Friday, February 9, 2018

What Is a Screenwriter’s Voice and How Do You Find Yours?

(SPOILERS: Get Out, The Big Sick)

If you ask producers and development executives what they’re looking for in new writers, among the top answers will be, “Someone with a distinctive voice.” But what do they really mean by the term “voice”?

A writer’s voice is a combination of style, thematic content, and point of view. It is part of a writer’s brand, which also includes things like the genre and format they are known for. For some writers, the style part of their voice is readily apparent. You can tell the difference between scripts by Quentin Tarantino, Nancy Myers, Shane Black, Aaron Sorkin, Woody Allen, and Judd Apatow by such stylistic elements as the way they use dialogue, humor, and visual spectacle.

But not all screenwriters have such distinctive styles. Writers like Stephen Gagan, J.J. Abrams, Cameron Crowe, Jordan Peele, Lawrence Kasdan, and Aline Brosh McKenna have a more craft-oriented style, but their films are still distinctive based on the kinds of subjects they write about. Their voice is defined by the thematic and story elements that recur in their work.

The one thing that makes all of these people in-demand writers in Hollywood is that they have something to say. They have a voice that is unlike any other writer.

This is what the industry is looking for in new writers. They have plenty of accomplished craftspeople they can hire – people with experience, people they can trust to do a good job. If they are going to hire an untested newcomer, that person needs to be able to bring a perspective nobody else can. And that’s why your work needs to have a voice.

So how do you find and develop your voice as a writer?

The first thing is to ask, what kind of stories do you really want to tell? The things you are passionate about come from who you are. This can be as deep as Aaron Sorkin’s repeated exploration of the ethics (or lack thereof) in powerful, hyper-intelligent men; or as surface as Quentin Tarantino’s obvious passion for pulp, pop culture, and poetic dialogue. It’s not even necessary that you are conscious of these passions, as long as you are telling a story that you love. When you write from the heart, you can’t help but reveal your perspective on the world.

Sometimes following your passion can be tough, though, because new writers are constantly told to be “commercial.” And that’s good advice. But if you simply mimic the latest hits, how will your voice come through?

Screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) has a Venn diagram he uses to select material. The three circles of the diagram are:

What do you love?

What are you good at?

What can you sell?

Paul’s ultimate point is that you should only write things that fall in the intersection of those three circles. The first two circles will be a big part of what makes up your voice. The goal is to find the part of your voice that is also commercial.

The good news is that with a gazillion cable channels and streaming services, you can find a buyer for almost anything these days. However, you can’t make a big budget feature film out of almost anything. If you find that your voice is leading you to more niche material, you will have to figure out what outlet might program to that niche and be aware of the budget realities of servicing that niche.

The second thing to do in order to develop your voice is to examine what is unique about your life experience. What do you know about that most writers don’t? Do you come from a cultural background seldom represented on screen? Have you held a job in an interesting industry? What was your family life like? Have you had unusual relationships? What is the most exciting thing that’s happened to you? The scariest? The saddest? Bring these experiences to your work.

The Big Sick was one of the most successful and well-reviewed movies of the year. It is in many ways a fairly commercial, high-concept romantic comedy: a commitment-phobic man realizes he’s in love with the woman he’s dating when an illness puts her in a coma. But it is based on screenwriters Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani’s actual relationship. Beyond just getting a story idea from real life, Nanjiani’s experiences as an Indian-American from a traditional family adds a subplot that doesn’t feel like it could come from any other writer.

Your work doesn’t have to be autobiographical to reflect your life experience. I don’t imagine Jordan Peele was ever kidnapped and hypnotized as part of a plot to have his brain replaced like in his movie Get Out. But you can feel his experiences as a Black man living in white society informing every scene.

You can also see reflections of George Lucas’ life growing up as a drag racer in Modesto dreaming of a bigger life in the character of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. This indicates one of the best ways to let your voice come through: put your feelings and experiences into your characters.

