Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #159: The Villain Needs A Solid Motivation Too

You’ve heard me say that I loathed Dark Knight Rises, and that I liked Avengers for the most part.  Another recent action movie that I haven’t mentioned yet but I massively enjoyed was Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.  Nevertheless, loathe ‘em, like ‘em, or love ‘em, all of these movies shared one big problem, which is apparently becoming a trend: the villain with no real motive.

When I walked out of The Avengers, once the adrenaline rush wore off, I asked my friends, “Was this movie written by George W. Bush?”  Whenever anyone asked the villain Loki why he was blowing stuff up, his only answer was, “I hate you for your freedom!”  Who says that? 

The Mission Impossible villain, meanwhile, just gets a brief speech about how Hiroshima and Nagasaki both have thriving economies today, so why not nuke the whole world?  That’s all the movie felt that it needed to justify two hours of (admittedly awesome) running, jumping and shooting. 

Loki is literally a god of chaos, but that job description could apply to all of these villains.  In retrospect, it applies to the villains of all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman villains, Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker and Bane, none of whom had any motivation outside of “destruction is good”. 

My favorite classic Joker stories from the comics were those in which he was pursuing a concrete objective, whether it was a logical goal, like in “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” (getting back at old allies who betrayed him) or a crazy goal, like in “The Laughing Fish” (transforming every fish in the sea into a “Joker Fish” and then trying to copyright their faces). 

Nolan’s movie, however, was based on the more recent Joker stories, where he just wants to create sadistic homicidal mayhem.  One problem with this is that it makes the villain’s job way too easy.  It’s impossible for him to fail in his efforts, because, win or lose, mayhem will ensue.  Indeed, Nolan’s Batman catches the Joker and hangs him from a hook, but he just bounces up and down, laughing triumphantly at how much he messed everything up. 

Heroes only become believable when we understand their motivation.  Villains are the same way.  It’s a lot more interesting if we get to see how every step is helping or hindering their overall goal and their mini-goals. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook: #158: The Paradox of Genre Fiction

I’ve been praising a lot of comedies recently, which may make you think that I’m only interested in light-hearted cheesiness these days.  But that’s not true, I’m also interested in black-hearted cheesiness, which is to say that I’ve been greatly enjoying season two of “American Horror Story.”

Season one [SPOILERS ahead] was wildly uneven, but ultimately very enjoyable (largely because of amazing performances from new discovery Evan Peters and underused veteran Jessica Lange.) In the end, its greatest innovation was its shock ending: Everybody died.  This overcomes the biggest problem of horror TV: the need to protect the main characters from danger.  And the fact that they didn’t warn us in advance made it wonderfully mind-blowing to see these seemingly-permanent characters get killed off one by one.

Having burnt that bridge, they started over from scratch this season with all new characters (but many of the same actors, including Peters and Lange) for the story of a 1964 lunatic asylum.  This time, of course, the jig is up: we now know that each season will be self-contained, so we’re forewarned not to get too attached.  This is a true horror show, and things are pretty much guaranteed to get worse and worse. 

And yet, against all logic, despite knowing that things will almost certainly end badly, I enjoy rooting for the characters to escape and/or expose the evil of the asylum-keepers. 

This is the big paradox behind our enjoyment of any genre story: why do allow we ourselves to worry about the characters, when the genre alone tells it how it’s probably going to end: we pretty much know that the super-spy will triumph, and the sexually-active teen that taunts the monster must die. Somehow, good stories get us to suspend our meta-textual awareness and forget that the ending is a foregone conclusion. 

Let’s compare this to a show from last season that I wanted to like, but just couldn’t.  Longtime readers may remember that I was a big fan of the short-lived show “Lone Star” from a few years ago.  After that show was abruptly cancelled, creator Kyle Killen got a chance to try again the next year, so he took its double-life concept and attempted to transplant it into a more high-concept network-friendly show. 

The result was “Awake”, about an LAPD detective who’d been in a horrible car crash and now lived two lives, one in which his wife died and another in which his son died.  He knew that one must be a dream, but he didn’t want to know which was which.  It was an fascinating concept, but it just didn’t work, and the biggest reason for that was that the show was just too much of a bummer.  Were we supposed to root for the wife to be dead, or the kid? 

Now don’t get me wrong: the tone of “Awake” was surprisingly uplifting: in both realities, the cop was healing through grief counseling, learning to love his surviving family member more, and solving a case-of-the-week.  The tone of “AHS”, on the other hand, could not be more nasty, lurid, and bleak.  So why do I find “AHS” to be fun and “Awake” to be such a drag? 

The answer is that, when we watch, we’re focused not on what’s probably going to happen to the heroes, or even what’s actually happening onscreen at the time, but on what we want to happen. 

There has to be a good option.   On “AHS”, I desperately want the unjustly condemned lesbian to defeat the evil nun and bring her asylum crashing down around her ears, and that’s why I watch.  Even though I know, on some level, that it’s never going to happen, I can still quixotically root for it until the last moment.   On “Awake”, meanwhile, things were getting better all the time, but there was never any real hope that he would escape the underlying horror of his situation, so, despite all the learning and growing that the hero was doing, I couldn’t root for him. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #157: People Hate Stuff

Sweet Liberty is the story of a history professor who undergoes the indignity of watching his historical novel turned into a ludicrous Hollywood blockbuster.  I’ve never actually seen it, but I’ve heard quoted more than once a piece of wisdom that the professor hears from a boorish movie producer:  “You’ll be okay as long as you do three things in a picture: defy authority, destroy property, and take people's clothes off.”

As soon as you hear this quote, trust me, you start to notice this belief everywhere, especially in older trailers.  You can check those three off every time, no matter what the movie is about.

Of course, this movie was made in 1985, just on the verge of the anti-sex puritanism that soon resurged and still has us in its grip.  In the years since, American movies have become less and less interested in taking people’s clothes off, but that just puts even more pressure on the other two…Screenwriters have to let their characters defy a lot of authority and destroy a lot of property. 

