Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Interview with martial artist/choreographer/writer/stand-up comedian (and more!) John Kreng - Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of the mammoth John Kreng interview. Coming up: lots of stuff that DIDN'T make it into John's enormous book, his views on what makes a good and a bad fight scene and his dream projects (which in this case will have to remain 'The Impossible Dream' unless someone perfects time travel in the next few years). Read on, True Believer!

Did you ever consider moving to Hong Kong to join the film industry there?

Yes. I am working on several projects and once they come to fruition I will let you people know about it. What I learned while writing my book is that by being Asian-American, I have been straddling both cultures all of my life. Which is why I felt uniquely qualified to write the book explaining styles of fighting in film for both Eastern and Western cultures. I hated it growing up and felt that I stood out like a leper at a fashion show because I just wanted to blend in and belong. But growing up, it has definitely paid off for me working in the film industry, because I have been able to understand both sides of the ocean when working on a film.

If a Western director wants a Hong Kong style fight, I can explain to them what each move means and the significance of why I am choreographing the fights in a certain way. I have also been able to help some Hong Kong Fight Directors who come here to work on American films, teaching them some Western pop culture history with regards to the history of the film and the actors they might be working with, so they can get a better idea of what they are doing.

At what point in your career did the idea for your book take shape? How much time did you spend writing it?

My friend Jeremy Cantor just finished writing a book on computer animation for short films, and his publisher was looking to expand into theatrical titles. We both went to the same karate school together, getting our black belts around the same time, and we also went to art school together. It was his suggestion to me and then to the publishers that I was the one to write the book.

The book took a little over 3 years to complete. It took that long because I had to define a process for creating a fight scene and determine the necessary elements that make an effective fight scene. I had to develop theories and ideas that had to work with almost every fight scene across the board. That was what took me so long. I would bounce my ideas off Jeff Imada and sometimes James Lew to see if they would hold up under their many years of experience. Some theories sank while others floated. Of course, I kept the ones that floated. They both knew me before I got into stunts and thought they were just being nice at times. But I knew I was onto something when I started talking to Vic Armstrong and Richard Norton, whom I did not know before the book, showing him part of my first chapter and they both told me that they really liked what I had written so far.

What are the biggest 'mistakes' or weaknesses that plague action and fight scenes nowadays?
Too much hand held- jittery camera work and getting it much too close so that the fight scene looks very vague. Also terrible editing of action sequences where the action does not make sense. My friends hate to see action films with me, because I usually end up complaining about the action scenes and that you could not see what was choreographed because of the shaky cam and/or epilepsy inducing editing work.

I couldn't agree with you more.

The general excuse the filmmakers use for doing this is because they want to get the audience emotionally into the fight as if they were present in the action, which is why they get in too close and create an artificial emotion with the shaky hand held shots and manic editing. They are thinking the audience will get bored with longer takes, but the choreography and acting end up suffering because of it. The problem is you do not see the cause and effect between the fighters on screen and cannot really appreciate the screen fighter’s skills. This was done in the 80’s when an actor was not very well coordinated and did not look effective on screen. But with today’s film budget and prep time, there is really no excuse for it.

A great example of what I am pointing out is in The Last Samurai, when Tom Cruise kills the multiple attackers in the streets of Japan at night with his samurai sword. The hype that came with the film was that he trained for over 6 months to prepare for the scene. But when you look at the scene, it was so heavily edited you could not tell how long he trained because you could not really see anything. The camera was too tight on Cruise, you could not see who was attacking him, while the editing was so quick and choppy, you didn’t have any visual idea what he was happening at all.

How would you like it if you were watching a basketball game where the cameraman is running up and down the court with a shaky hand held camera doing extremely tight close ups on Kobe Bryant’s or Lebron James’ shoulder or elbow as they quickly and deftly slice their way through their opponents and do an amazing slam dunk? Can you imagine seeing that for a whole game? It gets frustrating because the audience really does not see or witness the action unravelling before their eyes. But we get this all the time in Hollywood when it comes to action.

The sad thing I see is, I am beginning to see this trend happen in some films from Hong Kong and China copying this “so called style” of camera work and editing to capture action. Producers and filmmakers will always come up with the “catch all” answer by saying “Well, it made ‘X millions of dollars’ in the box office!” I feel they fail to realize you cannot substitute aesthetics for box office receipts. Film critics complain about this all the time in their reviews. But this all falls onto deaf ears.

It’s pretty frustrating because action films are my favorite genre. I always have high hopes for a big blockbuster action film coming out of Hollywood, that it will have well choreographed, shot, and edited action sequences. About 9 times out of 10 I walk out of the theater disappointed with how an action scene was finally presented. What makes it EVEN MORE frustrating is when I see an action film where the story and acting are incredible... completely drawing me in… but then the action sequences totally suck because of the reasons I just mentioned earlier! It’s like they don’t care about and treat the action like it’s an afterthought. It can be a curse or a blessing. A curse because I know all the stupid camera and editing tricks they keep doing repeatedly. But a blessing when you finally see a great fight scene put together. But that’s getting more and more rare these days.

I also feel part of the problem is they do not teach students how to shoot action scenes in film school. They are only taught how to shoot dialogue with other non-action scenes. Then the students try to shoot their action scene as if it was a dialogue sequence – camera left- camera right- and a master, thinking it will come out right in editing. This might happen only if it is a simple brawl. Unfortunately, it is usually not that simple and when they get out in the real world to shoot their own films, they are screwed and are left to their own devices to figure it out for themselves. I can only hope colleges that have film studies departments can use books like mine in their curriculum to help them out and give them some type of insight as to what is involved when shooting action.

What does your perfect fight scene look like, and why?

A perfect fight scene should advance the story and impact all the characters involved including peripheral ones who were not directly involved in the fight.
A great fight scene is also an integral part of the story and not included as a gratuitous scene.
Visually it should tell a non-verbal story where the techniques and style of the fight meshes with the story and the characters and you are able to appreciate the fight because you get to see it unravel right before your eyes with great camera angles and slick editing you don’t even notice. Also no shaky hand held cameras and choppy editing that can possibly take away from the emotional impact of the fight scenes. Can you tell this is a thorn on my side with me?

How hard is it for a fight choreographer or a stunt coordinator to protect their vision of the action scene? And can anything be done about it?

It depends on the fight choreographer’s relationship with the director, producer, director of photography, and editor. In the West, there is nothing that can be done about it because it is a directors and producers medium. Unless you have a good relationship with the Producer, Director and especially the Editor, you might get a chance to go in there and make suggestions as to how to put the fight scene together. If not, they can do whatever they want to it without having to refer to you.

In Hong Kong, the Fight Director has total control over what and how they shoot the action. Fans over there are well educated enough to will go to see a movie just because of the fight director. A lot has to change in the pecking order for a Fight Choreographer to have that type of autonomy here in Hollywood.

The book covers a lot of ground - but is there anything that got cut before publication?

The book only covers about 1/3 of what I really wanted to discuss with fight choreography for film and TV. I was going to go into more detail about how a technique and style can help tell a story. The history section was going to go more in depth about Women in action, the influence of Japanese films on fight choreography, and the history and use of CGI in a fight scene.

I am hoping that the book does well so it can merit an update of the book. But the book now has to do well in order to justify a 2nd edition. So PLEASE go out and buy a copy so I can write a 2nd edition!

You heard the man, folks!! Could you specify the cultural difference in appreciating fight scenes in movies in the West and in Asia?

Well, first off the martial arts are an integral part of Asian history. Whereas in the West the martial arts is more generally treated like something one does for leisure or a hobby. Firearms are illegal in almost all Asian countries, so unarmed self-defense is more important and emphasized , whereas we have the right to bear arms in the U.S.- so the concept of self-defense is much different.

Spiritually there is a huge difference between East and West and it shows in the training where in the East you “look within” for the answers like you see in many kung fu movies. That concept is absent in western martial arts films in the West because of the dominant Christian influence. In the West, using martial arts in a film is often seen as an exotic way for a character to beat someone up; whereas in Asia, a martial arts style is stylized to each character to show their intent and distinct personalities.

In Asia (especially with the kung fu movie archetype), the hero grows and matures because of the training. In the West, it is more of an issue of retribution, where the hero usually does not change that much from the beginning to the end except gives the villain their comeuppance from the hero. And because of these differences we see the differences in how the martial arts is portrayed in film on both sides of the ocean.

When it comes to execution of the action… In Hong Kong they are performing the actual stunt while filming it. But in the West, we are creating the illusion of doing the actual stunt or fight. The Hong Kong stuntmen are more like daredevils than stuntmen in their mentality. Because of safety regulations in the US, we cannot do what they are doing. This is very apparent when you watch a lot of Hong Kong action films in the 80’s to the mid 90’s. Since their films are usually lower in budget (compared to Hollywood), they have learned to be economical but more effective with their time and how they shoot action.

