge fan of Suske and Wiske, but also worked for some years as editor-in-chief of Suske en Wiske Weekblad, a weekly comic magazine. I also wrote ‘Suske en Wiske’-books for kids who are just learning to read. So I knew the world of Willy Vandersteen and ‘Suske en Wiske’ quite well. I was happy and honoured when I was invited to participate in the brainstorm sessions for the animated tv series.

2) You mention an animated tv-series, but Texasrakkers is a 85 minute 3D-animated feature film!

Yeah, right. We kicked off brainstorming for a tv-serie, then started to develop a 50-minute tv-movie that could be divided into 5 episodes of ten minutes each.
Then the decision was made to go all the way for a feature. I guess the project grew and the ambitions grew. Things kept moving. That was fun. We also started develop
ping a completely different story for the feature. It was like starting from scratch after months of working on the tv series, but on the other hand it wasn’t, because talking and writing the television movie prepared us for the more serious work.

3) You're a writer of children's books and a scriptwriter for television. Was it difficult to make the transition to writing the screenplay for an animated feature? Did you have to learn/use new skills as a writer?

It certainly is something completely different, so I definitely had to use different skills. Fortunately a year before we started writing I participated in a screenwriting development course (North by Northwest in Denmark) where I developed a feature screenplay for an animated feature, based on one of my own children's books. I worked under the supervision of Hollywood animation-screenwriter Philippe Lazebnik (Prince of Egypt, co-writer of Shrek, etc). In the end that script didn’t get produced, but I certainly learned very useful skills that helped me during the development of Texasrakkers.

4) 'De Texasrakkers' is an adaptation of a comic book. At first sight, this would seem to lend itself extremely well to a movie adaptation. What turned out to be the biggest difference between the two media for you?

The biggest difference is ‘structure’. Some comic books are written in a structure that is easily transferable to a moviestructure, but Texasrakkers isn’t :-)

And that’s understandable. You should know that the original book was published in 1959 and its structure was dictated by the fact that it was a newspaper comic. Every day the newspaper published an episode of Suske and Wiske a the length of half a page in the book. Ususally this meant that Vandersteen wrote and drew half a page a day. He produced four Suske en Wiske albums a year. Even for that time it was a hell of job. There was no time to start structuring the whole story before starting. The story was developed day after day after day after...

Vandersteen was a man with a very rich imagination. He was a brilliant storyteller. To keep his newspaperreaders hooked, he ended every daily epsiode with a cliffhanger. Usually every daily episode also contained a joke. This meant that in the end, when the story was published as a book, the structure was... eh... non-existant. That didn’t disturb the Suske and Wiske-readers at all. On the contrary. It made Vandersteens work original and funny and witty and wonderfully chaotic. It is part of the charm of his work. His stories were wild, funny, exciting and very original.

But unfortunately this structure (or the absence of structure) could not be transferred to the big screen. The flow of the book would not work for a feature. So we had to re-think the structure completely. We had to re-think the plot all over. The only thing we wanted to keep by all means was the soul of the album, the spirit of Vandersteen, his unique voice of storytelling. That was quite a challenge, but it was also part of the fun of writing this movie. How to translate the magic of Willy Vandersteen to a modern feature that would still fascinate an audience that is less familiar with the early Suskes en Wiskes descending from their parents childhood.

5) Why did you choose the Texasrakkers?

Good question. There are 300 Suske and Wiske albums to choose from (300+ by now), so which story to choose... That was a hard one.

One thing we were absolutely convinced of was that it had to be a Willy Vandersteen story. It had to be a story he wrote. Not that his succesors didn’t do a great job, but Vandersteen is the founding father. He has written the ultimate Suskes en Wiskes. So it had to be one of his stories, which limited our range of choice. I don’t remember exactly how long the remaining list still was, but it was still huge (sigh).

Another important issue to take into account was that almost every adult in Belgium and Holland has his or her favourite album(s). Almost everyone has a couple of Suske en Wiske-books that transports them back to the magical age of 10-12 years old. So for every story we choose, we had to disappoint a lot of people who would absolutely be sure we made the wrong choice because album nr 98 or nr. 123 or nr. 44 or ... is in their memories the most fantastic, faboulous, wonderful Suske and Wiske-story of their childhood.

Mission impossible? It was Eric Wirix who had the idea to choose a genre story. Some of the most popular albums were stories based on popular Hollywood films of that time. Suske and Wiske covered almost every film genre: sci-fi, action, romantic comedy, you name it! James Bond, Planet of the Apes, etc. So we decided to start with a genre that is more or less the father of all movie genres: the western. And look... Suske en Wiske en de Texasrakkers, a real western, was in our top 10 list anyway...

