Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Archive for the ‘Film Review’ Category

Rescue Me

How unlikeable characters make the best protagonist…

This is a very exciting week for me. The final installment into my favorite saga will be presented to the world. I am not talking about the Harry Potter movie that will have little girls running and screaming for the theaters, but rather the final season of Rescue Me, a show that would likely make little girls also run screaming. Unlike Harry Potter, whose moral compass never strays, Rescue Me’s protagonist Tommy Gavin throws the middle finger to morality as he bangs back a shot of vodka, before things really get interesting. He is a foul mouthed, egotistic, womanizing, violent, abrasive alcoholic, and I love him. He is one of many in a long list of anti-heros who have snatched up the hearts of audiences and ran with them. From Bill Munny to Hank Moody, these hugely defected characters have made for some of the most fascinating protagonists.

The Ultimate Badass: Has he really played any "likable" protagonist?

We learn from the get go that in order to write a script, or even a bedtime story for that matter, you have to have a likable protagonist. This, clearly is not the case. These anti-heros not only win our sympathy, but let’s face it, they’re way more fun to watch. It’s like watching that stupid friend that you have who always get’s himself in trouble. As much as you enjoy laughing as gets yelled at by his parents, you still hope he gets away with it. But the reason that these characters have won our hearts goes much deeper than that.

A major part in film and television’s success is that it provides a fantasy for its viewers, while still offering them something to relate to. What keeps swarms of tweens rushing to the theater (and forkin over the dough), is that recognition of a teenager just like them, doing magical and brave things that they could never. It’s also what kept more mature audiences tuned in to Friends for a decade; the idea of people and friends just like them who lived lovely lives in Manhattan, never had to work, and always got along. Its almost as magical as Hogwarts to be honest.

It is this same principle that makes us so intrigued with these Anti-heros. We recognize that we are flawed, as every one is, and as they certainly are, but they are also doing incredible things. Plus,as far as the female demographic is concerned, no matter what your parents say, girls DO love bad boys. This is a fundamental principle of the anti-hero; they have a substantial redeeming quality. In Tommy Gavin’s case, he saves people from terrifying fires. No matter how devilish he is outside of that inferno, he still drags innocent people to safety by running in to life threatening fires. He also suffers from PTS while mourning the losses of 911, a national tragedy, so he gets brownie points for that as well.  So viewers tune in and realize that everyone has a shot at redemption, something that is nice to think about, as they watch him terrorize everyone around him.

(In this scene Tommy just saw his dead son who he sorta killed… yeah, Id fall off the wagon)

What I think attracts me to these characters, however, is that they make for very complex protagonists with very complicated stories. While everyone who’s ever heard of Harry Potter instantly wants him to defeat Voldermort (sp?,whatever…), even the most loyal fans of shows like Recue Me and Californication, who have rooted for this protagonists for season upon season, still have to question where their sympathy lies from time to time. This makes for interesting themes, conflicts, and plot lines. It also keeps those loyal fans tuning in time and time again, as they subconsciously hope that Hank Moody gets away with statutory rape .

So while “likability” may generate some really successful protagonists, Im going to say screw likability. Give me complex protagonists, with the human tendency to hit on the wrong girl, drink too much, but do it all with the best intentions. Put ’em in a complicated situation and I say you have yourself a story!

We all fall for legs like that...

I’d love to hear who some of your favorite protagonists are (no matter how likable), and what you think makes them so great!

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Sticks and Stones…

Giving your dialogue that extra punch.

Dialogue is for many the most intimidating part of writing. FInding a way to breath life and pizzaz into their character’s can discourage anyone from making their master piece come to life. Even successful Hollywood writers would agree that dialogue is a daunting component of a script. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, who really reads scene direction any way? Relax, of course people read scene direction, but the dialogue is what makes or breaks a good story.

I was recently re-watching Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, a great film that is among my bluray collection for good reason. I’d always enjoyed the movie, but upon my most recent viewing I realized that the story itself was pretty predictable, the character very typical, and the world totally plain. So what is it that makes this movie so gripping? Ive seen it time and time again, know exactly what happens, yet I still can’t turn away. The answer is the electrifying dialogue. Every word is delivered with such intensity and force that you feel it in your own bones.

