Friday, April 25, 2014

I Must Have that MacGuffin

(SPOILERS: The Matrix, Inception, Casablanca, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hangover)

Screenwriters and filmmakers have lots of unusual terms and slang for storytelling concepts. One of those is the MacGuffin (sometimes spelled McGuffin). A MacGuffin is an object that is the basis for the characters' mission.

For example, in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) it is the letters of transit. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) it’s the Ark of the Covenant. In The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) it’s the lost groom. It doesn’t always have to be a physical object. In Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), the idea that Cobb and his team are trying to implant in Fischer’s dreams serves as a MacGuffin.

In a lecture at Columbia University, Alfred Hitchcock defined the MacGuffin this way: “It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” Hitchcock believed the more generic the MacGuffin was the better, since the audience didn’t really care about it.

George Lucas, on the other hand, thinks the MacGuffin is crucially important. In a Vanity Fair article he said, “the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.”

I side with Hitchcock. It’s not that the MacGuffin can’t be interesting – certainly the MacGuffin in Raiders of the Lost Ark is interesting. But we don’t go see the movie to find out what happens to the Ark of the Covenant. We go to see Indiana Jones quipping his way through daring action set pieces.

Inception tells us what the idea that Cobb must implant is, but do we really care? It could be just about anything and the movie would work just as well. It’s simply a device to get Cobb and Arthur and Ariadne and the others into a dangerous dream world that will test their skills and force their characters to undergo internal change.

On the other hand we maybe care a little more about the groom in The Hangover. He is a person, after all. However he isn’t a person we know well. He’s off screen most of the movie. No, the characters we really care about are the groomsmen. We care about the groom mostly because he’s their best friend and they’re responsible for him. If it turned out the groom was dead we’d feel worse for the groomsmen than the groom!

That’s the key to a MacGuffin. We only care about it as much as the characters do. We care whether Indiana Jones gets the Ark of the Covenant because HE cares if he gets it. We like him, we’re rooting for him, we want him to succeed. And that makes the object of his quest extremely important to us.

Sometimes the MacGuffin serves more as a trigger that forces the character into the story. In Casablanca the letters of transit force Rick into a situation where he has to make a decision. Though the letters of transit are simply a mechanical plot device, the decision over what he’s going to do with them is extremely important. Again, we care because we care whether Rick will end up with Ilsa or not. If Rick lost the letters but he and Ilsa found another way out of the city, we wouldn’t really be concerned with the letters anymore.

The MacGuffin in Avatar (written by James Cameron) is the goofily named Unobtanium. That’s what the humans are there to get. But once the movie gets going, do we really care about who gets the Unobtanium? It’s a story of colonists and natives and who gets control of the planet, not of minerals.

Similarly, in Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie heads to Alabama to get the divorce papers but the story quickly becomes about something else – though the prospect of divorce and marriage stays relevant. It’s like the contract for the rights to Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks (written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith). It’s not a story about legal issues; they simply serve to bring the characters into conflict, both internal and external.

The important thing from a writing standpoint is to remember the MacGuffin is a device and not to make it overly complicated. If the scenes start to be all about the MacGuffin and not about the characters and their desires and the obstacles to those desires, then the audience will lose interest. Would you enjoy a scene in Saving Mr. Banks where they discussed the language in the ancillary revenue clause of the contract?

But that doesn’t mean the MacGuffin isn’t important. It is often the logical underpinning of the story and can provide the stakes or the ticking clock. If the guys in The Hangover hadn’t lost the groom, then the movie would simply be about them trying to remember what they did the night before. Who would care? The fact that they have to find their buddy and get him back home in time for the wedding adds urgency and purpose (or stakes) to their actions.

In the third act of The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski), the MacGuffin is the codes for Zion that the agents are trying to extract from Morpheus’s head (how many of you remembered that?). What we care about, of course, is whether Neo can rescue Morpheus. And Morpheus’s life is really what Neo cares about. But the codes give the rescue urgency and provide a ticking clock – if they can’t rescue Morpheus in time, they will have to pull the plug and kill him to save Zion.

