Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #125: Let Them Sleep On It

Yesterday, I talked about those situations where a scene generates a lot more emotional friction than you thought it would, and your characters start refusing to do what the outline says they’re supposed to do.

One classic version of this, which I encounter all the time, involves pride.  In my outline, I’ve got two characters who are hashing out a heated disagreement.  Each character passionately argues their side, until finally my hero pulls out a devastating argument that demolishes all opposition.  The obstacle character has no choice but to admit that they were wrong.  Now they’ll come clean, admit the truth, and help the hero after all... 

...Except something goes wrong.  My hero delivers the coup de grace, and the obstacle character does realize that he or she is wrong, but then they won’t admit it.  Their defenses have been destroyed, but their pride is still getting in the way.  I try to write the ending of the scene, where the obstacle character says, “You’re right, I’m wrong, now let me tell you the truth,” but the character just won’t say those words. 

Luckily, I have one simple trick to get out of this situation: split the scene in half and cut to the next morning.  This is how life works.  I know that every time anyone has convinced me that I was wrong (which is to say, both times) I haven’t been willing to admit it until I’ve slept on it.  By the time the sun comes up, my last lingering illusions are gone. 

More than once, I written a scene and workshopped it with a writing group where all the writers said that the victory came too easily.  In response, heres all I did: After the hero delivers the coup de grace, the obstacle storms out and says “Go to hell!”  leaving the hero to lament that they’ve lost this battle.  The next morning, the obstacle sheepishly knocks on the door and comes clean.  Every time, this two-day version of the scene received no complaints from the workshop. 

I noticed an example of this in Winter’s Bone, when Jennifer Lawrence is trying to borrow her friend’s car, over the objections of the friend’s abusive husband.  Lawrence pulls out all the stops to convince her friend, but can’t.  In the morning the friend shows up with the keys… and a black eye.

On a cheerier note, that scene where a girl awkwardly rejects a guy’s profession of love at night only to think better of it and jump his bones the next day always works, because we all know cases where that’s happened in real life.
These are examples of the way that friction can slow stories down, which is ultimately a good thing.  You never want things to be too easy for your hero.  If your characters object, listen to those objections and accommodate them.    

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #124: Outlines are Frictionless Surfaces

I’ve talked before about my tendency to overplot.  Here’s where I always get into trouble:  I write a 30-beat outline for my story, in which my heroes dart from place to place, ferreting out the information they need and solving big mysteries (whether personal or professional) until they reach their goal.  As long as each of my 30 beats is accomplished in 4 pages or less, I’ll come out under the dreaded 120 page limit.  No problem, right?  Wrong.

Remember high school physics? In order to make the theoretical problems easier to solve, they would always say “Assume that all surfaces are frictionless”.  Of course, in real life, there’s no such thing as a frictionless surface, so your calculations would be way off, but they were just trying to teach us the abstract concepts, not trying to get anything done.

The problem with outlines is that they, too, assume that all surfaces are frictionless.   In an outline, your hero glides into a room, collides with another character, and then the force of that collision sends the hero ricocheting off into the next scene.  And you can try to write the first draft that way, too, but it’ll be pretty bad, and you’ll just have to re-write it later. 

The more authenticity, verisimilitude, and texture your fictional world has, the more friction your characters will experience when they encounter it.  Your characters may walk into the scene with a straightforward confrontation in mind, but in order to reach that goal, they’ll first have to overcome some tactical mini-challenges and navigate some swirling emotional cross-currents. 

Here are some typical causes of friction that you may have failed to account for when you wrote your outline:
  • Emotional fallout carried over from the previous scene.
  • What the character in the room is doing (and may want to continue doing) when the other character walks in.
  • Emotional fallout from the last scene these two characters had together
  • Additional characters in the room who aren’t part of the main confrontation but may butt in.
  • The physical challenges of the room’s layout.
  • The decorum of the room, where a confrontation may be uncouth.
  • When your character refuses to do what you tell them to do. 
  • When the encounter turns out to be far more emotional than you thought it would be, leading to unforeseen consequences. 
If you just ignore all of these factors and write each scene as if it’s happening in a vacuum, you’ll get to where you’re going much faster, but the scenes will suck.  The more sophisticated a piece of writing is, the more friction it creates, and the less plot it needs.
Each episode of “Mad Men” has only a thin wisp of a plot, just enough to start these richly-textured, electrically-charged characters sparking off against each other. “Don and Peggy need to come up with a slogan for a luggage company” sounds like a dead-simple goal, but on this show the characters encounter so much friction along the way that they wind up being torn apart.  On a show like “Person of Interest”, on the other hand, the characters have no personalities at all, creating a frictionless surface, so tons of plots points glide by effortlessly (and meaninglessly).