I’ve already talked about audiences’ insatiable need to see authority disobeyed, even if it’s an authority we would side with in real life.  Our need to see property destroyed is just as elemental and just as absurd. 

Recent TV pilot purchases have seen a resurgence of two genres: the Western and the post-apocalyptic show.  Why is that?  If you want to take a dark view, you could say it’s because America seems to be dying, and we’re trying to prepare ourselves for what to do if we have to start over from scratch.  And I’m sure that’s part of it…

But there’s also a more benign explanation: these shows are born not from our fear of America’s failure, but our guilt about America’s success.  Since at least Thoreau, Americans have had a big existential question gnawing at our soul: Do we own our stuff, or does our stuff own us?  This debate underlies many of our political disputes, and suffuses much of our art.  Thus we get the Western and its close cousin, the post-apocalyptic story. 

What would I do without my stuff?  Would I fall, because it’s propping me up, or would I rise, because it’s weighing me down?  This is the essential question that both of these genres pose.  And we all know what we want the answer to be: we want to believe that our stuff is a burden and that, like Thoreau, we’ll be better off without it. 

Whenever anyone in any story starts talking about how much they love a possession, then start writing that possession’s eulogy.  In real life, the destruction of a car is one of the most disastrous things that can happen to the average American family, but in movies and TV, cars are happily crunched to death all the time, and anyone who mourns them is made to look like a fool.

Audiences pretty much love to see anybody destroy anything.  Look at this innocuous scene from Caddyshack: a groundskeeper destroys a flower arrangement with a golf club for no reason.  In real life, this would be a nasty, rotten thing to do. But onscreen, it’s delightful.  We love it.  This guy is our hero because, unlike us, he feels free to destroy the stuff around him.  In the dark, we revel in the fantasy that maybe someday we’ll summon the courage to do the same.   

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #156: Successes and Failures Should Be Ironic

I’ve talked before about many different types of storytelling irony, and how you should employ as many as possible.  Irony is the heart of meaning, and it should suffuse every aspect of your story. 

This means that you have to keep upsetting your heroes’ expectations, but it doesn’t mean that your heroes have to keep failing.  In this post about The Apartment, I showed how a chain of seemingly negative ironic reversals turned out well for the hero, and how a chain of seeming positive plot turns turned out poorly. 

Audience love to see characters succeed or fail in ironic ways.  That’s what keeps stories interesting.  If a girl says to the glum boy she likes, “I’m going to take you to the carnival and cheer you up”, then the audience is not going to want to see either a straightforward success (he loves the roller coaster and thanks her for a fun time) or a straightforward failure (he hates the rides and says thanks for nothing.)

We’d rather see an ironic failure (He loves the rides, and starts to cheer up, but from the Ferris wheel he sees his ex kissing a new guy and becomes more depressed than ever) or an ironic success (He hates the rides, and tries to sneak away, but as he does so he sees a carny kicking a mangy dog out of the camp, so he rescues the grateful dog, who proceeds to make him totally happy.)

Romeo doesn’t go to that party because he wants to meet someone new.  He goes to win Rosalyn’s affections.  He finds the love affair he’s looking for, but he does so ironically, by doing the one thing he didn’t want to do, seeing past his former infatuation toward someone new. 

This is another thing to beware of when it comes time to turn your beatsheet into an actual screenplay.  The broad strokes of the scene may be, “He goes to the party, meets Juliet and falls in love”, but when you’re painting in the details, you’ll have to make it more interesting than that.  Try to have every plot point, positive or negative, be an ironic reversal of what the audience (and the character) thought was going to happen.  Your audience will love you for it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Motivation and Sympathy in Talladega Nights

Guys like Luke Wilson and Ron Livingstone thought that they would have long healthy careers playing “everyman” roles in comedies, but they rarely work today, because everyman comedies fell out of  fashion. We no longer want our comedic heroes to be the calm at the eye of the storm…we want them to be lightning rods.

In most modern comedies, the main character straddles the dividing line between “laugh with” and “laugh at.”  Will Farrell in Talladega Nights is a good example of how to do it right: He’s an outrageously broad character that we can nevertheless (just barely) believe in and care about, with some real world problems (like all empathetic jerk characters, he has a crappy dad) and a satisfying arc. 

As part of that arc, the moviemakers bring Farrell from the top of the NASCAR world to rock bottom by the middle of the movie.  They could have had his place get eclipsed by any young upstart, but they maximized his motivation with a funnier and more humiliating choice: the instrument of his downfall is a cocky gay Frenchman (played by a very funny Sacha Baron Cohen), fresh off the formula one circuit, who is openly contemptuous of all Farrell stands for.

We like Farrell enough (“laugh with”) that we enjoy seeing him succeed, but we find him so comically insufferable (“laugh at”) that we wouldn’t mind seeing him get knocked down a peg, especially if it takes the form of an ironic punishment for his unexamined bigotries.  When he fights Baron Cohen, we’re going to laugh no matter who beats up who. 

But this becomes a problem in the second half.  After Farrell hits bottom and becomes a better, humbler person, we start genuinely rooting for him …but we still don’t want to see him humiliate the gay Frenchman.  Choosing a character that Farrell was bigoted against maximized his motivation, but the fact that he now might have to affirm those bigotries in order to triumph threatens to open up a big sympathy hole. 

The movie finds a far-fetched but  relatively elegant solution to this problem.  Before the last big race, Farrell confronts Baron Cohen in person, and Baron Cohen reveals a secret: He has wanted to retire for some time, but he can’t until he finds someone great enough to beat him fair and square.  He had hoped Farrell would be that person, but now he’s lost all respect for him and intends to beat him once and for all. 

