Thursday, February 28, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #171: It’s Impossible To Learn If You Feel You Shouldn’t Have To

Sadly, we now have seven active remotes in our living room (TV, DVR, Blu-Ray, DVD, Wii, Speakers, and AC, I think).  I consider this to be an annoyance, but my wife (usually a sweet-tempered soul) considers this to be an affront.  It offends her sense of how the world should work.  Whenever I fumble with the pile of remotes, she indignantly laments aloud that she would have no idea how to turn on her own TV if her life depended on it.

But…is that true?

We’re talking about a massive amount of time and resources she’s already invested here:  over a thousand of dollars worth of equipment we have acquired over ten years of marriage, hundreds of DVDs she has purchased or received, an infinite cornucopia of cable and Netflix programming now available instantly. All denied to her.

Now you have to understand, my wife is very technically proficient.  Over at her own much-more-successful-than-mine blog, she codes her own html and creates and embeds sophisticated videos and podcasts.  Tech does not intimidate her.

So why does she declare that all is lost when the remotes come out?  I mean yeah, it’s annoying, but there’s basically a five-step protocol to determine which remotes to use in which order.  It would take her maybe ten minutes to learn it and then she’d know it forever (or until we get our eighth remote.)  Considering that she’s about a dozen times smarter than me, this wouldn’t be a big strain for her.

But I totally believe her when she says she can’t learn it.  Of course she can’t.  And here’s why: she feels that she shouldn’t have to. And as long as anyone feels that way, learning is impossible.

I’m the last person to cast aspersions here.  I have wasted years of my life refusing to learn things that would have taken me an hour or two to master, simply because I thought that I shouldn’t have to. That’s mostly what this blog is all about.  Every time I figure out something new, like with the last two rules, it seems so obvious as soon as I say it, so why did it take me so long to figure out?

As writers, we’re constantly being fed poisonous messages by crappy writing teachers and flattering books: “Listen to your muse.”  “Be intuitive”  “Be innovative.” “Don’t force it.”  “Don’t overthink it.”  True geniuses, we’re told, don’t put rules on their storytelling.  Great writers follow their heart or their gut, never their head.

But eventually you figure out that the people telling you this have had no success of their own.  You realize that even a brilliantly original iconoclast like Hunter S. Thompson taught himself to write by re-typing “The Great Gatsby” word for word.  You realize, in other words, that writers, like everybody else, have to learn to do what they do by analyzing what came before.  In the end, you have to learn all those rules that everybody says you shouldn’t have to learn.

That’s the real hard work of learning to write: learning to accept that you need to learn it.  If you can do that, you’re 90% of the way there.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #170: Every Scene Needs Its Own Hero

Obviously, in most scenes you write, your hero will be in the scene, and will also be the hero of the scene, aka: the person we admire and want to see triumph in this interaction.  But that’s not always the case.

In some scenes, even if the overall hero of the story is present, the audience is actually rooting for someone else.  Sometimes we’re rooting for someone else to set the hero straight.  Frequently, for instance, when Buffy and Willow disagreed, the audience sided with Willow.  Buffy was better in a fight, which made her the capital-H “Hero” of the show, but Willow was wiser, which made her the “hero-of-the-scene” for most of her scenes with Buffy.

And what about scenes that don’t have any of our “heroes”?  There still needs to be conflict within that scene, and the audience should be able to pick a favorite to root for in that conflict.  Think of the scene in Die Hard where we cut away to the local news coverage: the anchorman mistakenly refers to Stockholm Syndrome as “Helsinki Syndrome” and his co-anchor rolls her eyes.  Even this small scene has its own hero and villain.

Even if the scene merely consists of two villains, then that scene also needs its own “hero” that we want to see “triumph” in this interaction.  We should admire one villain’s reaction to this situation (even it’s only to admire the competence of his or her villainy) and we should disdain the other.

If your hero and villain keep running circles around inferior scene partners in separate scenes, then the audience will get more and more excited about their eventual confrontation. The audience will start saying, “Wow, these two both dominate every scene they’re in!  What happens when they’re finally in a scene together?”  Which one will continue to dominate, and which will be humbled for the first time?