So don’t get too hung up on your MacGuffin… but make sure your characters do!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Not Enough Time in a Day

A few weeks ago @LarryRosemann posed a question to me on Twitter:

Doug, how much 'writing' time should be for learning? Books, seminars, etc.. Thanks.

It’s an interesting dilemma, especially when you are starting out. On the one hand, you must learn your craft to have any chance of success. At the very least you need to learn proper format and the unique process by which words on a page get turned into images on a screen. If you want to work in Hollywood, not knowing these things is like not knowing the English language.

But screenwriting is also a complex and difficult craft. Throughout movie history there may have been a handful of geniuses who simply sat down and started writing and, after many drafts and much trial and error, somehow came up with a workable screenplay. But most successful screenwriters spent considerable time learning craft and technique from others. Nobody can teach you to have insightful, original ideas, but it is possible to learn an enormous amount about how best to bring those ideas to fruition.

On the other hand, how can you be a successful writer if you don’t write? In fact, you will learn the most by doing. You won’t really be able to fully grasp the concepts in books and classes until you try to apply those concepts in your own work. And of course, until you have a body of quality work, you will not be able to get attention from the industry.

Even successful screenwriters wrestle with balancing these competing demands. Nobody ever feels like they “know everything.” Many of us who have had movies produced still attend seminars and read the latest hot screenwriting books, looking for any tip that can make our writing better, or any edge that can help our careers.

If you are serious about being a professional screenwriter, my recommendation is to write every day for a minimum of an hour (with email and phone turned off). Writing every day is more important than how long you write in a sitting. Writing is like exercising – when you get in the habit, it’s much easier to do than when you try to resume after a long layoff. Equally important, daily writing will create momentum in the story you’re working on – you’ll find yourself thinking about it in the shower and the car. This amounts to “bonus” writing time.

And then you have to figure out how to shoehorn time to study the craft of writing into your schedule as well. Not only that, if you want to be a pro, you have to follow industry news, which means making time to read the trades and/or Plus, you should be constantly reading other screenplays. And you have to make time for networking. Whew!

If you have a full time day job, this will be a challenge. But you have to remember that you are competing against people who pursue screenwriting full time – or more. Yes it’s hard. But nobody owes you a career as a screenwriter. You have to earn it.

Underlying the question of how much time to spend on books and seminars is the question of how valuable those things really are. As I mentioned, there is plenty to be learned about screenwriting. But just as there are many bad screenplays, there are many questionable books and seminars purporting to tell you how to write. In fact, it’s fairly easy for someone to just create a website and label themselves a guru or expert with little qualification. Who’s to stop them from self-publishing a book or renting a conference room at a hotel for a seminar and then collecting money from eager young writers?

It can help to look to people with produced credits. They at least have some practical experience and a record of success. But produced writers aren’t necessarily the best teachers. Established university screenwriting programs are also pretty safe bets since their faculty had to be at least minimally qualified in order to get the job in the first place. But not everyone is in a position to take a degree program in screenwriting. So you have to do your research, reading reviews and asking fellow screenwriters to recommend things that have helped them. (For the record, I am both produced and on the faculty of a college.)

And even the best screenwriting teachers and gurus (maybe especially the best) know that most of their students will never see their screenplays produced. This has less to do with the quality of the teacher/guru than with the fact that there are far more aspiring screenwriters than screenwriting jobs. Speaking as one who is part of it, the whole “educating screenwriters” industry sometimes feels like a big scam.

Yet many new screenwriters enter the business every year, and almost all learned their craft from professional teachers or gurus, whether in classes or from books. I personally have seen several of my students go on to have movies produced. It's a great feeling and really the reason I do things like write this blog.

Again, the film business is hard and nobody owes you anything. So write every day and study your craft. Carve out time to follow the business and network. And work really, really hard. Your competition is.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Get a Life

One common problem I see in beginner screenplays is characters who seem to exist only to experience the plot of the story. It’s like they’ve spent their whole life waiting for the movie to fade in. They often live alone with no family or friends, no significant other, no hobbies, no plans, no dreams. But real people aren’t like that.