This is somewhat silly, but it neatly snaps our sympathies back in line.  Baron Cohen will still go all out to win this race, but if Farrell wins, then they actually both win, since Baron Cohen gets the retirement with honor that he’s long desired.  It shows that the moviemakers knew what they were doing: without that artful cheat, they would have filled a motivation hole by digging themselves a sympathy hole.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How to Write Every Day (In Theory)

In the world of writing advice, there are certain maxims which get repeated ad nauseum: “Show, Don’t Tell”, “Be Specific, Not Generic”, “Write What You Know”, etc.  And we’ve talked about those a lot here.  But there’s one piece of advice that is more sacrosanct than all the others.  And it’s one that I haven’t talked a lot about for the unfortunate reason that I’ve never mastered it: “Write Everyday!” 

It’s not that I don’t believe in this rule—I do.  It’s not like I haven’t tried—I have.  It’s not like I don’t have several tricks to help me do it—In fact, I’ve been meaning to run a series called “How to Write Every Day” for some time, but I figured that I’d be a hypocrite if I ran such a series unless I’d written everyday for at least a month…but that month never arrived. 

It’s not that I don’t write, but my writing always tends to devolve into a vicious cycle of all or nothing.  One of my many discipline tricks has been to put that Google calendar in my sidebar…If you’ll look over there, you’ll see that it’s currently empty for the month of October, but you might recall that I was posting upwards of fourteen pages a day for the last two weeks of September. 

The crazy thing, of course, is that anyone who reads these regular blog posts knows that I obviously can write everyday.  I’m also pretty good at writing for others on deadline.  So why can’t I bring that discipline to specs that are the lifeblood of a writer’s career?  A big difference is that, with both the blog and the outside work, someone is waiting for the work.  That right there is a vote of confidence that I must know what I’m doing, and a good reason to make it “good enough,” rather than wait until I can perfect it. 

When writing on spec, however, I constantly lose steam, knowing that’s there’s no deadline and no consequences for sitting on the idea a little longer, hoping it’ll somehow hatch into something better, even through I know that doesn’t work. 

I’ve tried several tricks over the years that have greatly increased my discipline and output for several weeks at a time, though each one falters too often:
  • The Pomodoro Technique: Rather than stare at the blank page for hours on end without allowing yourself a break, this technique encourages you to break your writing day into “units” and set a timer (I recommend this one) for a series of 45 minute sessions.   Each unit should have a discrete, achievable goal, rather than just “finish my manuscript”.  The problem is that I keep expanding the definition of what a “unit” can be: I allow myself to re-read my old work, or read other screenplays, or blog, or, even worse, do internet research, until I finally admit that the units have become meaningless and give them up.
  • Internet “Freedom: One of the most frequent rules you hear from professionals is this: Write at a computer that’s not connected to the internet.  I agree that this is essential (see my weakness for so-called “internet research” above) but if you’re not rich enough to afford two computer workspaces, so what can you do?  The biggest boon my writing ever got was when I downloaded the $10 computer program called “Freedom”.  It “crashes” your internet for up to eight hours at a time.  The only way to get it back before then is to force quit Freedom and reboot your computer, which is just too onerous.  This really does force me to write, but of course it can be overcome as well.  Can’t get on the internet?  Then I’ll re-organize my hard drive!  Anything other than write!
  • Outside Discipline: This can take various forms.  I have writer friends who, on their own volition, call me up at random times and say “You should be writing!”, then ask me to return the favor at a time of my choosing. As I already mentioned, I’ve also created the Google Calendar that I keep in my toolbar.  The idea is that I’ll be ashamed for my blog readers to see that I’m not writing, which clearly doesn’t work very well. 
Obviously, one of the most poisonous ideas you can have is that writing should always be fun, (or else you’re “forcing it”, which is supposedly bad).  Instead, you have to transform writing from a hobby driven by inspiration into a discipline driven by the time of day.  Like any other job, you’ll have fun days and no-fun days, but you’ll still show up and produce on cue.

But how do you get to this state? I’ve recently been hearing about a new idea that really makes sense to me: whenever you’re dealing with anything that you know you should do but you don’t want to do, then there’s one all-important milestone: 21 days. 

This theory is that, no matter how much you don’t want to do something, if you know it’s worthwhile (flossing, sit-ups, jogging), and you force yourself to do it for 21 straight days, a switch goes off in your brain and it somehow becomes more troubling not to do it and than it is to do it.  

Why would I be more likely to succeed this time?  Looking at my calendars, I see that one big problem is my fluctuating page-a-day goals, they shoot up during bursts of inspiration, and then, since I’ve exceeded my goals for several days, I give myself a few days off, which somehow becomes several weeks, because I get out of the habit. 

So I’m also going to try out another trick: Manic depressives can’t get better until they admit that they’re just as sick when they’re up as they are when they’re down, so for the first time, I’m going to add page maximums as well as minimums.  I’m going to do at least three (because some days I do freelance writing and I don’t have a lot of time) and no more than eight, even on my free days.  The idea is to stop exhausting my creativity and try to always keep some in the tank instead. (When I’m done with the day’s pages, I can always work on upcoming treatments, so that I don’t have to take off any days inbetween projects.)

I’ve felt that switch flip with both blogging and exercise. If I can make it to 21 days with this, I think it’ll happen here too. I was going to try it and then write it up once it succeeded, but on second thought, for it to work, I’d better announce it now beforehand, which is what I’m doing now. 

So wish me luck, and I encourage any of you who have similar problems to play along.  Let’s try to flip that switch.  (And feel free to let me know in the comments any clever techniques I may not have heard of.)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #155: Write About a World You Understand

All right, people, it’s time for another  epic “putting it all together” piece.  In  light of what I’ve subsequently figured out, I went back and re-listened to that Mark Maron interview with Danny McBride that I discussed before  and I realized that his good advice combines seven of my recent posts into one.

In my last post, I talked about how I’m finally figuring out what to write and what not to write.  Big high-concept ideas are great, but it remains absolutely essential that you also do each of these four:
  1. Choose a setting that you know well, through direct experience or through months of research. 
  2. Create characters that you can make an audience care about deeply as the story begins.
  3. Write about problems that powerfully resonate with your own problems, directly or metaphorically.
  4. Write dialogue in voices you know well.
Don’t get me wrong—you still need a cool idea.  If you only prioritize these four aspects, then you’ll end up writing about you and your friends hanging out behind the Dairy Queen.  You need to write what you know, but write it bigger.  You need to think big, but you can’t totally abandon those relationships, those problems and those voices you got to know behind the Dairy Queen, either. 

