Drama: The Absence of Action or Results

March 18, 2009

There’s a personal development program I participate in, and as part of that, I was today looking at my most recent “training issue” and the structures I’m putting in place to have a breakthrough around that.

My most recent training issue is Give up drama and arrogance.

On reflection, I find this very interesting.  I am a very dramatic person.  It makes perfect sense.  I grew up as an actor, I’m now a writer, and so for most of my life I’ve been trained in how to add drama to everything I do.  It’s a strong suit; being dramatic is, in a sense, what I rely on to produce results.

The irony is that for me, as with most people, my strengths and weaknesses are very closely related, and this area is no exception.  Because the way this translates into life is it’s all about me and how difficult it all is and how I’m suffering and failing and as I look at all of that, whether it’s around work or relationships or my marriage or cleaning my effing house, it’s all kind of silly and gross.

So now that I’ve distinguished it I can be responsible for it, and I can be dramatic where it serves me (in my writing or performing) and I can give up the drama where it doesn’t.

Where it starts to get even more interesting is when I started to look at the structures to put in place around giving up the drama.  What everyone keeps telling me is that I’m addicted to insights, and that I need to stop “seeing things” and start doing and being in action.  Which led me to the following structure for having a breakthrough: “…instead of looking for insights and talking about it, I am getting into action. Being in action in all areas of my life is an access to giving up the drama, since drama only exists in the absence of action or results.”

Let’s look at that last sentence again: Drama only exists in the absence of action or results.

I’ve long been revering McKee for his insight that story exists in the gap between expectation and result, and I think I’m on to something else here, too.  Because where drama occurs in a film or a book is in those moments when there is no action or when results are not being produced.

Think about it.  When are the “dramatic” moments of a film?  It’s not when someone’s blowing up a car or getting chased down an alley, it’s when there’s a pause in the action; when people are talking to each other about themselves or others.  The drama in The Dark Knight occurs when Bruce Wayne is sitting in the penthouse saying, “She was gonna wait for me, Alfred,” or when Alfred tells him “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”  Crashing into a skyscraper in Hong Kong and then returning to the plane while it’s in mid-flight isn’t dramatic, it’s just cool.

To take it a step further, there’s a whole genre of movies called “drama.”  These are the movies that come out in the fall, and are the ones that win Oscars because they’re deep and moving and meaningful, but when you look at the plot of these movies, typically speaking, not a lot happens.  The Shawshank Redemption is not a high concept flick filled with people doing stuff or producing results.   It’s a story about what happens to our hero between the decisions he makes.   The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is clearly dramatic, but when you talk about that movie, you’re not talking about the things he  does.  In Star Wars on the other hand, you do talk about the things they do – blowing up the Death Star or using the Force.  Where’s the drama?  “No, I am your father …”

Which means that if you’re looking to create drama, have the characters slow down and talk.  Have them fail to produce the desired results (save Rachel Dawes’ life, kill Darth Vader, get a new trial based on Tommy’s testimony). And if you’re not looking for drama, then don’t – have them be in action and actually causing something and producing results.


Not Another Oscars Post

February 23, 2009

I’m not going to post something about the Oscars.  Every blogger in the world – and especially every writer/screenwriter blogger in the world – will be writing something about the 81st Academy Awards today, but not me, because I’m different.

If I were going to write about the Oscars I would start by saying that Slumdog Millionaire was a good movie, that I thoroughly enjoyed it, but that it seemed like it would make a better mini-series than film.  I would say that Danny Boyle was long overdue for the world’s top Directing accolade, but that this movie was nowhere near as good as his early classics Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.  I would say that Benjamin Button – the only other movie nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay that I actually saw – had a better screenplay, and that my cinematographer friend threw a fit when it won Best Cinematography, and I happen to agree with her – The Dark Knight broke new ground cinematically speaking, and made for a remarkable movie-watching experience I will never in my life forget.  And although I’m not surprised that Slumdog won Best Picture, I did not think it was even one of the best 5 movies of the year.

If I were writing something about the Oscars, I would say that Sean Penn deserved his and Heath Ledger deserved his.  I would say that Robert Downey, Jr. will win an Oscar one of these days, and I will celebrate when he does, and I would say that Brad Pitt deserves one, too, but it may take him longer to get it because he’s so thoroughly underrated as a character actor.  I would say that Benjamin Button deserved its accolades for Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects, but I’d also like to remind people that the makeup in The Dark Knight wasn’t all about the Joker – the revelation of Two Face in that movie was the best film moment of the year for me, and a movie-watching experience I will never in my life forget.

If I were writing about the Oscars, I would probably say that I wish I realized that the Alamo Drafthouse shows all the short films nominated for Oscars every year, and that I will almost certainly go to that event next year, but that they should make it easier for us, the viewers at home, to see all the movies nominated by the time of the awards.  That I wanted to see The Reader, Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, and Doubt, but at some point movie theaters are just too damn expensive, and screw you for pricing me and so many others out of being informed viewers of the Academy Awards.

And I would wonder why the hell Seven Pounds was completely snubbed.

But I’m not writing about the Oscars.  I’m writing about what it is to have a dream and to be recognized for having achieved that dream.  Because really, that’s what it’s all about.  At the end of the day we all have opinions about what was good and what wasn’t, about what deserved to win and what deserved to be nominated, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a very large, very talented group of artists choosing the best, most talented artists in their field, and for the most part, they do a pretty good job.  And, more importantly, it creates a dream in us.  And I’m a big believer in dreams.


Adaptations – Runaway Jury

January 14, 2009

Massive spoilers ahead!