Monday, February 27, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #123: There’s More Than One Type of Storytelling Irony

I’ve talked about irony a lot on this blog, including here and here, but it can all get a little unclear, because irony can have so many different meanings. 
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The best definition overall definition I’ve come up with is this: Irony is any gap between expectation and reality. ...But, in practice, this isn’t quite precise enough.  Irony, in common usage, usually also has some additional element of mortification to it.  The person experiencing the irony is trying to preserve their false expectation, or is actively working to make it come to pass, and then reality  upsets their expectation or their efforts.  For instance: the rise of an Asian-American basketball star defies our expectations, but it doesn’t really upset them, so it’s not really ironic.  Most of us weren’t especially invested in keeping this from happening or in proving that it couldn’t happen.

In the end, to define irony, we have to the fall back on the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous definition of pornography: “I can’t define it exactly, but I know it when I see it.” 

But for our purposes today, let’s define irony broadly, so that we can figure out the many different types of irony a storyteller can use.  Some of you, such as last week’s commenter, may point out that some of these are technically just incongruities, but my point is that you can make any of these incongruities seem ironic in order to increase the impact of a story. 

Here’s what I see as Seven Types of Storytelling Irony:
  1. Ironic Presentation: The gap between audience’s expectation of what sort of story this is and the audience’s ultimate experience.
  2. Dramatic Irony: The gap between what the audience knows and what the character knows.
  3. Ironic Characterization: The gap between a character’s hidden private self and open public identity.
  4. Ironic Backstory: The gap between the character’s past direction in life and their current position.
  5. Ironic Character Presumptions: The gap between character’s presumptions and the reality of their situation. 
  6. Ironic Outcome: The gap between what the character intends to accomplish and the actual consequences of their efforts.
  7. Ironic Title: An inherently contradictory concept.  
Now let’s go a little more in depth:

Ironic Presentation has nothing to do with your characters.  This is a type of irony that is felt entirely by the audience.  When people called the ‘90s the “Ironic Decade”, this is the type of irony they were talking about: “Seinfeld” played on our expectations that sitcom characters had to grow and change, then shocked us by having them learn nothing.  Tons of bands played on our expectations that rockers had to be earnest bad-asses, and treated the whole thing as a goof.  “The Simpsons” would occasionally do it the other way, setting us up for an irreverent Bart episode and then walloping us with an earnest Lisa episode.
The “Seinfeld” example could also (simplistically) be called “sarcasm,” which is one type of ironic presentation, but there are others... “Camp”, for example, is a little trickier.  “Low Camp”, such as the ‘60s  “Batman” TV show works on two levels: straight up fun for kids, sly satire for adults.  “High Camp”, such as the films of Douglas Sirk, tell a story that is so earnest that it’s absurd, forcing you to feel genuine emotion and yet, at the same time, forcing you to laugh at yourself for feeling it. 

Many storytelling gurus only use the term ‘irony’ to refer to what I would call Dramatic Irony.  This can work two ways:
  • We know the reality of the situation but the character doesn’t, such as the boy who is unwittingly carrying a bomb in Hitchcock’s Sabotage
  • Or the character knows the reality but we don’t, as in heist thrillers such as Ocean’s Eleven
Some stories work better when our point of view is strictly married to the hero’s, with no dramatic irony, but not always.  Sometimes, we appreciate getting the sort of perspective that can only be achieved by seeing more than anyone in the story, and other times, we enjoy playing catch-up.  In Ocean’s Eleven, we don’t catch up until the very end, but in another heist thriller, Charlie Varrick, we catch up several times, which is also satisfying. 

Ironic Characterization is the gap between this and this. Characters should never be exactly what they say they are, or they’ll be flat.  As Robert McKee says, Rambo is exactly what he claims to be, so the character isn’t compelling.  Superheroes literally have a secret identity, but all heroes need to have a hidden part of themselves in order to for us to identify with them, because we all feel misunderstood and underestimated.  We all have both hidden strengths and hidden weakensses. As Bob Dylan said: “If my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”

Ironic Backstory is what I talked about here and here.  Not every character needs one, but it’s always powerful to reveal that a character started out headed in a very different direction from where they ended up. 

Ironic Character Presumptions are what I talked about here, here and here.  Every scene hits harder if we know that the characters naively think the opposite is going to happen. 

Ironic Outcomes are what I talked about here.  I liked The Help more than I thought I would, but I felt it deflated in the second half when Emma Stone’s actions had almost-exactly their intended effects.  If the story had been about the unintended effects of the book being published, it would have felt like literature, but as it was, it was just entertainment.  (Not that it needed to have an unhappy ending.  It could have ended happily but followed an ironic path to get there, such as in The Apartment)

Ironic Title: This last type is probably the least “ironic” of my ironies, but I’ll throw it in here anyway.  It always drives me crazy when I see a fantasy novel with a title like “The Knight’s Lance”, or a thriller with a title like “Deadly Assassin”.  These titles are telling you right off the bat that this book will be predictable.  A good story needs conflict, and why not start with the title, which is your first opportunity to set two incongruous elements against each other.
Let’s pick some from the list at right...   These titles are inherently intriguing: Blast of Silence, Dark Days, Killer’s Kiss, Kiss Me, Stupid, The Little Fugitive, Little Murders, My Favorite Wife, Safety Last, Unfaithfully Yours, and The White Sheik. 

