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Monday, April 18, 2016

Can Video Games Create Empathy?


An Intro To Narrative Video Games 
Or
"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:

                          YES, MOST GAMES ARE TERRIBLE AT STORYTELLING

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?

                                                               EMPATHY

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 Screencraft.org.
“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.” 
Enkidu

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


Levin


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!

THE PUFFY FACE OF EVIL!
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.

BE DEPRESSED! BE SAD! BE VERY VERY SAD!
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.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What is the 2nd Act?



Hello everyone... Levin here,

Let's tackle this question of "What is the Second Act?"

In the simplest of terms, it's the middle of your story. It's also, usually, the most complicated, excruciating part of a screenplay. You usually know how your story begins when you start writing. You probably have some semblance of an idea as to how it's going to end. But the middle part where you know "a lot of things happen!" but you don't know what or how exactly... That's the abyss, my friends.

Welcome to the Second Act! Please enjoy your stay through the next 5 rewrites!
So, how do you get through this abyss with minimal damage to your sanity? Well, that's where some structure and those pesky screenwriting terms might come in handy.

Main Tension

What is your protagonist trying to do?

If this question is clear -- "Liam Neeson wants to kill the motherfuckers who kidnapped his daughter and get her back, will he able to?" or "Charlie Kaufman wants to adapt this damn book, will he be able to?" -- then chances are you're on the right path. In the maze that is the Second Act, a clear want is the brightest beacon that will guide you.

In very simple terms, the Second Act is a series of victories and defeats as your protagonist either gets closer or further away from his/her goal. He or she can't always win, because this would be boring. He or she can't always lose, because that would be boring too. Make sure that every scene you write advances towards either a Win or a Loss. This way, you can keep the momentum going.

Let's say you're writing a movie about a young girl who is obsessed with Penguins. She runs away from home and travels to Antarctica where she'll steal her very own Pet Penguin!

So, maybe, in one sequence, she runs into the antagonist (a Polar Bear who uses the Penguins in Antarctica as slave labor to catch fish for him!) and gets her ass kicked. Maybe, in another sequence, she steals a Penguin only to find out it was a decoy Husky put there by the evil Polar Bear.

Meet the Evil Polar Bear. His name is... DINGUS!
And then there are little victories: Our protagonist infiltrates Dingus' evil fortress and has a meet cute with the Penguin she wants to take home! She enlists the help of the Eskimo's living nearby and want to take down Dingus as much as she wants to!

Alternating between victories and defeats is the key to a dynamic second act!

Important structural points of your second act are the Mid Point and the End of the Second Act.

So go ahead and dive into the abyss, my friends! Keep it simple and dynamic and you might have a great Second Act by the end of your journey!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What is the 1st Act?

Hello everyone,

Let's make a quick analysis of the "First Act" and its components. The First Act is composed of the two opening Sequences of your movie. Usually, the First Sequence (the first 12-15 minutes of your script) sets up the the character and the Status Quo. If your script was a fairy-tale, the first sequence would be the "Once upon a time, there was a Hermit who washed his laundry in a river".

Then comes the Point of Attack. This is the "But one day, a GIANT SHARK emerged from the river and prevented the Hermit from washing his laundry!" This is the wrench that's thrown into the machinery, the problem that makes the movie change gears!

The Second Sequence is usually the protagonist grappling with the problem. For example, in our imaginary movie, this is the sequence where The Hermit tries to find different rivers to do his laundry (there are no other rivers!) or calls the cops (the cops laugh at him!) or simply tries to live in his filthy clothes (he can't, his imaginary friend complains about his smell and kicks him out of the house!) or tries to bait the Great Shark to the different part of the river with an otter he found downstream. (The Great Shark is displeased by the taste of the otter! Otter, it turns out, is an acquired taste!)

"The Studio vetoed the scene where the Shark eats the Otter. Apparently Otters are just too cute to be eaten on screen!"
Then comes the End of the First Act. This is a major turning point that launches your movie in a new direction. This is usually a moment of "This is what my movie is!"

Maybe The Hermit wages war against The Great Shark after The Great Shark eats the Hermit's Hut! Your movie is a battle for survival! It's a heart pumping thriller about the Man and the Beast because this little mountain creek is too small for both of them!

Or The Great Shark eats The Hermit's Hut and the rest of your movie is a low-key road movie through the woods, examining the relationship between The Hermit and his imaginary friend Mr. Goldfarb who has an insatiable craving for Oreos! (Mr. Goldfarb and his obsession with Oreos symbolizes The Hermit's desire to go back to living in civilized society.)

Or this is where The Hermit discovers The Great Shark can talk! It's a comedy in the tone of E.T. where the two friends seize each other up and establish a symbiotic relationship! (Watch out for the adorable scene where The Hermit not only gets to wash his laundry again, but he also washes the fins of the Great Shark!)


The Great Shark's name is Mr. Fizzles!
Either way, there needs to be a feeling of "Alright, off we go!" moment at the end of your first act. An explosive launch, a propulsion of momentum! Status-Quo should shift in a real way, your protagonist should commit to a road that s/he can't return from.

For example, there should be no more question of "Oh, The Hermit can just go back to his house..." NO! THINGS HAVE CHANGED FOREVER FOR THE HERMIT! Nothing will ever be the same! Either he has no Hut anymore to go back to or he just discovered a talking fish! Again: Nothing will ever be the same!

And, finally, let's have a quick talk about the Opening Image. This is an underrated tool when it comes to finding out what your movie is supposed to be, especially if you're doing a rewrite. This opening image should, ideally, distill the theme/tone of your movie into a perfect scene.

