Thursday, April 30, 2009

Filmmaking resource: MakingOf

Here's a new and very interesting site, created by Natalie Portman and producer Christine Aylward, which provides a window into what goes on behind the scenes of the moviemaking progress. It looks great - and it's only in Beta, so who knows what's still to come.

Check it out at:

Making Of

Script Review: Medieval

Over at Go Into The Story and Scriptshadow, this script was chosen as a sort of 'homework assignment' for the blog readers. Both blogs will post their review and the readers will chime in with their comments.

So I thought it would be interesting to provide a European view of the script.

Medieval (Mike Finch and Alex Litvak) was sold as a spec script earlier this year, and McG has shown interest in directing it. The script was reported in the trades as a medieval version of The Dirty Dozen.

It isn't.

It's The Usual Suspects in a fantasy version of medieval Europe, by way of 300 and (primarily) hyperviolent video games.

Since this is a Usual Suspects-variation, with a Big Twist in the final ten pages, spoiling the ending is a very big deal. So I won't do it - I'll be able to post my opinions and concerns without having to go into the details of the ending.

The plot: seven supreme warriors (the Gypsy, the Viking, the Zulu, the Knight, the Samurai, the Arab, the Shaolin Monk) find themselves in a cell, waiting for their execution. A lawyer pops up and gives them a way out: if they raid the treasury of the king, which is protected by fiendish traps, and get their hands on the crown, they will be spared. And just to ensure their co-operation, the seven have been poisoned by their 'benefactor' with a poison which will be activated by sunlight.

The Superb Seven accept the job and arrive at the purported treasury, where they find they've been lied to: they're not in the treasury, the king has just been murdered, apparently by his bodyguard who's now attacking a pageboy. The protagonists intervene and go on the run with the page-boy who turns out to be a girl - and the Princess Amelia to boot. They have to reach a ship in the harbour which will carry them to safety.

Edward the Black, the king's evil twin brother, sets his entire army and his super-invincible bodyguards on the 'heroes'. They are blocked from reaching the harbour at a gigacntic bridge, and have to traverse the city - and the domains of the Gangs, criminal organizations which are EVEN MORE DEADLY than the SUPER BODY GUARDS of the villain, to reach the ship which will bring them to safety. Not all of them make it, but the survivors and Princess Amelia decide to turn the ship about and attack Edward in his castle, while he is being crowned king.
And after all of this, there's the big twist I can't mention here.

Medieval is utter nonsense. It puts together seven characters who couldn't possibly be in the same place at the same time (there were no more vikings in the 14th century for a start, and no samurai or shaolin monk ever came to Europe then).
The story takes place in an unnamed medieval version of New York. The country isn't named either, though it should apparently be England, except that Amelia calls herself Princess of Aquilon at one time. Which reminds us of Aquilonia, the country from the Hyborian age which Conan the Barbarian came to rule in Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery tales.

But then, believability isn't this script's main concern. It opens with 'Once upon a time in Medieval Europe' and it blithely disregards logic, historical accuracy, the laws of physics and the laws of good storytelling in an ever-present rush of 'OMGWTF!!!'-cool moments. You can have shootouts with bows, jump after someone who's falling to their death and slam into a wall while simulatneously jamming your daggers into the stone to provide infallible handholds, you can use medieval napalm and sticky bombs which would make the Pentagon jealous, and the city has exotic slave markets as well as large parts which are ruled by martial artist-courtesans or men dressed as birds with metal razors on their hands which, and I quote, 'would make Freddy Krueger jealous'.

And this is a perfect segue to my next point/gripe. This script uses the William Goldman/Shane Black style of talking to the reader in order to immerse them in the experience. Unfortunately, this is either done by telling us how 'fucking incredibly cool this fucking move is', or, and this really got on my nerves, by comparing what happens to what we've seen in other films. An underground tavern run by the King of the Gyspies is like Mos Eisley's cantina. When the protagonists are on the run in the warrens of the Ravens gang, it's Black Hawk Down time. When the samurai gets his big moment, gore spurts Lone Wolf and Cub style, the gangs are an obvious nod to The Warriors (someone even says 'Come out and play' at a certain point). And so on, and so forth.

Now, thinking it over, what we get here is actually a pitch session on paper. Executives can read this and immediately see what film this is supposed to look like at that time. It's shorthand, it creates images in the mind, and it links the script to succesful (or at least well-known) other films and franchises.

But it also shows that there is precious little originality at work here. Everything should be like some other film - except with the volume turned up to 12.

For our seven lead characters, none of which get a name though all of which have a Big Secret, are the meanest mofo badasses on the whole fucking planet. Except they keep running into even meaner mofo'ing badasses (teutonic knights who are not only invincible tanks but look like monsters when their helmets are removed, a sumo wrestler who's like a moving mountain, Hindu cannibal tribesmen who only came into existence in the 18th century), who then in turn are trumped by the still meaner mofo'ing badass supervillains of the gangs who are... trumped by our original seven. It's a continous bidding war of badassery, with tons and tons of cool moves and, more importantly, gore. Lots and lots of gruesome gore.

The characters are archetypes, and very one-dimensional. Which makes the revelations of their hidden pasts and demons in the second half of the script rather surprising and really quite unnecessary. There's so much blood and thunder that the character scenes have to be squeezed in. And frankly, I didn't care about any of them. Because everything about this script was unbelievable, trying for some character development was a waste of time.

In any case, I didn't care about any of the characters, good or bad. I was surprised by some of the lead character deaths, and I was also surprised to discover that a few who I thought had died during the finale actually survived. But I never formed any attachment to any of them.

There's a structure present in the script pages themselves: it's divided into 5 chapters headings (which will be onscreen if the script is filmed as is). They are not necessary though: none of the chapter headings actually add anything to the narrative.
What is surprising is that we should have a clear five act structure, but look at the page count:

Chapter one: The Gathering: page 3-24
Chapter two: The Heist: page 24-29
Chapter three: The Set-Up: page 29 - 47
Chapter four: The Getaway: page 47 - 98(!)
Chapter five: The Return: page 98 - 118

So we see that the second chapter is incredibly short, and that the fourth chapter takes up almost half of the screenplay. It's a truly bizarre choice, as while reading I had the feeling that I'd missed out on a chapter. The first chapter is more or less your traditional Act One, but chapters 2-4 certainly aren't a traditional act 2.

As for the big twist: it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. One of the characters isn't how we were made to perceive them, and had a Big Masterplan. But unlike the master plan in Usual Suspects, which also doesn't really make sense but which has the wonderfully clever reveal of the items in the policeman's office having been used as 'props' in the development of the story we've been told.
Here, the revelation is just that someone's motives were different from what we thought, and the chance of success at the plan was so ridiculously low that it drives the final nail into the coffin of the story.