The Court Jester, on the other hand, is a weak title, because where else would a jester be? Likewise, Shoot to Kill could be the title of any thriller ever made.  And Fritz Lang rightly complained when studio changed the name of his movie from the ironic The Human Beast to the unironic Human Desire.  Lang demanded to know, “What other kind of desire is there??” 

Good stories are packed with irony.  Hegel said that all meaning is created by the violent clash of a thesis vs. an antithesis.  The more ironies you pack into your story, the more meaning you’ll create.      

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What Should've Won (That Could've Won): 1928

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Okay, guys, here we go, I’ve been prepping this for a while.  After two years, “Underrated Movies” are going on a long hiatus in favor of a year-by-year journey through my second-guesses of the Best Picture Winners.  I’ll try to limit myself to the same unofficial standards the Academy uses, mostly choosing from that pool of widely-released American movies that have that certain “you’ll laugh / you’ll cry”  epic sweep that the Academy loves. 
The Year: 1928
What the Nominees Were: This was the only year in which they split the nominees between “ Best (mainstream) Picture”…
  1. Wings
  2. The Racket
  3. Seventh Heaven
…and “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”… 
  1. Chang
  2. The Crowd
  3. Sunrise
This wasn’t a bad idea, actually.  Maybe they should bring it back. 

Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman is his final masterpiece, and it easily would have deserved the prize had it come out in 1929, but it had the misfortune to come out in 1928 instead, one of the best-ever years for American movies.   

What Did Win: Picture: Wings, Unique or Artistic Picture: Sunrise
How The Winners Have Aged: It’s hard to complain about either of these choices.  Wings is still amazing-looking and a good story, and Sunrise is a flat-out masterpiece. Unfortunately, it was up against…
What Should’ve Won: The Crowd
How Hard the Decision Was: Not very, since The Crowd is my all-time favorite movie.  I had been dating my future-wife for a week when I took her to a museum and made her watch it to test her.  (Dating me was never very fun.)  Luckily, she loved it, and me.

Director: King Vidor 
Writers: Screenplay by Vidor and John V.A. Weaver, Titles by Joe Farnham 
Stars: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach, Estelle Clark

The Story: A young man, born on July 4th, 1900, is assured by his parents that he’ll be president someday, but instead he just becomes a face in the crowd in New York City, unable to support his loving family on a clerk’s pay, and torn apart by his failures.

Nominations and Wins: It was nominated for Best Unique or Artistic Picture and Best Director, but lost both.
Why It Didn’t Win: It’s hard to fault the Academy for overlooking it.  It was a great year and they made good choices.  It is to America’s shame that this portrait of poverty has become more timely and powerful with each passing year, whereas Sunrise, about rural fears of city life, seems far more dated. 

Why It’s Great:
  1. American sociologists have become increasingly concerned about the so-called “Lake Woebegone” effect, named for Garrison Keilor’s fictional town in which every child is expected to be above average.  What does it do to a nation when average-ness is demonized?  Vidor knew way back in 1928: it destroys the soul.  This is the tragedy of an average man who has been told that it is unacceptable to be average, and can’t forgive himself for his failure to excel.
  2. This was the last year a silent movie won best picture until, presumably, tonight, when The Artist is expected win the prize it richly deserves.  Both movies excel at finding those little vulnerable behaviors that we’ve all done but never seen onscreen before, like trying to get a spot off your face and then realizing it’s on the mirror.  Sound pictures have never achieved that level of universality. If sound movies are the cousin of prose, then silent movies are the cousin of poetry.
  3. But the real tragedy of the arrival of sound was the death of the moving camera, which had just exploded into use in the ‘26-‘28 period.  The camera is wonderfully alive here, such as when it slides backwards down a Coney Island slide in front of our heroes as they experience the exhilaration of first love.  It would take thirty years for camera operators to recapture this level of liberation. 
  4. The anchor of this movie’s greatness is Murray’s heart-wrenching performance.  He himself was pulled from the crowd (he had been an extra) and catapulted to stardom after giving one of the most astoundingly naturalistic performances ever captured.  Unfortunately, it might have been a little too natural.  Like his character, Murray could not live up to these expectations.  He died in poverty eight years later.
  5. You might not have seen this, but you’ve seen its influence everywhere. The Apartment reverently replicated the stunning introductory shot of the hero at work in a sea of desks, Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July is a comedic genre-flip of the same story, and It’s A Wonderful Life updated a similar character arc for the post-war era.  Even those who did not imitate the picture were in awe of it: When Jean Luc-Godard was asked why he never made any films about ordinary people, he responded, “Why remake The Crowd?  It’s already been done.” 
How Available Is It?: Not at all!  I had to download a low-quality bit torrent dub of the old VHS version!  Boo! 

Ah, 1928: Odd Pants!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Best of 2011, #3, #2, and #1!


