Friday, September 4, 2015

Interview with Khalil Sullins - Writer/Director of Listening

This week I interview writer/director Khalil Sullins, whose new movie Listening is opening on Sept. 11th in a variety of locations, including the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and the Arena Theater in Hollywood. Listening is a psychological thriller about penniless grad students who invent mind-reading technology that destroys their lives. David, Ryan, and Jordan hope the telepathy invention will solve all their problems, but the bleeding-edge technology opens a Pandora’s box of new dangers, as the team discovers that when they open their minds, there is nowhere to hide their thoughts. Secrets and betrayals surface, and the technology is stolen by a covert government agency with a hidden agenda. With no one left to trust, David is forced against his friends in a life-or-death battle over not only the privacy of the human mind, but the future of free will itself.

Q: This was your first feature. How did you pick this idea?

When I was in film school, I felt like most of the short films I was seeing looked great, but were failing on the script level, so I decided to spend most of my time writing. I wrote seven or eight feature scripts in school and the few years after I graduated before I felt like I had one worth investing three to five years of my life into with Listening. This approach made sense to me, and it’s only now on the festival circuit that I’ve learned it is a bit unique. I didn’t shoot any short films or commercials or anything like that. I just wrote and wrote and wrote.

The initial seed of an idea for Listening was: “What if someone invented telepathy?” I really wanted to get into what the actual implications of that would be on a personal level, on a family and friends level, and then a societal and global level. Our relationship with communication technology is constantly evolving, and that’s always interested me. Also, I liked the idea of using telepathy as a way to explore the dynamic between thought and action. We don’t do or say everything we think. We have a filter in our brain, and that’s a good thing. But, in a world where telepathy exists, you get people’s unfiltered thoughts, which isn’t too different from what the world of social media can feel like today, for better or worse. Technology tends to amplify whatever is there already, so we might need to be more mindful of the thoughts we cultivate on a sort of meta level. The great thing about sci-fi is that you can explore some possibly esoteric concepts, but in a fun entertaining way.

Q: Tell us about your writing process. How long did the script take? How many drafts?

Before I start writing a script, I’ll spend a couple weeks or more just writing as many ideas as I can come up with. After I have about fifty to a hundred movie concepts, the best ones start to surface. I love coming up with ideas, and that part of the process. Sometimes your first “great idea for a movie” is your best one, but often it’s not. That idea-generating creativity is like a muscle that you can exercise and make stronger with practice. But making a movie, or writing a script, isn’t about having just one great idea. It’s about having thousands and thousands of ideas. Every day of plotting, outlining, writing, and re-writing, you’re basically throwing as many cool ideas into a script as you can, and then that continues into production, and so on.

When you direct/produce, you can’t always be writing, but when I’m writing a new script, I write every day. I try to set up routine hours. The first step I take is usually a brain storming period. I just let myself go, typing out whatever ideas, themes, characters, scenes, concepts I can come up with in a sort of stream of consciousness style. I don’t delete anything, I just keep typing. Say something is bad, then I type that’s bad, and why, and keep going.

Then, I outline a story, set up act breaks and such, and slowly flesh it out more and more. I simultaneously build character biographies, and decide what the greatest arc for each character can be. I don’t want the characters you meet at the beginning of the story to be the same ones you see at the end. The plot I usually let grow from a theme I want to explore. I try to choose something that I don’t fully understand. I’ve found scripts that I have started with a crystal clear idea or statement I want to make about the world, those are the ones that I never finish. I think I have to feel like I’m biting off more than I can chew in order to keep myself interested over the three to nine months it usually takes to write a script. I want the writing process to be an exploration. I don’t want to bang people over the head with a theme. I want to learn something myself.

With Listening, I also spent a couple months doing nothing but research before I started writing. I wanted the telepathy technology to be as believable as possible, so I dove into all the current research I could find online, then tried to figure out what the next theoretical step or big breakthrough could be to get us to mind-reading. I ended up combining what I read about brain computer interfaces with what I was reading was possible with nanotechnology. Now, five years later, a lot of the stuff I “invented” for the script has actually been invented in the real world too. It’s a bit crazy.

By the time I get to actually typing out a script, I have every scene of the movie on a note card and pinned up to a bulletin board next to my computer. This allows me to focus mostly on dialogue while I’m actually writing the screenplay. Dialogue is so important, and I find it’s fun to be able to just let loose and let the characters speak without having to think about what scene is coming next or what the next act break is going to be. Thorough outlining allows me to have fun with dialogue.

