Saturday, February 26, 2011

Robin Hood Analysis Part III – Antagonist Confusion

(SPOILERS:  Robin Hood)

At the end of my last post I said I would next address possible structural solutions for Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland).  But I’ve realized there’s another issue I have to deal with first:  the antagonist.

In the traditional Robin Hood legend the antagonist is Prince John, with the Sheriff of Nottingham as his henchman.  Or occasionally John is relegated to the background and the Sheriff is the primary antagonist.

In this movie we have both John and the Sheriff, but neither are the antagonist.  As I mentioned previously, the antagonist the filmmakers use here is Godfrey and his French allies.  This is clear because it’s Godfrey that Robin runs afoul of at the Catalyst and Godfrey who he fights in the final showdown of the Resolution.

(And by the way, why are we to assume the French are so bad?  Don’t we open the movie with the English sacking a French castle for no apparent reason other than to get treasure?  Maybe the French are justified in their invasion.)

Now it’s not necessarily a problem to create a new antagonist for a classic story but I really question what the purpose is here.  And as executed, it creates a level of confusion in the drama of the story, especially when we consider the preconceptions the audience brings into the theater from their previous experiences with the legend.

The role of John is particularly confounding.  We introduce him as a villainous figure before we get to Godfrey’s treacherous deal with the French.  Because of our knowledge of the legend, this causes us to assume that this version of Robin Hood will use John as the antagonist just like all the others.  This seems to be borne out in the first half of act two when we spend a lot of time at court watching John seize power and remove those who counsel better treatment of his people.  Meanwhile, Godfrey acts like a henchman.

However before Robin even encounters John in person, John is alerted to Godfrey’s treachery and turns on him.  At the end of Act Two Robin and John actually team up!  This is not very good villain behavior.  It might be interesting to explore some of the political underpinnings of the Robin Hood story, but if we were going to do that then Robin ought to be involved.  Specifically, I would have Robin be the one that turns John against Godfrey.

As it stands, John’s transformation only serves to lessen the movie’s tension.  One of Robin’s biggest obstacles has been removed.  Robin’s primary action at the end of Act Two is to convince the nobles and John to make peace with each other to fight their common enemy.  But is that really our story?  Is that what Robin has been striving for throughout Act Two?  No.  And instead of upping the tension it gives Robin a powerful ally for Act Three, lessening the drama.

We get a clue to what the filmmakers might have been thinking at the end of the movie.  John betrays Robin and breaks his promise.  We see that Robin, Marion and their friends have moved out into the woods.  Then there’s a title card that says, “And so the legend begins.”

Ah, they were planning for this movie to start a franchise.  It’s meant to be an origin story showing how Robin and John became enemies.  Here’s a tip, though:  if you want to start a franchise you have to make a good first movie.  Otherwise you never get to make the next one.  And if that was the goal, I question the wisdom of using Godfrey as the main villain and John’s wishy washy flip flopping.

As for the Sheriff of Nottingham, he’s largely extraneous.  If he didn’t play such a large role in previous versions of the legend we would barely notice him.  In this version of the story it probably would have been better just to cut him out.

So what does this mean for our structural fixes?  Well, if I was making a Robin Hood movie I would really want to use John as the antagonist and the Sheriff as his henchman.  And I would make the story about saving Nottingham from their oppression.  It’s simple and clear and dramatic.  After all, it’s worked for dozens of previous tellings of this story.

But my mandate here is to try to fix the story that the filmmakers seem to want to tell, and that story is the story of Robin fighting Godfrey to prevent the invasion of England by the French.

So next post I’ll try to figure out a structural approach to make that story more dramatic.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Robin Hood Analysis Part II – A Pointless Middle

(SPOILERS:  Robin Hood)

Last post in my analysis of Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland) I identified the Catalyst as when Robin gets Loxley’s sword and the king’s crown and decides to return them to England.  But I didn’t mention where the end of Act I was.  That’s because the end of Act I is a problem in this movie.

I often refer to the end of Act I as “the point of no return.”  My friend Gregg Rosen calls it “the hero takes on the problem.”  My friend Don Hewitt says it’s the point where “the hero decides to…”  All are good descriptions of what ought to happen at the end of Act I.

I think as written Robin Hood attempts to combine the Catalyst and the end of Act I.  Robin has made a decision and taken on a problem.  The trouble is it doesn’t really feel like a point of no return.  He can still walk away.  We’d also like to have an idea of the challenges to come and we really don’t.  Again, this isn’t a movie about returning a sword.

Anyway, on to the middle of the movie.  The two biggest structural symptoms in the middle of the movie are lack of forward momentum and that fact that Robin isn’t very active. 