Okay, lots of negativity here. But the script sold. For a hefty sum, as well. So why was it succesful, then?

It's written in a very visual way. There are lots of descriptions of CGI shots which are intended to wow the audience and entice the director reading the script, there are many descriptions of slo-mo or handheld and frenetic shots, and, no matter how absurd and over-the-top the characters and situations are, you do imagine them while reading the script.

Secondly, this is a script aimed at teenage males and students, and it hits all the right notes: profanity, violence, over-the-top stunts, gore, gore and more gore, some anti-heroic behaviour at times, and a few naked women here and there to spice things up. 300 also was a success (though it was a godawful film), and this script aims at the same audience - which, let's face it, is out there and is global.

Thirdly, as I mentioned, the conversational style of the action directions and the frequent explicit references to other films make it a pitch session on paper, and I can see this working for development executives who think they get a very clear idea of what the finished film will be like.

Still, I can't help wishing that the whole concept had been treated in a somewhat more realistic way, or that it had been an out-and-out fantasy movie (where concerns of real-life historical accuracy do not come into play). And that the characters were more appealing. And that the dialogue didn't waver between Tarantino-esque profanity and typical historical bombast. And... oh well. I won't be standing in line to watch Medieval when it comes out - but there will be many, many who will.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Some more golden oldie screenwriting book reviews

Some more book reviews which first appeared in Screentalk:

ADVANCED SCREENWRITING: Raising Your Script To The Academy Award Level by Linda Seger (Silman-James Press, 2003, 300p.)

In her introduction, Linda Seger states that by now (and this was in 2003, the number must have almost doubled by now) there have been 120 books aimed at beginning screenwriters. This new tome is intended for the more experienced writer who wants to take his/her work to a higher artistic level. Although that should be taken with a grain of salt: this book can easily be used by beginning writer, and you won't find any truly advanced stuff here either.

Seger focuses on scripts written in the last twenty years, as she feels that these examples are most relevant to today’s writers. As such, she talks extensively about films like Magnolia, A Beautiful Mind, American Beauty, Lord of the Rings and other more recent productions. This ensures that much of the material presented here is fresh. On the other hand, some of the films discussed are really not that amazing in retrospect.

At first glance, the topics treated in the book don’t look that advanced: more talk about structure, scenes, dialogue, character transformation etc. The book's title is somewhat justified by the many new insights which Seger provides. For instance, she describes several different story structures, and provides an extensive listing of types of scenes. She is also refreshingly undogmatic: often criticising the storytelling in some very popular films, but doing it in a way which encourages the reader to think about their own responses to the points she’s making. However, as I mentioned before, this book really isn't that complex or impenetrable. It's a perfect companion to Making A Good Script Great.

What is noticeable is that in some instances her comments on some very well-regarded European films reveal the depth of the cultural divide between the two continents.

The final chapter focuses on the power of film to transform people’s lives.
In short, a lot of new, thought-provoking material, which will benefit any screenwriter, beginner or advanced.




OUTWITTING WRITER’S BLOCK And Other Problems Of The Pen by Jenna Glatzer
(The Lyons Press, 2003, 250 p.)


Some writers claim writer’s block doesn’t exist. Others – present company included – know the feeling of banging your head against a mental brick wall but too well. Whatever the cause, one thing is certain: if you don’t find a solution to your block in Jenna Glatzer’s book, you’re probably beyond help.

Glatzer has written everything from screenplays to greeting cards, and is the editor-in-chief of absolutewrite.com. In this entertaining book she shares hundreds of methods to defeat the Block Demons.

Every possible cause of writer’s block is examined, from psychological problems to dealing with your kids, and for every problem several solutions are offered. For instance, in order to silence your Inner Critic, Glatzer counsels to cultivate an Inner Advocate, who is your biggest fan in the world. And in order to keep the balance between these extremes, she adds the Inner Pragmatist to the mix, whose job it is to keep a writer’s feet on the ground while still allowing creative flights of fancy.

There are also tons of very practical suggestions, such as keeping different kinds of notebooks, using published works you admire to get your juices flowing when blocked, and using opposites to explore new possibilities in your work. For the more esoterically-minded, there’s even a section on Feng Shui. For the less esoterically-minded, luckily it’s only a short section.

At times the (funny) humour becomes somewhat relentless, but the deluge of advice and stimulating writing exercises add up to a book which will benefit any writer.




WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL THE ACKERMAN WAY by Hal Ackerman (Tallfellow Press, 2003, 274 p.)

A colleague of Richard Walter and Lew Hunter at UCLA, Hal Ackerman couldn't really stay behind and not distil his course into a book. And even though the title isn’t exactly the greatest ever, there’s a good chance that this will become one of the more popular screenwriting bibles out there.

Though the book is mainly aimed at beginning writers, and thus treats the same topics as usual, Ackerman offers enough original insights and practical tips to keep experienced writers interested as well. He doesn’t shy away from some controversial statements: he disagrees with Lajos Egri, for instance, about the importance of theme as a guiding principle in dramatic writing, and replaces it by desire.

Ackerman is also the inventor of the Scenogram (previously introduced by Richard Krevolin in his latest book), a visual way of structuring the screenplay. While it doesn’t differ much from the most commonly used three-act structural model, it does seem to be a very useful and hands-on way of dealing with this material. Moreover, the way in which Ackerman uses scene cards in conjunction with the Scenogram is a real eye-opener. And his other creative technique, the ‘snowplow’, will also definitely engender results for the writer who sticks with it.

Ackerman’s buzzwords are desire, doing and conflict. Nothing new, but the way he puts the message across is definitely effective. The book also offers dozens of inspirational writing exercises which help keep the ‘writer muscles’ in shape. A book which I would recommend to all beginning screenwriters.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Film/script Review: Vicky Christina Barcelona - How The Mighty Have (Woody) F(Allen)?

In my screenwriting classes, I've often used Woody Allen films as teaching materials. Bullets Over Broadway and The Purple Rose Of Cairo being two particularly useful films in this regard. Love And Death is one of my favourite comedies ever (yes, I love the early funny ones). And I usually found something to enjoy in later Allen pictures, even though the potential for comedy was generally not exploited to the maximum (Hollywood Ending, for one).

In recent years, Woody Allen has broadened his palette: he's left New York for Europe, he's tried new genres, he's moved away from his own Neurotic New Yorker-persona in his films (whether played by himself or by John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh et al.), and he examines new themes - or at least puts new spins on old ones.

Unfortunately, this innovative period seems to have coincided with a dramatic decrease in storytelling ability.

Case in point: Vicky Christina Barcelona.

