Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sceenwriting Is Rewriting: Interview with Jack Epps!

As part of the class I teach at USC, Rewriting The Feature Script, I encourage my students to read Screenwriting is Rewriting, by Jack Epps. Not only does the book mirror all the week-by-week assignments in my course, it is one of the most useful screenwriting manuals I have ever read (and I've read quite a few,) particularly for advanced students.

Jack Epps Jr. has been working as a screenwriter for over forty years. He is best known for co-writing iconic movies like Top Gun and Dick Tracy. He also did extensive revisions on movies such as Sister Act and Die Hard 3. Today, he is the chair of the writing division of USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

SH: Why do we need a book on "Rewriting" and how is this book different than all the other books on screenwriting?

JE: As professional writers know, most of our time is spent rewriting our own work or someone else’s work. The importance of first drafts is way over-rated. If you want to succeed as a screenwriter, then you better be a great rewriter or they will hire someone else who is a great rewriter. First drafts are fine, but they are only a sketch of an idea. The real work is done in the rewrites – that’s rewrites with a huge “S.” Knowing how to rewrite successfully is the key to a successful career.

Most screenwriting books only focus on the first draft and pay scant attention to rewriting. Screenwriting is Rewriting assumes the writer has written a first draft. The primary goal of my book is to focus on rewriting. There are chapters that review essential fundamentals, since it is the failure to execute these fundamentals that cause major script problems. The book is based on my years of professional experience as a screenwriter. Most of my time was spent rewriting. I expected to rewrite even before I began the first draft.

SH: Why do you distinguish between different kinds of rewrites or "passes"?

JE: One of the great mistakes aspiring writers make is they often try to resolve every note in one giant rewrite that usually results in a much weaker, flawed, screenplay. I learned during my career that it was much easier, and more effective, to execute a series of small focused rewrites rather than one giant rewrite. Each pass focuses on a different essential aspect of screenwriting. First, start with the major fundamental elements, and then work through the notes.

The challenge in writing the book was that every rewrite is different. There is no “one size fits all” approach to rewriting. I broke the book into eleven different passes so writers can choose which pass best fits their needs. They may also consider combining passes. This is not a “checklist” book. It’s a resource guide, and it is meant to be flexible.

SH: What are some common mistakes screenwriters make while rewriting? How can the book help?

JE: “Preciousness” is probably the biggest mistake an aspiring writer can make. They’ve written a first draft and they are enamored with it. They think it’s perfect, and not a word should be changed. In my experience, that’s not the way it works professionally. Another common mistake is that aspiring screenwriters often favor plot over character. Plot serves character. A great plot is essential, but it must serve character. Another mistake is to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and start all over again on page one. Page one rewrites usually result in a weaker, less inspired, imitation of the first draft. There must be some gold that can be mined in the next draft. It’s important to know what works. Try to protect what works and revise the problems.

SH: Much of the book is structured around responding to notes - notes from producers, executives, and peers. Why is it so important to get feedback while rewriting a script? 

JE: It is really hard to have distance and perspective on your own work. Good notes give the writer perspective on how the work is “actually” being perceived—not how they “think” it is being perceived. But notes are not always clear or right. One of the challenges of rewriting is learning how to interpret notes. Notes are not always what they seem, and often the solution to the note is not what is suggested or apparent. I focus a lot in the book on interpreting notes. It’s also important to find people you trust to give you good notes, and to learn to let go and embrace the change necessary to take your screenplay to the next level.

SH: Manuals like "Save The Cat" are directed at amateurs who say to themselves "I've got a movie idea, and I think I'll write the script!" Is it fair to say that your book targets more advanced writers, students, and professionals?

JE: Rewriting itself is an advanced skill. My book is written for aspiring writers as well as professionals. I am assuming the writer is experienced and has written one or two scripts. For the professional, I hope it works as a way to help jump start their rewrite— to serve as a refresher. As professional writers, we often drift from away from screenwriting essentials. The book also serves as a refresher for professionals and helps them refocus their work.

SH: What is the best way to use the book when tackling a particular rewrite?

First, use the book to help organize notes and create a game plan to attack the rewrite. Secondly, decide which elements to prioritize in the first pass. It’s really easy to get lost in the middle of a rewrite, and the book can serve as a guide to help the writer work through their rewrite. I stress throughout the book how much work rewriting is, but I also hope it will serve as inspiration for those times when the writer feels like throwing in the towel. We’ve all been there, but it’s those writers to stay at it, and continue to dig deep, who will succeed.

Rewriting is hard work. If you stay at it, not only will you get a significantly better screenplay, but you will also become a much better screenwriter by going through the rewrite experience. You will definitely know what you “must” have before you begin your next project. The goal is to become a better, more efficient screenwriter. As I tell my students, writing never gets easier, but you can become more efficient.

Also on Genre Hacks...

Interview with Head of Amazon Studios Roy Price: How to Write for Amazon.

Levin's Tips -- Rewriting (A.K.A. Welcome To The Rest of Your Life)

Hey, you!

You wrote a script! Maybe it was your first! Let's get two things out of the way. Here's the first:


No, seriously. It's a huge fucking deal. I hope you're happy with it, but even if you're not... Remember: There was NOTHING on those pieces of paper/virtual agonizingly white screen of Final Draft and now there IS.

Revel in the miracle of that, friend! Last time someone did that, they wrote a bestselling book about him!

