Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Under The Skin" Is Pure Cinema

Call me pretentious if you like, but in this Golden Age of dialogue-driven television,”Under The Skin” gives me an intriguing reason to go to the movies.

Scarlett Johansson
Okay.  Take any of our most beloved cable television series – Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, Mad Men, True Detective, and so on.  Now, imagine removing the dialogue track.  What you are left with is mostly just pop music and pictures of people talking.  As sophisticated as our golden age of television has become, it is still a medium in which story is delivered primarily through dialogue - in the manner of a play.

Yes, all of these TV shows have wonderful cinematography, clever sound effects, and purely visual story-beats or metaphors, but the primary storytelling engines are the words characters say and the actors' performances while saying them.

As Alfred Hitchcock said in an interview with Fran├žois Truffaut, "cinema" is more than simply "photographs of people talking." Cinema uses visual imagery, sound design, and creative juxtaposition to tell stories and to give the audience an experience that is unique among all other creative mediums.

Don't roll your eyes yet; stay with me here.  One example of a purely cinematic experience is the movie "Gravity."  If the dialogue were in say, Bulgarian, we could still experience 90% of the visceral impact of the film, as well as it's basic storyline and metaphors.  The problem with most movies today is cinematic devices are used primarily to create empty spectacle.  We get exciting amusement park rides, superhero fantasies, and supernatural intrigues, but for anything with deeper meaning, sophistication, and complexity we have to turn to TV. And, TV means dialogue.

This is why I absolutely loved "Under The Skin" ...and why many others may find it pretentious, confusing, and empty.

The movie is stripped-down almost entirely to its cinematic elements.  The visuals are as startling and impactful as those by Stanley Kubrick.  The sound design creates an eerie sense of dissociation.  The musical score induces almost unbearable levels of engagement, anticipation and dread.  It is a story that
is seen and heard rather than told. What's more, these purely cinematic elements create, for me at least, striking and profound metaphors about alienation, empathy, identity, and sexuality.

The problem is that for people who are used to having meaning and complexity delivered through dialogue, the film offers no easy explanations or exposition.  No one ever tells us why the aliens are abducting men and trapping them in a viscous black fluid.  Nothing the characters say (when they speak at all) gives us any indication of what they are thinking or feeling. No character helpfully sates the movie's "theme" in an easily quotable truism. The devices of the film are exclusively and enigmatically cinematic.

Granted, some people may just simply hate the film on it's own terms.  My heroes are David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Terence Malick - and they may not be yours.  However, I was truly blown away by this film, and I can't wait to see it a second time.  It got under my skin.  At a time when I could be perfectly happy sitting at home we re-watching episodes of "The Wire," movies like this one give me a reason to venture out to a theater.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why YOU Should Be Watching Hannibal

Like many snobby, pretentious, lazy people, I tend to only watch premium cable (Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Mad Men, Orange is The New Black, and so on.)  I tend to avoid the networks, especially if the network show in general is a spinoff or remake. However, recently my friend, collaborator and teaching assistant, Levin, has been telling me that I need to watch Hannibal. I was dubious, but then he wrote this guest blog for Genre Hacks, and he has convinced me to give it a look. Here's his spiel...


WHY SHOULD YOU WATCH HANNIBAL
by Levin Menekse



I'm talking about the the TV Show by the way, not the movie. Yes, the one on NBC. I know, it's weird, but the fact is Hannibal (TV show) is the best thing that happened to Hannibal Lecter since Silence of the Lambs.

Don't take my word for it, go consult your favorite TV critic. Or, actually, you know what, I'm going to go to Metacritic and share with you the NEGATIVE reviews of the show. How is that for a change?

Linda Stasi from New York post writes in her review: "Dancy is a perfect, tortured soul; Fishburne is everyman with a brain; and Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly named. What is lacking, though, is any respite from the darkness."

Or let's check out this review from RedEye's Curt Wagner: "In seriously exploring what drives people to kill, Hannibal serves up a meal too heavy to enjoy each week."

Do you see a trend? Even those who don't like the show have no problem with the show's quality, they merely think it's "too dark". Which, it is. Proudly. And not in a whishy-washy way that most criminal shows/serial killer dramas are these days. It doesn't cuddle you at the end of every episode and show you how safe you should feel because, yes, there might be predators out there but, don't worry, the CSI Team will always catch them, dear audience! Every week, over and over again. And it sure as hell doesn't sugar-coat its "bad" characters to be more friendly to the audience -- COUGH DEXTER COUGH.

I'll tell you when I realized how much I loved Hannibal... I always watch TV shows when I'm eating lunch/dinner. I have watched TV shows that many would find disturbing or grotesque -- Fringe, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Walking Dead, Oz... to list a few -- but none of them ever fazed me. I'm a curious child of the internet dear reader, and through risky clicks or just morbid fascination, I have seen things, real things, so my tolerance for any kind of violence is inhumanly high.

But I couldn't eat while I was watching Hannibal. And it wasn't the graphic violence -- which there is a whole lot of, Hannibal disturbed me on a psychological level. I didn't feel squeamish, I felt horrified -- psychologically invaded, to be precise. See, one of the great things the show does differently from the rest of the serial-killer shows on TV is that it doesn't fetishize killers. It doesn't merely point them out and brand them as an "other", some psychopath we should be afraid of. No, what Hannibal does is much more tricky. It strives to make you understand these killers. It's intimate. Instead of watching these killers from afar, we are with them. We don't merely stare at the TV, being entertained, we are gazing at a mirror that reveals us the abyss of human nature.

Now, before I continue, I shall assume you will fall under either of these two categories if you haven't seen Hannibal yet. You are either A) A person who loves good television but can't stand the serial-killer genre and, thus, haven't given Hannibal a chance or B) A person who is really into dark, crime shows but you haven't caught with Hannibal because there is simply too many shows like it out there.

