Friday, May 8, 2015

Moral Premise Workshops Now On-Line


Moral Premise STORYCRAFT TRAINING is now up on it's own mobile adaptive blog.

SOURCE MATERIAL: The episodes were originally developed for live workshops presented at conferences across the United States, most notably in Los Angeles and S.E. Michigan. 

The training offers extended and updated material based on my Hollywood story structure book: The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success and years of story, script, and manuscript consulting. 

The episodic presentations are divided into bit size video chunks for easy assimilation. 

TARGET AUDIENCE: Professional and amateur writers, directors, producers, and storytellers (as well as consumers) of all media and genres will find this Storycraft material helpful.

MEDIA FOCUS: The lessons focus particularly on major motion pictures and occasionally clips from the same for ease of illustration. The episodes predominately contain many colorful graphics that ease learning of sometimes hard to grasp concepts. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

First Image vs. Final Image

Blake Snyder, in his famous book on screenwriting, adds two beats to the traditional thirteen: The Opening Image and the Final Image.
OPENING IMAGE: The very first impression of what a movie is — its tone, its mood, the type and scope of the film — are all found in the opening mage. (p. 72)
and
The FINAL IMAGE ... is proof that change has occurred and that it's real.
Now comes Jacob T. Swinney with a collection of supercuts via his Vimeo Channel and this one which he titles First and Final Frames.  Blake is smiling in heaven at this one.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

NOAH: Book from Rizzoli on Aronofsky's Masterpiece

A picture book with a screenplay in the back is available from Rizzoli, New York.
A quick review is in order.

As you may know from my longer posts on Aronofsky's NOAH (contributed over several weeks when the movie came out) I found the movie, from a Moral Premise standpoint, good and challenging in many ways.

So I bite my lip and paid for the book and the novelization. I'm not into novelizations, but since I coach writers a lot, I thought this one might be interesting to look at sometime in the future. But first the picture book. It's worth a few comments.

THE ONLY TEXT IS SCRIPTURE

No doubt, in part a dig at Aronofsky's "Christian" critics who claimed the movie was not Biblically accurate, the editors chose to use ONLY Scripture as textual explanations in the picture portion. Insistent critics will no doubt point out that the Scripture text used is not from any modern translation but rather a "translation" or "paraphrase" by Aronofsky and Handel found in their screenplay. Such criticism is disingenuous, however, because no modern day translation is inerrant or infallible—
labels that can only be assigned to the original manuscripts none of which exist. And, if a Christian writer were to paraphrase a passage of Scripture to make a point, his work would be accepted as inerrant or infallible, e.g. Peterson's THE MESSAGE from Navpress.

But the presence of only Scripture in the picture book reinforces the effort Aronofsky and Handel have repeatedly claimed, that their intent was to take the Biblical record as true and authentic and to then fill in
the gaps of the record with gleanings from other oral and written traditions, being careful never to step on the literal Scriptures. Much of the argument against the film by Christians concerned the incorporation of such material, as if it could never be true. But, as my longer post points out, Aronofsky has proven to be the more honest Biblical scholar and not given in to those Evangelical ideologies not found in the Bible.  The vast differences in Protestant doctrine, supposedly all based on the Bible, creates a vacuum for such arguments. The movie is based on the Bible and here the writers and publishers remind us of that.        

PICTURE REPRODUCTION QUALITY

Normally, in this blog, I'd have nothing to say about "print quality." I try to stand apart from commenting on aesthetic elements and stick with story structure. But that is what I'm doing here. It's clear that the editors/producers of the book made a decision that their creation would reflect the tone, arc, and structure of the movie by how they printed the inside pages. I got a kick out of this because I've said from the beginning of writing The Moral Premise, that the concept applies to ALL aspects of a story, right down to the marketing,... and now I can say it can apply to the printing techniques of the ancillary picture book.

The beginning and end of the book is printed with glossy stock that allows the ink to lie on top of the paper providing sharp edges, and  rich color as the light is able to reflect it all back to the eye. But the center of the book is printed on drab, ink-absorbing, matt. The photos are washed out, lacking in color and sharpness. The contrast is low, and the blacks are gray. The center is truly ugly and depressing to look at.

But this was on purpose. It's not a budget consideration. Indeed, the turning point up front, is a spread that changes from beautiful to ugly. It is in a section where Noah and his family (particularly Ham) come to grip with the sin and ugliness of the world around them. In the photo below, compare the left page with the right. The left is bright and glossy and the right is dull and matt.


This is the spread that follows Noah reflecting on the world's condition as described by this Scripture:
 The World was filled with violence. And the Creator looked upon the World and saw it was corrupt for all flesh and corrupted his way upon the World. Genesis 6:11
The spread above shows Ham and the girl he tries to rescue from the World's violence and from a mass grave. But as the story unfolds in the minutes that follow, the girl is lost to the mob and Noah pulls Ham to safety and the ark.  This is the ugly side of humanity...it seems that all is lost.