So I got the screenplay, hoping for the same effect, but was greatly disappointed. The dialogue on the page is bulky and awkward. It has only glimpses of the impressive nature of the words that jumped out of my TV. The opening monologue is an excellent example of this. What sounded great in the movie read as muddled garbage. It had lost that edge that made me think “wow, this character knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.” Even as a lunatic’s rant, this monologue still had power in its well chosen words, once chut down in the production and post production phases.

This is an excellent example of over writing dialogue. It’s so common that even Tony Gilroy couldn’t avoid it, so don’t be too hard on yourself when you catch this in your next revision! Great dialogue, in my mind, consists of three key elements:

1) Originality – find a way to deliver your message in a way that hasn’t been used a million times. This is what makes for great movie quotes that stick in your audience’s mind, and make up killer trailers.

2) Subtext – We all know how awful on the nose dialogue can be, so dont do it.

3) Brevity. I can’t emphasize enough the power of lean dialogue. Get your point across and shut up. This is what made the dialogue in the film so great was you really got the impression that the characters, mostly successful lawyers, thought at a faster pace. Not a word was wasted, misused, or underpowered. The violence of the film came across more in the brutality of their words than the car bomb and murder.

So, next time you sit down to write some dialogue, pay attention to every word. Does it say exactly what you want it to say? Does it need to be there? Can you scour your vocabulary for a more efficient way of saying it? Chances are you can, and Im not saying everything needs to be one word answers, there are times for long winded rants and confusing tangents, but choose them wisely. It will serve you well by making for more powerful dialogue, and by improving the flow of your script.

http://www.afi.com/100years/quotes.aspx

Where is the Love?

The rise in “Tent Pole” Rom-coms.

The new battle of the sexes...

The genres of film have seen a drastic shift over the past few decades. While my own writing is inspired by the rich characters and masterful themes of the classics, today’s blockbusters have left much to be desired. But while comic book heroes and worn out adaptations account for much of today’s popular releases, the genre that has peaked my curiosity the most lately is the modern day romantic comedy.

With such films as Love and Other Drugs, No Strings Attached, and the upcoming Friends with Benefits, today’s romantic comedies have thrown romance out the window in exchange for casual sex. Sam is no longer playing piano to recount fond memories, Sally’s diner orgasm has been one upped by many actresses’s climactic moans, and passionate emails have been replaced with horny text messages.

The Lost Art of Desire

It is hard to criticize this advance, however, as there is no arguing against the fact that these themes not only attract todays youth, but in many ways speak to the cultural acceptance of recreational sex. These films are telling it like it is in many ways, as the traditional plot of classic romantic comedies would generate a significant gap between themselves and their audience. Such liberated themes provide great comic opportunities as well. There is certainly something to be said for an actor’s ability to transition from an intense sexual expression to a juvenile boner joke with such fluidity, and it is moments like these that make such films so entertaining. I personally died laughing at Jake Gyllenhaal’s stubborn erection, as well as Natalie Portman’s infatuation with Kutcher’s “3-D” manhood. So the entertaining value of these films is present, but there is one industry wide shortcoming that resonates in these new sex-comedies.

The writing doesn’t convince me any more. I dont believe that our protagonists fall madly in love with their female co-stars based solely on the physicality displayed on screen. I am all for sexual chemistry and what not, but I still want dialogue that makes me fall in love with these characters. I want rich characters that come to life and make me all gooey inside. When I write romantic characters I try my best to make the audience want them to come through the screen and propose, but to be honest I found Hathaway’s character Maggie Murdoch to be irritating, and Portman’s Emma to be frustrating and insulting. So much time was spent sexualizing these women, that the only insight we had into their real characters came in the form of obstacles for our heros, which were naturally their flaws or hesitations. How is that attractive?

In this aspect I feel that the writers have sold them selves short. I think that they over looked the dramatic potential of emotional conflict that comes from longing, desire, and affection. They skipped right over the powerful stuff and jumped right in the sack. Be it as a means of raising the box office numbers by exploiting hot young stars, or by serving the demand of the audience, they didn’t pay enough attention to the good stuff. When it is presented, it’s stifled. Gylenhaal nearly has a heart attack trying to say “the L word,” and Portman stuffs her face full of doughnuts when she finally realizes what she lost.

