Thursday, February 26, 2009

Character Want and Need

Most good movies operate on two levels. These two levels derive from two elements of the main character: Want and Need.

The main character’s want drives the story. Sometimes this want comes out of the character themselves – in Almost Famous William wants to be a rock journalist; in Little Miss Sunshine Olive wants to be a beauty queen; in Star Wars Luke wants to adventure in space. They start the story with these desires.

Other times the want is thrust on the character by an event in the story – in The Fugitive Dr. Kimble wants to prove his innocence after he has been wrongly convicted of a crime; in Some Like It Hot Joe and Gerald want to escape mobsters who are trying to kill them because they’ve witnessed a murder; in Back to the Future Marty wants to get back to the future because he’s been accidentally stranded in the past while fleeing bad guys. In these cases the event that creates the want is usually the “catalyst” beat of the three act structure.

We all want something every waking moment, even if it’s just to be left alone or to take a nap. Characters may have different wants that drive them through each scene, but there will always be an overall want that drives them through the story.

In most (but not all) good movies the character also has a need which is different than the want. They are usually unaware of this need. It is a change the character has to make in order to be happy. The need drives the character arc and adds depth to the story. In the best cases the need is tied to the want practically and thematically.

For example, in Almost Famous William needs to learn to be "honest and unmerciful" in order to achieve his want of becoming a good journalist. In Star Wars Luke needs to learn discipline, patience and faith to destroy the Death Star and become a hero. In Back to the Future Marty needs to gain self-confidence which he does by teaching that same lesson to his father thus undoing the damage he’s done to history and preventing himself from never being born (which all makes perfect sense if you’ve seen the movie!)

Sometimes a character’s need is to give up what they want because that want is preventing them from being happy. Consider Casablanca: Rick’s want is to be left alone – not get involved. He doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone. This is established from the beginning of the film. His need is the opposite – to take a stand, restore his passion for lost causes. Until he does he will not be truly happy. The arrival of Ilsa is the catalyst that challenges his want and causes him to undergo a transformation which ultimately leads him to take a stand and become happy again.

Structurally, the want and need generally drive two parallel stories, one internal and one external, which interact through the course of the movie.

The external story is built on the character’s want. This is the visible, “physical” action of the movie. We watch the character actively pursue their conscious goal.

The internal story is built on the character’s need. This is the story that’s happening in the character’s head/heart/soul as the character transforms to achieve (or perhaps not) their need. Our job as writers is to find ways to externalize this journey so the audience can see it.

Identifying your character’s want and need and then tracking the internal and external storylines will help ensure your stories and characters are rich and deep.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Must See Films: 50's & early 60's studio; American Independent

This week's "Must See" film lists are studio films from the 50's and early 60's (ending before the culture change hit hollywood) and American Independent Films (most of which are 1980 to the present). As a reminder, the key for reason of inclusion is: PF = Personal Favorite, AF = Art of Filmmaking, and HS = Historical Significance.

The Apartment (written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond) – PF, AF
Sunset Boulevard (written by Charles Brackett & Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond) – PF, AF, HS
Singing in the Rain (written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden) – PF, AF, HS
The African Queen (adapted by James Agee & John Huston) – PF, AF, HS
Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) – PF, HS
The Bridge on the River Kwai (screenplay by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman) – PF, AF, HS
Lawrence of Arabia (screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson) – PF, AF, HS
To Kill a Mockingbird (screenplay by Horton Foote) – PF, AF, HS
Dr. Strangelove (screenplay and adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George) – AF, HS
Sound of Music (screenplay by Ernest Lehman) – PF, HS

Easy Rider (written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper & Terry Southern) – HS
Return of the Secaucus Seven (written by John Sayles) – PF, HS, AF
To Die For (screenplay by Buck Henry) – PF, AF
Sex, lies and videotape (written by Steven Soderbergh) – PF, HS, AF
Clerks (written by Kevin Smith) – PF, HS
Reservoir Dogs (written by Quentin Tarantino) – PF, HS, AF
Pulp Fiction (stories by Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary, written by Quentin Tarantino) – PF, HS, AF
Chasing Amy (written by Kevin Smith) – PF, AF
Drugstore Cowboy (screenplay by Gus Van Sant Jr. and Daniel Yost) – PF, AF
The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie) – PF, AF
Memento (screenplay by Christopher Nolan) – PF, AF
Ghost World (written by Daniel Clowes & Terry Zwigoff) – PF, AF
One False Move (written by Billy Bob Thornton & Tom Epperson) – PF, AF
Lars and the Real Girl (written by Nancy Oliver) – PF, AF

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Psychological Role of the Screenwriter

About a year after graduating from film school I won a screenwriting contest sponsored by the Scriptwriters Network. One of the prizes was a mug with a quote from Carl Sautter (after whom the contest was named). The quote is:

“Be happy…there are enough miserable people in this business. We don’t need any more!”