Oh, shit. Wait. There was also a second thing. Oh yeah. Now you gotta do a, GULP, a REWRITE. And, well, if you don't know what that looks like...

To some, like yours truly, rewrites seem like a labyrinthine process. Some people are creators, they are not fixers. They don't know where to begin. A blank page was blank enough, but how do you make a better marble statue out of the marble statue you have already carved? When you first carved it, there was nothing to destroy, it was just stone. Now it's a statue. Why should you risk destroying the statue you have so much time building?

Can't the marble statue you have already carved be good enough?

Chances are, it's not. In today's market, your screenplay needs to be A+ good to rise above the clutter. It's pretty, pretty rare for someone to write an A+ first draft. It's not impossible, sure, but then neither is winning the lottery.

Have you ever read the first draft of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? It starts in a future where people travel in massive tubes. There is a whole subplot about Joel's ex girlfriend. It ends not on that poignant "Okay." moment. It ends in a future where people are getting sucked up in tubes.

The first draft of Back to the Future? Marty is a suicidal alien from Pluto! No, really.

The first draft of Birdman, the Oscar Winner? That last scene is pretty iconic, right? Emma Stone looks up, that ambiguity. I'm not the biggest fan of the movie, but there was something there. It at least reached for something ineffable... In the first draft: Last scene was Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp talking about Pirates of the Caribbean 5.

In case you're still not convinced, BRUCE WILLIS WASN'T DEAD IN SIXTH SENSE until the 7th draft. YES. Sit with that for a second.

So, good. Glad to have you on board!



First steps are hard, especially if its your first time taking them. You look at your script now and you don't even know where to begin your rewrite journey. You need an anchor, a starting point.

Good news: It's already in your script. More good news: People will tell you.

You wrote this script from a starting point. Maybe that was thematic: You wanted to write about the injustices in the five different institutions of Baltimore. Or maybe you had a spontaneous image when you were walking down the street one day listening to Kanye West. Whatever it is -- an image, an idea, a memory -- there is a core to your idea.

And then you had to take that core and mushed it through the meat grinder that is your brain so that little letters and words can appear on the page. That core muddled a little bit, maybe. Some parts of it didn't turn out the way you wanted to.

Your anchor, your starting point, is that one scene where you fucking nailed that core. It's that miracle of a moment where, for a second, your vision is actualized. You point your finger at it and say: "This is what I wanted to write. This is my movie!" If you can't find it, the chances are the people reading your script can tell.

Hold onto that scene. It's going to be your key, your anchor. This is why Sean likens the rewriting process to an excavation. You're going to find your spot and dig deeper.

And you will do this in one of two ways. Either you're an Architect or you're a Gardener.


A Gardener writes from Inside Out.

They have ideas, memories, scenes and they shuffle them around, put them in a bottle and shake them until something special comes out. I saw Paul Thomas Anderson give a talk once and someone asked him: "How do you write?" He said: "I put two people into a room and make them have a conversation. Hopefully it's interesting. If it's not, then I put them in a different room. If it's still not working, I'll change one of the people. Maybe I'll change both."

The Poster Child for this method of writing is... George R. R. Martin.

He waters his garden with your tears.
The challenge for this kind of writer is usually molding the scenes and the tone of the script into a coherent, satisfying structure. This might end up forcing you to cut some wonderful character moments or even entire characters in order to write a screenplay. This is of course a maddening, cruel process but a necessary one.

Or maybe, you're an...


Talk about a script that needed a few rewrites.

An Architect writes from Outside In.

They build the World of the story first, then zoom into the scenes. They love charts and highlighters and cards and maps. They want to have the blue print before they start building the house. They know the ending before they start writing.

The pitfall for this kind of writer is to turn in stories that feel stiff. They tend to lean on their influences a bit too much when writing their first drafts. So, instead of the incoherence of a Gardener, an Architect might suffer from producing a work that is too predictable or perhaps with a tone too familiar to the movies that influenced it.

For those of you in our class, Sean is an Architect and I'm a Gardener. We deal with that dreaded Writer's Block different ways. He writes on index cards and re-composes his structure. I write fake reddit posts from the point of view of my main character and try to figure out what he or she should do in a scene. Different strokes for different folks.

Of course maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. That's alright too. Creative process is a fickle, schizophrenic thing. But knowing your process intimately will help you in the rest of your creative life. After all, in the class, we're not only learning writing as a craft, we're also learning HOW to write.

Alright, that's that for this week. Next week is going to be more about the nuts and bolts of it all (Story! Tension! Feedback!) as we dive deeper into the quagmire known as... Re-writing!

Also on Genre Hacks...

Monday, June 6, 2016

On-Camera Acting Workshops for Kids and Teens

Scenes created in On Camera Workshops are often stilted and awkward, and recently Saturday Night Live parodied these "professional" services for kids. Watch Spotlightz and laugh.

As many of you know, I work with Deborah Lemen Studios and I direct scenes for Deb's On Camera Workshops. You can see the difference in the kind of work she does in scenes like this one...


I recently interviewed Deb and asked her about what makes her workshops unique.

How is your approach to teaching young actors different than other studios?