In American Hustle (written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell) we meet the main character of Irving in the midst of a full life. At the start of the story (the movie jumps around a bit in time, so the start of the movie is actually the middle of the story) he has a rocky relationship with his wife, a child, and a thriving con business with a woman with whom he’s having an affair. Then he’s caught in a sting by Richie and the story starts – complicating his very active life. As a result, Irving feels like he could be a real person.

I am not a fan of using back-story to develop character. I find it difficult to write out the character’s history unless I know who they are now. The character will need specific personality traits, goals and flaws to make the story work. Any back-story should be created to support those things. If you start by developing back-story, you may not end up with the character you need for your movie.

However, if we're to meet the character in the midst of a life, at some point we probably need to construct at least a minimal back-story. For example, who is in the character’s family? What is his (or her) relationship with them? Who are his friends? How did he get into his job? Is he good at it? It’s not the history that’s important so much as the web of life currently surrounding the character.

One thing you can do is plan out how the character spends an average week. Do they work? Is it a 9-5 job or are the hours variable? What do they do with their free time – watch television, hit the bar, go to the gym, play with their kids, attend a book club? When and what do they eat? What chores do they have to do? Who do they interact with during all of this? Who do they like interacting with and who really gets on their nerves?

Even loners usually have some relationships. In While You Were Sleeping (written by Daniel G. Sullivan & Fredric LeBow), the main character, Lucy, is a lonely heart. This is wonderfully illustrated in a scene where she tries to get a Christmas tree into her apartment by herself. But she still has a job as a transit toll collector, coworkers she’s friendly with, a building manager she interacts with, a sleazy neighbor who hits on her, and a cat.

Her (written by Spike Jonze) also features a lonely main character. But we see his job where he interacts with a gregarious receptionist. And he has a couple friends with whom he socializes. Plus, he’s still trying to untangle his life from his ex. We also see him pass the time by playing a very immersive video game.

In both these cases, though the characters are loners, we enter in the midst of what feels like real lives.

Another thing to consider is what the character’s plans and dreams are. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Stories are what happens while the characters are making other plans.

At the beginning of While You Were Sleeping, Lucy dreams of one day going to Italy, while trying to work up the courage to talk to a cute passenger who goes through her line at work every day. Meanwhile, she’s upset at being asked to work on Christmas since she’s the only one without family. Not to mention the very small plans, like the aforementioned Christmas tree. Lucy may not be very ambitious, but she's going about life like a regular human being with an eye to the future.

Or consider Some Like It Hot (story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). The story is about Joe and Jerry, two musicians who witness a mob hit and have to go undercover as women in an all-girl band. But they aren’t planning any of that when we meet them.

Instead, they have just landed a job at a speakeasy. Jerry wants to use their upcoming pay to see a dentist about a toothache, but Joe thinks they should bet it on a dog. We learn that they have a bunch of outstanding debts they need to deal with. Then they lose their job when the speakeasy closes. They hock their coats to bet on Joe’s dog and it loses. They learn of another possible gig but it’s far away so they arrange to borrow a car. It is when they’re picking the car up that they witness the murder.

The toothache and dog and debts and job in the hinterlands have no real bearing on the story. But by the time we get to the murder, the catalyst that sets the whole story in motion, these guys feel like real people with real lives.

And if you give your characters lives, then we will care about what happens to them in your story.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Framing Stories

(Spoilers: Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, The Notebook, The Usual Suspects, Edward Scissorhands)

One of the narrative devices available to screenwriters is the framing story. Today I want to discuss what they are and why you might choose to use one.

First of all, let’s define our terms. A framing story describes scenes that surround the primary story, often in the present for a story told in the past. For example, Saving Private Ryan (written by Robert Rodat) has a framing story – we see Ryan in the present day going to visit the grave site of Captain Miller in France. The Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman) also has a framing story – the grandfather reading the book to his sick grandson. In Saving Private Ryan the framing story literally frames the movie – appearing only at the beginning and end. In The Princess Bride, we move back and forth between the framing story to the main story of the book the grandfather is reading.

What differentiates a framing story from a flashback is where the main dramatic action of the movie takes place. If the main story is in the past, then everything in the present is a framing story. If the main story is in the present, then what takes place in the past is flashback.

