Thursday, May 28, 2009

To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before - thoughts on the new Trek film




SPOILERS ABOUND!!!!

You know, the new Trek movie is pretty much like MI:3.

When that came out, the reviews were largely positive. Now, it's all but forgotten.

It had a gripping opening scene - just as Trek does.

But the intensity of that opening scene is never matched again - just as in MI:3.

Here are some things the new Trek isn't:

- boring
- badly acted
- emotionally engaging
- thought-provoking
- exciting

When I say the film isn't exciting, that doesn't mean there's no action (there is) or spectacle (there is - though not as much as the opening scene suggests there will be). There is. But there's nothing - literally nothing - we haven't seen before, and done better.

There are many problems with the script of the film. Orci and Kurtzmann got a geek's dream job - play in the Trek universe, without having to stick too much to established rules - and they turned it into a workmanlike piece. An assembly-line summer movie, without any of the aspects which made Star Trek different from other science fiction franchises.

(To be fair, most of the previous Trek films haven't been able to achieve this either. For some reason, Trek's strongest points seem very hard to translate to the big screen).

So, what are these problems?

1) Predictability. There's a ton of really predictable moments and scenes in this film. For instance, Scotty beams Kirk and Spock into the Romulan vessel, into an area he supposes is a storage hold, so they should be safe when they arrive.

Guess what happens???

That's right, they are surrounded by Romulans when they arrive and immediately have to get into a firefight.

When Kirk and Sulu go to stop the Romulan drill, Sulu, who has claimed to be an advanced hand-to-hand combat expert, is asked by Kirk what his style is. 'Fencing', Sulu answers in a guilty tone of voice. So what happens when they get into a fight with the Romulan soldiers on the drill???

That's right, Sulu's fencing ability saves the day. He even has an impressive-looking retractable sword with him. So why didn't he mention that before? Because the writers and director wanted to achieve an effect.

All through the film, we get these little snippets and situations which have been done to death. I'm not asking for a Nouvelle Vague or a Jim Jarmusch approach - just an attempt, at least, to avoid clichés once in a while?

2) Pointless 'excitement': when Kirk and Scotty beam aboard the Enterprise surreptitously, Scotty ends up in a water tube and Kirk has to get him out. This takes up a few minutes of screen time. Is this why we're watching Trek films? To see Scotty in a comedy danger sequence without any point or sense of danger?

Kirk gets to hang from ledges in several fight sequences (he also never wins a single hand-to-hand fight in the film). We KNOW he's not going to fall, and he doesn't. So why keep on using this old, tired gambit if you're not going to do something new and surprising with it (as, for instance, in In The Line Of Fire)?

3) Plot Holes the size of Supernovas.

Nero, the Romulan miner, witnesses the death of the planet Romulus in the future (because of a supernova) and decides that Spock is responsible (he was on his way with a 'cure' for the supernova but got there just too late). So what does he do when he arrives in the past? He's going to kill Spock and destroy every planet in the federation. Only it takes 25 years for Spock to arrive in the past.

What would you do if you were Nero?

That's right, you'd hang around for 25 years doing absolutely nothing. But you'd still be as angry and insanely obsessed as you were on the very first day you arrived here. (Oh, you wouldn't have gone to the Romulan Empire to tell them your tale of woe and enlist their aid in your quest for vengeance either.)

Never mind that Nero could have destroyed the entire Federation by the time Spock got to the present of the film...

And why is Nero going to destroy the Federation?

Well, because... because... just because he can. Sure, he gives some sort of explanation but it's totally inconsequential.




4) Lack of emotional impact.

Nero kills Kirk's dad, destroys Vulcan and causes the death of Spock's mother, before his very eyes.
And, you know... who cares? You'd think this would give the writers powerful material for scenes of almost Shakesperean intensity. But while these elements get touched on, they just don't resonate. Primarily because the characters of Kirk and Spock aren't given emotional moments where we can empathize with their loss. There isn't even a 'How can you be so cold and unfeeling? Your mother died, you green-blooded freak!' 'Grief is highly illogical'-type of exchange.

Just compare the scenes in The Search For Spock where Kirk learns the Klingon villain has killed his son. There, the death counts for something.

And it's not just in the personal relationships that emotional resonance is missing.
Vulcan, one of the mainstays of Trek lore is destroyed by Nero. It gets a nice special effect shot - but how about making this a sequence? How about showing everyday Vulcans suddenly faced with their world literally collapsing in on them? This is a tragedy on an epic scale, but we see almost nothing of it. Worse, what we have seen of the Vulcans makes them utterly unlikeable. So we don't even care about this planetary catastrophe.

5) Lack of internal logic and consistency.

I've already given the Sulu example earlier.

Scotty is turned into an utter buffoon. Why would anyone want him aboard their spaceship?
Same thing with Checkov - far too young and klutzy. The secondary characters have a bit more face time than in the original series - but instead of deepening the characters (so they are more like the cast of The Next Generation, a group of equally interesting individuals) they are turned into comedy caricatures.

With the exception of Uhura, who is not turned into a joke. But apart from translating one important message and being Spock's main squeeze, she still doesn't get to do anything of note in the film.

Young Spock is challenged on Vulcan by a trio of bullies for the 35th time, who want to get an emotional response from him. So they insult his mother and father. Spock immediately attacks them.

Why does this not make sense?

- this is the 35th time they bother Spock, and only now do they get the bright idea of insulting his mother and father???
- Disliking Spock because of his race is racist, and illogical - and is an emotional response. Yet no one seems to realize or notice this.
So what makes the Vulcans interesting - their logical reactions which differ from our 'normal'emotional ones - is handled in a completely wrong way.

I guess that's enough examples (though the awfulness of Old Spock's expositionary monologue should be mentioned as well. A perfect example of how NOT to do it).

One thing I did like about the film is that we finally get to see some huge alien monsters on a planet - about time too. Though why the biggest monster spends all of its screen time blowing hot air into Kirk's face instead of just eating him is another mystery.

Now, some online screenwriting master gurus have bemoaned the fact that this film isn't about anything. I think that's not the right way to put it. The film IS about something: revenge. Kirk wants revenge for his dead dad, Spock gets a reason for revenge, Nero is motivated solely by a (misplaced) desire for revenge.

What you DON'T get, is a look at what revenge does to a person. The theme is there, it's just not examined in any way.

In closing, for all the people and critics who like the film, I would like to ask one question:

- If this were the launch of Star Trek instead of a reboot, would the franchise take off on the strength of this film alone?

I don't know about you, but I'm very sure about my answer.

Monday, May 25, 2009

In honor of Star Wars opening 32 years ago...




... I'd like to post the following link to a site I just discovered full of Star Wars/George Lucas goodies:

Supershadow

And of special interest to all screenwriters is the following page: the super secret plot formula of all Star Wars films - revealed!!!

By the way, if you're looking for good new Star Wars material, there's nothing better on the market than Star Wars Legacy, the comic book series published by Dark Horse and written by John Ostrander. Now THAT would be worthy of a new trilogy.

See for yourself:











Films/scripts to learn from

Here are some of my favourite films/scripts to use in studying screenwriting.

1) Miller's Crossing: the Coen's best ever. Gets absolutely everything right.

2) Some Like It Hot: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond at their best - though recent changes in the law in Belgium and select other countries have made the funniest scene of the movie outdated.

3) Die Hard: though written by committee, just about the ultimate 'traditional' Hollywood movie. One of the best to illustrate screenplay structure.

4) Million Dollar Baby: another very well executed traditional screenplay structure with a third act which goes completely in a different direction from what you'd expect.

5) Casablanca: just because. It's Casablanca, man!

6) Star Wars: not a great script but a very effective teaching tool for illustrating the Hero's Journey and sequence building.

7) Strangers On A Train: brilliant subtext from almost the very first scene. Hitchcock and Chandler hated each other but created movie magic.

8) Bullets Over Broadway: not my favourite Woody Allen movie (that would be Love And Death) but a very well done comedy with a lot of well-observed jokes about writers and actors.

9) Career Girls: A Mike Leigh film with flashbacks and a structuring event (a weekend spent together) rather than a clear 3-act structure. Off-beat and interesting and with great quirky character work.

10) On Connaît La Chanson/Same Old Song: French multiplot comedy with lip-synched French popular songs by New Waver pioneer Alain Resnais in his (much) later years. A very good use of multiple but connected plotlines and an excellent example of the effective use of theme in a script: each character in the movie lies to themselves (and to others as well, but primarily to themselves), yet at no time does this come across as forced or artificial.

There are many, many more out there, of course, but these 10 have all been used with great success in my courses. Watch, rewatch, study, learn and assimilate!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Script Development Software Review: Contour for Windows




Contour For Windows is a software program which offers you a structural model to follow in developing your screenplay idea. It belongs to the same category as John Truby's Blockbuster and Blake Snyder's Save The Cat software.

