Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Screenwriting Structure Wars: The Ultimate Secret

So what's up with screenplay structure anyway? Do you Save The Cat or have My Story Beat Up Your Story? Are you a three-act adept, a four-act aficionado, a fervent five-acter or do you scoff at acts altogether? Do you bravely embark on the Writer's Journey or do you try to have Something Startling Happen every minute? What teacher/guru/manual do you follow above all others? Who deserves to be deified, and who should be thrown on the trash heap of history? Or should you throw all structural models overboard and blindly follow your instincts?

Here is the secret truth. Don't tell anyone I let you in on it.

Use whatever works for you.

The only thing that matters, is that you are able to tell the story you want to tell, in the best possible way. And that means structuring the emotional response of your audience to maximum effect.

So they will feel what you want them to feel, at the moment you want them to feel it. So they will be ahead of or behind or at exactly the same place as your characters, when you want them to be. So they will be able to follow the characters' transformation, or thrill at their exploits, or rail against unjust fate when tragedy strikes them down - just as you planned.

In a way, the proliferation of different structural models is a blessing: it allows writers to experiment, find whatever method they are most comfortable with - or develop their own variations on a theme.

It also gives you the opportunity to select different structural approaches depending on the type of story you are trying to tell. Sure, most of the models out there are explictly Hollywood-based, but recently the Save The Cat website posted a convincing analysis of Michael Haneke's Amour, an art-house film through and through.

So, if a structural model helps you create, use it and don't feel guilty! And if they feel too constraining - ignore them! Just get that script written, and make it the best it can be!

Bullet To The Head - When Good Buddy Movies Go Bad

Bullet to the Head Poster.jpg

It should have been a match made in heaven: Walter Hill, writer/director of many action and Western classics in the '70s and '80s helming a resolutely old-school buddy-action-noir movie, set in New Orleans, and featuring an aging hitman (Stallone) and a straightlaced young Asian cop (Sung Kang) who team up reluctantly to solve a couple of murders and  uncover a real-estate conspiracy by a slimy lawyer (Christian Slater) and a corrupt African potentate-on-the-run (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). The bad guys have a nigh invincible mercenary on their side (Jason Momoa), who fights Stallone in a fire-ax duel. And to top everything off, Stallone even has a hot daughter (Sarah Shahi) who earns a living as a tattoo artist and gets involved in gratuitous nudity!

 So what went wrong?

Somehow the screenplay manages to botch the most fundamental aspect of a buddy movie: the buddy relationship.

 Stallone the old-school assassin and Kang the by-the-book geek cop hate each other from the start. And they spend most of the movie in each other's company - hating each other all the way through. In other words, the relationship is static instead of dynamic. The same story beat is repeated over and over. Cop wants to arrest assassin when all this is over, hitman is pissed that cop doesn't respect him after saving his life for the umptieth time.

 The only progression occurs at the very end - and then it's a pretty big leap from mutual loathing to respect. The emotional change feels forced and way overdue.

Now, there are a few funny scenes between the two, especially the driving scenes in Stallone's car, and both actors have a good rapport going. But even these scenes stick to replaying the same beat: Stallone trumps and humiliates Kang, no matter the subject of their conversation. There's no real debate: Stallone's way is correct, Kang's is wrong, and we're never allowed the opportunity to forget it. Whereas any decent buddy movie made sure that the 'wild guy' learned a little bit of restraint from the 'square guy', and the square guy got to release his inner beast. Cliché, yes, but at least it works. Sabotaging this character dynamic without replacing it with something different and/or better, just cripples the film. And it makes the lead characters come across as very one-dimensional (and I'm not talking about the hottest boy band on the planet now).

It doesn't help that the conspiracy that gets revealed is so ordinary and uninvolving. The external storyline doesn't provide enough intellectual stimuli to keep the audience enthralled/surprised/excited througout the film. Neither villain has any depth or complexity (though they are plenty stupid). Their only reason for existing is so that they can send an army of goons to trouble our battle-happy heroes.

So the lesson here is: if you're going for a straight genre film, be sure to use the expected genre elements in the right way. The audience expects it, and when their expectations aren't met disappointment is sure to follow.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Premium Rush (2012) - Let Go Of The Damn Brakes!

In David Koepp's Premium Rush (written by him and John Kamps), the protagonist, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bicycle courier whose bike has no gears and no brakes - as, he tells us and his ex-girlfriend, brakes are dangerous.

It's bizarre, then, that the screenplay continually slows down when it should be speeding up. And not once, but several times.

Things begin pretty well, as we open with JGL flying through the air after a crash, and landing hard on the Manhattan concrete. And then the movie rewinds to an hour and a half earlier - and the audience is primed for a real-time story frame.

At first, it adheres fairly well to this premise: Wilee finishes one job, gets another, picks up an envelope from his  ex-girlfriend's ex-roommate, and is accosted by a weird man who wants the envelope back. He refuses, cycles away at great speed, but is chased through heavy traffic by his antagonist (and a bicycle cop also joins in the fun). Storytelling is zippy, there are lots of fun little flourishes, some great practical stuntwork and effective POV 'you-are-there' shots which transport the audience onto the bicycle seat.
Finally, Wilee escapes his assailant and does what any normal person would do - he goes to the cops to report the assault. And to his horror, he discovers that the mystery man is a cop himself.

So, great setup, original action sequences low on pyrotechnics but high on impressive stunt work, a special milieu (the fraternity of authority-baiting, tattoo-sporting, speed-loving bicycle couriers - who knew?) - all the elements for a fun, fairly original adrenaline rushing action movie are in place.