6)Was there sufficient material in the original book to fill the movie? Or did you have to cut things or add material to get the right length for the film?

There was enough material. We had to kill plenty of darlings (the rock that threatened to destroy Dark City, for those who remember the book) in order to make the story work properly. We also had to cut some characters that were too archaic (the story is from 1959, remember). But the album was so rich and contained so much material that there was plenty to fill the movie.

7) Did you collaborate mainly with the director, or with the animators as well? Did they have specific demands you had to take into account?

From the beginning of the writing process I collaborated with both producer Eric Wirix as well as the director Mark Mertens. We held brainstorm sessions at the Skyline office on a regular basis. After these sessions I went home to write and rewrite. Some weeks later we sat together again and discussed the new outline, treatment or synopsis, depending the stage of development we were in. The first draft was really the result of the collaboration of this small writing team, all die-hard fans of Suske en Wiske. We continued working like this until we had a first draft that everybody was happy with.

Then my work was done. Guy Mortier, the ex-editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Humo, well known for his sharp and witty pen, polished the script, spiced it up with great jokes and sharpened the characters. I think he did a great job.

After that the actors started working with the script. The voices were recorded and once that was done the team of animators started to work. I didn’t have contact with the animators at all (and there is no reason why I should have). More then 100 animators were working on it in Liège and Luxembourg. A hell of a job for the two directors Mark Mertens and Wim Bien. They supervised, directed, managed this huge team. Quite an acrobatic job. It took them a lot of stress and a couple of sleepless nights, but they did great!

8) Did you have to include a lot of visual information in this script which you wouldn't normally do?

No. Perhaps because one of the directors was part of the writing team, he filled in the sets and visualized it in 3D. No need for me to put it in the script. But I also think it is a misunderstanding that scripts for animated features automatically need more visual information. We didn’t create a completely new world that needed to be described. It was the Wild West, how much description does that need? It was also an action movie, with some serious action and fight scenes. Obviously those scenes didn’t need dialogue but a detailed description of the action.

9) The climax of the comic book features a deus ex machina - did you keep this or was it changed for the film?

A deux ex machina in a family film is a disaster, a rip-off and absolutely not done. As mentioned before, we re-thought the main plot of the story. We turned it into a western with a who-is-the-bad-guy-behind-the-mask-(a wodunit)-plot. ‘Who is Jim Parasijt really?’ is the question that is pushing the story forward in the second and third act. The answer to that question had to be a surprise ànd had to make sense in the end.
I’m not gonna spoil the fun for those who haven’t seen the movie yet (go and see it!!), but I think we succeeded in avoiding to rip off the audience with a deus ex machina and still surprise them with the answer to this main question.

10) Were you able to keep a lot of the original dialogue, or did you have to do a lot of work to make it work in the screenplay context?

Some verbal jokes were kept, but as most of the scènes in the movie are different from the book, most of the dialogue is different too. And anyway... dialogue, how we speak, use of words has changed a lot since 1959, so obviously it was updated.

11) What was the most difficult thing about writing this screenplay?

Re-structuring a story that was written in the fifties to a modern well-structured screenplay that kept the original soul of the album and would honour the work of Vandersteen.
We also never lost focus that we had to respect the memories of all the Suske en Wiske-fans. Lots of them are very protective of their heroes and we didn’t want to shock them by creating something very different from the original characters.

12) And what was the most rewarding?

Seeing the result of all this labour on the big screen and listening to the reactions of the kids and their parents. It’s great when they laugh when they’re supposed to laugh, thrill when they‘re supposed to be thrilled and leave at the end of the movie with a big smile on their face.

This movie is really the accomplishment of a big team. Writers, producer, directors, animators, actors, designers etc all put a lot of time and energy in this project. All for the love of Willy Vandersteen's work, trying to capture his spirit and update it for the screen. It was fun working on it and right now I’m hoping we can start writing the sequel;-)...

Best of luck with that, and a big thank you to Dirk for taking the time to talk to us and let us know what it's like to work on a major animated feature!

Monday, August 3, 2009

DVD Review: The Write Environment: Joss Whedon

The first DVD in the series cleverly features Joss Whedon, probably the writer/showrunner with the most extensive and loyal fanbase in all of television.
Will loyal Whedonites get their money's worth from this interview with their idol?

Well of course they will. Joss Whedon is not only a writer with a very identifiable voice, he's also an excellent raconteur who somehow masters the art of being both arrogant and humble at the same time.