Hey, why am I rushing through this? Because my #3 and #2 favorite Hollywood movies of last year are both movies I’ve already covered extensively. #3: Cedar Rapids was an underrated movie, and #2: Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the topic of a whole week of Storyteller’s Rulebook posts:
  1. Create Reversible Behaviors
  2. Limit Your Hero’s Perspective
  3. Great Genre Stories Must Be Metaphors
  4. Reboots Must Re-Establish the Metaphor
Is there anything left to say? Nope! Let’s move on to #1: Crazy Stupid Love

The Story: When a disappointed wife (Julianne Moore) requests a divorce from her listsless husband (Steve Carrell), he seeks out the help of a local lothario (Ryan Gosling) to re-awaken his manhood, but just as Carell discovers his wild side, Gosling suddenly feels an urge to settle down with a straight-laced young lawyer (Emma Stone).

Why This One: Was this my favorite movie of the year? No, that was probably The Artist, but it was my favorite home-grown movie because, on a nuts-and-bolts level –-the scenework, the dialogue, the characterization–- it was so elegantly put together. It’s a master class in heartfelt writing, which is something Hollywood doesn’t know how to do anymore. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa knew a good thing when they saw it, so they shot Dan Fogelberg’s screenplay exactly as it was on the page

Rules It Drove Home:
  1. People only want what they want: This rule could have been the title of the movie, in which every character (the couple, their kids, their babysitter, their kid’s teachers, everybody) keeps getting walloped by their own unrequited, irrational desires, which they are helpless to ignore. Carrell and Moore have whole (beautifully-written) conversations where each one literally doesn’t listen to a thing that the other says. Yes, there are times when characters try to give each other advice, but every time, it’s hopelessly tainted by the advice-giver’s own frustrated desires and limited perspective.
  2. Build up false expectations beforehand: Let’s start with the first line of the movie: Carrell can’t decide on what desert they should have, so he asks his wife what she wants, and she replies, “I want a divorce.” From that point on, characters are constantly convincing themselves (and the audience) that something good is about to happen, only to encounter shocking reversals. Stone doesn’t get the proposal she expects, a PTA-meeting reconciliation that seems to be going great for Carrell suddenly turns hellish, an elaborate backyard romantic gesture ends in disaster… This movie toys with our emotions expertly.
  3. The twist must make sense immediately: This movie has a clever twist ¾ of the way in that forces us to re-interpret a lot of what we’ve seen, but we make that left turn very quickly (two quick questions are asked, along the lines of “Wait, but then how…”), then the movie charges forward. Fogelberg has very slyly been setting it up the whole time with little odd moments we don’t really notice… until it all suddenly clicks into place.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Best Hollywood Movies of 2011, #4: Bridesmaids

The Story: Like you don’t know! Broke former bakery-owner Kristin Wiig signs up to be the maid of honor for her best friend, Maya Rudolph, but can’t compete with a wealthy fellow bridesmaid who schemes to take over the planning. A series of meltdowns finally convinces Wiig that she has to get her life back on track.

Why This One: I haven’t watched SNL in years, but after I saw Wiig in two scenes in Knocked Up, I thought, “Wow, she could go far.” How nice that things actually worked out that way! Co-writing with Annie Mumolo under the direction of Paul Feig, Wiig created a shockingly authentic character in the middle of a broadly farcical plot.

Rules it Drove Home:
  1. Begin With A Self-Contained Interaction That Encapsulates the Theme: We meet Wiig and Rudolph as they do sit-ups in the park while hiding behind a tree, in an attempt to take advantage of a hardcore personal trainer’s class without paying him. We like them right away: they’re clever, resourceful, and engaged in physical exertion! But after he catches them and chases them away, a funny thing happens: he gets the most pitiful look on his face and whimpers: “It’s only five bucks!” Surprisingly, our sympathy shifts to him! This pre-figures the arc of the movie, as we go from rooting for Wiig to “win” to rooting for her to take responsibility for her life.
  2. Know Why Their Friends Like Them: Now let’s go to the second scene, as our heroines flee to a diner. This is one of the most likeably-goofy friendship scenes I’ve ever seen. Too many rom-coms sacrifice the friend on the altar of the lead’s likability. The friend is usually shrill, or air-headed, or super-slutty, in order to make the lead seem better by comparison. Wiig knows better, since the friendship is the heart of this movie, and this scene really sells that.
  3. Screw-Ups Don’t Screw Up All Day Long: In the comments sections recently, we’ve talked about how hard it is to make an audience care about self-loathing heroes, but Wiig’s character is an example of how to do it right. She hapless, but not hopeless: She’s sleeping with Jon Hamm, fer chissakes! That makes it clear that yes, she has pretty-good options in life, but she’s just hit a ceiling that she can’t get past. We want her to have more self-respect, because we think she deserves more self-respect.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Best Hollywood Movies of 2011, #5: Margin Call

The Story: Zach Quinto and Penn Badgley are minor analysts in a massive Wall Street firm. They survive a mass purge that claims their boss, Stanley Tucci, only to discover that he left behind a new risk-model that shows that the company is about to implode. They run this news up the chain of command, which causes their bosses to consider an apocalyptic option: trick their own clients into buying all of the firm’s toxic waste.