I wrote around ten drafts of Listening, but that’s a bit arbitrary. When I’m re-writing, I’m just constantly trying to improve the script. At some point I decide to save a PDF or print it out to get some feedback from others. But re-writing can often be a continually evolving process more than a clear cut draft four, five, or six…

Q: This was an independent film with a low budget. How did budget considerations affect the writing process?

Originally, I was writing Listening with the idea that I’d try to sell it. I didn’t think anyone was going to buy a hundred-million-dollar movie from a first-time screenwriter, so I decided to write a sci-fi script that didn’t need many visual effects. I sent out the script, and was overwhelmed with the response. Eighty or ninety companies, agents, and producers asked to read it after I sent out query letters. That turned into a few meetings, but the producers I met didn’t quite have the same vision as I did. They either didn’t get the “hard sci-fi” tone, or wanted it to be “younger and sexier,” which basically meant adding more sex scenes. No one was offering money for a re-write or anything like that, so, after much consideration, I decided to make it myself. That was a feasible option because it wasn’t conceived as a big-budget script, but it’s also why it doesn’t play like a lot of micro-budget indie films with just a couple of locations and a small cast. We had a big cast, and over thirty-five locations in LA, Washington DC, and Cambodia.

Q: You both wrote and directed. What did you learn about writing from the process of directing?

One of the big things I learned was the difference between a good read and a good film. I was surprised by how much dialogue we sort of needed on the page to understand the story, but that became superfluous when we made the film. It can be bad writing to describe looks and feelings, but you get a good actor, suddenly you don’t need five lines of dialogue because we get it all from a look in their eyes. This also applied to the technology you see in Listening. Once you actually physically see the props and what they’re doing, you don’t need a lot of the dialogue that explains it.

I learned so much about writing in the editing room with the great Howard Heard. One big lesson was about sequencing. One of your biggest tools in film is the cut between scenes. Every time you cut from one scene to another, the audience infers what happened between those two scenes. You can use a good cut to make the storytelling much more efficient. Maybe the best example, and probably the most famous cut of all time, is in Kubrick’s 2001, when he cuts from the the ape’s bone tossed in the air (man’s first tool) to a ship floating in outer space. On the other hand, if the scene sequencing doesn’t have a logical flow, that can pull the audience out of the movie for a bit.

Another related lesson was the difference between mystery and confusion. I think this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for new filmmakers, and I stumbled on it big time. Originally in the script, the scenes in the jungle and temple in Cambodia were scattered throughout the film. I thought the audience would be captured by these foreign exotic scenes, and wonder how these scenes will fit into the rest of the story, and that the suspense/mystery would build in a good way. Instead, the reaction after cutting away from our main story for the fifth or sixth time was just more and more confusion. If you have a good story, let the audience in on what it is. Withholding story logic isn’t mystery.

Q: How much did the story change from the script in production? How about post-production?

There was a big change during casting. Ryan was originally “Raj.” I didn’t want a white-washed cast, but we just couldn’t find the right Indian actor. Eventually we just opened it up to all races, found Artie Ahr, who is great, and then I re-wrote the part a little for him. In production it didn’t change that much. There were just a couple re-writes to accommodate locations.

There were, however, some significant changes in post production. We did a few living-room screenings with trusted filmmaker friends, and their input helped a lot. The film has an A-story in David and Ryan’s relationship as their telepathy technology evolves. There are B and C stories with their friend Jordan, and David’s wife and daughter. But, in the script there were also D, E, and F stories. I think I was scared that this might be the only film I’d ever make, so I wanted to get every idea I possibly could into it. Also, I wanted every character to have a lot of depth. But, once we got into the editing room, we found that we really need to keep the pace up and every time we would cut away from the A story, the tension dropped dramatically. For instance, there was a complicated dynamic between Jordan and Melanie that is hinted at, but is largely gone from the final cut. There was also a bit more to Ryan and Jordan’s love story, and Ryan with his grandma, that unfortunately just killed the forward momentum of the story.

The ending also changed, again because I was trying to turn a C or D subplot into the A storyline somehow. The script had some scattered narration, and at the end of the film we revealed David in prison, telling this whole story to his teenage daughter ten years later. The audience sees he was really doing everything for her. It was a nice scene, and explained a couple loose ends. But really, once that A storyline between David and Ryan ends, so does the film. It’s a much better, punch-in-the-gut style ending.

Q: What was the most difficult part of making this film?

Personally, my biggest challenge was staying alive at one point. For logistical scheduling purposes, we shot the Cambodia scenes five months after the main shoot. When I got back, I got deathly ill. I lost 25 pounds and was basically bed-ridden for six weeks. I had all the symptoms of dengue fever, but it was more likely malaria. The doctors never quite figured it out. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise though, because our plan had been to rush the film to completion in order to make the Sundance deadline, but instead we spent more time editing, and film really evolved during that time.

