Thursday, March 31, 2011

Harnessing Your Fear of Embarrassment

 I’m currently in the early stages of putting together an independent film that I would direct.  I have a script and a producer and we’re beginning to approach stars and financiers.  I know the draft of the script I finished last fall, draft nine, works.  I’ve shown the various drafts to a lot of fellow writers and directors for feedback.  In earlier drafts people pointed out several problems so I did rewrites.  But draft nine has been universally praised by people I respect.  And the producer chose it as her primary project out of all the possible scripts she could have chosen.

For the lead we’re going after one of my favorite actresses.  A few weeks ago I reread the script and was struck with terror that the character wasn’t rich enough for someone of that caliber.  “She’s never going to do this,” I thought.  “She’ll think I’m a lame writer!”  I immediately dove into a two week rewrite to beef up the character.  I can’t have one of my favorite actresses thinking I’m lame!

It occurred to me as I was doing this that I should have had this realization earlier.  But it took the prospect of this specific actresses reading the script to really motivate me to make the character as good as I possibly could, and then make her even a little better. 

The fear of embarrassment is a powerful tool.

I’ve seen this in my screenwriting classes.  During scene exercises, many students write in-your-face comedy because it gets a laugh from the class.  They often do this even if they dream of writing arty adult dramas.  Impressing their fellow students is a bigger motivator than getting a good grade or learning to be a better writer.  Hey, I’m not complaining…whatever pushes them to work hard!

Back to my screenplay, the experience made me wonder how often I’ve written something solid enough to please my agent and the producers and development execs that will be reading it, but with a character that will need work to land a major actor.  I’m aware that my initial audience is producers and development execs so I try to view the script through their eyes before it gets turned in or sent out.  And that’s smart.

But now I’ve realized that I should also consider the next step – every script I write, I should imagine being read by my favorite director and actors.  Would they be impressed with my writing?  If not, back to work.  (Of course once a director and/or star is attached to the project, this process happens naturally as you tailor it specifically to them.)

Wherever you are in your career, I’d suggest you also try this approach.  If you’re looking for an agent, think of a writer who you really admire.  Then imagine their agent reading your script.  Are they going to be impressed enough to spend time out of their busy day to represent you when they could be focusing on that other great writer?  Any agent worth anything has at least a couple of very talented clients.

I find this is one of the hardest things to impress upon students.  You can’t just write a script that works.  You have to write something that’s better than almost everything out there.  You’re not just competing against other students or the people in your writers’ group.  You’re competing against the best writers in the business.

Of course the fear of embarrassment can freeze you up, too.  It often depends on your personality.  Most great writers harbor deep doubts about their own ability.  At some point you do have to risk embarrassment.  In fact, embarrassment in the form of rejection is a big part of this job.  You have to grow a pretty thick skin to survive psychologically as a professional writer.

Even with the last rewrite I don’t know if the actress we’re approaching will like the script enough to sign on.  If she doesn’t I can’t let that destroy my confidence that this will ultimately be a great movie.  After all, no matter how talented she is, she’s still just one person with one opinion.

The film business requires having both arrogance and enormous self-doubt.  One keeps you going in the face of tremendous odds, the other pushes you to do your absolute best work.  The trick is to balance them.

Man, it’s no wonder there are so many crazy people in this business.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ambiguity vs. Confusion

(SPOILERS: Doubt, Inception, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Dracula 3000)

There’s a saying in filmmaking:  Ambiguity is good, confusion is bad.  Ultimately most movies don’t have either…and that’s okay.  We know exactly why Rick does everything he does in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch).  We find out what rosebud is at the end of Citizen Kane (screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles) even if the reporter doesn’t.  That’s mystery, not ambiguity or confusion.