Oftentimes they edit the action in camera. That means they shoot only what they know they need for their action scenes. They are not afraid to “cross the line” especially when the room or environment is already established in the shot. In the West, we tend to overshoot the action from different angles and let the editor piece together the action. The problem with this is you don’t always get the right angles that you will need to get the fight to look right.

What I learned while writing my book was that the more successful action films are a representation of the times while being the collective hopes and dreams of the people of that country. It is sometimes also how a country wants them to be perceived in an almost mythical way.

It's often said (for instance by French film director and Hong Kong cinema fanatic Christophe Gans) that in Western films, the story stops when a fight scene occurs, while in Chinese film the fight scene actually develops the story. Do you agree with this statement in principle? If not, why not?

I cannot say I completely agree with that but I do agree with it when it comes to todays big budget studio action films. It has definitely been a trend for at least the last 15 years and I feel it is rapidly getting worse because Hollywood became more technology co-dependent on CGI, shaky camera moves, and rapid fire editing to enthrall an audience. The studios have turned action films into this senseless rollercoaster ride when after you leave the theater you really don’t know what you saw let alone know what the film was about. Nothing sticks to you emotionally because most of them are void of it.

This is why I like and appreciate lot of older films that have action or fight scenes in Spartacus, Emperor of the North, The 9th Configuration, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Blackboard Jungle, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger. These films have some of the best fight and action scenes that still hold their own to this day. All of the action scenes were well integrated into the story and did not stop the story but actually advanced it.

Can you give an example of a gratuitous fight scene which you still enjoy because of the spectacle, skill of the performers or creativity involved in the choreography?

The striptease fight scene in Firecracker with Jillian Kessner in the factory was pretty gratuitous. Unfortunately I did not like it for the choreography but thought the ingenuity as to how she lost her clothes throughout the fight as pretty funny, gratuitous, and a spectacle…it also helped that she was pretty hot! You don’t know how many times I’ve had her image painted on the back of my eye lids when I was growing up! (Laughs)

For me anything that is gratuitous takes me out of the film. The final fight scene in Equilibrium where they combined gun fighting with Wing Chun style hand trapping was very clever and unique and also fit into the universe that was created with the story like the gun kata, etc. Really cool stuff! My friend Jeff Imada told me he choreographed those moves in pre-production but could not stay on as the Stunt Coordinator once production started.

However the director’s follow-up Ultraviolet really disappointed me because I thought, here was a director who” got it” and understood how fight choreography could be unique, different, and add to the mythos of the film. But Ultraviolet showed how Hong Kong-style fights do not work all the time. They were just boring and didn’t really have a real purpose for being so long. There was no authentic emotional conflict going on during the action sequences and it was too much about the cool wu-shu moves that had no emotions behind them. It was senseless and had no individual spirit to it as Equilibrium did.

Likewise, can you give an example of a fight scene which you used to like but now, with all your experience as a stunt performer, choreographer and storyteller, no longer hold in such high esteem?

Many of the Western made martial arts films in the 70’s to the mid 90’s. It was a time when producers would just hire martial artists who they saw at a tournament or a school they knew near them. But they had no real theatrical combat experience, nor did they know how to tell a non-verbal story with their choreography. It really shows when you look at those films today, especially when you compare them to the Hong Kong fight choreographers during that time period.

Even though they might have varied the techniques from fight to fight, the real problem was that it was very one-step sparring like. They looked very rehearsed and did not have any real kinetic energy and emotion to them, because the cadence and timing of all the fights were the same, all using full beats in their timing. Subtlety was not a part of the vocabulary back then. Fakes and blocks are non-existent too. It’s like listening to a lecture given by someone who talks at a same monotone level without any change in tone, emotion, and direction. Eventually you will lose attention and nod off! That’s not good!

The other problem with martial arts fights in the west is that they also abide by the rule of the brawl, where every technique either makes contact or is thrown to knock the opponent out with one strike. In addition, the fighters hardly block anything and just stand there and get hit as if it was a sadistic macho contest to see who can absorb the most amounts of hits. It’s pretty ridiculous when you really look at it.

I used to like the fight scene in The Warriors between the Baseball Furies and The Warriors before I professionally got into fight choreography. But after seeing it again, I realized they used the same technique (swinging the bat in a downward fashion at the opponent’s head only to be blocked) from different angles to make it look like a continuous fight. The lead up to the fight was great much like a samurai film, but the actual fight and pay-off left me high and dry.

Aesthetically the fight was monotonous and made no real strategic or practical sense as to why they made those choices. When you think about it, this tells the audience the fighters have no practical experience or common sense in a fight. However I feel the fight in the subway station restroom was much better in comparison because it had a lot of variety, was very clever, and did not repeat themselves with the same techniques.

In many ways the screenwriter and the fight choreographer find themselves in a similar situation in Western film- and TV-making: they can only hope that their original vision is translated (and occasionally improved, though far more often the opposite happens) acurately and respectfully on the screen. Do you think there is a way for writers to help fight choreographers with their work?

It’s not really a screenwriter’s job to choreograph a fight scene describing technique for technique, but it would help if they described the different emotions and any character traits (physical and emotional) that they feel might be exposed during the fight. If they described the fight blow for blow it would take up valuable space on the page where they could use it for something else. If the screenwriter can tell us the reason of the fight and the emotional intent behind it that would make a huge difference in how we put together a fight scene.

Can you tell us a little more about how Enter The Grill Master came about?

Grillmaster was one of the earlier films I worked on where I was a stunt coordinator/fight choreographer. We hired some great screen fighters for this short film. 2 of them were graduates of Yusaki Kurata‘s Action Club in Japan and were incredible to work with and made my job very easy. Another is a good friend, Jo Eric Mercado, a Tae Kwon Do black belt who had some incredible kicking skills. We had a lot of fun on that set. I learned a lot about how to work with actors who are not martial artists on that film. You have to teach them with a shorthand approach where you only teach them what they need to know. We shot it at an incredibly unusually hot time of the year (over 100 degrees) in the San Fernando Valley in the course of 2 or 3 weekends with another 3 weekends of rehearsal.

The main problem was getting the lead actor ready for the part because he only trained with me twice for about an hour each time and had no idea as to what would lay ahead. But to be honest, I feel it all worked out for the better because he did not look like a martial arts master which made it more comical.

This job immediately led to me working as a stunt coordinator/fight choreographer on 3 films for Roger Corman’s studio- Hard As Nails, Shakedown, and The Haunting of Slaughter Studios. I feel it is there was where I began to come into my own as a fight choreographer and stunt coordinator.

Readers can check out the great Fu and goofy comedy of Enter The Grill Master right here.

And here's the music video full of behind-the-scenes material:

But back to you, John. What are the main challenges for a fight choreographer?

Here is a list of the main challenges that confront a fight choreographer in no real order of importance…

TIME- Often times a fight choreographer is given little time to put together a fight scene. Sure Yuen Woo Ping is given 6 months to train the lead actors for The Matrix, but that is much more the exception than the rule. If fight choreographers were given more time to choreograph AND shoot a fight scene, we would probably get better looking fights. This rule also includes working on an action film, because they feel the dialogue is more important. You are lucky if you are able to get all the necessary angles to edit the fight scene effectively. Time is always one of the things you will not have on your side as a fight choreographer because there’s always something that eats into your schedule, making you lose essential time.

AVAILIBILITY OF LOCATION- often times you won’t be able to see the place you will be doing the fight scene when you are first choreographing it. So this also cuts into the time you are given to put your fights together.

COVERING ANGLES- in the West we can only suggest to the DP the angles to shoot. We can only hope the DP knows the right angles that makes the action look effective. Great angles makes the techniques pop and you have to have a good eye and know what angles work and what angles make your fights look flat.

MULTIPLE TAKES- If you have a DP that is not experienced at shooting fight scenes then chances are he will have to shoot a fight several times in order to get in sync with the stuntmen. The problem is that the more takes he has to shoot for each scene, the more tired the stuntmen will get. After several takes of the same fight, they will start to look sloppy and inconsistent.

It would save time and energy help if the DP would start to watch the end of rehearsals once they have the fight scene down so they can begin to get in synch with the fighters and start to block where they think they will place the camera and what angles they want to use.

I was working on a shoot once where the DP said he had shot a lot of action. We were shooting the fight scene and he was not in sync with the fighters. We consistently had to have several takes from each angle before he was able to finally get it right. Then after he got it right, he wanted to have several re-shoots for safety. This was pissing off the stuntmen when they all knew they were all hitting their marks, and wanted to move on because they were getting tired and it was getting late. This was not good and you don’t want a set full of pissed off stuntmen mad at you.