Q: Looking back, what do you wish you’d known before you started this project?

I’m really grateful for all the great teachers and the education I got at Art Center. I was really in my element making this film right until the point of completion. It was everything that came after that point that we sort of had to teach ourselves. It’s during the year of work after you finish the film that it is easy to make mistakes. Probably the biggest misstep we took was submitting to most of the major film festivals with a rough cut, without any music or VFX. I’d generally wait for the film to be totally finished before presenting it to anyone in the future. We also probably started on social media too early. Most of the public doesn’t understand how long it takes to make and distribute a film. Once they hear about it, they want to watch it, not wait three more years. Thankfully, neither of those proved to be fatal mistakes, but there are just so many bad decisions you can make after you finish the film that film schools don’t really prepare you for, because the business side really doesn’t have much to do with filmmaking. The first thing we did after finishing the film was to ask the advice of everyone we knew who had sold films in the past, which was really invaluable.

Check out Listening in theaters and on-demand on Sept. 11th.


Learn to pitch like a pro with The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Ken Aguado and Douglas Eboch. Available in print, ebook or audiobook formats.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Bridesmaids 5 – Set Pieces

(Spoilers: Bridesmaids)

I’ll complete my in-depth analysis of Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) this week by looking at the set pieces. “Set pieces” are the big scenes that pay off the genre of the film – the action scenes in action movies, scary scenes in horror films, and comedic scenes in comedies. Good set pieces are important to the success of the film. Audiences go to action movies to see action – if you don’t give it to them, they will be dissatisfied no matter how good the other aspects of the character and story are.

Bridesmaids is a comedy with a raunchy tone and lots of physical humor. As expected, the set pieces contain a lot of raunch and slapstick. This may seem like easy humor to pull off, but it’s not. In weaker scripts of this type, the set pieces often contain physical or gross-out humor that doesn’t really relate to the action of the scene. Irrelevant physical humor usually doesn’t work because it feels forced and random. As Krusty the Clown noted in The Simpsons, a guy getting hit in the face with a pie is only humorous if the guy has some reason to be dignified. So if you just throw something like that into the background of a scene, you get the physical but not the humor.

The key is to use the physical challenges as obstacles to a character’s goal. That simple approach suddenly makes the slapstick humor relevant and thus much funnier. With all this in mind, let’s examine how a couple of the best set pieces in Bridesmaids work.

One of the scenes that gets the biggest laughs is the food poisoning in the bridal shop. But it’s not simply the vomit and diarrhea that make us laugh. It’s the fact that Annie doesn’t want to admit to her rival Helen that the bridesmaids got sick at the lunch Annie arranged. So, though Annie is clearly in physical distress, she’s determined not to admit it. The food poisoning is an obstacle to Annie’s character goal.

There are, of course, gags in that scene not related to Annie, and these mostly come out of the classy setting. So the women are trying to be dignified, but their bodies betray them. If, instead of the bridal shop, we saw the women go their separate ways and then get sick in their own homes, it would be unpleasant instead of funny.

The beginning of this scene sets the situation to get the maximum effect out of both sources of humor. At first, the women are denied admittance because Annie didn’t know the shop required reservations. But it turns out Helen knows the manager and gets them in. Helen has upstaged Annie, putting Annie on the defensive. This also emphasizes how high-end the shop is, which will make the gross out events to come all the more incongruous, and therefore funnier.

Once the food poisoning kicks in, the scene intercuts between gross out bodily fluid gags with the supporting characters, while Annie tries desperately to prove she’s not sick by eating a Jordan almond. That almond is what makes the scene. It ties the physical comedy to Annie and Helen’s rivalry, adding emotional weight to the humor. It also provides counterbalance to the outrageousness that culminates in Lillian, in her bridal gown, defecating in the middle of the street.

Also notice how this scene has two escalations: The first part is about poor Annie’s discomfort with the elegance and expense of the store. Then the food poisoning starts, adding in the gross out humor. Finally, the Jordan almond escalates again, as Annie goes from simply denying her discomfort to actually having to prove her lie. Escalations are key to good set pieces.

The scene on the airplane is another good example of escalation. Once again we set up Annie’s inferiority – she’s the only one who has to fly coach while the others are in first class. The comedy escalates first when Annie’s fear of flying kicks in – and her seatmate makes it worse by being even more paranoid! This leads to Annie taking drugs Helen gives her, escalating the scene again when a stoned Annie tries to repeatedly sneak into first class against the orders of the flight attendant. The final escalation comes when Annie starts hallucinating and grabs the intercom – leading to the women getting kicked off the plane.