The interview takes place at his home, in his writing room, which naturally is a treasure trove for fanboys and -girls. The interview is wide-ranging, touching upon all parts of Whedon's career (writing for movies, television, comics, and producing and directing). We learn the identity of his favourite character (in a way), he discusses how and why he resurrected Colossus in his Astonishing X-Men run, he talks about the upsides and downsides of script-doctoring in Hollywood and reveals why he no longer does it.

Along the way there are plenty of humorous anecdotes, several nuggets of wisdom for writers to ponder (for instance, the difference between writing for television and writing for film is discussed, as is Whedon's dislike of 'reset' television, and his predilection for mixing genres (and it's not done on a whim or just to be 'interesting').

In short, an excellent and entertaining way to spend approximately an hour in the company of one of television writing's true originals, and an absolute must-have for anyone who is even just a tiny-little-bit of a Whedon fan.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

DVD review - The Write Environment: Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond)

You might be familiar with the 'Dialogue' DVD series, in which movie screenwriters are interviewed about their career and their craft. Well, you may be interested to know that there is now a complementary series available, namely The Write Environment, which does the same for television writing. Each DVD features a show runner being interviewed in his writing environment by Jeffrey Berman, who's also the executive producer for the series. I'll be reviewing every installment as I watch them, so you can decide whether the disk should be in your collection of screenwriting resources or not.

The first disc I watched features Phil Rosenthal, the showrunner of Everybody Loves Raymond. The interview takes place in his guest house, which gives the entire proceedings a relaxed atmosphere. However, there's plenty of excellent advice on sitcom writing to be found here.

Rosenthal is (naturally) a funny man, with a fine line in self-deprecating humour. He also comes across as a genuinely nice person - in fact, some colleagues at work have visited the Raymond writer's room when the show was still being aired and told me that Rosenthal actually sent his writers home at a normal time, so they could interact with their families and have the necessary experiences to fuel their writing.

This relates to one of Rosenthal's main points: for him, 'write what you know' is essential. Since you are unique as a writer and a person, tell stories about your experiences, as they are what sets you apart from your colleagues (and rivals).

Another very important element of the success of Raymond is the relatability of the characters. This is NOT the same as likeability - the characters may be mean or selfish, but the audience can understand their attitude, or recognize it in themselves or the people around them. Rosenthal says he's even received letters from people from Sri Lanka telling him their parents are just like Ray's...

All in all, a very good interview and a very interesting disc for anyone interested in learning more about classic American-style sitcom.

And you can get this DVD and the others from the series right here:

The Screenwriter's Store

Friday, July 31, 2009

Back at last! With another installment of How I Do It

Sorry for leaving the blog unattended for so long, but I had a lot of urgent screenwriting to do!

That's done now, so I can finally spend some more time on the blog again.

So, with no further ado, a new practical (I hope) writing tip!

While writing the current script, there was one scene which gave me problems. Of course, it was the most crucial scene in the script.

During this scene, the protagonist of the episode, who has been a relentless womanizer and visitor of night clubs and expensive brothels all his life, has to realize that since he's always paid for love and affection, it's possible that most if not all of it has not been sincere. This is supposed to lead to the crisis of the entire episode and it's the final nail in his coffin, as all what he thougt to have accomplished in life is shown in previous scenes to be hollow and worthless (yes, it IS a comedy, folks).

The problem with the scene was that I knew what the emotional trajectory had to be, and I had a clear idea of the stops along the way. But when I started writing it, it just felt wrong. All the necessary elements were in the scene, but the order in which they showed up (the way I structured the scene) just didn't convince at all.

Looking back at what I got, one of the problems was that as I was building the main spine of the scene, I introduced a tangential element which was related to the spine (the most important love affair the character had had during the series), but which took over once it was introduced. And once that 'bit' was finished, it proved to be extremely hard to return to the original throughline.
On the other hand, just deleting the element wasn't a solution either, as it was something which had to be dealt with or the loyal fans in the audience would wonder why it hadn't been talked about.

So the way I finally cracked it was to go back to the beginning of the scene (again, as I'd tried several different versions already) and wrote a long version - a version which was deliberately too long for the finished script, but where I made sure that I put in every little step of the psychological process the protagonist had to go through.

As the context of the scene was an interview about the protagonist's love life, I also had to make sure that the character doing the interview managed to

I also made sure that the tangent wasn't introduced at a point where it derailed the scene, but at the moment where it amplified and complemented the main thrust of the scene.

Then, it was just a question of cutting back the excess dialogue and exposition. It's amazing to discover just how much material you can cut without losing the point you need to make. However, you usually do need to spell matters out first, before discovering the more concise version which is the right one.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Perils of Preaching

All screenwriters have probably been bombarded with the golden rule: don't preach in your script - or, in (probably) Samuel Goldwyn's immortal words: if you want to send a message, use Western Union.