I later found out later the DP’s only experience with shooting action was with cars for commercials and where he shot lots of footage so the editor could edit what they felt was right. That was his approach with the fight scene and he did not seem to care that he was burning out the stuntmen and was wondering why they could not do the same fight after the 7th or 8th take going at it full speed! The lesson here is just because you shoot one type of action does not mean you can shoot all types of action.

You also work (or have worked?) in the video game industry. What games have you worked on? Did you manage to put your ideas on fight choreography to use in the game development, or conversely did the game development lead to new insights with regards to your choreography work?

I was the stunt coordinator for Full Spectrum Warrior and was associate producer as well as mo cap performer for several characters on Art of Fighting. Choreographing fight scenes for video games is much more hard work than for films. Simply because of all the variables involved with the characters and you need to film (or capture) all of them with motion capture. So you are essentially doing 3-10 times the work you would on a film, depending on the characters and the possibilities of each character involved.

Finally - if money and cast were no object, do you have a dream movie project?

OK you asked for it. This one is really going out on a limb. I am taking 'if the cast were no object…'. Turn back time and get Bruce Lee back to have him to finish Game of Death with all the actors and athletes he wanted in the film. I would also like to see how he would have done The Silent Flute. I thought Circle of Iron was pretty lame as far as the fights were concerned and really want to see what Bruce would have done with it. The other projects I have are just that…a secret… for now!

Thanks a million, John, for taking all this time out to answer my questions in such depth - and good luck with your secret projects!!
And for anyone who's interested in finding out more about John's approach to the art of film choreography, here's the link once again where you can get it:

An Interview with martial artist/choreographer/writer/stand-up comedian (and more!) John Kreng - Part 1

A couple of months ago, I reviewed John Kreng's book Fight Choreography: The Art of Non-Verbal Dialogue on this blog. Thanks to the miracle of Facebook, I managed to contact mr. Kreng, and after reading the review he very graciously agreed to do an e-mail interview - and here it is! John went so far beyond the call of duty, I've split the interview up in two parts as there's almost as much to read here as in his book!!!
Clear the dojo, make sure you have ample time to read this and crank up either your Enter The Dragon soundtrack or Under The General's Marching Orders - better known in the West as the Wong Fei Hung-theme, amply featured in the Once Upon A Time In China-series.

To start, a very important and essential question: if you, Jet Lee, Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen were locked in a room and had to fight to the death, who would win?!??

On any given day any of these guys would take the prize. But I do know one thing for certain… I would be the first person to be trembling in a puddle of my own piss while looking for a way to burrow myself out of there! LOL! And by the way… Why didn’t you also include James Ryan, Kurt Thomas, Jillian Kessner, David Bradley, Michael Dudikoff, the 3 Ninja kids, Billy Zabka, Ralph Macchio, Johnny Yune, Bruce Li, Bruce Lo, Bruce Le, and all the other Bruce clones??? Come on Wout... share the love, brother! (Laughs)

Well, I thought the room was crowded enough with just the four of you, but I guess the more the merrier (and I totally should have included Sammo Hung in that group)! Back to more serious matters: How did you get started as a martial artist and what styles did you learn?

I was always interested in the martial arts as a kid when I would watch James Bond films and the Green Hornet TV series with Bruce Lee. There is a science and a belief system within the martial arts that always intrigued me. I started in martial arts when I was a kid about to go into Junior High School (7th grade) because I felt like I was going to be a little fish in a bigger pond. We heard rumors that people we knew were getting beat up and harassed and I was afraid.

I was always interested in taking lessons but didn’t know much about it and what one might have to do to take lessons. This was right before the kung fu boom in the 70’s when martial arts was still considered “exotic” and kind of cultish and kids classes were not the bread and butter of a martial arts school like they are today. This was also a time when it was not as commercialized, genericized, and commonly accepted in the West as it is today.

The year before I started taking lessons, I was visiting my relatives who escaped from Vietnam during the previous year and several of them were black belts who were living in France as refugees. One of my cousins came home with bruises on the arms and I asked them what happened. He told me he was free-sparring with a friend of his. It was a strange concept to have a “friendly fight with a friend.” To me (at that time) it was a contradiction in so many ways. He explained what free-sparring was about where you are testing your abilities in a non-rehearsed but controlled situation where you do not try to destroy your opponent. He then told me what the training entailed when you first started out without any of the “smoke and mirrors” by taking the mystery out of it and what I would learn and how it could change my approach to life in a positive way. He continued to tell me that many of my cousins had previously trained and many were black belts and encouraged me to take it up. That really opened my eyes because he did not overexaggerate or tell me any tall tales about his experiences.

Coming back to the States, I was determined to learn, but my mom never had the money for my lessons. So I was stuck with introductory lessons for several years as a birthday present. In-between those times I would actively seek out anyone who I knew trained or knew anything about martial arts and I would ask them to teach me what they knew.

My first style I learned as a kid was Tae Kwon Do. At first, it was a pretty traumatic experience for me because up to that point, I was the last kid picked for team sports and with Sensei looking over and scrutinizing every move I made it a very uncomfortable experience. Needless to say, I was not a natural at it and was extremely un-coordinated when I first started. I could not do the simple twisting type punches from your hip that all karate styles do. My teacher was one of those strict traditionalists who used negative reinforcement to motivate you. He told me that I should not buy a gi because he did not think I would not make it past my first belt exam. Unfortunately, it created doubt in my mom and she thought that I might not be good at this and we did not continue with him and waste his time and her money.
But I was determined to stick to it and I was going to get it, which I did by training diligently by myself all summer. I would study Aikido for several years and various different styles in-between. Then I finally stuck to a school and got my black belts in Tang Soo Do and Te-Katana Jujitsu. Over the years, I have learned many different styles and am not locked down in one particular ideology of a style. I appreciate every style and system that I have learned because they all have a different approach to combat and life. But don’t ever ask me to do a karate twisting punch! I’m in therapy because of that! (Laughs)

But as a kid and in my teen years, I had aspirations of being a great tournament fighter and eventually get into movies. I went to Los Angeles for the summer before I graduated high school to visit family and was able to scope out the place. I asked a tour guide (who was an actor) if he could give me advice. He asked me what my specialty was? I told him I was a martial artist and that I wanted to be the next Bruce Lee! He laughed to himself and told me I was in the wrong city for that type of stuff. See, this was when Hollywood looked upon the martial arts film genre as just a small notch above porno movies. So, I had to think of a way to come back out to L.A. but with some other talent that could be marketable. Little did I know that it be stand up comedy that got me back out to Hollywood several years later.

Have you added any styles to your curriculum since you became a fight choreographer?

Yes! Whenever I get a chance to I will take the time to learn something new. The more you study the martial arts the more you realize that you really don’t know that much especially when you stray outside of your base style. You’ve got to understand several different approaches/styles to a fight because every style has their individual strengths and flaws. What if you were a pure Tae Kwon Do stylist and were asked to choreograph a fight scene where the director wanted a high level of grappling? You would either lose the gig or do a really bad job with it.

It’s not like it was back in the 70’s and 80’s where a fight choreographer was only adept in one style and used a slightly modified version of one-step sparring as their form of fight choreography, where the transitions were made with a right handed lunge punch. What made the one-step sparring approach to fight choreography so terrible was that the cadence and timing was almost the same for each fight. Very boring! I feel the influence in the mid-to-late 90’s changed all that with Yuen Woo Ping in The Matrix, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Sammo Hung (with his TV show Martial Law) leading to the acceptance of Hong Kong style film fighting in the American mainstream films.

I feel a fight choreographer should constantly seek new ways to express visually through non-verbal dialogue a.k.a. fight choreography. I watch many different types of sports on TV where physical contact is involved to see how the players make contact under the rules of that specific game, like Australian rules football, the Thai game of seepak takraw, rugby, ice hockey fights, etc.

I will always keep my ear to the ground to check out action films from all over the world to see how they choose to express themselves. For example, I saw Ong Bak for a little over 2 years before it ever got noticed here in America.

I was on a guest panel at a film festival and a writer/director (who wrote and directed action films) said he only watches what comes out of the West and does not understand the Hong Kong style of fight choreography and thinks it was bull crap. He continued to say that he was only into realistic fights and does not believe in wires, anything exotic, or impractical and fights should be short and quick. I really wanted to tell him, “Well, what about the sword fights in the swashbuckler movies? They can be as long as kung fu movie fights! We don’t understand the subtleties but we still enjoy them?” I bit my tongue until it bled and did not say anything to the guy. But I thought to myself afterwards, 'How sad was that?' That this guy only limits himself to one way of physical expression when there’s so much out there that you can creatively draw from. It’s like eating steak and potatoes every night for dinner for the rest of your life. He was pretty arrogant if you ask me.