Another great thing this set piece does is intercut between multiple storylines. In addition to Annie’s growing meltdown, we have Becca and Rita discussing their unsatisfying sex lives – the verbal wit a nice counterpoint to the physical humor with Annie. Then we have Megan’s aggressive, nutty attempts to seduce Jon, another type of broad, character based humor. That storyline then dovetails nicely with Annie’s storyline when Jon turns out to be an Air Marshal. The intercutting of these three stories allows the writers to pile jokes on top of jokes, building the intensity and insanity of the scene to the big payoff.

And again, we have a scene where the humor grows out of character goals and rivalries. Some of the jokes are zany, but they all come out of the characters pursuing their goals. For example, Annie’s hallucination of a woman churning butter is the ultimate result of her attempt to go along with the Vegas trip despite her fear of flying. Megan’s description of how to hide a gun comes from her desire to connect with Jon, who she has correctly identified as an Air Marshal despite his denials.

These two scenes are probably what most of the audience will remember long after the movie is done. That’s the power of a good set piece. It’s important that we all strive for those kinds of memorable scenes (whatever genre you’re working in) in our screenplays. When building your set pieces, consider what we can learn from the escalations and intercutting in Bridesmaids. And if you’re doing broad comedy, be sure to tie physical humor to the characters’ goals and obstacles to those goals.

Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.


Learn to pitch like a pro with The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Ken Aguado and Douglas Eboch. Available in print, ebook or audiobook formats.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Bridesmaids 4 - Supporting Characters

(Spoilers: Bridesmaids)

Last week, in part 3 of my in-depth analysis of the movie Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo), I looked at the main character, Annie. This week I will examine the use of the supporting characters in the film.

Supporting characters, naturally, serve many purposes in a story. Some are necessary for the plot. For example, in a movie called Bridesmaids, you will probably need a character of the bride. Others can serve to dramatize the main character’s evolving state of mind – as Ted and Rhodes do in Bridesmaids (again, see last week’s post). Supporting characters can also serve to provide various perspectives on the theme or themes of the movie. This is especially common when you have an ensemble group at the core of the story, as Bridesmaids does. And it turns out that Bridesmaids is an exceptional example of using characters this way.

When I say “theme,” I’m not talking about some deep moral lesson. I’m talking about the subject matter of the story. What aspect(s) of the human condition does the story explore? That’s the theme. Bridesmaids is about romantic relationships, marriage, and friendship. Look at the title – what did you think it would be about?

So let’s look at how each of the women in the group illuminate aspects of these themes:

Lillian is Annie’s best friend and the bride-to-be. She’s excited but also anxious about her upcoming marriage.

Becca is the optimistic newlywed. She represents someone in love with the idea of marriage who thinks being single is kind of sad.

Rita is sort of the opposite of Becca. She’s been married a while now and she’s burned out on marriage.

Megan – Megan is the crazy one who speaks her mind and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She’s confidently single. She’s also ultimately the best friend to Annie – the one that comes to Annie’s aid at her lowest moment.

Helen – Helen is the perfect one. She’s beautiful, wealthy and supremely good at all of the bridesmaid duties. She appears as an impossible ideal for Annie, and threatens to replace Annie as Lillian’s best friend. Later we learn that Helen is actually extremely lonely – her marriage is empty and she has no real friends.

See how each of these characters offers a different angle on the themes of the movie? Doing this also gives each one distinctive characteristics that add tremendously to the humor of the film. In any given situation, each will react differently. The scenes practically write themselves! Well, maybe not, but giving supporting characters unique attitudes relating to the theme of a story makes your job a lot easier.

Ideally supporting characters do multiple things. Lillian is not just the bride needed for the plot, she provides perspective on the themes and stakes for Annie.

And as I mentioned back in part 1 of this series, Helen is the antagonist of the film. I often recommend looking at the story from the antagonist’s point of view. This helps ensure the antagonist is active. I usually do this by writing a one or two page treatment of the story as if I was going to make the antagonist the hero. Of course, I have no idea if the writers of Bridesmaids did this, but let’s take a moment to look at the story from Helen’s point of view. (I’ll keep it to a paragraph for the purposes of this post.)