Ambiguity can be fun and have important thematic value.  Two great recent examples are Doubt (screenplay by John Patrick Shanley) and Inception (written by Christopher Nolan).  At the end of Doubt we don’t know if Father Flynn molested boys or not…that’s the whole point of the movie!  Sister Aloysius, so sure of everything, has doubt about whether she did the right thing or not because it’s impossible to know the truth of the situation.  There is no certainty, no matter how much she wants it.

Inception’s ending is equally ambiguous though with a very different impact.  At the end of Inception we see the top spin and then cut out before we find out whether it falls – before we learn whether the main character is dreaming or not.  That’s fun for the audience and allows us to have endless debates and what-ifs with our friends afterward.

But it’s important to note that neither of these endings are confusing.  In Doubt we understand what Sister Aloysius knows and doesn’t know.  The possibilities are clear – either Father Flynn did it or he didn’t.  Similarly, in Inception we understand that the possibility exists that Cobb may be dreaming…or not.  Having two clear possible choices allows a fun ambiguity but not confusion.

And that’s important because the audience won’t tolerate confusion.  If we don’t understand what’s going on in a movie we will reject it.  We need coherence if we’re to care about the characters and the outcome of the story.  Ambiguity is coherent, confusion is not.

That doesn’t mean we have to know everything at all times.  But the audience has to feel like things are leading logically from one to another.  Planting and payoff are crucial here.  So is laying out the rules of the world.  Inception tells us in the first ten minutes that in the world of the movie people can enter other people’s dreams, and the dreamer doesn’t necessarily know they are dreaming. Scene to scene everything is logical even though we may not be able to see the big picture.  That logic lets us trust that the filmmaker knows what’s going on.

On the other end of this scale is The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown).  At its core it seems to be pretty straightforward – a guy has made a bet with the Devil.  But as the movie goes along nothing really makes any sense.  Tony constantly asks Parnassus to explain what’s happening and Parnassus just replies that it’s way too complicated.  We feel like Tony and as a result we stop caring about the characters and what will happen to them.

(Heath Ledger’s death famously necessitated some changes to the movie as other actors stepped in to play his part in some scenes.  You might think that is the reason for the confusion, but those scenes actually make more sense than most of the movie.)

(Special SPOILER alert:  Sucker Punch – if you don’t want to hear plot twists skip the next four paragraphs)

Sucker Punch (story by Zack Snyder, screenplay by Zack Snyder & Steve Shibuya) has a similar problem.  At the end we learn what’s going on, but during the movie it’s confusing.  We start in the real world of the insane asylum.  Then we switch to a fantasy world of a brothel.  But I wasn’t clear when we made the switch or why (after seeing the end I’m pretty sure I know, but in the actual scene it really threw me.)

The next level of reality is the fantasies Baby Doll has whenever she dances.  Those transitions work a little better because they have a clear “trigger.”  But as I was watching the World War I era fantasy I felt strangely detached.  I was surprised because it seemed like something I would totally dig.  I realized it was because I didn’t have any idea what the point of the scene was.  What happened if they failed in the fantasy?  Did that affect the bordello world?  And did the bordello world have anything to do with the insane asylum?  I didn't know.  And therefore I didn’t care because I didn’t have any context for the action.

Even when we get the big answer we’re left with unsatisfying questions.  When Blue shot the girls in the dressing room did they die in the asylum?  Why?  How?  These aren’t the kind of questions that provoke great discussion like those in Doubt or Inception.  Instead they promote frustration.

I found myself thinking about Inception a lot during Sucker Punch.  In Inception we always know when we enter or leave a dream, and we know why.  The rules of the dream world are laid out clearly and when something significant happens in the dream we know how it impacts the next levels up and down.  The only thing we don’t know is whether that top level is reality or another dream.  It’s coherent ambiguity.

Confusion is why I think Mulholland Drive (written by David Lynch), Vanilla Sky (screenplay by Cameron Crowe) and The Fountain (story by Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel, screenplay by Darren Aronofsky) don’t work (though all have their fans).  David Lynch admitted even he doesn’t understand Mulholland Drive – and he made the movie!  Vanilla Sky tried to explain everything at the end but it was just too late.  I’d lost interest long before.