Like Blockbuster did until John Truby published his book, Contour actually presents a screenwriting theoretical model which cannot be found elsewhere than in the software. Developed by Jeff Schechter, the screenwriter who previously had created the Totally Write script development program, Contour is published by Mariner Software. Schechter is a succesful screenwriter, and the model on which Contour is built is the structural model he used while writing his scripts.

Contour was originally a Mac app, but the Windows version under review here swiftly followed. The Mac version seamlessly integrates with Montage, Mariner's screenplay formatting software. Apart from this, though, the Windows version has everything the Mac version has.

Contour basically helps you develop your story from basic logline to very detailed step outline or treatment. I'll take you through the process so you can get a feel for how the software works.

Contour starts you off by having you answer 4 questions about your script. As these can be found on the website, I don't think I'll ruin anything by listing them here:

1) Who is your main character?
2) What is he trying to accomplish?
3) Who is trying to stop him?
4) What will happen if he fails?

The answers to these four questions are then linked together in a logline following a specific formula. This logline acts as the lynchpin of your entire script, and the formula is intended to ensure you do not lose track of the basic elements and their relationship to one another. Note that this logline, though a single sentence, can be fairly long.

Once you have the logline, it's time to look at the arc of your main character. According to Schecht, people in real life live by six archetypes: Innocent, Orphan, Magician, Wanderer, Martyr and Warrior. In Contour, four of these are used to chart the development of the main character: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior and Martyr. Each corresponds with either an act or half an act. The manual and the software explain these archetypes and what they mean for the character's development in detail. What is not explained, however, is why the other two archetypes are not used in the main character's arc. Nor do we get any information about what these archetypes represent and how they differ from the other four.

In any case, you now fill in how your main character acts and develops during each of these four stages. This gives you a good idea of how your character is going to evolve and will help you decide on the correct steps to take along the way to make certain the character arc happens the way you want it to.

Then it's time to get to the real meat and potatoes of the program: structuring your story. Here, you basically have two options with which to start: you can either immediately try to start filling in the plot points in the main window, or you can click on the Guide tab, which will bring up 12 sequences, each with a page count and a specific title (for instance: If Life Gives You Lemons...) which indicates what type of events are supposed to happen at this point in the model.

The manual recommends you start out with using the Guide to chart the overall story, and then to go into greater detail by filling in the plot points. But you can also just go to the plot points immediately. If you then open the Guide when your script project is loaded, you'll discover that their description has been added into the Guide as well.

And there are a lot of plot points: 44 to be precise. This makes Contour the most detailed screenplay structure model of all.

Now, for some writers out there this will be heaven: it's literally impossible to get lost in the story development stage (once you've decided on the way you're going to tell your story and develop the main conflict) with this many road signs to guide you to your destination. If you do get stuck, it's because you're still not sure where you want to go.

Other screenwriters will consider this to be the death of all creative endeavour, and refuse to shackle their genius in such a mechanical manner.

What do I think? For me, this type of approach works, as long as I can 'get behind' the system. Some screenplay models feel very natural to me, others seem to be more artificial, the result of someone deliberately looking for a new approach.

Can I get behind Contour's model? I'll go into this in more detail later on, when I recount my experience with the program, but fundamentally I'd say yes. Not that I don't have a few questions or quibbles here and there, nor have I been able to internalize the model like I have done with the Syd Field/Aristotle hybrid or the Hero's Journey. But that's because it's new, it's BIG, and the software is here to take you by the hand and lead you through all the steps in a painless manner.

The 44 plot points are divided as follows: 12 in act 1, 14 in act 2 part I, 14 in act 2 part II and (only) 4 in act 3.

The plot points in act 1 are very detailed. They really tell you what sort of event should take place at this point in the story (though rest assured, these descriptions are still wide-ranging enough to account for literally thousands of variations, if not more).

Once you get to act 2, though, big surprise: the plot points are no longer detailed. They form a continous dialectic, and following them will make sure that there are more than enough obstacles and twists in your story to keep it from being too linear and monotonous. But after the great detail in act 1, the change is jarring at first. I must point out, however, that there are a lot of suggestions on what type of events usually happen at this point in the script, so you're not left to flounder. It's just a very different approach from act 1, and to be honest, if I'd developed this software I'd have tried to go for more specific plot points throughout the script.

However, on the Contour forum, Jeff Schechter has explained his reasoning behind this: to him it's the perfect balance between being too restrictive/controlling and having such a detailed model.

And I have to admit, to my own surprise even - it works.

I decided to test the Contour model by putting a high concept comedy idea I had just come up with into it, and see how far I got by just following the steps one after another.

The opening parts (questions, archetypes, formula) of the program came quite quickly and easily - only the four archetypes took some thinking because it was an approach I wasn't used to, and the explanations in the software itself (I hadn't looked at the 81-page manual yet - and 81 pages for this type of program is very reasonable) were clear enough to help me wrap my head around the concepts.

Then I started on the plot points. Without thinking things through, and actually using a story which wasn't a perfect fit for Contour's model. And I just flew through the first act - things fell into place at an amazing speed, the plot points stimulated my imagination to come up with concrete information - this approach really worked for me.

Then came the dreaded second act, and the huge amount of less defined plot points. I'll admit I felt some trepidation when I started out - but it turned out to be (largely) unnecessary. Once I got into the flow of things (and read the description of the sequence content as well as the act overview) I found that I could keep the story going. I was near the midpoint when I stopped my first session - and all this without ever sitting down, brainstorming or spending weeks coming up with sufficient ideas to start building the story.

The second and third session went better than expected, though here of course my improvisational approach started causing problems. Getting to the third act proved to be more difficult - but only because of my deliberate lack of preparation, this was merely a test of the new system. If I had put the usual amount of preparatory work into the project, I would probably have finished the outline in two session at most, and I'd have an extremely detailed workable basis for writing a scenic synopsis or treatment. So yes, Contour's approach works, and it forces the writer to come up with a lot of specific incidents and twists to keep the narrative going. That's a very good thing.

I must also mention there's an idea tab, where you can store ideas that come to you at any time. Unlike the other tabs, this one isn't linked to a particular project, but

The Contour model is not only explained in the manual and in the software itself, but the program also contains 14 script analyses using the theoretical framework. These include recent megahits like The Dark Knight and Slumdog Millionaire, so it's really up-to-date in this respect. Seeing the model applied to these films is a potent training tool. And if these 14 examples aren't enough, Jeff Schechter regularly analyzes more movies in the Contour way at his blog, Contour At The Movies. And if you want to know even more, check out the Contour forum at Mariner Software.

So, to sum up: Contour succeeds admirably at what it sets out to do. I've not yet had any technical hassles with the app, and I've found it to be a well-thought out, effective aid in developing a screenplay story. It's not for every movie - it won't do multiple storyline-films like Crash, and it's also not suited to highly experimental screenwriting attempts - but then, what structural model ever is? Best of all, you can try it out for free for 30 days, to see whether it works for you. If you're excited by the thought of getting your hands on the most detailed and extensive screenplay structure yet, I absolutely recommend you give it a try. I'm certainly glad I did - and I haven't yet used the system to its fullest capacity. A download sets you back $44.99, and you can get it here from Mariner Software.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Script/Film comparison: The Band Wagon



Writing the screenplay for a musical must be a fairly frustrating experience. You provide the narrative framework, but everything which really makes the genre worth doing (the musical numbers) is out of your hands.

Musicals (and now I'm talking about the Golden Age Hollywood musical, not the recent permutations of the form) are also generally considered as having uninteresting plots, cardboard characters and all-round weak scripts. These accusations are not unfounded, unfortunately - but the musical is in fact one of the genres where the psychology of the characters can be examined in depth most easily.

Songs (especially when integrated with the storyline) are in fact a version of the classical monologue. The character expresses what s/he is feeling, and why - it's a window into their mind. However, in most musical screenplays the lyrics of the songs are not provided by the screenwriter. So the screenwriter is in fact blocked from using this potential goldmine - unless he's either the lyricist as well (a rare occurrence) or the script is built up around a library of existing songs.

The Band Wagon, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is usually considered the best Hollywood musical together with Singin' In The Rain (written by the same duo), and in any case is counted as Fred Astaire's overall best film. So an opportunity to read this script and compare it to the finished film is a great way to see what a classic movie musical looks like on the page and how the numbers are integrated (or not) into the script.