Helen learns that her husband’s employee, Dougie, is getting married to Lillian, whom Helen wants to be friends with. Helen offers to host the engagement party at a private club where she's a member. She prepares a toast to impress Lillian. But the Maid-of-Honor, Annie, keeps trying to upstage her. Helen decides to try to make Annie look bad, hoping Lillian will ask Helen to take her place. Helen convinces the other bridesmaids to go to Vegas for the bachelorette party, even though she knows Annie can’t afford it and is afraid to fly. Her plan works and she manages to drive a wedge between Lillian and Helen. Lillian asks Helen to host the bridal shower, and Helen steals Annie’s idea for a French themed party. This pushes Annie over the edge and Helen achieves her goal – Lillian asks Helen to replace Annie as Maid-of-Honor. But on the morning of the wedding, Lillian vanishes. Panicking, Helen seeks out Annie and asks for her help. Annie finds Lillian and the wedding is saved. Helen and Annie become friends.

Much of this occurs off screen, of course. But when you look at the story this way, you can see that Helen is actively pursuing her own goals. Those goals in turn cause problems for Annie. This is what makes Helen a good antagonist rather than a passive annoyance.

Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.


Learn to pitch like a pro with The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Ken Aguado and Douglas Eboch.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bridesmaids Analysis 3 – Character

(Spoilers: Bridesmaids)

This week I continue my in-depth analysis of the movie Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) by examining the character work in the film. For me, the first and most critical things to determine about a character are what I call their Want and Need. The Want is the goal the character is pursuing in the story. This drives the external journey, or the plot. The structure of the film is based on this (see last week’s post). In Bridesmaids, Annie wants to succeed as Lillian’s Maid-of-Honor.

The Need is the internal flaw the character needs to fix. This determines the internal journey of the character, sometimes called character arc. In Bridesmaids, Annie’s need is self-confidence. Annie is very down on herself, feeling her life is a disaster and she's a failure. It’s this flaw that causes her to try to prove she’s a better friend to Lillian than Helen. After all, Lillian is really the only good thing in Annie’s life.

In the best movies, the Want and Need are related to each other. I’ve found that happens in three possible ways: 1) The character has to get what they need in order to get what they want. 2) In the process of getting what they want, the character gets something they need to be happy. 3) What the character needs is to realize their Want is wrong. (For more on this, see this post.)

Primarily, Bridesmaids is an example of version 2: In the process of trying to be a good Maid-of-Honor, Annie regains her self-confidence. But interestingly, all three of the interactions appear in some form in Bridesmaids. Annie must find self-confidence in order to succeed as Lillian’s Maid-of-Honor at the end when Lillian goes missing; and though Annie’s goal is not wrong, her reason for wanting to be successful in the beginning is selfish – she wanted to prove she was better than Helen. At the end she realizes her friend’s happiness is the most important thing. So in this movie the want-need relationship is extremely entwined!

One of the challenges for screenwriters is finding ways to dramatize this internal journey. We don’t want to have characters simply talk about how they feel – that’s not realistic or filmic. We need to show how the character feels. One way Bridesmaids does this is through the romantic storyline.

When we meet Annie she’s in bed with a thoughtless, selfish lover: Ted. We see that Annie is catering to Ted’s desires while he’s ignoring hers. The next morning, she sneaks out of bed early to put on make-up to look good for him. When he wakes up, we learn that they are not boyfriend and girlfriend at Ted’s insistence, and he heartlessly asks her to leave. So we know Annie is trying to please Ted and Ted doesn’t care about her, which shows us her low self-esteem.

Note that Annie never says she has low self-esteem – in fact she defends her relationship with Ted to Lillian. But we see it, and Lillian sees it. This is another technique to reveal character: have another character point out the main character’s flaws (or strengths or other personality traits).

I want to emphasize one particular moment in the opening, when Annie sneaks out of bed to put on make-up before her boyfriend wakes up. This is a great example of show-don’t-tell. The behavior tells us that Annie is trying to impress Ted, and suggests that she isn’t confident in who she is. She doesn’t have to tell someone what she wants or how she feels, we can see it through what she does.

At the end of Act One, Bridesmaids introduces a new love interest, the character of Rhodes. Annie’s developing relationship with Rhodes (and her eventual backslide to Ted) parallel and reveal Annie’s character development. This is intertwined with another device they use to dramatize Annie’s arc – her baking. When Annie is pulled over by police officer Rhodes, he remembers her failed bakery and lauds her cakes. They hit it off with some banter and he doesn’t give her a ticket. Annie goes home and is inspired to bake – she goes to elaborate effort for what turns out to be one cupcake. It's a sad commentary on her life at that point, but an indication she may have a little hope.