It's important to understand where your main story is taking place. This is the story the audience really cares about. Everything in a framing story serves only to illuminate the main story in some way. Thus you must be careful not to let the framing story overshadow or distract from the main story.

If you spend too much time in your framing story at the beginning of the movie, the audience will become invested in it (or tune out – even worse!) and will be annoyed when you jump to your main story. Then it will be harder to get them invested in the main storyline. If you cut back and forth to the framing story, like in The Princess Bride, you should not linger in the framing story or the audience will grow bored waiting for you to return to the stuff they're most interested in.

We must also distinguish between a framing story and a prologue. Sometimes there might be an opening scene that’s set in the distant past – some bit of history that sets up important information for the present day storyline, as in The Mummy (story by Stephen Sommers and Lloyd Fonvielle & Kevin Jarre, screenplay by Stephen Sommers) or the Lord of the Rings movies.

Framing stories are a potentially powerful device, but one fraught with risk. When done badly, the framing story can seem weak or uninteresting in comparison to the main storyline. Or it can become an annoyance, taking us away from the good stuff. If you’re going to use one, you should have a clear reason why.

So why would you use a framing story?

Sometimes the framing story is a way to introduce a narrator for the main story. We learn that what we're going to hear is one person's perspective on the events. You might use this to get the audience to identify more strongly with the main character or to create a limited point of view. A framing story could also create an unreliable narrator, such as Verbal in The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie).

Other framing stories have their own conflict and structure. Citizen Kane (screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles) works in this way. The main story is of course Kane's life, but it's framed by a reporter's search for the meaning of Kane's last words. This cleverly allows the main story to be told by a series of narrators in interviews with the reporter. (These may appear to be flashbacks, but remember our definition: the main story of Citizen Kane is in the past.) Here the framing story is a device to limit point of view of each section and control how information is revealed to the reporter, and thus the audience.

Another reason to use a framing story is to create a fairy tale quality. The Princess Bride is an obvious example of that. The framing story makes clear this is literally a fairy tale being read from a book. This helps the audience accept elements of magical realism that can be hard to pull off on film.

A framing story can also increase the emotional impact of the main story. The Notebook (adaptation by Jan Sardi, screenplay by Jeremy Leven) is a good example. In the framing story, an old man tells an old woman the tale of the rocky romance between Noah and Allie (the main storyline). We learn, of course, that the older couple are Noah and Allie and that Allie has Alzheimer's disease. It adds great poignancy to the main story and serves as a profound punctuation mark on the romance of the main story line.

We also see this in Saving Private Ryan when we see how Captain Miller’s sacrifice defined Ryan’s future. Similarly, the framing story in Titanic (written by James Cameron) shows us how Rose has held on to her romance with Jack her whole life. Many epic love stories use a framing story to make the point that what we heard was the greatest love of the character’s life.

Edward Scissorhands (story by Tim Burton & Caroline Thompson, screenplay by Caroline Thompson) has a framing story that illustrates many of these purposes. It opens with Kim, as an old lady, telling her granddaughter why it snows. The granddaughter is in bed – this is literally a bedtime story, though Kim tells it as though it were true. We then go back in time to when Kim was a teenager for the main story, only returning to old Kim and the granddaughter at the very end.

This framing story serves to tell us that we’re getting Kim’s perspective on events. This is particularly useful since young Kim doesn’t appear for quite a while in the main storyline. The framing story also creates a fairy tale quality that allows us to accept that an inventor in an old house could build an intelligent, emotional robot that looks like Johnny Depp with scissors for hands. We don't question the scientific plausibility when we see how Edward was constructed - which is good, because it's completely implausible.

Finally, the Edward Scissorhands framing story provides an emotional payoff at the end by showing how the events of the main storyline affected Kim later in her life. We learn that Edward was no passing fancy but the greatest love she ever had.

So you should consider using a framing story when: 1) you want to create extra identification with a main character, 2) need to establish an unreliable narrator, 3) need to limit point of view, 4) want to create a fairy tale tone, or 4) it can add poignancy or an epic quality to the main story. But be cautious… make sure your framing story is actually adding something of significant value to the movie and not just distracting from the main story line.