Friday, December 31, 2010

Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #1: The Fighter

The Story: The true story of welterweight boxer Mickey Ward from Lowell, Massachusetts, who foolishly puts his career in the hands of his crackhead older brother and short-sighted mother. Only when the brother goes to prison does Mickey, with the encouragement of a tough new girlfriend, decide to finally get serious about his career. But just when he gets his shot at the big time, his brother gets out and insists on retaking control.

Why This One: Everyone who’s seen this on has loved it, and I’m no exception. David O. Russell finally delivers on his early promise and then some, Bale does what he does best, Adams is shockingly good playing totally against type (she gets to throw some punches herself!), and Wahlberg quietly reminds us how great he can be in the hands of a great director.

Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Begin at the Beginning, End at the End: Ward is famous today for the three knock-down, drag-out title fights he fought against Arturo Gatti. But you won’t see those here. The writers took a good look at his life, decided that the best story was Ward’s struggle with his own family, and then ruthlessly pared that story down to its essence. We begin when Ward finally becomes aware of that problem and we end when that problem is ultimately resolved. The Gatti fights came about because Ward had solved his problems outside the ring, so they have no place here.
  2. Throw Everything Into Relief: Crack addiction! Police brutality! Bloodsport! This could have been a very turgid drama. Instead, against all odds, it’s absolutely hilarious at least half the time. These people don’t know they’re in a drama. And it’s only because of the comedy that the drama works. We would give up on these people ten minutes in if they weren’t so endearingly goofy.
  3. Roll The Rock Uphill As Long As Possible: How many chances do the mother and brother get to ruin everything before they finally get it right? We get to the point where they’ve totally rubbed us raw. The hair goes up on the back of our neck whenever they enter the room. Then they finally surprise us. That’s how to create expectations before you defy them at the last possible minute.
  4. Be An All-Loving Creator: We start off pitying these fools for giving the crackhead in the family too many chances, but soon we start loving him too and we’re right there with them rooting for him, against our own instincts. The movie humbles us with a simple Christian moral: Never give up on anyone, no matter what.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #2: The Black Swan


The Story: A high-strung ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) gets the role of a lifetime, the lead in Swan Lake, on one condition: she still has to convince her abusive director that she can play the darkly sexual black swan as well as the delicately asexual white swan. Having already pushed herself beyond human endurance to get to this position, she inevitably snaps under the newfound pressure and begins to lose sight of the line between reality and madness. Does her newfound rival within the company (Mila Kunis) actually exist or is she just Portman’s imaginary dark doppelganger --or is she a little bit of both?

Why This One: I don’t have to be so defensive about this one, since it’s been widely acclaimed. It’s got a genius performance by Portman that’s sure to win an Oscar and it also catapults Kunis into the ranks of serious actresses. Aronofsky sees this as a direct follow-up to The Wrestler, one of the best films of last year, and he finds several sly parallels between the two worlds, even though one setting is the snootiest of the high brow, and the other is the lowliest of the low brow: in both cases, the performers are asked to brutalize their bodies beyond reason but pretend that all they’re doing is putting on a show. In both cases, there is no good future for those that the profession has used up and spit out. And in both cases, the hero Aronofsky chooses is determined to leave the stage on their own terms, no matter what the consequences.  

Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Never Apologize: Early on, Portman accidentally insults a fellow dancer, prematurely congratulating her on getting the role that Portman has actually won for herself. It looks like she did it on purpose to rub it in, even though it’s just an honest mistake. But the movie doesn’t give Portman the chance to apologize. In fact, we never see the ousted dancer again. Apology scenes are death. They reverse the momentum. Maybe Portman’s character did apologize, offscreen, but onscreen the director has a job to do, and that requires him to constantly tighten the screws.
  2. Depth is Found in Holes: In fact, like Portman’s character, the viewer often has the unnerving feeling that we’re having black-outs. We’re never quite sure how the previous scene’s conflict got resolved or if it did. We’re being jerked forward through the story on a leash, without time to make sense of our surroundings. And we love it.
  3. Drama Is How It Is, Genre Is How It Feels, but if you’re really good, you can do both at the same time. So is this a straight drama, or a psychological thriller, or a supernatural horror movie, or what? Aronofsky pulls off the remarkable feat of being all things to all people. The viewer can easily choose to reject the supernatural element entirely, interpreting those elements as merely visualizations of what the experience feels like to Portman. But horror fans who accept what they see will also be satisfied. This is super-advanced filmmaking, since it allows us to disbelieve what we see and still get caught up in the story. Don’t try this at home! Only geniuses can pull this kind of stuff off.
  4. Sympathetic Doesn’t Have To Mean Likable: The standard Hollywood way of making this movie would be to start off with Portman as a sweet young girl whose life is gradually ruined by this horrible experience, but no, Aronofsky and Portman made the startling and daring choice to have her character be pretty far out to sea right from the beginning, already too far gone to save. This experience is merely the last chink that shatters an already fractured window. This isn’t a journey from A to Z, it’s a journey from Y to Z, and that’s why she’ll win the Oscar. Because she has less ground to cover, she’s able to take the time to break our hearts with every minutely observed detail of this final battle. She’s not an everywoman, she’s a specific woman, suffering through a crisis that is unique to her own psychology.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #3: Unstoppable


The Story: An old-hand railroad engineer (Denzel Washington) has to train in a new kid (Chris Pine), and hide his resentment that the company is forcing the older, better-paid guys out in favor of cheaper, inexperienced, by-the-book new guys. During their training session, a series of freak accidents results in an unmanned train plowing towards them at full stream. Once they get out of the way, they realize that they have a risky chance to chase after it and stop it themselves before it derails in the middle of a large city --if they can learn to trust each other along the way.