As the story progresses and Annie’s relationship with Rhodes develops, he encourages her to try again at her bakery dream. But she refuses. She failed and now she’s given up. Rhodes tries to get her to bake with him, hoping to inspire her, but it makes her so angry their relationship falls apart. Later, when she has a traffic accident, she’s forced to turn to Ted for a ride – and realizes how awful her life actually is.

After Annie hits bottom, Megan arrives to challenge her and expose her self-pity. This is a crucial turning point for Annie. Annie decides to fight for what she wants. And the first thing she does is bake. She bakes a cake to try to win Rhodes back.

In this way the various subplots – Ted, Rhodes and baking – serve to illustrate Annie’s state of mind throughout the story. This is a common use of subplots, particularly romantic subplots. They are a gauge of the character's emotional progress.

I think one of the reasons Bridesmaids was such a success is because the character of Annie felt real and relatable, and the plot was driven by that character (as demonstrated by the tight interweaving of Want and Need). This is not always common in broad comedies. And then the writers of Bridesmaids did an excellent job of revealing Annie’s internal journey through dramatization.

Next week I'll discuss the minor characters and how they serve to comment on the themes of the story.

Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Bridesmaids Analysis 2 – Structure

(Spoilers: Bridesmaids)

Last week I discussed the conceptual underpinnings of Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo). This week, as part 2 of my in-depth analysis, I’m going to break down the three-act structure of the movie.

I look at story structure as the interplay between an internal and external journey for the main character (Annie in Bridesmaids). The internal journey is the character arc, how the character will change on a psychological level. The external journey is the plot, which is driven by the character’s goal. The three-act structure is based on the plot, so we must start with that goal.

Last week we identified Annie’s goal as “to succeed as Lillian’s Maid of Honor.” This is what’s driving her through the story. We can rephrase this into the Dramatic Question of “Can Annie succeed as Lillian’s Maid of Honor?” This question defines the story of the movie.

Now let’s identify the main beats of the three act structure:

Catalyst: The Catalyst is the point where the dramatic question is revealed to the audience. We need to know the character and their goal and have a hint at why that goal will be difficult. So it’s pretty easy to identify the catalyst in Bridesmaids: Lillian asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor. Why will this be difficult? Well, we’ve seen that Annie’s own life is a mess, and it’s apparent in this scene that, though she’s putting on a positive face for her friend, Annie is a little freaked out.

Act One Turning Point: There are many ways to define this beat, but I like to look at the Act One Turning Point as the point where the character makes a decision to pursue a certain path that will take them through Act Two. In Bridesmaids, this comes during the engagement party. After Annie makes a conventional toast, Helen gets up and makes a more heartfelt toast. Annie then decides to take the stage again and try to top Helen’s toast. The two characters go back and forth, attempting to outdo each other. What is Annie’s decision? She’s decided to compete against Helen to prove she is the better friend to Lillian. (You may recall that last week I identified Helen as the primary obstacle to Annie’s goal.)

Midpoint: For the midpoint we usually look for a moment of false victory - if the ending is going to be a victory for Annie (and it will be). In Bridesmaids, the midpoint of Act Two is when Annie has the speed gun date with Rhodes, the cop. Life seems to be looking up. She then begins planning the bachelorette party… which will quickly spiral out of control. Why do we want this moment? It gives us some rise-and-fall to the story so things don’t progress in too linear a fashion. Normally I like the midpoint to relate to the dramatic question, so I probably would have let Annie succeed at one of her Maid of Honor duties, but the movie works and I believe structure should serve story, not the other way around.

Act Two Turning Point: Since Annie’s going to succeed, the Act Two Turning Point should be where she’s farthest away from success. Shortly after the midpoint, when the bachelorette party spirals out of control, Lillian takes the Maid of Honor job from Annie and gives it to Helen, so that might be a candidate. But then things get even worse. Annie has a meltdown at the bridal shower and Lillian un-invites her to the wedding. Their friendship appears to be over. Annie can’t get much farther from success at her goal than that. That is the Act Two Turning Point.

Epiphany: This is the moment where the character figures out how to solve the problem after a period of aftermath from the Act Two Turning Point. This comes when Helen tells Annie that Lillian is missing on the morning of the wedding. Annie knows Lillian better than Helen. Only Annie can find her missing friend. It will be a challenge – she will have to make up with Rhodes to enlist his help, and then talk Lillian through her cold feet, but the path to success has just become apparent.

Resolution: The Resolution, of course, is that Lillian gets married with Annie standing by her side. Annie has succeeded at the most important job of Maid of Honor: getting the bride to the altar! The Dramatic Question has been answered.