A quick recap of the story: Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), a once famous song-and-dance man, returns to New York to star in a Broadway show written by his friends Les and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). They have attracted the attention of genius theatre producer/director/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who thinks their light-hearted revue shows parallells with Faust, and sets about remodelling it to fit his artistic vision. Tony is paired with ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), who is the girlfriend of the pretentious choreographer of the show. Tony and Gabrielle start off hating each other, but as the show spins out of control, they grow closer. Opening night is a disaster, Tony takes over and returns the show to its roots (with Cordova's full support) and it becomes a huge hit. Oh, and he gets the girl as well.

What makes The Band Wagon as effective as it is, is obviously the quality of the musical numbers. The basic storyline is very straightforward, even almost simplistic. The romance is almost perfunctory - Tony never gets to confront Paul over Gaby, doesn't (need to) engage in shenanigans to break up the couple or win her heart (it just happens naturally).

However, the script manages to lift the material above the ordinary in two ways. One, Tony Hunter is very close to Astaire himself (except that when he was making Band Wagon, Astaire was more popular than ever). The struggle of a formerly famous star to keep up with contemporary developments, and his frustration at discovering that his style of working and performing is no longer relevant, provide one of the main areas of conflict.

Secondly, the script pokes fun at the world of showbiz and the way 'genius' directors build up their own mystique and legend, even if it turns out to be disastrous for the production they are mounting. Comden and Green were intimately familiar with both Broadway and Hollywood, had written theatre shows and film scripts, and performed comedy revues as well. So their lampooning of the showbiz world is accurate and funny. They've even written a version of themselves into the script (Les and Lily), and here too their personal experience gives more weight to these sidekick characters.

As for the comparisons between the script and the film:

The script I've read differs in quite a few details from the finished film, though the storyline and characters remain the same.

It's a fairly short script (87 pages) while the film is nearer to 2 hours - of course the Girl Hunt Ballet number by itself lasts for 17 minutes, so the usual page count/film length rules don't apply in this case.

The script opens in a very interesting fashion, with a cinema audience looking at us, the real audience. They're watching Tony Hunter's films (which we don't see, though we hear music and tap dancing), with huge enthusiasm at first, especially when he dances with Penny Robbins (a Ginger Rogers reference); as time passes, she eclipses him in popularity (we gauge all this from the reactions of the movie audience) and finally the movie audience wonders 'Tony Hunter? Who's Tony Hunter?' when his name appears on the screen.

Why was this cut? Probably because it may have been a little too confusing or self-conscious a gimmick to open the film with - and also because the same point (Tony is no longer a star) is made in the following scenes which are in the final film - the auction of Tony's paraphernalia, and Tony in the train hearing two travelers discuss how he's washed up.

The first number of the film, By Myself, follows shortly after. The script mentions the song which is sung, and the surroundings (Grand Central Station).
That's it. The only hint about staging is that he enters the Waiting Room as the song ends.



The next scene, where Tony meets Les and Lily, is fundamentally the same in the film though there are many dialogue changes. Tony makes to kiss both Lily and Les in the script, Les' hypochondriac nature is emphasized far more and his catchphrase (I can stand anything except...) is not yet present. The Shine On Your Shoes-number which follows is coupled with another song (New Sun In The Sky), and it is given to the three characters (instead of just Tony in the film). Interestingly, the final moment of the routine, where the mystery machine opens, playing music and setting off fireworks, is here as well, though it's described as a pinball machine here (and now I really have to lay off mentioning all the little details or this post will be longer than the Bible).

With regards to the songs, it's interesting to see that most of the songs in the script were put in another place and context in the film, cut completely or filmed and then deleted from the final film (a crime against cinema, if you ask me). An example of the latter case is the song Gotta Bran' New Suit, in which Tony shows Les and Lily a routine he made up for one of their songs only to be told it's no longer in the show after he finishes with a big flourish.



An example of songs being switched around is the famous Triplets number, performed by Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan in the film: here, it's in the party sequence after the disastrous opening night, and it's done by Tony, Les and Lily. In the film, it was replaced in that scene by I Love Louisa, and the triplet act was put into the revamped show.



Many of the songs which were dropped were probably new songs by the songwriting team of Schwartz and Dietz (most of the score consisted of their old songs from the ealry '30s). There's one very big number featuring Jeff Cordova which would have come at the moment where the rehearsal goes wrong because of all the smoke bombs, where he explains that 'That's What You Go Out Of Town For', listing all the things that can go wrong in a show. In fact the only new Schwartz and Dietz song to be used in the final film is That's Entertainment, which became hugely famous when it was used for the eponymous MGM musical compilation film in the '70s.

With regards to the characters and their conflicts, Gabrielle's lover and master Paul gets more lines, but is even more actively dislikeable than in the film. As the script never gets to grips with putting the romance in the centre of the narrative, it's understandable that the part was reduced - however, in the final film Paul is such a non-entity that he barely registers. There's one very clever scene in the script where Paul choreographs a routine for Tony, giving him very simple steps, and then has the chorus do an incredibly difficult and spectacular routine so as to completely humiliate his romantic rival. It's too bad this wasn't kept, as it makes the conflict more active and uses the language of the musical to develop the conflict.



The Band Wagon is explicitly written in two acts, with every scene numbered as in a play (e.g. Act 1, scene 10). The second act is shorter in page count than the first, and the romance between Tony and Gabrielle only becomes active in the second half of the script (it starts somewhat sooner in the film, but not too much). The act break, by the way, is the moment when Tony, having had enough of Jeff's pretentious 'High Art' and feeling totally out of his depth, runs off and quits the show. The first moment where Tony and Gaby start falling in love, the wonderful Dancing In The Dark number (already present in the script), takes place on page 63 of an 87-page script! That's very late indeed.

Another element which was changed in the final film was the Les/Lily plot. They were apparently intended to get into a big relationship crisis because of the events surrounding the show, and then finally make up again after the opening night disaster. In the film, nothing of this subplot remains, and Les and Lily don't have any kind of arc. But actually that's an improvement, as the subplot is developed so badly in the script it doesn't even register, despite them getting a few scenes to themselves including a bedroom quarrel.

By the way, in the script we get to see a little more of the actual play that is being performed - the Astaire/Buchanan duet actually had a scene leading into it where they both learn that the object of their affection is going to marry a third man, giving a rationalisation for the song title, I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plans.


The end of the script is probably the weakest part. Much of it is similar to the film - the show's a big hit, Tony expects a celebration but everyone seems to have deserted him, when he leaves his dressing room he suddenly walks into a surprise party for him and Gaby declares her love for him - but the details differ. For some bizarre reason, Gaby disguises herself as a cleaning woman in order to surprise Tony, and when discovered she serenades him with an 'updated' version of the By Myself number, after which everyone pops out to congratulate the happy couple and sing That's Entertainment once again. It simply doesn't work at all. It also shows that, though it has no narrative value in the film, the Girl Hunt ballet actually functions as the climax of the film. Everything which comes after it (the resolution of the romance plot) is just the resolution, and is sort of throwaway. The main question of the script is: will the show be a success, and performing the big number answers that question in the positive. But it's a different way of resolving the big dramatic question, as there's no real conflict here, no confrontation between two forces with opposing goals.

Get your dose of Hollywood goodness here (region 1)




or here (region 2)




And if you want to know more about Fred Astaire's life and career, this is the best book on the subject currently:




And just because I feel like it, here's Dancing In The Dark! Enjoy!

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Narrative Rule That Is Never Broken (Except For Once In Hudson Hawk)

I found this rule in an English book on spy novels (a history of the genre, not a writing guide) back in the early '80s - the title and the author have escaped me.

However, the rule holds up in about every type of narrative (film, TV, literature...), even today.

The rule is this:

Betrayal is loved; the traitor is hated.

In other words, treachery and betrayal are a narrative element much beloved by audiences all over the world. Certainly in spy thrillers, you cannot have enough betrayal, so to speak.

However, the character performing the betrayal is not so lucky. For some basic psychological reason, the traitor is always punished, usually by death.

It doesn't matter whether the traitor is on the side of the villains or on the side of the angels - retribution always seems to follow. The villainous traitor always gets his/her comeuppance somehow; the goody-two-shoes traitor is invariably found out by the bad guys and usually 'rewarded' with a fate worse than death.

You may doubt the universality of this rule, but try it yourself - you will be amazed to discover in how many films and novels this narrative gambit appears.

The one exception to the rule is in Bruce Willis' vanity action comedy Hudson Hawk. Bruce's partner Danny Aiello betrays him in the course of the film, and dies soon after. However, at the very end of the film, Aiello pops up unharmed. But it's a sort of post-modern gag: the explanation Aiello gives for his survival is so incredibly far-fetched, that both the characters in the film and the audience are supposed to realize this is a narrative cheat in order to ensure a completely happy ending.

The fact that only the notorious Hudson Hawk (a misguided movie if ever there was one) dared to challenge this convention should act as a warning to screenwriters who would like to attempt the same feat. Which is not to say it shouldn't or couldn't be done - only that you'll have to fight an enormously powerful 'cliché' (for want of a better word) which seems to have a deep-rooted psychological foundation.