You became a stand-up comedian - when did that come about and how difficult was it to break into that scene?

To make a long story even LONGER… I was competing at a karate tournament at Madison Square Garden in NYC and I wondered to myself, 'Gee, is there something else I can do with my life other than this?', because martial arts was ALL that I knew and was good at, but I knew there was a huge expansive life outside of the dojo. I was a huge martial arts geek. I read almost every magazine and book and saw almost every martial arts movie that was out there.
A few months later, I was competing at another tournament and I tore my groin muscle. I went to several doctors and they told me that they would have to do surgery and afterwards one leg would be shorter than the other and I would be lucky if I could touch my toes and I would not be able to do martial arts EVER again! That scared the living hell out of me… but something told me not to do the surgery. So the lesson here is be careful what you ask for!

At the time, I was confused, restless, and did not know what I wanted to do with my life now that martial arts were no longer a part of it. It left a huge void that I now had to figure out how to fill. I went back to college to figure out what I was going to do with myself now. I changed majors often. I was a psychology major… then social sciences… then math… then computer science… then I finally became an art major. But the problem was that I could not draw (but I always had a deep desire to learn)! However my counselor told me they had classes where you could learn. I immediately learned after my first class that it was a frame of mind on how you saw things and the more your trained the better your skills would get. Studying art is where I would learn visual balance, composition, presentation, aesthetics, etc. (which I would later use with my thought process in how I constructed my fight choreography).

After several semesters being an art major I began to get restless and impatient because the projects as you advanced would get longer and longer. I needed some immediate gratification. Yeah, I’m an adrenaline junkie or I’ve got A.D.D. or both!

When I was in training in the martial arts, I was often the class clown by pulling pranks on my instructors (thank God they all had a great sense of humor) and fellow students. This attitude bled over into my art classes. I get bored very easily so it got out of hand one day and my art teacher, Mr. Forsythe, told me that I had to do something about it and felt it was a waste of energy to spend it on disrupting a classroom. He took out the newspaper and showed me an ad where a local comedy club was having open mike night for amateur comedians.

So I went and checked out the room and eventually got the courage to perform by going and having some of my close friends help encourage me to get up there. My first couple times up on stage were excruciatingly painful… not just for me… but for the audience as well! I think being dragged through a field of broken glass then jumping in a pool of salt water would’ve been much more enjoyable for them! But I knew deep down inside that if I stuck to it I would be good at it, and I did.

It took me close to a year of bad nights to get the hang of it, but I jumped into stand-up as passionately as I had into the martial arts. There were no classes to take so it was a constant trial by fire. I read and studied the history of stand-up comedy while watching, studying, and dissecting all of the great stand up comedians figuring out what they contributed to the art form. I quickly began to realize that fighting in martial arts had many similarities with stand-up. Like reading and sizing up an audience/opponent to know what they might fall for. Setting an audience/opponent up with a joke/technique and hitting them with a technique/punch-line they never expected.

I decided to fully commit to comedy when I was up in NYC studying art at Parsons School of Design, and felt that I could not fully express myself through stand-up. One night after class, I was at The Bottom Line watching Billy Crystal record a special. Watching him perfom changed my mind, so I finished up the semester and went home knowing this was what I was going to do. Boy, was my mom pissed! She was not pleased that I became an art major but I was going over the deep end when I told her I was going to tell jokes to strangers and try to get paid for it!

About a year later, I moved out to Los Angeles and I was accepted to The Comedy Store in Hollywood about 6 months later. I was there for a little over 10 years and learned so much . I was talking to Charlie Hill, a fellow comedian who I worked with back then and he told me that we both played at the hardest club in the world and survived to talk about it. This was because on any given night the line up would include Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, etc. These are comedians who sell out theaters on a daily basis and then I had to follow them. The other comedians would sit in back of the club to see if I would sink or swim. It was like going to comedy college and I learned from the best. Sometimes I drowned, sometimes I would be able to turn the audience around and keep the momentum of the room going.

I did stand up professionally for about 14 years and had 3 national TV appearances and traveled across the U.S. as a headliner. I learned a lot of life lessons while doing stand-up. I remember briefly talking with George Carlin and he told me, “The more you know about yourself and the world around you, along with your life experiences- the more material you can take up on stage.” Looking back I realized I got into stand-up because I needed to do it. At the time it was the only way I could happily express myself.

When and how did you become a professional fight choreographer?
A good friend of mine that I competed against on the tournament circuit when I was younger, Stuart Quan (R.I.P.), was hired to be a fight choreographer on a small independent movie called A Party Called Earth sometime in the late 80’s. He couldn’t do the job, so he recommended me. That was my first job as a fight choreographer. I look back at it and kind of cringe at it because of my limited understanding of what fight choreography was at the time because it looked very one-step sparring-like.

That experience made me step back and think more about what I could do as a choreographer and my knowledge as a martial artist, realizing there was a huge chasm between both skill sets that I needed to bridge. Then I would work on other films as a screen fighter and realized that I had a deeper understanding of how a fight visually should look through my art school background, but I didn’t know how to marry the two just quite yet. Even thought I worked on The Master (starring Jet Li)a year or so earlier, I still could not grasp the concept of what I needed to do to orchestrate a fight scene.

Around this time, I also became very good friends with Jeff Imada, a Stunt Coordinator and martial artist. We were both members of a laserdisc store in L.A. Chinatown where we would rent the latest films from Hong Kong that weren’t available in U.S. mainstream stores. He would always ask me what good laserdiscs to rent and then ask me why I thought the action was good. So I described to him what I thought made them stand out. When I saw him next, I would ask him if he felt I was right about my description/critique of the action and he would give me his opinions of them. This went on for a while and it was through these conversations with Jeff that he really helped develop my critical eye towards action instead of “oooh-ing and ahh-ing” at anything that looked cool.

Then I got work from TC Media as a freelance journalist where I had the opportunity to interview Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Woo Ping among others. I asked them questions about what they do and their creative process when I came to fights. This always fascinated me because I feel artists like them can create something from nothing.

It was also during this time I became friends with a filmmaker, Ron Strong, who is also known as a “walking film encyclopedia.” He’s helped refined my film education, sending me further down the cineaste rabbit hole. I’ve had countless conversations with Jeff and Ron about filmmaking and fight choreography over the years that have been extremely invaluable to me.

Then all this led to the point where I had to “do” instead of just “know.” Inside, I was percolating- nervous about if I could do this or not but wanting the chance to prove it to myself that I can actually do this. I was very restless at this time yet nervous whether I was able to do it or not. Then it wasn’t long before I got the job to choreograph the fight scenes for Enter The Grillmaster.

At what time did your interest in the storytelling aspect of creating a fight scene really take off?

Before I was choreographing my own stuff, I sensed a difference between choreographers, but could not structurally or technically point out what made that difference in their choreography. But whenever I saw a fight scene choreographed by people like Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo Ping, I was always on the edge of my seat, though I could not tell you what it was that they did to get that type of reaction from me. I did know I always wanted to do that myself.

That’s what made me think real hard after I worked on A Party Called Earth, because I was not really satisfied with what I did on it because it was not very natural-looking. I was very disappointed with myself and what I did with it, so I decided to put fight choreography on the back burner and focus more on being a professional stand-up because that was already heating up.

I decided to be proactive about learning to tell a story around 1990, when I was still professionally performing stand-up in Los Angeles, I got to a point where I was seen by lots of producers and talent agents who would frequently come to The Comedy Store looking for future talent. The producers told me that there was nothing as far as roles or anything really comedic for Asians. The only thing that was always available was the stereotypes of how Hollywood saw Asians at the time… the one dimensional characters - tourists with camera, refugees, convenience store owners, etc.

I was not really interested in doing that, which was why I loved doing stand-up because I felt I was breaking the stereotype by telling funny stories of how I saw the world without being unnecessarily demeaning to myself or the Asian culture. So I decided to learn how to write scripts by taking classes at UCLA Extension. There I learned the 3-act structure of story.

One of the classes I took was with Neill Hicks who specializes in writing action films. It was while taking his classes I learned and understood the 3-act structure of an action film and how important the emotional lead up to and action scene was.

Bruce Lee had this saying that went something like this... “Before I was into the martial arts, a kick was just a kick and a punch was just a punch. When I studied martial arts a kick was more than a kick and a punch was more than a punch. After I understood the concepts of the martial arts, a kick was just a kick, and a punch was just a punch.”