Come here, dear reader, if you fall into Category A. If you are in Category B, feel free to skip ahead.

You know what I don't like? Westerns. But Deadwood was different and awesome. I don't like mob movies that much either but Sopranos was pretty, pretty good. And I feel like I'm immune to cop shows after watching so many Law and Order episodes -- I mean, seriously, what is a new thing you can say about the justice system and police work that Law and Order and it's one gazillion episodes haven't said?

But then, The Wire is the best thing since sliced bread. Yes, I realize I just pulled The Wire card. Why? Because Hannibal is to, say, Criminal Minds what The Wire is to Law and Order. The Wire used the simplistic framework of cops vs drug-dealers (in its first season) to inquire about larger things such as the bureaucracy of the government institutions and the futility of War on Drugs. Similarly, Hannibal uses the framework of serial killers to inquire about the transient nature of life and the man's desperate search for meaning.

For example, Will Graham, our protagonist, has an enormous capacity when it comes to empathy -- even with Serial Killers and that's why he's uniquely capable of catching them. After a while, we see that he's being profoundly disturbed when he shoots a killer and realizes that heenjoyed it. Will's burden is something the series takes very seriously and something that creates a lot of friction between him and his boss, Jack Crawford, played by Laurence Fishburne. But more than that, the show does something unexpected -- it contrasts his burden with the burden of Bella, Jack Crawford's Wife.

(This is going to be a spoiler, apologies, but it's not that big of a deal, trust me.)

See, Bella is suffering from terminal lung cancer and she wants to handle this burden alone. Bella is played by Gina Torres, Laurence Fisherburne's wife in real life, and their relationship, their push-pull, is portrayed with the gravity and authenticity it requires, something you won't find in any other "serial-killer" drama. Their story in the fifth episode in Season 2 is revelatory in the way that the show doesn't belittle her desire to end her own life and refuses to make her a victim. It's gripping emotional stuff and the scenes between them are usually quiet, moving, elegiac -- the stuff "serious, sophisticated" TV drama's are made of.

Similarly, Hannibal's relationship with Will Graham is a deeply complicated friendship that would rival any such relationship in, say, Mad Men. Remember Anthony Hopkins' bizarre relationship with Clarice in Silence of the Lambs? How he's weirdly protective of her and makes a guy swallow his own tongue
for insulting Clarice? How he's weirdly captivated by her, despite the fact that he's a brutal serial killer? There are shades of that relationship in Will and Hannibal's friendship and it's simply fascinating to watch them together, especially because Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen play those scenes with electric chemistry.

Similarly, the "serial-killers" of the week are rarely "simply psychotic" as they are in many other shows/movies. There is always a philosophy to their work and a bizarre sort of beauty. For example, the first killer of Season 2 was making a human mural in the shape of an eye to communicate with God. His loneliness, his desire to connect with something grander than him was played in an empathetic way, especially as Hannibal Lecter helped him become a part of his own mural.

Lastly, Hannibal does a great job of side-stepping the cliched "procedural beats". Ultimately, yes, there are some of those but Hannibal does such a great job of making those moments count, either through emphasizing the toll it takes on Will to solve such crimes or through poetic/dream-like images. A recent example came in the second episode of the second season when Hannibal figured out that the killer lives near corn fields. How did he figure it out? DNA, you say? Maybe some CSI stuff and a sexy, pulsating montage?

No, Hannibal smelled the evidence and, in his mind, got transported to the middle of corn fields... And then smiled to himself. That's it. Simple, direct, poetic.

Ultimately, why I love Hannibal is because it's one of those "I wonder how would Spike Jonze film an action movie?" or "I wonder how would Christopher Nolan do a romantic comedy?" In this case it's "How would the brains behind Pushing Daisies make a dark, fucked up but whimsical show about serial killers?" and the answer is he does it awesomely.

Now, if you fall under the category B:

Okay, you dig this kind of shit, right? Serial killers, murders, detectives chasing them, it's your jam. Maybe you need a good fix after True Detective... Maybe how the Yellow King stuff ended up being tied up didn't rock your world. Good, good, come over here.

First of all, you've seen people getting killed on TV/Movies. But not like this.

Hannibal has the following: A killer who makes people into human violins by removing their heads and then "plays" their vocal chords. Another killer "merges" people with mushroom fields, keeping them "alive" by inducing a coma. Last week's killer turned human bodies into, wait for it: Bee Hives. It's fascinating, visually brilliant stuff and I have no idea how they come up with this shit.

Let me add some more stuff onto that layer of cake: Hannibal is gloriously tense. See, we know Will is going to figure out Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer but the way the show goes around getting to that is delicious. And, more than that, it's smart. Usually when you have a brilliant detective who is best
friends with a serial killer, shows dumb the supposedly smart detective down to make it make sense. But not in Hannibal. Both characters are ingenious and writers make an awesome job of painting them into corners and getting them out without seeming contrived. This is some Walter White / Hank Schrader shit right here with all the chess moves and the counter chess moves and you're missing it!

And it's entertaining as hell once you get the hang of it. There are tons of black humor and the show becomes a pulpy thriller as well as a grandiose character study. In one episode, Hannibal Lecter invites a serial killer for dinner and the two eat as it's revealed they both know each other is a murderer. Lecter's guest drops his fork, fearing that the food might be poisoned... Hannibal dead-pans: "I didn't poison you. I wouldn't do that to the food." and what happens is...

Not gonna tell you. You might have to watch it to find out.

Seriously though, this is a miracle of a show. It shouldn't be this good, it shouldn't be able to juggle so
many tones while still being playful. Hannibal Lecter portrayed in a Network Television Series should not be able to compare to Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the character. But it totally does. It might even surpass that legendary performance if the show gets renewed for another season. And for that to happen, the show needs viewers.

Here's the simple, short, low-down: This is a low-rated but amazing show that needs viewers. You are
a viewer that needs an amazing show. Give it a chance, watch a few episodes. And you shan't be disappointed, I assure you.

