Sunday, March 25, 2012

Slice of Life

(SPOILERS: Elephant)

I’ve recently been having a debate with a fellow writer over the merits of The Tree of Life (written by Terrence Malick). (I’m of the opinion that it’s a bunch of trite nonsense dressed up in pretention.) During the course of this rousing debate, the topic of realism came up.

Leaving aside the hot button The Tree of Life, I’d like to muse a little bit on realism. Personally, I do not see the capturing of realism on film to be a particularly valuable goal in and of itself. I see reality every minute of every day. I don’t need to pay to see it in a theater. That is, unless it’s a reality that I don’t see every day and that is inherently interesting – the kind of reality captured in movies like The Kite Runner (screenplay by David Benioff), Paradise Now (written by Hany Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer) or City of God (screenplay by Braulio Mantovani).

Except none of those movies are simply about capturing reality. They are realistic, but they have strong stories as well. They are not simply “slice of life” movies.

Margot at the Wedding (written by Noah Baumbach) was a slice of life movie. It had interesting characters who felt extremely real, and a situation rife with conflict… but then nothing very significant happened. By the end (which was more of a stopping point than an ending) I was both bored and frustrated. Where was the story?

On the other hand there's The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy). It too has a sense of verisimilitude and is set in a world I know, but it tells a gripping story. And here the realism heightens the impact of the story. The movie is about powerful societal forces that can disrupt lives – lives of people like those we know.

Which brings me to Elephant (written by Gus Van Sant). I have pondered Elephant a lot. The movie is pretty clearly “inspired by” the events of the Columbine school shooting. For the first half of the movie, we watch the intersecting lives of a group of teenagers at school. And these are very realistic teenagers – they’re insipid and banal. Watching their mundane lives play out is dull indeed.

And because of that, when the shooting starts halfway through, it creates some of the most horrific moments I’ve ever seen on screen. Because it feels like real kids are dying, not some pithy characters.

But I wonder about that first hour. I saw Elephant at a film festival. I was pretty much in for the whole screening no matter how bad it was. And I was bored stiff in the first half. Would I have stuck it out if it was on DVD? The boring beginning was necessary to create the power of the ending, but it was still boring. So was that good filmmaking?

Truth is not the same as verisimilitude, of course. Often genres like comedy or science fiction allows us to discuss bigger, more profound themes because they can do it in an allegorical way. And The Tree of Life is only partly a slice of life film, for that matter. It also includes sections with some pretty surreal imagery.

Ultimately there’s a sliding scale of realism in film – on one end we have a movie like Elephant, on the other movies like Star Wars (written by George Lucas). I don’t think any section of that scale is necessarily better or worse than any other. And that means that capturing reality does not excuse you from telling an interesting and compelling story.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The One Miracle Rule

(SPOILERS: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider-Man 3)

One of the common rules of thumb we have in filmmaking is “The One Miracle Rule.” What this means is that the audience will suspend their disbelief for one improbable or even impossible thing, but not more than that. So, for example, we’ll believe aliens exist. Or we’ll believe ghosts exist. But we won’t believe both aliens and ghosts exist.

Accepting a miracle is the agreement we make when we buy a ticket for a particular story premise. So when we buy a ticket for Singing in the Rain (screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden), we agree to believe people break into song on the street, at least for the duration of the film. When we buy a ticket for Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), we agree to believe that people can enter other people’s dreams.

The miracles need not be that miraculous. They can be coincidences. They can be an unusual but plausible situation, such as a man is wrongly accused of a crime. Spectacular skills the main character has would also count. I might believe a character is the greatest marksman in the world, but I won’t believe that he’s the greatest marksman and the world’s leading physicist… unless one thing explains the other. Similarly, if the world’s greatest marksman is wrongly accused of a crime, it better be because he’s a marksman, not just random coincidence.