So let’s go back to that Danny McBride interview.  Last time I talked about how he came home from Hollywood feeling defeated, became a substitute teacher, and then, after he hit it finally big with his locally-made movie “The Foot Fist Way”, turned that miserable teaching experience in his hit HBO show “Eastbound and Down”. 

This time, I’ll focus on the parts I glossed over last time: why he failed in Hollywood, and why “The Foot Fist Way” succeeded. 

Let’s start off with McBride and Maron’s uproarious mockery of the failure of his first Hollywood stay.  (By this point, the pair have been cracking each other up for a good half hour, so they’re having fun):
  • McBride: A lot of the stuff I’d write was all over the place, like I’d write weird fantasy stuff, or horror stuff.  Like movies about dragon hunters, weird shit.
  • Maron: [laughs] Oh really?  You got a dragon hunter script somewhere?
  • McBride: Oh yeah.  The Draven.  He’s half-dragon, half-man.  [both laugh]  Pretty exciting.  It’s gonna be a huge franchise, of course!  The guy who works at Crocodile Café wrote this!  It’s gonna be a huge franchise, Hollywood!
  • Maron: Wow, what was the horror movie?
  • McBride: It was this weird thing which I still think is a good idea, you know back in New Orleans back in the day, when there would be floods the coffins would rise out of the ground and they would hire these guys who would go out in the swamps and retrieve the coffins, so it was the really fucked-up, apocalypse now-type dark horror film about these guys. 
  • Maron: Mercenary corpse finders?
  • McBride: In the 1800s, so it’s a period piece, too.  All the kind of shit that Hollywood’s looking for from a nineteen year old kid!  [both laugh]
These were somewhat “neat” ideas (well the coffin one moreso than The Draven), but McBride was writing about characters that he knew nothing about.  Eventually, he gave up, went home, and started teaching…but then one day back home he found himself tossing around ideas with his friend Jody Hill about a comedy set in the world of southern mini-mall martial arts classes, which they realized was an inherently humorous world that had never been seen onscreen before…
  • McBride: Jody had grown up doing Tae Kwon Do, he’s like a black belt, and I had grown up taking karate as a kid, so it’s definitely a world that we were kinda used to and we knew about and I think at the time, too, we had—both of us really fell in love with the British Office and we were obsessed with how funny it was, how awkward it was and I think it was like, we want to make something that has that sort of tone...
For the first time, they created a character that people could care about, and they did it by marrying Ricky Gervais’s comic persona to that of the southern-fried Tae Kwon Do instructors they knew.

Nevertheless, they still had to finance, shoot, and release that movie themselves because they hadn’t learned the last lesson: Write what you know, but bigger.  The Foot Fist Way was too small to become a big hit with audiences.  It was only with their next project together, “Eastbound and Down” that the last piece of the puzzle came in and McBride became a household name. 

So how many posts does this story combine?  Let’s check them off:
  1. Just Listen to Yourself (aka, know the range of your voice)
  2. Write the Emotions You Know
  3. Write What You Know, But Bigger
  4. Shortcut to Creating a Character’s Voice: Famous Persona + Someone You Know
  5. Give Every Hero a Part of Yourself
  6. If You’ve Got a Hard Sell, You Have to Know Your Assets and Liabilities (something McBride failed to figure out on his earlier projects)
  7. And most importantly: Your Career Begins When You Know What Not to Write

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #154: Your Career Begins When You Know What Not to Write

Following up on Tuesday’s post, once you know how to recognize assets and liabilities, you’re one big step closer to the turning point in anybody’s career: the moment that you know what not to write. 

If you’re anything like me, and stumble-bum your way through life, then you’ll hit each of these steps…
  1. I wonder where writers get their ideas from?  Time to fire up my imagination.
  2. I just got a cool idea for a movie… but it turns out other people have already done it better.  Time to start watching a lot of old movies.
  3. I just got another cool idea, and they’ve never done anything like this before! …but everybody is telling me that there’s a good reason for that.  Time to figure out which sort of ideas work as movies and which ones don’t. 
  4. I got a great idea for a movie and turned it into a screenplay …but everybody hated my execution of it.  Time to study screenwriting seriously: structure, character, theme, etc.
  5. I got a great idea, turned it into a well-executed screenplay and won some awards …but it didn’t sell. Time to watch a lot of recent movies and figure out what sells and what doesn’t.
  6. I got a great idea, turned it into a well-executed screenplay, found someone who liked it, and I sold it …but someone higher up the ladder killed it, so it didn’t get made.  Time to figure out how to write something that powerfully resonates with almost everyone who reads it.  
I’ve had trouble at every step along the way.  I’ve had to force myself to write down every bad idea in order to find better ideas hiding behind them.  I’ve forced myself to burn through all those so-called “good ideas”, rather than treat them like they’re precious and polish them for years on end… 

But the hardest thing is to stop asking whether an idea could work, or should work, and start asking the most important question of all: Do I know how to make people care deeply about this character as the story begins? 

Once you start asking that question, all of the not-good-enough ideas begin to fall away.  You may have an idea and think, “It’s cool!  It’s commercial! It’s high-concept!  I can see the poster!  I can see the lunchbox!”  Or you may have another idea and think, “It’s profound!  It’s an devastating allegory for the modern world!  The ending will be gut-wrenching!”  And all of these things are good.  But none of them will do you any good if you can’t make people care deeply about your main character as the story begins. 

