Monday, January 31, 2011

The Hero Project #27: Inconvenient Revelations

So we’re searching for solutions to a paradox: how can the hero make a lot of real progress and yet somehow reach his lowest point right before he triumphs? We talked about the worst version -his progress was all illusory- and a somewhat better version –his progress gets someone close to him killed. But neither of these extreme solutions is necessary. After all, this isn’t just some arbitrary rule that storytellers impose on themselves. It’s true of real life. Haven’t you heard-- It’s always darkest before the dawn. Why is that? Usually because the truth sucks.

Heroes are investigators. They turn over rocks, exposing worms, but sometimes they find that they can’t root out those worms without undermining their own foundations, at least temporarily. Sometimes, they find out that someone close to them is a traitor (L.A. Confidential, The Matrix), maybe even their love interest (The Sting, The Verdict) Even worse is when it turns out to be a parent, because then they realize that they have the same evil DNA inside them.

Luke Skywalker has an arc in each Star Wars movie, but he also has a big arc over the whole trilogy and his lowest point is obviously when he finds out that Darth Vader is his father. This ruins his adventure, takes all the fun out of his quest, and makes him doubt his own destiny, but ultimately, it provides him with the crucial information he needs to defeat the empire and become a better jedi.

Even more shattering is the realization Dennis Christopher has in Breaking Away. His father runs a used car lot and rips off the local college kids. Christopher rejects his family and chooses to idolize Italian bike racers instead. His dad tries to break him of this mania and forces him to take a job on the lot. One day, some kids his dad ripped off try to return their car and Christopher naively gives them their money back. His father tries to physically block them from pushing the dead car back onto the lot, almost killing himself with a heart attack. Christopher runs off to join a race with his Italian idols, but they betray him too, cheating and running him off the road.

Christopher returns home tearfully to his dad and bitterly laments, “Everybody cheats. I just didn’t know.” He can no longer hide behind the imaginary heroism of the Italians, which means he must accept his father’s wickedness. It’s just about one of the most devastating moments in any movie I’ve seen. But it’s not really a step backward. Christopher is moving forward. This gives him the strength he needs to fix his life and his family, even though it’s incredibly painful.

But there’s another type of lowest point that’s even lower than facing the villainy of a loved one: when you realize the villain is even closer at hand. We’ll get to that tomorrow…

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Hero Project #26: Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me

When last we left off, way back in October, I was talking about the ways that writers sacrifice likability in the hopes of boosting motivation or conflict. For instance, I pointed out movies in which the hero suddenly learns, 2/3 of the way in, that everything they’ve done has all been according to the villain’s plan. What a reversal! Unfortunately, this jacks up the conflict at the expense of making your hero look like an idiot. It’s unsatisfying. But the fact remains that, while no two guidebooks agree on what every beat of a proper story structure looks like, they all state firmly that your hero should suddenly be plummeted down to their lowest point somewhere between halfway-to-3/4-of-the way through.

So what if your hero isn’t an big dupe? What if they’ve been tackling their problem with pluck and verve, cleverly making real progress the whole way? Shouldn’t they be making their way up the mountain? How can a steady progress of heroic action paradoxically result in a reversal where it feels like they’ve lost everything? We’ve examined the bad version: it was all the bad guy’s plan and all the hero’s progress was false. But what’s the good version? This is what I’ve been thinking about during the long snowy months of the Hero Project’s hibernation...

The simplest way, of course, is to have the hero’s positive actions unexpectedly result in a very negative result: their partner or loved one gets killed by the antagonist. This way, your hero’s action weren’t misdirected or for naught, but they caused a more dire reaction than they could have anticipated. They can still continue from where they left off, but first they have to do some soul searching and decide if the whole thing was worth it. See The Untouchables or Basic Instinct or Dark Knight or a million others.

Of course, that question gets much trickier if the person who gets killed is the only person they were trying to save. Movies like Man on Fire will sometimes try to switch gears on the viewer, going from hopeful rescue thriller to grim grindhouse revenge flick in an instant. It’s not a fatal decision for all audiences, but it is a hard sell.

Even more problematic are those movies where, in the end, the moral calculus just doesn’t add up anymore. Martin Campbell is my favorite action director, and I’ve always wanted to see a good mountaineering thriller, so I had high hopes for Vertical Limit, but it just didn’t work (and not just because they cast Chris O’Donnell): Four people are stranded on a mountain. Six people set off to rescue them before a storm comes. By the time the movie’s over, only one of the rescuers survives, and he only manages to rescue one of the people who was stranded. Yay? If this had been a grim survival drama, maybe that would work, but that was supposed to be a stand up and cheer ending! In the end, the audience doesn’t want to feel that everybody would have been better off if the heroes had just stayed home!