Of course it’s easier to incorporate your life experience into your work when you actually have some life experience. When it comes to art, you have to have something to say before you can have a voice.


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Friday, January 19, 2018

What I Learned About Writing Romantic Subplots from “I, Tonya” and “Downsizing”

(Spoilers: I, Tonya; Downsizing; Pretty Woman; Wedding Crashers)

Last week I watched I, Tonya (written by Steven Rogers) and Downsizing (written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor) back to back. Seeing the two movies that way illuminated something for me about writing romantic subplots.

I have long advocated that, in order to create successful love stories on film, the writer should identify the way each character makes the other better. For example, in Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton), Vivian teaches Edward the value of emotional commitment, while Edward shows Vivian that she deserves more than she is accepting. This is so that the audience has reason to root for the two characters to be together.

But at first glance, I, Tonya and Downsizing appear to demonstrate the opposite. In I, Tonya, Tonya and Jeff are not good for each other at all. Yet I never once doubted their attraction or why they were in a relationship. On the other hand, I can easily see how Ngoc and Paul make each other better in Downsizing, yet, for me, the biggest weakness in a promising movie was that I was completely unconvinced that these two characters were in love. Since their love was critical to the last half of the movie, the movie failed.

Thinking more about this, however, I don’t think these movies contradict my initial technique at all. Rather, they demonstrate that simply showing how the characters improve each other isn’t enough on its own.

In I, Tonya, in fact, we are not rooting for Tonya and Jeff to be together. We actually desperately wish they would realize how mutually destructive the relationship is. This is not normally the goal of a movie romance. It’s really my technique turned on its head. Since the writer wants us rooting against the romance, he shows how the characters make each other worse.

But we also see how physically attractive they are to each other, and how Jeff offers a teenage Tonya the kind of appreciation she isn’t getting anywhere else in her life, and how Tonya offers Jeff a brush with the kind of greatness he can’t find anywhere else. We know why the characters want to be together, even if we can see that the relationship is bad.

The flaw in Downsizing is that the characters show no romantic or erotic chemistry. Sure, they improve each other as people, and improve each other’s lives, but what creates the romantic attraction? Their relationship is based too much on mutual improvement. It needs some joy, some sexy interplay, some emotional connection. It needs a little of what Tonya feels when Jeff tells her she’s pretty while working on his car. The first hint of this kind of sexual tension doesn’t come in Downsizing until Paul is rubbing lotion into Ngoc’s knee – right before they have sex. It’s too sudden, and it’s not big enough to convince us of their attraction.

So, yes, if you want us to root for two characters to be together, we need to see why they are better together than apart. But we also need to see that they are attracted to each other in a romantic and sexual way. Crucially, both things need to be dramatized. You need to create incidents that show us how the characters are better together and show us that they are attracted to each other.

And if you don’t want us to root for a relationship, show us why the characters are bad for each other. But we still need to believe they are attracted to each other or we won’t understand why they are in the relationship in the first place. When characters are in obviously destructive relationships, they can seem stupid, which reduces are sympathy for them. For example, in Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber & Bob Fisher), Sack is such a jerk that the wonderful Claire seems less sympathetic for being with him.

In I, Tonya, neither Tonya nor Jeff are portrayed as geniuses, to be sure. But they are both set up as sympathetic – Tonya is continually berated by an overbearing mother, and Jeff’s plans were derailed by family responsibility. We see how each satisfies a longing in the other. Though we can see the relationship is destructive, we sympathize with the characters’ reasons for being in it.


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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Ten Best-Written Movies of 2017

It’s time for my list of the ten best-written movies of last year! Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. The best example of this distinction this year is The Shape of Water – it has a lot that I liked in performance, production design, and tone, but the screenplay was the weakest component, so it doesn't make the list.

My usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. This year I haven’t yet seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Call Me by Your Name; Molly’s Game; or Coco – all of which look to have the potential to bump something off this list.