Thank you, 

Levin

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Save The Cat" Beat Sheet: Plan Nine From Outer Space


Every year screenplays are sold for millions of dollars, and the happy screenwriters are empowered by self-fulfillment, satisfaction and acclaim. Why can’t that be you? Well, before you can sell your brilliant movie idea to Hollywood, you must first learn The Powerful Secrets of Screenplay Structure!

What better way to learn The Powerful Secrets of Screenplay Structure than by analyzing a classic, widely-admired script?  Here for the first time - informed by Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet in his famous screenwriting manual Save The Cat – we present an analysis of Ed Wood’s celebrated screenplay for Plan Nine From Outer Space.  Read on and see how simple it is to write a movie!

Plan Nine From Outer Space begins with a PRE-CREDIT scene in which the mysterious prognosticator Criswell addresses the audience and frames the story in the context of true events that have been officially denied.

Opening Image:  As per Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat this is a visual that represents the genre, theme and tone of the story. The opening Image should be a snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins. In Alien, we begin with the lone Nostromo star ship in the middle of wide, empty space. In Raiders of The Lost Arc the Paramount Studios Symbol match dissolves to a real mountain.

Appropriately Plan Nine from Outer Space begins with a funeral. A line of mourners gather by an open grave. The image sets a somber, portentous and uncanny tone. The row of characters looking down in grief and confusion will be echoed in the final image of the film.

Set-up: As per Snyder's Beat Sheet, this expands on the “before” snapshot of the opening image. The film presents the Protagonist’s world as it is, and what is missing in their lives. In Raiders we are introduced to a daredevil archeologist looking for rare and wonderful artifacts. In Alien, Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo wake up after their hyper sleep to find themselves mysteriously drifting in empty space.

Plan Nine From Outer Space is an ensemble film following three separate protagonists, all of whom begin, like the old man in the opening, in a state of confusion and dread.  Here, the “ordinary world” is one in which startling, mysterious events occur, without explanation – events that the protagonists are forced to deny.

These three separate stories are interwoven throughout the film, but they all skillfully merge at the end of the 2nd Act. This three-protagonist/parallel-narrative structure was so successful it influenced later classic films such as L.A. Confidential.

The first Protagonist is pilot JEFF TRENT. His routine flight takes a strange turn,when he sees a blinding light and encounters a flying saucer. The saucer lands at the graveyard where gravediggers hear a strange noise and are attacked and killed by the resurrected corpse of a young woman, the ghastly Vampira.

The death of the gravediggers leads to the introduction of the second protagonist, LIEUTENANT HARPER and a murder investigation. Harper and his boss, inspector Daniel Clay and other police officers arrive and Clay foolishly decides conduct his search alone. After the old man rises from his own grave, the isolated Clay is attacked both the reanimated corpses. Later Harper and the other police discover Clay’s dead body and are convinced of foul play.

A third parallel narrative introduces the third protagonist, COLONEL EDWARDS, who reveals that the government has been covering up the flying saucers, and who wonders if the aliens are connected to other disasters on Earth. He reveals that one small town has already been annihilated.

Notice the artful symmetry here. We have THREE protagonists and our THREE antagonists (the three reanimated corpses) fully introduced to the audience.

Theme Stated: This is what the story is about; the truth the film will reveal. Usually, it is spoken by the protagonist, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.  In Alien, someone quips “Anybody ever tell you that you look dead?” The truth is you’re doomed and you don’t know it yet.

Sure enough, in Plan Nine From Outer Space, in each of the three parallel narratives, each our three protagonists states the theme and truth of the film,  flying saucers are real!  Each of the men are fed up with the official denials and they all DEMAND answers.

Snarls Trent, "I can't even admit I saw the thing [the saucer.]"

Says Lieutenant Harper, "Inspector Clay's dead, murdered, and somebody's responsible!" 

Says, Colonel Edwards, "They're real, but...Who are they? What do they want?"

The film will later reveal the secret alien Plan Nine to reanimate the dead, but here the characters don’t yet understand the truth. The film is ultimately about the conspiracies and cover-ups that always hide a reality to awful to bear.

Catalyst: The moment where something new intrudes upon the status quo.  In Alien, it is the distress call that prompts the computer to wake up the crew.  In Raiders, it is the government agents who contact Indiana Jones about the Arc.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, the ordinary world is interrupted by an encounter with flying saucers.  Even the general public sees the UFO's flying over Hollywood Boulevard and Washington, D.C.

Debate – Change is scary and for a moment the main characters doubt the journey they must take. In Alien, the crew members debate whether to investigate the distress signal.   In Raiders, Indy and Marion debate the Arc and her father’s medallion.

In Plan Nine from Outer Space Jeff Trent tells his wife Paula, about his flying saucer encounter, but he debates about whether to admit the truth publicly because officials have sworn him to secrecy. He is frustrated about what to do next.

Throughout the first act, we have multiple instances of the “Refusal of the Call to Adventure.” Spooked policemen flee the graveyard, characters refuse to believe their eyes, and soldiers sardonically pretend that firefights with saucers were just "training missions."  The film is ultimately about the dangers of denial.

Throughout these debates, notice the repeated and deliberate us of the word “There.” Out there. Up there. Go there. The word “There” stands for the denied truth and the mysterious, dreadful and unknown world that the protagonists have yet to fully encounter.

Also notice that in these debates that both the monsters and the saucers are referred to as “those things.” These “things” are beings and objects beyond ordinary human comprehension, and therefore have no names.

Break Into Two: Here the main character makes A CHOICE and the journey begins. We leave the “thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two, the “antithesis.” In Alien, they penetrate the alien ship and Kane is attacked by a face-hugger. In Raiders, Indy and Marion, now partners, travel to Egypt and the Well of Souls.