Ultimately, this is a fairly unfulfilling way to knock your hero down before he triumphs. What are some more satisfying reversals? Our next two have one simple phrase in common: The truth hurts. We’ll look at those next…

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Meddler #4: …And My Fixes for The Ghost Writer


Okay, yesterday I laid out my problems with the recent thriller The Ghost Writer. Could I have done a last-minute polish (a polish for the Polish?) and fixed any of those problems? Here are my oh-so-presumptuous suggestions for changes to Act One:

  1. We begin with a much poorer McGregor waiting by the phone nervously with his lefty flatmates. They know that his agent is reading his heartfelt memoir of his 20-something years and he expects to hear back today... Finally he gets a text message from the agent: He loves the memoir, he’s showing it to certain people and they want to talk to him about a huge possibility with a half-million pound advance, so meet him for lunch tomorrow!
  2. The flatmates are ecstatic for McGregor. They throw him an impromptu party that night. He promises not to forget them when he’s hobknobbing with the literati. An even poorer friend asks if he can take over McGregor’s place in the flat and McGregor says why not?
  3. McGregor meets with his agent. The agent is super-excited: the head of a big publishing firm loved the tone of the memoir, and thinks McGregor would be the perfect person to take over the ghost-writing of Brosnan’s memoir! What? McGregor is aghast—what about publishing the memoir? Oh no, the agent waves that away, whiny white-boy 20-something memoirs are totally dead in the market—surely he knew that this was nothing but a writing sample, right? McGregor is heartbroken and refuses outright. He doesn’t want to tell some else’s story—he wants to tell his own! And certainly not Brosnan’s! He worked on Brosnan’s campaign, then watched him screw over the country! His flatmates would never forgive him if he participated in a whitewash of the guy. The agent is flabbergasted. Doesn’t McGregor need the money? The agency has never been happy with McGregor’s lack of earnings, they’d have to drop him if he refuses the only lucrative offer he’s ever likely to get…
  4. McGregor goes home and avoids his flatmates, locking himself in his room. Knocking on the door, they remind him that the other guy is coming to move in the next day… Is everything all right? McGregor buries his head in his hands. He realizes he’s trapped… He calls the agent and says he’ll take the meeting…
  5. At the meeting, he falsely claims to be apolitical, using the same clever logic he used in the actual movie. He gets the job.
  6. His flatmate drops him off at the airport, telling him that he still can’t believe he’s going to help that scumbag Brosnan. He implores McGregor to sabotage Brosnan, but McGregor says there’s no need. He may be a good writer, but he’s not good enough to make Brosnan look rosy again. Remember how infuriated we all were by war? This guy will never be able to explain all that away…
  7. But when McGregor meets Brosnan, he reverses McGregor’s expectation immediately. He’s funny and self-deprecating. He candidly admits mistakes and asks for McGregor’s help in setting the record straight. He is, in short, totally seductive. Soon he has McGregor admitting that he hates Brosnan’s guts, and came out there happy to help him hang himself. Brosnan asks if he can take McGregor into his confidence and looks deeply sincere… he talks candidly about what it’s like to be PM and the strains of office, all the forces pushing and pulling you…
  8. Before you know it, McGregor has totally drunken the Kool-Aid again. He even calls his flatmate and reports that they had this guy all wrong, repeating some of the charming stories he’s heard from Brosnan. The flatmate is horrified-- what happened to the guy who wouldn’t be happy until he could tell his own story? McGregor says that now he almost feels like Brosnan’s story is his story—it’s everybody’s story. The flatmate is disgusted and brusquely gets off the phone.
  9. The next night, McGregor gets a message from the flatmate saying that he checked up on that story, which sounded suspicious to him, and found that the dates didn’t line up. He begs McGregor to remain suspicious. McGregor is merely annoyed, but then he notices a notation from the former ghost-writer implying the same suspicion, and indicating the existence of a mysterious file... At this point, he goes through the old writer’s things and finds his file of inconsistencies. Has Brosnan seduced him all over again with more lies? Now he’s angry, and he starts his investigation, launching us into Act 2…

That’s it for my polish of Act 1. Now, if I were hired to do a more substantive re-write, I would also do some rewiring on Act 3: I think Brosnan should get assassinated because of McGregor's discoveries, after they mysteriously leak out prematurely, infuriating the public all over again. McGregor, wracked with guilt, tries to find out who leaked his info, giving him more motivation throughout Act 3. This leads him to the final reveal. He has the same final confrontation at the end, but the person he’s confronting admits that they leaked it themselves to get ahead of the story before McGregor found out everything. McGregor threatens to expose the rest but meets the same fate he met in the original.

Okee-dokee, that’s it for round two of the Meddler. Next time, I promise: it won’t be another thriller. I’m happy to meddle in all sorts of genres.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Meddler #3: Some problems with The Ghost Writer...

The Ghost Writer was a pretty-good conspiracy thriller that came out last year, directed by Roman Polanski. (I’ve never mentioned Polanski on this blog, partially for fear of the flame-wars that his name tends to ignite on the internet in recent years. Let’s try to avoid those, pretty-please, and focus on the work. I promise you that lots of the directors I’ve written about have done things that nobody would approve of.) The movie got very mixed reactions, with some critics putting it on their top ten lists and some others quickly dismissing it.

Pierce Brosnan plays a very Tony Blair-like figure: a recently retired prime minister of England who left office facing serious human rights charges after he acquiesced to a U.S.-led war and possibly participated in illegal renditions. He’s now holed up in a beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, writing his memoirs, and avoiding attention from the Hague. When his first ghost-writer dies under mysterious circumstances, the word goes out to find another…


This is where our story actually begins: Ewan McGregor is a professional ghost writer who doesn’t care about politics, but gets bullied into the taking the job by his pushy agent. He agrees to live at the beach house and try to get the ex-PM to tell a more interesting version of his life story in the one month leading up to the pub date. Brosnan turns out to be brittle and uncommunicative. McGregor finds notes from the previous ghost-writer hidden in his room implying that he had found damning evidence about Brosnan and was killed in retaliation. McGregor decides to pick up the investigation where the previous writer left off. He uncovers Brosnan’s big secret: he was secretly recruited into the CIA in college and has served them ever since! McGregor tries to prove this, but Brosnan is killed by a peace activist and McGregor is targeted by more shadowy forces…