Why This One: When I read this script I thought it would be too talky and uneventful to work as a movie. What I wasn’t taking into account was debut writer/director J.C. Chandor’s ability to impart all that talk with a compellingly eerie sense of gravity, making this the best straight-up drama of the year.

The Rules it Drove Home:
  1. Every Main Character Must be Volatile: Quinto and Badgley go to say good-bye to Tucci, but they’re really just checking that their own jobs are secure. After an awkward moment, they let him get on the elevator and Penn excuses himself… …but then Quinto decides to try again with a more sincere farewell. Only at this point does Tucci takes pity on him and leave him a copy of the new risk model. This story doesn’t just land in our hero’s lap, it happens because he takes a stop that his colleague wouldn’t take.
  2. Hey, look, it’s yesterday’s rule, Make the Backstory Ironic: I fell in love with this movie when big boss Jeremy Irons quizzed Quinto about where he came from. We find out that, rather than being a trained stock analyst, Quinto started out as an actual rocket scientist, then jumped into finance because the money was so much better. Not only does this give Quinto an ironic backstory, it reveals the theme of the movie: that our cleverest minds have been set to work cannibalizing America’s wealth, rather than building it up. (Irons’s backstory, on the other hand, is never revealed, because we can basically guess where he came from.)
  3. Be Incomprehensible: This is a dizzying maelstrom of unexplained jargon, so why doesn’t that ruin the movie? Doesn’t the audience have to understand the options the heroes are juggling, so that we can play along? To a certain extent, yes, but something delightful happens here: We don’t understand the fine print, no, but that allows us to step back and see the broader picture. This is just as well: If they had held our hands and forced the characters to explain themselves every step of the way, then we still wouldn’t have understood any of it, and we have rolled our eyes at how unrealistic that dialogue was. Instead, Chandor relies of the performances of his stellar cast to sell the emotion, even when we don’t understand a word they’re saying.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Best of 2011, Runners-Up / Storyteller’s Rulebook # 122: Only Reveal Ironic Backstories

Long-time readers may remember that I ended 2010 with five entries about my favorite Hollywood movies of that year, though I failed to do so at the end of 2011. The problem, of course, was an itty bitty baby that kept Betsy and I home most weekends, starting in June.

But between screeners and normal DVD releases, I’ve now caught up on most of the movies I wanted to see (Still not seen: Tree of Life, Moneyball, Mission: Impossible 4, a few others) So I figured, as long as we haven’t gotten to the Oscars yet, there’s still time to talk about last year’s movies, right? So let’s get to it!

Today we’re going to start with three runners-up, Thor, Captain America, and X-Men: First Class, all co-produced by Marvel Studios, which, like its Disney teammate Pixar, has shown a remarkable amount of brand-wide quality control. None of these movies was anywhere close to perfect, and each had at lest one moment that drove me crazy (I mention one here), but ultimately they were all very entertaining.

Rather than do what I normally do in these pieces and point out how they display pre-established Storyteller Rules, let’s mint a new rule from scratch that all three of these movies exemplify: Find an Ironic Backstory.

Lots of gurus such as Syd Field insist that you know everything about your characters right down to where their parents went to school. That’s okay, I guess, but usually, you’re never going to use that stuff. Before you come up with all that, you first need to ask yourself: When, if ever, am I going to reveal this backstory, and why?

If your hero became a cop because he came from a long line of Irish cops, or became a preacher because he was always the most pious kid on his block, you don’t need to tell us that. We can guess. The best reason to reveal a backstory is if it’s an ironic backstory: if your cop comes form a long line of college professors, or your preacher used to a gang member, for example.

Marvel Comics’ superheroes always did a great job at this. As opposed to a DC hero like Green Lantern, who took a small step from hotshot flying pilot to hotshot flying superhero, Marvel heroes tended to take much wider leaps into greatness. Let’s look at these three examples:
  • Captain America is the most typical example. The strongest and boldest man in the army has a surprise backstory: he was the weakest and sickliest kid in the country, but then some smart generals saw his potential and gave him a sci-fi whammy that turned his life around.
  • The original Thor comics had a similar dynamic, with Thor’s secret identity being a crippled doctor named Don Blake. The movie eliminated that secret identity, but it still made use of ironic backstories: This is ultimately the story of two brothers competing for their father’s love, so how does it begin? Thor is the cocky asshole who has contempt for all of his father’s rules, while Loki is humble and lovable.
  • X-Men: First Class pushed a similar dynamic to the extreme. In this case, we’ve already seen the original trilogy, where Professor Xavier was a saintly father figure and Magneto was a marauding terrorist. So now we get their backstories: Xavier is a swinging ’60s cad who uses his powers to get laid, while Magneto is a righteous Holocaust survivor on a quest for justice.

