Limitless’s Limits

August 22, 2011

I watched Limitless last night. It’s a great movie, and really cool in a lot of ways, but when I was done my wife and I both noticed that although we enjoyed it thoroughly, we weren’t terribly engaged throughout the film. When I started thinking of the reasons why that might be, I came to a couple of conclusions.

I want to preface this by saying that I don’t believe in following all the rules all the time. But at the same time, when there’s a clear weakness in something, some of the filmmaking rules prescribed by others may provide a useful place to look.

  1. Save the Cat. Of course, this is the famous one by Blake Snyder – the idea that the hero has to save a cat, or feed a homeless person, or do something else early on in the story for us to sympathize with him. This, I think, was the biggest thing that was missing. Although the hero had some very admirable qualities, we weren’t really rooting for him all that hard, because we didn’t see his heart of gold early on. All we felt at the beginning was pity and maybe some empathy. I think this is particularly important for a superhero story, which this is – we need to know why he’s deserving of this power, and we didn’t really get that.
  2. No real villain. The fact that the thing giving him his power was also killing him was a pretty powerful dilemma, but a superhero story is only as good as its villain, and here we didn’t have a really strong one. There was really no point where we were thinking “How the heck is he going to get out of THIS one?” since the villains he was up against were actually less powerful than him.
I think these are the big two. One of the dangers in this kind of story is for the superpower to form the focal point, rather than the character. What I mean by that is that when the climax hits, the superpower is what gets him out of it, rather than the character forsaking his flaws so that he can accomplish his goal without the superpower. And I think that had these two components above been in place, it would have provided the opportunity to overcome that obstacle in a stronger way.
Again, I don’t want to give off the impression that this was a bad movie, because it wasn’t. It was really a lot of fun, and my wife and I both came out of it saying, “I wish I had NZT …”. But it’s still interesting to look at the shortcomings to see what could have taken it to the next level.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

July 28, 2011

Got to see a sneak preview of this movie the other night. First, for those of you who are just here for the “should I or shouldn’t I?” of it, the answer is yes. Hilarious, emotional, and completely awesome.

Now, for the writers, there’s a few things I noticed in the “why” it was such a great movie:

First, the movie was like a roller coaster. Blake Snyder, when discussing the beat board in Save the Cat, tells you to use positives and negatives to figure out the direction of the scene. In other words, if it starts out on a high and ends on a low, it would get a +/-. If the opposite, it would be a -/+. Personally, I’ve also added -/– and +/++ to the repertoire, since I think a complete 180 is unnecessary as long as it moves the story somewhere.

Snyder mentions that other writers insist that scenes should be lined up +/- -/+ +/- etc., but that he (Snyder) feels that’s going a bit far. I agree with Snyder on this one. But one thing I noticed as I was watching Crazy, Stupid, Love was just how much it went up and down. Every time something was going great, something else would happen to slash the characters off at the knees. And then they would reach in from underneath and make things good again, only to screw it all up once again. It’s like the entire second half of the movie was a series of dark nights of the soul.

Honestly, there may have been one too many iterations of this. It was definitely on the emotionally taxing side. (You can ask my wife, who spend most of the movie either crying or cringing.) But the climax was definitely worth it, if for no other reason than the fact that the 13 year old totally steals it from Steve Carrell in a way that any male who was ever 13 would be in complete awe of.

Second, memorable lines. Someone once said that he can tell whether a movie will be successful based on one factor: whether people come out it quoting lines from the movie. Consider the following:

On what was supposed to be the happiest night of my business life, it wasn’t the same, because I couldn’t share it with you.  . . . I love you.  I love you. And I just –

Shut up, just shut up.  I love you too.

Now compare it to what would produce two of the most famous lines in film history:

On what was supposed to be the happiest night of my business life, it wasn’t complete, wasn’t nearly close to being in the same vicinity as complete, because I couldn’t share it with you. . . . I love you.  You . . . you complete me. And I just –

Shut up, just shut up.  You had me at hello.

See the difference?  Jerry Maguire was filled with highly memorable lines: “Show me the money,” “You shoplifted the pooty,” “D’you know the human head weighs eight pounds,” “Help me help you,” and the list just goes on.

But I’m not here to talk about Jerry Maguire. The point is, Crazy, Stupid, Love is filled – FILLED – with memorable lines. My personal favorite is when Ryan Gosling takes off his shirt to an awed female who responds, “God, it’s like you’re Photoshopped!” I think that one might be in the trailer. Another one of my favorites: “Remember last week, when I said I had to work late? I went to go see the new Twilight movie by myself, and I feel awful about it because it was just so bad, so, so bad …”

That’s what a comedy is all about, right?