There’s a screen time issue for our hero – we spend almost as much time at the English court watching the machinations of John, the Queen and the Chancellor as we do with Robin and Marion at Nottingham.  Meanwhile in Nottingham Robin is never particularly challenged in any way.  Whose story is this?  What’s it about?

Let’s look at what specifically Robin does.  He returns the crown, drawing the attention of Godfrey.  Not bad, although Godfrey doesn’t really do anything about it except declare that Robin knows too much.  Next Robin goes to Nottingham to return the sword.  At about the halfway mark of the movie Robin agrees to continue playing the part of Loxley so that Nottingham won’t be returned to the crown once Loxley Sr. dies.

This is a pretty good twist.  It gets Robin potentially involved in the other, political action and could put him in danger.  The first problem, however, is that it comes an hour into the movie.  The second problem is that it doesn’t actually end up putting him in any danger.  His identity as Loxley is never once challenged.

We continue with Robin and Marion flirting.  There’s a bit of action where Robin robs a church wagon that is taking grain out of Nottingham so they can replant their fields.  Finally Robin leaves Nottingham to attend the meeting of nobles and make a big speech to King John that gets him to make a deal with the nobles.  Meanwhile, Godfrey attacks Nottingham.

Okay, that’s the end of Act Two – Godfrey’s attack.  It also is problematic but I’ll get to that in a second.  Let’s look again at the Second Act.  Basically what we see Robin do is travel (boring), flirt with Marion and steal some grain from a minor character to solve a minor problem.  It’s all subplot stuff!  This is a movie about the fate of England and our main character is busy with inconsequential events.  Don’t get me wrong, the romance with Marion is a very good subplot, but it’s not the point of the story.  We need Robin to get involved in the main action.

Okay, now to that end of Act Two.  Let’s leave aside the implausibility of Robin showing up and making a big speech to the King without any of the nobles pointing out he isn’t really Robin Loxley.  And let’s deal with the problems of John’s antagonist role in a later post.  The end of Act Two (if the ending will be happy, which this one will be) is supposed to be the moment of failure.  The point when all seems lost.  We know Robin will win in the end because it’s a Hollywood movie, but we sure can’t figure out how.

Well, Robin convincing John to sign a charter of rights certainly isn’t a moment of failure.  Godfrey’s attack on Nottingham could be.  Things sure look dire for Marion and her people for a few minutes.

But then Robin rides in with his troops and easily defeats the French soldiers.  Godfrey’s already left so Robin can face him at the end of the movie.  But with a little quick action Robin has solved all his problems again.  Marion and the town are safe.  Sigh, for a moment it looked like we might actually have some drama.

The ease with which Robin solves his “failure” at the end of Act Two is a huge problem, but the movie has an even bigger one.  We still don’t have a coherent through line.  Is this story about defeating the French?  Getting John to sign a charter?  Protecting Nottingham?  In short, the Dramatic Question is muddled.

From here Robin and his troops ride to the coast to join the battle against the French invaders.  There’s a huge battle scene and Robin ends up fighting Godfrey one-on-one, and – in a rather contrived bit of action – saves Marion again.  I’ll talk about all this in more detail in a later post but, for now, let’s ask what Dramatic Question this ending answers.

It would seem the Dramatic Question is “can Robin save England from Godfrey and the invading French.”  That is workable.  It wouldn’t be my choice for a Robin Hood story, but then this isn’t my Robin Hood story.  Let’s assume this is actually the story the filmmakers wanted to tell.

Now consider how much time Robin spends actually trying to achieve that goal.

Yeah, it’s pretty much just the third act.  For an hour and forty-five minutes Robin is wandering around doing stuff that is completely unrelated to our main storyline.  The Chancellor character plays a more vital role in this story than our hero.  I suppose we might say Robin isn’t the main character, but if not him, who?  He’s the one who gets the girl and saves the day in the end. 

This is a fatal flaw in the movie, and the solution is structural.  And I’ll address that solution next post.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Robin Hood Analysis Part I - A Slow Start

(SPOILERS:  Robin Hood)

All right, I’m going to start my analysis of Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland) and how the screenplay goes so wrong.  However, regular readers will know I’m a big believer in “if it aint broke don’t fix it.”  So my process will be to look first at the symptom, then identify the underlying problem, and then try to determine a potential solution.  Because it’s easy to pick apart a movie but not very helpful if you can’t figure out how to do better.

There are several symptoms that point to structural issues, so I’ll start there.  First, the story takes forever to get going.  There’s a lot of action in the first thirty minutes, but we have no idea what the movie’s going to be about.  Presumably Robin Longstride is our main character, but he doesn’t get much screen time in Act One.  King Richard gets nearly as much attention and he’s going to die and be out of the movie before Act Two!