Near the end of the story, the ugly pages end and transform back to the beautiful pages. This spread occurs precisely at Noah's Moment of Grace, where he realizes and accepts the truth of the Moral Premise. Examine the photo below. Notice the transition from dull and matt (left) to bright and glossy (right). This too, on the right, more viscerally reveals the blood that has flowed to the surface of Noah's skin.


The center of this spread is Noah's Moment of Grace, when he finally figures out that God does not want to destroy all humanity, but rather give humanity a second chance by saving Noah's family and his off-spring. The pages on the left will be re-created later by Abraham when Abraham believes that God wants him to kill his only son, Isaac with a knife upon an altar of wood. And here is Noah, foreshadowing that later scene. On the left, because Noah is righteous he is determined to obey God. His righteous does not come from omniscience and understanding God, but from obeying what he understands. And so, Noah, like Abraham, prepares to sacrifice the two baby girls on an altar of wood (the top of the ark). 

But right in the middle of this spread (and I think the middle two pictures are actually a single frame), is the moment when Noah looks at the babies and (later explains): "I looked down on those girls and all I had in my heart was love." He puts down the knife and kisses the babies with his blessing. This scene can only remind us of the anguish that Abraham must have experienced in preparing to follow God's command to sacrifice Isaac. 

Now, notice again, what the editor did with the printing. The left is the last of the ugly pages in the book. And on the right we have the bright, glossy beauty restored. This is the moral premise realized in the books' production:

Justice without mercy leads to dread, death, and annihilation (UGLY); but
Justice with mercy leads to hope, life, and a new creation (BEAUTY).

THE SCREENPLAY

The included screenplay is a big disappointment, although it is smaller than normal (6.5" x 8.5") and is cleverly inserted in a box built into the back cover.


The disappointed is due to its violation of many screenplay formats rules that the industry demands for practical reasons of reading, scheduling and budgeting.  And because those of us in the industry read so many screenplays, picking up this small monstrosity is distracting and provides a wrong role model for aspiring screenwriters.


Among the violations:

  • The slug lines are CENTERED and BLUE.
  • The transitions are CENTERED and STRUCK THROUGH
  • The action lines are nearly the same width as dialogue making it difficult for the eye to quickly distinguish the difference. It's easy to confuse the two.
  • The action lines are fully justified, creating awkward gaps between words.
  • The dialogue lines are centered.
  • The character tags are centered. 
  • The page numbers are at the bottom of each page and centered.
  • The page is 23% smaller than normal. Not easy to read. 
  • But HEY, the font looks like Courier. (what a concept).
My advice to Rizzoli, whoever made this decision, correct them. We want real looking screenplays that we can share with students. What you published is very much in keeping with the ugly world of Noah that needed to be destroyed. In Hollywood vernacular you "sinned."

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln loved the play. 



Monday, February 23, 2015

BIRDMAN - The Moral Premise and Arcs

ALEGANDRO GONZÁLEX IÑÁRRITU (Director/Co-writer)
EMMANUEL LUBEZKI (Cinematography)
------
MICHAEL KEATON (Riggan/Nick)
EMMA STONE (Sam, Riggan's daughter)
EDWARD NORTON (Mike Shiner, Riggan's method acting antagonist/Mel, Nick's friend and Terri's husband )
NAOMI WATTS (Lesley, Riggan's protégée/Terri, Mel's wife)
ANDREA RISEBOROUGH (Laura, Riggan's girlfriend/Laura, Nick's wife)
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS (Jake, Riggan's co-producer)
LINDSAY DUNCAN (Tabitha, the critic that is going to "kill" Riggan's play)
AMY RYAN (Sylvia, Riggan's wife)

Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence

4 Oscars (Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture) Plus 157 other wins out of 158 nominations.

GREATEST DESIRE vs. GREATEST FEAR

BIRDMAN explores this classic conflict: Achieving our greatest desires often requires that we overcome our greatest fears.

An actor standing before a crowd, an announcer sitting before a live radio microphone, an entrepreneur pitching an idea to investors, or a writer facing the blank page…all carry the excitement of opportunity and achievement…if we can access a confidence that is greater than our fear of failure.

That is the struggle between Freud's ID and EGO. Here the ego is not to be confused with narcissistic egotism. It is the ID that drives our dreams and passions, often unbridled and without constraint. It is the EGO that struggles to conform the ID's dreams and bring them to some form of reality. Wanting something badly enough requires that we face the reality and the difficulties that stand in the way of our dreams.