Here were my problems with movie, focusing on the first act:

  1. The movie has a fun scene early on where McGregor cleverly gets the job by pointing out that the fact he doesn’t care about politics either way makes him the ideal ghost writer. That may be true, but the problem is that it makes him a terrible choice to be the protagonist of this movie. We keep being told that Brosnan has betrayed his country to the Americans, but we don’t feel it because none of the characters who we spend any time with actually feels this way themselves. Obviously Brosnan and his entourage don’t, so that leaves McGregor, who remains blandly apolitical. You can’t just tell us to feel betrayed. You have to show us characters who feel that way.
  2. But beyond that, McGregor just has an infuriating lack of drive or ambition. He doesn’t want to ghost-write the book, but he doesn’t have anything he’d rather do more. He never expresses any hopes or dreams… he’s not even frustrated, just petulant and bored. As he travels to the island, we get shot after shot after shot of him sleeping on every leg of the trip. This, my friends, may be the most passive protagonist in movie history!
  3. Let us count the motivation holes: McGregor’s resistance towards ghost-writing the book is unmotivated (he just ghost-wrote the memoir of a stage magician without complaint). His decision to write it anyway is unmotivated (He never worries about money). His decision to investigate the CIA connection is unmotivated (McGregor accidentally stumbles upon the previous ghost writer’s investigation and half-heartedly pursues it). He has no real goal when he confronts the final villain... Okay, now I’ve lost count…
  4. Brosnan is one of our most underrated actors and he does a great job with what he’s given, but the role is underwritten. Modern politicians have a suspicious amount of traits in common with psychopaths: when you’re in the room with one, they can electrify you and look deep into your eyes, making you feel more important than you ever have before—but only as long as you help them get whatever they want. Brosnan always has charm to spare, and he could have pulled this off well, but we don’t get any sense here of the skills this guy had before he bitterly decided that the world had betrayed him.

Okay, that’s just Act 1, and I’ll mostly keep my focus there, but there are still other problems afterwards: What will be the consequences if McGregor reveals any of this information? The world already hates Brosnan, right? In fact, he gets assassinated based on information that’s already out there, so how much more harm could additional posthumous accusations do, especially if they only confirm Bosnan’s image as America’s toady? Who would be endangered, other than the whistleblowers themselves? What are the stakes? If I have time left over tomorrow, I’ll touch on solutions to those problems too…

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #68: Don't Flip That Metaphor!


A lot of things eventually went wrong with the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica”, and fans debate when the show officially went downhill, but to me the trouble started early, when they began to flip a metaphor that never should have been flipped.

“Battlestar”, like almost every other great show from the last decade, was one big metaphor for 9/11. After hearing a bunch of racists on TV talk about how our new enemies were a monolithic, hive-minded inhuman force that lived for nothing but our destruction, writer Ronald Moore decided to use the sci-fi genre to explore what would happen if that were actually true. What if mankind was attacked and decimated by an enemy that was actually hive-minded, monolithic, inhuman and psychopathic? Even then, would we really need to abandon all of our civil liberties in order to defeat them? To that end, he re-envisioned the Cylons as robots who used to work for mankind but revolted. Now they could look like us and insinuate themselves as sleeper agents, but their minds could receive instructions from the hive at any time turning them back into the relentless killing machines they were built to be. Even those who had come to love their new nationality could not be trusted.

For the initial miniseries and first season, this worked perfectly. It was humbling for Americans to watch and realize how different and horrific our lives would actually be if any of these things we say about our enemies were true, and it was fascinating to see which values some characters would fight for, even in this extreme situation, and which ones would be jettisoned when they became inconvenient.

But sometime during the second season, things started to get much messier. Once the humans started to finally get the upper hand in some confrontations, they started having debates about how it would be wrong to punish the cylons because they were individuals with human rights. Wait—what? Nope, they weren’t individuals and they weren’t human. It had been well-established that their minds were not their own. To suddenly have the “liberal” characters arguing otherwise just seemed inane, especially since we were clearly supposed to agree with those characters. In the real world, collective punishment based on race or religion is evil. But in a world where the villains really do all share one big psychopathic mind, it would kinda make sense.

The complex metaphor of the miniseries had started to be simplified down to “Cylons = muslims.” Suddenly, all of those nasty qualities that the Cylons displayed became offensive. They had attempted to extend their metaphor, but instead, they had flipped it, insulting everybody.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened. A very similar flip happened with the original series of Planet of the Apes movies. In the brilliant original movie, the metaphor was “Let’s show white people what racism feels like by putting them in a world where they’re treated as an inferior race by a bunch of prejudiced apes.” This metaphor came with an implied parenthetical “(and isn’t that ironic since white racists sometimes say that blacks are ape-like)”, but that was as far as that went.

