Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Characters of Inception

(SPOILERS: Inception)

One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard leveled at Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) is that the characters are weak. There is some validity to that, at least as far as the minor characters. I would argue that the lead, Cobb is actually fairly dimensional.

In my earlier post on the three act structure of Inception, I identified Cobb’s want as, “To ‘incept’ an idea into Fischer.” He’s doing this in return for help clearing up a legal issue that is preventing him from seeing his kids (the stakes of the film). And I identified Cobb’s need as, “To let go of Mal.”

Cobb’s longing to see his kids and his guilt over what happened to Mal provide the emotional underpinnings to the complex caper plot. In other words, they are why we care whether Cobb succeeds or fails. Cobb is a professional dream thief – Nolan could’ve just made this another job. But Nolan makes this the most important job of Cobb’s life in two ways: first, inception is thought to be impossible; and second, if he succeeds he will be allowed to see his kids again.

The kids also help us to root for Cobb. He is, after all, a criminal. There is a somewhat lame stab at making the job seem moral when Saito says that if Fischer doesn’t break up his father’s company, they will soon gain an unhealthy dominance of the world energy market. But let’s face it; the real reason we root for Cobb is that he’s a father trying to get back to his kids.

Mal offers another emotional/psychological component to Cobb. He is quite literally haunted by her (or really his guilt over what he did to her) – something that could endanger the crew as they maneuver in the dreams. Ariadne’s unraveling the secret of Cobb’s guilt provides an ongoing emotional subplot. And it’s great that the source of this internal arc is tied to inception, the premise of the external plot.

Fischer also offers us some good psychological complexity with his father issues. I think it was smart of Nolan to make Fischer fairly sympathetic, and then to have the ending be a resolution to his biggest emotional issue. Ultimately, this allows us to feel good when Cobb succeeds in the caper. Even though Fischer has been manipulated, we believe he’s better off. Yes, making Fischer evil would have also allowed us to celebrate Cobb’s success, but then we wouldn’t have the quiet, final moment between son and father to counterpoint all the action.

The other characters are a little more one-dimensional. Ariadne particularly seems to draw criticism. There is little information about who she is or what she wants. Mostly, as the newcomer to the team, she serves as a device to get out exposition. Likewise, her poking into Cobb’s relationship with Mal gets the exposition out about that subplot.

I think maybe it’s gender politics that draws attention to the thinness of Ariadne’s character. Mal is actually a pretty complex and compelling female character – except she’s not on screen that much, so we focus on Ariadne and think of her as the female lead. And we expect more character development for the female lead. The truth is, the other male members of the team (Eames, Saito, Yusuf and Arthur) are not well developed either, but since we see them as secondary it doesn’t bother us much. Ironically, if Ariadne had been male people might have accepted her one-dimensional role more easily.

We might ask why so many supporting characters? The answer is that Nolan simply needs bodies to make the multi-level dream caper work. Someone has to stay behind on each level to keep those levels alive on screen as the team goes deeper. And someone has to die to force Cobb into the final level. There is a certain minimal number of team members required to build the story Nolan has in mind.

As is typical in caper movies, each character is given a specific skill and task. And it’s interesting to note that they are all physically distinct: there’s one woman; one Asian; one Arab; a big, grungy guy and a small neat guy. This allows us to keep track of them visually.

Next post I want to take a closer look at how Inception reveals its characters and dramatizes the internal story.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

What Hollywood Will Learn from Summer 2012

I’m going to pause for a moment in my ongoing analysis of Inception to talk about this summer’s big studio movies. I was looking through one of those summer movie preview articles and it struck me that there are a few questions Hollywood is looking to answer this summer:

Is there any market for big budget treatment of classic fairy tales?
After Red Riding Hood and Mirror, Mirror both underwhelmed, Snow White and the Huntsman is probably the last chance for this genre. If it fails, we won’t see another fairy tale movie for quite a while.