Here’s the typical development of an idea for me: I was editing a documentary about the history of black New York, and our historian was telling a great story: one day he got a call from someone digging the foundation of a building, who told him that they had discovered a slave cemetery and they were quietly dumping the bones so as not to stop the dig, so he needed the historian to come down right away and stop them.  (This eventually led to the creation of the African Burial Ground National Monument)

Suddenly I had an idea: I transposed the story to the world of the sandhogs digging the 2nd Avenue subway.  One black sandhog objects to dumping the bones, but loses the fight.  Once the subway is built, the ghosts of the dead slaves begin possessing passengers, then the possessed roam the subway tunnels looking for their original destination: an old church that has been long-buried beneath the city.  The black sandhog figures out what’s going on, but in the course of his investigation, the ghosts possess his own son, forcing him to help them find what they’re looking for, while another group of ghost-catching evil spirits try to hunt them down. 

This isn’t a terrible idea, but the liabilities massively outweigh the assets.  For one thing, I’m not black and I’ve never met a sandhog, so I would be writing in voices that I don’t know well.  For another thing, it marries the very painful subject of slavery to an ultimately silly supernatural thriller, which makes it super-tricky to pull off. 

It wouldn’t have been impossible to solve any of these problems, but it would have required tons of research, it would have to be handled very sensitively and it would always be a hard-sell.  Was I prepared to tackle these challenges?  Of course not.  I just thought it was a “neat idea”, but I wasn’t being honest with myself about the assets and liabilities that came with it. 

Okay, this is getting very long, so let’s come back next time for a second visit with a very funny interview that, I now realize, weaves several of my recent posts together into one cohesive whole.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Books Vs. Movies, Addendum: All Behavior Looks Worse Onscreen, Part 2

When my wife held her big “Top 100 Chapter Books” poll, the most recent book in the top ten was “Holes” by Louis Sachar.  Since being released in 1997, that book has become an instant classic, and with good reason.  What starts as a simple, silly story about juvenile delinquents digging holes in the Texas desert subtly expands until it become an epic folk-tale about the hidden costs of bigotry throughout American history.

When they made it into a movie two years later, Sachar himself wrote the screenplay, which elegantly pares the story down to two hours, and director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) did a good job making the magic-realist world of the book come alive in a believable way… but the movie just doesn’t have the same power. 

The problem here is, once again, that all behavior looks worse onscreen.  In this case, that meant that the movie had to cut out a small, key moment.

In both the book and the movie, poor white kid Stanley is falsely accused of stealing a pair of sneakers and sent to a sinister boot camp where each kid has to dig a five-foot deep hole every day. Stanley isn’t very good at it, but there’s a black kid named Zero who is. Stanley offers to teach Zero to read if Zero will help Stanley finish his hole every day after he’s done with his own. 

But there’s an additional development in the book that passes by so quickly that we barely think about it at the time, because Stanley barely thinks about it: at some point Stanley realizes that, since Zero is so much better at digging, he’ll just let Zero dig by himself while he sits by the hole, preparing his reading lesson. 

The moviemakers were in a bind.  They knew that if they included that brief scene we’d see what Stanley doesn’t: how bad it looks when he doesn’t shovel. The white guy knows how to read, so the black guys have to dig their holes and his too while he sits around. Had the audience seen that, Stanley might have become too become unsympathetic. 

So they kept Stanley in the hole with Zero, and most viewers didn’t consciously notice that it was different from the book…but I think that the movie lost a lot of the book’s meaning as a result.  One thing that the book did so well was to show how a good kid unintentionally benefits from his class status in ways that subtly harmed both himself and those around him.  

In the end, Stanley discovers that his family is cursed because his ancestor exploited the physical labor of Zero’s ancestor and never repaid the debt, and Stanley can only end the curse and make reparations by heroically returning the favor with his own physical labor.  It seems absolutely essential to me that you need to show the moment when Stanley unconsciously repeats that original sin that caused that curse. 

The book, by keeping us in Stanley’s head, can slip the injustice of that moment past us without letting it sink in yet.  A movie can’t do that.  This is one reason why movie heroes tend to be much more heroic than book characters, even if that harms the theme of the movie.  Movie heroes are under a lot of pressure to stay on the straight and narrow, because all behavior looks worse onscreen. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #153: If You've Got a Hard Sell, You Have to Know Your Assets

Movie buyers are especially skittish these days, and it’s hard to get challenging movies made, unless you have a lot of clout.  Nevertheless, this is always true to some extent, but there are ways to make it happen despite overwhelming odds. 

To begin with, you need to quiet your “it shouldn’t have to be this way” frustrations and admit to yourself that, from a marketing and/or production point of view, every script has both assets and liabilities. The goal is not to eliminate all of the liabilities (since it’s also a liability if the script is overly familiar) but simply to know which is which and balance them out accordingly.

Potential marketing and/or production liabilities:
  • A controversial topic
  • Might feel like a lecture (important issues, bio-pics)
  • Hero has an unexciting profession (professor, mathematician, city planner, etc.)
  • Hero’s an old person or a kid (too few bankable stars)
  • Hero’s a person of color (alas, very few bankable stars right now)
  • An out-of-favor genre
  • A bleak ending
  • Ensemble piece (no star roles)
  • Super-expensive (a period piece, takes place at sea, etc.)
Assets that might balance these out:
  • Feel-good tone
  • High-concept plot
  • A hot genre
  • Stand-up-and-cheer ending
  • Funny and/or irreverent
  • Suspenseful and/or action-packed
  • A great love story
  • A mind-blowing twist
  • A lovable hero
  • A less-than-lovable hero, but it’s a part any big-name actor would kill to play
  • Fantastical element that disguises liabilities
  • Low budget in a fun way (contained thriller, found footage, etc.)
None of the items on the first list are totally verboten. There are plenty of examples of each one succeeding, and we can all be thankful for that—we all get sick of lily-white bland by-the-numbers fare—but if you want to sell it, you’d better not have every item from list one, and for every oneyou  do you have, you’d better have at least one from list #2.