In each case, these ironic backstories give these heroes an embarrassing secret that affects everything they do. There’s a hidden gap between their private self and their public self. That irony adds subtext to every scene, which adds fuel to the whole story. In tomorrow’s pick, we’ll look at a great use of an ironic backstory in a non-superhero setting.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Underrated Movie #148: Peeping Tom

Title: Peeping Tom
Year: 1960
Director: Cockeyed Caravan favorite Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Stars: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

The Story: A psychopathic cameraman gives women screentests, then murders them with the sharpened end of one leg of his tripod, while capturing the horror on their faces. Can the love of his neighbor keep him from killing again, or will it take the police?

How it Came to be Underrated: This is a bit of a stretch. It was certainly unfairly ignored and/or condemned at the time of its release, but it has long-since been discovered and lauded by Scorsese and others. But it’s still not a household name, and it deserves to be ranked alongside its close cousin, Psycho.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Powell’s career consistently paralleled Hitchcock’s, except for the fact that when Hitch left for America and became a broadly popular master filmmaker, Powell stayed home in England and became an increasingly strange and unique artist. Then, in 1960, both geniuses had the same idea: Throw propriety to the wind and make a lurid little serial killer movie that broke every taboo. Amazing, Hitchcock succeeded in bringing his audience along with him down this dark hole, but Powell didn’t. Audiences were revolted by this movie and Powell’s career was ruined. But for fans of both, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. (One big difference, though, is the presence of color. No director has ever made a more poetic and bold use of color than Powell.)
  2. This is the movie that launched a thousand film theorists. In the ‘80s and ’90s, “gaze theory” was all the rage. It explored the viewer’s fetishistic craving for horrific images, especially of violence towards women. Boehm’s killer tripod became the ultimate expression of this theory, but it also showed the problem: these theorists sought to condemn both viewers and filmmakers as un-self-aware partners in victimization, but Powell was all too aware of his own culpability, and he forced his viewers to accept theirs as well. All too often, these theorists claimed that they were revealing accidental subtext when they were really just re-stating the text.
  3. The backstory is that our killer was raised by a B.F. Skinner-like psychiatrist who filmed his son’s entire childhood, subjecting him to terrible things and capturing his reactions on film. So how does Marks reveal this horrific backstory? Does Boehm tell someone about it? No, that’s not visual. Does he watch the films over and over by himself? Slightly better, but too bleak. Here’s the best version: His flirtatious neighbor barges into his apartment and asks to see a movie in his home theater. He can’t resist showing these “home movies,” though it may ruin the budding relationship. This way, our hope and despair are intertwined.
  4. Here’s the ultimate example of the ticking clock for a scene. Boehm is in the middle of developing the film of his last victim’s death when his crush stops by again. The conversation is pleasant, but if he keeps talking to her too long, he will ruin the film of his previous kill. Powell literally intercuts the timer in the darkroom with their flirtatious conversation, until Boehm is ultimately forced to decide between the two.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Two other underrated post-modern psycho-sexual thrillers from the ‘60s include Sam Fuller’s Naked Kiss and Bogdanovich’s first movie Targets.

How Available Is It?: For once, we have a print that looks absolutely gorgeous on Watch Instantly. There’s also a Criterion Collection DVD, but I haven’t seen it.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Last Woman on Earth!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 11: Raid the Public Imagination

If you don’t want to raid the public domain, you can simply raid the public imagination. Ted Elliott memorably described this as “mental real estate” and talked about how he and his writing partner raided it quite profitably for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Another great example is Men in Black. There was a longstanding urban legend about mysterious G-Men in black suits and glasses who would show up after any mysterious event and intimidate people into saying nothing had happened. Even if you’d never heard the legend, it tapped into a universal fear of government suppression in an iconic way.

Likewise, you don’t have to make a extensively-footnoted docu-drama like JFK in order to tap into fears about assassination conspiracies. Movies like The Parallax View, Winter Kills and The Package do the job just as well.
I pointed out before that there’s no better source for short film ideas than Paradox Publishing’s graphic novel compilation “The Big Book of Urban Legends”. For feature-length ideas, you could do worse than to raid the rest of that series, which offered more in-depth looks at other twice-told tales that infect the public consciousness. Their “Big Book of Conspiracies”, “Big Book of the Unexplained”, etc. collect and codify those nagging, unproven suspicions that lurk outside the realm of confirmed fact.

The simplest version of this tactic is shown by the movie Safe House. If the movie had just been titled Kill the Spy! it would have sounded too much like something we’ve seen a million times before. On the other hand, if it had been titled One Day in Johannesburg, it might not have piqued anybody’s interest.But most people have some vague idea that spies uses something called a “safe house”, and yet we’ve never really seen a movie set there, so that was a piece of mental real estate waiting to be claimed. By choosing the name Safe House, they said to the public, “It’s a genre you know and love, but it’s an angle you haven’t seen before.” A name like that is gold.

Okay, that’s it for now. Below, you’ll find the tag for this series. Feel free to send it to your future fans when they ask you, “Where do you get your ideas??”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 10: Raid the Public Domain

I probably don’t need to tell anybody this, because it’s all the rage right now, but the public domain is a great source of story ideas. One of the most popular movies of last year was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, leading to an avalanche of edgy re-interpretations of fairy tales and other children’s stories.