MAJOR spoilers follow about the entire film - you have been warned.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young American girls who go to visit Barcelona, staying with relatives of Vicky's. Vicky, engaged to be married to decent, handsome, somewhat dull Doug, is doing a master's degree on Catalan identity, Christina has artistic ambitions but is at a loss about what to do with her life.

In Barcelona they meet a sexy Spanish painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who wastes no time inviting both girls to join him on a trip to a little town called Oviedo, to see the sights and have sex with either or both of them. Christina agrees, Vicky doesn't, but ends up accompanying both of them anyway. When Christina falls ill, Juan Antonio seduces Vicky.

Once back in Barcelona, though, he goes after Christina full tilt, leaving Vicky hurt and doubting what she wants in life (her engagement). Suddenly Juan Antonio's ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who had tried to kill him, returns to upset his relationship with Christina. But things turn out surprisingly: Christina turns out to be the missing ingredient in the relationship between the ex-spouses, and soon they are involved in a harmonious bisexual three-way relationship.

Christina is encouraged by Maria Elena to develop her talent as a photographer, and everyone seems happy until Christina becomes restless and dissatisfied and leaves her lovers, to their anger and chagrin. She takes refuge in Antibes to gather her thoughts.

As soon as she's gone, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena once again start fighting all the time. Juan Antonio turns to Vicky, even though she's married to Doug by now. Thanks to the manipulations of her female relative, who is trapped in a passionless marriage and wants to save Vicky from the same fate, Vicky ends up on a date with Juan Antonio.

But when they visit his studio, they are attacked by an hysterical Maria Elena who fires a pistol at them. Juan Antonio disarms her, but in the ensuing shouting match the gun goes off by accident and Vicky is wounded in the hand. This is the final straw and she leaves Juan Antonio and Maria Elena for good. But when she and Vicky return to the States, both are unhappy: Christina because she cannot ever be satisfied, Vicky because she realizes she's trapped in a passionless marriage and she really does want that passion after all.

Now - where did Woody Allen go wrong this time?

He forgot the cardinal rule: Show, Don't Tell.

VCB uses a narrator throughout the movie, an omniscient presence who does not play a part in the film. I was very much reminded of Henry James, for some reason - in any case, the tone of the narration is very much that of a late 19th - early 20th century short story. Alas, it also fulfills the same function as it would in a short story: it tells the reader what is happening and what the characters are feeling at that very moment. And Allen more often than not either shows us exactly what the narration is describing, or, and this is even worse, makes no attempt at dramatizing the emotional information we are given. We know Christina is free-spirited because we are told this several times. We never see her do any particular free-spirited thing.

So the narration is often used as a narrative shortcut, which results in the actual scenes being devoid of tension, emotion, conflict or emotional affect.

When there are scenes of conflict, or where the characters show their opposed mentalities/personalities in action, the dialogue is usually full of Big Ideas, instead of actual character revelation. Vicky and Christina often sound more like students in a university debate on ethics, rather than vibrant young women in confusing emotional straits.

Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are in shrill contrast to this: they are far more alive and compelling characters, especially as portrayed by Javier Bardem (in full Don Juan mode) and Penelope Cruz. Cruz especially invigorates the film, with her extremely volatile and passionate personality and her wonderful leonine hairdo. By contrast Mss. Hall and Johansson just fade away into the background, both giving a low-key performance. Which is not hard to understand, as the script doesn't really give them the right material to work with.

If we consider whose story this is, that question is fairly hard to answer. The climax belongs to Vicky, and she's the one who changes most throughout the film (though her evolution comes quite quickly and is already cemented by the time she has sex with Juan Antonio). She all but disappears from the central narrative, though, becoming a witness to the passionate love affair of Christina. Then, at the end when Christina has 'left the building', so to speak, Vicky enters the spotlight again.

But the fact is, it's hard to care for either of them.

Christina is filled with self-doubt (hates her artistic endeavours, thinks she has no talent), and she's unable to really experience long-lasting pleasure. In this, she's a female cousin of Annie Hall's Alvy Singer. But unlike Alvy, she's not funny, she's not pro-active and her self-centeredness makes her come across as shallow and cold. And the fact that we never even get to understand why she breaks up the ménâge à trois, what she brings to it that is the 'missing ingredient' ,or that we experience the emotional or rational struggle she goes through, doesn't allow us to empathize with her.

Vicky we do understand - but she's dull, she nags, she's a hypocrite, and on top of this she's a coward: she doesn't dare to follow her passion to the bitter end like Christina, she's afraid of emotional pain. And so the gunshot wound she suffers at the end has a highly symbolical value as well. (It could be said that Christina's running away from her lovers is also a form of cowardice,

What this all adds up to, is an uninvolving, remote meditation on the pains of love. There's enough material here for an out-and-out melodrama, a farce, a black comedy, an insightful psychological drama... Instead we get an almost clinical, theoretical exposé on the matter. Not even subtext is at work here, because the narration tells us everything we need to know. The audience isn't allowed to work out what's really going on between the characters, and for those elements we don't get explained to us, there's insufficient dramatic material present for us to come to any meaningful conclusions.

This is probably intended as a comedy of manners, though there are no laughs to be had, and the darkness at the heart of the tale is counteracted on screen by some truly lovely camerawork showcasing Barcelona and Catalonia at its most beautiful, suffusing everything with a golden glow. Which unfortunately does also give the film a sort of travelogue-like air at times (but that has nothing to do with the script per se).

I may use Vicky, Christina, Barcelona in future courses on screenwriting, but as an example of what NOT to do when it comes to using narration. And that's really a sad thing to realize (Allen's voice-over narration of Radio Days, for instance, was a brilliant example of how to make this kind of thing work).

Oh, and for the record: Javier Bardem's paintings in the film stink.

If you want to check it out for yourself, you can get the DVD here:

Monday, April 20, 2009

An apology to the Big Bang Theory!





When I saw the first episode of The Big Bang Theory, I wasn't impressed. The whole set-up (love- and/or sex-starved geeks hanging out with a dumb but nice blonde) seemed too derivative, the characters too broad, the geekiness too predictable and written from a non-geek point-of-view. Occasional glimpses of the show later in the season didn't do too much to change my opinion.

But recently I've stumbled upon several episodes of the second season which I've really enjoyed. The characters have become even more pronounced in their peculiarities, which makes them almost surreal at times (Sheldon dressing up as superhero The Flash while hopped up on coffee was almost Monty Pythonesque in its delicious absurdity). Jim Parsons' Sheldon is simply out-Nilesing David Hyde-Pierce by now, and steals the show, though all members of the cast really inhabit their roles to perfection by now.

And the geeky nerd-factor has increased to the nth degree - the most recent episode featured an in-depth discussion about who should inherit the Bat-cowl now Bruce Wayne is temporarily presumed dead in the Batman comics, a discussion which correctly referenced several finer points of DC comics major cross-over events of the last fifteen years - most of which the general TV audience is blissfully unaware of, even in the States. But as a comic-book fan, I can only say 'well done, sir!'