If you go on YouTube or any user online site where you can post your homemade fight scenes, you will see many martial artists who put up their fight scenes. You will notice a good majority of them are stuck on exotic or cool moves where “the technique is more than a technique.” Until the fight choreographer gets over the infatuation of the cool move in the fight, you cannot tell a story nor can you add natural personality to the fight because you are still concerned about the “ooh’s and ahh’s” instead of the emotional content of the fight scene.

If you look at Bruce’s fights and break them down, they are very simple in comparison to someone like Tony Jaa or Jackie Chan. But Bruce’s fights emotionally sucked you in. There was a lot of personality to them. He was in the moment with those fight scenes and you could feel it. Many people tried to copy Bruce’s techniques and his mannerisms in their films, thinking that was what made him unique. But they really miss the point because it’s not about the technique, but expressing the character through the fight scene that tells the story, while trying not to be trapped in the miasma of the technique.

How well do you feel have you been able to implement this in the work you've done?

I am very critical of my work and I often times see the flaws on the film and what could’ve made it better before I am able to ever celebrate anything I’ve ever done. I am too much of a perfectionist. Which is why I am going to direct my own short film sometime this fall.

You were a stuntman in The Master, Jet Li's first America-based film. What were the main lessons you took away from that experience?

This job was a miracle to me. A year earlier, I was at the Comedy Store working as a stand-up comedian. But there was a part of me that missed doing martial arts, but I could not because of my torn groin. I soon met Dr. Bloomquist, a chiropractor who said he could get my leg back together without surgery and he promised that I would be better than I was before my injury about 4 years earlier. Well, I was in intense holistic physical therapy for about 6-8 months. Then one day he told me that I could train again. I started training again and my skills started coming back to me pretty quickly. I am very grateful for him to get me back in shape in such a quick time. It was a real miracle. The first lesson here is that you have to believe in the impossible and that anything can happen if you put your mind to it. You also have to have the right people by your side that believe in you sometimes more than you do yourself, and that was Dr. Bloomquist.

It wasn’t long after that I met Roberta Chin who worked for Golden Harvest. She came down and saw me perform at The Comedy Store and we were talking about me possibly going to Hong Kong to perform my comedy where I would do half of it in Chinese and the other half in English and record it and possibly selling it to HBO. Unfortunately, the project did not come to fruition so she asked if I would be interested in auditioning for a movie she was producing. I wasn’t told who the director or the stars would be. She knew that I was a huge Hong Kong movie fan and I eventually got a part in it being a gang member.

The Master was my first ever job as a stuntman. It was much like on the job training for me. Many people turn their nose up to that film, but many don’t remember that it was one of Jet’s first films outside of Mainland China and he was still learning how to act and fight on film. This film was where I learned my screen fighting skills and began to understand how to construct a fight scene for film.

I learned that a fight scene is very organic in nature and the way they put fights together was through trying it out to see if it looks and feels right for the scene and then putting it together to make one cohesive piece. You have to know that I was in heaven there seeing how a Hong Kong style fight scene was created! We shot about 8 different fight scenes for that one scene and what you saw in the movie was a culmination of all those fights edited together. If you watch carefully you will see me dressed as three different people in that fight scene by the abandoned trolley station.

One of the lessons I learned was that if you are a martial artist and you have never worked on a set before, you have to be open-minded and flexible to what the fight director asks you do. It does not matter how many black belts or championships you have won, it still does not make you a filmmaker.

The reason I say this is because several stuntmen who were hired were real martial artists who did not understand how to fight on film. I kept my mouth shut because I wanted to learn and was one of the few on the set who knew who Jet Li, Brandy Yuen- the fight director, and Tsui Hark were and already admired their work. I just watched them work and did anything they told me to do. But I watched these guys continually put their foot in their mouths telling the fight director, “That would not work because a martial artist would not do that in real life!” They forget we are creating a fantasy and are hired to be stuntmen and not martial artists!

That’s one of the main handicaps in hiring a martial artist who has never worked on a film set, no matter how good you might think they are. They have a learning curve that could seriously take up a fight director's already hectic schedule. I’ve seen it happen often because they might be the star black belt of the dojo, or won some tournament, and they expect to be treated the same way on the set. Or maybe they don’t understand why they need to alter/stylize their techniques so it can read on film because they have been doing the same techniques repetitiously for many years, they feel awkward when they have to change it for film.

To a martial artist who has never been on a set before, it’s much like landing on a strange planet with different customs and ways of acting. My advice is to sit off on the side, shut up, watch, and learn. And when you are asked to do something… do it. But if you need to ask why you are doing something try not to come across like an arrogant fool. I’ve seen this happen too many times on sets and they end up not getting hired again because Hollywood is a very small town and everybody knows everybody and if you act like an idiot on a set word spreads around very quickly and they end up blowing off a potential career. Also do your homework and learn some stage or film combat skills by someone who has worked on a set as a stuntman or take a class before you walk onto a set.

When I worked on this film there were no real film stunt or film fighting schools around so I had to learn on the set. Master Yuen had a team of Hong Kong stuntmen and each of us were assigned our own personal stuntman to learn from. Brandy and his team would put together a fight scene and we had to watch our own assigned stuntman and see what they did as they went through the fight scene they choreographed. Then we would come in and copy exactly what they did… or at least try to.

We’d run through it several times while our own Hong Kong stuntman would give us pointers in-between each dry run to make it look better. Then they would each take us off to the side to clean things up if we needed to. I was fascinated at how quick they worked in putting together a fight scene. I was glad they worked fast because each fight was different from the previous and each one required something completely different from me.

It was with Master Yuen’s stunt team that I learned how important it was to stylize the techniques and how important reactions were and how our job as stuntmen was to make the star look as good as possible by how we sold the hits and reactions to whatever he threw at us. The hard part about working on a Hong Kong film with Jet was that he hit REALLY HARD!

If you notice many Hong Kong films during this time their angles never lied showing actual contact being made. Jet’s blows felt like as if I was jumping off a two story building and landing on the side of my face! And it wasn’t like you did this only one time! We had to do it over and over again! And remember we had to do about 8 different fights. Standing there as a sitting duck, exposed, and getting hit with a 25 lb sledge hammer over and over again! (Laughs)

I felt and heard my bones and tendons make a crunch noise every time Jet made contact on my body. I’ve been hit many times before in my career as a martial artist, but never as hard as Jet would hit me. He knew how to torque his body in a way that whatever he did, it would be the strongest. During one take, he hit me so hard the complete left side of my body went numb! Each time he hit me I thought to myself, “This is the end of my life as I know it! Please say we can go onto the next scene!” Then Tsui Hark would yell, “Cut! OK, let’s do it again!”

Tears would run down my eyes as my body was screaming at me for subjecting it to this bizarre and sadistic brand of torture. There was a lot of praying coming from me in-between takes, hoping we could move onto the next scene and a whole lot of cussing and crying when I or another stuntman would mess up a take and we would have to do the whole fight all over again!

One of the most important lessons I learned from this shoot was that the director really has to know what they want before they shoot their action scenes. These guys knew what they wanted with each fight scene and they often “edited in camera.” Every now and then they would shoot a master shot to cut into. You always hear directors say, let’s shoot this all in master shots from several different angles and then “fix it in post.” To be honest, I feel the director is being very lazy or they simply do not know what they want and are leaving it all up to the editor. That’s like throwing up all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle up in the air hoping that when it all hits the ground that it will be nicely put together. Just like your other shots in your film, you’ve got to know what shots you want before you shoot if you want your action to come out right.

The experience was not what I expected at all, but to be honest I did not know what I was expecting and I was grateful for the whole experience. We spent most of the time searching for techniques that would make everyone look good and have the maximum impact. The more we worked with the stunt team, the more they would understand our strengths and weaknesses. The stunt team would always push us further to see if we could do more than what they already knew we were capable of. It was like searching for buried treasure in us all.

After we wrapped the fight scene, I was laid up in bed for a week and could not move. I was one big throbbing bruise….yeah, not a pretty sight. I remember I had to do a set at The Comedy Store the night we finished all the fight scenes. As I was headed down to the club, I could feel different parts of my body cramping up and the adrenaline rush was no longer in my veins and I started to feel every hit I took from Jet. I usually am an animated performer on stage, moving back and forth on stage like a caged animal ready to pounce on the audience. However, it would not be so that night. I just sat on the stool because I could not hold myself up for any length of time. Let’s just say my set much more like a mellow “fireside chat” that night. Thank God my wife (at the time) was driving, or else I would have never made it home that night!

That experience on the film stuck with me for a very long time. I would find myself thinking about my experiences on that set and what I learned from it and what I would hypothetically do if I were in Master Yuen’s situation. I feel it was the foundation for me to build on for my career as a fight choreographer. It wasn’t long after this that I ended up getting work on Hook which was a stroll through the park in comparison.