Parnassus, Sucker Punch, Mulholland Drive, Vanilla Sky and The Fountain are all visually stunning movies made by talented filmmakers who stumbled.  But of course there are worse examples. 

One of the most jaw dropping movies I’ve ever seen was Dracula 3000 (written by Ivan Milborrow and Darrell Roodt).  The movie is about a vampire on a space ship.  That should be simple but nothing makes sense from beginning to end.  And at the end…the space ship explodes.  For no apparent reason.  That’s not fun or thematically relevant ambiguity.

That’s confusion.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Robin Hood Analysis Part VI – Character Development

(SPOILERS:  Robin Hood)

I’ve mostly focused on the structural problems in my analysis of Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland) because the structural failings have the biggest impact.  Before I conclude this series, though, I want to turn my attention to the character of Robin Hood.

Noting the problem of the antagonist that I discussed earlier, the character work in the script is much stronger than the structural elements.  Robin’s character is consistent, likeable and has a clear arc.  Most of the minor characters are well drawn and consistent as well.  Some seem a little unnecessary – the sheriff, for example, and does Robin really need so many buddies?

For me, the most important thing to identify in your main character is their want and need.  The want drives the external story and the structure of the movie.  The need provides the character arc.  If they are tied together properly then plot and character become interwoven into story.

Robin’s want in the movie is to live in peace.  It’s set up when he flees what he sees as a pointless and immoral war.  We also discover that he’s not all that concerned about playing by the rules – he disguises himself as a knight to get easy passage back to England.  He’s looking for an easy way out, which leads him to make the deal with Walter to play the part of Loxley in return for the sword.

Robin’s need, as portrayed in the movie, is to take up the cause of liberty.  Two techniques are used to dramatize Robin’s arc from self-involved to selfless.  The first is his relationship with his father.  In the ambush of Loxley, Robin bitterly says his father abandoned him when he was a child.  But then the inscription on the sword brings back memories that make him question the truth of his belief.  Later in the movie Walter reveals that Robin’s father was killed for advocating a charter of liberties for the people of England.

Simultaneous to these discoveries Robin is developing his own political outlook.  When told that hunting deer is illegal because they all belong to the King, he declares nature is the property of all men.  And when he sees the negative impact of the government and church on Nottingham, he feels compelled to help.  When told the church is taking all the planting seed, he robs the church wagon – his first act of criminal defiance.

Often the love interest is used as a catalyst for the character’s arc.  Marion serves that purpose a little – she is an inspirational advocate for the peasants of Nottingham, a Lady not afraid to get her hands dirty on behalf of her people.  However mostly the romantic subplot exists on a more erotic level – the bathing scene, sharing a room, etc.  (And there’s nothing wrong with this.)

In summary, Robin’s arc is about the creation of a socialist/anarchist rebel.  And that’s pretty good because traditionally that’s what Robin Hood is.  He steals from the rich and gives to the poor.  Very Marxist!

But here the antagonist issue raises problems again.  This arc works well if Robin is going to fight the tyranny of the monarchy, as in the original legend.  But the big villain in the movie is Godfrey and the French.  Robin actually defends the country (and thus the monarchy) from outside invaders.  This muddies his development as a rebel.

It does set things up nicely for the franchise sequels hinted at in the end of the movie.  However those sequels will never be made due to the failings of this movie.


There’s one final writing flaw I want to point out in the movie and that is the reliance on coincidence.  The general rule in writing is:  coincidences that work against your main character are okay; those in his or her favor seem like cheating.  But it’s best to avoid coincidences altogether whenever possible.  They’re lazy writing.