So my first step in identifying the problem that causes this rambling start is to determine what the Catalyst of the movie is.  You’ll recall that the Catalyst is the point where we ask the Dramatic Question, the character problem that will define the movie.

Robin Hood opens with Marion and her problems in Nottingham.   War orphans who live in the woods steal the last of their planting seed.  Nothing wrong with that – it’s a dramatic and interesting opening.  We then get a nice character introduction for Robin Longstride in battle.  He has a “save the cat”* moment where he rescues a boy who falls while trying to put explosive bags on the castle gate.  Great!  We’ll root for that guy.  Then there’s a bit with Prince John and the situation back in England.  Okay, setting up our presumed villain.  Next we see Robin after the battle gaming and fighting with his friends and getting in trouble for telling the truth to King Richard.  Good character introduction stuff.

Here’s where things start to go awry.  We go back to some different villains – Godfrey and his French cohorts.  Next we have a long siege scene where Richard is killed – and none of our major characters are involved.  We touch base with Robin and his buddies who decide to desert and return to England.  Next we see Godfrey ambush Robin Loxley and finally Robin Longstride arrives and agrees to return Loxley’s sword to his father.  Robin also recovers the King’s crown and figures he’ll return that while he’s at it.

Ah ha!  A quest.  We finally have some sense of where the story’s going.  Unfortunately this doesn’t happen until twenty-eight and a half minutes into the movie.  I mentioned last post that a late Catalyst is okay if the stuff before is exciting.  And there’s some pretty exciting stuff in the first half hour of Robin Hood, I’ll admit.  Unfortunately little of it has to do with our main character.   So we just seem to be watching a lot of unconnected events that don’t go anywhere.

The solution would be to move the Catalyst forward.  I think we could easily get Robin to acquire Loxley’s sword ten minutes in.  We can cut out a lot of the drama with Richard that doesn’t add anything to the story.  We can push back some of the set-up with the villains until after Robin gets the sword and we know what the story is about.  We could have just as much action but focus it on our main storyline.

But therein lies a bigger problem.  What is the Dramatic Question of the movie?  It’s still not really clear, even thirty minutes in.  Robin wants to return the sword and we know Nottingham has problems.  Okay, but this isn’t really about Robin returning a sword.  And who is the villain?  At first it seems to be John but we have no idea how Robin will come into conflict with John yet.  And in Act Two John is going to step back from his villainous-ness. 

The real antagonist of the movie will turn out to be Godfrey and he’s mad at Robin now for shooting him in the cheek with an arrow during the ambush of Loxley.  That’s good, but what does Godfrey care about Robin returning Loxley’s sword?  If that’s our story, how does Godfrey fit in?  We still don’t see how these two are going to come in to conflict.  So though we finally have some hint of forward momentum, we’re still at a loss as to what this story is really about.

In other words, there are even bigger structural problems.  In my next post I’ll look at Act Two and see if we can identify what the story of the movie is supposed to be, and then try to figure out how we might have set it up better in Act One.

*"Save the Cat" is the technique wherein you have your main character do something heroic and likable in the first few scenes of the movie so the audience will root for him.  Particularly important if the hero is not a particularly likable guy at first.  ("Save the Cat" is also the title of a popular screenwriting book.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Analyzing Bad Movies

I have from time to time in this blog analyzed successful movies, occasionally doing an in-depth analysis over several weeks (E.T., Fargo, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects).  Usually I analyze good movies to show how they work.  This is very helpful for the screenwriter - if we see what techniques are successful we can emulate them.

It can also be useful to analyze bad movies to see where they don't work.  It's often easy to spot the problems in a movie - plot holes, inconsistent characters, etc.  But it can be more challenging to translate what we find into useful techniques.  It's easy to say, "Don't have plot holes" but harder to boil that down into techniques for avoiding them.

Over the next few weeks I'm going to do an in-depth analysis of the film I picked as worst written of 2010: Robin Hood (story by Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris and Brian Helgeland, screenplay by Brian Helgeland).  I'll try to not only identify the problems in the screenplay but tease out how you and I can avoid similar mistakes.

If you haven't seen the movie you may want to watch the DVD so you can follow what I'm talking about.  Of course, I don't really expect you to enjoy it.  But sometimes education is painful!

How did the movie go awry?  There is some clue in the history of the project.  It was originally called Nottingham and was a big spec script sale by writers Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris.  But over the course of development, it was drastically changed.  You can read an interview with the original writers and read their draft here.  I'll talk about it a bit after analyzing the final version of the film.  Comparing original and final drafts can be an extremely educational experience!