Also, some movies age better than others, and because most of these are awards season movies, I’ve seen many of them pretty recently. My opinions could cool over time – though looking back at last year’s list, everything holds up pretty well. And though I’m happy to hear your opinions in the comments, this is my list. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to make your own!

Looking at 2017 as a whole is encouraging. There are a lot of really great movies on the list. I could shuffle the order of the top four at random and be perfectly happy with the results. I’m also encouraged at how many of these are original stories, and how many have performed well at the box office. So without further ado, here is my list of the best-written movies of 2017:

1. Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) – If you want to deliver a message, wrap it in entertainment. Get Out is billed as a horror movie (though it’s more accurately a suspense thriller) and it delivers the genre goods. But it also delivers thought-provoking perspective on modern race relations that goes a lot deeper than the typical, “racism is bad,” message. On top of that, it has a clockwork plot and provides a master class in using planting and payoff to build twists and tension.

2. I, Tonya (written by Steven Rogers) – Some of the press materials suggested this movie was an attempt to correct the historical record. It’s not really. It’s about class and celebrity, and what happens when the American dream runs into the American mythmaking machine. But more than that, it’s wildly entertaining, salacious and funnier than I expected, populated with crazy, complex, flawed characters that you both love and hate – sometimes within the same scene.

3. The Big Sick (written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani) – Like Get Out, The Big Sick used a traditional genre structure (this time romantic comedy) to explore deeper themes. It delivered in both regards: the characters are warm and funny, the romance tugs at the heart, and the culture clashes are thought provoking. Particularly noteworthy are the excellent minor characters – Emily’s parents, Kamail’s family, and the poor women with whom Kamail’s mother tries to arrange a marriage. Each is dimensional and real with legitimate personal reasons for their point of view.

4. Lady Bird (written by Greta Gerwig) – This was a hilarious crowd-pleaser of a coming-of-age story. While it doesn’t exactly break new ground, the specificity and complexity of the characters really illuminated the challenges of mother-daughter relationships. (And what a great character was Lady Bird’s mother!) It feels entirely real and entirely entertaining at the same time.

EDITED TO ADD: I totally forgot about The Post! Definitely a top-10 screenplay, so I'm adding it here at 4.5. I won't cut anything out... so this is now the 11 best movies of 2017.

4.5 The Post (written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer) - Combines an important story about the press's role in democracy with an important story about a woman finding her voice in a man's world. Tense and thrilling, Ben Bagdikian's subplot carries the audience through some of the slower parts of the main plot.

5. Logan (story by James Mangold, screenplay by Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green) – This is an excellent character-driven action script with deep (and dark) themes for a superhero movie. You really feel for these characters, the set pieces are fresh and compelling, and the structure is tight as a drum.

6. The Disaster Artist (screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber) – Some of the humor may be a little “inside baseball,” but this is a wonderful, nutty, hilarious screenplay with a lot of heart – based on a wonderful, nutty, hilarious true story.

7. Battle of the Sexes (written by Simon Beaufoy) – By digging deep into the complicated characters and relating their personal struggles to the social context of the time, Beaufoy achieves a powerful, complex, emotionally moving story with what could have been a simplistic, straightforward morality fable.

8. Wonder Woman (screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs) – As the last few years have amply demonstrated, it is not so easy to craft a fun, adventurous superhero movie. Despite an overly long ending and some muddy thematic elements, Wonder Woman delivers a good time with humor and heart – and strikes a blow for the viability of female-lead action movies.

9. Blade Runner 2049 (story by Hampton Fancher, screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) – Though it wasn’t commercially successful, this is a worthy sequel to the original that captures much of the same thematic and emotional complexity and elaborates on it in new and interesting ways.

10. Good Time (written by Ronald Bronstein & Josh Safdie) – This script is tragic and thrilling and funny, and manages to be both over-the-top and grounded in gritty reality. We buy every bad choice the characters make even while cringing at their foolishness.

Close on the heels of these ten are Detroit, Baby Driver, and Dunkirk, all very good screenplays that might have made the list in other years.