For example, is your movie a cynical, global biting satire about the gun trade around the world? Why not start it with a montage where we track a single bullet from its inception in an industrial factory in the West to its eventual destination: the head of an African Child Soldier. See it here.

Or your opening could be more dialogue driven. Maybe you're writing a low-key romantic comedy and your main character is a neurotic comedian obsessing over his mortality. Then, maybe, you can have him speak right to the camera and tell a joke that completely captures who he is. See it here.

While I'm at it, here is what I think is a bad example of an opening scene. Here is the opening minute or so of Interstellar. It establishes the world through narrative exposition (a device that will not be used consistently through the movie), introduces Cooper through a weird dream sequence where Cooper's plane is crashing (which makes it seem like the movie is going to be about Cooper dealing with his anxieties of flying or something). Of course it's beautiful as fuck because it's Christopher Nolan we're talking about here, but it's a rather lazy opening to what the movie is eventually about.

We told you never to badmouth Nolan ever again! NOW, PREPARE TO DIE!
Alright, well, that's it from me folks. Hope you've picked up a thing or two and somewhat smiled.

Footnote: Some people have commented that Sharks do not live in rivers. To that, I say, here is a wikipedia entry that might tickle your fancy

Rewrite: Revisit The Story


This is a summary of my lecture notes for WEEK 2 of Rewriting The Feature Script, which I teach at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Before reading it, you may want to check out the summary for Week 1, Rewrite: How To Begin.

After rereading your first draft and gathering lots and lots of feedback, its time to sort, collate and summarize all these notes. I usually assign my students this Summary of Notes.

Now it is essential to step back and consider your STORY. 

You have been so embroiled in SCENES and DIALOGUE, so distracted by complex questions of CHARACTERIZATION and THEME, that you likely have lost track of what your story is about in the first place. Your story may have changed over the course of writing the first draft. If you are like me, you probably have become overwhelmed by how complicated your story has become.

It's as if you were designing a swiss watch, and you've gotten so focused on the springs and gears, you can't remember how many hours there are in a day. So let's get back to basics.

The Story

Here is the simplest definition of a story that I have encountered:

A story is about someone who wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it.

In class, we discuss students' stories in terms of each piece of this definition. "A story is..."

"About someone..."  Whose story is it?  Through whose eyes, and more importantly through whose emotions do we experience the story? Who takes the actions that drive the story forward? Who changes as a result? How does that character's viewpoint allow the story to be told in a unique way?

Sometimes you write a first draft thinking its a story about one particular character, but discover that a different character is actually the one taking action, making decisions, and changing as a result. The feedback on your script might reveal that a different character is the one the audience actually cares about and identifies with. Take this feedback seriously.

"...who wants something..."  What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not the protagonist gets s/he wants is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers. This WANT has to be very specific and concrete, so that the audience understands what is driving the plot forward.

Often in first drafts the protagonist is passive. Circumstances don't force him or her to take action towards some sort of specific and concrete goal. Stuff happens, but all the tears, twists and tornadoes are not married to any clear objective, and so the audience loses interest.

"...very badly..." Why does s/he want it so much?  What's going to happen if he/she DOESN'T get it?  This defines the STAKES of your story.

Often in first drafts, the story lacks tension because if the protagonist doesn't get what they want, its not clear that it would be all that bad. Not Getting what they want should be an emotionally devastating outcome for our hero. It should be, figuratively or literally, a matter of life and death.

"...but is having trouble getting it."  What are the obstacles? Who is the antagonist, or what are the antagonistic forces that is keeping the protagonist from getting what s/he/they want?

Often in first drafts, things are too easy for the protagonist. Lucky coincidences help them along. Antagonists don't put up much of a fight. Problems are solved without much trouble. A former acting/directing coach at USC, Nina Foch, had sharp advice for writers on how to handle their protagonists. "Make Them Suffer!"

Telling the Story

Once, these basic (but difficult!) questions are answered, we can take a shot at telling the story.  Brian McDonald, in both his blog and book Invisible Ink, claims that all effective stories have the basic structure of a fairy tale:

Once upon a time_____________
And every day________________
Until one day_________________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
Until finally__________________
And ever since that day_______

Does a fairy tale template seem too simplistic for your grown-up, complex story?  It's not.  Even three hour epics like The Godfather can be told this way.

1. Once upon a time there was a Godfather who ran a family business.
2. And every day the Godfather did favors and got favors in return.
3. Until one day, the Godfather did not grant a favor, and the snubbed rival tried to kill him.
4. And because of this the Godfather's sons took over the family business: Sonny started a war and Michael killed the rival.
5. And because of this Michael was exiled and Sonny was murdered in the war.
6. And because of this The Godfather made peace.
7. And because of this Micheal returned to take his father’s place, but the family was weakened by the Godfather’s sickness and eventual death.
8. Until finally the rival family bosses turned against Michael, and so Michael killed each and every one.
9. And ever since that day Michael was the new Godfather.

What we want to avoid when getting a general idea of our story is a series of disconnected events. "And then this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens." Telling a story as fairy tale beats forces the writer to think of the narrative as a chain of cause-and-effect driven by the choices of the protagonist. All the ANDs get replaced by BUT and BECAUSE OF THIS.

Take a shot at telling your story in this simple way, using these simple story definitions. The parts of the story that you find difficult to summarize often defines the biggest problems in your script that you will tackle in your 2nd draft.

(Tune in next week, when we discuss the next step in a rewrite, RE-OUTLINING your script)