However, by the time you got to the fourth movie in the series Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the metaphor had lamentably flipped: they went back in time to the period when apes had been raised to the status of menial servants by humans and we saw the apes revolt, complete with lots of “black power” style imagery. Uh-oh, somehow the tricky metaphor of the original had been reduced to “blacks = apes”, that can’t be right! Metaphors, especially tricky metaphors, can only bend so far. Don’t trap yourself into saying the opposite of what you set out to say!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Underrated Movie #106: The Landlord

Title: The Landlord
Year: 1970
Director: Hal Ashby
Writers: Bill Gunn, based on a novel by Kristin Hunter
Stars: Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Walter Brooke, Lou Gossett, Pearl Bailey

The Story: A directionless young preppie decides on a whim to buy a slum tenement and fix it up nice, as soon as he can get the deadbeat black tenants out. Instead, he gets mixed up in their lives and comes to realize how callous his own life and upbringing has been. It could have been treachly, but the execution is unsentimental, smart, and surreal.

How it Came to be Underrated: After Easy Rider hit big, a fired-up group of anti-establishment moviemakers swept into power convinced that there were no more rules. They succeeded in creating a great American renaissance on the big screen, but they quickly discovered that they could only push a fickle public so far. There was one big rule that remained decidedly unbroken: Don’t Talk About Race! Certainly not in a morally complex, funny, profane, satirical way. Thankfully, Ashby didn’t know that yet.

Why It’s Great:

  1. After having proven himself as a great editor, this was Ashby’s directing debut. Luckily, he was able to cope with the great silence that greeted this flop and hone his appeal a little sharper when he got a chance to make a follow-up, Harold and Maude. With that masterpiece, he launched into an amazing run of movies that marks him as one of the best American filmmakers of the seventies. (The eighties didn’t go as well, but we won’t get into that sad side of the story)
  2. It’s almost impossible to write about somebody who’s privileged, prejudiced and exploitative but still somehow sympathetic. The problem is that, compared to the rest of the world, every American is privileged, prejudiced and exploitative (anyone who’s ever bought a cheap product made in a poorer country, anyway). To casually dismiss such folk as sniveling villains, as most movies do, denies us all a chance to look ourselves in the mirror and assess our own humanity (and lack thereof). This is a movie about the difficulty of empathy, but it’s also an amazing act of empathy, not just towards the lively tenement dwellers but towards that most inscrutable beast of all, the owner.
  3. Beau Bridges gives a profoundly open and egoless performance as a lost soul trying to grapple with his own blankness, but he rarely got leading roles after this one, shunted aside in favor of his handsomer younger brother, Jeff. The only awards attention this movie got was a well-earned Oscar nomination for Lee Grant as Bridges’ socialite mother, who is icily hilarious.
  4. I had remembered this movie as being set in Harlem, which would have made the attempts at gentrification somewhat quixotic, but I felt a twinge of pain when I realized that it was actually set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which means that these residents were bound to lose utterly in the end. Even the white people I know aren’t white enough to stay in Park Slope anymore. Our last two friends who lived there knew the writing was on the wall when a fresh-from-the-oven doggy-treat bakery opened up across the street. The next month their rent was doubled and they, too, were forced out.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Re-watching this, it reminded me of a similarly ambitious movie from a few years ago, Half Nelson. (And of course every Ashby movie from the ‘70s is required viewing, such as The Last Detail or Being There.)

How Available Is It?: Oddly, Netfilx has it available to Watch Instantly only, but not on DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Tap! Tap!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Meddler #2: ...And My Fixes For The Town

So yesterday, I laid out my problems with Act 2 of The Town. So here are the fixes I would have made if I had been hired to do a script polish:

(Let me say that I’m well aware that this is a presumptuousness and boorishness thing to do. Maybe you’ll say that I’m just adding a lot of “on the nose” dialogue in the place of the more subtle character work that was already there, but I thought that these were notes that needed to be hit with more emphasis. I would love you to defend the movies against my meddling in the comments. If you can convince me that the original screenwriters, who all make a lot more money than I do, were right, then that means there’s one more movie I can enjoy fully. Or you can suggest your own fixes—I’d love to hear those, too. So here we go…)