In the past, I’ve picked a “worst written” movie of the year. Though there were lots of candidates for that slot this year, I’m giving up the tradition. I’d rather celebrate the successes, and the failures have mostly had enough scorn piled on them.


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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

GET OUT Analysis Part Three: Integration of Theme

Spoilers: Get Out (of course!)

After considerable delay (sorry), I’m going to conclude my three-part analysis of Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) by discussing the use of theme. The movie has been widely praised for its exploration of race relations in America. It’s unusual to hear people talk about theme in a genre movie. We typically think commentary on social issues as being the opposite of entertainment. But Get Out uses racial issues and tension to provide a context for the dramatic horror story events. This allows Peele to both make more sophisticated comments on race relations and to use those relations to deliver twists and thrills for the main horror plot.

The most overt aspect of race relations in the plot is the idea of Chris, as a Black man, going to the very white world of his girlfriend’s upper-class family. The very real and understandable anxiety this causes Chris helps to establish the creepy tone that I discussed in my first post on the movie. The act one encounter with the traffic cop, who asks for Chris’s ID even though he isn’t the driver, adds to the sense of danger (more about this scene in a bit).

But initially the white people are mostly not played as racists. In fact, they seem very self-aware about the situation and about the optics of having Black servants. Rather, we are given a look at the more subtle aspects of race relations. It’s easy to say racism is bad. Peele wants us to examine the insidious way it works even when white people are well meaning.

This context also helps create story points and dramatic scenes, which can then illuminate thematic issues. Consider when Chris’s TSA buddy, Rod, goes to the police to report that Chris is missing. He talks to a Black detective, who then brings in other Black detectives to hear Rod’s theory about a white sex slave ring. We assume that they will believe him – but it turns out they think he’s a nut job, which gets a laugh.

What Peele is doing here is playing with audience expectations. This is a form of dramatization. Rather than talky pontificating on the theme, he is finding ways to show us how race works in our society. He achieves this by considering what the audience will expect. Our expectation is that the Black cops will believe Rod's theory… because they’re all Black. In order to reinforce that, Rod clearly shares this belief. By undercutting our expectation, the scene causes us to examine why we believed it to begin with. And from an entertainment perspective, it creates an obstacle for one of our heroes, heightening the drama – we establish that no help is coming from the authorities.

We see this approach again in one of the big twists at the end. When Chris is choking Rose and the police car pulls up, we immediately assume the cop is going to believe Rose, and that Chris will be arrested. We are primed for this belief because of Chris’s treatment at the hands of the cop in act one. So when Rod gets out of the police car instead of a racist white cop, it’s a complete surprise, even though it’s also completely plausible – we knew Rod was looking for Chris. This is a great example of building a twist with the kind of planting and payoff I discussed in the second post in this series, but layering in thematic expectations to create a red herring for the audience.

Another way to explore theme in a movie is through the supporting characters. Not everyone in Get Out expresses the same attitude toward race. Rose’s parents are well meaning but also a little condescending. Rose, meanwhile, expresses shame about her family’s behavior when she and Chris are getting ready for bed at her parents’ house. This is a particularly subtle scene because the subtext is that Rose is delighted to be able to feel superior to her parents. And of course we later discover this was all an act (Rose is a classic shape shifter in the mythology structure archetypes).

Other characters with different thematic perspectives include Rod, who warns Chris not to go to the white people’s house, the wealthy people who think being Black is “cool,” and the blind art dealer who buys Chris not because of his race, but because of his photographic skills. This last one is particularly interesting because the movie has set up a slave auction conspiracy where Black people are only valued physically, but one of the most frightening characters is actually one of the least concerned about race. Again, Peele upends our expectations and makes us think.