So, consider this my heartfelt recommendation of the show and my apology to Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady for occasionally bad-mouthing their show (not that they would care a whit, but it's the thought that counts). The Big Bang Theory may not yet be an all-time classic sitcom, but it's already developed into a damned good one - and who knows where it'll go from here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: THE WRITER'S TALE (Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook)

Showrunner and primary writer of the new Doctor Who series Russell T. Davies decided to take on quite an extra challenge when starting out upon the fourth season of the show - he agreed to an email collaboration with journalist/Who fanboy Benjamin Cook, during the entire season, detailing just how he made all his creative decisions, wrote his scripts, and what his own writerly mechanisms and methods consisted of.

It's probably the first time a succesful screenwriter has let 'the audience' inside his head, exposing his doubts, concerns, convictions and emotions to an unprecedented degree. The only 'censorship' applied to the email conversations were the excision of spoilers about the specials following season 4, and tons and tons of profane language, as the book is aimed primarily at the Doctor Who audience which includes a sizeable portion of youngsters. And Davies' personal life is also kept out of the proceedings unless it directly impacts his work as showrunner/writer.

The result is a hefty (512 pages!) hardcover book, lavishly illustrated, and full of information and insights into the making of a television series which no one who is not intimately involved with the production of the show would be privy to. As such, the book is a resounding success.

Davies is very honest, and his personality shines through warts and all (i.e. no attempts were made to make this some sort of hagiography). At times he's insensitive to others, crushingly insecure, arrogant, and egotistical. His homosexuality and sexual politics are also prominently mentioned, as Davies (who first became famous with the taboo-breaking Queer As Folk) deliberately uses his status and fame to confront audiences with the issue. At times his drooling crushes on attractive actors do become fairly annoying though - and for the record, if this book was written by a heterosexual showrunner who shared his crushes on female celbrities it would be just as irritating.
In any case, at all times Davies' passion for the show and his enormous creativity shine through. And he's also an amazingly gifted illustrator-cartoonist.

The book starts with the writing and production of the Titanic Christmas episode, co-starring Kylie Minogue, and then quickly segues into the creation of season four proper.
Season 4 introduced comedienne Catherine Tate as the new companion to the Doctor, after her appearance in a previous Christmas special. I'm no fan of Tate's, and didn't like the character of Donna much (though I have to admit it could have been much, much worse). It's intriguing (and frustrating) to discover that another companion had been designed first before Tate became available and showed interest to sign on for a full season.

We also follow the genesis and development of each script, both those of RTD himself and those of the other writers on the show - all of which except for Steven Moffat (the new showrunner) are heavily rewritten by Davies. In a few cases we get to see before-and-after script snippets, and there are many excerpts from Davies' own scripts. These often include scenes and even whole characters which were changed or deleted later on, so for hardcore Who-o-philes these excerpts are a real treasure trove. No complete scripts here though - but some scripts are excerpted so heavily they might as well be.

Davies is a natural writer, which is to say he didn't study screenwriting, but just does it following his gut instincts. The questions Cook poses him force him to think about what he does exactly and why he does it. And it turns out he actually follows traditional screenwriting concepts and precepts quite closely. Which just proves how well they work, and how strongly they permeate Western culture.

We also discover Davies is a very undisciplined writer, missing every possible deadline (including, several times, the really final one) and writing the scripts in a frenzy of adrenaline, guilt and self-reproach. This probably one of the main sources of his weaknesses as a writer.
Another source is that, apparently, there seems to be no one in the production to tell him when an idea is less than stellar (Benjamin Cook also never ever offers even a smidgeon of a critical thought, although that might have made their collaborative work more difficult or fracticious, which certainly wasn't the intention of the book). He is basically the only editor on his scripts, and it shows.
The scripts often have giant plot holes, sketchy and cartoonish guest characters, big set-ups leading to unsatisfactory payoffs, puerile bathroom humour which doesn't fit the series and isn't funny in the first place, sentimentality and blatant preachiness. On the plus side, though, there are big and bold ideas, a brilliant interpretation of the lead character, some really funny lines and moments, a sense of grandeur which no other current science fiction show can match, and a very strong and unique sense of romanticism. One just gets the impression that Davies could come up with truly stunning scripts if he found some collaborator(s) who could amplify his strengths and tone down his weaknesses.

This is a seminal book for anyone interested in writing for television: it's the first time (and maybe the last?) that a succesful writer in control of a wildly popular franchise allows access into his creative process, warts and all. As such it's an education about the writing life in itself, although it absolutely is not intended as a how-to manual. It's a 'how-I-do-it', and Davies often counsels against taking his methods and madnesses as an example to follow.

So the bottom line is: get it, read it, learn from it. It's not just a book, it's an experience. And you can get it here :

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Scriptshadow blog

Just a quick heads-up about another very interesting screenwriting blog, ScriptShadow, which can be accessed here. What makes this one especially interesting is that writer Carson Reeves reviews spec scripts that sold - and he provides links to the scripts in question as well. A very interesting resource for all screenwriters and also a very good indication of what's hot and what's not in today's Hollywood market!

The Biggest Difference Between Reality And Screenplays Is... (part one)

Conflict.

Or more specifically, the way conflict is handled.

In real life, especially in Western society, conflict is avoided as much as possible in everyday life. Those people who do constantly seek out conflict, are considered
a) criminals
b) insufferable busybodies
c) bullies
d) mentally unstable

... I'm sure you can come up with a few words yourself to add to the list.

However, in screenplays, conflict is the main source of audience identification and entertainment on the emotional level. No conflict equals boredom.

And we see this in so many unrealistic ways, every single day. Someone has a problem with a colleague, a friend, a family member, and they confront them about it. Sure, we always advocate the use of subtext and subtlety, but the fact remains, the way conflict is presented to us in our audiovisual fictions is far removed from how such situations would be handled in real life. And from how we would feel in real life if we ever were on the receiving end on such confrontations on a regular basis.

The alternative, to avoid all conflicts, or to downplay any conflict but have the characters talk about them at length (in Mumblecore films, for instance) only has limited appeal.

The question is whether it would be possible to add more true-to-life conflict situations in scripts, certainly when we're attempting to do realistic drama. Can we make scenes in which conflicts are avoided but the underlying subtext makes them clearly felt work as well as the 'traditional' non-realistic approach?

(As a side note, novels don't have this problem, as they can go inside the characters' heads at any time, even when 'nothing' is ostensibly happening.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

TV REVIEW: DOCTOR WHO EASTER SPECIAL 'PLANET OF THE DEAD'

Easter brought us the penultimate David Tennant appearance as the most original TV science fiction hero, Doctor Who. It was also the penultimate episode of writer/showrunner Russel T. Davies reign, for which the production travelled to Dubai, going a bit further afield then usual. So - was it any good?