There are many on Camera Workshops out there in LA. Many do not spend time with each individual actor, preparing and rehearsing them for his or her scene. They do not shoot on professional cameras. They do not shoot on location, but instead shoot against a black wall.  They don't provide professional directors to work with the students. They are also extremely expensive and provide a result that looks nothing like a real movie or television program.  As a result, these filmed scenes are usually a bad showcase for actors.

After my workshops, actors get two scenes that look like clips from an independent film.

Why do your students look so natural on camera, as opposed to the awkward stagey-ness so often seen on young people's reels?

With intense study and practice in the classroom, on set and on camera, I  place special emphasis on training the actor to respond quickly and fully to all stimuli, enabling each student to make fearless, confident and ultimately winning choices.  This leads to more natural, more engaging, and more stand-out performances. Younger actors are taught with the same emphasis on craft and authentic human behavior as are adults.

I take special care with each student. Every young actor has specific needs and individual strengths. I don't rely on any one method at the exclusion of others. I take all I have learned from a variety of renowned teachers and I find an approach that is best for each student - both teen and child actors who may be learning these approaches for the first time, and young adults who may already be comfortable with a particular method.

I myself have studied with George Morrison and Jack Waltzer in New York (Meisner, Strasberg, Stanoslavsky, Adler.) In Los Angeles I studied with Peter Flood (Strasberg, Meisner,) and for 15 years in a Master Class with Ivana Chubbuck. I was founder of the Youth and Teen Division of the Ivana Chubbuck Studio, and I was the first to adapt the Chubbuck technique for kids and teens. 

So often kids, teens and young adults are taught wrote memorization and this can lead to stiff, stilted and unnatural performances. My students learn their lines rather than memorize them. They know what they are saying, and they listen before they speak. If the words are not there, I teach them to breathe, and the words come. In life we often do not know what we are going to say next. So if the words are not there as an actor, I tell my students"That is a gift". Often times something will happen and forces the actor to be present.  It forces the actor to be in the reality of the moment. Forces them to breath. To just... be.

I also teach script analysis. Each student - kid, teen, or adult - is taught to break down the script in Beats, Actions, Moments Before, Personalizations, Inner Objects, and Inner Monologues. We discus Doings and Previous Circumstances. Most importantly, I teach that after this rigorous script analysis, the actors Lets It Go. Once the work has been done (really done) it is inside.  The actor knows what it is that he or she wants and what to do to get it, or what to do "to win."

My teaching is about Human Behavior.  It's not about the words, but rather what is underneath the words


Why is it important to have experience working on camera as opposed to working in class.

There is a huge difference between learning how to be an actor in a classroom environment and actually putting it into practice. My workshop is an opportunity to test an actor's work in a professional environment, which can be distracting and overwhelming to actors experiencing it for the first time. We take what they know and what they have learned and we put it into action.

My On Camera Workshops give the student the authentic experience of being on a movie set: Real Locations, Award Winning Directors, Professional DP, State of the Art Epic Red Camera, and a Professional editor.  Students receive two edited scenes. 

I offer classes, for kids, teens, young adults and adults. The On Camera Workshop is a wonderful compliment to the acting classes. Everything learned in class is applied to the on camera experience.  After taking On Camera Workshop a student's work grows exponentially in terms of craft, but they also learn the practical skills that only comes from experience in front of a camera.


What is the advantage to having scenes shot professionally when building a reel? 

If one wants to be a professional actor they need to show their work to the world. Getting cast in a film or on TV will do that, but often in order to get those gigs or to even get your foot in the door you have to find a way to show them where your talents lie. That is what an actor can gain from your on camera workshop. They will ultimately leave with two professionally, directed, shot and edited scenes that promote their talents. It is perfect reel footage!

When professionals in the industry look at scenes shot professionally, they take the actor more seriously. They are able to see an actors look and talent without by bad picture or sound. If the scene looks like a movie clip, a professional can imagine casting the actor in a movie. The work will grab their attention. And that is what is all about, to have people understand an actor's talent, her beauty, and all the ineffable qualities that makes an her unique.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Can Video Games Create Empathy?

An Intro To Narrative Video Games 
"How To Start Playing Video Games and Enjoy The Hell Out of This Beautiful Medium."

Another post by Levin
Video Games have always fought an uphill battle for legitimacy. Roger Ebert famously said they were not art. Even now, I meet people who flat out dismiss them as "stupid" or a "waste of time".

I believe Video Games are not only a legitimate medium of storytelling, they are, in many respects, an evolution of Movies and soon, pretty soon, they are going to take over as the dominant medium of storytelling because they do everything Movies do, and they do them better.

Here are some reasons why I feel that way and, if you have never played a video game, how you can get into this beautiful medium. But first, let's get something out of the way:


Pictured: Storytelling in 95 percent of Video Games.
Most Video Games use story as an excuse to get to the explosions, rather than using explosions for the service of the story. As a young medium with a young audience -- not to mention crazy expensive development costs that require them to cater to the most common denominator -- most games are focused on spectacle rather than an emotional experience.

So, no, in this article, we're not talking about those. Not that there's anything wrong with blowing shit up once in a while, just like there's nothing wrong with watching a Michael Bay movie once in a while to relax, but we're going to focus on games that have loftier goals.

Now that's out of the way-- Why Games?


Screenwriters are familiar with the note: "We need to be in her shoes in this scene!"

That is short-hand for: "We need to empathize with the character." Remember your favorite movie-going moments, you probably felt like you were right there. You knew what the character was feeling, you empathized with his/her plight or a terrible choice s/he had to make.