It’s easy when discussing theme to get into a literary theory mode, but I try to make this a practical, how-to blog, so let me refocus a bit on some of the techniques I’m discussing here. If you want to do a story with a strong exploration of theme, these are some of the things you should consider:

  • Build a context for your story that allows you to dramatize thematic ideas rather than have characters talk about them.
  • If you really want a thematically complex story, avoid binary thematic approaches (“racism is bad”) in favor of nuance. Present contrasting ideas that challenge a binary interpretation.
  • Consider audience expectations and undercut them to create entertaining twists that also cause the audience to think.
  • Give supporting characters different attitudes on the theme.

Most importantly, tell a dramatic story about a real character with a relatable dilemma, and create entertaining scenes. Get Out succeeds because it’s suspenseful, emotional, and funny. The thematic elements heighten the entertainment value rather than bogging the story down. And the audience is open to thinking about the thematic elements because they are enjoying the experience of watching the movie.


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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Get Out Analysis Part Two: Planting and Payoff

(SPOILERS: Get Out – of course!)

This week I continue my analysis of writing techniques in the horror movie Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) by looking at the use of planting and payoff. Planting and payoff is a powerful tool for screenwriters that can serve many purposes.

First, it helps make story points believable. In the third act of Get Out, we discover that the character of Dean is doing surgery to transplant brains from one body to another. We believe he is capable of that because in act one it was established that he is a neurosurgeon. If we got to act three and someone said, “Oh, by the way, Dean’s a neurosurgeon,” it might seem arbitrary and convenient, a cheat by the writer. But planting it earlier makes it part of the reality of the story.

Planting and payoff can also build trust in the audience that the things they are seeing have meaning. It’s helpful to plant something and then pay it off early in the film to build that trust. For example, Rose tells Chris that her father (Dean) would have voted for Obama a third time if he could've, and then Dean tells Chris the same thing shortly after they meet. And on the drive up, Rose throws Chris’s cigarette out of the window, and then Dean notices Chris’s nervous hand and asks if he’s a smoker. Chris replies that he’s trying to quit.

These little early connections between scenes are particularly useful in Get Out considering the long build up to the more explicit horror elements that I discussed in my last post. Because we know the things we see aren’t just random and will pay off in the story, we stay patient, trying to unravel the clues we’re being given, trusting that there is something to unravel.

Planting can also serve to establish a fact that can be used later for dramatic effect. For example, in act one we learn that Rose’s grandfather was an Olympic caliber runner. We later learn that his brain has been put in the body of Walter, the groundskeeper, who we saw running at night. So when Rose says, “Get him, Grandpa” to Walter, we know that Chris probably won’t be able to outrun his pursuer.

Similarly, we learn in the party scene that a camera flash can temporarily restore the original consciousness to a victim. Chris then uses that knowledge to get out of a predicament at the end of the film.

One of the most satisfying things in a story is when the character is put in a seemingly impossible predicament, and then cleverly – and believably – gets out of it. Get Out has a particularly brilliant example of this at the end of act two. Chris is tied to a chair in the basement of the family house as they prepare to operate on him. He’s been hypnotized so that he passes out whenever someone taps a teacup three times with a spoon. He appears completely helpless.

But then Chris turns the tables on his captors by putting cotton in his ears and feigning unconsciousness when the teacup is tapped. And this moment is made possible by two excellent uses of planting and payoff.

One is Chris’s habit of scratching at the arm of a chair when he’s nervous. We learned earlier that this stems from when he was home alone as a child and his mother didn’t return as expected. It’s reinforced when we see Chris scratch at the chair as Missy (Rose’s mother) asks him uncomfortable questions. So we aren’t surprised when we see Chris scratch at the arm of the chair he’s tied to at the end of act two. But it is this scratching that exposes the chair’s cotton stuffing that he uses to plug his ears.

The average viewer may not appreciate how carefully the writer set this up. Almost certainly, Peele had the idea of Chris stopping up his ears with cotton from the chair first, and then went back and planted the scratching behavior to make that plausible. Peele established the behavior so we don’t question it when it happens.