It’s also good to remember that your logline must not mention any of the elements from the first list, even if they’re in the script. Loglines are allowed to twist the truth. You’re absolutely allowed to hide the fact that it’s a period piece, or a western, or set in Iraq, until they’re actually reading the script. You’re even allowed to lie and claim you have items from list #2 that you don’t actually have. If they find that you’ve tricked them into reading a great script, they won’t care.

This can work well with movies that are either too little or too big: On the one hand, Project X was a run-of-the-mill end-of-high-school blow-out party movie, but they marketed it around the found-footage element that made it seem fresh. On the other hand, Beasts of the Southern Wild overcame dozens of marketing liabilities to become an unexpected art-house hit by adding quirky fantasy elements that made it clear that it wouldn’t be a heavy-handed slog.

Rod Serling famously created “The Twilight Zone” because he had written a controversial TV movie about the US Senate only to watch the network cut the script to ribbons. Suddenly, he had a revelation:
  • “In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots. This would probably have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive.”
Then, as now, a spoonful of sugar can make the medicine taste pretty damn good.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Books Vs. Movies, Addendum: All Behavior Looks Worse Onscreen

Sometimes a trailer comes along that is so revolting that you can actually hear an involuntary hiss start to rise from the audience. The audience is suddenly united into one seething mass of contempt, every single time the trailer airs. One such trailer was for Ryan Murphy’s Eat Pray Love. Let’s watch it, shall we?

Is your gorge rising? Our heroine ditches her husband for a boytoy, feels depressed about it, decides she needs a year of “me time”, spends months eating at all the best kitchens in Italy and bragging about how enlightening it is, then chills out with a guru in India, then, all tuckered out, hits an Indonesian tourist resort, where she finally finds sexual fulfillment with Javier Bardem.

Obviously it’s no surprise that the movie was a mega-flop, but the real shocker is that the story originally appeared as a memoir which became a runaway best-seller. How could this be? How could anyone ever identify with this supremely smug jet-setting dilettante?

The answer is that all behavior looks worse onscreen. When you read a book written from a first-person perspective, you’re not looking at the person doing these things, you’re looking out at the world through her eyes. All that you perceive of this world is whatever she perceives, which means also that you miss everything she misses. Your perspective is her perspective, for good or ill.

But all movies are told from a third person perspective. The audience, represented by the cameraman, is that invisible third person looking at our heroine objectively. No matter how much voiceover gets ladled on, we’re never going to be totally inside Julia Roberts’s head. We’ll always be outside, seeing her character as she really is.
Here’s a very different example: In the Stephen King’s novel “Misery”, superfan Annie Wilkes cuts off author Paul Sheldon’s foot with an ax. It’s the signature moment in the book, and it even provides the cover image. But when Rob Reiner turned it into a great movie…he just couldn’t go through with it. He had Annie hobble Paul’s foot with a sledgehammer instead.

In a book, King can wallow in the horror of the chop, then quickly shift our focus to other details, such as the Paul’s re-doubled urge to escape. But in the movie, Reiner knew that the audience would never get over it. We’d just keep staring at that awful stump, wondering how the poor wretch could even find the will to go on. It would stop feeling like a thriller and start feeling like a tragedy.

It was the right call. The sledgehammer scene was plenty brutal in the theater, trust me. It was just about the max an audience could take and still be able to root for a happy ending. Reiner knew was Murphy didn’t: all behavior looks worse onscreen.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #152: Give Every Hero a Part of Yourself

In each of the first three seasons of “The Sopranos”, Tony got stuck in a rut until a crisis was forced upon him by the death of someone in another mob family, the Apriles. Now it’s Season Four and sure enough, Tony is once again having Aprile trouble, albeit with an in-law. This time, it’s Joe Pantalino’s Ralph Cifaretto that has to lose his head.

But the writers of the show have a problem. They want us to be shocked and upset by Ralph’s violent death at the end of the episode, but Pantaliano is so good at playing bad that by this point in the season the audience can’t wait to see the guy get whacked! The writers realize that, before they kill him off, they have to find a way to re-humanize this weasel, just enough so that we’ll feel bad for him when he gets it.

This is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. Little universal moments of humanity that make an audience instantly bond with a character, any character, are the ambergris of the writer’s word: hard to find and so valuable that you horde them zealously.

The writers were sweating bullets…they couldn’t think of anything. They thought about one of the old standbys: give Ralph a family medical emergency. But the old “sick wife” routine would seem way too cliché and telegraph a mile away that Ralph was only engaging in some last-minute sympathy-building because he was about to die. Unless there was a non-cliché emergency that wouldn’t trigger the audience’s bullshit detector…

Then the new guy in the writer’s room made a huge mistake. He lamented, “We have to keep trying, because I know exactly the kind of thing we need…there’s an incident from my life that I’m saving for my novel…When we were kids we had an archery set and we got the dumb idea to have one kid shoot arrows straight up while the other kid ran around with the target trying to catch them! Of course a kid got an arrow in him, and we had the hardest time explaining what we were doing. We need something like that…bizarrely specific and yet somehow universal, because it feels so odd and so tragic at the same time.”

Then the poor writer looked up… and everybody was staring at him mercilessly. What had he done?? The showrunners calmly asked him, “We pay you half a million dollars a year and you’re holding out on us? You’re giving us your second-best material? You’re saving the good stuff for your novel??” He should have kept his mouth shut.

Sure enough, Ralph’s son got an arrow in chest. Ralph re-humanized himself by keeping vigil…until he said something wrong and Tony cut his head off at the end of the episode. It was all very tragic.

You have to love your characters, and best way to show that is to give them the gift of life, your life: Plucking a unique-but-universal incident from your own life, which is oddly tragic, or oddly funny, or, even better, both at the same time, such as the one above, is the greatest gift you can give.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Tintin’s Tiny Motivation

Another movie I finally got caught up this summer was Tintin. This was nowhere near as bad as John Carter or Green Lantern, but it was almost as disappointing, because in this case I’m a much bigger fan of the source material. What made it especially frustrating is that they picked three great books to adapt and they were very faithful, except for one small change in the sequence…which ruined everything.