  1. Actually we’ll start off with one change to Act 1: We see them preparing for the bank heist, but Affleck is more charismatic. He reminds them not to kill anybody. But one of them asks “not even if they go for the silent alarm?” Affleck waves his hand and cuts him off-- “None of these people is going to press the alarm. Because they live in fear. They’re not just scared because their bank is being robbed. The whole reason that they became a bank clerk in the first place is because they were scared of living. Correct? That’s why we have every right to rob them. Because they’re scared and we aren’t. Remember that, and we’ll be fine.”
  2. The bank heist goes down as before, but now we have more of a sense of why Affleck would be impressed/intrigued that she pressed the alarm: it reversed his expectation. Rather than angering him like it should have, it intrigued him.
  3. Now let’s pick up at the beginning of Act 2, when they realize she might be a problem, Affleck tells the gang the plan: He knows that if she’s cooperating with the FBI then they’ll visit her frequently, so he’ll spy on her to see if that happens. The gang make fun of him and say he just wants to looks at a pretty girl all day. He’s genuinely insulted—he says that this toonie came to Charlestown for the cheap rents, but he’s sure that she flees first thing in the morning to go sip latees with her Radcliffe buddies uptown and complains about the goons she has to live next to. That’s hardly the kind of girl he’s attracted to.
  4. He follows her. Instead of heading uptown in the morning, she heads to the dry community ice rink, reversing his expectation and impressing him. He sees that she volunteers to teach skating to the kids while they all wear roller blades. (This is an actual plot point from later in the movie, I’m just moving it up where it can do more heavy lifting.) While he’s spying on her, one of the kids who has gone to pee sees Affleck in the shadows and recognizes him, the local hockey legend. The kid calls the other kids over and they drag Affleck out on the dry rink. They point out to their teacher what a hero this guy is—made it to the NHL but came back to the Town. She asks if he’ll show the kids some NHL tips. He can’t say no to these kids, so he reluctantly puts on some skates and does so.
  5. Seeing him through the eyes of the idolizing kids, she is instantly attracted to him. As they unlace afterwards, she asks him about his career, still seeming impressed. Afraid that she’ll ask around about him, he tries to shoot her down and deflate her interest by barking that he’s nobody—just another townie who blew his future on oxy and coke, with a dad in jail and a mom.... He stops himself, he’s said too much… Things get quiet. He can’t get his skates off fast enough. She asks about his mom. He finally gets the skates off and leaves, muttering that that’s none of her business.
  6. Feeling stupid, Affleck shamefully reports back about his close call to Renner. Renner tells Affleck that he’s an idiot. She had reached out to him—that was his chance to give her some “friendly” advice about her attack. (He could say that he recognized her picture from the news) Instead, Renner is going to have to take care of it his way… (killing her). They have another job coming up and they can’t have any old loose ends in the way. Affleck says he’ll take another shot and he promises to get it out of the way so they can do the next job.
  7. Affleck realizes that he’ll have to “bump into her” but he only has one chance to do so: he has to go to the bank. He waits in her teller line, but pretends to try to get away when she sees that it’s him. She stops him and apologizes for the other day. He says no, he should apologize and insists on buying her lunch on her break.
  8. On her break, things are still awkward, but Affleck realizes that he quickest way to re-establish intimacy is to start off by answering her dangling question. He tells her about the morning his mom left when he was six. She is moved and doesn’t know what to say. Taking advantage of her silence to change topics, he tells her that as soon as he saw her in the bank he realized that he recognized her from the 6 o’clock news: she was the one who got taken hostage. She reluctantly admits it. He asks how that was and she opens up. Here we have the great dialogue from the movie where he tells her in a very friendly way about how her life would be ruined by coming forward. She takes it to heart. Job done, he gets up to leave, but she says she’d like to see him again. Can she have his number? Reluctantly, he gives it to her and gets out of there.
  9. He reports back to Renner that it’s all taken of and explains what happened. Renner is worried that she’ll be after him now for another reason—after all, he ain’t ugly. Affleck scoffs at this…
  10. …But that night. Affleck checks his messages and he has two. One from Renner saying the job is on and another from Hall, asking him out. He calls one of them back and says “Yeah, let’s do it.” Which did he choose?
  11. He chose the gang. The next day, we hear plan their next heist together. But he has less control over the gang because his heart’s not in it, and Renner pushes to make things more violent. Now that he knows Hall, this all sounds worse to him. Maybe he can’t do this anymore… but he let’s Renner bully him into a dangerous plan, which he’ll do in three days.
  12. When he comes back, she’s on his steps, wondering why he didn’t call her back. He honestly responds that he’s been wondering the same thing. On their date. He asks what she sees in him. She admits that she lost a brother, just like he lost his mom. They make love.
  13. The next morning, Renner shows up unexpectantly, angry to see her there, and we can re-use the dialogue from the great tense cafe scene from the movie, where he has to hide Renner’s tattoo from her that she saw during the robbery.
  14. Afterwards, Renner confronts him about this dangerous relationship. Affleck says that this is his last heist, then he wants out. Renner storms out in anger, saying that if Affleck’s head isn’t in this, he’s going to put them all in danger.
  15. On his next date, Affleck is feeling better and starts talking more seriously about the future with Hall, but their class differences immediately become obvious, since they have different ideas about what a good future is. She laughs and says that he needs to stop thinking like a Townie. Insulted, he gets his back up and cuts the date short.
  16. He recommits to the gang as they prepare for the armored car heist.
  17. And so we launch into the second half of the movie…

So that’s it. I tried to make it clearer why the gang would follow him, and why they would be attracted to each other, and why she would trust him. I tried to establish more tension: within Affleck, between Affleck and Hall, and between the relationship and the gang. I still gave them chances to reveal their painful back-stories, but more reluctantly and only after they have a good reason to do so. Above all, I tried to give everybody a little more common sense, but still have them do all the same stuff.

In terms of getting them together, I tried to put the burden on the plot, not the dialogue. The writer can create situations that force characters together, so that they don’t have to do all the work of coming together through talk alone, which is too much to ask of your characters (or your actors).

I don’t mean to cut out the great FBI stuff or the stuff with his dad in prison, that would still be intercut with this, but I would lose the subplot about going after some other guys who threw bottles at her car (and yes, Luke, Blake Lively can go too). That’s the kind of subplot that you only have time for if there’s not enough conflict in the central relationships.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Meddler #1: Some problems with The Town...

So I’m trying out a new feature where I’ll play script doctor for good-but-not-great movies, movies that I feel were one draft away from being ready to go when they were shot. I’ll use this feature to imagine what I would have done if some producer had hired me to do a last-minute “polish” on the screenplay. That said, the point is not to change plot twists I didn’t like. I’ll try to stick with ways to take the same basic characters and the same basic story, but get more out of certain scenes, re-structure parts of the movie so as to manage viewer expectations better, and make the characters more compelling.