But by setting up the behavior, Peele also distracts us from the twist. We assume the scratching is in the scene merely as a sign of Chris’s anxiety and don’t anticipate how it will save him. When you want to have a twist, you need to lay the expositional groundwork to make the twist believable, but that risks giving it away. By giving the plant another purpose in the scene, you misdirect the audience.

The other great use of plant and payoff that is critical to this scene is the tapping on the cup. The tapping trigger and its effect is established in the hypnotism scene (we actually get a foreshadowing of it when the family is sitting on the deck after Chris first arrives.) It first pays off when he’s trying to leave, and Missy taps the teacup to incapacitate him. We now fully understand the rules of the device.

This device can then be used when Chris escapes from the chair. When we see the teacup in the video, we know what will happen. And when Chris pulls the cotton from his ears later, we understand how he foiled the villains without needing some clunky explanation in dialogue.

The device pays off one more time when Chris encounters Missy on the way out of the house. Both their gazes go to a teacup on the table. They both lunge for it. Chris gets there first and knocks the cup to the floor. Missy is foiled. By establishing the device for the audience, the writer can use it to create interesting drama in later scenes.

Planting and payoff also help establish and explore the racial themes that made Get Out a movie with cultural impact. I’ll explore that more in my next post.


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In many ways Alex MacDonald is a typical 1987 high school senior. He pines for Jennifer, the most bodacious girl in school. He wants to go to awesome parties. He wants to avoid the school bully. In short, he wants to be popular. Unfortunately, Alex is not popular. He tries – dressing like the pop stars he sees on MTV – yet somehow his only real friend is Roger Kruger. Meanwhile, Roger desperately wants to beat his nemesis, Heidi, in the science fair. But when Alex and Roger's experiment goes awry, they accidentally open a wormhole – a portal that leads thirty years into the future, to the year 2017. Alex sees this as his big opportunity: if he knows the future, maybe he can find a way to win Jennifer's heart. But what Alex and Roger find out about their older selves shakes the boys to their core. What's more, they slowly realize someone in the future is trying to secretly influence them. Will the knowledge they gain in 2017 allow them to change their fates? Will Roger finally best Heidi? And most important of all, can Alex find a way to convince Jennifer go to the homecoming dance?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

“Get Out” Analysis Part One: Building and Maintaining Psychological Horror

(SPOILERS: Get Out – of course!)

In the spirit of Halloween, I’m going to do several posts analyzing some of the writing techniques that made the horror movie Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) so successful earlier this year. How successful? It made more than $175 million on a budget of less than $5 million… and that’s just the domestic box office! It also scored a stunning 99% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps more significantly, it became part of the cultural conversation due to its integration of themes of race in America.

One thing that I found interesting about Get Out was that for most of the movie, the main character, Chris, was only vaguely aware of the danger he was in. He sensed that creepy thins were happening, but mostly chalked it up to being a Black man entering a very white world. (This added thematic depth to the movie, something I will discuss in a future post.) The audience experienced the story primarily from Chris’s point of view and was thus also kept in the dark about what was truly going on until well past the halfway mark.

Yet this was a horror movie. The desire to save twists for later in the film posed a challenge for Peele: how to provide the kind of scares that the audience was expecting while believably maintaining the façade for the character that this was simply a visit to his girlfriend’s parents?

One of the first techniques the script employed was using a prologue to set the tone. We see a scene of a young Black man walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Soon a car starts to follow him. He tries to avoid the car, but ultimately he is jumped and abducted. This abduction connects to events later in the film, but from a plot standpoint, we don’t really need to see it. However, without this scene, the movie would seem more like a character drama for a good thirty minutes. Using a prologue establishes for the audience that this is a scary movie, and that colors how we read later unsettling events.

There are a few jump scares scattered throughout the movie to keep us on edge – some admittedly a bit cheap. One good one, though, comes about ten minutes in, when Chris and Rose are driving to her parents’ place and a deer jumps in front of the car. This event leads to an encounter with a cop that sets up the danger to Chris in this community. By associating the scare with a relevant story point, it feels integral to the film, as opposed to a cheesy gimmick.