An argument could be made for breaking down the three-act structure using the romance between Annie and Rhodes. The beats of the romance are in all the right places. But there are several reasons why this is not the structural underpinning of the movie. Look back at the six questions from last week. Clearly this is a story about Annie trying to be a good Maid of Honor for her friend. In terms of screen time, the bridesmaid storyline gets a lot more time than the romance. And if you’re still not convinced, just look at the title of the movie! The romance is a subplot with its own structure that serves to illustrate the progression of Annie’s character arc.

The purpose of three-act structure is to make sure the story is dramatic and logical, and that the plot flows from the concept. Bridesmaids is a good demonstration of how this works.

Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bridesmaids Analysis 1 – Concept and Character

(Spoiler Alert: Bridesmaids)

For the next few weeks I am going to do an in-depth analysis of Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo). Why Bridesmaids? First of all, it was a big hit, grossing $169 million in the U.S. on an estimated budget of $32.5 million (according to IMDB). It was also critically well received, scoring 90% on Rotten Tomatoes (and 87% from top critics).

But perhaps most important, it was the rare original screenplay to be produced by Hollywood studios in the new franchise era. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was written by a movie star (Kristin Wiig) and directed by a renowned comedy director (Paul Feig). But you may recall that when the movie came out, female-driven comedies were not considered viable in Hollywood. Bridesmaids laid the groundwork for movies like Spy, Bad Teacher, and The Heat to get produced.

I want to start by looking at the movie on a conceptual level. A while back I proposed “Five Questions About Your Story to Answer Before You Start Writing.” I’ve since added a sixth question to my list (“What is the character doing to achieve their goal?”) I’m going to begin this series by answering those questions for Bridesmaids.

1. Who is the main character?

A: This one’s easy. It’s clearly Annie (played by Kristin Wiig). Though the movie's title is plural, this is not really an ensemble story. We start with Annie’s story well before any other bridesmaids are introduced, and we stay with Annie when she’s at odds with the group. Rarely do the other characters get solo scenes, while Annie has many.

2. Why do we care what happens to the main character?

A: We see right up front that Annie is a woman who is down on her luck but doing her best to keep her lover and her best friend happy. She’s an underdog with a good heart. Moreover, as the story develops, we learn she’s a talented baker and we see that she puts a lot of thought into her plans and gifts for her best friend, Lillian. That best friend is also critical – we see right away that these two women rely on each other and their friendship is something we can respect and admire.

Annie certainly has flaws. At times she’s weak and at other times downright unpleasant and thoughtless. But she is given enough likeable characteristics that we want to see her succeed. We also want to see Annie and Lillian maintain their bond, a bond that will be threatened by events in the story.

3. What does the main character want?

A: Annie wants a lot of things – she particularly wants a good romantic relationship (her current lover is a selfish jerk) and money (she’s broke and unemployed). But the want that drives her through this particular story is “to succeed as Lillian’s maid of honor.”

4. What is the main character doing to get what they want?

A: Annie is trying to do an excellent job with her maid of honor duties, which include helping pick out dresses, throwing a shower, and throwing a bachelorette party. It’s important for the main character to actively pursue their goal. These duties give Annie something to do to “succeed as Lillian’s maid of honor,” something that is visible on screen that will allow us to judge her progress toward her goal.

5. What is at stake for the main character?

A: There are two big stakes for Annie: her best friend and her pride. Success means she keeps her friend and can be proud of herself. Failure means she might lose her friend and be humiliated. Big stakes mean the story matters. (I’ll look more in depth at how these stakes are established in future posts.)

6. What is the main thing that stands in the way of the main character achieving their goal?

A: Annie’s main obstacle is Helen, Lillian’s beautiful, wealthy, elegant new friend. Helen is the antagonist. And Helen has her own want – to become Lillian’s new best friend. This want puts her in direct conflict with Annie. This set-up is sometimes called “mutually exclusive goals.” Give two characters goals that are mutually exclusive and watch the drama emerge. Helen doesn’t have to be evil (though she does do some morally questionable things) for there to be conflict.

Note that Annie has some other obstacles as well – notably her lack of money and, at one point, her fear of flying. But there is one primary obstacle thwarting her success throughout the story: Helen.

As you can see, Bridesmaids has good, solid answers to all of my Six Questions. This tells us what the movie is on a conceptual level, which will help us analyze the structure and character development. And having this strong conceptual base helped the screenwriters craft a solid script, whether they verbalized the questions the way I do or not.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Three Traps to Avoid in Love Stories

(Minor spoilers: The Theory of Everything, Along Came Polly, Notorious, The Fighter, Sweet Home Alabama, 50 First Dates, Wedding Crashers)

Love stories are common in film. They are the A plot in romantic comedies, romantic dramas, and often in melodrama; and they are often the B story in other genres. But romantic storylines can be tricky. Here are three common flaws to watch out for – and ways to fix them.