Why This One: I saw the trailer and rolled my eyes, but I turned to Geoff and said, “you know, forty years ago, that story could have been the basis for a good movie.” Then it came out and unexpectedly got great reviews so I tentatively decided to give it a shot. It blew me away! Many years previous, Denzel and director Tony Scott had made one of my favorite all-time thrillers, Crimson Tide, but more recently they had turned in a long series or turds, the most atrocious of which was their spastic remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. This was another train movie which mainly consisted of Denzel talking on the radio, so there was no reason to expect this one to be any better, but I guess that everybody just decided to care this time. And Chris Pine shows that the charisma he brought to Star Trek was no fluke. This guy could turn out to be the real deal.

Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Make It Wrong: Like yesterday’s movie, this one was also unashamed to hammer its theme home. Again and again, in situations of escalating importance, Denzel’s hands-on experience proves to be superior to the newbie’s classroom knowledge, maximizing tension between them, honing the characters into sharp points, and demonstrating, rather than merely stating, the theme. By the time the out-of-control train is finally barreling towards them, nobody needs to point out that it’s a metaphor for the economic disaster barreling down on all of us due to America’s devaluation of hands-on work, we feel it.
  2. Know What They Do All Day: Do you have any idea what the work is like in a modern railyard? Neither do I. But these writers sure convince us that they know it inside and out. Half of the dialogue is workplace-jargon that’s totally meaningless to us out in the audience, but because we trust that it all feels very real, then we have no trouble connecting to how much they care about what’s going on.
  3. SPOILER: This movie has an absolutely wonderful Wrong Person to Pick On Moment: Denzel’s boss doesn’t trust him to pull off this risky maneuver and forbids him to try it. Denzel, knowing the boss’s alternate plan won’t work, says that he’s going to do it anyway. The boss threatens to fire him if he tries it. Denzel then reveals the secret that he’s been keeping from us and Pine for the whole movie. “You’re too late, boss. I got my 90-day notice 72 days ago.” That shuts everybody up quick. What a wonderfully ironic source of power for him to tap into!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #4: Date Night


The Story: A boring New Jersey married couple decide to head across the river to big bad Manhattan for a “date night”. When they get denied a table at a hip restaurant, they claim another couple’s reservation, but it turns out the people whose names they borrowed are wanted dead by the cops, the mob, and half of New York. To survive the night, they have to bluff their way out of several hairy situations and ultimately expose a huge conspiracy.

Why This One: This movie got pretty good reviews, but I haven’t seen it on any other year-end best lists. Why did I like it more than most others did? Partly because this was the only movie I enjoyed in the theater for the entire first two-thirds of the year, and for that I’m still grateful. What I admired most about was its elegant structure, which helped me look past its sometimes-clunky execution. Of course, a big part of the appeal for me was just old-fashioned star power. I already adored Fey and Carrell going in, so all they had to do was deliver on those good feelings, which they did in spades. These are simply two extremely talented and likable comics.
The Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Every scene does more than one thing, on more than one level. The cleverly put-together story allows every scene to be a plot-scene and a character-scene and a theme-scene, so the movie rarely has to stop to change gears or shift in tone. In order to save their lives, this couple must unravel a mystery, but the only way to do that is to adopt new identities that break them out of their ennui and force them to inadvertently reveal long-held secrets to each other. Also, every step of the way, they end up confronting other bizarre couples who are mixed up in this, each one of whom is an extreme example of either what they wish they were or what they’re afraid they’ll become.
  2. Thrillers are nutty, but a well-written comic-thriller is one that hides its mechanics smoothly. The audience is watching a story about a boring couple who are forced to confront their stagnation through an outlandish adventure in the big city. What the audience doesn’t see is the conniptions the writers go through trying to keep the couple from just leaving town and letting someone else sort it out. The screenwriters find lots of elegant ways to preclude that possibility. A big part of that is to make sure that they can’t trust the cops, so that the ball always stays in their court.
  3. And of course, if the cops are in on the crime, then you don’t have to contrive to break any cell phones, because a cell phone wouldn’t solve the problem anyway. These two unlikely heroes are the only ones who can solve this problem, right up until the very end.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #5: True Grit



Hey gang, I survived the blizzard and I’m back! (Ours was one of the last cars allowed over the George Washington Bridge before they shut it down, then we stayed up until 4am digging out a parking space and removing the 4 feet of snow that blocked our front door). Let’s get back to it...

So we’ve almost reached the new year which will be the one-year anniversary for this blog. I used this year to rewatch a lot of my favorite movies from the past and think about storytelling rules. One thing I haven’t done is watch a lot of new movies or talk about them on the blog, but this week, we’ll break format a little bit.... Most years, I watch a lot of artsy-fartsy independent and foreign films and make a year-end list of movies that nobody’s heard of. This year, since I was trying to train myself to write something I could sell, I watched a lot of Hollywood movies, where I sought to test my newfound ideas about popular storytelling. So let’s end the year by counting down my personal top five Hollywood movies of the year and how they reflect some of the ideas I’ve been tossing around.
#5 Favorite Movie of the Year: True Grit

The Story: A strangely articulate and hardheaded fourteen year old girl comes to town to hire a federal marshall to help her track and kill the man who killed her father. She hires a fat, one-eyed monstrosity named Rooster Cogburn. They come to respect each other over the course of their quest.
Why This One: I saw this one over Christmas and it knocked Toy Story 3 out of the #5 slot. The Coen Brothers, who have just about become the grandest grand old men of American Cinema, indulge themselves in a remake, sticking truer (from what I hear) to the text of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel than the 1969 movie version, which won John Wayne his only Oscar. They more than justify their choice by retelling this simple story beautifully, combining stunning imagery, meaty dialogue, and great performances.

The Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Let’s start with the very first rule: Tell Stories, Show Character. This story starts late. A lot has already happened by the time we meet the characters. No problem. The story contrives to create scenes where the characters can just tell us what’s happened so far. They tell us the story, but they show us who the characters are.
  2. In fact, this movie loves to just let its characters talk. That’s because the characters are full of personality, so everything they say is entertaining, whether or not it furthers the plot.
  3. These are all wounded characters, but the main characters never ask about each other’s baggage. The decisions we see in real time are everything we need to know about them.
  4. The girl has a wonderful defining moment at the beginning that sets up an expectation and then reverses it: She is told that there are three marshalls she could hire. The first is too soft, the second is too mean, but the third is a perfect middle ground. She hears this, thinks, and then asks “where can I find the second one?” How bad-ass is that? Who isn’t going to instantly fall in love with her?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #12

If you guys remember Roberto Lovenheim from last time, then you know that he goes the extra mile to track down obscure international gems that may have never been seen in the states outside of film festivals, so here’s another international sampling of sex and death:

En la Cama
(Chile 2005, 85 min. dir: Matias Bize, cast: Blanca Lewin, Gonzalo Valenzuela)

Two strangers meet at a party and spend the night in a cheap motel room, but what happens is anything but cheap. This amazing film never goes flaccid while exploring the deepening relationship between Daniela (Blanca Lewin) and Bruno (Gonzalo Valenzuela). Movies like this are not new. Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow did it in John and Mary (1969). What is new is Julio Rojas always surprising screenplay that keeps changes topics in an every deepening quest. Two people go from causal sex to true need and understanding. They carry secrets in their wallets that each, in turn, sneaks a look at, but never admits to the other. It is what must be confessed between hotter and hotter sex and frantic pillow fights.

Blanca Lewin comes from a long history of soap operas and television series. Gonzalo Valenzuela comes from telenovelas; the TV serials that are a staple of Latin countries. In a country like Chile, without much movie production, TV is the way to work as an actor. It carries none of the stigma attached to TV roles in the United Sates. If either of these actors were part of a bigger culture, they would be international stars. Blanca would vie for the Paz Vega roles, and Gonzalo might be a rival of Gael Bernal Garcia. (Gonzalo’s sister Luz Francisca Valenzuela was Miss Chile in the Miss Universe contest in 1996 but she lost to Miss Venezuela).

If you want to see what a director, writer, and two good actors can do with one set, hot sex, nudity, and penetrating character portraits: this is for you. It also makes you wonder why the porn industry never thought of hiring good directors, writers, and actors to elevate their product. If they had, they would have survived the onslaught of online amateurs that killed their biz. It’s all about haste versus taste: or porn versus art.

Partes Usadas
(Mexico 2007, 95 min. dir: Aaron Fernandez, cast: Emery Eduardo Granados, Carlos Ceja, Alan Chavez).

This is not a glamorous profession like bank robbing. All it takes to steal cars is a screwdriver and guts. The initiation of Ivan starts in a junk yard. His uncle Jaimie orders him to strip naked, then locks his shirt, pants, and underwear in different wrecked cars. He hands him a window shiv and tells him if he can jimmy the car doors open, he can get his clothes.

Every big city has a section for stolen cars. In LA it’s Bramfield Street in Pacoima. In New York it’s Willet’s Point in Flushing. In Mexico City it’s everywhere. Vast tracts of land set to one purpose: a thieves market for auto parts. Partes Usadas is about the low lifes who steal by night to fill parts orders by day. You don’t find moments like this in Grand Theft Auto. The fascination of Partes Usadas (Used Parts) is that it looks as low life as the characters it portrays. No lovely lighting or polished dolly moves here. Even the quality of the film looks like it was outdated stock that was stolen.

At first I wanted to click “eject” because the movie has the smell of amateurism. But I got slowly hooked as I realized the lack of style was the style. Emery Eduardo Granados could be another Gael Garcia Bernal if he gets some breaks. Meanwhile Partes Usadas is a primer about what happens when your BMW disappears. Chances are if the police don’t find it in two hours there won’t be enough left to honk the horn.

Nina’s Tragedies
(Israel 2003, 110 min, dir: Savi Gavison, cast: Ayelet Zurer, Alon Elkabeth, Shmil Ben Ari).

Young Nadav lusts after his sexy Aunt Nina by peeping in her window and writing lustful stories in his diary about her. When Nina’s husband dies in a bomb incident while in the Army reserves, Nadav’s mother sends him temporarily to live with Aunt Nina so she won’t be alone. From the spare room he gets to observe all the twists and tragedies of her love life. Soon Annon installs himself as her perfect lover. Actually he was part of the Army detail who came to inform her of her husband’s death (in a great bit of humor, they soldiers on the detail get the wrong apartment and inform the wrong widow. She faints, but manages to scream out “You want Entrance B” as she recovers).

Annon is everything Nina wants. He is sensitive to the point of crying, he is poetic, and he is dedicated. He also has a girl friend. What make Nina’s Tragedies so watchable are the little twists between tragedy and humor. Like the naked man Nina sees in the street who resembles her husband. He turns out to be the boyfriend of a Russian woman who is a buddy of Nadav’s peeping Tom accomplice. So it goes.

The film would not have worked if not for Shmil Ben Ari (Annon), who seduces not by sweeping Nina off her feet, but by crying over her tragedies. What an original twist on a guy trying to prove he is sensitive. Meanwhile Nadav is coming of age in this cozy world of lust and irony. Some movies work so much better on the small screen, and I think this is one of them. In a theater Annon’s crying would be unsettling. We would think, “Get over it.” On an intimate screen his over-the-top emotions are just perfect.

Box 507
(Spain 2002, 112 min. dir: Enrique Urbizu, cast: Antonio Resines, Jose Coronado, Goya Toledo, Felix Alvarez, Dafne Fernandez)

Can you believe a bank manager as the hero of an action crime film? Remember this was 2002 and bankers hadn’t yet become villains. His daughter has been burned to death in a suspicious forest fire in primo tourist area of the Spanish coast. An unrelated bank robbery at his branch turns up a mysterious map of the same forest area when one of the safe deposit boxes is rifled. The only problem with this otherwise gripping, original, and character filled thriller is the confusion between two safe deposit boxes that both seem to contain clues.

If you can get buy this plot confusion that took me two fast-backwards of the DVD to understand ( that is, to understand that I would never understand); the rest of the film is gripping. The banker wants to find the truth about the death of his daughter. An ex-cop on the take wants to blackmail those who can deliver enough money to send him and his alcoholic wife out of the country for a better life. The two plots and the two guys are going to meet somewhere and nobody is going to be happy with the outcome.