The title, Planet of the Dead, is a bit of a cheat. Sure, there's a planet, and there are billions of dead on it - but they really don't have anything to do in or with the story.



A Lara Croft-alike, Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan), steals the cup of Athelstan from a museum in London, boards a bus during her escape and gets the Doctor sitting next to her. Before you know it, the bus is chased by the police and drives through a wormhole to land on a desert planet. The occupants of the bus include the driver, a middle-aged black couple of which the woman is slightly psychic (and she's the one hearing the voices of the titular dead even though they never communicate anything of importance to her), a middle-aged white woman and two young men. The Doctor explains they travelled to another planet through the wormhole, plans are set in motion to get the bus back on its feet, and the driver dies when he tries to cross through the wormhole on foot.

Back in London, UNIT (the paramilitary organization dealing with alien invasions) is called to the scene. The Doctor calls them on his cellphone (it's a spacey-wacey thing, too complex to explain) and learns that the wormhole is expanding steadily.


A UNIT scientist, Malcolm (comedian Lee Evans with a very thick Welsh accent) is called in to help the Doctor with the scientific stuff.




Meanwhile the Doctor and Lady Christina flirt, are taken prisoner by fly-people, discover that the sand covering the planet is actually the remains of every creature and structure that was alive and/or present a few weeks ago, and discover the real threat on the planet:



a huge swarm of stingray-like predators that create wormholes, destroy everything on a planet, and have a metal exoskeleton which allows them to survive wormhole travel. And of course Earth is next on the menu...

Planet of the Dead is pretty slow to get started, but picks up the pace once the threat is revealed. This wasn't the most challenging episode of Who for David Tennant, who is an actor with an incredible range. I did marvel several times at his comic timing, though. Tennant will definitely be missed when he bows out in the Christmas special.

The special guest stars are less impressive, though. Michelle Ryan, who started off as a teenager in Eastenders (Zoe Slater, remember her?) and recently starred in the unsuccesful reboot of The Bionic Woman, just hasn't got the maturity to pull off a Lara Croft. She's like a little girl playing at being an aristocratic hyper-cool sexy art thief, rather than being the real thing. Which makes the whole pseudo-romance with the Doctor hard to swallow. The writing's also to blame: Lady Christina is shallow, selfish, a brat and bossy, and yet we're supposed to adore her. And we - or at least I - don't.

Lee Evans is a broad, physical comedian, and putting him in the role of a nervous boffin immediately ensures that the role cannot be taken seriously. To be fair, Evans tones it down a bit (he could have gone far more over the top), and his final declaration of love to the Doctor is amusing, but as a whole the character of Malcolm feels superfluous and too much of a superfluous comic relief (the Doctor handles all the comedy the show needs perfectly well, a pity Russell T. Davies never seemed to realize this).

The other bus passengers mainly serve as a Greek Chorus, to help with a few plot elements (getting the bus repaired) and to illustrate one of RTD's recurrent themes in the series, namely that ordinary, everyday 'people, needing other people, are the luckiest people in the universe', to paraphrase the Jule Styne song. None of them really stand out or add much to the conflicts. They're also not used as cannon fodder, which is nice but on the other hand also reduces the tension in the episode.

Which brings us to the story and script. Written by RTD and Gareth Roberts, it takes its sweet time to get going. In fact, the only 'excitement' in the first half of the episode is when we see the claws of the fly-men a couple of times, pointing at a screen on which they see the Doctor and the other castaways.

The 'romance' between the Doctor and Christina is the emotional throughline of the episode, and it's obviouw we're meant to think of her as a potential new companion. At the end, the Doctor then rejects her coldly as he's still in his 'I lose everyone I ever care for so I'm going it alone'-phase, which I hope will be over real soon as it's fairly pathetic. I'm also not very keen on this 'Doctor is the Universe's Greatest Lover'-riff which has been so prevalent since the reboot, with the Doctor either falling in love or causing others to fall in love with him at the drop of a hat. I much preferred the sexless Saviour of the Universe-doctor of old, where the only sex-appeal (or lack of it) was brought by the actor playing the part. But that's ancient history now. It's just that all this love stuff feels so repetitive and redundant after a while, because it basically keeps going over the same ground forever.

Anyway, the problem isn't so much the romance as the character of Christina, a little girl play-acting at being tough and sexy, and failing miserably - though not in the script, where she's accepted by everyone at facevalue. With the result that the whole plotline feels false.

Once the stingray-creatures arrive, and the bus starts flying through the wormhole, the excitement factor picks up. The stingrays are well done CGI and their life cycle is utterly improbable but different and interesting.

Unfortunately, the escape from the planet is saddled by unnecessary melodrama back on Earth. Malcolm is supposed to shut the wormhole as soon as the bus is through, to stop the stingrays following. But the UNIT captain in charge of the operation decides that the wormhole must be closed immediately (i.e. before the Doctor gets back). Malcolm refuses, she draws her gun on him - and he still refuses. Then the problem is solved by the Doctor piloting the bus through the wormhole, and everyone gets busy fighting the few stingrays that got through. And after the action, the UNIT captain goes up to the Doctor, salutes him and is so happy he made it through - and she's sincere. The fact she was ready to kill him indirectly isn't even referred to in any way, there's no confession on her part, or even a moment where we can register her relief that she didn't have to go through with it. No matter how you slice it, that's just weak writing.

There's also one HUGE plot hole in the episode: the wormhole can only be crossed in something made of metal, to protect organic beings from the stresses of the journey. The Doctor needs to get the bus moving, so the passengers can return to Earth. Okay.

BUT.

When they arrive back on Earth and the crisis is over, UNIT presents the Doctor with his TARDIS, which they've put on a truck.

So why didn't they just drive the truck through the wormhole and deliver the TARDIS to the Doctor, who could then have used it to get everyone home safely? Even after he'd collapsed the wormhole on the alien planet-side?

Come to think of it - why was the Doctor on the bus in the first place? He was looking for the wormhole, but he could have done that just as well from inside his TARDIS...

In short, Planet of the Dead was not a very well-scripted episode of Doctor Who. Too many elements rung false, the climax was extended too much (I didn't really need the fight with the few stingrays, the escape back to Earth was more than sufficient and the real climactic moment of the story. All the rest was unnecessary filler), the emotional core of the story felt false, and the alien fly-people (or Tritivores) were neither interesting creations nor convincingly done - the overalls didn't help, either.
David Tennant's performance and the stingrays were the only really succesful elements here. Let's hope the next special, The Waters of Mars, is better.