This is one of those rules which you don't want to be true, but when you break it you realize just how valid and universal it is. Yet some filmmakers still persist in doing so - and the finished product, whether film or TV show, always suffers as a result.

Case in point, the Dutch political comedy Vox Populi, which I watched yesterday.

Vox Populi is about a radical left-wing politician, leader of the fictitious Red-Green Party, who is doing very badly in the polls. Largely because of the presence of a populist right-wing party with an explicit anti-Moslem message.
He then meets the father of his future son-in-law, who is a blue-collar car salesman, politically incorrect, often aggressive but fundametally honest and warm-hearted guy. Though shocked by the raunchy humour and crass comments of his new near-relative, he realizes some of them have some merit and he starts parroting them to the media.

The result is that he becomes extremely popular (except with his parliamentary colleagues and his existing voters) and his party, which was on the verge of disappearing, shoots to the top of the polls.

The film actually muddles this set-up by having the politician be manipulated by an ex-Yougoslavian son-in-law of the car salesman, who has made a bet with his brother(?) that he's going to make the Red-Green Party the biggest political party in Holland come the election. There's never any real pay-off of this extra level in the plot.

Anyway, eventually our 'hero' is caught on tape telling a raunchy anti-Moslem joke, an extremist faction wants to kill him, and he has to go live in a safe house. Just before the general election, he decides to address the nation, and gives a long speech to the nation.

And here, of course, he stops being a character and becomes the mouthpiece for writer/director Eddy Terstall. He denounces his own behaviour, dissects the problems in contemporary Dutch society and declares he is leaving politics and the country, but imparts his wishlist of how Holland should face the challenges it is confronted with now, like a wise old man providing life lessons for his wayward pupils.

Of course, this is an inherently non-dramatic situation. That's one handicap. But more problematically, what the character says, does not correspond with how he has behaved throughout the movie.

He's been a hypocrite through and through (relentless womanizer, recreational drug user, liar, narcissist), and the audience has never got a really good handle on what he actually does believe in apart from his original ideals. And to have such a character suddenly declare the moral message of the film, without any clear indication of how he acquired these insights, just undermines whatever the filmmaker tries to say.

To attempt to make the turnabout of the protagonist slightly acceptable, the character declares before delivering his message that he's had a lot of time to think in his safehouse and has come to realize some things... and no, it doesn't work.

The regrettable thing is that, with a different approach to the plot, the same message could have been put across. In a far more convincing manner. How? By dramatizing the content of the message. By creating situations, dilemmas and conflicts which put the main character through the wringer, and force him to make a difficult choice, the result of which shows his true character and makes it clear to the audience what the filmmaker wants to get across.

Why, you can even have big message-laden speeches if you really want - as long as you put them in a dramatic context. Preston Sturges was a master at this - check the finale of Hail The Conquering Hero, for instance.

Or, sabotage the big speech, because of the dramatic context it is placed in, as is the case in The China Syndrome, when Jack Lemmon's character finally gets the chance to air the truth on television.

But whatever you do, don't get the character up on a soapbox, and definitely don't have him come to certain conclusions or assume the moral high ground when throughout the entire film his mentality and behaviour have been diametrically opposed to what you want to convey. You're just going to ruin whatever effect you're hoping to achieve.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Review: Inside Story - The Power of the Transformational Arc (Dara Marks)

Dara Marks has been one of the most prominent script doctors in Hollywood for years. A good thing, then, that she's decided to write down her theories and share them with the world, so that every screenwriter can benefit from her approach.

Since the subtitle of the book is The Power of the Transformational Arc, it's pretty clear from the start what Ms. Marks' main focus is going to be. And you may think 'Hey, I know about that stuff already'. And you'd be right - you do know about the concept.

However, you do not know how Dara Marks approaches it. And even though I've read literally hundreds of screenwriting books, and some of the concepts used here were very close to some of the material in Keith Cunningham's The Soul of Screenwriting, reviewed here a couple of weeks ago, I still learned quite a lot from this book.

Or rather, the new concepts (or, more correctly, the new dimensions added to concepts) are explained so well and convincingly that you immediately take them on board. This, to me, is the mark of a truly effective screenwriting manual - after one read, you have the concepts down pat to a degree that you can immediately start applying them to your work.

The first part of the book looks at the central concepts in Ms. Marks' theory; the second part then applies them to screenplay structure.