In Plan Nine From Outer space this decision point is vivid and dramatic. When the army encounters the Saucers, Colonel Edwards makes "the greatest decision of his career," TO FIRE. No longer passively observing the saucers and denying their existence, the Colonel takes ACTION.  

This action directly results in the implementation of “Plan Nine” and the beginning of Act Two.

As the aliens return to their space station, we have the entrance of our main antagonist, the big bad, COMANDER EROS.  He informs his ruler that he has attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact the governments of Earth. He says that to force the people of Earth to acknowledge his people's existence, he is implementing Plan 9, which involves resurrecting the recently dead by stimulating their pituitary glands. 

With the revelation and implementation of the  alien conspiracy, the lives of all three major characters will be turned upside down.

B Story: This subplot explores the THEME of the film from a new angle. Usually, this happens between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story.” In Alien, we have the perverse relationship between Ripley and the android-rapist, Ash, along with the computer, Mother. In Raiders, we have Indy’s relationship with a treacherous monkey.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, we have Trent and Paula. In their parting scene, Paula explains that at night she finds comfort in her absent husband's pillow: "Sometimes at night, when it does get a little lonely, I reach over and touch it. " This underlines the absence of a living sexual partner for her, and her frequent loneliness in married life.

In a reflection of the main plot and main tension of the film, this sexual dysfunction and aching loneliness is DENIED by both husband and wife, and this causes dire consequences . Each time the repressed and hysterical woman is left alone she attracts vampires (symbols of voracious sexual desire) who invade her bedroom and then the back seat of a parked car.

It is no accident that the mastermind behind the monstrous, phallic “thing” is named “Eros.”

Fun and Games: As per Save The Cat, this section delivers on the premise, and the characters explore the new world. This is where the crew in Alien discovers the “face hugger” has acid for blood, or when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark. 

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, we get to experience all the horror and thrills of the aliens reanimating the dead promised by the poster and premise. The corpse of the old man rises from his crypt and sneaks into Paula’s bedroom. He is joined by the corpse of his wife, Vampira, and the newly resurrected Inspector Clay. All three “things” chase Paula through the cemetery. 


Midpoint:  This is the moment where the main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). Either way it marks a big shift in the story as the protagonists must take a new course of action.  In Raiders, everything is great, as Indy finds the Arc, but now he must get it home.  In Alien, everything is awful as the alien bursts from Kane’s chest and now the crew must kill it.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, the midpoint is marked by a message from the aliens. Eros explains that they are trying to prevent humanity from destroying the universe. As a result, Coronel Edwards risks court marshal by refusing to deny the saucers existence. Denial is now impossible, the Aliens must be confronted.

The Bad Guys Close In:  Here the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation gets even worse. In Raiders, the Nazi’s take the Arc from Indy and lock him in the pit with dreaded snakes. In Alien, the monster grows large and starts killing the crew members one by one.

In Plan Nine the aliens make plans to raise undead armies and march them against the capitals of Earth.

All is Lost: This is the moment that the main characters realize they’ve lost everything, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks impossible. In Alien, Ripley discovers the company conspiracy and that the crew is “expendable.” In Raiders, a plane explodes and the arc is seemingly lost forever.
In Plan Nine, the three protagonists - Trent, Harper and Edwards – all convene at Trent’s house, and the three story lines merge into one. When they are attacked by the undead "thing," they fire their guns
but the bullets NO EFFECT.  Then a mysterious ray from the saucer turns the “thing” into a pile of bones.  They realize that their weapons are of no use against their enemies and that they are dealing with powers far beyond their comprehension.

Dark Night of the Soul:  This is the main character’s lowest moment. In Alien, Ripley is told by the android, Ash, that they have no chance to survive. In Raiders, Indy must choose whether to save Marion or destroy the Arc, and he can’t do it.

In Plan Nine from Outer Space, Paula is attacked by the undead Clay and abducted by the Aliens. Trent and the other men have failed to protect what they most loved.


Break Into Three:  Thanks to a fresh idea or new inspiration, the main character chooses to try again in a new way.   From the two options and two worlds introduced in the second act, thesis and antithesis, we have the possibility of a new synthesis.  The third act begins In Alien when Ripley decides to escape on the shuttlecraft and set the ship to self-destruct.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space the third act begins when the three protagonists decide to follow the strange light and confront the alien craft directly, going towards it instead of running away or refusing to believe their eyes.

Here Plan Nine follows all the classic third act beats found in Save the Cat:
  • Gathering the team: The three men are finally working together.
  • Storm the Castle: The three men enter the Alien craft.
  • High Tower Surprise: The Aliens reveal that it is the humans who are the villains. It is the humans who are developing solarbonite, a substance that would explode "sunlight molecules" and set off a chain reaction that would destroy the entire universe.
  • Dig Down Deep: Seeing the unconscious Paula carried into the craft by the monstrous, undead “Thing,” Trent must do something, or the Aliens will kill them all, turning them into undead creatures for their army.
  • Execution of New Plan: Realizing that guns are useless, Trent attacks Eros with his bare hands and in the ensuing final battle between protagonist and antagonist, the saucers delicate equipment catches fire.
  • Victory: The humans flee the ship, and the saucer rises and explodes.
Final Image: this is the opposite of opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, all characters look up at the saucer in flames, finally knowing the truth. This image, all the characters standing in a row is a identical in composition to the opening image, except that while in the opening, the people looked down at the grave in confusion and grief, the characters now look up with understanding and hope.

Lastly, the narrator Criswell returns to reiterate the theme:  if we deny the truth of flying saucers, looking away in fear, we are doomed, but if we just open our eyes, look up and face the truth, we may be saved.

See how easy it is to fill in the blanks and put a story into perfect screenplay structure?  That's all there is to screenwriting!  That's all you have to do and you too can make your story every bit as good as Plan Nine From Outer Space!  Now go write your fabulous movie idea!