Other moments are designed to make us feel that something sinister is going on at the house. For example, the groundskeeper running at Chris in the middle of the night, and the fact that Georgina, the maid, keeps unplugging his phone while it’s charging and starts crying inexplicably when apologizing to him about it. This sense that there is a secret conspiracy in the house is expanded in the scene when the party goes silent after Chris walks upstairs, and the scene of the strange auction.

The two creepiest moments in acts one and two come at major structural points: At the end of act one, Missy hypnotizes Chris against his will, sending him plummeting into the floor. When he wakes up, he can’t really remember this clearly – allowing the writer to have his cake and eat it too. The audience knows what Missy has done, but understands why Chris doesn’t take action. This serves the purpose of act one by locking Chris into the story – we know he can no longer leave without dealing with whatever’s been done to him.

The next big structural point is the Midpoint, and this comes when Chris tries to take a picture of the young Black man at the party. The flash does something to the man, and he tells Chris to “Get out!” Now things start moving a little more quickly. Chris decides he wants to leave the house, though that will not prove as easy as he expects. The threat finally comes into the open when he discovers the pictures of Rose with a parade of other Black men, revealing she is in on the secret plot. The danger becomes even more explicit as we move to the Act Two Turning Point – when Chris wakes up tied to the chair and a video reveals what’s in store for him. From there, things unfold more like most horror movies.

It is important to deliver on the genre promises of your stories. And it’s important that you deliver on the genre throughout the film. Peele wanted to save the real suspense and action for act three, so he had to find ways to create and build tension as he was building to that point. He walked a careful balance between keeping the psychological horror present without giving away the twists.

It’s important that most of the creepy, inexplicable moments scattered through the first two thirds of Get Out end up paying off in Act Three. They aren’t just random scares created for tone; they grow out of the story. This kind of planting and payoff is one of the strengths of the script. I’ll delve into that topic in part two of my analysis.


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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Abuse in Hollywood

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is appalling, not just because of the sleazy things he did, but because most everyone recognizes it is not an isolated case in Hollywood. There’s even a slang term for it – “casting couch.” There has been a lot of focus on how willing Hollywood is to look away from bad behavior if the villain is successful. Unfortunately, that’s often true, at least as long as the villain is helping your career. (Hollywood is also well known for schadenfreude, and I’m sure many people are secretly delighted to see Harvey fall.)

But I think there’s an even bigger root cause to the problem: the fact that far more people want to be actors, writers, directors, or producers than there are acting, writing, directing, and producing jobs. This gives those with power to grant those jobs an incredible weapon for abuse. You don’t dare speak up for fear of damaging your career.

And this does not just come into play in sexual harassment. We’ve all heard stories about verbally and physically abusive executives and producers. It also causes pressure on production crews to keep their mouths shut when working conditions become abusive. If you complain, you could be out of a job. Even worse, you could be branded a “troublemaker” and have difficulty finding another job.

This can have horrible consequences. A stuntwoman was killed on the set of Deadpool 2. The investigation is ongoing, but apparently a crewmember had warned producers that the stuntwoman was not qualified for that particular stunt, and the warning was ignored. Recently an actor from Riverdale got into a serious car accident driving home after an extremely long day on set. He was okay, but more than one crew person has been killed or seriously injured in the last few years because they fell asleep at the wheel after a marathon shoot.

Writers also face abuse, though typically with less serious consequences. It comes in the form of things like free rewrites – when the writer has been contracted for a draft, but the producer demands multiple rewrites before they will “accept” the draft and trigger final payment. The writer can refuse, of course, and if it’s a WGA contract, the producer must pay up. But then you might get that “troublemaker” label.

How do the abusers get away with this behavior? They know there’s always someone willing to step into your place and take the abuse.