Unfortunately it’s true. There are way too many unhappy screenwriters. Part of that is the lack of respect screenwriters get in the business. Anybody who’s been doing this for more than a few months can undoubtedly relate several stories of incredible rude treatment at the hands of producers or executives. I have a small networking group that meets monthly. We have a “no bitching” policy that usually gets violated within the first five minutes.

It’s okay to get upset when someone treats you badly, but if you’re going to pursue screenwriting as a career you have to figure out a way to cope with it. Because it’s going to happen a lot. Most screenwriters who cope with it well use humor as their salve.

I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re part of a business – a business with tens of millions of dollars at risk on unpredictable products whose quality is subjective – a business which compensates us insanely well when something we do is successful…and often even when it’s not. Stress and tension run high in the halls of the studios. We have to develop a thick skin when that bubbles over into mistreatment of writers.

And though few non-writers will admit it, writers have enormous power in this business. Nothing happens without us. Nobody else – not producer, not director, not movie star, not studio president – can do anything until a writer writes a script. A good, marketable script is gold. I think a lot of the mistreatment writers receive is the result of subconscious jealousy at how much everyone desperately needs us.

I think just as often, though, writers are the cause of their own misery because they have difficulty accepting their role in the filmmaking process.

Filmmaking is a collaborative process, but the writing process is solitary. Even writers who work in teams still have to face that blank page essentially alone. This causes screenwriters existential tension.

We have the best and worst of the filmmaking collaboration due to our role as the first on and first off in the filmmaking process.

On the one hand we get to create something that is completely ours – the screenplay. It reflects exactly how we see the final film. Yes, we are influenced by underlying material, previous drafts and the directions of producers and others. But we take those things and shape something that is uniquely our vision of the film the team is trying to make. Nobody else has that opportunity – not even the director.

On the other hand we then give our unique, personal vision to a whole cadre of people who are charged with turning our words-on-paper into a film. The results of the process by necessity will be different from our vision. We have no control as to how well or even if our ideas are executed. And I’m not even getting into the common situation where other writers rewrite our words!

If we are to be happy we must embrace this process. We must celebrate the opportunity to put our best vision forward, then let go of that vision when we hand it to other talented people. If the results are disappointing then we must remember that we are in a collaborative medium where success and failure are shared. A screenplay is meant to be turned into a film. The best unproduced screenplay is just a pile of paper as far as the world at large and the history of film is concerned.

If you want the audience to read your words then write books or short stories or poems.

And guess what? Sometimes different is better. Sometimes we benefit from the tremendous work of all those talented people. Sometimes the movie is actually greater than the script. That is a wonderful experience as long as you let yourself recognize it when it happens. If only it were always so…

If you’re going to be a writer in the film business my advice is to embrace your role and be happy!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Must See: Silent Film, 30's & 40's, Noir & Gangster

Several of my students have recently asked me if I have a list of recommended films. I didn't, but it sounded like a great idea so I thought I'd compile one. I immediately became consumed with doubt and confusion. How many films should be on the list? Should I limit the number of films from any one filmmaker? Is the list supposed to be my favorite films, the films I think are most historically significant, the best written films or simply the best films?

I decided I was overthinking it.

What I am going to do from time to time over the next several weeks is posts lists of films under various headings relating to subject matter, time period or type of film. I am calling these my "Must See" lists.

I will use a code to indicate whether the film made the list because of Historical Significance (HS), Artistic Filmmaking (AF) or because they are a Personal Favorite (PF). I haven't set any arbitrary number of films for each list, but I am trying to break them down into groups of between five and fifteen. And I am trying to pick the best representative samples for each heading so many fine films will not make the cut. I figure this approach will help anyone inclined to follow my recommendations prioritize their viewing.

And a couple of disclaimers: My knowledge of films is good but not encyclopedic. And my memory isn't perfect. So I may very well leave deserving films off the lists due to oversight. And I reserve the right to update the lists later. In other words, these are my lists and that's all they are.