Did you have a lot of contact with Tsui Hark? How was he to work with?
The contact I had with Tsui Hark was pretty minimal. I would take direction from the Hong Kong stunt crew during rehearsal and then from Tsui Hark when we were in front of the camera. The stunt crew would also come by in-between takes and give us quick pointers to make our techniques, reactions, or falls better. These guys were really good and quick. I do remember we had one small break in-between fights and I told Tsui Hark that I loved what he did with ZU WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. He was shocked I even knew about it. I told him I would go to Chinatown and buy videotapes of all the good martial arts movies. There was a time I had well over 700videotapes in my collection.

Was there a 'Western-style' script for The Master or did it get changed all the time during production?
I don’t know. There must’ve been, but I was never given a script to the film. All I knew was that I was a gang member and was harassing the three Hispanic kids when Jet comes in to beat us all up.

That's it for part one of the interview, folks - part 2 is coming up tomorrow, taking us through the rest of John's career, and going into depth about his theories, likes and dislikes with regards to screen choreography. Trust me - it's great stuff!

And anyone who wants to see Jet Li beat John up (and see an interview with John recalling the occasion as well as the stunt that almost killed him), can get the Hong Kong Legends DVD of The Master right here:

And if you want to be impressed by John's abilities as a martial artist, stunt performer AND choreographer, check out his demo reel!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Book Review: The Soul of Screenwriting: On Writing Dramatic Truth, and Knowing Yourself (Keith Cunningham)

This is one serious book. 472 pages long, and filled to the brim with mythology, psychology, theology, philosophy, screenwriting theory and practice, and a new structural model (as well as several other new or re-interpreted concepts). More than enough material, then, to keep you busy for ages.

Keith Cunningham is an American screenwriter and script consultant who, together with screenwriter Tom Schlesinger, has been active internationally teaching seminars, working with screenwriters and developing film and television projects in around the globe. One of Cunningham's main assets is that he personally knew Jospeh Campbell - and much of this book is inspired by Campbell's theories.

Which may give the impression it is similar to Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey. But in fact, it's almost a 'correction' of the popular Hero's Journey model that has become popular in screenwriting and filmmaking circles. Cunningham goes back to the source, and also examines the difference between the Hero's Journey and the way screenplay stories are told and structured.

Campbell isn't the only major influence present in this book - psychologist Jean Houston also inspired Cunningham in developing his approach to screenwriting. Not only does he go into great detail about the act of creation and the obstacles, both interior and exterior, which the screenwriter must face and overcome on the mental level, he also provides several excersises, sometimes directly adapted from Ms. Houston's work, which are intended to help writers get more insights and control over their imaginative and creative processes.

And this mythological/psychological approach works: I've never yet read a screenwriting manual which helped me get as many realizations and insights about myself as this one - and not just on matters of creativity, either.

For those writers who want to know what the book and method offers that they can use immediately, the main concepts introduced here are the Story Molecule - a representation of the three dimensions of storytelling - the inner world, emotional network and external story - and the Sixteen Story Steps, the new structural model which is the culmination of the book. We'll get to this model later.

But don't be mislead into thinking that there's nothing else that is new in here. The Soul of Screenwriting very much builds on concepts and ideas that went before, and extends, challenges or improves on them. This doesn't mean you have to agree with everything Cunningham says in the book, but at the very least it's almost always solid food for thought.

I must admit I was quite gratified to discover some ideas I've been thinking about for the past few years, such as drawing a parallell between screenwriting and composing music, also pop up in this book.

The interweaving of the three dimensions of storytelling is talked about at length, and it's an element which has rarely been discussed before (and certainly not in this much depth). Just thinking about how you handle this in your own scripts will often help you identify your own blind spots - you may be excellent at crafting the outer story, but neglect the emotional network, for instance. And by paying more attention to this level, the overall quality of your scripts cannot help but increase.

Cunningham works with the three-act structure, though the second-act split is given so much emphasis that one may wonder why he and his partner don't just bite the bullet and call it four acts. Each act gets its own 'descriptor', so the writer knows what function the act plays in the telling of the story. These descriptors are based on the work of Howard Suber, whose book The Power of Screenwriting I've reviewed a few years back.

The Sixteen Story Steps are the main innovation here. The story steps are neither plot points or sequences: they embody storytelling functions. And they are not isolated 'points', incidents between which the writer must find material to 'fill up' the empty pages. Instead, they are complete parts of the story, with their own dramatic curve which corresponds to the Aristotelian plot curve). They also do not correspond to the sequences of the Frank Daniel method - there's no set length for each story step. However, according to Cunningham, these steps are all necessary to provide for a fully satisfactory storytelling experience. There are no examples of films which omit some of the steps, unfortunately.

The film used to illustrate the model is The Piano. An interesting choice, and a very good analysis, though my fundamental problems with the ending of the film aren't adressed - though some other plot weaknesses are discussed frankly.

What about the system itself? Well, as Keith Cunningham says, it is a new approach, and the two great advantages are that it really covers the entirety of the script (no working towards a certain point, but flowing naturally from one section into another), and that there are no 'breaks' when developing the story in this way.
Some of the Story Steps are already present in other models, at least conceptually, so that lessens the learning curve to an extent.

The only thing I'm not sure about is that this method of strucuting the script and telling the story is universally applicable, or whether it is primarily suited to decidedly character-driven, more personal scripts with an art house factor. It certainly is applicable to The Piano, but it might have been a good idea to analyze three to five other films in very different genres with the same model.

Now, please understand I'm not saying the model is NOT universally applicable, and there are several other movies which are referenced continuously throughout the book which are very different from The Piano (Witness, the mediocre and largely forgotten buddy-action comedy Midnight Run, The Talented Mr. Ripley). I just think the book would have benefited from a few more complete analyses to show how the model works fully in very different genres and registers. It would help make it state its case even more powerfully (maybe something for a second edition?).

Be warned, this is not a light read - it takes effort to absorb the material in here. In fact, this is a book to study, to come back to, to practice with - a true learning tool.
It is, however, also not a book I would recommend to absolute beginners - it might scare them off because of the density of information. But for anyone with a certain basic knowledge (and beyond) of screenwriting principles, The Soul of Screenwriting will at the very least make you think long and hard about yourself and why you write the way you do, and possibly have a long-lasting impact on your approach to and methodology of screenwriting.

You can get it here:

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Little Question For My Readers

It's come to my attention that this blog is steadily gathering a following - which makes me very happy indeed!

But the one thing lacking as yet is... comments.

So please, if you agree, disagree, want to know more, have your own stories/opinions/experiences and want to air them - please do. This blog is here for all of you - I'm just trying to add some information to the communal knowledge of screenwriting, provide you with interesting reviews, provide you with insights, tips and tricks which may one day come in handy in your own writing and, of course, entertain you as well.

And to get the ball rolling, here's a question for all of you:

are there any specific topics you'd like to see treated here on the blog? Reviews of certain films, scripts, handbooks...? Please do let me know, and I'll try to accommodate as many of your requests as possible.

Coming very soon: the review of a MONSTER of a screenwriting manual. Keith Cunningham's The Soul Of Screenwriting.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Le Silence De Lorna (2008): Storytelling and Audience Awareness

In the previous post on this blog, I looked at when answers should be given to the audience, and in what cases it is necessary to postpone them. This basically comes down to controlling the awareness of the audience - how much do they know about what's going on in the world of your script.

There are basically three options in this regard: - inferior awareness of the audience (the audience knows less than your characters)
- equal awareness of the audience (the audience knows exactly what the protagonist knows, and no more, so both are surprised equally at unforeseen twists)
- superior awareness of the audience (the necessary element for dramatic irony, the audience can either worry about the protagonist as they know what problems are in store, or enjoy the confusions and/or delusions the characters operate under)

All of these are powerful storytelling tools and should be used with sufficient deliberation. Use them well, and you give your script a great boost in effectiveness; use them badly and you can risk losing your audience altogether.

And in the Dardenne Brothers' Le Silence De Lorna, you have an excellent example of both extremes.

Oh, yes, of course SPOILERS ABOUND from now on!

As the film opens, we're introduced to Albanian girl Lorna, living in Belgium with a junkie, Claudy, whom she seems to detest, and working at a dry cleaning shop. We don't really know too much details about her situation until she has a conversation with a cab driver, Fabio, who she seems to be working with. We learn she's only married to Claudy because she wants to get the Belgian nationality, she has to have this nationality in order to marry a Russian man (presumably a gangster) so he can get the Belgian nationality as well, and, most importantly of all, if Claudy kicks his heroin habit they're going to kill him with an overdose.