I just got done reading John Grisham’s The Runaway Jury, which by the way, should’ve been called Runaway Jury.  Why does John Grisham insist on including the word “the” in front of all his titles?  That’s one of my pet peeves.  Unless the rest of the title is one word – like The Firm or The Godfather – or a proper noun followed by a common noun – like The Hudsucker Proxy or The Shawshank Redemption – it almost always detracts from the power of the title.  Think about it: The Bride Wars.  The Four Weddings. The Hotel for Dogs. No.  Those titles would suck.

Anyway, I digress.  I saw the movie a number of years ago and remember loving it.  Politics aside, it was great on suspense and great on character.  I love movies with Jason Bourne-type human superheroes who can anticipate everyone’s every movie, and I like it even more when two such characters have to go at it, and that’s really what this movie was.  And a few weeks ago I was looking for a suspense/thriller/mystery type novel to read, and this is what I came up with.

It’s interesting how different the two are.  We can start with the most glaring change, which is that the book covers a tobacco trial while the movie is a gun trial. No doubt this was a context choice – by time the movie was made in 2003, tobacco was no longer a controversial issue and it was nowhere close to unprecedented that a widow might be compensated for her husband’s nicotine-related death.  Mass shootings like Columbine (which occurred in 1999) were of greater importance, so that part of it I think was an excellent choice.

It gets more subtle than that, though.  In the movie, we start headfirst knowing that Rankin Fitch (great name) is the bad guy, while Nicholas Easter (great name) and Wendell Rohr (great name) are the good guys.  In the book it’s a little more ambiguous – both sides are skirting the letter of the law, both sides are hiring ruthless and unscrupulous jury consultants, and both sides are, well, lawyers, doing dirty, nasty, lawyer-like things. Easter is a little more ruthless, and actually occurs as manipulative at time, which the consummately loveable John Cusack couldn’t possibly pull off.  And Marlee is soooooo annoying.  This, I think, is Grisham’s failing that was corrected in a form that’s more prone to concisify the story to fit within a desired timeframe.  The playing games/taunting Fitch portion of the book drags on and on, whereas I remember it being much more intriguing and suspenseful.  And the movie does a better job of building suspense and building the stakes, what with the attack on Marlee’s life.

Honestly, I think the movie may be better just because of the tight storytelling.  The book kept me turning the pages, but Grisham’s storytelling style is actually kind of drab and matter of fact, a habit he no doubt picked up during his 20 years of legal experience.

So through all of this, I find myself asking the question, “How did they adapt this movie?”  The answer is that they took the same characters, put them in a similar situation, used the same plot structure, and then filled in all the beats from scratch.  Though the plot was essentially the same, few of the scenes and none of the dialogue was. This is a pretty stark contrast from, say, The Shawshank Redemption, where all of the voice over narration and most of the scenes were pretty much lifted directly from the novella.  And it’s a stark contrast from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where the basic premise is the only thing that tied the film to the story in any way, shape, or form.

I’ve never really considered just how vast you can adjust your creative license when adapting a movie. Recently I read Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and I’m looking forward to watching that movie to see what they do there.  And I’ll be in the theater at midnight to see The Watchmen to see if they follow the lead of V for Vendetta or even Sin City by cloning much of the dialogue and set design.

Oh … to be in the inquiry …


Review – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

December 27, 2008

A lot of things ran through my mind watching this film, all the result of several months’ worth of blogging and pondering scripts.

First, I think about theme.  The film starts in modern day New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina builds strength in the Gulf.  An old woman in a hospital prepares for death, and tells the story of a clockmaker who lost his son in World War I, and the clock he builds in response runs backward. He hopes, he says, that maybe we can get back some of our sons we lost in the war.

Immediately we establish themes of the reversal of time and the value of life – one, approaching the end, at the beginning of the film, the other reaching a premature end at the hands of war.

Then we begin reading the memoirs of this man.  The baby is born.  It is an ugly baby, and rejected by its father and taken in by a young black couple who run a nurshing home.  Themes of rejection vs acceptance.  I can’t help but marvel at the genius choice to make it a black couple, in nineteen-teens deep South, driving in this theme.  Rejection vs acceptance.

His biological father comes to show remorse for his decision, and comes back to make amends.  Remorse for decisions made in the past.  But it’s not too late to change your future.  The inevitably immature mistakes of our past, but the ability to forgive, and love, and grow, and sieze opportunities in our future.  Another huge theme that permeates this movie.

And of course, there is birth and there is death.  The cycle of life.  The beginning and the end.

I think about adaptations.  The original story was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.  Benjamin’s birthdate was 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War; in the movie, it’s 1918, on the day World War I ends.  It seems, as I’m watching it, that so much has been skipped to trim eighty years of a man’s life into three hours, I was surprised to find out the original was a short story, 9,000 words, and not a full-length novel.  I think again to the fact that this was a work in public domain, for which a beautiful adaptation has been made, and I consider again the adaptations I want to make: Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Milton, Chaucer, the list goes on.  There are so many ways to adapt a work, only your imagination can hold you back.

I think about the formula, and how great it is to have a character who’s so passive in his protagonism.  He makes choices, but never makes a wrong one.  He never does something that makes us say, “Oh, no, not that!” because from birth to death he has this patience, this calmness, this understanding.  He’s a man of few words, and he somehow seems inactive in the way he drives the action.

And he’s so damn beautiful.

I’m not one for period pieces.  And I’m not one for epic dramas.  But this was an outstanding, beautiful piece of fiction that absorbed me at every moment, beautiful and ugly.


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