Disclaimer:  This April Fools Day Joke is not meant to disparage the beloved Blake Snyder or his classic book, Save The Cat.  However, please share this with anyone who thinks they know "The Powerful Secrets of Screenplay Structure," or who just take screenwriting books a little too seriously.


Friday, March 21, 2014

My Expertise in Box Office Failure

Quora.com is a website in which people pose questions, both specific and general, and "experts" on the topic provide answers.  After the back-to-back box office failures of both Conan The Barbarian and The Legend of Hercules, I seem to have the dubious distinction as an "expert" on What's It's Like When Your Film Flops at The Box Office.  The Latest question I answered was...

"Screenwriting: How did you get involved with The Legend Of Hercules?
The reviews haven't been kind.  So where did it go wrong?"

I answered this way...

I wrote a draft of Hercules in 2007. In 2013 it was rewritten by no fewer than 6 other writers one after the other, including the director. Having written that first draft and having taken screen credit on the movie, I have to share credit for its failure, but I haven't seen the final film, and I don't feel much personal connection or sense of "authorship" to it one way or the other.

Writing movies like Conan the Barbarian or Hercules is a lesson in deflating my ego as a writer and filmmaker. I take the jobs as any other member of the crew might take a job (grip, camera assistant, sound editor, location scout): in order to work and make money doing what I love to do. However, a franchise writing assignment is not the kind of job in which (at least in my experience) the writer creates wildly new characters, invents worlds, or makes a personal imprint on the final product.

The final shooting script of these sorts of movies (sequels, re-makes, and adaptations) is a product of collaboration between the various writers, the producers, the studio, the director and many other powerful forces, and that the end result tends to be a reflection of the success or failure that collaboration.

In a franchise movie like Chris Nolan's Batman series, that collaboration (a collaboration of over 800 people) worked. In the case of Conan and Hercules, which were both critical and box office flops, that collaboration failed.

To be more specific, in my 2007 script for Hercules, the lead character was an ordinary man and the story was about the real-life figure who inspired the Hercules myth. The movie was intended to have a gritty sort of realism to it. For that reason, although there were nods to mythological characters and events, the story beats were not anything like the "12 labors" of Heracles as found in the myths.  My version of the script actually got positive reviews online (Why Renny Harlin's 'Hercules 3D' Might Actually Be Better Than Brett Ratner's)

However, over time at least six different writers (all talented) re-wrote the script according to different and sometimes conflicting ideas from producers, executives, and the director. Hercules was made mythological again, but all the beats of the real-man premise were kept. A Roman-style gladiator sequence was added and a 300 style visual approach was taken. Dialogue was written and rewritten and pulled in one direction and then another.

Any one of these ideas (Hercules as a real man, Hercules as a slave, Hercules as a demigod) in-and-of themselves aren't bad, and all of the writers involved worked hard with the best of intentions. But the pieces just didn't fit together, and the impression it gave reviewers (who for the most part mocked the film) was that the Hercules myth was just ignored and that the movie barely had a story at all.

The same thing happened on Conan. That time I was the last of a string of writers instead of the first, but the problems of a failed collaboration were the same. A year after the film was released the star, Jason Mamoa, blamed the script (Jason Momoa blames the script for his huge Conan box-office flop). I know he didn't mean to blame me personally for the work I did or to single out any of the other writers involved. But, he was right that the script was dysfunctional: it reflected quite a number of different and conflicting visions of what the movie was supposed to be.

Filmmaking is a collaborative art, but the work of all the various artists involved - including the writer, director, producer, production assistant, and stand-by painter - all have to add up to the illusion that the movie was created with a single vision, or to put it another way: everyone has to be working on the same movie.

So, when I work on Halloween movies and Crow movies and Hercules movies, I embrace the job and give 100%. I commit fully to making the best movie imaginable. However, the form and quality of the final shooting script is often shaped by forces we as writers( and as actors, as directors, as producers, and so on) can't control. So, I try "let go of the results."

Great scripts emerge from a process of revision, reworking and rewriting, but that process - even when everyone working on the film is talented and has the best of intentions - can utterly fail. When a writer becomes involved in any film (as opposed to fiction or poetry where they have complete control) this is a risk s/he has to take.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why not SHOOT that script yourself?

Many fellow filmmakers and students that I work with write scripts that they plan to finance and direct themselves. Digital technology and social media has made it viable for nearly anyone to make a feature film if they have a little money and perseverance, but viability does not guarantee quality, and getting a high quality "micro-budget" film made and seen by audiences may be as difficult, in its own peculiar ways, as getting a film made in Hollywood.

Screenwriters who are wary of having their work butchered by rewrites, or re-imagined by directors (or simply ignored and un-produced by Hollywood), often wonder if making the film themselves is the solution to years of toiling away in frustration. Since I happen to know several veteran filmmakers who are at one stage or another in the production of this kind of project, I plan to publish ongoing conversations, about the joys and pitfalls of their endeavors.

This morning, I had a coffee with Jacques Thelemaque. He has been a filmmaker and an icon in the indie film community for two decades. His short films, including the celebrated short Transaction, have played all the major festivals, including Sundance, and won several international awards. Connection is his second feature film, currently budgeted UNDER half a million dollars.



"CONNECTION" follows the mood-drenched, sometimes subtly comic, journey of a young couple during their first experience at a “lifestyle” (swinger) party.

How is writing a micro-budget movie different  than writing traditional spec script?

Jacques: The main difference is that in writing an indie, micro-budget feature, you MUST write within the bounds of your resources. Meaning, you have to consider, with each scene/location/prop/stunt/etc. how you are going to shoot it and how much it will cost. It sounds restrictive, but it actually forces you
Swingers
to come up with imaginative ways to realize things that money can't simply buy. With a traditional spec script, your imagination is unhindered by such things. The difference between the two kinds of scripts, however, are minimal for me, since even with an unlimited budget, I would be drawn toward telling the same kind of stories, in the same kind of way, that I am doing on a micro-budget: Character-driven pieces set in a compelling dynamic. I make lower budgeted films, not simply because I have to, but because I choose to.

In the script, Benjamin and Melissa Hughes seem to have an ideal relationship on all levels. But a vague need for something “more” coupled with a desire to fully explore their sexuality, compels them to an attend a party, and be introduced to a growing sexual culture, that will amuse, titillate and ultimately challenge them individually…and as a couple.

The "Lifestyle"
How is your story, in structure and content, different from a screenplay inspired by "Save The Cat?"

Jacques: The main difference is that in my story, people are too busy having sex (or trying to) to even notice the cat. I actually am not too familiar with the whole "Save The Cat" thing and not very motivated to understand it too deeply. My loose understanding is that a "Save The Cat" screenplay follows all the traditional Hollywood story-telling paradigms, including having the main character "Save The Cat" early on to build audience sympathy for them. Real people are more complex than any standard paradigms and that I'm vastly more interested in exploring that complexity than smoothing it out for entertainment value. My story doesn't answer questions. It asks them and leaves the audience to consider them.

How do your plans as director inform your choices in the writing process?

Jacques: I actually tend to try to separate the two. Of course, I can't help but visualize the film and think about directorial issues while I'm writing, but I try not to let that hinder me in any significant way. I simply focus on what the characters and circumstances are telling me as I make creative choices. Is there tension? Is it compelling? Is it authentic? Is it working on multiple levels? These are my four main general concerns while I'm writing. Then, when I direct, I "bury" the writer. The script becomes nothing more than a blueprint that I am free to re-interpret based on visual style, pacing, location, casting, quality of performance and many other real-world factors once we are actually committing it to film (or HD video, as is usually the case these days).

Why did you decide to fund this film through kickstarter and other fundraising campaigns rather than through a traditional production company or studio?

Jacques: Two reasons. Well, three actually. The first is that the budget I saw for this film was in that zone between self-financing (or raising money just from people you know) and traditional production company or studio financing. I couldn't have done the film the way I want to do it on a smaller budget. Of course, I could've gone the other direction and simply done the film for a larger budget, but that leads to the second reason I didn't go the traditional route: the film itself. The subject matter is challenging and I want to explore it in a challenging way. It will not be typical Hollywood fare and I don't have faith that traditional funding entities are interested in funding anything that doesn't have commercial appeal and/or serious star power. The third reason is that I don't know many people in the traditional production company or studio world, nor do I have much interest in developing those contacts. For the most part, I'm not at all a fan of the films they often choose to do.


How can people follow the making of this film, either as fans and fellow filmmakers who may involved in the same process?

Given the ubiquity of social media, there are numerous ways to "connect" with CONNECTION. Here are the ones we have thus far:

Our Crowd Funder: http://filmmakersalliance.org/CONNECTION_Fundraiser.html
Our website: http://connection-thefilm.com/
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/CONNECTION_film
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ConnectionTheFilm
On YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/ConnectionTheFilm
On Tumblr: http://connection-thefilm.tumblr.com
On Instagram: http://instagram.com/connectionthefilm

WRITER/DIRECTOR/PRODUCER Jacques Thelemaque co-founded Filmmakers Alliance in 1993, and in 2004, FA Productions, of which he is co-president. He was also the former Chief Community Officer at Withoutabox.com. His films include “My Last Day On Earth”, “Infidelity In Equal Parts”, “Egg”, and "Transaction" which played at the Sundance Film Festival, and won the Grand Prix du Jury Award in the Labo Competition at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. He wrote, directed and produced the feature film “The Dogwalker”. He also produced 5 other feature films including “The Revenant” (Best Narrative Feature, CineVegas 2009).

Saturday, February 22, 2014

3rd Page Scripts and Films

I've recently become involved with a group of writers who write 3 page scripts and then offer them for free under the creative commons license.  Check out their website at 3rdpage.com.

I've written my first 3 page script which you can read here: CUTTERS

The 3rd Page founders describe their philosophy this way:

3rd Page is a collective of writers and filmmakers who like to make stuff. We started as an informal writing group creating “3-pagers,” our term for three-page screenplays that are self-contained (i.e. they have a beginning, a middle and an end). To spur our respective imaginations, we come up with weekly writing prompts consisting of three (often divergent) elements, for instance: an animal. a religious figure. a distant sound.

We interpret these elements in any way we wish, with one simple guideline: the resulting screenplays must be easily producible with micro to zero budgets. We try to set our screenplays in accessible locations with as few spectacular car chases and fire breathing demon spawns as possible. This makes it easier for us — and for you — to make our 3-pagers into actual movies.

And that’s the whole point of 3rd page: we encourage anyone, anywhere, to use our screenplays or finished films for whatever purposes they wish, as long as they adhere to theCreative Commons license agreement [read more]. So please, go ahead: shoot these screenplays. Add to them. Remix them. Submit your own for publication on our site. Let’s make stuff.


We don’t have a manifesto. But if we did, it might contain these 3 principles:


#1: Shared culture



We embrace the idea that cultural works should be shared, freely and openly. We think this philosophy contributes to a creative environment that cultivates the unconstrained, the unusual and the unexpected. That’s why we’re huge proponents of Creative Commons [more info]. Every piece of writing on our site is freely available for your creative interpretation.

2: Micro Cinema

Why 3 pages? It may be an arbitrary limit, but we know from experience that smaller-scale projects spur experimentation. Each week we challenge each other to tell a complete “micro” story at exactly three pages in length. As writers, we find these parameters to be both frustrating and freeing. In any case, we believe “micro” is the ideal length for digital producers and online audiences alike — easily producible and consumable.

#3: Take risks

We strive to challenge ourselves (and our audiences) with writing that stretches the boundaries of conventional style, form and content.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writing The Feature Script: Week Three - The Treatment

Over the course of 15 weeks I will be teaching "Writing The Feature Script" at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Week by week I will be writing blog articles about each topic that we discuss in class.  However, because I spent two weeks in Calgary (working an MTV movie, The Dorm), I've had to take a hiatus from writing the blog.  Don't worry, I'm back!