The film is fascinating: full of great characters played by great character actors. They always pulling you forward to the next scene. Americans don’t get to see many European action films. They don’t come to art theaters where the crowds wants picture postcard views of Europe, and they never come to multiplexes where the audience can’t even read the subtitles. It is also a deliciously violent film, assuming you like guys getting shot in the back of the head. I do.


Robert Lovenheim is a longtime movie producer turned internet entrepreneur. There's a lot more at Robert's ambitious website, Movie With Me, which has has a ton of cool content in addition to his blog.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #62: Find Unique-But-Universal Details

Generic is bad. If you want to give your cop character a little personality, don’t give him a donut craving. It’s not unbelievable, but it’s a cliché. Instead, you should give him something specific, so, let’s see… how about “I’m the crazy saxophone-playing cop who always has his sax around his neck!” That certainly is specific. But it doesn’t ring true. The key is to come up with details that are unique but also universal. This is why writing is so damn hard.

The Other Guys was a real mixed-bag throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of a movie, so it’s not surprising that it provides examples of how to do this right and also some more questionable examples as well. Let’s start with the smartest choices: all three lead cops have great unique-but-universal details:

  • Mark Wahlberg is hated all over the city because he accidentally shot Derek Jeter while working security at a Yankees game.
  • Will Farrell loves the paperwork side of policework but hates being sent out into the street.
  • Michael Keaton can only pay his kids’ college bills by doing double-duty as the night manager at a “Bed, Bath and Beyond” and frequently forgets which job he’s at.

So far so good. These are all specifics that we hadn’t seen in any other movie, but are nevertheless believable problems for NYPD cops to face.

One thing I like about those three details is that they could apply to cops in either a comedy or a quirky drama. That’s always a good sign that you’ve got believable characters. If your character’s backstory is so bleak that they could only exist in a drama, it probably won’t work as a drama either, and vice versa with comedy. The difference between a believable comedy and a believable drama is closer to 10 degrees, not 180.

But The Other Guys also has a bunch of other bizarre character details that could only happen in a gonzo Adam McKay movie. That’s not necessarily bad, but you definitely want to get a big laugh to justify such a breach of believability.

  • Wahlberg is also secretly an expert ballet dancer.
  • Farrell was a pimp in college.
  • Keaton keeps accidentally borrowing his dialogue from old TLC songs.

Okay… each of these gets some laughs, but the writers were smart not to make these strange details the hooks they hung these characters on. They get away with the gonzo stuff because each character has a unique but universal hook that has already established our sympathy.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Underrated Movie #100: Trading Places

It's Christmastime in the city!
Title: Trading Places
Year: 1983
Director: John Landis
Writers: Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod
Stars: Dan Ackroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Paul Gleeson, Denholm Elliott, Senator Franken

The Story: Two wealthy brothers decide to reverse the fortunes of a preppie commodities broker and a homeless man, just to settle a bet about nature vs. nurture. After the bet is over, the targets of their manipulation team up to get revenge.

How it Came to be Underrated: Ackroyd, Murphy and Landis all have reputations that have long since been tarnished, so it can be hard to remember now how tremendously talented, daring and appealing they were in this early period.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Anyone expecting a goofball farce will immediately have their expectations upset by the beautiful opening montage showing the different social strata of Philadelphia waking up in the morning. This was a movie that actually had a lot to say about rich and poor in America, at a time when the former were quietly declaring war on the latter. I’m glad to see somebody noticed.
  2. Bellamy and Ameche clearly delight in the chance to play such smugly loathesome villains, after their long careers of playing nice guys. Murphy had a great line while promoting the movie: “this is Edward Bellamy’s 99th movie and Don Ameche’s 49th movie and my 2nd movie, so between the three of us, we’ve made 150 movies!”
  3. Puncturing the idea that traders are super-talented geniuses deserving of exorbitant salaries, Murphy is plucked off the streets but he quickly gets the hang of it. “Basically you guys are just a bunch of bookies!” But it’s sadly sweet that it takes both him and Ackroyd so long to realize that the firm is really just a criminal enterprise, even after everything that’s been done to them. Only when it’s almost too late do they finally put two and two together: bookies only make real money when the fix is in.
  4. Warning: though it’s very much a product of its era, the appeal of the movie for the most part hasn’t “dated” except for one painfully unfunny sequence on a train, involving a gorilla suit, that feels like it comes from an entirely different movie. Everything comes back together afterwards, so you might just want to skip from about 1:27 to about 1:37 when you watch it.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: I’m a sucker for the gag-a-minute absurdity of an early Landis effort, the anthology film The Kentucky Fried Movie.

How Available Is It?: It’s available on a bare-bones DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Hoodlum-Filled World!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #61: Sweet Potato Is Better Than Sweetheart


I have no pet names for my wife. On those rare occasions that I feel it would be appropriate to tack an endearment onto the end of a sentence, I fall back on the old standbys, “sweetheart” or “darling” or “baby”. But I’m not a character. And the one thing that you have to understand about characters is that they have more personality than you or me.

When a movie character uses an endearment, that’s one more chance for you to give them a little more personality. Something specific, not generic. Something that no one else in the screenplay would say. Sometimes you can find language that amplifies the key notes of their personality: Vince Vaughn in Swingers doesn’t say “You’re awesome, dude!”, like he probably would in real life, he says “You’re so money and you don’t even know it!” That’s wonderfully specific and it speaks to his predatory tendency to value people according to what they can do for him. When Dan Duryea in Scarlet Street calls his girlfriend “Lazy Legs” and she loves it, then we pretty much know everything about them both.

On the other hand, language quirks can also be a great way to cut against the grain of the other characteristics you’ve established, rounding a character out. When I writing the hedge fund guy script that I’ve mentioned before, my first instinct was to have him call his wife something crude like “sweetcheeks”, but then I decided that I’d already rung that bell too often. “Sweetheart”, on the other hand, was too generic, so I had him lovingly call his wife “sweet potato.” After all, this guy was a Wall Street shark now, but he’d worked his way up from a small town, so he should still have some of that cultural baggage.