As we're talking about the transformational arc, it's no surprise that much of the theory is about defining and using the fatal flaw in the main character. What makes Ms. Marks' approach particularly useful is that she stresses that the fatal flaw must be intimately related to the main conflict of the script. In so many flawed (pun intended) scripts, the protagonist has to overcome a weakness which bears no relation to the external story goal. The result is that the transformation of the protagonist is gratuitous and clichéed. When the transformational arc does coincide with the story goal, it becomes an indispensible part of the storytelling experience (Casablanca, anyone?).

There's also a lot of good material about creating characters and about finding (and using) the theme for your story. The book also takes the three-pronged approach we found in Soul of Screenwriting: the A-story is the external conflict, the B-story is the internal conflict within the protagonist which leads to the transformation (or, in a tragedy, to the lack of same) and the C-story is about the relationships the protagonist is involved in, and how they are affected/changed by the transformative process. It's very good to have these things spelled out so clearly, because especially this third level is overlooked far too often by screenwriters.

The example films used here are three big movies from the '80s: Romancing The Stone, Lethal Weapon and Ordinary People. These films were chosen for a very good reason: they each have a different approach to their protagonists. Romancing has the traditional single protagonist, Lethal has co-protagonists and Ordinary has a group as the protagonist (the family).

This is probably the thing in the book I'll be most grateful to Dara Marks for, for the rest of my writing life: yes, you can have more than one protagonist. What really matters is the goal - if two people work together towards the same goal, they are co-protagonists (all the buddy movies). And if a group of people are working towards the same goal, the group is the protagonist of the story.

This is such a breakthrough in thinking about screenplay writing, it cannot be emphasized enough. It absolutely helped me conceptually with a script idea which I'm convinced is extremely powerful, but which confused me structurally because, as it's about a family in dire peril, I couldn't get a handle on who the protagonist was going to be. Because each family member took the spotlight at different points during the story. Now, considering them as a single entity striving towards a common goal, things are falling into place very nicely.

Oh, and there's much, much more on how to apply this concept practically in the book. Don't worry, I didn't spoil it for you, I just gave you a little taste of what's in store.

The second part on screenwriting structure is both surprising and traditional. Very traditional, indeed, because where structural points are concerned, Ms. Marks harks back to Syd Field in a pretty basic form: two plot points and a midpoint, that's all you get.

However, she adds a lot of content to the model. Not in terms of 'points to hit', but in how she describes what is happening to your protagonist during each act (act 2 is, once again, divided into two parts). The transformational process is described in painstaking detail.

The graphical representation of the screenplay is quite different from what we usually see - instead of a mountainous range, it's a bell curve, created by folding open a circle. Each quadrant of the circle (an act) has its own descriptor to indicate how the protagonist is 'feeling' with regards to the transformation at that point. So it's quite clear, visually speaking, though I personally don't like that the third act is on the same level as the first act. However, no one ever wrote a bad (or a good) screenplay because of a visual representation of a story structure, so this is merely a personal nitpick.

Throughout the book, the writing style is excellent: professional in tone, but very clear and easy to read without ever feeling dumbed down. It's a perfect example of a textbook, combining readability with content. There are some spiritual passages in the book, but they are never overbearing or preachy, and quite limited in number. Interestingly, though Ms. Marks has a Ph.D in mythology, there's very little Joseph Campbell in this book, and no explicit mention of the Hero's Journey whatsoever.

There's but one thing I truly disagree with in here (well, two things - I really really really don't like the ending of The Piano), and that's the analysis of Million Dollar Baby. I think the shift in the third act of that film is a stroke of genius, turning what seemed to be a very good version of a formulaic story we'd seen many times before(rags to riches) into a scarily realistic tragedy. Ms. Marks finds the shift too far removed from the story of the previous acts, and claims that Hilary Swank is the protagonist up to that point - but she's really not, it's Clint's story all the way. As the third act makes poignantly clear.

But this quibble aside (and who knows, you might agree more with her analysis than with mine), I wholeheartedly recommend this book to any screenwriter. And especially for beginners, this should be the second, third or fourth book you read when you're starting out. Because it will teach you a lot of important concepts which you will need to use in some form or another throughout your entire career, and it does so in an exemplary manner.

So, what are you waiting for? Get it here:

You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Know Your Ending

What do we mean exactly by 'know your ending'? Is it just 'James Bond foils Goldinger's plan and kills him'? Or do you need to know more? And how does knowing the ending help you construct your screenplay? Doesn't that take all the fun out of it?

Let's tackle this last question first. There are some writers out there, who do not outline in any way, and who do not want to know where they're going when they start out on the journey. And a very small number of them actually succeed in finishing their scripts and getting them filmed. They are either natural storytellers who just know how to tell good stories well, or they are idiosyncratic writers who have established close partnerships with directors and/or producers who share their same aesthetic - and in many cases they are actually writer-directors.