I actually like The Town a lot. It’s a good old-fashioned heist thriller: Ben Affleck plays the leader of a heist team in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. They take a bank teller (Rebecca Hall) hostage, but after they let her go they worry that she might be able to identify them, even though they were wearing masks. Affleck tries to get to know to find out if she’s going to be a problem. Of course, he falls in love. As the gang, especially his buddy Jeremy Renner, gets more violent, he comes to see this relationship as a way out.

But I had some problems with the second act (aka the middle of the movie). Here they are:

  1. Affleck’s character just doesn’t have enough personality. He’s not charismatic enough for a gang to follow. Especially because he’s not a good bank robber: During the robbery, he sees a pretty girl press the alarm with her foot and he lets her get away with it for no good reason! For that matter, why does he want to rob banks? If he no longer wants to, why not? We can guess at these things, but a little dialogue in that direction would have gone a long way.
  2. When they realize that Hall might recognize them, the plan that Affleck concocts for neutralizing this witness seems unclear and foolish. He should either show his face and openly threaten her or not show his face and spy on her. He chooses the worst of both worlds. His plan seems to be to befriend her, so that she’ll reveal whether or not she’s cooperating, and so that he can advise her against it. Okay, but why, before they’ve gotten to know each other, does he instantly romanticize the relationship? This is the worst possible person in the world for him to develop feelings for, but he walks right up to her in a Laundromat and asks her out before she’s even had a chance to say anything intriguing to him. Does he throw his life away just because she’s attractive?
  3. Other than the community garden they visit later, the locations for the dates are too generic. A Laundromat, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a cafĂ©… Let’s make them more specific to their problems. Also, there’s a reason why people are reluctant to date people they meet in Laundromats: people are scary if they have no context. If we meet someone in a place where they actually belong, where other people can vouch for them, we’re far more likely to date them.
  4. Why is she attracted to him? He’s hunky, sure, and his dialogue is sometimes humorously self-deprecating, but he seems really glum and hesitant all the time he’s with her. He’s got a dead end job, he won’t introduce her to his friends, he never talks about the future… these are all warning signals, ladies. Again, her actions are only motivated by his physical attractiveness, which ain’t enough.
  5. They tell each other about their painful baggage in stagey monologues without strong reasons to do so. Out of nowhere, she asks him about his mother. He refuses to tell her, but then, a minute later, with no more prodding, he sighs, looks off into the distance and tells her the very painful and personal story of how his mother left him when he was seven. Too easy. Too cliché. Unearned.
  6. The love scenes and action scenes proceed on two separate tracks. The relationship and the robberies are taking him in two separate directions, but we don’t feel that tension through most of Act 2. It’s as if Affleck (as writer/director) said to himself, “Well I’ve established that they’re going to go on a series of dates and the guys are going to do a series of crimes and the feds are going to do a series of investigations, so I can just intercut between the three for the middle hour of the movie.” As a result, each storyline feels like they’re just marking time for the middle chunk of the movie, without any urgency. Every scene in each storyline should have the potential to end the movie. The relationship should threaten the robberies and vice versa. Instead, for too long in the middle, it seems like these scenes could happen in any order, which is always a bad sign.
  7. We’re told that “townies” (residents of Charlestown) and the “toonies” (the rest of Boston) don’t like each other, but we don’t see it. Other than the fact that toonies don’t like it when townies rob their banks –and who would? We don’t see any genuine class conflict between them. Not even in the townie-toonie romance, where you think it would be an obstacle, if this is such a big problem.

But anybody can bitch about problems. Do I have any solutions? Let’s find out tomorrow, when I offer my re-write of the beats of Act 2...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #13

Hey guys, it’s time for another Special Guest! Jonathan Auxier and I met when we both were being feted for writing screenplays about scientists. We discovered we had a lot in common, and enjoyed bickering about those things we didn’t. Weve commiserated on the screwy paths our careers have taken ever since. Let’s see what he has for us...

Little Otik (2000)
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Writer: Jan Svankmajer
Stars: some people you’ve never heard of (and a puppet)

Jan Svankmajer is considered by many to be the greatest stop-motion animator in history (any chump can make an army of skeletons, but it takes a true genius to animate chunks of raw meat!). He is best known for his 1988 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, but for my money, Little Otik is the better movie.

Little Otik is based on an obscure Czech fairy tale, but the tropes are familiar enough. It tells the story of a barren husband and wife who desperately long for a child. After digging up an old tree in the yard, the husband decides to dress the stump up as a wooden doll. He intends it to be a sort of joke, but the wife quickly latches onto the doll, treating it like a real boy. And then the impossible happens: their “Little Otik” comes to life! For a brief moment, we think we are watching one of those happy fairy tales where good things happen to deserving people. But our feelings quickly change when Little Otik gets hungry. First he eats all the food. Then he eats the cat. Then he eats the neighbors. Little Otik is like the gingerbread man -- except instead of running away from people he eats them.

This movie perfectly captures the tyranny of a mindless, screaming baby -- selfish in his appetites, unstoppable in his rage. It is this aspect that elevates Little Otik above simple genre horror. Each scene speaks directly to our own subconscious anxieties and fears about children, parents, and The Miracle of Life.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Charles McKeown & Terry Gilliam
Stars: John Neville, Sarah Polly, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, Robin Williams Uma Thurman

If Georges Melies were alive today, I think he would have been very jealous of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. This movie is best known for being one of the biggest box-office bombs in history, but it is also an undeniable masterpiece of imaginative storytelling.