For playwrights or screenwriters, one of the many reasons to give each character unique language is that you force the actor to say something they’ve never said before, which takes them our of their habits. When they see the line “I’ll be home soon, Sweetheart”, they automatically think, “Sure, I know how to say that.” When they see, “I’ll be home soon, Hammerhead,” then they have to stop and think about who this person is and what this relationship is. The more character you give them to work with, the better of a performance they’ll give.

Obviously, you can easily take this too far. Whatever you do, do not tack a nickname onto the end of every sentence just to give your dialogue a feeling of rootin’-tootin’ fun. But for those moments when you yourself would naturally feel the need to tack one on, don’t be afraid to let your character show a little personality.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #60: Catholicism is Better Than Protestantism

I’ve done previous pieces on the need for token objects and the importance of choosing locations that put objects in people’s hands. Here’s yet another thing that objects can do for you… 

“A Study in Scarlet”, the novel that introduced Sherlock Holmes in 1887, is one of the most popular books of all time, but surely it’s aged by now, right? No, just the opposite, the novel is so scientifically and psychologically acute that it’s hard for a modern reader to believe it wasn’t written recently. In one passage, Holmes perfectly describes DNA, despite the fact that it wouldn’t be discovered until the 1950s. Even more startling are the descriptions of the psychological problems that bring Holmes and Watson together...
 
Watson, our narrator, has come home from a massacre of British troops in Afghanistan. Though he was only superficially wounded in the battle, he finds himself psychologically unable to go back to work, which nobody understands. “You weren’t seriously hurt, so what’s wrong with you?” Well, it’s PTSD, of course, but that term wouldn’t be defined until 1978. As for Holmes, well, I think it’s clear that he has Asperger’s (but I also acknowledge that every generation has ascribed to Holmes the hot diagnosis of its age.)

The novel has been filmed many times, but the most recent adaptation, part of a new series of TV movies for BBC, is the most audacious. The great Steve Moffat totally updated the story to the modern day, using the words “smartphone”, “text” and “blog” as many times as possible, just to drive the new setting home. This all sounds like a terrible idea, I know, but somehow Moffat turns it into something that recaptures all the thrills, chills, smarts and soul of the original...

...Of course, the art of adaptation is about more than just updating the technology. Even if his version had been set in 1887, Moffat is smart enough to know that some things must be changed simply because of the transition from prose to moving pictures. In the novel, Watson lets us know through his narration about his condition and we hear through his tone how his relationship with Holmes gradually helps him break free of his malaise. This is what first-person prose does best: allow us to intimately commune with the thoughts and feelings of a person as they are changed by an experience.
 
But film is nowhere near as intimate as first-person prose. Sure, you can use lots of narration or therapy scenes, but film is a visual medium, so the best way to convey a character’s psychology is through their physical behavior. But the whole problem with a disease like PTSD is that nobody can see it. So how do you make a movie about it? You have to externalize it.
Moffat does this very simply: he turns Watson’s PTSD into a psychosomatic limp. Watson walks with a cane, but as soon as he meets Holmes, Holmes perceives that he doesn’t really need it, which both offends and intrigues Watson. Sure enough, after he’s gotten thoroughly wrapped up in Holmes’s adventures, they find themselves caught up in a sudden chase. Only after the chase is over does Watson realize that he’s left his crutch behind, literally and figuratively.
Whether I’m writing an adaptation, or trying to raise a second draft to a higher level, I too find myself searching for ways to externally manifest the interior changes that my characters go through. As a result, I’ve noticed a funny thing: they tend to suddenly become Catholic. When your average Protestant loses his faith in God, he might shrug slightly, but otherwise, you wouldn’t notice unless he says something. The great thing about Catholics is that they have so many more objects to interact with. They can turn the statue of their favorite saint away when they’re feeling guilty. They can angrily throw their rosaries away, then dig through the garbage to find them again after when they change their minds. Catholics like to invest objects with meaning, an idea that Protestants tend to poo-poo. That makes it so much easier for me to convert their interior turmoil into external behavior.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #11

I had originally planned on alternating new special guest with old for this second round, but since certain people who know who they are haven’t turned theirs in yet, let’s have another return visit, shall we? A warm welcome back to our very first special guest, Geoff Betts. Whattya got for us this time, Geoff?

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

One of the best cinematic depictions of postwar, working class Londoners ever made, this film serves as a startling precursor to the great British “Kitchen Sink/Angry Young Man” films that began appearing in the late 1950s and early ‘60s (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, etc).

The story opens with a convict named Tommy Swann (John McCallum) escaping from prison while in the process of being transferred to a different penitentiary. Having nowhere to turn he finds refuge in the care of an ex-girlfriend, Rose (well played by Googie Withers – that’s a British name for ya), who lives in East London but is now married with children. Still harboring feelings for Tommy, Rose decides to take him in despite the consequences she could potentially face. Her romanticized view of Tommy though is shattered as it becomes clear over the course of the day that his memory of their time together is not nearly as profound as hers.

While the primary narrative is a suspenseful tale of the London police searching for Tommy all over town and Rose making quick decisions on how best to hide him, the film is also about the daily plight of East Londoners. Portrayed by an excellent ensemble supporting cast, these minor characters are shown throughout the film coping with the effects of World War II, both in terms of heavy troop and civilian casualties as well as adapting to a slow economic recovery that appears to have no end in sight. Steadily directed by Robert Hamer, this film is available for sale on DVD as well as for rent as a digital download on Amazon. It is unfortunately not available on Netflix.

On the Bowery (1956)

Produced and directed by Lionel Rogosin, the film depicts three days in New York City’s formerly poor Bowery neighborhood (the stretch of 3rd Ave between Houston & Canal, which serves today as the east end of uber-rich Soho) and the plight of its chronically homeless, drug & alcohol addicted residents – the Bowery Bums. Featuring real people that he met while spending time in the Bowery, Rogosin takes apects of their actual lives to create a project that is part documentary and part scripted indie drama. The result is just a remarkable film that captures the lives of people from various backgrounds who have all hit rock bottom and have little hope of ever improving their circumstances.