I hope that romantic comedies can return to their prior glory. In the end, boy will always love girl, and girl will love boy, but I want to believe that what got us there was more than a string of orgasms. It will be hard to work these themes of sincere affection into today’s market, but it would be a shame to abandon America’s favorite genre on account of America’s favorite pass time.

The unacceptability of love in today's films.

The Beauty of Baumbach

Why I admire the screenwriting of Noah Baumbach.

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach

Today’s films are saturated with over-the-top action sequences and flashy sexuality. The typical conventions of screenwriting have been sacrificed for commercial marketability that promises box-office success in the form of sexy casts and Deceptacons. While intimate, character driven scripts tell beautiful stories, rooted in human emotion and struggle, they don’t rake in the dollars at opening night the way a fast paced action thriller or star-studded Rom Com never fails to. Such well-crafted stories are so out of place that they are almost always produced outside of the studio system as “indie” projects, or by the smaller artsy studios such as Magnolia Pictures and Focus Features.

Throughout his years of filmmaking, writer/director Noah Baumbach has remained loyal to this exact kind of story telling. His screenwriting ignores the cheap tricks so overly utilized in today’s market, and instead focuses on crafting unique, rich characters and captivating stories rooted in simplicity and realism. While his most common criticism is that his films are too boring, I instead find them to be deeply fascinating for their ability to explore the most relatable of human emotions in a very original way.

His latest film, Greenberg, is no exception. This film follows a psychologically troubled man through his re-immersion back into society, and his efforts to do…nothing. The character of Greenberg is one riddled with insecurities and idiosyncrasies, but posses no spectacular traits of any kind. He is just a common man who suffered from intense anxiety issues that led to a nervous breakdown, and he is now learning to cope with these troubles on a daily basis. It is his struggles that allow the audience to sympathize with his character, as we can all recognize a piece of our own vulnerability amongst his complexity. It is this connection between the audience and the characters that provides a captivating element in a story that lacks fast paced action and suspense.

These conventions of storytelling are not new to film making. Instead, Baumbach is revitalizing the techniques of classic filmmaking of the 60’s and 70’s. Consider, for a moment, one of your favorite films from this time period. Does it showcase the intense action sequences of today’s popular movies? At a time when Hollywood didn’t have these cheap gimmicks at their disposal, they relied on the human realism in a fashion similar to Baumbach. They took their time developing their characters, their world, and their journey, in order to make the most fully developed and intriguing story possible. The resulting products gave us such masterpieces as The Godfather, Deerhunter, The Graduate, Taxi Driver, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Bonnie and Clyde, just to name a few. All tremendous examples of screenwriting excellence, and all the product of minimal flash and pizzazz.

This is the sign of great screenwriting. If you haven’t already discovered Baumbach’s work I suggest you give it a glance. His Greenberg script is a very fun read which taught me a lot about character development and emotional insight. Among his other notable scripts are; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Margot at the Wedding. All are written in Baumbach’s intimate style and are very helpful in terms if story development.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Your Line on the Horizon

Working with your setting to bring the story to life.

In Syd Feild’s Screenwriter’s Corner, he discusses the potential of using the properties of an action sequence to craft the arch of the scene. I was thinking about this insight while working on my own script’s revision last night, and found that visualizing the setting brought a lot not only to my action sequences, but my story as a whole. Now it may seem obvious that the writer’s job is to know everything in their scene’s location, but thinking about it the way Mr. Feild suggested seems almost backwards and definitely brought a new dimension to my understanding of each scenes dramatic action.

Taking his advice I started thinking about the spacial movement that had to take place amongst scenes, and started placing my character’s motions and dialogue along that timeline. I started paying attention to where the characters would be when they reacted to certain lines, what prop could best compliment their emotional expression, and how the scenery could enhance the mood of the scene, rather than how the scene could work in a specific location.

When it came to my action scene, I could totally visualize how the scene would fit into the movements that had to be made based on the physical space.

I thought about how this technique may have come in handy in one of my all time favorites; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This scene is a great example of how an entire scene is dictated almost entirely by the character’s surroundings, after that its just up to the screenwriter to craft the dialogue in a witty manner and “make the plunge” if you will…

Screenwriting is a trade of building a world within your writing, so I had a bit of fun working backwards and shaping my writing around my world. Give it a shot some time and see how you like it.

Why do we love Top Gun?

The little things that saved the movie in a big way.

A dynamic hard at work...