The movie combined these three Tintin graphic novels:

In the first, boy reporter Tintin stows away on a freighter to expose some heroin smugglers (he’s a little more hardcore than the Hardy Boys) when he runs into a drunken lout named Captain Haddock, who has had his ship hijacked out from under him. They retake the ship, then go on a long adventure that takes them from ship to lifeboat, to seaplane, to desert, to army base. In the end, they break up the heroin ring, but Haddock is still battling his personal demons when the story ends.
The next book in the saga begins with Tintin walking through a street market where he sees a model of a ship for sale. He instantly senses that it would help Haddock feel better, so he buys it…but he’s soon surrounded by shady characters who will pay any price to get the ship away from them. He won’t sell, since he bought it for his good friend.

Sure enough, Haddock has a connection to the ship: It’s a replica or one sailed by his ancestor. When they find a clue to a treasure inside the model, they’re off on another 2-book adventure. In the end, they find Haddock’s long-lost family fortune, which finally ends his troubles.

The screenwriters wisely chose the Haddock epic as the strongest hook to hang a Tintin movie on, and it made sense to streamline the adaptation by cutting out the tangentially-related heroin-smuggling plot. But they made a fatal error by moving the street market up to the first scene as the “inciting incident”.

This time, it’s the model that leads Tintin to be on that hijacked freighter where he meets Haddock. As soon as they meet, we get all the action scenes from the original trilogy of books… but they’re now meaningless.

What a difference a little motivation makes! In the books, it all made sense: in the first book, he’s an investigative reporter on the trail of a heroin ring. In the second, he’s trying to do a favor for the troubled man who saved his life. In the third, he helps that man restore his fortunes so that he can stop being a miserable drunk, and gets another good story in the process. What a hero!

In the movie, it all falls apart: he buys the model for no reason, then turns down the offers of money for no reason, then follows the clues he finds in the model for no reason. We hear people say that he’s a reporter, but he never mentions it, and he’s not tracking down a story…in fact, his only motivation seems to be to get Haddock’s treasure for himself. But if he needs money so badly, why didn’t he just accept the fortune he was offered in the first scene??
Now obviously, I’ve read tons of Tintin comics, so I know who he is…on the page. But even I am not going to walk into a movie theater and cut this character any slack. When the lights go out, all that matters is what’s on the screen. And even though I love the comics character, the movie character struck me as unmotivated, greedy, and ultimately loathsome. And all because they flipped the order of one sequence. I’ll say it again: Heroes can only solve huge problems if they have a huge motivation!

Monday, October 08, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #151: If They’ve Never Done Anything Like This Before, Beware

Most screenwriters start off their careers in the grips of a fatal misconception.  They come up with a wild idea for a movie, then they think, “They’ve never made a movie like this before, so that means that this is my ticket to the top!”  But alas…

What these screenwriters don’t realize is this: For every movie that gets made, studios buy ten additional scripts that just end up sitting on their shelves. Even worse, for every script on their shelf, studios read more than a hundred additional scripts that they choose not to buy. By this point, they have seen a least one version of every possible idea. If they’ve never made anything similar to your idea, it’s not because they haven’t seen it before, it’s because they can’t find a version of that idea that works.

Hollywood doesn’t have a shortage of ideas. In fact, they have more ideas than they know what to do with. What they lack are writers who know how to execute ideas brilliantly. In fact, whenever they decide they’ve found a new “brilliant” writer, the first thing they do is tell that writer about all the old ideas they have sitting around and beg him or her to try to make them work.

A wild, bold, never-done-anything-like-this idea is actually not that easy to sell, and for good reason. Even if you do write a brilliant execution of that idea, Hollywood will still have a problem: they won’t know how to sell it. They won’t know who or what the market is. They won’t know which reviewers will respond to it.

Nevertheless, there are markets for these strange new ideas. In fact there are some buyers who are totally addicted to these scripts, and do whatever they can to get them to the screen, but they often have limited success.

Let’s look at the career of Robin Williams. He had two Oscar nominations in the late ‘80s, which gave him quite a bit of clout in the ‘90s, and he kept lending that clout to wildly original screenplays, like What Dreams May Come (a man searches for his wife in the afterlife), Being Human (four men throughout history, all named Hector, deal with existential issues), and Bicentennial Man (a robot becomes more human over the course of 200 years)…

…but none of these movies found big audiences, or got him any closer to that Oscar. Instead, he got that by making a very low-concept movie: Good Will Hunting. The concept here was simple: a working-class math genius has to see a therapist to deal with his personal issues. 
This was not a bold, fresh idea. Versions of it had already been done onscreen a dozen times. Williams’s therapist character certainly didn’t go on an unprecedented journey. Instead, he dealt with a fairly standard trauma of his own (a dead wife) and helped his patient deal with another fairly standard trauma (an abusive dad). Williams’ performance didn’t blow anybody’s mind, he just imbued his character with an exceptional amount of emotional vulnerability and honesty.

Occasionally, you do get a screenwriter that hits it out of the park: they get a wild, new idea and execute it brilliantly (for example: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento or Groundhog Day, after much tinkering), finding both popular and critical success, but these are so rare that they become the exceptions that prove the rule. You’re far more likely to have a long career if you know how to take a meat-and-potatoes idea and execute it brilliantly.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

How to Create a Polarized Ensemble, Conclusion: Partial Polarization

We’ve looked at lots of ensembles that are clearly polarized into head, heart and gut, and contrasted those with non-polarized ensembles on such shows as “The Wire”. Now, for the conclusion of the series, we’ll look at the middle ground: partially polarized ensembles.

One of the most sophisticated American TV shows of recent years was, oddly enough, a basic cable Saturday morning cartoon, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, which I belated discovered in the last few years. The ensemble eventually expanded to four and then five, but let’s limit ourselves to the three core members: The young master of the elements, Aang, and the bother-sister team who help him find his destiny, Sokka and Katara.