Of course, if legal sanity had prevailed, we would now have everything from the 1950s on back entering the public domain, but corporate power has declared war on this precious natural resource by constantly extending copyrights. Copyrights were created to reward innovation, but now they do the opposite, encouraging their owners to wring a thousand years of blood out of every old stone. It now seems unlikely that most post-1910 works will ever enter the public domain, much less anything from the 21st century.

But that still leaves a treasure trove of works to plumb, including works that still have recognizable names and easily-adaptable stories. I’ve toyed with adaptations of “The Most Dangerous Game” and “The Man Who Was Thursday”, both of which have very modern themes that still resonate today. All you have to do is update the setting.

It used to be hard to figure out which works were in the public domain, but the internet makes it much easier. Just look up any work you’re curious about at Project Gutenberg. If it’s available to the public, they’ll know, and they’ll have the whole text available for download at the touch of a button. Cut and paste it into a new document, then start reshaping.

But as I said before, this well is currently being over-tapped, and after we have a dozen failed fairy tale updates in the next year, then it may become poisoned for a few years. Tomorrow, for our grand finale, we’ll look at a variation that works just as well...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 9: Show Us the Other Side

One day, Billy Wilder was watching David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, about a veddy British adulterous couple having a series of guilt-wracked assignations. They’re ashamed about every part of the process, including the fact that they have to stay out of sight by doing the deed in the apartment of the man’s friend.

That friend is barely seen onscreen—he has nothing to do with the story, but Wilder couldn’t stop thinking about him: that poor schmuck who has to come home to a sullied bed. The character stayed with Wilder for years until he finally turned into C.C. Baxter, star of The Apartment.

Likewise, it’s not hard to figure out the origin of The Other Guys: it begins as two hard-as-nails supercops watch some bank robbers driving away…They look at each other and decide to take a so-crazy-it-just-might-work leap off a building and onto the bad guys’ car…But it was a little too crazy and they simply splat dead on the ground. That leaves the case in the hands of two paper-pusher cops who are more used to riding desks.

Of course, this can be a dangerous way to create an idea: you don’t want to end up with the abstraction of an abstraction. Instead of writing something that merely comments on someone else’s metaphor, it’s important to fill in the missing half of the original metaphor and connect it back to your own hopes and fears. On Scriptshadow, I recommended the book “Fat Vampire” for adaptation, which has a good example as its premise: Why does becoming a vampire always mean that you remain forever beautiful? What if it just kept you forever fat?

Monday, February 13, 2012

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 8: Flip Another Movie’s Genre

In order to sell a pitch, you need a catchy logline. My latest script, which I’m getting notes on today, couldn’t have been more simple: “The thriller version of [a well-known comedy]”. (I’m not at liberty to say which yet, but it’s one of the movies in the list at right.) Once I said that, everybody could instantly see the appeal.

This has been done a lot over the years: Throw Momma From the Train is explicitly the comedy version of Strangers on a Train. The recent spec sale From Mia With Love is basically the comedic version of the dreadful Nicole Kidman thriller Birthday Girl. A movie I mentioned yesterday, Chronicle, could be called the thriller version of Zapped.

Here’s the zany action-comedy version of Taken: A divorced CIA agent, who is convinced that Europe is a cesspool, can’t reach his daughter in France on the phone, so he rampages across the continent trying to get her back, while she constantly tries to ditch him. Along the way, his hysterical fears of Muslims are turned on their head when he gets mixed up with a beautiful French-Socialist-Muslim lady-spy. Meanwhile, his daughter, looking to borrow money, pays a surprise visit to his ex-partner, only to stumble onto the fact that he’s now an illegal gun runner. Now the dad and the French spy have to team up to save his daughter after all, unexpectedly falling in love along the way!

Here’s the thriller version of The Hangover: The introverted brother-of-the-bride is reluctantly invited along on a wild Vegas bachelor party by the groom and his friends. These guys turn out to be corrupt cops by day and drug dealers by night. When they run into rivals in the midst of the party, things get violent. The brother-in-law has seen too much, so they inject him with something that wipes out his short-term memory and leave him at the scene to take the rap. …But he wakes up early, avoids the manhunt that’s looking for him and searches the city for clues as to what happened in the missing hours, so that he can clear his name and nail the real killers...

These things write themselves!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 7: Pull a Genre Element Out Of Its Genre

For the second half of this project, lets look at ways to tap into pre-existing stories...

For a long time, genre stories and realistic stories were strictly separated. Stories with fantastical elements happened in fanciful settings. If someone got superheroes, they put on tights and fought crime, because that’s the appropriate genre for that story element.


But now those assumptions have been blown to hell, for good or ill. There are lots of stories that take a fantastical element and put it in a realistic setting. This especially happens in found footage movies like Chronicle and Cloverleaf. This can be a very fruitful way to create a new story, but it also had its pitfalls.


