The King’s Speech

April 22, 2011

The King’s Speech finally came to Redbox, which means I finally got a chance to see it this week. Not quite convinced it was as Oscar-worthy as it came out. I like Colin Firth as Best Actor, but Best Director? Best Picture? Best Screenplay? I think some of the other nominees – Black Swan, The Fighter, and even Inception – were in many ways more deserving.

I don’t know how faithfully the film kept to the true story, but there were certain plot points that seemed like contrived theatrical devices – for example, the “hero rejects his call to action” moment when he decides, after reading Hamlet perfectly (but not believing that he did so), that  this is useless and he’s going to spend two years not going to see this guy before randomly deciding to grab the recording out of his desk and listen to it as though he’d been doing so every day since.

I also found the film as a whole anticlimactic. I know that Hollywood has conditioned me to want a happy ending that wraps everything up in a neat little ball, but I needed a bit more than one halfway decent speech. If I presented that script to my screenwriting group, I would’ve been told that the climax needed to be the midpoint, and then to add another 45 minutes of story afterward. Not that I necessarily think it needed that, it just felt a bit uninspired in the end.

Although I’ve said before that I don’t think that it’s necessary to follow the 3-Act Structure to the letter, here it felt as though they followed the formula in some places but left out the most critical piece – a moving climax. So overall, a bit disappointing – I wanted more from a film with 4 Oscars.

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*

More on Three Act Structures and the Movie Vantage Point

February 9, 2009

I’ve been questioning the conventional three act structure quite a bit recently.  Clearly it’s the model of contemporary filmmaking, and write or wrong everybody in the industry knows it and relies on it complicitly in anything they’re making.  For that reason I think that it’s the necessary formula to follow if you want to “make it” as a “professional screenwriter,” but I also think that truly great artists and truly great art move beyond the formulas to carve out their own path, and film should be no exception.

The other dayI wrote about The Shawshank Redemption, which doesn’t really have clear 2nd turning point, as determined by the accepted definition of “major decision made by hero.”  And I think it was the same day that I watched Vantage Point, starring Dennis Quaid, Forrest Whitaker, and William Hurt, which has a similar issue.

If you haven’t seen Vantage Point, it’s got a simple action/suspense premise but with a unique method of delivery – at every step of the way we follow a different character, getting the story from a different perspective, and getting more information about what’s going on – until the very last one (there are supposed to be 8, but it doesn’t seem like that many), when we follow the bad guys to see the real truth.

Dennis Quaid is the closest thing to a hero we’ve got in this movie, but because of the nature of the film’s delivery method, by necessity he doesn’t have much screen time and isn’t really making any major decisions in the classical three act manner.  And I don’t know if you can argue the collective consciousness as the hero.  Can a collective consciousness grow, change, or adapt?

What the movie does have is a clear beginning, middle, and end.  There’s a set up and an inciting incident where we get our socks rocked.  The next several characters we follow shows the build-up of the second act, where the hero and we as the audience try to figure out what’s happened.  Then there’s a major midpoint with a false high, followed by a second inciting incident that raises the stakes even more than they were before.  Then that climbs (at least theoretically – in the execution this is where the let-down was) to a climax and a resolution.

So … are there three acts?  Yes, certainly.  But it’s not as cut and dry or as formulaic as we make it out like it has to be.  There’s plenty of wiggle room, and as long as the tension is rising and there are moments that dramatically propel us to the next set of events, we’re fine.

%d bloggers like this: