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.

Postville Script Reading

March 8, 2011

Had my script reading of Postville on Sunday. Went a lot better than expected. The rewrite process was way tougher than I anticipated, as I agonized over how to restructure this part, and where to put this scene, and how to fit in this plot point, etcetera, etcetera.

In sending the script to my dad (who wrote the play) a couple of weeks ago, one of his comments was that in the play, Avram (the lead) and Ray (the antagonist) were both assholes, but the way I’d written the screenplay, Avram was ten times the asshole, and Ray not so much. It was a note well-taken, so I toned it down quite a bit, removing some of the more unscrupulous things Avram does and adding some bigotry to Ray. In the end, at the reading, we took a vote. About half of the people felt that Avram was unsympathetic, and they had a hard time rooting for him, and the other half thought I should leave him just the way he is (more or less), as a morally ambiguous antihero. I’m okay with that. I did get an idea for a Save the Cat moment I can add in as the second scene, which may take care of some of the “unsympathetic” votes, but even if it doesn’t I’m good with people disliking him, because he’s there to be disliked.

Also interesting was people’s attitudes toward the treatment of the different races/cultures. At one point, my actor friend who I brought in to read the part of Avram pointed out that I managed to fit every Jewish stereotype into the first 12 pages. Then, somewhere around page 65, he told me, “Oh, I was wrong, there’s another one.” But then afterward, he said he loved it, because every ethnic group has characters who fit the stereotype and characters who don’t. I’m calling attention to the stereotype by having it in there and then saying, “but see, not everyone’s like this.”

On the flip side, one person in the group pointed out to me that the Latinos are treated as a prop, rather than as characters with their own issues who actually contribute to the cultural conflict. A point well taken. It was suggested that I could combine the two waitresses, keeping only the Latina and giving her a little more screen time. I’d already thought of this, and I think I could make it work. It was also suggested that I could use a Quinceañera to demonstrate cultural conflict and/or connectivity between the Hispanics and everyone else, that I could use the younger generations in general to show rebellion against their cultural traditions and expectations.

The biggest problem is structurally, which I already knew. The false defeat happens about 5-10 pages after the halfway point of the script, and isn’t really treated as a false defeat. Then the third act is blown through incredibly quickly, with the no real attention toward resolving the “Dark Night of the Soul,” which also happens 10-20 pages too late. Which means I need to condense the heck out of what I already have, which will then accommodate the suggestions.

In the end, this reading was incredibly valuable. Most pages had several laughs (or at least chuckles), and people kept coming up to me afterward telling me how much they enjoyed it; that they were impressed by my ability to bring such humor to serious subject matter. At first I thought that it was only dad’s writing that they really liked, that that was where the most laughs came from, but looking back at my notes it was about half and half. When immigration raided the plant, there was an audible groan, “Oh, no!” People argued over whether or not I should keep the scene showing the workings of the meat packing plant, because it was so graphic and visceral, it took them a while to get back into the story; but they wondered aloud at the symbolism of it. And I’m okay with that.

So ultimately, success. Now I just have to gut the thing and rewrite it once again. *Sigh*

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?

Give Me the Same, Only Different

January 22, 2009

I made a terrible mistake a few weeks ago.

I was pitching an article to a journal, something that I don’t have a huge amount of experience doing, as journalistic writing hasn’t really been my focus.  But this journal has been using me as a proofreader for a year now, which means I’ve become very familiar with it, and know just the kinds of things they like to publish.

So what did I do?  I pitched them two things, both of which were unlike anything I’d ever seen them publish at any point in the last year I’ve been reading it.  And of course, when the response came back a few weeks later, they turned me down.

When I received the rejection notice, I compiled several e-mails that never got sent, some defending my pitches, some arguing my points.  But in the end I decided just to let it go, smile and be professional, knowing that there would be other opportunities in the not too distant future.

Then, last week, I read a newspaper article that gave me a new idea.  I found myself formulating the pitch while I was doing the dishes, and actually stopped in the middle of dish-washing so I could go write up the pitch and send it.  This one was very similar to any number of a hundred articles I’ve read in this journal over the last year, just covering a slightly different topic.  And that’s when it hit me: they don’t want the completely original, never been done article in their journal.  They’ve only published one such article in the last year, that I can think of, and it was written by one of their regular columnists.  No, what they want is exactly the same thing they always do, just a little different.

Not surprisingly, I got a positive response from this one, so this week and next I go to work researching and writing that article.

There’s a term for what went on here: selling out.  Changing your product, or sacrificing your principles, for the sake of making the sale.  While there’s a harsh connotation to that word, I think any professional screenwriter would agree that it’s a reality of the film industry; that if you want to make the money you have to pick your battles and know when to bend over and take it up the tailpipe, artistically speaking.  I think they’d also agree that formulaic “give me the same, only different” screenplays are the ones that sell.

And honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  It’s not like I’m writing an article that encourages people to kill puppies.  But as a professional, part of your job is serving the client’s needs, so if that involves adjusting the product slightly, so be it.

I once used to tell people that my screenplays would make money, but my stageplays wouldn’t be appreciated until after I’m dead.  It’s been a while since I’ve concentrated on playwrighting.  But I was then, and I still am, perfectly okay with selling out if it means I get to make a living as an artist.

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