Well, good news: in Video Games, you are that character. You are not watching someone save the world, you are not reading about someone saving the world, you are saving the World. This added dimension of intimacy gives great meaning to anything you experience.

But saving the world sounds abstract, right? It's too big, it's hard to care. Well, how about deciding whether your friend should go to police after possibly being raped?

In Life is Strange, your friend Kate comes to you for help. During a party, she lost consciousness. A student named Nathan Prescott walked her back to her dorm room and probably raped her but she has no proof. On top of this, Nathan comes from a prestigious family and you know that if she accuses him, he's going to lawyer up and destroy her life. You know the police are going to accuse her of lying and she already seems incredibly fragile and she asks you: "Should I go to the police?"

You can tell her to go ahead. Or you can tell her to wait until you look for proof. There is no right or wrong answer. Me and my wife chose to tell Kate that she shouldn't go to police for now.

This was her anguished reaction.
Imagine this moment in a TV Show. Perhaps that's the wrong answer and Max (the character you're playing) is going to suffer the consequences. But, in a game, you will. And it will hurt.

We have another saying in the screenwriting trade: "Choices reveal character." As in, if you want to find out what a character is really made of, then put them in a bad situation. Give them a really difficult choice and their choice will reveal who they are.

In a game, you will reveal to yourself who you are.

                                                  A NEW WAY OF STORYTELLING

We are all familiar with the Murder Mystery trope. Someone is dead, there are suspects, the genius detective figures out how it happened, yada yada...

Her Story is a video game where you're the one trying to figure out the mystery. It looks like this:

What you can do, as the player, is write in keywords into the video archive. With correct keywords, which are essentially clues, you will unlock more videos and get access to more of the narrative.

By connecting one clue to the next, you untangle a web of mystery. The gameplay is deceptively easy as it simply consists of putting the player typing one word after the next, but the rabbit hole is deep and you will get lost in the where/when/who and why.

Pictured: How to play this particular video game.
The resulting experience is thrilling. Not only because you are put into the seat of the detective and have your "a-ha!" moment, but because the way the narrative unfolds is so unorthodox and unique. It's not linear or even non-linear. It's interactive, which is an element only a video game can provide.

Her Story also excels as that "empathy" part. It has a few tricks up its sleeve as to who you are.
                                                   GAMEPLAY AS SUBTEXT

It's tricky to make the gameplay enhance the narrative, just like how it's tricky to make the big action set pieces in a blockbuster serve the story and the character. As a result, most games, even those with amazing stories, are guilty of separating these two elements. You siege a castle, then get treated to a video of your character having a dramatic moment, then queue a fight scene, followed by another character moment and so on. The gameplay itself has trouble complementing the narrative... Except in some cases, the developers have found a beautiful way to merge them together.

In Last of Us, the gameplay itself serves as subtext. You play as a man named Joel who is escorting this young girl named Ellie across the country during a Zombie apocalypse. Joel has lost many people in his life when the shit hit the fan and he now actively resists talking/taking care of Ellie. He knows the less he cares, less it will hurt when he loses her again.

It also looks absolutely beautiful AND has explosions AND zombies.
The Last of Us's game play consists of the player acting as Joel and defending Ellie against countless varieties of zombies and scavengers. (In true Walking Dead fashion, it's always the latter that's more dangerous.) So, despite Joel actively trying to avoid forming a bond with Ellie, the game play is all about building that bond. Ellie doesn't know how to swim, so you pull her along wooden rafts. She is short, she can't climb certain obstacles, so you help her up. Sometimes, you save her from the grasp of a terrifying zombie. Sometimes, she saves you.

Thus, the game play has genuine meaning and complements the narrative perfectly. Rather than telling you, it shows you how the bond between these two characters develop.

                                  SO, WHERE DO YOU START YOUR JOURNEY?

If you have never played video games but you are curious, I super-duper recommend the three games I mentioned above:

Her Story doesn't require a strong computer and it's pretty cheap (it's 6 bucks online!). The gameplay is really easy to get into as you really just type in words into a screen.

Life is Strange is a longer game divided into 5 chapters. All five chapters cost around 30 bucks and you will need a good-ish PC or a gaming console to play it. The game play is on the easier side. It could be the very first video game you play and you will adjust to it pretty quickly.

It has a rather weak beginning (due to French writers trying to mimic American Teenager Slang that, thankfully, diminishes as the series goes on) and sort of a wobbly ending BUT playing it is completely worth it. It's emotional impact is almost unparalleled.

Last of Us is the perfect game. It has a better story than 99 percent of the movies/books/tv shows out there and really shows you what games are capable of. It's violent but not gratuitously. The only downside is that it's exclusive to PS 3 and PS4. And the gameplay is a bit more demanding than the two above, but if you're keen on figuring it out, I'm confident you will.

If your child/friend has it, simply borrow it, go to a dark room and play the beginning of the game. Trust me, it will be worth it.

Look! A whole new world!
And that's only the beginning. There are other beautiful, affecting games out there.