And then we get a flashback.

Technically, of course, we're already in a flashback, but that one 'didn't count'. The forward impetus of the storytelling was strong and clear. The first flashback - a fairly lengthy one - tells us who our villain (Michael Shannon) is, what predicament he is in and why he has to get his hands on the envelope Wilee is carrying.

So when the flashback ends, we expect things to take off again (we're in the second half of the second act by now). And they do, for a while. And then we get another flashback. About the young woman who gave Wilee the envelope. And then we get another.

And all the while, the chase motif is almost completely forgotten because the villain sets a trap which means he's waiting at the end of the ride.

Okay - the protagonist and the antagonist cannot meet up again until  5:00 P.M. (the time at which the film started before it flashed back). So how do you keep a chase going when one of the participants in the chase is just laying in ambush at the finish line?

Well, luckily Wilee has a rival in the courier business who has gotten his hands on the envelope and is unwittingly racing to deliver it to the bad guy. And Wilee has to stop him. So a big, long bicycle chase follows, going through Central Park, but although it has some cool moments and fun obstacles, the stakes are relatively low - and certainly not life-or-death.

Then we come to the moment which opened the film, and to our surprise, the story doesn't end there. It was actually the end of act two. Act three gives us some more bike stunts (though not much chasing), suddenly cuts to China for a few scenes, and then resolves everything neatly. (the China cut is jarring because we expect it to be a flashback but it is actually happening 'right now', concurrently with the action at that point in the narrative). And we are left fairly unsatisfied.

Premium Rush is a perfect example of flashbacks being used in a way to halt the forward momentum of the story. In this film, they bring the story almost to a halt (especially the scenes with Jamie Chung). Just when you want the story to accelerate and you are expecting even more harrowing and spectacular chases, the pace slows down, the stakes and backstory are explained, and frankly, the movie becomes fairly sedate. And it never picks up enough steam again to match the energy and drive of its first half.

Part of the reason is that the way the story is told, defeats the expectations of the viewer. At first, you expect a 90 minute thrill ride, a fairly non-stop cavalcade of chase sequences which become ever more exciting and spectacular. And you don't get that - in fact, you get the opposite.

Even when the story goes on beyond the apparently natural cut-off point is disorienting. You've mentally created a framework within which the story is expected to be contained - but then that framework is shattered, and you need to re-align your expectations with the actual way the story is being told.

Premium Rush would have worked far better if it had been a far simpler story, and stuck to its guns (a chase like you've never seen before. These are the players, this is what's at stake: BOOM! We're off. And we're not stopping - not really - until we get to the finish line).

So, the lessons to be learned here are:

- do not go counter to audience expectations which you have set up, unless the surprise is so exciting and satisfying that the audience is delighted rather than disappointed.

- do not use flashbacks which explain backstory and character motivations at a time when you need to ramp up the narrative, increase the stakes and maximize the excitement.

- if you're selling your story as an adrenaline rush, make sure that's what you are delivering.

Finally, it's also interesting to notice that Wilee doesn't have a character arc at all - except in voice-over. He's a law school graduate who abhors the idea of working in an office and wearing a suit, preferring the continual (immature) rush of physical excitement. It's why his more serious girlfriend broke up with him (she has brakes on her bike). And at the very end, we hear him declare in voice-over that 'some day he may put on a suit'. Well, maybe - but there's nothing in the story which explains his change of heart. In fact, the only character arcing is his (ex)-girlfriend who learns to take off her brakes and see life Wilee's way.

That's progress, I suppose. If only the script had followed her lead...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Secrets Are Out... Bill Martell's 'Act Two Secrets' Blue Book Reveals All!

When Bill Martell finally gets around to finishing his last Blue Book on screenwriting, he will have completed the most exhaustive, practical, inspiring and fun-to-read body of material on our noble profession/calling the world has ever seen. (And at the lowest price, too) In fact, if he's up for it he should then edit the whole bunch of them into one mammoth Ultimate Encyclopedia of Screenwriting.

Act Two Secrets helps the screenwriter navigate the treacherous rapids (or still waters, more often) of the 'middle part' of the script. It's very easy to lose the plot (literally), fail to build the intensity, use too little (or too much) content... But whatever the possible difficulty you are facing as a writer, Bill has solutions for you. So many solutions, in fact, you may even regret not being able to use all of them at once!

The emphasis is, as in all of these books, on tools you can use, not rules. This means that no matter what your personal preference, whether you like to follow a structural model very closely or you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, you will be able to get the maximum out of this book. Topics covered at length include pacing, creating strong emotional conflicts by using the 4 D's, genre-specific ways of increasing tension and audience involvement, plot devices to keep your story moving, the proper use of subplots, mysteries and macguffins... It's all great and inspiring stuff. And written in that inimitable Martell manner, combining wit, passion and insight in an irresistible package.

A pleasant surprise is that the examples quoted in the book (often at length) do not stick to the 'classics' we've all seen and had analyzed dozens of times before. Here, a number of entries from a recent edition of the Raindance festival are examined in depth. They cover a wide spectrum of genres and countries, proving just how universal these tools are. And it's also a great way to help the reader discover new films to seek out and writing and directing talent to watch out for.

If you've ever needed help on a second act, get this book. If you want to avoid problems in your second acts, get this book. If you like to read screenwriting manuals for fun (with or without the profit), get this book. It's that simple.

And you can get it here:

Act Two Secrets (Screenwriting Blue Books)