Oh, and am I seeing too much in the final scene between the Doctor and Malcolm, where the latter repeatedly says 'I love you' to the former? I couldn't help thinking that this was Russell T. Davies himself expressing his feelings to the Doctor. Well, they both have glasses, they're both Welsh, and Malcolm could well be gay...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book Review: Fight Choreography - The Art Of Non-Verbal Dialogue ( by John Kreng)

Any book on fight choreography which features a shot from one of the three duels between Lau Kar Fai and Lee Hoi Sang from Lau Kar Leung's seminal 36th Chamber Of Shaolin at the very least has its heart in the right place. And John Kreng's magnum opus, coming in at a hefty 508 pages, has that and a whole lot more besides.

Kreng is an American Chinese with an extremely varied and impressive resumé: martial artist, stuntman, fight coordinator, author, magazine editor, stand-up comedian, video game designer... The list is nigh endless. And he's also the ideal person to straddle the gulf between Western and Asian action cinema, knowing and understanding both cultures equally.

The book is divided into twelve big chapters, which cover a lot of ground:

1) Basic History of Fight Choreograpy and Fighting on Film - a self-explanatory chapter which is unique in that it looks both at Western and Asian action cinema evolution.

2) Differences Between Art, Sport and Self-Defense: this explains the different aspects of martial arts and how they are used.

3) Definitions and Terminology: defining a number of important terms and concepts with regards to martial arts and film fighting.

4) Primer: a chapter on the different types of martial actor/artist, the importance of rhythm in a fight scene, the use of strategy in fight scenes etc.

5) The Whole Structure: putting the physical and technical aspects of a fight scene together.

6) The Source: storytelling, characters, the importance of the script with some fundamental screenwriting theory etc.

7) Extracting the Essence: how a fight co-ordinator should approach the characters and the script, all the elements which need to be considered when preparing for the creation of the fight or action scenes.

8) The Narrative Structure and Elements of a Fight Scene: applies fundamental storytelling and screenwriting notions to the construction of a fight scene, which also has to tell a story.

9) Physical Elements of the Fight Scene: Martial acting, use of the centerline, more on rhythm, choosing techniques, reactions etc.

10) The Technical Elements of a Fight: how to film and edit the fight for maximum effect.

11) Developing a Choreographer's Eye: tips and subjects for self-study for all aspiring fight choreographers.

12) Recommended Reading, Viewing and Other Resources: a huge list of resources of all kinds.

John Kreng's main message is that a good fight sequence is a story, and should be thought of like one. Good storytelling is the central concept in this book. Characters should remain believable, the way the fight fits into the overall film should be considered, and on top of this it should also be structured as a mini-screenplay, with clear acts, raising of stakes, a clear climax etc. The storytelling aspect comes first, and far outweighs other considerations such as spectacle or showing off. Of course, when good storytelling can be combined with spectacle and a display of extreme martial arts skills, that's kung fu heaven.

What's quite interesting to discover is that fight choreographers, much like screenwriters, are completely at the mercy of others when it comes to what their work will finally look like on screen. In Hong Kong, the action director will oversee the editing of the fight scenes, but in the West, the editor and director make all the decisions and generally keep the choreographer outside the loop. The result is that the finished scene often totally ignores the choreographer's intentions, storyline and even sequence of events during the fight. So the next time you're really irritated by how bad a martial arts scene looks in an American movie - don't blame the choreographer, he's probably even more pissed off than you!

Another common practice Kreng advises against (and he's so, so right in doing so) is the use of shaky-cam and filming the action too close so the audience can't really see what's going on. Not only is this totally unrealistic (in real life, you see EVERYTHING when you're watching a fight or are involved in it, and the 'image' stays stable), but it also obscures the talents of the actors and the stunt team. And it also leaves the audience very unsatisfied.

Throughout the book, John Kreng's experience, passion and expertise shine through on every page. His message is inspiring, and I can only hope it gains a real following in Hollywood circles.

Is the book perfect, then? Well, I have one criticism and two regrets.
The criticism is that the same examples are used too often in the book. A number of scenes or moments (e.g. the way in which Bruce Lee kills Oharra in Enter The Dragon) are referenced soo often that it becomes overkill. And moreover, by selecting a few less well-known fight scenes as examples, the reader will only be encouraged to seek them out and widen his knowledge and appreciation of the genre.

The first regret is that there is no chapter on specific moves and their applications - if possible discussed on a style-by-style basis. Now, that probably would have pushed the page count well over a thousand, or maybe all martial artists know this stuff by heart and don't need it included in a book such as this. But nevertheless it's the one topic I'd have liked to see explored more.

The second is that there's no DVD with this book. On his Myspace page, mr. Kreng has a link to a short film he choreographed, and watching it I immediately saw how it exemplified several of the concepts talked about in the book. It would be an awesome learning tool if we could follow along how these fight scenes were constructed, practiced, altered, what the logic behind the moves etc. is... Maybe a project for the future? It certainly would be pure gold for anyone interested in martial arts film choreography.

The long and the short of it is: this is an incredibly rich book which more than achieves what it sets out to do. Kudos to John Kreng for such an inspiring and interesting read, and anyone remotely interested in martial arts choreography and filmmaking should definitely check this one out.

Friday, April 10, 2009

How I Do It Part 3: The Synopsis

Writing the synopsis is often the most difficult step in writing the script.

It's a step in which you have to fill in a lot of details - but not too many. It has to give the reader a clear idea of what your scenes are going to look like in dialogue - without acutally using any dialogue. And most frightening of all, it's the step in which you really have to start making Decisions.

In developing the script, the most time should be spent on honing your synopsis. It should give the reader the burning desire to read the finished script. And as you're missing a whole lot of tools which can make it easier to sell your story, installing this burning desire is often pretty damn hard.

Making it harder in the event of a comedy synopsis, is the fact that you cannot put every joke in your synopsis. For two reasons:
- the script will become far too long if you detail every verbal and visual joke in the synopsis
- the jokes will often completely obscure the story information, and make the whole thing a tiring, chaotic and ultimately disheartening read.

So how do you solve this quandary?

By making sure the basic situation is funny. In this way, the reader will get the overall gist of what'll be going on, can see the comedic development within the scene, and can even imagine what actual jokes may actually be in the final script.

Of course, you will describe the big gags, twists and reveals - as long as you keep to the appropriate level of detail, that's perfectly fine.

I try to break up long scenes in smaller blocks of text (something I only learned to do fairly recently, in thruth) so the eye doesn't immediately rebel. Nothing is worse when reading a synopsis than to be faced with 1 1/2 pages of dense text without any paragraphs in place.

One thing I also strive for, though at times it's damn hard to avoid: not to use 's/he says that...' If you do, not only are you producing reported speech instead of describing the events in the scene, and, worse, you do not indicate the emotional state of the character doing the talking. And generally, the dialogue version will then literally transcribe these sentences, and still ignore the emotional situation of the character(s) in the scene.