But for now, that's my 2 cents on this subject. I hope you enjoyed reading this post and maybe you will give gaming a chance. I am excited for you!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Hero Is Dead

Here is an article that I wrote that originally appeared on
“We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea?” — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Claiming that The Hero’s Journey is dead just after the opening weekend of Star Wars: The Force Awakens may seem a bit foolish. How could anyone question a worldwide phenomenon worth uncounted billions? The Hero’s Journey, as articulated byJoseph Campbell, has been canonized both financially, as a corporate business plan, and creatively, as the very definition of Story. Even as I begin this post, I can smell the hate mail brewing. But understand that I’m not challenging Star Wars itself or the mythologies it echoes, but rather the simplistic template that screenwriters use in an attempt to emulate its success. Even as we continue to celebrate the Monomyth in screenwriting classes and story meetings as the master beat-sheet for movies and television, our actual stories cast it aside.
I think you already know this. You watched the Hero die when Ned Stark put his head on the chopping block, and you watched him die again when Rob Stark was ambushed at the Red Wedding. Game of Thrones is a story not of unity and growth, but of multiplicity and chaos, in which a crowd of supporting archetypes — the Wicked Queen, the Wise Dwarf, the Fair Princess — all orbit the black hole left by the hero’s absence.
I maintain that “the Main Character” and “the Hero” are no longer synonymous, and perhaps never were. Insofar as the archetype does appear in our stories, the Hero is often not center stage. Take Mad Max: Fury Road. While the main character in the script and film is Max, he is not the Hero; that archetype is embodied by Furiosa. She’s the one who goes through all the traditional stops of the hero’s journey, and she does it as a supporting character. The main character, Max, is what Campbell would call a “Helper,” someone who assists the hero on her journey. Structurally speaking, it’s as if the Wizard of Oz were told from the point of view of the Scarecrow.
As another example, the Showtime series Homeland is not a story about the Hero either; it’s about the woman who foils the Hero’s plots. Carrie Mathison is not Odysseus sailing home from war; she is Circe thwarting his progress. She’s not Hector defending the walls of Troy; she’s Cassandra making prophecies no one will believe. She’s not Theseus slaying the Minotaur; she’s the Delphic Oracle driven mad by her visions. When the other would-be heroes of Homeland challenge Carrie, they don’t face the club of Hercules but rather the flashing gray eyes of Athena. Very, very different archetypes than the Hero are at work here. Carrie is a chorus of complex myths.
I’ll go so far as to claim that we don’t even identify with the Hero. Or rather, we identify with far more than just heroes. We are also villains, with dark urges to tear, rend, torture and burn. Our psyches are jam-packed with identities: mentors and tricksters, blacksmiths and chambermaids, sad queens and wicked children, femmes fatales and stylish pimps. To understand ourselves and tell our authentic stories, we must listen to each of these inner voices equally. The Hero likes to believe he is “the One,” but he is just one among a multitude.
That’s why, in Orange is the New Black, the ostensible “hero” seems like such an insufferable narcissist, and we endure her journey only to follow the myriad supporting characters. Each of these other women has a vivid story to tell — a story that has everyone trapped in the “belly of the whale.” To call every character with a story a “hero” is to forget what the Hero Archetype really is.
Remember Walter White’s Hero’s Journey? His monstrous inflation of ego that resulted in the bloody murder of innocent men, women and children?
I think you know this already, but the thousand faces of the Hero are often masks for the Herculean Ego—inflated, shallow and vain. He sees himself as the center of the universe, the Son of God, the One. No matter what happens at each signpost of theThe Hero ‘s Journey, no matter what other characters or stories populate his world, it’s all about him. While it may be nice to have this type of conceited blowhard on our side when we’re sacking a city or slaying a monster, we don’t have to let him rule us.
Yes, any aspiring writer must read The Hero With a Thousand Faces, because its insights are timeless. But try reading James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld as well. Hillman argues against the “Herculean Hero/Ego.” Rather than seeking unity, balance and the One, as the Hero does in the Monomyth, Hillman argues that the imagination, especially in dreams, seeks diversity and fertile chaos.
What Hillman says of “the Dream” can be said of the Story. “We can no longer turn to [the Story] in hopes of progress, transformation and rebirth.”(41) Authentic stories “make no attempt at achieving undivided individuality or…unified wholeness.” (41) Our characters are not single, heroic egos, but a complex “multiplicity of forms.”(41) And only by recognizing this plurality can we reach our story’s potentials. The story, like the dream, “works through destruction, [a] dissolving, decomposing, detaching, and disintegrating process.” (27) It is meant, not to cure our symptoms, but to interrupt our structured templates so that we may engage with our lives more deeply. To identify with the Herculean Ego, is to take the hero archetype literally, instead of seeing it as just one metaphor among an endless variety.
If we take Hillman’s perspective, The Hero’s Journey has an Apollonian structure: ordered, balanced, idealized, unified and monotheistic. It’s just the sort of rational and predictable action plan that will appeal to anyone with a business degree and a share in box office receipts. Yet our best stories recognize other gods besides Apollo, especially Dionysus and Aphrodite, who rampage over our index cards and outlines and who seize our fragile egos with ecstasy, inspiration and insight. Hillman suggests that the imagination, and the stories that delight it, are polytheistic.
But alas, Hollywood loves Monomyths and Herculean Egos. I tried to write a Hercules movie myself once — a Hercules who subverted the Greek myth of the Hero, a Hercules with doubts, fears and divided goals, a Hercules who winced at pain, avoided conflict and resented the role he was born to fulfill. After reading the script, Brett Ratner told me I had made Hercules too metrosexual. He chirped, “Hercules needs to be BADASS,” and then moved on to a rival project. Renny Harlin had a similar take and rewrote my script top to bottom to infuse it with Gladiator-style badassery and 300-style action. As it turned out, audiences, for the most part, jeered both movies.
To be fair, audiences wouldn’t have liked my version either. Hercules is a hard nut to crack. That’s why the only authentic embodiment of the Hercules myth in all of cinema is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, The Shining). Or did you forget that Hercules, hero of heroes, murdered his wife and children in a drunken fit of madness? Disney forgot too.
So, in challenging the Monomyth, I am not forgetting mythology but turning back to look at it more closely. The sanitized Monomyth tends to cover up the violence, horror and perversity of myths. In the original version of Sleeping Beauty, Prince Charming rapes the princess while she is unconscious, and she awakens nine months later with twins suckling her fingertips. Then, Prince Charming, who is already married, burns his wife alive so he and Sleeping Beauty can live happily ever after. As I’ve argued before, Real Myths Are Weird, from Gilgamesh to Jar Jar Binks.
Yes, when they are all taken together in the mythical – symbolic equivalent of a statistical average, you get a Monomyth, but it is precisely the way each of these particular tales diverge from the norm that determines whether they succeed or fail.  Joseph Campbell made a deep, lifelong study of myths in all their peculiar variety. Too many writers skip over the myths themselves, and go straight to the template, confusing the map with the territory.
And did we ever really love the Hero? Really? George Lucas, Lord of the Hero’s Journey, never understood that we secretly hated Luke and his quest for self-actualization and personal growth — and we hated Anakin even more. We loved the supporting characters; they were the reason we bought all the toys. We loved Han most of all, because he was full of grit, wile and contradiction. He was the archetypal “Helper,” “Rogue” and sometimes “Mentor,” who was just as likely to delightfully thwart our expectations as he was to fulfill them.
(Here I’d tell you what I love about Rey and Finn, but… no spoilers.)
In truth, what we love about the Star Wars movies — the good ones — is the inventive and chaotic multiplicity of characters and their quirky, charismatic individuality. If the Hero’s Journey template was all it took to thrill us, then The Phantom Menace would be considered ideal and The Empire Strikes Back deeply flawed.
What I’m arguing is that while Joseph Campbell’s work remains classic, and the Monomyth remains a powerful insight, to recognize story only in terms of one abstract schema is to ignore both the idiosyncrasy of ancient myths and the complexity of contemporary cinema and television. As writers, we become like Freud and his Oedipus Complex—seeing all of human experience through a single, narrow lens. Yes, “the hero” can be so vaguely defined as to cover any main character with a problem to solve, but why limit ourselves to this single model?
So, my advice to aspiring movie and TV scribes is this: As you go on your Writer’s Journey with plans to Save the Cat and Steal Fire from the Gods, remember that now, as it was in the beginning, stories are polytheistic, myths are myriad, and dreams are pluralities without center —and no one master myth can contain these multitudes. Instead of laying out index cards in the ordered slots of the Monomyth, consider beginning your story at the Hero’s wake, when all the wives, witches and wild women, and all the sailors, suitors and sons, find voices of their own.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Redux: Real Myths Are Weird