When I tried to divide this cast into head, heart and gut, I realized that they were neither 1-dimensional nor 3-dimenaion, but rather 2-dimensional:

  • Aang is usually either Heart or Gut, but almost never Head 
  • Sokka is usually either Head or Gut, but almost never Heart 
  • Katara is usually either Head or Heart, but almost never Gut 
In order to chart this, we’ll abandon the silhouette iconography we’ve been using and switch to circular continuum:

The show had some of the benefits of a classically polarized ensemble, such as heightened conflict and philosophical meaning, but it also allowed the characters to be more complex, to shift positions dynamically as situations escalated, and to grow and change over time. If you can pull it off, this is perhaps the best of all possible worlds.

Now let’s look at another 3-season cult favorite with an even more complex polarization: Dan Harmon’s late, lamented “Community” (soon to be replaced with an apocryphal non-Harmon version, but let’s not speak of that).

In the beginning, disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger was on an open-hearted quest to become a better person. To help himself, he formed a seven-person study group, with three partially polarized characters and three classically polarized head-heart-gut characters. (Incidentally, the show’s biggest flaw was that the fully-polarized characters, Britta, Shirley and Pierce, tended to be too shrill, exemplifying only the negative aspects of head, heart and gut.)
But something interesting happened over time. Jeff largely gave up his attempts to change and became increasingly heartless, retreating to his home base of head/gut. Meanwhile, the show’s oddball, Danny Pudi’s uber-nerd Abed, who had originally been head/gut in a very different way, increasingly overcame the limitations of his Asperger’s syndrome, until he became a three-dimensional person, and the new heart of the show, in every sense of that word.

The neat thing is that both versions of the show worked. Fans were disappointed in Jeff for his failure to change, but it was certainly a believable failure and well acted by Joel McHale. Meanwhile, that disappointment was more than made up for the happiness we felt at the growth of Abed.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

How to Create a Polarized Ensemble, Part 3: Maintaining The Ensemble

Maintaining a polarized ensemble for years can be a tricky proposition. One problem is that all characters have a natural tendency to become more three-dimensional over time. This is inevitable and not entirely bad: as audiences fall in love with characters, they want to see more sides of them, and actors certainly appreciate the chance to play more than one note.

But it can also be a problem. Fans of the TV version of “M*A*S*H” complained that, as the show went on, the characters had become too even-keeled and less funny as a result. Characters like Houlihan and Winchester, who had once been outrageous antagonists, had become likable characters, resulting in less comedic escalation.

Another problem with maintaining a polarized ensemble comes when you have to replace cast members. If you’re replacing more than one character at a time, you can theoretically flip the polarization of their replacements, but most shows only replace one character at a time, so the creators must find a replacement character who fills the same emotional role as his/her predecessor, which can seem overly formulaic.

Nevertheless, this usually works out better than the alternative. Let’s look at two cast changes on “Cheers”. When the great Nicholas Colasanto died suddenly at the end of the third season, the producers were in a bind: The show had two heads and three guts, but only one heart character, so they had to somehow replace Colasanto’s “Coach” with a very similar character.

They solved the problem elegantly by creating Woody Boyd. Superficially, he was entirely different from Coach: a young Indiana farmboy instead of an old Greek baseball coach, but he had the same heart, so the ensemble didn’t lose a beat.

Unfortunately, the next time they had to replace a cast member, they tried to get more ambitious. When essential co-star Shelly Long left after the fifth season, they decided to go a different route. Here’s casting director Jeff Greenberg from an excellent oral history of “Cheers” that appeared recently in GQ: “The producers wanted the opposite of Diane, someone who was grounded and not flighty.” Unfortunately, their choice was too grounded. Kirstie Alley did her best, but she was stuck with a less-than-extreme character that didn’t fit in with a polarized ensemble.

A more recent example is “The New Girl”, whose producers had the bad luck to have to lose a cast member before their second episode. Damon Wayans Jr. starred in the pilot because he thought his other sitcom “Happy Endings” would get cancelled, but when it got a last minute reprieve, he had to bow out.

From what we saw of him, Wayans’ character was extreme and very funny: an overzealous personal trainer (a “spleen” character, if you will).  I get the feeling that the challenge of replacing him was probably exacerbated by concerns about race sensitivity. The producers seemed to feel that they were caught in a trap:
  • If they recast the role without re-shooting the pilot, that might seem to imply all black people look the same…
  • But if they added a new character with a very similar personality, that might imply that all black people act the same…
  • For that matter, if they replaced Wayans with a black character who was polarized in any way, that might imply that all black people were 1-dimensional caricatures. 
Pity the poor writer navigating America’s racial minefield! (But not as much as, you know, actual victims of racism, who have it a little worse)

As a result, they felt that they had no other choice but to pull a Rebecca and add an even-keeled replacement to the polarized ensemble.  Luckily they cast a funny and likable actor in the role of Winston, and the show’s excellent writing staff have found plenty of ways to integrate his laid-back character into the show’s dynamic… but Winston still seems somehow vague compared to the rest of the cast. Whether he polarizes more over the course of the show will be interesting to watch.

Let’s look at one final example: “How I Met Your Mother”. When the show began, we had a tightly-knit, classically polarized four-person ensemble, and a fifth character who was a somewhat cryptic object of desire. Robin wasn’t really a character, she was just a mystery for Ted to solve. Once their relationship had run its course, Robin kept hanging around, somewhat awkwardly. Like Rebecca and Winston, she was an even-keeled character who seemed out-of-place in a polarized ensemble.
But these days she fits in just fine. This isn’t because her character polarized but because the rest of the ensemble de-polarized: Ted learned to trust his gut, Barney grew a heart, Marshall became more responsible, etc. As with “M*A*S*H”, the sharp edges fell away. Now we have five un-polarized characters. On the one hand, that means less potential for hijinks, but it also means that the audience feels gratified that our emotional investment in these characters’ growth has paid off.

Okay, we’ve got one more piece that spills over into next week, in which we look at another type of odd beast: the partially polarized ensemble…