Some examples:  Robin pretends to be Loxley to get across the channel.  Then Walter asks him to pretend to be Loxley when he arrives in Nottingham.  It would be easy to make this redundancy more plausible by having Walter discover Robin’s earlier deception or recognize his armor as belonging to the real Loxley.  Then when Robin thinks Walter’s going to be mad at him, Walter could say, “this gives me an idea.”  That way the first deception leads to the second deception instead of being purely coincidental.

Another coincidence is that the council of barons is being held at the same location that Robin goes to in order to find the charter his father had hidden.  How convenient that when Robin finds the charter he’s right there to make his big speech.  There are any myriad of excuses you could use to make this logical, or you could simply have Robin find the charter and then ride to the council of barons.  Relying on coincidence feels lazy.

Those are a bit nit picky and won’t impact a good movie.  But when a movie’s logic starts teetering, these kinds of coincidences can undo it entirely.

And now I think I’ve picked on Robin Hood more than enough!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Robin Hood Analysis Part V – The Spec Script vs. The Movie

(SPOILERS:  Robin Hood)

At the beginning of my analysis of Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland) I included a link to the original spec script called Nottingham that was the basis for the movie.  Now that I’ve analyzed the movie, I’ll take a look at that script for a moment.  Guess what?

It’s completely different.

Nottingham is all about the Sheriff of Nottingham.  He’s kind of a medieval Sherlock Holmes trying to solve a series of murders being pinned on Robin Hood in the midst of the legend we’re all familiar with.  Robin Hood is not the main character, the Sheriff is.   Quite different than the movie where the Sheriff barely appears, eh?

I won’t break down the script – that’s not really the point of this exercise.  I will say that it has a much more clear through-line than the final movie.  (There is one piece of the original script that does carry through strongly to the final movie – the critical roll of Queen Eleanor to the political outcome of the battle between John and Richard.  That’s not seen in most versions of Robin Hood.)

More interesting than comparing the two structures is to ask how and why it changed so much from script to screen.  Based on the interview with the writers, it sounds like Ridley Scott wanted to make a different version of the Robin Hood legend than that contained in the script.  It’s interesting that Russell Crowe was originally going to play the Sheriff, and then switched to the part of Robin Hood after Ridley Scott came on board and changed the movie’s focus.

Now Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors.  And Brian Helgeland, the writer who gets the majority of credit for the final script, is a pretty talented writer – his credits include L.A. Confidential, Mystic River and Man on Fire, all great screenplays. 

But it seems this is a case of trying to turn a bird into a fish.  That’s always a dicey proposition, and one Hollywood seems all too eager to embrace.  Whether Helgeland (and any other uncredited writers) fought to get a more coherent story on screen or whether they got undone by the bird to fish challenge I have no idea.  Robin Hood should serve as a cautionary tale for other Hollywood producers, directors and writers but it probably won’t. 

What can we learn from this in terms of screenwriting technique?  The sad fact is writers have limited control over the creative direction of a film project in Hollywood.  But it is incumbent on the writer to always find a strong dramatic question and make sure that you know what story you’re telling. 

The direction may shift in the development process – it probably will.  And you won’t have much chance to stop that and keep your job.  But whichever approach you’re asked to take, find that core dramatic question that serves the approach and protect it!  Everything else can change as long as that spine stays strong.  And if you have to change the spine, make sure the new one is just as strong.

Or maybe what we really learn is simply that it’s hard to make a good movie in Hollywood.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Robin Hood Analysis Part IV - Structural Surgery

(SPOILERS:  Robin Hood)

In my last few posts, I suggested that the makers of Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland) were telling the story of Robin saving England from Godfrey and the French invaders.  I based that on their climax for the movie.  Then I pointed out that they don’t tell that story very well.  So how could it have been told better?