The film begins as the main character Ray arrives in the Bowery and goes straight to a dive bar after having worked several weeks laying railroad tracks in New Jersey. Ray makes friends amongst the other bums but his fortunes sour pretty quickly as he embarks on a bender that lasts several days and leaves him penniless and alone.

I had never heard of On the Bowery until I saw that Film Forum here in New York would be showing it this year. It emerged from the small, New York independent art film scene that started to take shape in the early 1950s (The Quiet One, The Little Fugitive, Weddings and Babies, etc.), before popularly breaking through with John Cassavetes’ Shadows in 1959. Despite its current obscurity, the film was a minor commercial success at the time and it helped generate much public discussion around the plight of America’s invisible poor as well as the dire social consequences of alcoholism. Ray was even recruited to come to Hollywood to act in other films but left town pretty quickly after his arrival and was never heard from again. Unfortunately On the Bowery is not available on DVD or instant download as far as I can tell. If you see it playing on television though, I would highly recommend you check it out.

Sounder (1972)

Based on the excellent Newbery Medal winning children’s book of the same name, Sounder is a remarkable and genuinely touching film. Directed by the former blacklisted writer/director, Martin Ritt, the film tells an American story that is rarely discussed in much depth - the ongoing slavery that most black men and women had to endure in the South for decades after the Civil War through either tenant farming (e.g., renting farm land, seed, and supplies from wealthy, white land owners at a cost that was deliberately designed keep the farmers permanently in debt) or domestic servitude.

Much of the discussion around racial discrimination in the south focuses on African Americans not being able to exercise their right to vote, receiving unequal protection under the law, and as victims of state sponsored segregation. And while those are all very serious injustices, the absence of anything resembling economic freedom was (and frankly remains) a much greater daily hardship to bear. Sounder does an excellent job at recreating this socio-economic environment by depicting a family of Louisiana sharecroppers in the 1930s just trying to get by.

Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson both received Academy Award nominations for their roles as the hard working tenant farmers who, on account of both a weak crop and a sparse hunting season, do not have enough to provide for their children. Out of desperation, Winfield ends up stealing a small amount of food from a nearby general store. He is of course found out and arrested for this transgression. Unsure of Winfield’s whereabouts, the family’s eldest son, David (Kevin Hooks), embarks on a long journey by foot to a labor camp in an attempt to locate his father. While on this journey David comes across a caring school teacher who takes him in. And during his brief stay with her David realizes there are more opportunities in life – they just happen to be outside of rural Louisiana.

Sounder, while somewhat remembered (mainly because of the book more than anything else), is typically not included on lists of great films of the 1970s or even films dealing with the subject of racial injustice. I hope that will eventually change over time. Sounder is on DVD. You can get it through Netflix.

Fat City (1972)

Gritty and dressed down, Fat City is a terrific movie about the profession of boxing and the devastating physical and mental toll it takes on its fighters. Directed by the legendary John Huston, the film centers around a drunk, washed-up prizefighter named Billy Tully (brilliantly played by Stacy Keach) who tries to get back in the game after he meets a young, up-and-coming boxer (Jeff Bridges). Tully reconnects with his old manager, who sets up a mid-level fight where he will be featured as the main event.

One the best aspects of the film is how it creates a compelling story out of a rather small stakes situation. The audience is never led to believe that Tully is going to somehow become the “champ” at the end. Moreover, as is the case in many boxing films, Tully also does not find himself having to choose between two unrealistic love interests: the super sexy but ultimately shallow blond knockout - or the sweet, more substantive brunette knockout. Instead, he hooks up with a rundown woman (Susan Tyrell) who he meets in his local bar while her boyfriend is in jail. Not exactly a fairy tale romance but a very believable and compelling one.

Kris Kristofferson’s soulful song, “Help Me Make It Through the Night” opens and closes the movie. It significantly adds to the mood of a film that’s less about boxing and more about what typically happens to these would be “contendas” after they’ve been used up and tossed aside. Fat City is on DVD and you can get it through Netflix.

When we were 13 years old, Geoff Betts and I decided that we should devote some time to watching all the important movies. Were still not done with that damn project, but he did get a few film studies degrees out of it. Now he’s a contract organizer for the writer’s guild and he’s also been known to write and produce himself.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #59: Upsetting News Is The Best News


Writers have an irrational hatred of “exposition” (long scenes where someone sits down and explains the plot). Supposedly, this is because the public hates it, but the fact is that we hate it even more than they do. This is why the general public liked Inception a lot more than most screenwriters did. Listening to anyone explain the rules of the plot for that long sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard to us. Not only is exposition clunky, dull, and uninvolving, it’s just so… so… uncool. Cool writers are those who come up with elegant ways to elide exposition and still get the story across. Letting characters explain everything is admitting defeat.

So why not just do away with exposition entirely? Certainly, when I was a kid, we would just fastforward through all talking scenes in Raiders on the Lost Ark on VHS. Problem solved, right? But no, that doesn’t work either. The modern equivalent of my nine-year-old mindset can be found in the recent Harry Potter movies, where they now just leave all the boring “story” parts out. If you wanted to know what was going on in the latest HP movie, I sure hope you read the book. Actually, I hope you read the book three times, because I read it twice and yet I still couldn’t keep track of who everybody was onscreen or what was significant about each plot turn. It was like watching a three-hour book-trailer: “Here’s a bunch of creepy-looking suspense scenes! Don’t they make you wish you knew what was going on?”