But pulling it off succesfully would enrich the narrative vocabulary for storytellers everywhere, as breaking this narrative shape could be re-used time and again (unlike, say, the rule breaking in Psycho which is basically one-trick ponies. Kill your protagonist off halfway through the film, and the audience reaction will be: 'Hey, that's just a Psycho rip-off!')

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The One Emotion Your Protagonist Should Never Have...




There's one emotion which is a complete turn-off in movies and TV series. Let your protagonist indulge in it, and you are guaranteed to lose the symapthy (and even empathy) of your audience straightaway.

Funnily enough, it's a quite common condition, which most people have experienced at some time in their life (and some even specialize in it).

That emotion is: Self-pity.

For some reason, there is hardly anything as off-putting as seeing a main character feeling sorry for himself. It just makes you want to slap him upside the head and yell at him to pull his act together. Even if you're prone to the occassional bout of self-pity in real life, to see it enacted on the screen is a highly irritating experience.

For reasons of drama, self-pity is a pitfall as well. A protagonist who feels sorry for himself is a protagonist who stops acting, who doesn't try to change his situation or achieve a goal any longer. He basically stops the forward momentum of the narrative stone dead.

This is not to say the character cannot react to a certain situation by feeling desperate, or wronged, or that you cannot have him or her lament his fate - but that must be a momentary thing. A short lull, catching of breath, before the quest continues.

Now, you will rarely see a self-pitying protagonist on the screen - most scripts in which they feature will never make it to anything resembling the production stage.

So you might wonder - if we never get to see it, is the anti-self-pity bias wrong, perhaps? Might it not reveal new psychological vistas for us to explore?

Well, luckily there's a movie which proves my point (and dispelled any doubts I might have had myself on the subject). It's not a good movie, and it's definitely obscure in the West. It's called What A Hero! and stars Hong Kong top idol Andy Lau, who isn't just Hong Kong's most popular singer but who has starred in just about every genre of film except for erotica.

What A Hero! (1992) is a sort of action comedy - it's about the rivalry between two police teams, one led by Andy Lau, the other by Roy Cheung. Their rivalry doesn't just extend to the professional level, they're both expert kung fu fighters as well (in the movie, not in real life) and they are going to participate in a big tournament. So far, so good.
There are some bad guys running around Hong Kong, Andy and his team manage to arrest them but Roy manages to take the credit and unjustly is seen as a hero.

And what does Andy do?

He goes off to sulk for thirty minutes of a 90-minute film.

That's right. For what amounts to the second half of the second act, our hero quits his job, hides away in his house, and looks wistfully off-camera as a few cloying Canto-pop ballads assault our ears.

And while the film was nowhere near a classic up to this point, there were a few amusing scenes, a couple of snippets of decent action, and a plot which, though clichéd, at least offered the anticipation of some good action scenes.

Finally, the pleading of Andy's mom and his girlfriend (Maggie Cheung) causes him to see the error of his ways, and it's off to the kung fu competition for him. But by this time no one cares any more - and the competition itself offers no quality action which might have slightly redeemed the whole enterprise - but that's beside the point (and it means you don't have to scour the internet to get your hands on this film - as I once did, a decade ago). The point is that a reasonably entertaining potboiler suddenly becomes one of the most boring films you could imagine, and every emotional involvement with the hero is cut short.

So, self-pity: save it for real life, and keep it out of your scripts!

Friday, May 15, 2009

How I Do It: Spicing Up Scenes

Finally in the throes of writing a TV comedy script again, I immediately came up against the following... well, problem is a bit of an overstatement. Challenge, shall we say.

The first scene of the screenplay was all exposition in the synopsis. It's a short set-up scene of one of the two plotlines in the episode: a woman drops her infant off at her mother for babysitting purposes, because she's got to go in to work unexpectedly. The company has a new CEO and his reputation is that he's an indiscriminate firer of employees every time he changes company. Our woman protagonist is doubly worried because she hasn't got a diploma, so she fears her days are numbered. The scene then ends with a mild mother-daughter gag.

So. Necessary info. But very dry. And I thought I'd spruce it up with sufficient zingers and one-liners once I started writing the dialogue.

Except that I didn't. The one-liners refused to show up. The scene was functional but, well, dull as hell.

On the other hand, I didn't want to make it into a bigger deal than it was - it's just a set-up scene which needs to get the ball rolling, and then make room for bigger and better things.

After thinking about it for a little while, I decided to have the mother still be sleepy when her daughter arrives with the little kid. A little better (there's some conflict involved as well as some potential for humour and interesting little bits of business), but it didn't really do much. Still, it was a start.

So in the next pass, I decided to make the mother REALLY sleepy. And she wasn't expecting company. And then her daughter bursts in like a tornado, almost gives her a heart attack and causes her to spill her coffee all over the breakfast table.

Which immediately gives me a physical gag to open with, an attitude for both characters (tired and then disgruntled because of the disturbance for the mother, nervous and edgy for the daughter), and some more opportunities for movement and business (the mother cleans up the mess during the following dialogue).

A better start, but not enough to fill the entire scene, naturally.

So I took the nervousness of the daughter and upped it - she's no longer reasonably nervous, she's panicky and because of her insecurity, she gets into a typical (and rationally pointless) family argument with her mother about her lack of higher education. The argument allows me to reveal some character information which helps to illuminate the characters in more depth.

I still got all the necessary information in the scene, but by now it's come alive, has several comedic things going on, and it's no longer as static as it originally was. It won't be a classic, but now the exposition is hidden much better and there are several opportunities for solid laughs.

So, to recapitulate - if you need to spice up a scene in a comedy script, be sure to:

- give all characters in the scene a clear (and preferably conflicting) attitude
- look for possibilities for physical humour which arise naturally from your setting
- put the characters into some sort of conflict (a conflict which may be unrelated to the information the scene needs to deliver, by the way)
- think about giving the actors possibilities for bits of business by having the characters do things, be active throughout the scene. This can inspire the actors and the director during the rehearsal period - they may even come up with several physical gags themselves which you as a writer couldn't have foreseen due to you not being on the set and interacting directly with it physically.

Do be sure not to let these 'extras' obscure the purpose of the scene and the information the audience needs to capture in order to follow the rest of the episode, though. I'm not turning this scene into a big set-piece - but I'm turning an ordinary expository scene into something entertaining and (hopefully) amusing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I'm No Superman - thoughts on the season 8 finale of Scrubs




This special hour-long episode which brought season 8 to a close, also bids goodbye to series lead J.D. Dorian (Zach Braff) and was intended to serve as a possible series finale as well.

Scrubs has never been a runaway ratings hit, but it was one of the first single-camera comedy shows, and one of the best. It managed to combine character comedy, surreal humour (both in fantasy sequences and real life) and poignant moments of strong, hones emotion in a particularly effective way. Set in Sacred Heart Hospital, Scrubs doesn't avoid the painful parts of the job, and still it manages to be wacky, funny and joyful too. It's a very impressive balancing act, though in recent seasons it's not always been able to get the ingredients quite right. Season 8 has been very enjoyable on the whole, however, give or take a few less inspired outings.

So let's take a look at how this farewell to Zach Braff was constructed narratively.

The episode, written and directed by show creator Bill Lawrence, does not go for the big shock or spectacle. It focuses very tightly on the saying goodbye-theme. This means that it's not a big, high-concept episode like the musical one or the homage to the Wizard of Oz, but it's centered by some very real, recognizable emotions. And it resolves a number of lingering plot strands and relationships with regards to J.D.

In short, it's a totally character-centric finale, and as such it's full of pay-offs and callbacks which long-time fans of the series will definitely enjoy.

The episode has quite a number of plotlines developing throughout:

- Eliott (Sarah Chalke) sneak-moving in with J.D. by bringing her furniture and stuff over in secret;
- J.D. expecting a huge send-off from everyone at the hospital (which is basically the A story of the episode);
- Turk (Donald Faison) giving J.D. the big goodbye gesture way too soon, so they have to keep that initial 'goodbye intensity' up all day each time they meet;
- J.D. being confronted by the Janitor (Neil Flynn) once more about the penny he stuck in the door in the pilot episode;
- Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins) deciding to get back into being a doctor, but no longer at the hospital and no longer as an administrator;
- J.D. trying to get Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) to finally admit he likes him before he leaves the hospital;
- J.D. dealing with an elderly female patient who turns out to have Huntingdon's disease, and with her son who now has to face the possibility he carries the same (genetic) disease;
- And a few minor elements such as Jordan (Christa Miller) saying goodbye to J.D., Carla (Reyes) finally getting an answer about whether Turk loves her more than J.D. or vice versa and Ted (Sam Lloyd) getting thoughts stuck in his head.