Third, moments we don’t see coming. I won’t spoil it for you. But very well done. Here I’m reminded of Robert McKee: save your exposition for the second half of the script, when it will explode off the screen and form a huge turning point, rather than be … well, exposition.

Fourth, character. What I found most interesting was that the supporting characters were more clear on what they wanted than the main protagonist. The teenagers, for example, both wanted something very specific that they couldn’t have. Most everyone else thought they wanted one thing, but really wanted something else. But EVERYONE was making very strong decisions to propel their own plotlines. I guess the takeaway from this, to use the words of Will Akers, is to make sure your supporting characters are the heroes of their own stories.

One thing I do wonder about is concept. Because premise-wise, this film isn’t particularly compelling. “A father’s life unravels while he deals with a marital crisis and tries to manage his relationship with his children.” Even for a family comedy, there’s nothing unique about this logline. But the characters and dialogue were written so well, A-list actors couldn’t help but jump on board, and I guess that’s the name of the game.

I’m sure there’s plenty more where this came from, but I think I’m done for now. Go see the movie, and have fun drooling over Ryan Gosling.

The Three Act Structure Is a Load of Crap

March 22, 2011

This morning, I woke up to a reply from Linda Aronson on my Flashbacks discussion with Michael Hauge (scroll to the comments at the bottom). One of the things she brings up is the fact that not all scripts have to follow the three-act structure, which works only for a certain type of film.

One of the things I’m wrestling with in my current screenplay is that the low point, in the last draft, occurred on page 98 (out of 112). At my reading a few weeks ago, I was told that I need to have it about 20 pages earlier. I’ve been really struggling with this, because I know that the script has some structural issues, but I don’t quite see how to gut the entire first two acts AND add in some of the stronger suggestions they made and still accommodate this change.

After doing a little more research I discovered that yes, in Snyderesque BS2 format, the “All Is Lost” moment needs to happen on page 75, leading to the “Dark Night of the Soul” (75-85) and then the 2nd turning point driving us into Act 3. But then I kept looking and discovered, much to my relief, that this doesn’t always have to be the case. In The Jumper of Maine, which won a Nicholl Fellowship and the AFF Screenplay Competition this year, the low point occurs much later, around page 91 (of 107), leading to a VERY short final act, and the climax.

Then I re-read the “Act Design” chapter of McKee’s Story, which corroborated the idea that you don’t have to shoehorn every story into three acts. Which is good news, because one of the things I’ve been keenly aware of through this whole process is that the closer you stick to the formula, the more formulaic your movie becomes.

So in rewriting Postville, my low point is going to occur earlier than it did in the previous draft (mostly a function of trimming the fat), but then I’m also going to extend out particularly the final act, to give the audience some time to deal with these characters as they’re going through their final crisis.

Still haven’t quite figured out how to do that just yet … but I’m getting closer.

Narrative Efficiency …

November 3, 2009

… and a reason why you should clean out your Inbox.

I was just going through all my “starred” g-mail items, and came across one that my wife e-mailed me 2 months ago, which contained a link to Validation by Kurt Kuenne, which I still hadn’t gotten around to watching. Putting aside the message, which is a whole conversation unto itself, I just love the narrative efficiency.

Consider: In scene 1, somebody comes up to our hero, and he validates him. The scene is roughly a minute long. In scene 2, a woman comes up and he validates her – this one only takes about 15 seconds. Cut to someone running. “There’s a problem,” he says. And they go to this guy, and there’s a line out the door for people waiting for parking. We’ve just skipped months, and it only took two minutes to establish the premise, then the pattern, and then result.

The stakes continue to go up just as quickly. By the end of the third minute, he’d solved peace in the Middle East. Which left me wondering where on earth they could possibly go from here.

But of course, it moves brilliantly forward by giving him an obstacle he can’t overcome, and then the classical “ordeal,” followed by the “Dark Night of the Soul” where he pulls out of his low-point, and then the resolution. Thorough, complete, riveting, and only 15 minutes long. Fantastic!

Titles & Loglines

January 23, 2009

The more I learn, the more I start to think that the title and logline – the first thing the reader sees – is one of the most critical parts of the entire screenplay.

I’ve recently joined the listserve for Austin Screenwriters Group, and the other day received an e-mail from an online screenplay competition, in which they suggested that you name your document something that will compell the reader.  If you were looking at one file called “The Cave Where The Water Always Drips.pdf” and another called “Script.doc” which would you look at first?

Great advice.

And it was then, going to ASG’s website, that I realized why I still haven’t attended one of their readings.  It’s because, based on the titles and the loglines, I haven’t found one I want to attend.

If you follow the above link, you’ll notice on the frontpage the upcoming script schedule, including the author/title and a logline/description.  Now when I look at those, out of 12 scripts listed, 7 months’ worth of readings, almost all of them are dull beyond all belief.