The worst offenders of the dreaded “exposition dump” are supposedly the James Bond movies. In the Austin Powers spoofs, for example, Bond’s boss “M” was replaced by a character named “Basil Exposition”. But some Bond movies do a better job than others with all the dreaded exposition, and they can show us how to tackle this problem. In some Bond movies, the first we see of Bond is when he saunters into M’s office for a new assignment and gets smothered in facts while he listens blandly. But in other movies, we first meet Bond on a mission (presumably with little information himself), and it’s only when things get bollocksed up that he storms into M’s office demanding to know the whole dirty story. This hints at two rules:
  1. Don’t give the hero or the audience any information that they aren’t demanding to know.
  2. Information is a lot more interesting if it causes an emotional reaction in the person hearing it.
As I was saying last week, every scene should reverse an expectation, and exposition scenes are not exempt. If you need a scene in which the hero hears a five minutes speech revealing the nuts and bolts of his grandfather’s corrupt business empire, then take some time first to roll that rock uphill before you release it: let the hero brag in a previous scene about how proud he is to know that our country was built by great philanthropists like his grandfather. Now, when he hears the ugly truth, we’ll identify with the turmoil it causes within him as each painful word lands. If the character cares, then we’ll care.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Underrated Movie #99: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

Title: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Year: 1962
Director: Tony Richardson
Writers: Alan Sillitoe, based on his short story.
Stars: Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave

The Story: Courtenay’s angry young man gets sent to a youth prison, where a cheerful warden tries to mold him into a long-distance runner, hoping that they can beat the boys from a nearby boarding school in an upcoming meet. As the young man prepares, he thinks about how he got there and what victory means to him.

How it Came to be Underrated: The great British “angry young man” films of the early ‘60s have become the forgotten missing link between the French New Wave and the American renaissance that flowered in the late ‘60s. Richardson, Lester, Reisz, Anderson, et al. deserve to remain household names. This one only recently appeared on DVD, so it’s ripe for rediscovery.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Movies that are interwoven with flashbacks are tricky to write. The first question to answer is, what triggers the flashbacks? I love how in this one the flashbacks aren’t triggered by anything the psychiatrist asks or his fellow prisoners say. It’s only when he’s outside of himself, running or dismantling old gas masks in the prison shop, that his memories overtake him. Like “Lost” at its best, this is a story about the internal war between the crushing verdict of our past and the ever-fading promise of the future.
  2. Redgrave was a star for forty years, but he was so good at disappearing into his roles that I never link his movies with each other. It’s hard to associate his pompous warden here with the cheeky leading man from The Lady Vanishes. He plays his villain here in the smartest possible way: as if he were the hero of a very different movie.
  3. These films became acclaimed for “kitchen sink realism”, and there’s plenty of wonderful little details of hard-scrabble British life here, but it’s not really about “reality” at all. Selective sound design, sped-up film speeds in parts and other techniques create an intense feeling of subjectivity, forcing us to see and hear the world through Courtenay’s jaundiced point of view. This isn’t about life as it is but rather life as it’s perceived (which may be the only reality anyway)
  4. This has always been a favorite of mine (I took Betsy to see it at a revival house on one of our first dates) but seeing it again I can see how nicely it fits into my latest motto: “Anybody can be a hero, but nobody can become a hero by doing what anybody would do.” A hero’s triumph must stem from his unique personality. The ending of this movie may be the ultimate example of that.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Richardson’s brilliant adaptations were all very different, from the bawdy ribaldry of Fielding’s Tom Jones to the absurd satire of Waugh’s The Loved One, but they’re all worth watching.

How Available Is It?: It’s finally got a nice-looking DVD (without any features).

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Hand From Beyond!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Story Project #5: They Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent

This is hard to believe, but ten years ago, comics fans were still convinced that the movies would never take them seriously. Then Sam Raimi hit the first two Spider-Man movies out of the park, and the scales fell from Hollywood’s eyes. They suddenly realized that, in the hands of skillful adapters (which proved to be the tricky part), comics could prove to be a theretofore little-touched treasure trove of high concept story material. Wa-hoo! It was land rush time! Now, of course, even an old school superhero fan like myself is sick to death of all the adaptations. They pumped out the well until it was dry and now they’re already insta-rebeooting franchises like Spider-Man and X-Men (along with Pirates and Bourne and many others). Gee, maybe they can get Tobey Maguire to come back and play the new Spider-Man’s dad! (or slightly-older brother.)

Why won’t they let the party end? Here’s one theory: Development people had always feared that the studio bosses were secretly illiterates who only pretended to read those dry stacks of scripts on their desk. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when they saw how much happier their bosses were about taking home stacks of graphic novels, which came pre-visualized and pre-set to maximum badass-itude. Once the comics well ran dry, they couldn’t force anyone to go back to reading dry prose, especially screenplays which are even duller than books, since they’re only blueprints. 

Things got so bad in Hollywood that many screenwriters, myself included, were advised to convert our screenplays into fake graphic novels that we could then adapt back into screenplays. The most infamous case of this was a “property” called “Cowboys and Aliens”, which pre-sold for big bucks, then put out one issue from a comic book company that existed just to generate material for adaptation. The project has been cited as an example of what’s wrong with the system so many times that I was a little shocked to see a trailer recently and realize (1) the movie finally got made, and (2) the trailer isn’t even half bad.

But comics were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The biggest problem is simply that failure begets failure. Too many bad spec scripts were sold, which happened to coincide with a time in which a lot or adaptations were unexpectedly successful. These and many other forces combined to create the vague impression that original material was now a hard sell, and once that set in, the great unspoken embarrassment about making up a story from scratch reached out and seized everybody’s heart.

If you try pitching an original movie to a development person today, even if they love it, they know that they’ll be in for a hard slog if they try to pass it on up the ladder. They have to explain that they liked a story that nobody else has ever bought before. It’s so much easier to say “x number of fans can’t be wrong!” (Even in the case of Cowboys and Aliens, where x equaled zero) They’re not in the storytelling business anymore, they’re in the franchising business. They’re not creating commodities, that’s for chumps. They’re trading commodities, that’s less embarrassing.