Are board games a good source of movie ideas?
The industry has largely decided the answer to this is “no” already. Most of the big board game adaptations have been shelved (or in the case of Ouija, reconceived as low budget movies). If Battleship should succeed, minds may change. If it doesn’t, no more Hollywood money for the board game industry. (We should know the answer to this by Sunday)

How soon is too soon?
There have been many successful franchise reboots in Hollywood history, though most have been many years after the previous movie. (The James Bond and The Fast and the Furious series being notable exceptions.) If the Spider-Man and Jason Borne reboots do well this summer, expect to see a post-Christopher Nolan Batman and a new Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone within five years.

Is U.S. box office really back?
Last year was awful at the box office, and ticket sales have been declining for over a decade. But the first quarter of this year was flat out fantastic and The Avengers kicked off the summer with an enormous bang. The question is whether this represents an actual turnaround or just the exceptional success of Hunger Games, The Vow, The Lorax and The Avengers. If box office is still up come September, Hollywood will be breathing a big sigh of relief. If not, studios should start looking to make drastic changes in their business strategies.

It will be interesting to see how these things play out. I have my own theories – I’m guessing Snow White and the Huntsman and Battleship will bomb, and that Spider-Man and Borne will be modestly successful (leaving the reboot question open). And of course regardless of what happens, Hollywood has a long record of learning all the wrong lessons from movie success or failure.


IN OTHER NEWS: Preproduction has begun on my short film. Check out the website and Facebook page. I’m doing a mini-blog in both locations where I discuss some of the technical things I’ve learned so far.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Act One Turning Point of Inception

(SPOILERS: Inception, Aliens)

Last post I promised to take a closer look at the Act One Turning Point in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan). You’ll recall that I identified two candidates for the Act One Turning Point: the scene about a quarter of the way in when Cobb has assembled his team and they start planning the mission, or the scene about an hour in where he gets on the plane – the “point of no return.”

The first thing we might want to keep in mind that there are no real act breaks in feature films (unlike plays where the curtain comes down and the audience goes out to the lobby for drinks and snacks; or TV where commercials interrupt the proceedings.) Feature films are continuous experiences. The idea of acts in features is simply a literary analysis device, a way to talk about concepts of story structure. So in a sense there is no “right” answer to this question.

But what are the possibilities? Well, I’ve already suggested two. The first is that the act break is when the team is assembled and they start planning the mission. This is definitely a turning point in the story. The hero has “taken on the problem” as we like to see at the end of Act One.

But, Cobb pretty much already took on the problem when he accepted the job earlier (that moment is actually another candidate for the end of Act One, I suppose). So now he’s simply focusing his energies on the main problem – trying to incept the idea in Fischer’s subconscious – after spending time gathering his resources.

The other issue is that Cobb is not yet trapped in the story. He could still walk away with no real consequence other than perhaps a lost opportunity. So if we say this is the Act One Turning Point, does that mean it’s a flawed turning point?

Perhaps, but here’s where understanding the purpose of these beats is more important than simply locating the page on which they tend to appear. Cobb IS trapped in the story eventually. And he does take on the problem. All the things we need to happen are happening even if they don’t fall neatly into a moment that resembles a prototypical Act One Turning Point.

So what happens if we say the Act One Turning Point is when Cobb is finally trapped in the story (the scene where he gets on the plane). From here on out, if he fails he will suffer grave consequences. All requirements of the turning point have been fulfilled. But this doesn’t come until an hour into the film. An hour long Act One should feel lethargic and dull. Get to the story already! But this isn’t the case in Inception.

Maybe it’s because there is so much interesting stuff going on. Nolan cleverly inserts an action scene while Cobb is trying to recruit his forger – a previous employer Cobb failed sends thugs after him. This chase doesn’t really have anything to do with the main story, but it juices things up when they might start to drag. We also get some visually stunning imagery as Cobb teaches Ariadne about creating dream worlds. And we’re meeting unusual characters and building the mystery.

As my mentor Frank Daniel used to say, “In screenwriting there is only one rule: Don’t be boring.” Regardless of where you want to identify the Act One Turning Point, Inception works because it keeps the action moving, keeps showing us interesting stuff, and eventually satisfies the requirements of the Act One Turning Point.