As you can see, that's a lot of story material to work with, yet it's all thematically related. Even the medical plotline is worked into J.D.'s psychological state. The decision of the son, Dan, not to have the test for Huntingdon's done yet because he doesn't want his future to be closed off and determined by a bad test result, inspires J.D. to accept that his future is still open and free at the end of the episode - though I must say I didn't quite feel the link between these two elements to work.

Strangely enough though, the episode is fairly short - less than 40 minutes of actual material, the remaining time at the end taken up by outtakes.

Structurally, the episode is interesting because it starts on a high (J.D.'s arrival at the hospital and the big goodbye moment with Turk). And things go steadily downhill from there, as J.D. doesn't get what he want (a huge send-off by everyone) in the hospital - though he does get a few warm personal goodbyes).

The first half of the episode is all about J.D. waiting for people to say goodbye to him and make a big show of his leaving. This culminates in a midpoint where the huge banner Turk made for him has already been usurped not once but twice to say goodbye to other people (including Dr. Kelso).

The midpoint causes J.D. to decide to alter his approach: if people don't give him what he want, he'll go and ask for it - and especially from Perry Cox, who has already brushed him off with a 'sorry, no can do'-speech.

But this approach only leads to more disappointment and Cox-fueled humiliation. J.D. also is faced with Elliot and Turk simultaneously apologizing for respectively moving in with him behind his back and saying goodbye too soon. There are a few warm moments with Carla and the Janitor (J.D. finally learns his name - or so he thinks), before J.D. finally sees his dream come true and gets to hear Perry's real feelings towards him when he scolds new intern Sunny for disparaging J.D. - a great moment which is both truly touching and very funny when J.D. forces Perry into a hug and tells him he smells of a father figure.

This last scene is actually a great example of NOT using subtext for a change: Perry states his feelings forcefully and clearly, as does J.D., and it feels completely right. And it also elevates the effectiveness of the subtext of Cox's usual insulting tirades against J.D.

Of course, there must be some sort of big communal goodbye to the star of the series in the episode, and Bill Lawrence falls back on J.D.'s hyperactive imagination to come up with a very original and poignant scene where J.D., reminiscing about 'the people we let into our life', meets a host of characters from past episodes (plus a few current ones like Ted and his Peons and Todd) as he walks to the exit. These include his brother, past girlfriends, colleagues, patients (including a few deceased ones)... It's a scene particularly rich for long-time fans, and it has tons of call-backs to previous episodes.

When J.D. reaches the exit, all these 'spectres of episodes past' vanish, and he looks towards the future, seeing it projected on the big banner Turk made for him. It includes J.D. and Elliott getting married, christmases spent with Turk, Carla and Dr. Cox, J.D.'s son getting engaged to Turk's daughter and so on. It's a happy future, and while it's totally imaginary, J.D. tells us there's no reason why his fantasies couldn't come true - just this once.

There's not a lot of big external conflict in the episode - the main drive is J.D. wanting to see his expectations met. It doesn't really happen, but he achieves closure on a personal level and leaves the hospital a better man and a more complete human being. Looking for external validation, he instead discovers he doesn't need it anymore.

The episode is a warm, emotional and funny send-off for J.D., which shows us how much the character has grown AND how much he has remained the same over the years (he's still infuriatingly immature some of the time, but it's no longer the core of who he is). The closure with regards to the simmering long-time subplots or running gags is extremely satisfying.

It's not an episode to recommend to Scrubs virgins, as they'll miss too many references and recurring jokes. But on its own terms, it's a very succesful goodbye to one of television comedy's most endearing lead characters.

(FYI: there's still talk of a possible 9th season being produced, and even the possibility that Braff will return to the series occassionally is being discussed seriously. But if this doesn't come to pass, the series went out on a high note.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Script Review: Law-Abiding Citizen (Frank Darabont draft, previous draft by Kurt Wimmer)

After reading a rave review of this script over at Scriptshadow, I decided to take a look at this Kurt Wimmer/Frank Darabont-penned thriller to see whether I could get equally enthused. Note that this is not the shooting script - there has been a more recent David Ayer version as well.

Did I? Ah ah - that would be telling... Wait and see.

Spoilers, as always, will follow so read at your own risk.

Law-Abiding Citizen starts off with a man, Benson Clyde, calling the authorities after discovering his wife and child murdered at home. We swiftly meet our protagonist, Nick Price, one of the District Attorneys handling the case, and learn that the killers have been arrested but will probably win a trial because of a lack of admittable evidence. However, one of the killers wants to squeal on the other in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Clyde is adamant both killers have to go to trial, but the D.A.'s decide to go with the immunity option - like this they are at least certain of one conviction.

Ten years later, the convicted felon is to be executed, but his execution (by injected poison) goes 'wrong' when he's injected with another substance that causes him to die a hideous, extremely painful death. Price and his colleagues can't figure out how the 'sabotage' was performed, and decide to go and look for the other killer to interrogate him. The man escapes the police, however, with the help of an unknown man who turns out to be Benson Clyde. He subdues the killer and gives him the full Dexter treatment. Then he mails a DVD of the slaughter to Nick Price's 10-year old daughter, traumatizing her for life.

Analysis of the DVD leads the police to Clyde's farm, and he's duly arrested - but doesn't seem to care. In fact, he demands to be released - he's going to play the system like the system played him ten years ago. A game of wits begins between Price and Clyde, with Clyde first demanding luxury items in his cell in exchange for every part of his confession. But then the stakes increase when Clyde kills his cellmate and lands in solitary. His aim is not just to walk away free but taking vengeance on everyone - policeman, attorney, D.A., Mayor - who he deems responsible for the miscarriage of justice he suffered.

Price finds out that Clyde used to be a spy, specializing in inventing methods for killing people, and that he's a chess-playing genius who thinks twenty moves ahead of his opponent. And just how deadly an opponent he is becomes clear when he carries out every threat succesfully, even though he's behind bars. The death count rises like mad, and Price finds himself totally stumped - until one of his assistents finds the missing bit of information needed for Price to turn the tables on Clyde. But will it be enough to stop Clyde's final act of revenge - which targets the Mayor?

WRITING STYLE

Two things immediately strike you when reading this script:

- none of the characters is described in any detail whatsoever

- there are a great amount of camera directions.

The latter makes sense since Frank Darabont apparently was slated to direct the film (no longer the case). The former is obviously an attempt at keeping all casting options open for the film : Nick Price, our hero, could literally be played by any leading man, from Hugh Jackman to Denzel Washington (and even Michael Douglas could probably still pull him off). At the moment, Jamie Foxx is attached to the film to play Nick Price, and Gerald Butler will play Benson Clyde.
I must say, though, that this 'anonymous' handling of the characters somehow lessens the identification with them, especially in the first twenty or thirty pages of the script.

No Shane Black-isms here - just effective, atmospheric stage directions. The feeling of dread and paranoia, evoked by the plot, is nicely reinforced by the tone of the writing.

STRUCTURE

This script has a very traditional three-act structure, with very clear act breaks and an effective midpoint (Clyde kills his cellmate) which signals a new, deadlier stage of the game between the main characters.
What's interesting about the second act is that it basically starts with a high point (the arrest of Benson Clyde) and then relentlessly goes from bad to worse for the good guys. There's not a single moment where they manage to turn the tide or get ahead of the villain. Even after they've been told about him and his abilities by another spy, they're still unable to use this information to their advantage.

This script is also totally pushed along by the antagonist. Nick Price is a totally reactive protagonist because all he can do is react to the moves made by his opponent. Only in the late third act does he finally take the initiative and actively tries to outsmart Clyde.

CHARACTERS

You will have noticed I only mentioned two names in the synopsis of the plot. There's a good reason for that. The only two characters in the script with any resonance are Nick Price and (especially) Benson Clyde. All others (wives, daughters, policemen, assistant D.A.'s, criminals, you name it) are quite bland. Don't get me wrong, their dialogue is all right, the parts are solid, but they are unmemorable. There is only one character with a specific characteristic (bad eyesight), all others are well-written clichés.

Nick Price isn't that fantastic either, but that's part of the suspense: he's a good guy, pretty smart, tenacious, but in no way extraordinary. And he's facing an extraordinary opponent. So the stakes are very high and the odds are very much against him. It's a role a star can make his own, by imbuing it with his own charisma - but as a lead character, he's pretty uninteresting.

Of course Benson Clyde makes up for this. We first see him as a distraught victim, begging for justice - but when he returns ten years later, he's superhumanly intelligent, utterly ruthless, sadistic, invincible - and yet there are a few key moments in the script where he reveals his human side during his confrontations with Price. He has pretentions of Hannibal Lecterism but unlike Lecter he still has a (wounded) heart. And though we detest him for the crimes he commits and the innocents he targets, we continue to feel his pain almost all the way through the script.