Our president liked to tell a story on the campaign trail about an idealist showing up to help out with a local Chicago campaign only to have the boss ask him which political machine had sent him over. When he answered “nobody,” they responded “we don’t want nobody nobody sent.” They, too, didn’t want to create value, they just wanted to trade it back and forth. That’s become the American way. But there’s just one problem: Americans crave new stories. If we keep trying to tell original stories, the producers will eventually have to listen to us, even if they don’t want to, as long as we refuse to be embarrassed about what we’re doing.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Story Project #4: Oh Well, Whatever, Nevermind


Bait and switch time, people: before I get to the current crisis (bumped back to tomorrow), I want to look at another way that writers attempt to save themselves from the embarrassment of telling a story: postmodernism.

European cinema in the ‘60s was the first major flowering of self-aware techniques in movie-making. Both Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman were influenced by the playwright Bertoldt Brecht, who explicitly wanted his audience to think instead of feeling, so he used distancing techniques to shut down emotional reactions, but these filmmakers turned that idea on its head: They used distancing techniques that somehow increased emotional involvement. In Berman’s Persona, right at an intense moment, the camera suddenly dollies back to reveal the stage lights and crew, then dollies back into the scene, which continues unabated! Amazingly, we get right back into the story. Basically, Bergman and Godard know that they were so damn good that they could get away with anything. They could remind the viewer that he was watching a made-up story onscreen, which should make the viewer stop caring, but instead it would actually add another dimension of dramatic tension. Since the viewer still cannot stop caring about these compelling characters, his cognitive dissonance merely becomes an additional level of conflict for each scene.

A good postmodern story can seem like the most honest type of moviemaking. “Hey, guys, let’s deal with the fact that you’re sitting in a big dark room and you’re bringing your own expectations to the movie. That’s a pretty big part of the equation here, isn’t it?” I’ve frequently used this blog to praise early American stabs at post-modernism, like Tension and Unfaithfully Yours, which subtly prodded viewers to be aware of their own relationship to the movies.

But postmodernism would later become the law of the land after Quentin Tarantino came along in the ‘90s. He used distancing techniques in clever ways, but I was never sure whether he was simply dazzling us or whether he actually had something to say. Unfortunately, there could be no such doubt about the flood of imitators who followed him, aping his techniques in the crudest possible ways. The problem was that these moviemakers weren’t going for the intellectual effect of Brecht or the cognitive dissonance of the Europeans from the ‘60s. The new guys were winking to the audience for a different reason: because they were too embarrassed to ask the audience to care.

You could see this idea everywhere at the time, from Nirvana albums (“Oh well, whatever, nevermind”) to “Seinfeld”, (“no hugging, no learning”). In each format, the breakthrough originators I’ve named did interesting work, but the copycats used that work as an excuse to jettison emotion entirely. Putting every emotional moment in airquotes, like “Family Guy” does, doesn’t allow the audience to think or feel. In a grave somewhere, Brecht weeps. The problem is that the “too cool to take anything seriously” movement inevitably becomes a self-perpetuating juggernaut. If you’re the only guy at Cannes who wants to stop winking at the camera, you risk looking like a sentimental chump. This contributed to the problem we face today, which I’ll finally get to tomorrow...

The Story Project #3: About What You’d Expect


As long as people have told stories, they have tried to avoid starting a story from scratch. Don’t worry, it’s only an adaptation, or a remake, or a sequel, or at least part of a shared universe or a familiar genre. My story is new but I haven’t cut the material out of whole cloth. I’ve just re-tailored your last year’s coat to fit you better. Let’s look at a few of the tricks people use:

I wrote before about Shakespeare’s preponderance of adaptations and remakes, so let’s move on to sequels: We all know that sequels deserve no respect. Except the “Odyssey”, and “Antigone”, and the “Aeneid”, and “Don Quixote Part 2”, and “Huckleberry Finn”, and “Ulysses”, and Godfather II, and The Empire Strikes Back, and Silence of the Lambs, and… well, okay, I guess there have been a few good sequels. It’s always comforting for a writer to start with characters that people already love, and there’s no reason that you can’t use those characters to create a new artistic statement. Of course, you have to overwhelm the voice of the producers, who often assume that the audience will want the same story too. To succeed, the writer needs to be willing to make something as different as the “Odyssey” was from the “Iliad”.

Shared Universes: One of the hardest things about telling a self-contained story is that it has no consequences. If somebody misses it, so what, it’s not going to affect any other stories. When you accept the benefits of a shared universe, your story gains permanence, but that brings new responsibilities: “Dallas” infamously threw out a whole year’s worth of stories by having a character wake up and discover that the previous season had been a dream, but they had a unexpected problem on their hands: that season had featured a cross-over with its spin-off “Falcon Crest”. Dallas couldn’t say that those stories didn’t really happen unless they were willing to sever their shared continuity with a larger fictional universe, where everything has to “really happen” in a way that simply doesn’t apply to separate stories.

Nowhere does this concept reign more supreme than in superhero comics, but those same superheroes are now bringing the concept over to movie screens. Nobody would call the recent Hulk reboot a sequel to Iron Man, but it’s clearly set in the “same universe.” Of course, this may mean that they’ll soon learn the downside of a shared continuity: If Thor sucks, then Marvel may discover that they’ve devalued other successful franchises along with it.

Genre: This is the simplest way that stories try to put us at ease.You may not have seen this before, but don’t worry, you’ve seen something like it, and we’re going to play by the same rules.” Strangely, movie rental stores have every movie divided by genre-- but no book store divides the “comedies” from the “dramas” and puts them in separate sections. They might separate out the “crime” or “romance” books, but that’s seen as a judgmental ghetto-ization: they slot books into those sections only if they clearly aren’t trying to be “literature”. Every movie goes into a ghetto automatically, so does that mean that no movie is as good as any piece of unclassifiable “literature”? (Maybe it just means that movies cost a lot more to make and so they can’t afford to just trust the right audience to gradually find them on their own—they have to market themselves very specifically.)

Almost every story finds a way to promise, “Don’t worry, this won’t be entirely new to you,” and that’s fine, to an extent. But artistic, cultural and business trends sometimes conspire to bring things to an extreme, like we have today in the movie business, in which original stories have become almost entirely devalued. How did we get here, and how do we get back? Let’s pick up there tomorrow.