For the huge majority of writers though, knowing where you're going to is actuallu a prerequisite for finishing the script. It focuses the mind, helps you invent characters, incidents, thematic images etc. and it allows you to build a story with definite forward movement because you know where you're going.

And as for the fun being taken out of it if you know your destination - well, don't forget that during the writing process, you can change your mind whenever you want about what the ending should be. In fact, in many cases it will! And the journey to the ending will definitely add so many details, so much knowledge and so many opportunities to your story, that it will evolve naturally into something different than what you first imagined it would be.

Now, on to the meat of the question - when do you know your ending?

First, when we talk about the ending, in this case we mean the climax, i.e. the moment at which the dramatic question which powers the script is answered. To take Star Wars as an example, the dramatic question there is: will Luke Skywalker succeed in defeating the Empire? The answer to that question is: yes. That's a no-brainer.

Casablanca has a trickier dramatic question to answer: will Rick get Ilsa back? Here you have more options as a writer. Yes, she goes back to her true love, no, she stays with her husband, no, he dies, no, she dies, no, her husband dies and she becomes a nun out of guilt, yes, but Victor comes along for the ride and they go through life as a happy threesome... So answering your dramatic question in this case is quintessential to being able to write a compelling script.

So depending on the story you're telling, this basic answer can be quite hard to determine. And determine it you must, to know how you're going to build up to that answer.

Secondly, once you have your central answer to the dramatic question, you need to know some details about your climax. Not just the 'what', but also the 'how'.

To take the Star Wars example again: Luke will defeat the evil plans of the Empire, but the modalities of this event could have been totally different. There could have been an infiltration of the Death Star, or a strike on the governmental buildings on Coruscant, Grand Moff Tarkin could have been assassinated which might have thrown the entire military operation in disarray, Luke could have faced off against Vader face-to-face... Instead, Lucas chose to build the climax around a bombing run, and made Luke's choosing the Force over technology the crucial moment which cemented his internal transformation.

But as I mentioned earlier, it's perfectly natural for the 'how' (and occassionally the 'what' as well) to change during the writing process. In the case of Star Wars, George Lucas had developed several completely different drafts over the years before settling on the story he finally shot. (Many elements of the earlier incarnations of the story -unfortunately- showed up in the Prequel trilogy.)

Looking at Casablanca's climax, the importance of knowing your theme becomes especially clear. If, say, Rick had sold Victor out to the Nazis and remained in Casablanca together with Ilsa, the theme of the film would have been that true love is more important than moral integrity, or the end justifies the means. If Rick helped Victor escape but then told him that Ilsa was staying with him, that would be another theme altogether. The actual ending cements the theme that altruism (in this case also linked strongly to patriotism) is the highest ideal. A different climax means your story has a different underlying message.

So, knowing your ending means knowing how you are answering the central dramatic question, and how your protagonist and antagonist are going to interact during the climax of the story. And ideally it also means knowing the theme your story expresses, and expressing it through the details of the climax - though in quite a few cases, you will only discover your real theme in the course of the writing process.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

We Get Requests - Getting past Go (or Act One, to be precise)

Here it is - the first topic suggested by a reader of the blog!

And it's about a situation I've found myself into more than once. I just hope that my musings and suggestions on the matter are of interest and can help you out somewhat!

When I was a kid, I loved writing stories. It was one of my favourite pastimes.

Well... I loved writing the BEGINNING of stories.

You see, I was going to be this amazing science fiction author, and I had a couple of books full of pulp magazine covers of the '20s and '30s - wonderfully evocative pieces of popular art which couldn't help but get the heart and imagination of a twelve-year old pumping. And these covers inspired me to dream up my literary masterpieces.


As soon as I sat down at the typewriter (my god, was I ever that young??), and started typing away, by the time I reached the end of the first page, I had a 'far better' idea for another story. Which I started right away - this was the one I was going to tell, no matter what!!

Except... ad infinitum.

More than thirty years later, I still struggle with the same problem. Not when working on a TV series, but when working on my own spec projects and ideas. I'll go over the same part of the story ad infinitum, and end up with nothing but a first act that's all dressed up and has nowhere to go.

So what's at the root of this problem?

There are a few causes. First and foremost: FEAR.

Fear of failure makes us subconsciously sabotage our own projects. How does this work? Well, if you don't finish something, no one can reject it... (I actually pulled this stunt some 10 years ago, when I had the opportunity to write the pilot script for a new comedy series I'd developed with a producer for the network... stupid, stupid, stupid)

How to overcome this - well, apart from realizing the psychological mechanism at work in yourself and then getting REALLY ANGRY about it, the best ways I have found are 1) get a definite deadline, so you're forced to get on with things

2) get a writing partner. If you're working on a script with two people, there will always be at least one to keep things moving - even if only by goading the other half of the partnership into action. The very fact that someone else is counting on you to write the stuff, is a great motivator.