1. The characters love each other because it’s a movie.

Too often filmmakers assume that if they cast two attractive movie stars, we will believe they are in love. Or in an action movie with a romantic subplot, the love interest may be the only female in the film so of course the hero will fall for her, right? But neither of those scenarios makes the romance truly compelling. You want the audience rooting for the two characters to be together, and for that to happen we need to understand why these people need each other. Otherwise it won’t feel like there’s much at stake in the romance.

Try asking yourself how each character makes the other better. Ideally, the characters fulfill some psychological or emotional need of their partner. One common approach in romantic comedies is the uptight guy who needs to loosen up and the free spirited woman who needs someone to ground her (Along Came Polly (written by John Hamburg) would be a good example).

In The Theory of Everything (screenplay by Anthony McCarten), Jane gives the shiftless Stephen ambition – at first to take physics seriously and later to fight his disease. In return, Stephen opens Jane’s eyes to the wonder and beauty of the universe. He’s drawn to her inner strength and she’s drawn to his brilliance.

In the classic Notorious (written by Ben Hecht), Alicia needs someone to believe she’s good at heart while Devlin needs someone to awaken his dormant emotional side. Devlin sees Alicia for who she really is – someone with a strong moral core despite her reputation, and Alicia’s passion brings out Devlin’s emotions.

Be sure to do this for both sides of the love story. I’ve seen some stories where it’s obvious why the main character would fall for the love interest, but not so clear why the love interest would reciprocate.

2. We spend Act Two watching them be happy.

There’s an old writing adage: Happy people are boring. For drama we need obstacles to the romance. This can take two forms: internal and external.

External obstacles are things like a rival suitor, social convention and competing interests. Social convention is a tried and true obstacle but is getting harder as society becomes more progressive. These days mixed race and mixed class romances are more accepted - good for humanity, bad for screenwriters. Arthur (written by Steve Gordon) is an example of a movie that managed to use class differences as an obstacle to the romance.

The Fighter (story by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson & Keith Dorrington, screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson) demonstrates a more unique external obstacle. In this case, Micky’s mother fears losing influence over him. She opposes his romance with Charlene because Charlene encourages Micky to do what’s right for him, even if it means disappointing his family. So the family fights back.

Internal obstacles come from the character needing to overcome a psychological flaw to have a successful relationship. Maybe it’s the womanizing hero who needs to give up his bad boy ways, or the workaholic who has to get his priorities straight. In Notorious it’s Devlin’s stubbornness and loyalty to his job.

In The Theory of Everything, the obstacle may appear to be Stephen’s disease (external), and that’s part of it, but the bigger challenge to the relationship is Stephen taking Jane for granted and not recognizing how much she’s sacrificing for him. Ultimately it’s not the disease that sends Jane away, it’s the lack of emotional fulfillment.

You can have multiple obstacles to the romance, but it’s usually smart to have one primary obstacle so the movie stays focused. If you’re working in a romantic genre, often the external obstacle is the A story and an internal obstacle will be the B story or vice versa. This adds complexity without diluting the focus. For example, in 50 First Dates (written by George Wing) the A obstacle is Lucy’s unusual form of amnesia, while the B story is Henry’s fear of commitment.

3. The obviously bad romantic rival.

One of the most common obstacles is the alternate suitor – known as a love triangle. But there’s a pitfall here. In order to get the audience rooting for one suitor over another, many writers make one good and the other bad. But if the choice is obvious and our hero or heroine doesn’t see that, we start to lose respect for them. In Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher), for example, Claire is with Sack who is such a jerk we start to wonder about Claire. Do we really want John to end up with a woman who would date a guy like that?

One solution that has become cliché is the rival cheating on the love interest. In this case, the hero and audience learn of the infidelity but the love interest is oblivious. This can work, but if the rival isn’t really good at hiding his philandering we’ll again wonder about the love interest’s intelligence.

This is where it becomes important to show why two characters are right for each other. You can have one suitor help the character be a better person, while the other suitor encourages their less desirable behavior. Neither suitor needs to be bad per se, but one is right for the character while the other is not.

This is what we did in Sweet Home Alabama: Melanie needs to reconcile with her past to be truly happy. Andrew represents a fantasy life that ignores her roots. Jake represents her roots but also her aspiration to something more. Jake is the right person for her, but first she will have to overcome the guilt and fear she has about her past. She will have to be honest with herself.

Great romances can draw out powerful emotion in the audience – as long as you avoid these traps.