This rule is something you need to keep in mind when you’re building your ensemble: You have to multiply everything by two.  It’s tempting to say, “Okay, the aliens invade and we show how the whole town reacts, so we cut back and forth between the sheriff and the priest, and the school teacher, and the general at the army base, and...”  Wait, stop!  In order to write actual scenes, you’re actually going to need two cops, two priests, two school teachers, two army commanders, etc, at each location.  And each of those pairs need contrasting personalities because you’ll need to have conflict between the scene partners.  Doesn’t that make you re-think you inclination to have so many settings?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #169: Move Up the Timeline

Here’s another big breakthrough for my understanding of structure.  There’s a big paradox in the rules of sympathy/empathy that I somehow never noticed for all these years.  We all know that, on the one hand…
Okay, so this means that, by the time the climax arrives, the hero is large and in charge, yes?  And yet, in the final quarter of the story:
  • The hero should nevertheless be the underdog for most of the climax.
  • Everything should seem to be hopeless until the latest possible moment.
  • It’s inherently unsympathetic for the finale to happen at a time of the hero’s choosing.
On first glance, this makes no sense. How can the audience demand that the hero be proactive, and yet also disapprove of a hero for choosing the time and place of the climax?  If your hero is planning everything, then shouldn’t the final battle happen exactly when he or she wants it to happen?  And shouldn’t the hero have cleverly and competently accounted for everything, and therefore no longer be the underdog?

Luckily, there’s one simple solution that resolves this paradox and solves all of these problems.  Yes, the hero should plan when and where the finale will take place, but then the bad guy (or some other outside event) suddenly moves up the timeline.

As soon as you notice this trick, you’ll suddenly see it everywhere.
  • I now realize that this is what was going on in Star Wars: “We’ve stole the plans that will allow us to attack the Death Star (Yay, proactive!), but before we can attack it at any old time (Boring, too powerful), it showed up to attack us! (Scary! Now we have to improvise, and maybe fail! And it explains how they were able to get away before!) (As I pointed out in this post, the whole idea that the Death Star was also attacking them was added in post-production.)
  • And for that matter in Empire Strikes Back: I’m finally going to take the initiative to get trained in the Force by Yoda (Yah, proactive!) But I have to cut training short against his wishes because Vader is attacking my friends. (Scary! Now we have to improvise, and maybe fail!)
  • Likewise in the original cut, (but not the final cut) of The Terminator.  We’re attacking the lab that will make the Terminators (Yay, proactive!), but the Terminator has figured out what we’re doing and he’s lying in wait to attack us (Scary! Now we have to improvise, and maybe fail!) (In the final cut, Cameron decided to chop out the turn to proactivity, and save it for the sequel.  In this case, nobody missed it.)
This trick allows the good guys to fall way behind without losing our sympathy.  If the good guys execute their plan just the way they wanted to, and yet it all goes wrong, then they look like idiots.  But if they’re suddenly forced to improvise and they screw up, then we sympathize— Hey, they did the best they could in a tough situation!  At least they didn’t sit around waiting to react, they were preparing to take the fight to the villain…but then the villain suddenly took the fight to them.  That’s how to be a proactive underdog. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #1: The Master

This was a love-it-or-hate-it movie.  Every time I tell someone that this was my favorite movie of the year, I find myself doing so with an apologetic tone, expecting to receive exasperation in return, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised more than once to hear instead, “Thank you!  I thought I was the only one!”

Rules it exemplified:
  1. The Past is a Foreign Country, So Learn the Language: My favorite thing about The Master was that I wasn't thinking at all about screenwriting or other movies as I watched it.  Instead, I was overwhelmed by memories of my two grandfathers.  Despite the fact that they were extremely different men, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell was a fascinating combination of the two at their most troubled.  I felt like Phoenix must have known them personally to capture them so well.  PTA and his actors captured the lost language of the ‘50s with uncanny precision.
  2. Every Hero Must be Volatile: Overall, I loved how the movie, thanks to Phoenix and Hoffman's unbridled, unfiltered performances, seemed to hum with volatility in every scene.  I was squirming in my seat the whole time, fearing the next inevitable combustion of matter and anti-matter.
  3. Show Us a Relationship We Haven’t Seen Before:  The movie did what I never thought it could do: make me sympathetic to Scientology, by putting it in its proper historical context of the PTSD-wracked ‘50s and showing that, for thoroughly-damaged individuals like Freddie, who were impervious to conventional psychotherapy, only direct confrontation by a fellow nutjob provided any hope of self-help.  The violently symbiotic relationship that the two form is utterly believable to me and yet unlike anything I’ve seen onscreen.  I debated in my head for days whether or not the positive results (for Freddie) justified Hoffman’s megalomania.
Don't get me wrong, like almost everything else I saw this year, the movie was somewhat bloated and shapeless, and not the sort of thing that anyone should try at home, but Paul Thomas Anderson transcends traditional moviemaking wisdom here and writes with lightning onto the screen. For once, I’ll have a not-so-anxious Oscar night, because the movie I think should win isn’t even nominated.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #2: Lincoln

I’ve praised this movie already, but let’s go into more depth...  