First of all, let’s recap the structure as the movie stands:

Catalyst/End Act One – Robin agrees to return sword (30 minutes)
Midpoint – Robin agrees to continue pretending to be Loxley (60 minutes)
End Act Two – Godfrey invades Nottingham
Resolution – Robin defeats Godfrey at coast

As I suggested in my analysis of the first act, the first change I would make is moving the catalyst up to about ten minutes into the movie (instead of thirty minutes in where it now falls, in the same scene as the act break).  And I would move the midpoint up and make it the end of Act One. 

So in my version, at the Catalyst Robin runs afoul of Godfrey and agrees to return the sword, putting him in harms way.  At the end of Act One Robin “takes on the problem” by agreeing to continue playing Loxley to protect Nottingham.  I’d make time for this by cutting a lot of the pointless subplot action with Richard and moving the character development that currently happens on the road to after Robin arrives at Nottingham.

But now we need a new midpoint.  Since one of the problems I’ve identified in Act Two is that Robin doesn’t play an active role in the main storyline, I’ll look to get him in on the main action.  I’m also looking for a midpoint that will align with the happy ending and mirror the end of Act Two, so I want a moment of success. 

I think I’ll have Robin bring proof of Godfrey’s treachery to John.  Currently that is done by the Chancellor and Queen – very minor characters.  But if we give this action to Robin then he becomes the active force in the story.  And this is a high point – John turns on Godfrey.  It fills all our needs.

Now let’s look at the end of Act Two and Act Three.  What I’d like to do is make the resolution more personal to Robin.  Currently he rescues Marion – that’s good, but the filmmakers have gone to implausible lengths to get her into the scene.  And, it’s a bit redundant considering Robin already rode in and rescued Nottingham a few minutes earlier.

Particularly ridiculous to me in that final beach battle is Marion’s arrival with the forest orphans.  Sure, we’ve seen that the orphans can rob an undefended shed and even sneak into town to help people escape a burning building – as long as nobody’s watching.  And we’ve seen that Marion can be pretty handy with a sword.  But do we really think they’ll be any match for trained soldiers?  When Marion rides in with the kids and lifts her visor, my thought wasn’t “Yay,” it was “What are you doing crazy woman?  Get those kids out of there!”  The truth is, that moment only exists to put Marion in harms way a second time so Robin can rescue her again.  Lame.

So how do we fix all this?  The main villain here is Godfrey.  The French army serves mostly as a powerful force for Godfrey to use to achieve his ends.  And it’s really Nottingham that we care about and that Robin is tasked with defending, not England.  So I’m going to suggest a flop in the order of the battles in the movie.

I’m going to have John and the English army, including Robin and his men, ride to defeat the French invasion at the end of Act Two.  But while they’re there, Godfrey takes Nottingham and captures Marion.  That will be our moment of “big failure.”  The French army is repelled, but everything Robin cares about is in the hands of his main enemy.

This is also a good place to put John’s betrayal to set up the franchise the filmmakers clearly desire.  So Robin asks John to help him retake Nottingham in return for aiding him in the battle with the French.  But now that John’s gotten what he wants, he refuses.  Robin and his small group of friends are on their own.

This also allows us to more elegantly integrate the forest orphans.  Robin can round up his friends, Friar Tuck, and the orphans to plan a guerilla attack and defeat Godfrey.  That sets up the Merry Men quite nicely for the sequel and gives us a climactic Resolution where the stakes are most high – Robin defeats his true nemesis and saves Marion in the place he swore to protect.

So, breaking down the story with my structure:
Catalyst – Robin agrees to return sword (about 10 pages in)
End Act One – Robin agrees to continue pretending to be Loxley (about 30 pages in)
Midpoint – Robin turns John against Godfrey (about 60 pages in)
End Act Two – Godfrey takes Nottingham and captures Marion while Robin is assisting in repelling the French.  John refuses to help Robin.
Resolution – Robin rallies his rag tag band of friends, rescues Marion and defeats Godfrey

With that I think we could have a movie that tells the same story as the existing movie, but solves the problems of the slow start in Act One, passive main character in Act Two, and confused third act.