I had this problem in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (screenplay by Steven Zaillian). I could believe in the unusual situation that Lisbeth would be recruited to help uncover a brilliant, sadistic, serial killer. But at the end of the movie when they ask me to believe that Lisbeth also was able to pilfer millions and millions of dollars from our hero’s corrupt enemy, an enemy completely unrelated to the killer, I had a hard time accepting that additional unlikely situation.

Obviously Lisbeth’s computer skills were formidable – that wasn’t the problem. It was the implausibility that such a character would get both the opportunity to solve an incredibly spectacular murder and the opportunity to pilfer such a huge sum of money. It was one miracle too many.

Some people have that problem with the Marvel superhero movies. They have a hard time accepting that Tony Stark could invent the Iron Man armor and that Bruce Banner could become the Hulk in the same world. Personally, this doesn’t bother me – I feel like the miracle I’m being asked to accept is that “superheroes exist.” But that is the advantage of the X-men: all the heroes in that world have the same source of power – mutation. It’s a single miracle.

The Harry Potter movies work similarly. There would seem to be a lot of miracles in those – everything from wizards to dragons to time travel to ghosts. But all of it stems from the concept that “magic exists secretly in our world.” That’s the miracle that we’re asked to accept, and everything else extends from it. That allows for a lot of latitude, but an alien invasion in the Harry Potter books would probably break the reality.

That doesn’t mean these kinds of “broad miracle” movies can’t fail the rule in other ways. Double coincidence also counts as two miracles. Spider-Man 3 (screen story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi, screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent) fails on this count. I can accept that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider that gave him superpowers. But then an asteroid crashes near him and he’s infected by Venom.

I can believe Venom exists in this superhero world – I accepted Doc Oc and the Green Goblin – but it’s too coincidental that both the radioactive spider miracle and the asteroid miracle happen to the same person completely independently. Sadly, the solution is glaringly obvious. If Peter Parker encountered Venom because he was investigating an asteroid crash in his guise as Spider-Man, then I’d buy it. The first miracle explains the second.

By now you may be thinking of movies like Star Wars (written by George Lucas) or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). There are a lot of miracles in those. In Star Wars, you have the force, faster than light travel, lightsabers, aliens, etc. How do they get away with it?

These kinds of movies take us to another world. That other world can have many things that are different from our world. But they can’t do just anything. They have to have an internal consistency. You have to set up the rules of the new world – then anything that violates those rules counts as a miracle. So elves and magic swords don’t bother us in Lord of the Rings, but a car would… even though we know in reality cars exist and elves and magic swords don’t!

Most of Star Wars can be excused with the idea that it’s set in a technologically very advanced world. The few elements that are not a given – the aliens and especially the force – are established as part of the world early. We’re told up front this is the world and we either accept it or we walk out of the movie. But once the rules of the world are laid down, they can’t be violated. The world is the first miracle. No more are allowed.

If you find yourself in a situation where two miracles have to be present for your story to work, try to figure out a way for one miracle to lead to the other, a la my fix for Spider-Man 3. Otherwise, the audience may find the whole thing too implausible.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Show, Don’t Tell

(SPOILERS: Casablanca, Little Miss Sunshine, The Godfather, Some Like It Hot)

There’s an old writing saying, “show, don’t tell.” Of course on film, something is always being shown to the audience. But the adage still applies, particularly when it comes to the character’s internal thoughts and feelings. We don’t want the character to tell us what’s going on with them psychologically, we want to see it. Telling the audience is exposition. Showing is drama.

So, how do we show something internal? The first tool we have is behavior. Actions speak louder than words. We’ll believe what a character does more than what they say.

Olive’s introduction in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is a good example of this. Olive could say in dialogue that she dreams of being a beauty queen. But instead, we open with her watching a videotape of a pageant. The winner is crowned. Then Olive rewinds the tape and pauses. She mimics the winner’s pose and expression. We know she wants to be one of these women.

Dialogue can be behavior, too. What a character says can show how they’re feeling without being on the nose. You need to create a situation, however, that motivates revealing dialogue.