This is a synopsis of Week Three.  You can read about our previous classes here:

Writing The Feature Script: Week One - OVERVIEW
Writing The Feature Script: Week Two -Finding the Story

So if you skim through this article you'll see that I've attached examples of beat sheets and treatments that I've written over the years.  They are all flawed, first-stab-in-the-dark attempts to realize a particular story.  Most are from less-than-prestigious projects that were none-the-less difficult to figure out.  I share them with you specifically because their format and approach serves a particular purpose.  Their ragged edges just underscore that screenwriting is a process of discovery, and you will rarely find everything you are looking for in the first pass.

In other words, if the first attempt at your treatment seems convoluted and hopeless, don't worry; everybody's does, to one degree or another.  The only "perfect treatments" are written about classic movies AFTER they have  been completed - AFTER a long process of revision in which the structure emerged.

Did you know that the first draft of Annie Hall was a drama centered on a murder mystery with a comic and romantic subplot?  Did you know that the shooting script for Punch Drunk Love, the love interest Lena was an Alien?  (I know this from having talked to set dressers who worked on the film.)

In fact, before you set out to write your beat sheet, consider this: one of the most "perfect" screenplays ever written is Chinatown. It has been analyzed thousands and thousands of times in screenwriting classes and textbooks. However, the first first draft of Chinatown was 178 pages long; screenwriter Robert Towne took 9 months to finish it saying that "...the writing of it was just tough: writing scenario, after scenario, after scenario was just so complicated that after a certain point, I thought I’d never get through it." Producer Robert Evans called the first draft brilliant but incomprehensible, and even Towne himself admitted that if the first draft had been shot, "it would have been a mess."  That "perfect beat sheet" that appears in screenplay books only emerged after a long process of restructuring, revision and clarification.  (See LA Times Article on the director/writer/producer collaboration in Chinatown.)

Then Why Write a Treatment?

A treatment is a tool for communication. There is no set format.  For me, the form is determined by what the treatment is supposed to communicate, and what kind of response the writer hopes to get from those who read it.  Sometimes I want feedback and notes, sometimes I just want a "yes" from someone so that I can start writing the script, and sometimes I just want to write it for myself, to try to make sense of my convoluted ideas.

The content of a treatment is basically the writer's first attempt to pin down the STORY STRUCTURE and identify key moments in the story such as the POINT OF ATTACK, the MIDPOINT, and 2ND ACT CULMINATION, using templates like Frank Daniel's SEQUENCE APPROACH.

(Other templates include Blake Snyder's BEAT SHEET and The Hero's Journey)

The important thing to remember here is that the story will change radically as the treatment is revised and multiple drafts of the script are written.  Almost all treatments have  problems, and the purpose of the treatment is to take an initial a crack at solving them.  The most common story problems at this point are.

1. Passivity. Generally speaking, we don't want a list of things that happen to the characters.  The story should be driven by characters DECISIONS and ACTIONS in pursuit of a goal.

2. Monotony. We want to avoid monotony by making sure the story is not just a list of disconnected events: and then this happens, and then this happens, and then this..." Instead, events should be linked in a series of BUT, THEREFORE (because of that), and MEANWHILE (for subplots.)  Storytellers as diverse as as Trey Parker (see Six Days To Air), Randy Olsen (documentary filmmaker, author of Connection), and Frank Daniel himself have advocated going through one's story and replacing every AND with a BUT or THEREFORE.

In a lecture to students at AFI, Frank Daniel said, "If you don't have this 'but' and 'therefore' connection between the parts, the story becomes linear, monotonous, just narrative. Diaries and chronicles are written that way, but not scripts. There is no way of heightening the conflict and continuing the suspense in such a pattern."

In order for the story to have tension and conflict, the protagonist must face an escalating series of obstacles, and each roadblock or complication that s/he faces must come as a result of the way s/he faced the previous obstacle.  In the Godfather, Michael doesn't want to be a man like his father, BUT his father is shot, THEREFORE, Michael has kill the man who did it.  THEREFORE, a mob war starts. THEREFORE, Michael has to run away to Sicily where he starts a new life, BUT Michael's brother Sonny is shot... and so on, and so on...

Index Cards and Beat Sheets

A true BEAT SHEET is basically a bullet point list (or sometimes a numbered list) of all the major scenes and story beats in a movie (usually between 60 to 90 beats.)  Because beat sheets are so skeletal and boring to read, they are usually only used by the writers themselves, to hash things out.  They are usually shown only to collaborators who know the story intimately (a writing partner, a collaborative director, a professor.)

Here is a beat sheet for Toy Story 3, that identifies the Save The Cat structure in about 75 beats/bullet points.  TOY STORY BEAT SHEET.

Notice how the story beats follow cause and effect, with BUT and THEREFORE, and notice how each beat can be distilled in reference to characters ACTIONS and DECISIONS.

But, again, remember that this is an ANALYSIS of a finished movie.  There are hundreds of screenwriting books with analyses of thousands of famous films, all fitting them into one theory of structure or another.  But analyzing a movie at the end of a creative process is not the same as writing a story on the blank page. 

Your beat sheet will never look like the post-facto analysis of a "perfect" finished film.  If it does, your doing it wrong.  Story structure emerges from a process that should highlight intuition and inspiration.  If you have the SAVE THE CAT STRUCTURE pinned to your computer while forming the story, or you are literally filling in blanks on a template sheet, you are driving while looking at your GPS map instead of the road.

STORY STRUCTURE and BEAT SHEETS are maps, not the territory itself.  Your story, and its beats, will emerge from a process of discovery, continual retelling and revision.