If you are a screenwriter, you already know The Hero’s Journey.  Every writer, agent, producer and executive in Hollywood knows all about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as popularized by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.  Perhaps you’ve analyzed “the refusal of the call” and “the symbolic death and rebirth” in Star Wars.  Maybe you’ve identified mobsters in The The Godfather as “Mentors," “Tricksters” and “Supernatural Aids.”  It's not hard.  We really can find reflections of the “monomyth” in movies as diverse as “Blue Is The Warmest Color” and “Iron Man 3.”

But… have you read any actual myths lately?  They're weird.  Really weird So weird they make me wonder if The Hero’s Journey, as interpreted by screenplay gurus,  ignores the uncanny, disturbing, and intriguing weirdness of the myths on which it is based. 

For example, take Gilgamesh.  First composed some 4000 years ago, it is our oldest story, and the mother of all mythic quests.  Yet it contains none of the clarity, simplicity, or easy classifications found in screenwriting books.  In his introduction to his recent translation Stephen Mitchell writes, “The more we try to fit Gilgamesh into the pattern of this archetypal journey, the more bizarre, quirky and postmodern it seems.” 

The story goes like this:  Gilgamesh is our hero, but he is also a tyrant, a rapist, an egomaniac and a coward in the face of death.  His counterpart, the yin to his yang, is not a princess or goddess, but a wild, hairy man, Enkidu.  The major female character in the story is a high priestess but also a prostitute who civilizes Enkidu by having sex with him for six days straight.  She then hands him over to King Gilgamesh, who first brutally attacks his “other half” but who then “takes him in his arms and caresses him the way a man caresses his wife.” 

Next, these two best-buddies set out to face a monster, Humbaba (which is what heroes do after all, slay monsters) but these particular heroes weep at the sight of Humbaba, they fail miserably in their battle with him until a god steps in and fixes the fight in their favor, and when the now-helpless monster turns out NOT to be evil at all, and simply the guardian of a sacred forest, they kill him anyway and clear-cut the old, sacred trees for their own glory and profit. 