For example, consider the scene in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) when Michael goes to Vegas to buy out Mo Green. Fredo has arranged a big party, with girls and a band, but Michael tells him to get rid of all that. When Mo Green shows up, Michael says he wants to buy him out. Mo gets angry, tells Michael off. Michael doesn’t rise to the argument, but brings up a report that Mo slapped Fredo around. Fredo quickly defends Mo, saying, “Mo didn’t mean anything by that.” Trying to make peace, Fredo appeals to Tom, but Tom defers to Michael. The scene ends with Mo storming off and Michael warning Fredo never to take sides against the family again.

Notice what we’re learning about the characters in this scene. We see that Michael has now become the leader of the Corleone family – not just literally, but in his behavior. Like the Don, he is calm and collected, speaking softly because he knows he has a big stick. He even uses his father's legendary line, "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." Contrast that with how Mo Green behaves, belligerent and threatening in the scene. Michael is all business. And it tells us who really has the power.

Meanwhile we also see that Fredo is weak and afraid of conflict. He constantly tries to placate everyone. He defends Mo even though Mo has treated him badly. The characters never verbalize their feelings or anxieties – they couldn’t given the situation – but those things are still apparent in what they say and the way they say it.

The writers of The Godfather have set up a scene that forces Michael, Fredo and Mo to reveal themselves in the way they respond to each other. You can expand this idea to show character arc by create similar situations at various points throughout the script and using the character’s varying reaction to demonstrate change.

For example, in the first act of Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), Rick says more than once, “I stick my neck out for no man.” And he demonstrates this when Ugarte is arrested. Ugarte comes to Rick, looking for help, and Rick refuses.

Later in the movie, Rick has discovered that what happened in Paris didn’t go down quite the way he thought. He begins to question his neutral philosophy. How do we see this?

A pretty, young Bulgarian woman comes to Rick. It seems one way to escape Casablanca for women like her is to sleep with Renault. This woman asks Rick if she does this thing, will Renault honor the deal to get her and her husband visas. Rick learns her husband is playing roulette in the back room. As the roulette game is fixed, Rick arranges for the man to win – they now have enough money to buy visas without the woman needing to prostitute herself.

The staff of Rick’s is overjoyed at their boss’s noble act – precisely because he would not have done it at the beginning of the film. We saw this with Ugarte. Notice that the Bulgarian couple scene has nothing to do with the main plot of the movie. It is there simply to demonstrate Rick’s changing character. And because of this scene, Rick doesn’t have to explain how he’s feeling.

Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) creates situations to show Joe’s character arc. Early in the movie, Joe and Jerry go to a music booker looking for work. We discover Joe stood up the secretary the night before. And we watch Joe lie to her to get out of trouble. Then, he goes even further – dangling the implication of another date to get her to loan him her car.

Compare that to later in the movie when the gangsters show up in Florida and the guys realize they are going to have to run again. With their lives in danger, Joe decides he can’t just leave Sugar without a word. He calls and once again lies, but this time he tries to construct a lie to spare her feelings. And he leaves her a diamond bracelet – the only real asset Joe and Jerry have for their flight! Would Joe have done that at the beginning of the movie? Based on the scene with the secretary, not likely.

And toward the very end of the movie, Joe sees Sugar singing a sad song on stage. He goes up on stage, kisses her, and tells her no guy is worth it – exposing his disguise. We now know that Joe’s attitude toward women has completely changed, without him needing to talk about it.

I see many bad scripts where character information is delivered in unmotivated, on-the-nose dialogue. Then I see scripts where the dialogue is better motivated and more natural – but the character is still talking about their feelings. These scripts don’t stand out as bad, but they lack drama to involve us in the story. They are telling us things, not showing us things.

During my rewriting, I always take a pass through my scripts looking for these moments where the character is telling us about their thoughts and feelings. When I find them, I think about how I might dramatize the character’s feelings instead. And if I need to show that a character is changing, I construct a situation like the Bulgarian couple in Casablanca that will cause the character to react in a revelatory way.

The result is a story that is filmic and dramatic – in other words, a movie!