Therefore, look for synonyms - the thesaurus is your friend.
Similarly, I try to avoid 's/he enters' or 's/he walks' as much as possible as these are also too generic to impart the necessary information in most instances.

I generally write the synopsis from a developed step outline, though in the script I'm currently doing, that's not the case - I just went from 'nutshell treatment' to synopsis and things fell into place amazingly well. Still, I would recommend anyone to go for the complete outline first, as it usually is the best tool for making sure your synopsis is well-structured.

More later!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Scenariocursus te Vilvoorde vanaf 25 april

Vandaag voor de verandering eens in het Nederlands - en met een belangrijke boodschap.

Als er voldoende inschrijvingen zijn, begin ik een scenariocursus te doceren bij Miles Academy te Vilvoorde (Stationslei , zoals de straatnaam laat vermoeden vlak bij het station).

De cursus duurt 7 weken lang, en gaat door op zaterdagen 25/4, 9/5, 16/5, 6/6, 13/6, 20/6 van 9 u tot 16u30. Het is een grondige beginnerscursus waarin alle fundamentele concepten van het scenarioschrijven grondig uitgespit worden. Er worden ook een aantal schrijfoefeningen voorzien.

De cursus richt zich op mensen die nog geen scenario-opleiding hebben genoten - we beginnen dus echt van nul. Maar ook zij die al een zekere scenario-voorkennis hebben zullen hier zeker ook nog heel wat kunnen opsteken. Iedereen is welkom, goede kennis van het Engels is echter wel een must.

Voor meer informatie:

Wie weet tot binnenkort?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Structure and Plot - Are They Necessary?

They damn well are!

For some bizarre reason, these questions keep popping up over and over again (especially in Europe). It's probably due to a very influential French-inspired aversion to 'teachable' art theories - which is doubly ironic as much of the 'rules' of screenwriting have been taken from French drama models and theories, which were among the strictest anywhere during the 17th and 18th century.

Anyhow, let's define both plot and structure in the broadest of terms.

PLOT = WHAT HAPPENS AND WHY AND TO WHOM
STRUCTURE = THE BEST WAY TO PRESENT THE ELEMENTS OF THE PLOT SO THE AUDIENCE ENJOYS IT TO THE MAXIMUM DEGREE.

So structure is not the death of creativity, a sterile formula, a dictatorial set of 'rules' invented by incompetent money-grubbing Hollywood hucksters. It is part and parcel of all effective storytelling, in whatever genre and whatever style you choose to work.

Compare it to telling a joke. Start off with the punchline, and you won't get a laugh at the end. Stick the punchline in the middle and then continue the narrative, and the audience will be totally confused. Introduce the three characters (a German, a lesbian one-legged penguin and George W. Bush walk into a bar...) at the end of your joke, after the build-up and the punchline, and the audience will only now be able to understand what the hell everything was about. A joke has a certain structure which maximizes the chances of getting a laugh (the desired result).

And if you don't think about structure at all, and don't want to? Well, you'll still have SOME sort of structure in your script - if only because you have a beginning and an end. But it won't help you provoke the desired reaction in the audience (unless you're going for boredom and/or bewilderment).

The same thing goes for plot. As long as there are characters on screen interacting, having experiences and getting into conflicts, there is some sort of plot going on. A truly plotless film might be a woman (let's cast Emma Thompson in this challenging role) sitting on a bench in the park, and eating her sandwiches. Nothing more, nothing less. It's fiction, because we show an actress playing a part (Nora Sandbone, why not). But there's no drama, no interaction, no progression. And absolutely nothing to keep an audience's interest.

So once and for all: yes, you need plot and yes, you need structure, and the sooner we can all accept this, the happier everyone will be.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Go back to the source

A quick tip from current personal experience:

When you're developing a story, and find yourself getting stuck in the meanderings of the plot, it pays to look back at the original way you presented the story's idea - no matter how concise.

You'll often discover that your development has strayed a lot from the original kernel of inspiration - even when you think you're still staying true to it. Especially when you discover you've become unclear on whose story it is, or what exactly the main throughline is supposed to be among the several plot strands you are developing, the answer - or at least your initial answer - will be there right in front of you.

The personal experience I mentioned: I'm developing an idea for an episode of De Kampioenen, but I've been stuck for days on end. I'm trying to make it a farce with mistaken identities and such, but though I have several ideas for funny scenes, the two main plot strands grew too far apart, and one of them just got bigger and bigger and bigger without any end in sight or any logical climax presenting itself.

So when I looked at my original version of the idea again today, I discovered that I actually kept the mistaken identity element to a minimum, and instead of having several characters pretend to be the other without anyone knowing, I originally had them all in on that piece of the action. Which, thinking about it, made a lot of things fall into place and, more importantly still, immediately gave me ideas to curtail the over-extended plotline.

It's too soon to tell whether this'll allow me to end up with a satisfactory, useful story, but it definitely pointed me back in the right direction. So try it - this little tip might help you too.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Keeping It Real: Action Sequences


When you're writing an action scene (never mind directing it), it's extremely important to make sure that the scene has a sense of reality to it. That means both keeping the action within the realm of the believable (unless you're writing a superhero film of course), and just as importantly have all the characters in the scene behave in logical and natural ways.


A good example of how not to do this can be found in the Dutch children's movie De Brief Aan De Koning (The Letter For The King). This medieval adventure story follows the exploits of Tiuri, a sixteen-year old squire who is entrusted with a secret mission to deliver a highly sensitive letter to the king of a neighbouring land. Tiuri is constantly chased by evil knights and henchmen, and often finds himself in dire straits.

Now, Tiuri is a teenager who knows how to fight with a sword, but is still inexperienced. His opponents are experienced knights and killers, most of whom are fully armoured as well. So you can see it's going to be something of a stretch to make the fight scenes believable.

Unfortunately, the film goes out of its way to sabotage itself. In one scene, Tiuri has been captured by a gang of knights, and their leader decides he is to be executed. One of the knights raises his sword to behead Tiuri, but the youth manages to get away and grab a sword. Unarmoured Tiuri manages to wound the executioner in the arm, at which point a second knight steps forward to attack him.

But why didn't the knights grab Tiuri when he broke away? Or why didn't they attack him simultaneously once he got hold of a sword? At this point in the story they consider him to be a traitor and villain of the worst kind...

The same lack of logic occurs during the final duel. Arriving at the castle of the king, Tiuri is attacked by the main villain disguised as a beggar. There are guardsmen all around, but when the fight breaks out, they just stand there doing nothing - not even when Tiuri's buddy steals the sword of a guard and throws it to Tiuri. In fact, the guards only interfere at the end of the fight when Tiuri is about to kill his defeated opponent - then they suddenly show up and arrest both combatants.