At this point I want to state very clearly: Anybody who tells you they can destroy your career is lying. Many people may be able to cost you a job, though in the scheme of your career, that job is probably not going to make much difference (and as you rise through the ranks, the number of people with that kind of power will decline). There are a handful of people who can do serious damage to your career, but really only about a dozen in the whole industry (Unfortunately, at one time, Harvey Weinstein was on that list).

The reality is most people who make those kinds of threats are bluffing and counting on you being too afraid or naïve to doubt them. I once saw a third-rate reality TV producer tell a roomful of tape loggers they would “never work in Hollywood again” if they revealed secrets of the show. It was all I could do not to laugh. Unless their career goals were to log tapes on niche cable reality shows the rest of their lives, there was not much this producer could do to them. But I noticed one kid who looked terrified – this was his first job and he believed her.

So what can we do about abuse in Hollywood?

First, stand up for yourself. I wish I could say this came without costs. If nothing else, you probably won’t be able to work for the abuser anymore (though perhaps that’s not such a bad thing). And Hollywood is a small town – word spreads, and people can damage your reputation if they choose. Fortunately, as people like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes discovered, we’ve reached a point where the victim of sexual harassment may have just as much power to destroy the abuser’s career. From now on, if you reject a power figure’s sexual advance and they threaten your career, I would just say the words, “Harvey Weinstein.” I imagine they’ll change their tune very quickly.

In other areas, like pressure on stuntmen to do stunts they aren’t comfortable with, or pressure on writers to do free rewrites, the more people who stand up for themselves, the harder it becomes for abusers to just fire someone and move on to the next willing victim. This is hard, because it takes individual courage in hopes the collective will back you up. But if you don’t stand up for yourself, then how will things ever change?

That brings me to the second thing we can do: stand up for each other. When you see someone being put in an unacceptable situation, back them up. Be the person who spoke up on the Deadpool 2 set. If someone refuses to do something dangerous, or complains about a production running over legal working hours, join their complaint. Sometimes AD's and producers and so on really don't intend to endanger people, but their job is hard. It's easy to dismiss one person as a whiner, but if multiple people speak up, it just might cause that supervisor to reconsider what they're asking.

Third, we should look to the unions. Unions have working rules to prevent most kinds of abuse, but they do depend on members reporting that abuse (see “stand up for yourself.”) IATSE has rules about working hours and turnaround times. The WGA has rules about free rewrites.

Of course not all productions are union. A lot of times you have to do non-union jobs in order to reach the point where you can join the union. I would suggest that if you are going to take a crew position on a non-union production, you ask that the crew deal memo specify that the appropriate union’s workplace rules apply. The union won’t be able to enforce it, but at least you’ll establish expectations, and you’ll have some legal recourse if the contract is violated.

Back around 2006, a message board called “Writer Action” formed. It was for WGA members only, but was not part of the WGA. Part of that message board allowed members to anonymously rate the behavior of producers, agents, and executives, including on things like “Did they demand free rewrites?”

Many producers and executives freaked out when they heard this. They did not like the idea that they might be held accountable for their behavior. They called in "unfair" - which is hilarious, when you think about it.

Maybe all Hollywood unions should institute public databases of complaints. Allow members to register complaints anonymously on anyone they work for. Then post a database of those complaints online that anyone could check. One or two complaints against someone wouldn’t have much effect, but if you saw that a producer had dozens of complaints against them, you might think twice about working for them.

Also, many union members are responsible for hiring and supervising other union members. Cinematographers generally pick their own camera operators and gaffers, for example. Showrunners hire their writing staffs. So when someone files a complaint, the union could look to see if there was another union member who should have been protecting them. Then they could send that person a friendly reminder note of the union’s rules and the obligation of supervisors to protect the rights of those they supervise.

It won’t be easy to change the culture in Hollywood. But as Harvey Weinstein's fall shows, it is possible.


 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

This book is therapy for anyone having trouble wrapping their head around the technique of pitching. I wish I had Doug and Ken's wisdom earlier in my career.
Eric Heisserer (writer, "Arrival," "Lights Out," "Hours")