Some of the most powerful character scenes in the script are the conversations between Price and Benson. But at the same time, I remained disappointed - I was hoping for more. A deeper philosophical discussion, a more layered insight into Clyde's character, a more interesting plan (by which I mean his goal, not the way he intends to achieve it)... Even a stronger tie between the two men. What's on the page is very good, but it's just missing a little something to make it magical.

Of course, the problem is that Clyde is so damn incredible, the story becomes very hard to swallow. It's all 'just' possible, there's no magic or mutant powers (though in the beginning I wasn't sure whether this was going to turn into a horror movie), but it's very very very unlikely that any of the events engineered by Clyde could come to pass. And the way the clue is found which turns the tables on him is probably too easy - someone who thinks as far ahead as Clyde should definitely have had a back-up plan to bury that information.

GENERAL CONCLUSIONS

This version of Law-Abiding Citizen has a number of strong points: an impressive, all-powerful villain, some great set-pieces (the murder of the assistant D.A.'s is a real 'Oh, shit!'-moment, for instance), and the general feeling of dread and doom is realized very well. On the minus side, the plot is extremely far-fetched and there are serious plot holes at times (if there had been guards or cameras to watch Clyde in solitary, he could never have pulled off the stunts he did - so why wasn't he kept under surveillance 24/7? Especially once he started carrying out his threats?). And the secondary characters are too bland to make much of an impression.
If one can keep suspending one's disbelief, this is an enjoyable thriller - but it's definitely flawed. Still, you can learn a lot from studying how the big set-pieces are written and constructed, for in these sequences the script absolutely achieves the goals it aims for.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book Review: Story and Character: Interviews with British Screenwriters (edited by Alistair Owen)



Despite the UK being very influential and important in the global screenwriting arena, there haven't been very many books concentrating on the British screenwriter and letting him/her tell their side of the story. Luckily, Story and Character does just that.

Though the book isn't terribly recent (it was published in 2003 and most of the interviews were taken in 2001 - 2002), the selection of the writers hasn't dated one bit. In fact, this distance at times makes it even more interesting. We hear Richard Curtis talking about his next project, which became Love, Actually; and we share Simon Beaufoy's frustration when faced with the inevitable expectations of a follow-up hit to The Full Monty, whereas Beaufoy was only interested in telling some highly personal, very art-housey projects. And obviously he's still doing that, having written a little-seen Danny Boyle movie about an impoverished low-caste Indian participating on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? What was it called again... Oh yes, Slumdog Millionaire or something.

The writers interviewed are:

Rupert Walters (who wrote for Disney among others and adapted a book for John Woo)
Lee Hall (Billy Elliot)
Richard Curtis (4 weddings, Mr. Bean, Blackadder etc.)
Frank Cottrell Boyce (one of Michael Winterbottom's main writers)
Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who have been writing crappy Bond films since The World Is Not Enough)
Shawn Slovo (South African screenwriter of A World Apart and Captain Corelli's Mandolin)
William Boyd (succesful novelist, also became a screenwriter and director)
Hossein Amini (Iranian-born writer of Jude and The Wings of a Dove)
Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire).



Alistair Owen proves to be an excellent interviewer. Each and every one of the interviews is interesting all the way through, even those of the writers you don't really know much about.

Some highlights include Richard Curtis admitting he doesn't know a lot about structure, and Purvis and Wade constantly finishing each other's sentences.

Many of these writers also worked in America, with varying degrees of success, and as such the book also offers a lot of interesting comparisons between the mindsets of the British and the American film world.




There's also a lot more reticence towards screenwriting manuals and courses in these interviews than are normally found in interviews with American writers, although this attitude may have shifted over the years.

The only negative I can mention is that there haven't been any sequels to Story and Character. And there damn well should have been, as it would have been fascinating to get an updated look at the state of British screenwriting every two years or so. In any case, highly recommended reading for everyone with an interest in screenwriting in Britain.

You can get it here:

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Book review: I Followed My Bliss To Bankruptcy - What I Wish I Knew Before I Moved To Hollywood

Cautionary tales ahoy!

What I Wish I Knew Before I Moved To Hollywood is a guide to life in the movie capital of the world which pulls no punches. In fact, it's downright disheartening.

Written by T.R. Locke, an unsuccesful screenwriter/succesful real estate agent and sometime actor, this is the first guide which really tells it as it is. Locke describes the mentality that fuels Hollywood (it's a business first, second and last), dispels a lot of myths about the screenwriting life and the image Hollywood puts out (they're not looking for originality, they're looking for something that they're sure will work because it has worked before), and skewers the psychological mindset prevalent in Hollywood relationships (shallow, fake and 'user'-friendly).

And worst of all - it's not even about talent. The streets are drowning in talent in L.A. It's about politics, and people thinking they can make money from you.

Locke freely admits that this book would have been totally different in tone if he'd made a million-dollar sale. But as this hasn't yet come to pass, he can speak his mind freely about all the traps and pitfalls L.A. has to offer. Locke uses his personal story as a background for all the advice, and it's quite a story in itself. As a kid, he was a very gifted liar, later he became a minister and worked with Chicago gangs, then he became a real estate agent, did very well for himself and lost almost everything when the internet bubble went 'pop' on the Stock Exchange.

After having winning a semi-final place in a screenwriting competition he decided to travel to L.A. with his wife, got an agent, lawyer and manager, did the rounds, took meeting after meeting after meeting - and finally went bankrupt, ended up in a depression and separated from his wife (they're back together again, luckily). So he's experienced the challenges and dangers of Hollywood life first hand. There are also a few very entertaining anecdotes where he blows up at producers and tells them exactly what he thinks of them - not good for your career but quite empowering at the time.

The book isn't intended to stop people from following their bliss, but it is intended as a wake-up call. If you decide you can't take the kind of treatment described in these pages (and that's not at all a weird or ridiculous decision, quite the contrary), it's probably better to stay away from Tinseltown. On the other hand, if these stories don't scare you off or even help you see a way to exploit the system, you may well have what it takes to survive and even prosper there. You may not be a terribly nice person, but... them's the breaks.

In order to broaden the relevance of the book, Locke has also interviewed a number of professionals in film and music (he's obviously got good connections to the music biz as well) who did make it, and asks them to reveal the info they wish they'd known before they started out on their career. Since these people did make it to the top of their chosen field, they're generally a bit more positive, but there are sufficient serious warnings here as well.

T.R. Locke writes in an engaging, breezy style which makes the book a good and fluent read. Most of the info is relevant to screenwriters, though there's also quite a lot of info for actors and singers/musicians. Anyone thinking of hitching their wagon to a star and travelling across the continent/globe to L.A. with dreams of making it huge as a screenwriter would do well to check this book out - and it's probably even more of an eye-opener for non-American readers.

Get it at:

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Han Solo, Knight of the Round Table? The two types of hero examined

When we take a look at the Hero (using the most traditional definition of the word) in Western storytelling, we come to the conclusion that they basically all belong to two archetypes.

Namely: King Arthur and Lancelot.



King Arthur brought civilization and stability to England by personally defeating evil ursurpers and pagan kingdoms. His Knights of the Round Table were the epitome of chivalry and rode all through the land, righting wrongs, protecting the innocent and furthering the glory of their liege and God. He belonged to civilization, was an integral part of it.



Lancelot was an outsider. He was born in Brittany, in the magical forest of Broceliande, and his mother was a nymph (clear evidence of Lancelot originally being a Celtic mythical hero or demi-god). He was not just the best knight, he was superhumanly strong and capable. Lancelot traveled to Camelot to offer his services to Arthur, and became the greatest Knight of the Round Table. But his background was very different from the world Arthur had made. Lancelot came from the other, magical world, but he thought that Arthur's civilization was worth defending and protecting.

Of course, Arthur and Lancelot fell out over Guinevere, and the resulting rift precipitated the destruction of Camelot and Arthur's utopia.

Okay, what does this have to do with screenwriting (apart from Arthurian Epics which aren't really in vogue right now)?

These two archetypal approaches to heroism can be found in just about any genre of film. And they still hold their power to this day. (Note: they don't have to be encountered together - they can appear and function separately just as well).

Consider Stagecoach: a small pocket of civilization (the stagecoach with its occupants) travels through a Chaos wilderland. They encounter danger at every turn - but luckily they also encounter the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), an outlaw (= someone not of civilization) who has the strengh and skills to get them through this magical land and protect them against its dangers (especially the bloodthirsty Native American tribes).



Consider Casablanca (a perfect example): Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) is a heroic resistance fighter who is instrumental in organizing the fight against the Nazis. Rick Blaine (aw come on, everyone knows who played that role) hides out in the wasteland, creating his little fiefdom and refusing to get involved in the struggle between Good and Evil because of his broken heart - but once that problem's taken care of, he rejoins the fight and helps Lazlo escape to freedom.

