Friday, April 24, 2009

The Structure of "Amelie"

Spoilers:  Amelie

From time to time I'll hear someone suggest that three act structure is a "Hollywood" thing and doesn't apply to foreign films or art films.  That's really not true.  Three act structure is simply a way to understand how stories work.  When foreign and art films are good they invariably follow three act structure.  Today I'll analyze how the quirky French comedy Amelie fits into this theory.

Main Character:  Amelie.  Her want is:  to protect her fragile heart.  Her need is:  human contact.

Prologue:  We learn about Amelie's childhood in a narrated prologue that sets us up to understand her need.

Domino:  The discovery of the child's box hidden in the bathroom.  This may seem to be the catalyst but it actually just sets in motion the bigger story which is a romance.

Catalyst:  Amelie encounters Nino digging under a photo booth and they feel an instant attraction.  Amelie now has a problem, though she probably couldn't vocalize it.  She's determined to live her life alone (though perhaps now as a solo, anonymous do-gooder).  However her attraction to Nino is causing her to doubt this decision.  This introduces:

The Main Tension:  Will Amelie overcome her fear and find love?  (Or perhaps more elegantly "Will Amelie be able to fix her own life the way she fixes the lives of those around her?")

Act One Turning Point:  Amelie sees Nino lose his photo album and she recovers it.  Now she has a way to get in touch with him, but she's afraid to do so.  Act one has an arc which is "Will Amelie identify herself to Nino?"

Midpoint:  Amelie determines to find out about Nino and goes to look for him.  She discovers that he's a whimsical dreamer like herself, but she doesn't actually identify herself to him yet.  Instead she decides to craft an elaborate romantic scheme to gauge his interest and worth.

Act Two Turning Point:  Amelie arranges to meet Nino in the cafe where she works, but at the last second loses her nerve and denies she's the one he's there to see.

Epiphany/Twist:  Amelie realizes she's blown it and is heartbroken.  But her coworker, Gina, who knows what a good person Amelie is, tells Nino the truth and gives him Amelie's address.

Resolution:  Nino comes to Amelie's apartment.  At first she's frightened to let him in, but she finally takes a chance, opens the door, and kisses him.

Though Amelie doesn't seem at all like a "Hollywood" film, it follows a fairly standard romantic comedy structure.  The key to making unique, artistic, personal films is not in reinventing the fundamentals of structure, it's how you use the structure.  Amelie's charm and brilliance comes from the character, scenes, style and point of view.  As writers that's where we have the ability to make our mark!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Urgency and Forward Momentum

(SPOILERS: I’m going to discuss The Great Buck Howard and The Wrestler. I won’t give away any major twists, but if you’re a purist and don’t want to know anything about a movie before you see it, read this after you’ve seen the movies.)

Last weekend I saw The Great Buck Howard (written by Sean McGinly) which is about Troy, an aspiring writer, who takes a job as personal assistant/road manager to fading mentalist Buck Howard. I really wanted to like the movie. The characters were well drawn, the actors terrific, the scenes amusing. But for some reason I just never got involved in the story.

Discussing it with a friend afterward I concluded there were actually two reasons I didn’t get involved: the film lacked urgency and forward momentum.

Let’s deal with urgency first. The two main characters have clear wants – Troy wants to be a writer and Buck wants to return to his former glory. But there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to achieve those goals. They’re both fairly happy doing what they’re doing and could probably keep on doing it for years without any real trouble. It would be like The Wrestler (written by Robert D. Siegel) if Randy had been in perfect health with plenty of money socked away in the bank. The characters might feel vaguely dissatisfied but there’s nothing pushing them to really change.

So how do we create urgency? One way is by introducing what in the business is known as a “ticking clock.” We give the characters a time limit for achieving their wants. For example, what if Buck was running out of money and had no shows lined up after the end of the month? If he doesn’t do something, he’ll have to fire Troy. Now we have some urgency.

You can add a ticking clock by either creating a point after which the character can’t achieve their desire or by creating a point where disaster will befall them if they don’t achieve their desire.

Which brings me to stakes. Part of increasing urgency is making sure something real is at stake if the character fails. In The Great Buck Howard failure as defined by the movie isn’t all that bad for the characters. That leaches any urgency out of their quest.

Now, on to forward momentum. Increasing the urgency helps give a story forward momentum, as does a ticking clock. But the key to ensuring forward momentum is a technique known as “Advertising.”

Advertising means you let the audience know that something important is coming up. This keeps them focused on where the story is going which gets them involved. One reason a ticking clock is so effective is that it advertises a deadline. The audience knows something is going to happen by the time that deadline comes around.

But you don’t only have to advertise negative things. The Great Buck Howard does do a little advertising, just not enough. One of the things they advertise is Buck’s plan to do a new effect that will put him back on the map. As we see the characters prepare for this event we start to become more involved in the story. We’re looking forward to seeing the top secret effect and wonder if Buck will really be able to pull it off and if it will restore his career as he expects. There’s finally direction to the story.

(The reason this doesn’t save the movie is it’s over by the middle of the story and, again, the stakes for failure aren’t much.  If it doesn't work Buck and Troy can just continue on like always while they think of new ways to reach their goals.)

Now consider The Wrestler. When Randy’s going to meet his daughter he prepares by going shopping for the perfect present.  We see that it's a big deal to him and wonder how it will come out.  And after that meeting he arranges another one, which gives us something new to look forward to. Wrestling events are also advertised. We’re told about the upcoming fan convention and about upcoming matches, particularly the big finale where Randy will face an old rival. 

We see Randy preparing for each of these events and during that preparation are told what is at stake if he succeeds or fails in each case. And this is key: as soon as one is over we’re given something else to look forward to so the momentum doesn't flag.  Each one builds off the last.

Think of any movie you really like. Think of what the big moments are in the film. I bet the movie advertises those events well in advance!

Over the last year or so I’ve come to realize more and more the importance of this forward momentum. Two hours is a long time to ask the audience to stay involved in your story.  You’ve got to give them things to look forward to and a sense of urgency.  Otherwise they might start to wonder why they're watching at all.