Rules It Exemplifies:
  1. A Hero Needs Special Skills Learned in the Past: The lesson of Lincoln, and Lincoln, is that the greatest weapon a president can have is the ability to disarm (and thereby defang) his adversaries, which Lincoln does with an endless stream of inappropriate (but pointed) back-woods humor. (This is a weapon that LBJ and GWB also wielded expertly, for good or ill).  Kushner and Day-Lewis masterfully recreate Lincoln’s canny charade: folksy hick on the surface, quick-eyed political mongoose underneath. 
  2. A Movie is About a Person’s Problem: Kushner famously started out by attempting to cover 1863-65, but he got though hundreds of pages without making it to 1864, so he started over.  Then he tried to just cover the four months of 1865, which turned out to be 500 pages!  (Somebody publish that version please!)  Spielberg, to his infinite credit, got to page 100 and said, “Hey, that’s a movie right there, let’s just stop at the end of January.”  This isn’t really a bio-pic: it’s just the story of one problem: the passing of the 13th Amendment in the House.  Of course, in Kushner’s capable hands, that’s enough to give a full and rich portrait of the man with the plan. 
  3. Successes and Failures Should Be Ironic: I talked here about how every step of this process is deeply ironic, but…
...Since I seemed overly-dismissive on that point last time, let me describe in a little more detail how this seemed to be different from the Spielberg I’d come to know and loathe.  My chief problem is Spielberg’s tendency to eliminate all irony and ambiguity from his movies.  I discussed Amistad last time, but there are so many more examples…
  • The real Oskar Schindler was just as heroic but far less saintly than the movie version, and he would have made for a more complex and human movie.
  • After a nice tense scene in Saving Private Ryan in which the platoon is left riven with doubt about whether or not they should have let that German go, he helpfully comes back and kills off a few of them, eliminating all ambiguity…
  • …and my all-time favorite example: The titular reports in “Minority Report” (indicating uncertainly about what the future will bring) turn out to be mere red herrings, and in fact Tom Cruise was falsely fingered for the crime not because of any unknowable gap between fate and free will, but simply because he was framed by his boss.
There were still glimpses of these problem in Lincoln: John Williams’s clunky score shifts gears between “this is a meaningful scene” and “this is a funny scene” with all the subtlety of a record-scratch, and Janusz Kaminski’s typically over-pretty cinematography tends to ladle on the pseudo-profundity at precisely those moments that Day-Lewis would rather underplay. 

My reflexive distaste for Spielberg is still strong enough that I give most of the credit for this movie to Kushner and Day-Lewis, but I am nevertheless willing to admit that the old duffer left me very pleasantly surprised this time around.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #3: Argo

Allow me to warn you upfront that my attempts to praise Argo may get buried under complaints about Zero Dark Thirty. They make for such a perfect Goofus and Gallant pairing.  

Rules It Exemplifies:
  1. Know the Way the World Works: What makes Argo so good is the same thing that made Zero Dark Thirty so phony.  ZDT shows us what the CIA wishes it was: swaggering, hyper-focused, ultra-serious ass-kickers in a world full of pansies. It attempts to re-write a sloppy, shameful, sadistic, ten-year-long fiasco into a brilliant step-by-step manhunt by Very Serious People. Argo, on the other hand, starts by admitting the simple truth: The CIA, by design, is an agency of last resort.  All they can do, at their best, is dive into messy situations and try to make the most of the mess. ZDT imagines stoic superheroes doing righteous work in a black and white world (or, more to the point, white vs. brown), while Argo’s spies are everyday schlubs doing an absurd job in morally-murky situations the best way they know how.  Argo had its own falsifications (pretending they were almost caught at the end when they weren’t) but, crucially, its not lying to itself, or us, about how the world works.
  2. Listen to Real Cops and Criminals: I’ve read way too many CIA memoirs and the casual argot in Argo rang true in so many little ways, whereas every macho “You can’t handle the truth!” line in ZDT rang laughably false.  (ZDT actually showed one of its not-tough-enough bosses practicing his putting in the office!  Base your details on original observations, not clich├ęs that you picked up from old New Yorker cartoons!)
  3. Ideas are the Enemy of Observations: But Affleck’s eye for detail also serves a deeper purpose.  He keeps circumventing our urge to form parallels between this story and our current troubles.  Instead, he keeps reminding us that 1979 is a foreign country, giving us an avalanche of amusing “I forgot all about that!” period details (I love the wrecked Hollywood sign!). His all-too-human Iranians (sometimes scary, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes both) would rather look back to 1953 than look ahead to 2012. 
Tomorrow, the other movie that might win on Sunday…