Blake Snyder points out, in Save the Cat!, the four components of the logline: irony; a compelling mental picture; audience and cost; and a killer title.  Expats in Islam comes close, but there’s something missing from it.  I think it takes too much work to get to the irony or the mental picture.  35 has no irony, and the title means nothing.

Icon, on the other hand has all of these elements, and I’ve been looking forward to sitting in on this script for months.  “A con man turns the world of religion upside down but then discovers he is the actual messiah.” All of those elements.  Bam.  There was another last week that I wanted to attend (but was unable to, due to a last-minute scheduling conflict), which dealt with the true story of Tchaikovsky’s battle with homosexuality.  That one hit the nail on the head.

But the rest of these are completely and thoroughly uninteresting to me.  And if you can’t compell me with your logline, how on earth am I supposed to trust you with 2-3 hours of my time?

Blogging Is Stupid

January 9, 2009

UNK’s fabulous post on Theme has, at my hands (at least in part), deteriorated into a squabble.

To summarize, so that you don’t have to spend half an hour reading the entire thing to know what I’m talking about, this guy Clive wrote somewhere in the comments:

What I strongly suggest to anyone handing out advice on any aspect of screenwriting, is don’t, not until you’ve actually had some experience of seeing the end results of your labours projected up a cinema wall.

I replied, disagreeing with him by saying that “just as Gottard’s ‘genius’ was actually the byproduct of his financial and/or technical circumstances, so too was Orson Welles’ ‘genius’ the byproduct of his technical inexperience.”  He responded rather snarkily, and you can read the last few posts in the thread to see where it went from there.

Now Clive seems to spend a considerable portion of his time on UNK’s blog, and must be a very knoweldgeable, important person because he insists on reminding us of that in all of his posts.  For some reason, though, there’s no link in the most recent threads to any website he runs, and there’s no other indicator of  who he is.  I’m sure if I delved into it a little deeper I could find out, but frankly I don’t care that much.  Personally, I think this guy has not just an over-developed sense of self-importance, but an overdeveloped sense of the value of experience.

Not that I’m dissing experience, mind you. But to say that I don’t have anything to contribute to a conversation just because I’m not one of the world’s foremost experts on a particular subject is patently absurd.  There are a million bloggers on the Internet, and that’s exactly what all of them are – self-appointed experts with who-knows-what degree of expertise.

If a dentist told me I had bad breath, I’d listen to him, but I’d also listen to my four-year-old nephew if he told me the same thing.

Now, Clive has a lot of great things to say.  Spend 5 minutes reading the comments on UNK’s posts and you’ll see that.  But so does Robert McKee and so does Blake Snyder, and so does some guy I randomly met at a screenwriting conference who nobody knows from Adam.  But just because Blake says it and Adam doesn’t, it doesn’t make it true, and just because Adam says it and Blake doesn’t, it doesn’t make it false.  All of the things that all of these people say are things that I carefully consider and then take with a grain of salt, because all of it is useful to consider but none of it is “The Truth.”

So here’s to being a self-appointed little fish in a big sea of experts, on a subject for which there really is no such thing as expertise.

Review – Four Christmases

December 31, 2008

I actually saw this one a week ago, but at the time had plenty of things to write about, so I’m now revisiting it to delve into my bag of prepared material.

In Save the Cat! Blake Snyder refers to a number of spec sales that had occurred recently prior to writing the book.  Four Christmases was one of these scripts.  The logline: a newly married couple must spend Christmas Day at each of their four divorced parent’s homes.

He talks about the script frequently.  I had forgotten, until I looked back just now, that it wasn’t his idea, just something he found at (In retrospect, I should have known – Blake Snyder is never credited with anything.)  In the execution, it changed from being a newlyweds to being an actively unmarried couple (neither has any interest in marriage) who have spent their last three Christmases going on exotic vacations.

After watching this movie, I’m starting to have a growing respect for Vince Vaughn.  I always had the impression he was kind of a doofus, but after The Break-Up and now this, I’m starting to see a trend of movies with silly premises, plenty of comedic moments, but a real point to them at the end.

That’s the whole thing about Four Christmases.  While going through the steps of creating this movie in Save the Cat! Snyder says that at the end, these two people must learn that the problems their parents had are minor in comparison to the many benefits of marriage.  And much to my surprise, this film actually executed and did it in a way that actually made you feel … emotion … and not only that, they did it without being obscenely cheesy. I was pleasantly shocked.

Oh, and it’s funny, too.  Just the right mix of slapstick, intelligent comedy, situational comedy, the works.  The scene when they’re playing Taboo! and Jon Favreau partners with his wife … effing priceless.

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