As screenwriters, we are trained to create a quality script through rich subtext, minimal exposition, relatable characters, and a well-structured plot line. So why is it that I can sit and watch a movie like Top Gun, which is filled with on the nose dialogue, heavy expositional lines, and an unlikable protagonist, yet still find it incredibly entertaining?

Well the easy answer is that years of film studies classes haven’t yet paid off when it comes to good old popcorn movies. While this may very well be true, I’d like to think that there’s a little more to it. Within movies such as Top Gun, where so many simple rules of screenwriting and film making are broken, it is the simplest things that keep us coming back. One liners, gripping action, and interesting characters, serve as a lifeboat for this sinking script. While not all scripts with such problems can attract talent such as Tom Cruise and Meg Ryan, it is important to recognize the little things that can save, and better yet, improve your script.

Characters have always been a staple in a good script, but what I find to be equally as important is character dynamics. The way that relationships between characters are depicted will dictate how much your audience feels connected to them. It is this great dynamic that made a simple TV concept about six friends living in New York the monster franchise Friends, by making the audience feel like it’s a part of the gang. Such is arguably true with Goose and Maverick. We may not like Maverick, but we like Goose and Maverick as a team, and therefore we root for Maverick in the end.

Another major tool used to make this movie a success is its use of one-liners. Simple little lines like Maverick’s “flippin’ the bird” quote, or Carol’s “take me home or loose me forever,” are excellent examples of how trivial dialogue can enhance any script’s marketability. With one little line a movie can be remembered for decades. Think of lines like “we’ll always have Paris” from Casablanca, or “you can’t handle the truth” from A Few Good Men. Most people will recognize these quotes, even if they haven’t seen the movie. While all dialogue should be true to your character and story, it is lines like these that can set it apart. Unfortunately, it is lines like these that are also incredibly difficult to come up with.

These are only two examples of interesting techniques that may not enhance your actual story, but can bring your script to the next level. Story is always the most important aspect of a script in my mind, but once it’s laid out it could be very advantageous to pull out as many cheap tricks as possible.

 

Ahh, the simple pleasures!


A world of its own…

Crafting your animated world through real life recognition:

 

The most basic of human desires...

Many a times I have been curious about the possibilities of writing an animated feature, targeting the young audiences that have so loyally enjoyed the Disney Pixar and Dreamworks films. The appeal in writing for this kind of film lies in the limitless possibilities of the new worlds explored, as well as the light-hearted tones and themes that drive these popular features. On the surface, the purpose of such films is to provide the young and simple minds of children with an enjoyable and entertaining story.

Upon closer examination, however, these movies deal directly with the issues at hand today in our own society. When crafting a world and characters far different from those with which we are familiar, the screenwriter must do a great deal to make the characters and conflicts relatable to their audience. This task is most commonly achieved by infusing realistic character traits into the imaginary characters and putting them in situations not unfamiliar to our own.

In many cases, an animated feature, which may seem to operate as a comedic escape from our daily issues, is in fact a direct reflection of the problems the screenwriter recognizes within our society. A great example of this lies in the film Wall-E. Wall-E takes a robot that can’t properly communicate in the way we expect, and brings him to life through the use of human emotions and goals. While Wall-E may be a robot who’s “objective” is to collect trash, the audience can recognize his humanity through his expressive mannerisms and his true goals. Like so many other protagonists, Wall-E just wants to overcome loneliness by winning over the heart of a superior female.

More significantly, however, Wall-E serves as a terrific protagonist due to the position he is in to save mankind from the damage we have done to our world and our selves. In a time of global awareness, the theme of cleaning up the world we trashed, and breaking the lack of awareness that comes from technological advances and pure laziness functions as a superb theme of timely heroism. In this way, Wall-E goes beyond being a simple children’s movie by examining so many relatable conflicts and issues within the world we know.

Wall-E does not stand alone in this success. Think back to almost any animated children’s movie, and you will see that no matter how abstract the world and characters, the film deals with issues and goals drawn from our own lifestyle. Whether it be The Lion King’s reflection of greed and betrayal, or Shrek’s focus on societal standards and judgment rooted in physical appearance, it seems that in order to successfully craft a light hearted and enjoyable animated feature, one must first focus on real-life issues of the most serious nature.

We all want the same things...

We all want the same things...

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