Monday, February 18, 2013

Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #4: Django Unchained

I thought Inglorious Basterds was good but very overrated, so I was quite surprised at how much better I liked this follow-up...  

Rules It Exemplifies: 
  1. Genius Doesn’t Innovate, It Cultivates: At first, Tarantino wanted to be Godard, (he even named his production company A Band Apart) and they did have certain things in common: both were bold, visceral, post-modern, wildly talented bad-boy rulebreakers. But it soon became clear that Tarantino would never measure up.  Where Godard was lean, Tarantino was bloated, where Godard was prolific, Tarantino dawdled.  Each contrast favors Godard over his imitator: sublime vs. juvenile, poetic vs. ham-handed, visionary vs. derivative…  But now, with his two latest movies, Tarantino has finally come into his own.  He’ll never equal Godard, but he now stands within spitting distance of inheriting the legacy of one of Godard’s great influences: Sam Fuller.  Fuller’s movies were deranged tabloid visions of America at its best and worst extremes.  He sacrificed sensitivity and subtly in favor of telling the raw truth as he saw it.  His movies were bracing, brutal, and bizarre, with peripatetic, episodic structures that forced you to re-set your narrative expectations.  This is the legacy that Tarantino has belatedly embraced. Django lines up nicely alongside Fuller mid-period masterpieces, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, as a full-throated howl of unfocussed American rage.
  2. Plot Motivates, Character Complicates.  Though this movie is once again self-indulgent and too long, I give Tarantino credit for pulling way back on the amount of plot.  In the movie’s best scene, the plot has seemingly resolved…but one of our heroes just can’t resist his overwhelming urge to vent his spleen and ruin it all.  Tarantino is finally learning that, in the second half, volatile character complications should drive the conflict, not an endless torrent of external plot events.
  3. Villains Need a Solid Motivation, Too: Yes, the gore was typically excessive, but for once it wasn’t driven by meaningless psychopathy. I was delighted to finally discover a movie in which the villains were not motivated by a love of chaos.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, give horrifically logical performances.  Both characters coolly and calmly pursue their own best interests (and neither actor winks to us to let us know that he doesn’t approve).  In this movie, everybody only wants what they want.  Nobody wants to do good for good’s sake, and nobody want to do evil for evil’s sake.
Tomorrow, the return of Goofus and Gallant…

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #5: The Campaign

I’ve already spoiled the results, but you guys have convinced to go back and show my work, so once again, here’s my annual Oscar week best-of.  As with all of Adam McCay’s movies (though he was only a producer and co-writer on this one), The Campaign is meandering and bloated, with a fairly random second half, but, as usual, he somehow got me to check my narrative expectations at the door and go along with the jokes.

Rules It Exemplifies:
  1. Invest Possessions With Emotion: Specifically Zach Galifianakis’s pugs, who serve many purposes here.  They start out as just an opportunity to “pet the dog” (establish quick sympathy) and show what a down-home guy he is, but then Will Farrell attacks him for having Chinese dogs, so his campaign manager makes him kick his real dogs out and replace them with manlier American dogs.  From this point on, the exiled pugs lurk outside Galifianakis’s house, staring in accusingly as everything that goes on inside, nicely representing his excised conscience.  We know what it will mean when he lets the pugs in...
  2. Comedy Requires Pain:  I can get bored with political stories in which neither party is identified.  I’m the first to admit that both parties are just about equally corrupt these days, but that’s doesn’t mean that they’re corrupt in the same way.  These “who knows which party it is?” stories deny themselves the gift of specificity, limiting themselves to strictly generic observations.  This movie scores more effective points against both parties by naming names. 
  3. This is the sort of world where…: The reason I hired a babysitter and went out and saw this movie was because of the bust-a-gut trailer moment when Will Farrell punched out a baby.  Now you know that I’ve complained about CGI, but here (as with this other rare exception), it was a boon: If the punching of that baby had been at all realistic, nobody would have laughed.  But the slo-mo ripple of the punch across the baby’s face makes the joke work because it’s not realistic...  Comedy requires pain, but just enough pain to get a big laugh that doesn’t turn into a scream. 
Tomorrow, a much blacker comedy...