There’s another intriguing possibility: what if Inception has more than three acts? Whether you allow for this possibility depends how you interpret three act structure. You can look at acts as sections of the film with individual arcs. When one arc ends, there’s a turning point that leads to another arc (TV writers think this way).

I have actually previously considered that Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) has a four act structure. In Act One, contact is lost with the colonists and Ripley decides to go back to the planet – it ends when she steps off the drop ship. Act Two would be them looking for the colonists, ending when they find them all dead and the drop ship crashes. Act Three is trying to get off the planet, ending when they retrieve the second drop ship but Newt has been taken by the aliens. Act Four is rescuing Newt.

Following this idea, you could look at Inception as a five act film: Act One is getting the job. Act Two is recruiting the team. Act three is planning the mission. Act four is going through the levels of Fischer’s brain. And act five is going into limbo to save Fischer from Mal.

I think this approach to structure can work as long as you keep the Catalyst, Dramatic Question and Resolution intact. We have to have some overall arc to the story, something that pulls us forward and delivers satisfaction at the end. Otherwise, using more than three acts could create an episodic feeling and prevent a satisfying, conclusive ending.

Remember when I said this is all just theoretical? We could argue these possibilities, but to what end? I analyze films to try to learn to be a better writer. If a multi-act approach helps you write better screenplays, then go for it!

I’m going to stick with identifying Inception’s Act One Turning Point as the moment when Cobb has assembled his team and they start planning. And since he’s not trapped yet, I’ve noted how Inception overcame that potential flaw by throwing in some action and some eye candy to keep us involved. That might be a way for me to solve a similar story issue in one of my future screenplays.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Three Act Structure of Inception

(SPOILERS: Inception)

I’m going to start my analysis of Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) by attempting to break down the three act structure. Though the story appears complex, it’s actually very linear (there’s a little flashforward to kick things off and several flashbacks, but otherwise it unfolds chronologically.) And there’s a clear main character – Cobb. However, there is one aspect that may not work in the traditional fashion – more on that in a minute.

Let’s start by identifying Cobb’s want and need. This is essentially a caper film so we would expect the want – the goal that is driving the plot – to be the successful accomplishment of the caper. And that’s what we have here. Cobb wants to “incept” or implant an idea in Fischer. You might remember that he’s doing this so he can get back to his kids, and therefore some might suggest that’s his want, but his kids are really the stakes. The story is about inception (it’s the title, after all). Whether he gets back to his kids will depend on the success or failure of the mission.

The need has to do with Mal. Ariadne says it halfway through the movie when she tells Cobb that in order to succeed he’s going to have to forgive himself and confront Mal. And in fact, Cobb articulates it at the moment he achieves his need in Act III, saying to Mal, “I need to let you go.” In this case, achieving the need is what will allow Cobb to successfully achieve his want.

So the Dramatic Question, then, is, “Can Cobb implant the idea into Fischer’s subconscious?” Pretty simple – it comes right from the want. Since the Catalyst is the point at which this question is asked, it’s pretty easy to identify it as the moment when Saito offers him the job and promises to return him to his kids if he succeeds. And if we define the Resolution as the answer to the question, then it’s obviously when Fischer takes the pinwheel from the safe, and they all wake up on the plane. Mission accomplished.

So far so good. And to me, those are the most important things to understand. They’re the definition of what the story is.

Inception is two hours and twenty minutes long, so we expect the timing of the beats to be slightly later than normal. (Personally, I don’t obsess about this timing, but many do.) And the Catalyst I identified comes at about fifteen minutes, right on schedule.

The Act One turning point is what I find most tricky about this film. Using a traditional definition, we find a likely candidate about forty-five minutes in: Cobb finishes assembling his team and they begin planning the caper. That works. He’s embarking on the journey, and with the longer running time it’s not too late. We could close the case there.

But there’s another interesting candidate. When Cobb and his team are getting on the plane, Cobb points out to Saito that if Saito doesn’t live up to his end of the bargain, then Cobb will go to jail when they land. Getting on the plane is the real point of no return for Cobb. That’s something we look for at the Act One Turning Point. But if you’re looking at the timing, it’s an hour into the movie – and an hour long Act One is highly unusual.