The movie wasn't exactly a bomb, though it wasn't considered a success domestically.  Its final domestic gross was $105 million.  Internationally it did better.  Critics generally panned it - it scored a 42% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Not the worst reviewed movie, but hardly very good.

So over the next few weeks I'll go through it and explain where I think the script went awry.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Early Catalyst

(MINOR SPOILERS:  The Town, The Hangover, Iron Man, Star Trek)

Last week I was in Singapore conducting a screenwriting workshop and I was talking with my co-teacher, Don Hewitt about the fast start in The Town (screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard).  Under traditional structure, movies usually open with about ten minutes of “status quo” showing us who the character is and what their world is like before introducing the catalyst (Don uses the term Inciting Incident…it’s the same thing).  But The Town puts the bulk of the character’s status quo after the catalyst.  Don pointed out that this is becoming an increasingly common trend in movies.

First, let’s distinguish between an early catalyst and a prologue.  Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) and The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) use an exciting prologue to start off with a bang and draw the audience in.  But these sections don’t really have anything to do with the main storyline.  In fact, in The Matrix, the prologue doesn’t even include our main character.  The catalyst is the point where the character has a dilemma that will take the rest of the movie to resolve.

So let’s look at The Town.  We open with an exciting bank robbery.  We introduce the main characters: Doug, Jem and Claire.  We do get a little status quo information – Doug is the “nice” robber and Jem is the loose cannon.  And of course we discover that Doug and Jem are highly skilled at robbery.  And we get the Domino – Jem takes Claire, the bank manager, as a hostage until the robbers are sure they’ve escaped.  But mostly this is a way to open the movie with an exciting action scene.

The catalyst comes in the following scene where Doug and Jem discover that Claire lives in their neighborhood.  They have to find out if she knows anything.  Moreover, James is inclined to scare or even kill her, while Doug thinks that’s a bad idea.  Doug insists that he be the one to find out how much she knows. 

This scene comes on page 11 of the screenplay, which is about where you would expect the catalyst to come in a movie without a prologue.  But what’s interesting is that most of the scenes showing Doug in his normal world come after this.  So we see Doug in a bar where we learn his father’s in prison and that Doug is sober.   He encounters his ex-girlfriend Krista, obvious trouble, who he then sleeps with.  All this stuff would more traditionally come before the catalyst.  But by doing it here, we’re already engaged in the story.

The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) did its catalyst even sooner.  We open with preparations for a wedding.  Then a phone call comes in.  Cut to our main character, Vick, in the desert.  He informs the bride that they’ve lost the groom.  This is the catalyst and it happens on page two!  Then we flash back forty hours and see the group of guys on the road heading to Vegas.  That’s when we get to know who they are and about their lives.

This start-in-the-middle-and-flash-back structure is a time honored literary tradition that seems to be growing more common in film.  Another recent example is Iron Man (screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway).  We open with an exciting scene of Tony Stark in a Humvee cracking jokes with soldiers.  Then BLAM, they’re hit by an IED.  Stark is kidnapped – the catalyst.  We’re four minutes in…the title hasn’t even appeared yet. 

Then we flashback 36 hours and for the next twelve minutes of screen time we get to know what kind of guy Tony Stark is.  The early catalyst is particularly useful because what we learn in the status quo section is that Tony Stark is not actually the nicest guy in the world.  However we already like him from his cool, witty entrance and we feel sympathy because he’s been captured by terrorists. 

Do you need to move your catalyst up?  Does the modern audience demand a faster start?  I don’t think so.  I always go to Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond).  The catalyst of that film comes twenty-five minutes in and it holds up very well with modern audiences.  The key is that those twenty-five minutes are wildly entertaining.

The most recent version of Star Trek (written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) also has a late catalyst.  We start with a ten minute prologue, which would naturally push the catalyst back, of course.  But then we get another fifteen minutes of Kirk’s status quo before Pike dares him to do better than his father.  That’s the catalyst and it’s twenty-five minutes in.  You could even argue that the real catalyst doesn’t come until they get the distress call from Vulcan – over thirty minutes in!  Yet Star Trek was a critical and commercial hit.

On the other hand, I see a lot of bad screenplays that open with talky, expository scenes designed to show us who the characters are but without much entertainment value.  Worse, I see scripts where what should be the catalyst is pushed back to the end of Act One and we get twenty-five or thirty pages of the character in scenes without any real conflict or tension.

If your status quo consists of entertaining, engaging scenes, like in Some Like It Hot or Star Trek, then a late catalyst is fine.  But if you find your character’s status quo just isn’t that exciting, consider moving your catalyst forward and holding the status quo until the audience is engaged.

(For more on status quo and catalyst, see my post on Act One - Part One and Part Two)