The movie chronicles the life of Baron Munchausen, fabled to be the greatest liar of all time. When the movie begins, the Baron is now an old man, hobbled and hushed by an Enlightenment society that cares less about stories than they do about the Turkish army storming their gates. The villain in this movie is a low-level bureaucrat who executes local war heroes for “demoralizing” the ordinary soldiers. Munchausen is next on his list. As Munchausen flees (in a hot-air balloon made from women’s undergarments!), the lines between reality and fantasy blur. He goes off to find his old cohorts, including a man who can run at incredible speeds, and a man who can lift impossible weights. Together, Munchausen and his companions single-handedly engage in battle against the Turks to save their besieged city.

To my thinking, most of Gilliam’s movies could often use a stronger narrative. They burst with vibrant, imaginative imagery, but that imagery seems to come at the cost of character and plot. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the shining exception to that rule. Every scene works beautifully to progress Gilliam’s thesis -- proving that a movie with an Idea need never be boring.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984)
Director: WD Richter
Writer: Earl Mac Rauch
Stars: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd

A few months ago a friend of mine invented a cocktail named the “Perfect Tommy.” He was, of course, making a reference to the 80s cult movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. This movie was designed for homage. It contains enough bizarre characters, terms, and events to rename every drink in the book. I am not going to try describing the plot because it will only make you head hurt. Instead I’m going to transcribe the Star Wars-style crawl that opens the movie:

Buckaroo Banzai, born to an American mother and a Japanese father, thus began life as he was destined to live it ... going in several directions at once. A brilliant neurosurgeon, this restless young man grew quickly dissatisfied with a life devoted solely to medicine. He roamed the planet studying martial arts and particle physics, collecting around him a most eccentric group of friends, those hard-rocking scientists The Hong Kong Cavaliers. …And now, with his astounding jet car ready for a bold assault on the dimension barrier, Bucakaroo Banzai faces the greatest challenge of his turbulent life ... ... while high above Earth, an alien spacecraft keeps a nervous watch on Team Banzai’s every move ...

Please note that I did not make up the part about the aliens. So before the movie has even started, we’ve got neuroscience, martial arts, rock-and-roll, jet cars, dimensional rifts, and aliens. Add to the list: skinny ties, secret twins, cold war missile strikes, Orson Wells, and the greatest “meet cute” in movie history. The whole thing wraps up in a sort of music video credits sequence that makes “Jai Ho” look like the electric slide.

There is no question that Buckaroo Banzai is not everyone’s cup of tea. (I forced my wife to watch it with me recently. She hated it. Hated. It.) I think its contemporary counterpart might be Scott Pilgrim vs. The World -- both are playful, ambitious movies, deeply rooted in the pop sensibilities of their ages. Both failed to make money. Both are beloved by dorks like me.

The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada (2005)
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Writer: Guillermo Arriga
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, January Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Julio Credillo

Let me just get this out of the way: The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada is one of the best-written movies I have ever seen. The script, which is based on the real-life murder of Esequiel Hernandez, is a punishing moral puzzle that completely upends conventional understandings of innocence and guilt. Three Burials... wasn’t underrated, but it was definitely under the radar of the general movie-going public. I suspect this is because the country was too busy freaking out over another revisionist cowboy movie that year.

The story follows the accidental murder of an illegal immigrant (Estrada) by a hard-nosed border patrol agent. It’s the sort of issue that might normally get swept under the rug by local Texas authorities, but for the intervention of a simple cattle rancher named Pete Perkins. Perkins, you see, was Estrada’s closest friend. And when he learns of what’s happened, he resolves to take justice into his own hands. This could be the setup for a simple revenge-flick, but Three Burials... is so, so, so much smarter than that. The movie is told out of chronological order, and with every new scene we gain a new understanding of characters’ guilt and innocence. The actual events are never in question, but what those events mean is constantly shifting. It’s a moral whodunit.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Tommy Lee Jones play a character without a badge. His Pete Perkins is a sort of grotesque foil for the humorless lawmen he is so known for. It reminds me of how after decades of playing two-dimensional gunslingers, Clint Eastwood directed himself in Unforgiven -- a movie that mercilessly deconstructs the gunslinger. Jones performs a similar trick with Three Burials..., creating a movie that feels both current and timeless. (A special mention should also be made of January Jones, whose performance as a washed-up Ohio prom queen is almost indistinguishable from her dazzling Betty Draper ... it’s amazing what a change of costume can do.)

Jonathan Auxier is a screenwriter, novelist, and former yo-yo champion. His first book, Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes will be coming out from Abrams this fall. You can find out more by visiting his delightful new-ish blog at www.TheScop.com.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #67: Be A Little Bit Incomprehensible

Either you’re going to write about a brilliant but unappreciated writer (please don’t) or you’re going to write about people who do something you don’t do. That means you have to learn everything about them—how to talk like them, think like them, party like them and curse like them.

It’s one thing to learn what a world is like, whether it’s spies, cops, ballet dancers or brokers, but it’s another thing entirely to learn and reproduce the jargon. At one point I read the pilots for “House”, “CSI” and “The West Wing” in one sitting and the number one thing that stood out to me was how jargon-y they were, to the extent that the average reader couldn’t understand half the script. Wouldn’t that alienate the audience? Nope, viewers love jargon. It makes them feel like the characters (and the writers) know what they’re talking about.