On the one hand, why not? If done right, such movies can turn our genre expectations upside down, forcing us to see these familiar genre elements with fresh eyes and reject the tired familiarity of the stories we’re used to. These elements are injected with a new rawness and immediacy, allowing our enjoyment of them to be revivified.

On the other hand, the danger is that the writer will try to have it both ways. In movies like The Dark Knight (which I thought was overrated—heresy, I know…) you have a lot of messy real world politics rubbing up against the fact that, in the real world, no one would dress up as a bat to fight crime.


Even worse, you get movies like Hancock. In one broadly comic scene early on, Hancock literally shoves one guy’s head up another guy’s ass. Later, in a very serious scene, the two guys deal with the trauma this has caused. Nuh-uh. Not allowed. Don’t ask us to consider the PTSD caused by silly, unrealistic stories.

A great example of taking a genre element out of its genre was shown by the excellent French movie Poison Friends. It begins as typical thriller: we meet a group of friends in a competitive academic program who don’t suspect that there’s a sociopath in their group, telling devilish lies and pitting them against each other for his own selfish purposes. We expect things to escalate until the knives come out, but instead, the group gradually realizes that this guy is just a dick and they shun him from their lives. The movie becomes a straight-up drama as we see the exposed sociopath try to pick up the pieces of his wasted life.


You might not associate such a movie with something like Chronicle or Cloverleaf, but they have the same essential set up: How would you deal with a monster like this in real life, rather than if you were in a genre movie? When done right, this can be an electrifying question.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #121: Sympathy Isn’t Necessary, But Empathy Is

In the comments to Tuesday’s post, J.S. had some interesting things to say about empathy, so Ill interrupt our current project to follow-up:
One of the most contentious questions in the world of screenwriting is this: Must a main character be sympathetic? Producers shout, “Yes!” and cite hundreds of failed movies about unsympathetic heroes to prove it. Screenwriters shout, “No!” and point to a small handful of movies that have succeeded despite this handicap.

The screenwriters are right: if they know exactly what they’re doing, then writers need not generate sympathy for their heroes. But there is one hard and fast rule: they must generate empathy…and to generate that empathy, they must feel it themselves.

No matter how unsympathetic characters’ actions are, there’s still a chance that we'll have empathy for their inner turmoil, but only if the authors genuinely feel that empathy themselves. On the other hand, if authors just want to condemn their own characters, we won’t care.

On Wednesday, I cited the examples of Citizen Kane, Psycho, and Notes on a Scandal. In each case, the writers asked us to have empathy without asking us to have any sympathy, and they pulled it off because they themselves felt empathy with no sympathy.

But far more common are movies like Young Adult: writer Diablo Cody was complimented by some critics for having the “daring” to make a movie with an unsympathetic heroine, but it would have been daring only if Cody had found a way to empathize with her unsympathetic heroine. Instead, she merely condemned the character, and it’s not hard to do that when you're the one who created her and her world.

One thing that the previous three movies do that Young Adult doesn’t is create the sense of an impossible situation. The characters all (irrationally) feel totally trapped by their life circumstances. (Of course, this is especially ironic with Welles’s Kane, who can go anywhere in the world except the one place he wants to go: back home)

But Theron’s character never feels trapped at all: the audience (along with every other character in the movie) spends the whole movie yelling at her: “Just go back to Minneapolis!” She spends the whole movie going after what she wants and ignoring what she needs, which is exasperating for the audience. (The Aviator had the same problem.)

The three characters cited above, on the other hand, are honestly trying to fill the hole in their lives, but they’re going about it the wrong way. We empathize with their honest need, but refuse to sympathize with their despicable attempts to satiate it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 6: Start with an Image


A man waiting at a lonely crossroads suddenly realizes that a cropduster pilot is plunging down towards him with death in his eyes. Why? A house lifts up out of the city, carried aloft by thousands of helium balloons. Who’s in it? Where’s it going?This is one of the most exciting but dangerous ways to generate an idea. You’re essentially starting with the poster: an arresting image that would make anybody want to see more. All that you’re missing is characters and a plot and a theme. The danger, of course, is that once your hero comes to life, he’ll think of easier ways to get down to the Amazon. If you start in the middle, there’s no guarantee that your hero will want to get there.


I’ve had an image in my head for a while: a horde of Tyrannosauruses rampaging down the streets of modern day New York. How did they get there? And who will discover the cause of the problem? And why will the audience love that character? And what does any of this have to do with any genuine emotion of mine? Most importantly, what is the metaphor here? The image gives me none of this. It’s just a great poster.


Ultimately, it’s much more organic to start with a universal emotion and extrapolate an extreme situation from it, rather than starting with an extreme situation and reducing it back down to the emotion at its core. But it can work either way, if you’re very careful.

Pixar is especially good at this. I would imagine that most of their movies began with an image (toys coming to life, a mouse-chef in a human kitchen, a ruined planet covered in trash), but they don’t move forward until they’ve connected those concepts to very universal emotions.