This is interesting enough that I think I may devote my next post to it entirely. But for now, let’s finish the breakdown using the first candidate for the Act One Turning Point.

As we approach the middle of the movie, the team has gathered in the warehouse on the first level of Fischer’s dream. Here, Saito’s been shot, and Cobb belatedly reveals that with the kind of sedation their using, death in these dreams will not wake them up. Plus, they realize that Fischer is better protected than they realized. These elements raise the stakes, a common function of the Midpoint.

Also at this point, they decide on a risky variation of their plan – the "Mister Charles" option. This throws a new twist into the proceedings. But the actual Midpoint is when they manage to get what they need from Fischer and can move on to the next phase. This occurs around 1:23, a little after the halfway point. Remember, if the hero will be successful, the Midpoint is usually a point of success.

I define the Act Two Turning Point as the moment where it looks like the ultimate Resolution cannot possibly happen. Since Cobb will be successful, the Act Two Turning Point is the moment of greatest failure. Here that would be when Fischer is killed by Mal. It appears that the mission is over – in fact a couple members of the team say just that. (This occurs at about 1:52, right where we expect.)

But then we get the Epiphany. Ariadne hatches the idea of going another layer deeper, into Limbo. There we have the final conflict where Cobb must face down Mal so they can rescue Fischer. And, as I’ve already covered, that leads us to the Resolution when they succeed.

Pretty simple, actually. All the parallel dream times and questions of reality have nothing to do with the structure. With a traditional three act base, enormous complexity can be built without losing the core of the story.

But then there’s that Act One question… I’ll delve into that more next time.


I now have a website and Facebook page for my short film!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Inception Analysis

For the next several posts I’m going to do another in-depth movie analysis. My movie choice this time is Inception (written by Christopher Nolan). Why Inception? For one, it has an interesting multi-level narrative that should be fun to explore. It’s also a conceptually tricky story so I’m curious about how it handles exposition.

It’s also one of the few big studio hits of recent years that is an original story. Back in the 80’s when I was falling in love with movies, many summer tent poles were original stories – Ghostbusters, Alien, Beverly Hills Cop, The Terminator, Lethal Weapon – the list goes on and on. These days we don’t see that very often.

There are a variety of potential reasons suggested for this phenomenon, but I think the main one is that the studios are mostly owned by larger corporations now. And corporations don’t like middle management putting hundreds of millions of dollars at risk based on their personal taste. Development execs are essentially middle management. If they’re not allowed to buy big original stories, big original stories don’t get made.

There’s also the Cover-Your-Ass (CYA) reasoning. Nobody gets fired for putting a major superhero movie into production, or the latest Young Adult hit novel series. But if you champion an original story and it fails… it’s on you. I certainly believe CYA is at work in Hollywood, but that would have been true in the 80’s as well, and yet original stories got made.

So the question becomes, could you or I get something like Inception made? The sad answer is probably not. It seems hard to believe now, but that movie was considered an enormous risk. Warner Brothers only green lit it because they desperately wanted Christopher Nolan to make Dark Knight Returns. And you and I are not Christopher Nolan (if, by chance you are Christopher Nolan, what are you doing reading MY blog?)

So why analyze a movie you or I couldn’t sell? Because the business right now is in either very high or very low budget movies. And that means a lot of the jobs are in very high or very low budget movies. If you want to work in the high budget arena, you are going to have to show what you can do. And unless you are able to somehow option a hot underlying property, that probably means you need to write an original big budget script as a sample. And it better be really, really good!

And who knows, it might get made. The business is changing all the time. Right now the buzz is that studios are running out of A-level pre-sold franchises, so the door may be cracking open again for big, original stories. Anything can happen.

Besides, Inception may have things to teach us no matter what kind of movies we write. I happen to like the movie a lot – and I’m not alone. The domestic gross was $292.5 million, the international gross $533 million. And it got an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, so the critics liked it too.

So, next post I’ll take a look at the structure of Inception.