In both cases, the viewer wonders why the most logical events given the situation. Now, the choices in directing these scenes are to a considerable extent to blame for the mess - but the script's at fault too. For it doesn't even attempt to create circumstances which might explain why the most logical course of action (i.e. the guards interfering as soon as the fight starts) is prohibited or cannot occur. Just a simple tweak might do it - for instance, making the guard a coward who runs away to get his colleagues at the first sign of trouble would have solved everything.

And I didn't even have to think long or hard to find that solution. So, put in the effort, for it may well mark the difference between a succesful, exciting action scene on film and a scene which, despite all the effort, pyrotechnics or stuntwork falls flat on its face because it just is so obviously not 'real'.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Integrating Action and Story Progression - You Can Do It Too!

One of the major differences between Asian and Western fight scenes, common wisdom has it, is that in Asian cinema the fight scenes continue to tell the story, while in the West the story stops cold until the action is over, and then continues on its merry way.

There is some truth to that - the Burly Brawl in Matrix Reloaded, for instance, adds nothing to the plot, and doesn't even function as a good martial arts scene because it devolves into a CGI-fest as soon as it can. But there are several Asian action films in which the fight scenes also add absolutely nothing to the plot - but are the only reason anyone would even want to watch the movie in the first place.

But there are Western films in which the action or fight scenes are perfectly integrated with the plot and the development of the characters. Case in point: Scaramouche, where Stewart Granger watches his friend get killed by José Ferrer in the first fight scene and is incapable of doing anything about it as he's not trained in fencing at all; faces Ferrer again later on as he's already had training but isn't his equal yet by a longshot, and barely escapes with his life; and finally faces Ferrer in the climactic duel in the theatre which ends the film.

Yet even in pure drama, fight scenes can also tell the story of the film.
In Million Dollar Baby, the first boxing match which opens the film shows us Clint Eastwood in action as the best cut man/trainer/manager in the business.

Later on in act 2, the first match we see of Hilary Swank has her being defeated until Clint steps in and takes over as her manager, and immediately helps her win the match with his advice. This match corresponds with Focuspoint (or Pinch) 1, and shows both Clint accepting responsibility for Hilary and Hilary's first step on the road to boxing success.

The midpoint is the match in London, where she wins her bout and gets the 'Mo Cuishle' robe from Clint. It's the most triumphant moment of the film for both of them, and the robe symbolizes that he has come to see her as his daughter (Mo Cuishle meaning 'my darling, my blood' as we learn in the climax of the film). They're both on top of the world at this point.

The final big fight scene is the championship match against the Blue Bear. It's the most savage fight in the whole film, and we suffer along with Clint as he winces at each brutal blow Hilary has to endure. The stakes are very high, and the whole fight (and act) come to a horrifying end when a sneak attack after a round has ended brings Hilary crashing down onto a foot stool to break her neck. This is the second plot point which catapults the film into its powerful and surprising third act.

If your script has action or fight scenes, see how far you've integrated them with the big structure beats of your story. The more action scenes are inextricably linked with character and plot development, the more emotional impact they will have on your audience.






Thursday, April 2, 2009

I'll Tell You No Lie: Why It's Easy To Say 'No' To 'Yes Man'

Jim Carrey's latest verhicle is an attempt to return to the type of Liar, Liar comedy superhit. Basically an average man with a psychological flaw is 'magically' forced to do exactly the opposite of that flaw, and after initial resistance and ensuing wackiness, he discovers he becomes a far better person because of the experience.

In Liar, Liar he was a conniving lawyer who was forced by his son's birthday wish to continually speak the truth, no matter how embarrassing. I'm certainly no huge fan of the film, but the basic concept is clear, the gimmick through which Carrey's character is forced to change is hokey but has a fairy tale sort of logic which enables the audience to suspend disbelief, and the fact that Carrey has to tell the truth and is magically compelled to do so, makes for some amusing and interesting conflict situations. Plus his job is directly threatened by his new condition, as he's unable to lie for his clients any longer.

In Yes Man, Carrey is a lonely guy who says no to almost everything because he's still not over his divorce. An acquaintance forces him to accompany him to a Yes-seminar, where guru Terence Stamp indoctrinates his followers to say yes to anything - absolutely anything. Carrey is singled out for attention, forced to promise he'll say yes from now on, and makes a covenant with himself to keep doing so. If he doesn't, bad things might happen.

So Carrey starts to say yes to any request, and in general the results are very positive - even negative situations turn out in his favour. Later on, he refuses the sexual attentions of his elderly neighbour, but then immediately has some accidents which convince him of the magical power of the covenant, so he goes back to let her ravish him and gets the best blow-job of his life (yes, it's repulsive, no, it's not remotely funny). Job success, a new love affair (in the shape of the not very lovely Zooey Deschanel) and general happiness follow.

Can you see the problem here?

There's no conflict. In Liar, the 'curse' put Carrey into conflict with everything and everyone. In Yes Man, he's conflicted and unhappy at the beginning - and then he breaks free of his self-imposed prison, and the story basically has nowhere to go. As soon as Carrey starts saying yes to life, his problem is solved.

Blake Snyder's Save The Cat structural model has the first half of the second act provide the Fun and Games, the promise of the premise. The second half has the Bad Guys Closing In. This is a story development you often find in comedies. But in Yes Man, the bad guys don't close in because there are no bad guys.

Sure, there are problems in act 3 when Carrey is temporarily suspected of being a terrorrist, and Zooey discovers he went out with her because he said yes to everything and therefore she decides she can't trust him anymore, and blah blah blah. But these feel totally tacked on, and only pop up in act 3.

Moveover, Stamp and his acolytes come across as a band of dangerous lunatics when first introduced. But once Carrey starts on his yes-voyage, they disappear from the movie. And when we finally meet Stamp again, he's just there to impart a wise life lesson (say yes but not automatically, because you want to). So a character who is introduced as a sinister, manipulative huckster is actually a real mentor. Which is just a cop-out, really.

Finally, there's the nature of the 'yes'-compulsion. Whenever Carrey says no (only twice in the film after he starts saying yes), bad things happen to him. So it is suggested the 'covenant' has real power. But in the end, we and Carrey discover there is no covenant, it's just something Stamp made up on the spur of the moment. So Carrey could have stopped any time he wanted to, really.

So, a lack of central conflict, a change in the lead character which solves his problem after barely half an hour, non-organic plot complications just so there can be a crisis and a central joke mechanism which is fundamentally flawed and needs a lot of forcing to keep working - all of these add up to a comedy which just doesn't work. The biggest question is - why didn't anyone solve these problems in the script stage?