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What’s the Matter with Hollywood (Or Is It Me)?

In response to my last post, some of you suggested that I write more about recent movies. And, indeed, this is the time of year that I usually talk about my favorite Hollywood movies of the year and how they reflect various pieces of advice that I’ve given. In preparation for just such a piece, I got caught up on a lot of movies from this year…and I was kind of horrified.

Picture above is Entertainment Weekly’s averaged-out grades (albeit using a bizarre selection of critics) for most of the movies that came out this year. I’ve added the running time for each one, and my own grade for the ones I saw. (“F” means that no scene impressed me, “A” means every scene impressed me.)

Looking at the results, you’ll notice a few things:
  • In most cases, my grade is much lower than the critical average, often extremely so. 
  • The running times of almost every one is obscenely bloated. Not one of these movies needed to be longer than two hours. Even my favorite, The Master, could have shed those extra 24 minutes and not missed them.
  • But the real problem, of course, is that almost all of these movies were either sequels, remakes, adaptations, or written/commissioned by the director. Almost none, in other words, were “original specs” purchased on the screenwriting market.
(Two movies that I thought were surprisingly not-bad, Safe House and The Campaign, are missing from EW’s list. I would have given both a solid “B”, and both, I’m glad to say, were based on original specs. Dredd is also missing, which, despite fairly good reviews, I would have given another “F”.)

Based on this evidence, I see causes for concern:
  • Clearly, my tastes are drifting further from the critical consensus, which makes me feel increasingly unfit to speak to what sort of movies people should be writing.
  • I primarily aim my advice to writers of original spec screenplays, but the market for such screenplays has almost entirely disappeared. 
  • The increase in running time is an indicator, above all, of clout: The studios are so skittish that they say “no” every chance they get. As a result the only movies that actually get made are projects that no one at the studio is allowed to second-guess or say no to, either because of the director’s clout, the franchise’s profitability, or both. These aren’t movies, they’re juggernauts, and they simply steamroll over producers, critics and audiences, pummeling all three into submission.
So what is an amateur screenwriter to do? The answer, quixotically, is to continue writing original specs anyway. Even if they sell, there is almost no chance that they will get made, but you have to sell one or two first in order to be considered for the remake/sequel/adaptation assignments that make up almost all of the available work, for now and for the foreseeable future. But it becomes increasingly hard to know if you’re doing a good job, because there are almost no successful examples to compare yourself to, (and those that do sneak through hardly inspire would-be writers to greatness.)

In the meantime, do I write a best-of? Part of the problem is that even the movies I liked best were profoundly weird. I thought The Master, Lincoln, and Django were all pretty great, but would I really advise any writers to emulate them? These, too, were “clout” movies, totally insulated from the pressures of the market. Each does a lot of things that original specs simply aren’t allowed to do, so what’s the point?

This all helps explain my lack of recent posts, but rest assured that I have been developing some in-depth new material, including a brand new Ultimate Checklist that will debut soon, so stay tuned. (And the book is coming along nicely, too!) Meanwhile, I should probably take the advice of some of you and start looking again to older movies for inspiration and analysis, hoping to protect the wisdom of the past until the barbarian hordes have passed and a new movie renaissance can begin.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Where Was I?

Hi, guys, sorry for the no-warning black-out.  I suddenly got sick and tired of hearing myself pontificate.  I do miss blogging, though, and I intend to come back soon, but I'd like some suggestions for what would you guys would like to see next.  I've gotten some emails with some good suggestions but I thought I'd throw it open to everybody. What topics have I not yet covered?  What ramifications of my past pieces have I not yet considered?  Any old features you'd like to see return?  Let me know, and maybe you'll see that topic soon. (And be sure to check out this neat, new Pulp-o-mizer!)