The point of this blog article is to give you an idea of what real "first draft" treatments look like, with all their warts and cellulite, so that you don't expect your own to be "perfect" (like the Toy Story 3 beat sheet) the first time around. 

Think of you first beat sheet or treatment as an extremely plastic and protean document.  You are liable to change it over and over again, as you work on on your story.  For that reason, rather than write my story beats down on paper, I tend to put them on INDEX CARDS.  

Index cards lend themselves to shifting around, crumpling up, and tagging with random post-its.  Sometimes a single card turns into an entire sequence.  Sometimes a moment that you thought was the END OF THE FIRST ACT, turns out to be a POINT OF ATTACK.  Sometimes whole subplots appear and disappear like phantoms.  Cards can be color coded to track subplots, characters, and tension.  You can stand back and get a sense of your movie a whole.

The idea is not to ask yourself  "What is my midpoint?" or "What's my 'Hightower Surprise.'"  You just start assembling the ideas you have for character actions and their consequences, adding evocative images and set pieces that excite you, seeing where those imaginative elements might fit in an overall structure, and looking for how those points might be sharpened and improved.  Play with those beats.  Move them around. Create them and throw them away.  The structure, in all it's monomythical glory, will emerge.

Three Page Treatment

Often I write 3-5 page treatments.  These are written in prose form and usually contain a logline, a character list, and a short synopsis of the story.   I write these when I have a story idea that I'm not yet ready to write as a screenplay, but that I may want to show to a producer, executive or agent in order to get them interested in the idea (i.e. I just want them to say "yes.")  These treatments need to be short and easy-to-read, so that a non-writer can make the simple judgement, "Is this a good idea for a movie?"

Unlike a beat sheet, which I write for myself in order to expose story flaws and to inspire further re-thinking and rewriting, this short treatment is meant to "sell" the idea, so I try to make the story seem as airtight and and compelling as possible (even though it's not, and I know that the actual screenwriting process will radically change it.)  It's okay to write these treatment with a little flourish if that helps define the movie.

Here's a story idea I showed around many years ago...
The answer on Body Electric, for one reason or another, was "No, I don't see it as a movie." Perhaps you don't either.  But that's the point.  The format of this kind of treatment is written for a clear yes or no.

I might also write a three page treatment when I have been hired on a project, but a powerful producer or director must "sign off" on a synopsis before I go to script.  These "higher ups" rarely have much spare time or attention, so the goal of the treatment is to just summarize what I plan to write in a simple and easy-to-read way.  (Again, I'm hoping to get a "yes") Here is the synopsis I wrote for Rambo: Last Stand.
When I wrote the Rambo script (which has since been discarded by the producers and Mr. Stallone) much of the story changed.  If I re-wrote the synopsis based on that screenplay, it would look much different.  If the script went through the usual rounds of rewrites, the story synopsis would look even MORE different.  And, if the movie were ever made (but there are no plans to make it) the story synopsis would have changed again.

In general, I don't write treatments in simple straightforward prose form that are longer than five pages.  Long treatments read like extremely pedestrian short stories, and they are rarely very entertaining.  However, a some sort of longer format is often necessary...

The Extended Treatment

The extended treatment is a kind of hybrid of the beat sheet and a traditional treatment.  On the one hand, it has bullet points and bold simple sentences describing all the main beats of the story, like a beat sheet.  But these beats are fleshed out in a way that expands on characterization, setting and other important details, like a prose treatment. The format is easy to read, but it is also easy to skim.

The point of the extended treatment is to get NOTES and FEEDBACK.  Those who read it are likely to be producers, executives, agents, directors, fellow writers in writing groups and others who are collaborating closely in the writing process.  The bullet points allow the readers to skim for an overview of structure, but also allow them to read closely and explore the finer details.  

I write these treatments to the best of my ability, but I allow the warts and cellulite to show so that others can give me notes, ideas, and suggestions for improvement.  Again, the point is not to write it perfectly.  The point is to write it well enough so that it's possible to gather feedback.

The first draft is essentially a rewrite of the treatment, and just another cycle in an ongoing  REWRITE PROCESS.  Here's an example of a treatment I wrote before embarking on a first draft:
Most of my students wrote treatments in this format, and so they were able to get rounds of very specific and cogent feedback from the 10 other screenwriters in the class.

The Leave Behind

Often writers have to "pitch for writing assignments."  A production company or studio has a general idea of a movie they want to make, such as a sequel to Turistas or The Haunting in Connecticut, and a series of writers come in with their "take" on the material.

Sometimes when I pitch an idea for a sequel, remake or adaptation, I give the executives listening to the pitch a "leave behind" which is a short synopsis of my "take."  The point of this document is to remind them of the story I've pitched so that they can discuss it later, and to provide extra details, like production illustrations (which I draw myself.)

Here is a treatment I wrote to try to land the job to write Turistas 2.  Ultimately, no writer was hired and the movie was never made. (probably for the best, no?)
Here is the treatment I wrote for The Haunting In New York. Notice how flashy I get with colors and pictures to try to convince the readers to give me the job.  As it turned out,  I got it, and I wrote the screenplay, but because The Haunting in Georgia did poorly at the box office, the series was abandoned and my script was never shot.
If you bother reading any of these documents, you'll know doubt be able to find all sorts of structural weakness, plot holes, and dumb ideas.  Again, other than just sharing the format, this is precisely why I'm showing them to you.

Treatments are your first draft of your first draft.  If you are engaging in the creative process in a dynamic and authentic way, your treatment will shimmer with inspiration and at the same time reveal unanticipated and daunting story problems.  And, that's right where you want to be!

If you write the "perfect treatment" according to SAVE THE CAT, THE SEQUENCE APPROACH, or the HERO'S JOURNEY, it is likely only "perfect" because you have filled in the blanks with hackneyed, easy, inauthentic, or implausible choices.  You can do better.  

Now get writing... and when you are finished with the treatment, show it to as many people as you can and find out just what those challenges are.