So our initial impression of Lorna changes completely from this moment on, and more importantly, every scene she now shares with Claudy (who is a mess, trying to go cold turkey and begging Lorna for help is now abuzz with subtext. It's a real shot in the arm for the film, and a beautiful example of how well superior awareness of the audience works.

Later on, Lorna wants to save Claudy's life and tries to get a divorce from him (she's already got her Belgian passport by now) so he won't have to die - he was told that he'd get extra money at the time of the divorce by the gangsters. This finally leads to them having sex and sort of falling in love, symbolized by Lorna suddenly running after Claudy who's riding a bycicle and indulging in a moment of unpremeditated playfulness.

The very next moment, we see Lorna picking out clothes for Claudy - but we're not at a shop, we're at a morgue, Claudy has been murdered by Fabio and his gang, Lorna has already identified Claudy (we never see his body) and the audience is totally confused. We're suddenly placed in a position of inferior awareness, and it takes some time to solve the puzzle of just what took place.

And by that time, you're out of the movie.

An emotional journey, presented very realistically with no Hollywoodian flourishes nor showy experimental gimmicks, suddenly becomes an intellectual puzzle. And once the audience has solved it, they have to make an effort to become as emotionally invested in the film as they were before.

And the brothers don't quit there - they pull the same stunt later on in the film. Lorna is saving all her money to buy a snack bar with her Albanian boyfriend, Sokol.
She actually buys a property in the course of the second half of the film. Later on, though, the Russian doesn't trust her anymore and the deal is called off, which results in her having to cancel the loan and the sale, paying Fabio the money he gave her as an advance on her earnings, and reimbursing Sokol for his part of their savings (which also signals the end of their relationship). But we don't get to see the Russian calling everything off, Lorna learning about this, her having to go back to the bank and getting the loan canceled... all perfectly valid, dramatically interesting material which wouldn't have made the film feel 'artificial' or 'Hollywoodian' in any way.

Instead we pick up the story from the moment where Lorna has to pay the men their money back, and we hear about everything what happened - but once again, we're taken out of the flow of the story and it takes time before we make sense of everything that happened. It's a very deliberate storytelling choice, and I can't for the life of me figure out any valid reason for doing so - a film which was excellent in its first half struggles to keep our emotional engagement in the second half. To a degree, it does keep it - but the power and the emotional resonance of the first half are greatly reduced.

And somehow I doubt very much that this was the intention of the writer/directors...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Questions and Answers - more on the basic building blocks of every screenplay

Now that we know that questions, questions and more questions are the basic building blocks of every screenplay, writing one may seem very simple. Just ask yourself the right questions, provide a good answer, let that be the basis of the next question and repeat ad infinitum until you hit fadeout - and you've answered the Main Dramatic Question that fuels the entire script.

Piece of cake, right?


Because there's another aspect of the 'question game' we haven't touched on much, but which is equally important to the final success of your script.

And that is: how do you tranfer these questions to the minds of your audience?

Which basically means: how do you get them to ask the same questions (more or less) which you used while writing the script?

And that's not all. Just as important is this consideration:

When do you give your audience the answer to the questions the script poses?

Let's look at these elements one at a time.

How do you get the audience to ask the sames questions you've used to contruct the script?
By engaging them fully with your characters and storyline. If your audience is 'with you', they will want to know the answers to the questions you are (subconciously) implanting in their minds. By subconsciously, I mean that the audience isn't actively sitting there spelling out the questions one by one; rather, the fact that they're anxiously awaiting to discover how things turn out, is the factual proof that your questions are shared by them.

What happens when the audience is NOT asking the same questions you've used to build the screenplay (and you're expecting them to ask)?

Quite simple - you lose your audience.

A good example of a filmmaker who takes his screenplays in directions the (Western) audience doesn't expect or like at all is (in)famous Hong Kong director/producer/writer/actor Wong Jing. Several of his films follow the following structure:

Act 1: a supremely talented Hero is challenged by a nefarious Villain, and the stakes are high. Action and/or cool moments abound.
Act 2: the Hero has been laid low by the Villain or by Fate, and the narrative is taken over by a comedic character (either another major star or someone Wong Jing is trying to turn into a big box office draw) and the main storyline is completely forgotten. Episodic hijinks replace a strong cause-and-effect storyline.
Act 3: the Hero has recovered and has the big showdown with the Villain. Action and/or cool moments abound once again.

This structure can be seen very clearly in God of Gamblers, where super-gambler Chow Yun Fat loses his memory due to a prank caused by small fry gangster Andy Lau, and spends the main part of the movie parodying Rain Man, and in New Legend of Shaolin where Jet Lee and his son escape the destruction of Shaolin Temple, become bodyguards for a merchant who is being conned by a mother/daughter duo and spend most of the film dealing with this silly subplot, and finally face off against the monstrous traitor responsible for the destruction of Shaolin Temple.
A Western audience expects the film to follow through on the promises of the first act, and completely loses interest in the middle portion of the film. The local audiences, though, enjoy the switch in genre and seem to have had no problems with these movies which offer 'a bit of everything' rather than one solid dramatic throughline.

An example of a movie where the audience does stay right with the characters, even though the storyline goes into a completely new direction in Act 2, is Some Like It Hot. The conflict set up in Act 1 is that Joe and Jerry, hapless jazz musicians, witness the Saint Valentine's Massacre and have to escape the clutches of the Mob. So they dress up like women and join an all-girl orchestra.

In Act 2, the Mob disappears completely from the story. Instead, we first see Joe and Jerry (or Josephine and Daphne) getting used to life as girls among the girls, and Joe falling in lust with singer Sugar, but unable to do anything about (as he's supposed to be a girl too). The second half of the act shows how Joe masquerades as a male millionaire in Florida in order to get Sugar into bed. The external plotline (on the run from the Mob) only reappears in Act 3 (in fact, the appearance of the gangsters at the hotel in Florida is plot point 2), and it serves to put extra pressure on the romance plot (which structurally speaking is the main storyline of the film).
It's a testament to the exceptional screenwriting and storytelling skills of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond that the audience doesn't mind this switch in story focus - but rather goes right along for the ride.

The second point we need to look at is: when do you provide the answers to the questions?

One may wonder why this is such a crucial matter. Well, let me illustrate it in a somewhat irreverent manner:

Q: How do you keep an idiot in suspense?

A: I'll tell you tomorrow.

What does this joke teach us? That as long as the answer hasn't been provided, we're kept in suspense - i.e. we feel tension, we want the release of the answer, and we stay hooked.

So knowing just when to provide an answer to your audience, knowing when to hold back, and also being able to determine which answers should be given straightaway and which should be held back are fundamental skills of every good storyteller.

Now, for some questions it's obvious when you need to answer them:

- the Main Dramatic Question gets answered in the climax, near the end of Act 3. Answer it sooner and you lose your audience, don't answer it and you not only don't have a climax but you have a truly open ending where your audience doesn't know how things will turn out (and that may be a valid storytelling choice in some cases - just don't do it out of laziness or because you can't decide which ending would be best and so you give none at all).

- The Act questions get their answer at the act climax.

- It then follows that the sequence questions will get answered at the climactic moment of each sequence.

- And each scene question is naturally answered at the end of the scene.

So providing an answer to a structural question always corresponds with the climax of that structural element. Whether it be the main throughline of the entire script, an act, a sequence or a scene. Getting the answer, then, is always a high point, and a release of tension - which is always the function of a climactic scene.

It also follows, then, that as long as the answer is delayed, the suspense and tension mount. And (depending on genre) the longer you keep this going, the more intense will be the desire of the audience to have the tension be released.

A good example of this is the scene from The Apartment I described in the previous post. It could also have been constructed as follows: Jack Lemmon enters Fred MacMurray's office, MacMurray immediately confronts him with the question - if I give you a promotion, can I then get sole rights to your apartment, and Lemmon answers yes. Same story point, same question/answer system, but almost zero tension, far less character reveals and no subtext. And a much less interesting scene.

For other, smaller answers which have less structural importance (though I think we've just discovered that all answers provided in a script are structural in nature), the same basic rule applies: provide the answer, and tension is relieved for the audience. Deny the answer, and the tension increases.

It also follows that if you were to write an experimental/non-traditional script, where you do nothing but provide questions without ever answering any of them (if that were theoretically possible), you would raise the tension level in your audience to untold heights. But unrelenting tension is unhealthy (why do people burn out due to stress? Because the mounting tension proves to be too much for their mental and physical capacities to bear), so this would alienate a very large majority of your audience. The frustration at never getting an answer would outweigh the pleasure of the suspense, and the lack of certainty would make it impossible for the audience to place everything in a framework which makes sense of it all. Not to mention, finally, that a story crafted in such a way would run totally contrary in intent to what stories are meant to do - which is to provide us with a way to look at and understand reality and our inner selves.