So how do you learn all this stuff? My first step is always to read some memoirs by people in this profession, but be forewarned that the language in memoirs gets cleaned up. It’s great to find a reality show or documentary about these sorts of people and transcribe how they talk in the heat of the moment when they’ve forgotten the cameras are on.

One nice trick is that once you’ve learned the jargon of several professions, then you can mix and match. A programmer could talk like a soldier, implying he takes it too seriously. An actual soldier could talk like a quarterback, implying he doesn’t take it seriously enough. An artist could talk like a lawyer. A boss could talk like a therapist. This is a great way to get them to reveal their character unintentionally. Gareth on the original version of “The Office” was a paper salesman who spoke like a military commander, which told us everything we needed to know.

While you’re at it, get to know the internecine conflicts within every subculture. Every position in every job respects some co-workers, and despises others. Again, these squabbles are, for the most part, not in the memoirs, or they get glossed over. But as you read, keep an eye out for phrases like “I don’t want to get in any topskimmer vs. uprider issues here, so instead I’ll discuss…” This is likely to be the only mention of this tension (between two words I just made up) that you’re going to get in a memoir, but at least they’ve given you some keywords to google. Dive into the message boards where they’re actively debating this stuff and don’t come up for air until you’ve got a handle on it. Don’t write a war movie unless you know what Sergeants tend to presume about Sergeants Major, and vice versa.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Underrated Movie #105: Kind Hearts and Coronets


Title: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Year: 1949
Director: Robert Hamer
Writers: Hamer and John Dighton, based on the novel “Israel Rank” by Roy Horniman
Stars: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness

The Story: In this blackest of black comedies, an heiress marries for love and gets disowned, but she remains obsessed with the idea that her son is 12th in line for a dukedom. After her death, the son decides that there’s nothing to be done but kill off all the family members separating him from his rightful station.

How it Came to be Underrated: Though this isn’t the first time he’s been featured here, Hamer’s name is mostly forgotten today, partially because he died young, so anyone watching all the “great films by the great directors” would never run across this one. It’s actually quite beloved, but still not the household name in this country that it deserves to be.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Though he’s fourth-billed, the movie is handily stolen by Guinness, who became an instant star by playing all 8 members of the same family that get killed off by Price. Though you would expect him to camp it up, he instead invests each of these inbred lords and ladies with enough dignity to pull against the satire and give the movie some strong moral tension.
  2. Stories of Victorian England are all about class, of course, but usually deal with those who try and fail to make their peace with the arbitrary hierarchy that pigeonholes them for life. How refreshing to finally see an ahead-of-his-time protagonist who reacts the same way we would to all this madness: with a fine murderous rage.
  3. That said, he does kill an awful lot of people, so how do you keep him sympathetic? I’ve noticed that one thing that many false quest movies have in common, from Psycho to The Godfather to Wall Street, is a misguided attempt to please (sometimes posthumously) a disappointed parent. Apparently audiences will sympathize with any amount of criminality if that is the underlying motive.
  4. It’s amazing how well this movie works, given that it’s so novelistic. It’s got wall-to-wall narration, it follows the protagonist from cradle to grave, and has multiple plotlines that don’t always intersect. A major subplot involves Price’s love for a faithless coquette played with a delightfully wicked languor by Joan Greenwood, who gets to wear the most wonderfully silly hats in movie history.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Guinness made a lot of great comedies for the Ealing studio. Two other great ones were The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob.

How Available Is It?: It has an excellent Criterion Collection DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Down With Poverty! Up with Affluence!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #66: If You Laugh At Death, You Suffer the Consequences

On screens big and small, we are experiencing the second heyday of the action-comedy. Is this because America has fallen in love with this tricky genre all of a sudden? Not exactly, but Hollywood sure has. Many of last year’s biggest flops, from Killers to Knight and Day to The A-Team tackled the challenge and lost. The genre has been somewhat more successful on TV where it’s practically taken over all the original programming at USA.

Usually action movies demand that the audience take them very seriously, but this genre does the opposite, nudging the audience in the ribs to point out how zany all these shenanigans are, only to turn around in the next scene and ask us to take it semi-seriously again. It’s not an inherently bad idea, I love Hopscotch and Silver Streak as much as the next guy, but it’s a fine line to walk.

On paper, no one should like the TNT show “Leverage” more than I. It combines two of my favorite shows, “Mission: Impossible” and “60 Minutes”. High-tech con men who specialize in taking down untouchable white-collar criminals? That’s gold, baby! But in practice, it never clicked for me. I eventually made it through half of the first season but I knew the show was never going to work about four minutes into the pilot. Right away, we meet the team through a series of separate character introductions. In order to introduce the show’s resident badass, they show a time when he calmly confronted ten Serbian gangsters, who all pulled guns on him:
Cut to the an exterior show showing the windows lighting up from all the guns going off:Cut back inside. All the bad guys are dead:And the hero doesn’t even have his hair mussed:This told me two things:

  1. Jeopardy would never really be a serious thing on this show. They would always be willing to laugh off overwhelming odds for the sake of a joke.
  2. Despite all the show’s righteous indignation about corporate crime, mass killings were somehow supposed to be hilarious.

By way of contrast, Burn Notice on USA is another problematical show, but it never would have made either of these mistakes. The funny characters are funny, and the action sequences are often lightly comic, but they never laugh away the jeopardy or show “funny” dead bodies on that show. As a rule, you can feel free to vary the tone, but keep the hot side hot and the cool side cool. Don’t treat danger like a big joke if you want us to worry about it later.