The example of Casablanca is quite important because it puts another aspect of the dichotomy between these two heroes in the spotlight : the Arthur figure has zero sex appeal. Victor Lazlo (a far more handsome man than Blaine) is a father, a teacher, an intellectual, a creature of spirit. Rick is dangerous, unpredictable, sexy, attractive on an animal level.

And this is a recurring aspect of the Lancelot character. Being part of the World of Chaos, Lancelot draws much of his power from it, and he also has some of its characteristics. The Lancelot hero is sexy (even if, like Dirty Harry, he's not looking for sex or love at all). The Lancelot hero has greater skills and abilities than the people of the civilized world. But the Lancelot hero is (usually) maladjusted in some way. He may like civilization, admire it, even become a part of it in some cases - but he'll never fit in completely. And in some cases (John Wayne in The Searchers, for instance) he'll leave once his job is done, belonging to the world of Chaos and Magic too much to ever adjust to the rules and laws which are necessary to keep civilization afloat.

Want more proof? Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is honourable, brave, gets a magic sword (a clear Excalibur-substitute), and personifies the Light Side of the Force (all that is good and noble in the Star Wars universe). He's also completely desexualized, especially in the second and the third film of the trilogy: the girl he sort of flirts with not only chooses his best friend over him but turns out to be his twin sister!



On the other hand, we have Han Solo: a smuggler and outlaw, selfish, with no high-blown moral standards except for loyalty to his friends - occassionally, a great pilot and clever rogue, at home in the dangerous galaxy of the Empire - and he shoots first. And he's the heartthrob of the trilogy.

Now, the King Arthur-type hero was far more prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century - the upright lawman, the incorruptible policeman, the heroic soldier embodying all that is best about his country. As time passed, the Lancelot archetype took over almost completely (all the rebellious cop, loners, maladjusted mavericks etc. we've been presented with). The big shift probably started with the beginning of the Bond series: here we have a perfect Lancelot figure who was as mean and dangerous as his foes (Bond's callous extermination of his enemies in Doctor No was very shocking at the time).

Another interesting aspect of the Lancelot hero is that he is usually not perfect, has major flaws which either need correcting or not - but it does make him far more of an effective candidate for a character arc.

The Arthur hero often starts out in a position of weakness (slave, poor farmer, orphan) and needs to learn a set of skills in order to fulfill his destiny, but characterwise he's usually pretty perfect to start with. He's the 'shining example' of a society, while the Lancelot is the 'bad boy with a heart of gold'. Since character arcs have become so important in screenwriting the last 40 years, it's no surprise that the Lancelot archetype has become dominant. Of course that's not the only reason - the big changes society underwent during the late 1960s - early 1970s, with their distrust of authority and the values of the previous generations, made a rebelling hero figure all the more attractive and believable.

Incidentally, Arthur's character arc only activates near the end of the Arthurian cycle, when Lancelot and Guinevere have become lovers, and Arthur is consumed by bitterness and jealousy towards them and turns into a tyrant instead of a good king - and then reclaims his heroic status as the story ends.

Even though Lancelot is the flavour of the past decennia, don't count Arthur out completely, though. It's still very much possible to make the Arthur archetype exciting and inspiring, though it's harder to pull off. But if you want proof:
A truly Arthurian hero of (fairly) recent times is none other than ST:TNG's Captain Jean-Luc Picard.



So, when you're developing your Hero - know which archetype you're using, play to its strengths - and be sure to play around with it to make it unique.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Script Review: Green Lantern (Berlanti/Green/Guggenheim version)




Green Lantern is one of DC comics major superheroes, though he's never been quite as popular as Superman and Batman. That may very well change, as Warner's is mounting a major media offensive to put Green Lantern in the spotlight, with the movie as the centrepiece.

I don't know whether this is the shooting draft, though I think it is, but it's recent (early 2008) and Marc Guggenheim is very active in both television and comics at the moment (he's one of the current Spider-Man writers and has written for Law and Order and CSI Miami, among others).

For those of you who do not know what a Green Lantern is: the Green Lanterns are an intergalactic police force, who possess rings with which they can create almost anything. They're powered by willpower, and have to recharge their rings every day with the aid of a... green lantern, which is connected to the power battery on the planet Oa. Here the Green Lantern Corps has its headquarters and their creators, the Guardians, watch over the galaxy. Every space sector has their own Green Lantern, and obviously the movie (and the comic books) focus on the Green Lantern of Earth, who is (at the moment, anyway, there have been a few others) Hal Jordan.

Spoilers will follow, unavoidably. But I'll try to keep them to a minimum.

At 12 years of age, Hal Jordan loses his dad, a jet pilot, in an accident with an experimental plane. 15 years later, Jordan is a jet pilot as well, but he's cocky, selfish, and rebellious, much to the chagrin of his boss and ex-girlfriend, Carol Ferris, who runs Ferris Airplanes together with her father.

Elsewhere, an alien Green Lantern, Abin Sur, is attacked by a monstrous enemy of the Corps, Legion. Abin Sur is mortally wounded but manages to crash his space ship on Earth. His ring flies off to look for a successor and chooses Hal Jordan.
Jordan and his best friend, Tom Kumalku, find the spaceship and Jordan gets some Green Lantern information before Abin Sur finally dies.

Later, during a date with Carol, Jordan is attacked by the boyfriend of one of his one-night stands, and the powers of the ring suddenly spring to life. And soon after, he's whisked away to Oa, where he meets the Guardians and several other Lanterns, including Sinestro, Abin Sur's best friend and the most revered Lantern of the Corps, and the impressive alien drill sergeant Kilowog.

Jordan's rebellious ways soon have him saying no to the Corps mentality though, and he returns to Earth determined not to have anything to do with the Lanterns.

Meanwhile, Abin Sur's space ship has been discovered and a scientist, Hector Hammond, is infected with a particle of Legion. This causes him to keep mutating throughout the script, and to develop enormous powers of telepathy, telekinesis and mind control. As Hammond is a mean, screwed-up wreck of a man, this spells no good for the people of Earth...

Jordan is forced to become Green Lantern at an air show when Hammond (unbeknownst to anyone there) takes over the jet plane his father is flying in and tries to cause a major disaster. Green Lantern saves the day (and Carol Ferris), and this becomes the impetus for Hal to throw himself into superheroing full-time. He also takes the time to romance Carol in his Green Lantern identity (the ring provides a costume and mask).

The rest of the Corps, meanwhile, mount an attack on Legion and subdue the creature, though at great cost.

Eventually, Green Lantern confronts Hector Hammond for the first time, and is defeated. He returns to Oa to ask for help in handling the supervillain, but the Guardians insist he finishes his training first. Disgusted by their bureaucracy, Jordan quits the Corps just as Legion breaks loose and causes havoc. And back on Earth, Hammond keeps getting more powerful and targets his dad and Carol Ferris again...

REVIEW

Green Lantern simply is a superhero movie script done right. Respectful of the original material (the script is full of little touches which will delight DC comic fans), keeping the origin story true to the comic book, and wholeheartedly embracing the superhero ethos and aesthetic. Reading the script, with all its colourful and spectacular visuals, the pure fun of traditional superhero comics at their best comes shining through.

Stage directions are vibrant, very visual, and drive the action forward. The reader is engaged, but not in a way which pulls you out of the reading experience (except when profanity is used, as it's completely absent in the dialogue. It's fairly jarring in this case). While reading the script, you can just imagine the special effects, and they promise to be truly awe-inspiring. It's an excellent example of 'a really good read'.

It's also interesting to note that on a couple of occasions references are already being made to possible prequels and sequels to the film... I haven't encountered that before.

Hal Jordan's character is an excellent part. He's seriously flawed, but in such a way that the character remains attractive to the audience, even when his behaviour is foolish or self-destructive. We also get the feeling he doesn't want to hurt the people around him, but he's incapable of not doing so because of his own inner pain. This is definitely not a film in which the villains are more interesting than the hero.

Which is not to say that the villains are slouches. Legion is a big, invincible alien entity, while Hector Hammond is a sleazy, insecure man with a big chip on his shoulder and a very bad relationship with his Senator father. When he gets powers, he uses them to get back at the world and everyone who's ever caused him pain. As his powers grow, so he keeps mutating and his actions become more and more evil - a nice correlation of outer and inner corruption. And there's a nice balance at work between Hal and Hector: both suddenly come into great power, both are unhappy and are emotionally messed up, but Hal comes to use his abilities to make things right while Hector uses them to lash out at the world. It's in this contrast that the fundamental truth of both characters is revealed.