So with all that out of the way, here are the first three lists I've compiled:

The General (written by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, adaptation by Al Boasberg & Charles Smith) – HS, PF, AF
The Kid (written by Charles Chaplin) – HS, PF, AF
Nosferatu (written by Henrik Galeen) – HS, AF
The Birth of a Nation (written by D.W. Griffith & Frank E. Woods) – HS
Battleship Potemkin (script by N.F. Agadzhanova-Shutko) – HS, AF

Notorious (written by Ben Hecht) – PF, AF
Rebecca (screenplay by Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan, Robert E. Sherwoon and Joan Harrison) – PF, AF
The Thin Man (screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) – PF
Citizen Kane (screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles) – HS, AF
Bringing Up Baby (story by Hagar Wilde, screenplay by Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde) – PF, HS
Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) – PF, AF, HS
Gone with the Wind (screenplay by Margaret Mitchell) – HS
The Philadelphia Story (screenplay by Donald Ogden Steward) – HS, PF, AF
The Wizard of Oz (screenplay by Noel Langley and Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, adaptation by Noel Langley) – HS, PF, AF

The Third Man (written by Graham Greene) – PF, HS, AF
The Maltese Falcon (screenplay by John Huston) – HS, PF, AF
Key Largo (written by Richard Brooks and John Huston) – PF, AF
Little Caesar (screenplay by Francis Edwards Faragoh) – HS
Chinatown (written by Robert Towne) – HS, AF
Body Heat (written by Lawrence Kasdan) – PF
The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) – PF, AF, HS
The Godfather II (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) – PF, AF, HS
Goodfellas (screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese) – PF, AF

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Structure of The Abyss

Spoilers: The Abyss

Sorry for the little delay since my last post! Since I’ve been talking about The Abyss (written by James Cameron), I figured I might as well break it down according to three act structure.

Main Character: Bud.

Prologue: The sinking of the Navy submarine is a prologue even though it is kind of an important part of the story. However, it could be cut out and the story would still make sense since the accident is explained to the main characters later. Opening with this scene does two things which prologues often do. First, it starts us off with an exciting event to draw the audience in and establish tone. Second, it introduces the mysterious “aliens.” Since we won’t see them again for a while, this lets the audience know that this is a world where such things exist. It’s important to establish that fact early on. The audience won’t accept something fantastical if it’s introduced too late in the story.

Domino: The domino is when the crew is ordered to participate in the rescue mission. This event starts the story in motion but does not yet introduce a real problem for Bud or the Main Conflict of the movie. The rescue mission is not the main conflict – it’s over before the end of Act I.

Catalyst: Lindsey first encounters the alien. This may seem a little late, even given the length of the movie and deducting the prologue. But Cameron has done a good job of giving us exciting and interesting sequences to carry us to this point, particularly with the investigation of the sunken submarine. The encounter with the alien introduces the Main Conflict so it’s the catalyst.

Main Conflict: This is a bit tricky. It has to do with the aliens and with Coffey who is the primary antagonist. Coffey dies at the end of Act II, though, so the conflict with him is the second act tension, not the main conflict. I’d phrase the Main Conflict as: “Will the aliens become friends or foes?” That’s the question that’s really driving the action – and the source of the conflict between Bud, Lindsey and Coffey. If Coffey gets his way, the humans will go to war with the aliens. Bud and Lindsey, however, want to establish a peaceful relationship.

Act One Break: The undersea facility is cut off from the surface by the storm. The people on the ocean floor will now have to resolve the issue of the aliens without any outside help or interference.

Midpoint: The alien pseudopod enters the facility. This is a high point for the main characters – Bud and Lindsey communicate with the aliens.

Act Two Break: Though Coffey is killed, he succeeds in launching the robot sub with the nuclear bomb. It sinks to a depth never before reached by divers with a timer ticking down. Bud and Lindsey have failed in their attempt to prevent Coffey’s attack on the aliens.

Twist/Epiphany*: Bud agrees to go on a suicide mission to stop the bomb using special deep diving apparatus brought down by the SEALS.

Resolution: Bud disarms the bomb, thus saving the aliens. In return for his actions, the aliens save Bud, then rescue the rest of the crew of the undersea facility.

*The term “twist” is confusing because a structural twist is not the same as a twist ending such as what the Sixth Sense has. Rather, it’s the point where the main character figures out how to solve his problem. One of my students recently suggested the term “epiphany” which I like, though it’s not always a mental realization that lets the character succeed. Sometimes it’s the locating of an object or other device, or overcoming of an obstacle. But epiphany is still perhaps a less confusing term then twist.