If you don't want a writing partner, a reading partner or some sort of coach could also do the trick - although you have to be careful with giving someone access to your script or story before it's finished. Because then another self-destructive psychological mechanism can come into play: you've already told your story, the creative urge to communicate has been sated, and you let the project drop because 'it's been done'.

Now, on the level of writing the script, there's also a reason why you can't get past Act One: you haven't done sufficient homework.

It's relatively easy to have an idea for a great opening to a movie, or to invent an inciting incident/plot start which really upsets someone's apple cart and has great promise for becoming an exciting, engaging screenplay.

It's far, far harder to think of an amazing finale for a movie. How many times have you come up with an incredible climax, and then thought 'hmmm, what story would fit this ending'? I'm betting it's a very rare occurence. (granted, if you're dreaming up a new Bond or Indy or Godzilla adventure, you might have more chance of this).

And that's pretty easy to explain. Dreaming up a climax means that you're answering a dramatic question. Which is very difficult if you don't know what that question is and who or what it involves.

Conversely, coming up with a basic dramatic question is far easier. It's also the logical starting point for the creative experience.

And it's easy to get lost in the excitement of the moment. At times, it may seem as if all the parts of the script puzzle are falling into place automatically. But certain aspects of the puzzle don't come quite that easily.

Most importantly: how unique is your protagonist? Has s/he got a real personality, with quirks, flaws, dreams, needs and goals? Or is he just Generic White Male Heroic Tween #245 who's only fit for the lead in Transformers 3 - It Gets Worse?

And secondly: what's the theme of your story? And does the psychological make-up of your main character fit this theme? Similarly, what about the antagonist - how is s/he related to the theme and the values it expresses?

The reader who asked me to tackle this topic said that he once he hit Act 2, all he could come up with were clichés or things he'd seen before or considered trite. That, to me, seems like proof that the above elements probably weren't considered sufficiently in order to create a unique and original story (no matter what the genre).

Then again, another good reason for getting stuck once you're past act One is that you don't know your ending, or not well enough - or that the ending you've considered is not the correct one for your story. And once again, this means doing the necessary preliminary work (and it's intimately linked to the previously mentioned elements) before trying to complete your story.

Something which can help you overcome this problem is using a very detailed structural model, such as provided in the Contour software or Blake Snyder's Save The Cat. Because these models are so elaborate and at times very specific, they may help you formulate concrete answers to the story questions
which elude you. However, this won't work for everyone - it depends on how your creative process works. Some people will feel too constrained by this approach, while for others it will unlock ideas they didn't even know they could have.

But, to sum up, in order to get past Act One, you must:

- Know your protagonist (and to a very slightly lesser degree your antagonist)
- Know your theme
- Know your ending!!!

Good luck!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Trouble With Sequels - The Sequel

Yesterday, we looked at sequels which don't work as well as the film which started the franchise. But of course, there are more than a few examples of sequels which do work as well as (or sometimes even better than) the original film in the series.

So how do these films manage to succeed where others fail? And do they have certain elements in common?

First up, the (original) Star Wars Trilogy.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker goes on a very explicit Hero's Journey, moving from callow innocent to seasoned warrior with a special gift (The Force) and a destiny - resurrecting the Jedi.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke turns out not to be the perfect warrior yet- he's just begun mastering Jedi skills, and is sent to Yoda to complete his training. Impatient and headstrong, Luke is not a perfect student, and he rushes off to do battle with Darth Vader long before Yoda thinks he's ready for it. The result is a resounding defeat and the loss of his hand.
So in this sequel, we see the continuation of Luke's growing process - and this time, impatience and stubbornness, two facets of his character which weren't really important in the first film, provide the inner conflict in an organic and believable way.

In Return of the Jedi, Luke has become a full-fledged Jedi, and goes to face his enemies (Vader and the Emperor) on more-or-less equal footing. Seen over the course of the three films, this is the culmination of his apprenticeship; in the film itself, however, Luke has almost no arc left, and his story (except for the finale of the climax sequence) is mainly played out on the external level. Small wonder Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the original trilogy.

Still, what we have here is a transformational arc which takes three films to complete (as they forge one BIG story). This is why it's possible for Lucas, Kasdan and company to keep the audience interested in the way Luke's story is played out. Similarly, Frodo's inner journey in The Lord of the Rings takes the three books and movies to explore completely - and Harry Potter keeps maturing and learning different life lessons over the course of seven books and probably eight films.