All this, of course, angers the gods, and they respond by killing Enkidu and causing our hero, Gilgamesh, unbearable grief and suffering, mostly because he now realizes that someday he is going to die too.  So, egotistical a fearful as always, Gilgamesh goes on a long, painful journey to find the one mortal man who was given the secret to eternal life.  However, when Gilgamesh finally finds this man, all the wise mentor can tell him is that quests like his are pointless and that he should get over himself.  

As Mitchell writes. “By preemptively attacking a monster [who was a danger to no one], Gilgamesh brings on himself a disaster that can only be overcome by an agonizing quest that results in wisdom by proving its own folly."  This is a story with NO light and dark side of the force.  "In its refusal to side with either hero or monster, it leads us to question our dangerous certainties about good and evil.”  

Which is to say this story is weird.  It’s not the kind of thing that would make a good pitch to Disney.  And, if you spend time reading various original myths, you start to discover that they are all weird.  Did you know that sleeping beauty was NOT awakened with a kiss?  She was raped in her sleep and abandoned by Prince Charming only to finally awaken a year later to find two babies suckling on her fingertips.  Did you know that the story of the 12 labors begins with Hercules murdering his wife and children in a drunken rage?  Great stories are strange.  Myths are bizarre.  And, while all these heroes and heroines still reflect, at least in part, the generic features of the Hero’s Journey,  it is precisely the way these tales diverge from the norm that makes them memorable.  

It's also a good idea to remember that while all classic movies do reflect some aspect of the monomyth, all lousy movies do as well.  Stories - great, mediocre, and dreadful - all follow the same patterns.  The Hero’s Journey is not a recipe for success; it is a description of the collective building blocks of any story - including those for GigliCatwoman, and Troll 2… or for that matter, Star Wars Episode One.  The monomyth is a kind of symbolic and spiritual average, not some storyteller's "secret to eternal life."  Maybe instead of searching for "control, order, and meaning" in magical templates, what we screenwriters really need is to face the futility of "the quest," as did Gilgamesh, and embrace life's chaotic weirdness.

So, consider all this before you spend too much time with “step-by-step guidelines for plot and character development.” (Volger, back cover) Be less obsessed with fitting a story into a “Hero's Journey,” and more concerned with finding those excessive and inscrutable human experiences that cannot be so neatly contained.

(Originally posted Monday, November 18, 2013)

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Great Job/Shitty Job -- a Breakdown of the Good and the Bad of True Detective Season 2


Hello folks!

Welcome to another edition of Great Job/Shitty Job. I recently finished watching the fascinating season 2 of True Detective and, well, holy fuck, it was one of the most uneven pieces of art I have ever seen. One scene would bring me to the edge of tears, while the next would feel like it was written by a 13 year old who is trying way, way too hard to be edgy.

Without further ado, let's jump into it:

Great Job -- Compelling characters with rich inner lives

Even if you thought True Detective Season 2 was a piece of shit, I bet you thought the characters had some potential or, at the least, they were intriguing. Here's what Pizzolatto did right and why he got a cast of the highest caliber: His characters had built in conflicts.

For example, Ani Bezzerides is introduced as someone who is so extremely kinky that it freaks out her boyfriend/fuck buddy. Then we see her sister is a webcam model and Ani sexually shames her. This immediately points out that there's something inside Ani that doesn't quite add up and hints at an active inner conflict and inner life.

Similarly, you have Vince Vaughn's Frank Semyon. Semyon is a man who has to become his past brutal self in order to become legitimate again. His actions are at odds with who he wants to become. If you can put a character into this position (he's doing something he hates in order to get something he loves) it always pays off in dividends when it comes to conflict and drama.

Velcoro is another man who is torn inside as his want (to provide the best life for his son) is what drives him to do pretty crazy fucking stuff. This crazy stuff is what drives him away from his son.

Warning: He might buttfuck your mother with your father's headless corpse.

Shitty Job -- A convoluted plot that squanders the characters

Okay, yes, the plot is convoluted and all that. You've heard that a thousand times before. But what's worse than that: The plot doesn't utilize what makes these characters special.

Think back to Season 1. Rust is a man beaten down by the worst of humanity. So, it makes sense that the STORY pits him against a dark force that is almost cosmic in its evilness. From that conflict, he is reborn and finds some optimism... "Once there was only dark. You ask me, light's winning."

In Season 2, we learn that Semyon has a dark past with his father. Does this ever come back in the PLOT of his story? No, except this one really clumsy scene where his old Russian partner -- out of nowhere -- says "Frank, you're like a son to me" right before Semyon shoots him. We have a bizarre and long story line where Frank is trying to have a child... but that doesn't come back into the PLOT of his story at all. Seriously, even if you absolutely loved this season, take out that plot with Frank and his wife and their endless discussions about child rearing... What changes?

To contrast with that; there is one sequence where the show actually utilizes the unique nature of the character to make its plot stronger. When Ani goes into that weird orgy and remembers the face of the man who abused her, that's a great example of coherence of character and plot! If you have a character who has issues with her sexuality, of course, put her into a creepy orgy! That just yells OPPORTUNITY!

On the flipside... How does that insane action set piece at the end of Episode 4 feed into Velcoro's desire to be a better father or Ani's complex relationship with her family? How does that action set piece service character? It doesn't. It's just plot without character, without meaning, without drama.

"Who, why, what doesn't matter! What matters is that we are going to shoot at stuff  and it's going to be exciting television!"
Shitty Job -- Earn your Goddamn Ending!