Well, I have to admit I didn't realize that when I started this post it would take me this far! Seems like I'm definitely on to something here - and that this aspect of screenwriting (and storytelling in general) definitely deserves to be examined in more detail, in order to increase its practical value for writers everywhere.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Questions, questions, questions!

When you get down to the very heart of it, constructing a screenplay comes down to asking a lot of questions, and providing the answers.

And the result of each answer is that another question is generated.

This, then, is the chain of cause and effect which underlies all mainstream screenplays and teleplays.

At the most fundamental, atomic level, every question used to construct - with the exception of the main dramatic question, which needs yes or no as an answer - comes down to this :


Answer that, and ask the question again. Keep repeating until you hit the end of your story.

Let's face it, that's what any screenwriter does day in, day out...

Of course, it's not quite that simple, or literally anyone could do it. And we all know that's definitely NOT the case.

There are several levels of questions at play here:

- the main dramatic question which forms the spine of the entire story (e.g. Will Luke Skywalker be able to defeat the Empire by blowing up the Death Star?)

- the questions governing each act (generally three)

- the questions governing each sequence (generally between eight and fifteen)

- the questions behind each scene

- the questions inside each scene

To illustrate the difference between the latter two levels, let's take a look at the scene in The Apartment where Jack Lemmon is summoned to the office of Fred MacMurray for the first time. The question behind the scene is: Will Lemmon get a promotion from his boss, who's been hearing nothing but good things about him from all his superiors?

The way the scene plays out, however, plays upon our expectations. MacMurray first acts friendly in a non-commital way to Lemmon, then confronts him with the fact he's been 'renting out' his apartment to his superiors so they can take their mistresses there. The tone becomes accusatory, Lemmon gets the impression he's overplayed his hand and promises not continue his 'immoral' practices. Then MacMurray hits him with the kicker - he wants to be the only one with access to Lemmon's apartment, in exchange for a serious promotion.

So within this scene, the questions raised and answered include - will MacMurray believe the positive reports he's had about Lemmon? NO.
Is MacMurray going to fire Lemmon over the business with the apartment? NO
What's in it for Lemmon? A BIG PROMOTION
Does he agree to the deal? YOU BETCHA

So you can see how this system operates. It's all about action/reaction, and the strong causality which is part and parcel of mainstream screenwriting is a direct consequence of this approach. A logical, sense-making answer is desired to each question. A nonsensical answer would take things into a completely surreal direction (for instance, if the answer to What's in it for Lemmon would be HE BECOMES A TRANSSEXUAL WEREWOLF IN THE LATE ROMAN EMPIRE, that would be completely jarring on just about every level for the audience).

However, if you are deliberately trying to be non-conventional, using this question/answer technique and coming up with weird or shocking answers may be a way to help you conceive and write your script, given that there are no other structural models you can follow.

Now, where things get more complicated is that there are several levels of storytelling going on simultaneously throughout every script.
You have an external plot (the story of the film, e.g. Die Hard: will McClane be able to defeat the terrorists and save his wife - oh, and the other hostages as well?) and an internal plot (will McClane be able to change enough so he can mend his relationship with his wife), as well as several subplots.

And in each one of these plots, many of which run concurrently, you have this system of question and answer going on. Often, both the external and the internal plot will develop at the same time during the storytelling (i.e. an event will impact both the external plot, moving our protagonist closer to his goal, and the internal plot, charting his personal evolution).

And in order for the script to work on every level, the questions-and-answers on each of them have to maintain the string of causality. Which is just a fancy way of saying that the events (answers) must be believable and logical all the way through on each level. So the steps the protagonist has to go through in order to achieve his/her goal have to make sense. And the steps in their personal, psychological evolution have to make sense as well.

And, finally and most importantly, the interaction between both levels needs to - guess what - make sense. Sorry I couldn't be more creative in how I worded that phrase. Yet it's true - if there's no causal connection between your outer and your inner plot, the script (and the resulting movie or episode) will feel artificial and dishonest.

As a sidenote, in movies where the lead character doesn't evolve at all, and has no flaws, there's really no question-and-answer on the psychological level. Our guy or gal is (nearly) perfect and the events in the external plot do nothing to influence his/her inner self. This can be found in many science fiction movies from the '50s and '60s, and a very recent example is Shia LeBoeuf's main character in Michael Bay's Transformers movie. A more boring hero has rarely graced the screen.

So, to recapitulate:

- your screenplay is a succession of questions and answers
- these questions and answers are active on different levels, both separately and simultaneously
- keeping the chain of causality between these questions and answers is of primary importance.

Frankly, it all does boil down to 'What happens next?' But your answer has to keep your audience - script reader/editor, producer, director, actors, and the viewers - emotionally and logically satisfied all the way through.

Of course, there's another aspect to this question & answer-mechanism - and that's how they relate to the audience. But that's a topic for a future post.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Did I Miss The Memo? Thoughts On Recent Cutting-Edge Sitcom Trends

Just wondering...

In an episode of the second season of the acclaimed dark BBC comedy Pulling (up for an attempted remake in the States any moment now), drunken slut primary school teacher Karen takes a revolting-looking cat as a pet. Turns out the animal is sickly (great cat casting by the way, very convincing), and her friends Donna and Louise tell her they'll help pay the veterinarian bill.

So the cat has cancer and needs a £700 operation. Which the girls all consider far too expensive, and Karen asks the vet to kill the cat - and that's too expensive as well.

Cut to a scene where a crying Karen holds the cat down in the garden, while Louise is going to bash its brains out with a brick. Except she misses, and has to hit the cat several times.

Since when did this become funny? Killing a sick, suffering creature in a painful, protracted way? We are supposed to laugh because the clumsy slags don't succeed in putting the cat out of its misery straightaway? (For the record, the scene doesn't show the cat killing, there is no blood involved, nor are there any sound effects of the cat yowling in pain - it's put on screen as tastefully as possible).

I've been in a similar position twice in my life - I've had to kill two blackbirds which had been mortally wounded by cats. The first time, I tried to smash its head with a shovel and missed - and the resulting situation was horrific, very painful for the poor bird I was trying to help and totally upsetting for me. The second time I went for a hopefully swifter decapitation approach, and while that worked, it took far longer than I expected.

Point is, neither situation was remotely funny. And I'd NEVER think of using them as material for comedy, because doing that would not be 'true' - it would not be true to how I experienced the situation, and there certainly wasn't anything remotely amusing about the suffering the birds experienced - mercifully brief though it was.

But apparently I'm becoming more and more of a living fossil in this regard. And no, this doesn't mean I only enjoy twee, safe, innocuous comedy - which is the immediate counterattack you get from fans of pitch-black comedy. As if there isn't an ocean of shades of grey between the two extremes!

No, what bothers me is that the element of empathy has been all but 'exorcised' from modern cutting-edge comedy series (and stand-up as well, but that's not relevant to the current discussion). Bullying, hurting, insulting and humiliating people (and occasionally animals) is presented as funny in and of itself. There's no criticism of society anymore - except perhaps that people who try to be polite and civilized to one another deserve everything they get.

I simply happen to dislike bullies very much - one of the reasons why don't like Abbott and Costello much, beyond their wordplay sketches. All too often, Abbott bullies Costello succesfully, and the little guy has no defense against the manipulations of his mean 'older brother'. Funny? No, tragic.

The perpetrators of these transgressive behaviours are rarely if ever punished for them anymore. Sure, they're basically unhappy, they're stuck in their self-destructive ruts and do not and cannot change for the better (or the series would be over), yet the audience is invited to laugh with them at their victims as much as they are invited to laugh at them. Many of the lead characters in these series are invulnerable, almost - yes, they're damaged goods, but the events which they encounter in the series don't seem to affect them beyond the moment in which they happen.

And the people who are on the receiving end of their shenanigans quite often are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's no retribution involved (as there was when Fawlty 'accidentally' smacked the snotty kid, for instance) - to use a deliberately inflammatory metaphor, they're like mugging victims. They get assaulted through no fault of their own, and the perpetrators don't give a rat's ass about the damage they do - in fact they revel in it.

Of course, we must put this in perspective: cutting-edge comedy series generally have minute audiences. They do very well in the media and in awards, however - because they are innovative, they do stretch the boundaries of the genre and they are often (though not always) quite well-written and acted. Pitchblack comedy isn't the mainstream (yet), but naturally it influences the mainstream gradually.

Now, once again, I'm not saying that this new approach to comedy has no value or should not exist. I just regret that it has lost almost all sense of empathy and humanism, and that this very lack is often applauded as a great step forward.

And it's really, fundamentally not.