Okay, that's trilogies, which tell one story over several instalments. But what about straight-up sequels to a first film which completely finishes its arc?

Let's take a look at Back To The Future. In the first film, Marty McFly faces two problems: stuck in the '50s on the day his parents met, he has to get them together even though his mom has the hots for him; and secondly, he has to return to the '80s.
He succeeds at both tasks, and in doing so transforms the people he's met, resulting in a totally different present when he returns to 1984. Marty himself, though, doesn't change much during the film - he's more of a catalyst protagonist than someone who goes through an arc.

In the second film of the series, Marty suddenly has an important flaw: whenever someone challenges him, he has to take up the challenge - even if it's really stupid or dangerous to do so - because he can't bear to be thought a coward. This button gets pushed several times in the film, and leads to disastrous results. And it's a flaw which doesn't get resolved in the film, either (and it's perfectly acceptable and believable that this is the case).

Now, this flaw fit the character of Marty McFly so well, that the first time I saw the sequel, I was convinced it had been present in the first film as well, and I was flabbergasted when I discovered it wasn't. So that's some really clever and well-done character development: adding a new aspect of the character which feels as if it's been there forever.

In the third film, Marty's flaw finally gets 'cured' back in the Wild West, when he finally realizes it's better to be alive and thought to be 'chicken' by folks who don't really matter, than to be a dead would-be hero. As the problem wasn't solved in part 2, having the arc close in part 3 works - though there is a certain amount of repetitiveness creeping into the whole endeavour.

And then there are the first three Rocky films: in part one Rocky triumphs over his own limitations, but doesn't win the championship; in part 2, he gets another shot at the championship against the same opponent, and this time he wins - the lessons learned in the first film leading him to (wish fulfillment) triumph. And in the third film, he's let success go to his head, which leads to him losing his fighting edge and the moral and psychological strength he had developed. After having everything taken away from him, he has to come back from the pits of despair and reclaim his abilities. Part 4 eschews any real arc and just has the best American boxer beating on the best Soviet boxer in a purely external conflict.

Finally, there's still another option: the movie series with the 'unchanging' hero. James Bond pre-Brosnan, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan... The character is fully formed from the moment we meet him, has a number of quirks and flaws in place which will remain with him throughout the series. The character's attractive to the audience 'as is'. This method can work very well - in fact, all episodic television is based on it. If the lead character is exciting/intriguing/interesting enough, we want to see him go through his paces again time after time after time.

The trick here is to make the character seem rich enough psychologically so that internal transformations aren't necessary to keep us emotionally invested in the proceedings. And to be sure that the storytelling is so strong and inventive that the external storyline is entertaining and exciting enough to entrance the audience.

Quite often, this translates into a (very effective) formula which can be repeated ad inifitum, providing the same type of thrills for its target audience - and if you look at the success of series like House, M.D., getting the formula right is a recipe for long-lasting success. And this formulaic approach doesn't even necessarily mean you're producing an inferior product - House, M.D. is a very effective cross-fertilization of the whodunit story mechanic with the hospital series, for instance, with excellent performances and very effective humorous dialogue.

(As an aside, the reason the Brosnan Bonds don't do the transformational arc succesfully is because they just add random flaws to the character which don't really fit the Bond image.
In Goldeneye, he feels guilty for years because he couldn't rescue his friend/colleague from the Russians. Bond, feeling guilty without doing anything about it? Really?
In Tomorrow Never Dies, he meets an ex-girlfriend he ran away from because things got too serious. Bond the wimpy commitmentphobe, really?
In The World Is Not Enough, he falls in love with the villainess and has to choose between loving her and saving M. In Bond's world, that's not even close to a dilemma.
And in Die Another Day, he has to piece himself together again after having been captured and tortured by the North Koreans for months on end - a process which takes as long as getting a shave and a haircut. All these elements are either tacked on to the character or not really investigated in any depth, with the result that they weaken the quintessential nature of the Bond Archetype.)

So the solution to keeping your sequels as fresh and exciting as the original are:

- tell one larger story over several installments, which keeps your protagonist growing and transforming throughout

- add new but organic flaws to your protagonist and make sure this new internal plot matches your external plot (which might be somewhat more formulaic in nature)

- Have your main character evolve organically from film to film, so that the new adventure is caused by or influences his/her current state of being

- keep your protagonist unchanged but make him/her an emotionally rich character, and either tell only an external story or have him/her go through challenges time and again which fail to change them (the latter applies to comedies, primarily)

And above all - realize that sometimes a character is used up, and either has to be changed fundamentally or should be allowed to retire gracefully in the collective subconcious of global pop culture.
Good luck convincing the bean counters of this, though...