Look, nobody hates fake as shit "Happy Endings" more than I do. Ninety percent of movies have zero tension in them because you KNOW everything is going to be alright by the end. You know that Matt Damon is coming back from Mars, you know Liam Neeson is going to take back whatever/whoever the fuck has been Taken from him. As a result, most Happy Endings are unearned because the characters never sacrifice/lose important things.

But, wow, Season 2 goes so far to the other end of this spectrum it's almost surreal. It's cynical/dark/tortured ending is like watching a series of puppies beaten to death with a hammer. But, hey, you say... There's this guy with a huge beard that made a career out of punching his audience in the balls over and over again!

But it really is different. When characters die in Game of Thrones, it feels like the end of an arc for them. It feels satisfying in a sick, perverted way. There is an inevitability to their doom. For the most part, they die because of their unrelenting righteousness cannot survive in the unjust world of Game of Thrones.

Contrast that with the slaughterhouse of True Detective. Let's take Paul Woodrugh's death. His arc is about rejecting his homosexuality and burying himself deeper and deeper into denial, even going as far as to enter into a loveless marriage. His death? His death has nothing to do with this arc. He just dies when he's ambushed by the faceless PLOT PEOPLE who shoot him. He is cast aside for the wheels of the plot and in a callous, random way.

Or let's take a look at the other two main characters who perish: Ray Velcoro dies after paying one last visit to his son before leaving the United States for good. This speaks to the inner tension of Ray; he is a bad man with this one shining light in his chest and it's his son. He thought being around his son would only spread his sickness, but he finds himself unable to just stay away. That leads to him being found out by the cops who were scoping Ray's son's school and now he's in the shit.

So far, so good! This speaks to his character arc and his unyielding love for his son!

But then he leads the corrupt cops to a forest where he is shot to death. He tries uploading his last words for his son, but the internet is shit and it doesn't work.

Him going to the forest (to grant a free shooting gallery for the Corrupt Cops after him and to make it as hard as possible for his phone to upload his last message to his son) is as forced and convoluted as the forced HAPPY ENDINGS of 90% of shitty movies. Semyon being taken out by a bunch of random Mexicans who were barely established feels like a similar cheat. Just as you can't force good endings by introducing a bunch of unicorns at the last second to fly away your main character, you can't just bring in a bunch of random characters to kill them either.

Great Job/Shitty Job Double Combo! -- Find Something Amazing, Then Ruin It

"Poetic" is such a hard thing to do. It's ineffable. That's why it's so hard to visualize on screen. Most of the time, it comes off forced or juvenile. God knows most student movies are filled with this bad variety. Imagine that plastic bag scene in American Beauty. Now, imagine a lesser filmmaker trying that scene and it not working at all. How stupid would that look like?

If True Detective has one strength, in both seasons, it's that effortless reach for the Poetic. It's making the ineffable visceral. And by poetic, I don't mean beautiful, it's the opposite. I still remember seeing Le Doux for the first time, in that grotesque jock strap and gas mask combination and being shaken for some reason. Or in dialogue: "This place is like somebody's memory of a town, and the memory is fading."

Season 2 has the dark Bird Masked Man that stands over Ray like the Grim Reaper. Or Frank Semyon's long walk out of the desert. Or Paul Woodrugh's screaming motorcycle ride into the deep dark... But, for my money, the thing that nails the poetic nature of True Detective in this season is Lera Lynn's melancholic voice.

No joke here. I find her un-sarcastically, un-ironically fascinating.
I've been listening to her songs in repeat and they're so effortlessly poetic. I don't know how they found her, but they did. And they knew they had someone, something that can bring that ineffable poetic energy into the season... So they fucking double downed on her to the point where all that poetic, ineffable quality of her evaporated.

Look, it's fine that she's not just in the soundtrack but an actual character in the show. It's bizarre, but sure, she's good enough that it's not a problem. But then you have long scenes between Velcoro and Semyon where they stop and listen to her. They look at her. The camera wants us to REALLY REALLY make sure that WE GET THAT SHE'S SINGING ABOUT THEIR LIFE. At some point, instead of being a part of the atmosphere, she is reduced to an unnecessary, and sometimes unintentionally funny, musical interlude.

And, look, in the grand scheme of things, she's such a small part of True Detective Season 2. But, I believe, this idea -- that they found something great and focused on it so much that it become annoying -- is emblematic of the problems of Season 2. It's as if everything that people loved about Season 1 was taken and put under the microscope until it became an eyesore.

- You loved the darkness of Season 1? We're going to make it so fucking dark, you're not going to feel anything but sadness and despair! Kill everyone!

- You loved that gun play sequence in Season 1? We're going to give you an even BIGGER action sequence with so many more guns, why and what be damned!

- You loved Rust's erudite speech? We're going to have all the character speak that way! Yes, we will have the corrupt gangster Semyon and detective Velcoro talk using words like "apoplectic" and "sublunar" as if that's the most normal thing in the world. No, we don't need a Marty to balance out this relationship, it's Rust all the way because people loved Rust!

Contrast. Contrast is your friend. Imagine if Marty also talked like Rust.
Well, that's that from me. I hope you were informed/entertained a little bit. I wish you all a great day and feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section if you think I'm full of shit.

For the other Great Job/Shitty Job's, feel free to check out my take on Interstellar and Jurassic World.