One of the things which impressed me the most upon reading is how exciting and interesting the first act is - although Hal Jordan performs no superheroics whatsoever. Instead, we get:
- the opening introduction to the Green Lanterns and their world
- Abin Sur fighting Legion
- the death of Hal Jordan's father
- Adult Hal defeating 3 automated warplanes by extremely reckless flying during a demonstration at Ferris Airplanes
- Abin Sur crashing into Earth, and the ring looking for a new bearer (passing a certain bespectacled journalist from the Daily Planet along the way) and finding Hal Jordan
- the introduction of Hector Hammond, his autopsy of Abin Sur's corpse and his discovery of the Legion fragment

And mixed in with these sequences we get Hal Jordan's family and the introduction of Sinestro as well.

So the first act basically continually keeps moving, weaving several strands of narrative, all of which engage the interest, reveal character and set up the rest of the film.

I have some concerns about act 3 though: there really are three climaxes - fighting Legion on Oa, defeating Hector Hammond, and saving Carol without the power of the ring. The final climax is the end of Hal Jordan's personal story (going from self-centered semi-jerk to a true, self-sufficient hero). However, the resolution of the Legion storyline is the biggest bang in the script, and there's a real danger of the rest of the act being overshadowed by it. Moreover, Hal Jordan has proven to be a true hero before, so it doesn't really feel as if this final climactic development is all that necessary. It might have been preferable to combine the plotlines of both villains more strongly so the climax could intertwine the two.

I also found Hal quitting the Corps twice was a bit too much, especially because it basically was for the same reason (he didn't want to go through the training process, the first time because he's too rebellious, the second time because he has a villain to stop). It's actually too bad that Hal doesn't train in this film, as Kilowog is such a great character in the comics.

Despite these minor niggles, Green Lantern is one of the best superhero scripts I've yet encountered. It has all the potential for being a major blockbuster, and it could easily launch a movie franchise (as is clearly intended). It's slated for Winter 2010 and I'll be eagerly awaiting its release!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Script Review: Blood And Bone

In keeping with the John Kreng book review, here's a look at the screenplay for an out-and-out action fight film.

Blood and Bone is a upcoming martial arts/fight film, starring Michael Jai White, written by Michael Andrews and directed by Ben Ramsey (who also revised the script). If the film does well, it could become a franchise.

A short plot summary:

After showing us just how damn tough he is in an opening fight scene in jail, ex-con Isaiah Bone finds himself back on the streets. Renting a room from a single woman who looks after abandoned children, Tamara, he proceeds to attend an underground fighting competition. He hooks up with Pinball, one of the fight promotors, who's not doing too well as his fighters all get demolished by the Hammer Man, a steroid-pumped monster owned by Afro-American gangster James. Bone wants to fight Hammer Man, but has to move up through the ranks before he's allowed his shot at the big guy. Which isn't much of a problem, as Bone turns out to be completely invincible.
Once Bone gets in the ring with the Hammer Man, he wastes no time in completely demolishing his opponent.

James takes it all in stride, though, and invites Pinball and Bone to his home. Even when Bone shows too much interest in James' beautiful but drugged-out girlfriend Angela, James keeps his cool with him. And for a reason: James wants to get into an international underground fighting organisation, where fighters battle to the death for the amusement of the extremely rich and expecially powerful, and he wants Bone to be his fighter. Bone is offered Angela as an enticement, and promises to think it over.

Now the plot thickens: it turns out that Bone was in jail with Angela's ex-husband, who was set up for the murder of Bone's twin brother by James. His first action is to take Angela to a rehab center, and once she's clean and sober he's going to help her get her son back (one of the kids living with Tamara). In the meantime, James goes to the Scottish arms dealer McVeigh, his contact man in the world of international underground fighting, and gets him to set up a fight between Bone and the deadliest fighter on the planet, Price. It also turns out that James is the real killer of Bone's brother and responsible for many other atrocities, all carried out at the behest of McVeigh.

Bone has an unpleasant surprise for James, though, when he informs him he won't be fighting for him. James goes mad with rage, but Bone and Pinball take out all of his goons and come for him once he's alone. Bone fights James and overcomes him, and forces him to take him to McVeigh so he can get his revenge. But in order to get to McVeigh, Bone has to go through Price first...

Plot/Structure

What struck me when reading the script is how much it reminded me of Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider. Though it doesn't come across in the above synopsis, for a while the script insinuates that Bone is a dead man come back to life to get revenge (which would explain his invincibility, but on the other hand would make the story far less exciting). The twin brother reveal is a bit hard to believe (the brother is called Jack Preacher, and it's never clear whether that's just a nickname or his given name), but it does pull the film back from the brink of the supernatural.

Plotwise, the film follows a fairly predictable but efficient path. The originality lies primarily in the way the characters are portrayed. Sure, there are clichés (the fate of Roberto, the elderly man who stands up to the criminal gangs in the neighbourhood can be guessed from his first appearance), but there are sufficient surprises as well - plus some neat 'whoa! Cool!!'-moments in the action sequences.

The biggest surprise comes at the beginning of act 3, when Bone refuses to be James' fighter. I had expected him to agree and use this as the way to get to the main boss villain. It also made sense as he obviously knew who he was looking for, and it fit the pattern for 'ring fighting movies'. The twist sort of throws the narrative flow out of whack, but it straightens out soon enough when we see how James and Bone come after one another. There's even a nice twist with Angela's rehab.

Structurally, the film has its classic three acts. The first act builds up the tension around Bone become an underground fighter nicely. After the short prologue, we don't see him fight again until the act 1 climax. But there have been a few other bouts and the introduction of the Hammer Man (who we erroneously surmise to become the big opponent for Bone) ensures that the stakes are present and that the suspense mounts almost constantly.

The only minus is that the final big fight, pitting Price versus Bone, isn't emotionally as powerful as the fight between Bone and James a bit earlier in the film (also the only weapon duel in the film, which makes for a nice change of pace). In the finished film, this may not prove to be a problem if the choreography and fight performances are excellent.


Characters

Bone is an effective protagonist: mysterious, brave, with a dark secret (which isn't revealed completely in the script), an incredible fighter, and someone with a very strong moral centre. No character arc here, but the mystery of character is used instead to keep us engaged and fascinated. And it works. With the right actor (and Michael Jai White is certainly capable of selling this part), the character can really come alive.

The strongest part of the script is the main antagonist, James, though. He's got pretentions of gentility, is refined, cultured, won't use profanity or have it used around him - but he's also a raving psychopath who kills people as soon as looking at them, and in extremely savage ways as well. One very strong scene is where James and his goons go to have dinner with a white lawyer friend. At first, everything is fine and it's a surprise for the reader that James has this warm, human side to him - and suddenly, without any warning, he savagely attacks the man and beats him to death. Worse, when the man's girlfriend tries to intervene, he bites a chunk out of her cheek. It's a truly shocking scene which perfectly illustrates the character's schizoid personality.

James' disintegration when Bone turns the table on him, is expertly done as well: gradually he loses his composure, starting to curse and lashing out at anyone around him.

The female roles (Angela and Tamara) are less developed, but do have a few good scenes and character moments which provide them with more depth. Pinball is the archetypal 'funny sidekick' so prevalent in these pictures, especially for the urban market - but this time the character actually is amusing and sufficiently likeable to earn the fact that he's around for the entire duration of the script.

The one role which I had some problems with is McVeigh. Not that the character is badly written per se, but he's a Glaswegian gangster who made it to international arms dealer. Someone like that HAS to be tougher than hell as the Glasgow crime scene is probably the roughest in the UK. Here though, the character becomes too sophisticated and the epilogue, which has a 'fate worse than death' in store for him, doesn't quite ring true. Also because the men who are intent on doing him harm had all been killed by Bone in the opening scene...

ACTION

As this is a fight film, the description of the action scenes is an important part of the reading experience. Strangely enough, the level of detail differs greatly from scene to scene.

Bone is an extremely effective fighter who often manages to take out an opponent with one single move. In a number of cases, the information you get is limited to this ('Bone takes the man out with a highly effective lethal move'). In a number of other cases, the exact move is described. But in the big fight scenes, detail is lacking, and no progress is described in the fight development. These scenes sometimes also fall back on Shane Black-isms - the final fight is described as the greatest martial arts scene in film history. Really? Better than the finale of Drunken Master 2? This kind of superlative boasting takes you right out of the narrative as a reader. Luckily this won't be a problem for the cinema audience. Still, a bit more storytelling in this moment would not have gone amiss.

Blood and Bone is what it is: an urban martial arts film, tailored to the talents of its lead performer for who this may turn out to be a breakout role. It follows the rules of the genre with conviction, and adds an extra dimension (without transcending the genre) by virtue of its character work. It's a good example of a martial arts script with extra depth and emotional layering.