THE STORY QUESTION

In BIRDMAN, our protagonist, Riggan, wants to prove to the world that he's not just a celebrity "actor" hiding behind a mask in a birdman suit through the magic of Hollywood's special effects and elaborate editing, which is what he is known for through a series of movies about the superhero Birdman. Riggan wants to get out from behind that mask of his former identity and prove that he's a real actor. That is, he wants to achieve acceptance by appearing on stage, in the raw, without the protection of costume, special effects, or the editor's cutting that maneuvers around bad performances. The movie questions are, therefore: Can Riggan's dream of being a respected New York actor (not just a Hollywood celebrity) be realized? Can his ego find a way for his id's passion to be realized? Can he produce, direct, star in and finance a Broadway show and achieve critical and financial acclaim?

Critical to all successful stories is a clear physical goal with elements of underdog irony. The answer to these movie questions, according to nearly everyone around him, is "No, he cannot. It's too big of a challenge for anyone."

At the same time this is the same answer that Alegandro Gonzálex Iñárritu received from many in the industry when he approached actors and financiers to make BIRDMAN. So, in many ways the emotional and moral obstacles Iñárritu confronted in the making of BIRDMAN, Riggan faces in making his play. The movie becomes, therefore, a metaphor for both the play, and the filmmaker's lives.

The story is universal because the question it proposes is one we all face multiple times during the day. BIRDMAN suggests that the juxtaposition of our wishes and fears is epitomized and metaphored in the life of an actor… someone like Riggan. (In a backdoor sort of way, BIRDMAN argues for compassion on actors and live performance creators.)

VERTICAL METAPHORS

BIRDMAN takes those story questions, and applies ithem to the various subplots, which are not just interwoven horizontally like subplots normally are in a story, but vertically in overlapping realities. There are(1) the filmmakers (Iñárritu as director, Lubezki as cinematographer, Keaton, Norton et al as actors), (2) making a movie about a play's production (Riggan as director, and Riggan, Mike et al as actors), who (3) are staging a play adapted from a book (written by Carver, but starring Riggan as Nick, Mike as Mel, et al).

In Riggan's stage paly (with Nick, Mel, Terri and Laura), as well as in Riggan's life (with Sylvia, Mike, Sam, Laura, Lesley and Jake), and in the movie (with Keaton, Norton, Watts et al,) no one can hide behind cutaways and special effects…it’s pure acting. And this is probably the biggest reason the filmmakers won BEST PICTURE. (next paragraph, please)

To bring this fear and the reality of stage performances to the forefront of the movie's production, Iñárritu and Lubezki use long takes, 10-20 minutes in length with dozens of actors, props and locations in each. All of the traditional movie making pillars that actors and filmmakers hide behind to assuage their fear and give them a "faux" confidence, are gone. BIRDMAN, the movie, is like Riggan's life and Riggan's play. It's raw, it's exposed, it's like running down Broadway Ave. in your underwear to make a cue on stage. No one should criticize the scene of Keaton trying through the public in his underpants.  It is the ultimate metaphor for what actors must do every night on the stage...well, actually what actors do might be better metaphored if Keaton was naked.

In each of these dramatic vertical layers, the battle is between their id's passion to achieve at any cost and their ego's efforts to bring it off within the confines of their world's reality. Stated another way they are all battling their fear of failure vs. their confidence to succeed.

THE MORAL PREMISE

The greatest fear of an actor is that his character will be perceived as pretending. The greatest wish of an actor is that his character will be perceived as real. That is a paradox on the roof's ledge of contradiction, which we also have in a few scenes. 

Therefore, the long version of BIRDMAN's moral premise could be stated this way:

Hiding behind a mask of other's expectations, and avoiding vulnerability leads to fear (of self, of others, and of life) and if fate is favorable you'll become a celebrity with no talent. But, removing the mask of other's expectations, and embracing a raw vulnerability leads to a love (of self, of others and of life), and and if you work real hard you'll become a real actor with talent. 

or this shorter form:


Self-fear leads to fake performances and fake bananas, but
Self-confidence leads to real performances and bloody verisimilitude. 

or


Leading with Id lifts the lid (exposing you as fake) and puts you on page 12, but
Leading with Ego reveals the glow (establishing you as real) and puts you on page 1. 

or,  coming at this from a method acting  perspective, which is what Ed Norton's antagonist character demonstrates:

Pretending leads to rejection; but
Actualizing leads to acceptance. 

ANTAGONISTS

Riggan's protagonist has two antagonists that come from opposite directions and force him to transform from wishing to doing, from fearing to taking charge as if he is god of his play. The first antagonist is the fear of his alter ego (the Young Birdman) who tells Riggan he's washed up and amounts to nothing in his present endeavor. The Young Birdman wants to maintain Riggan's status quo and remain a masked celebrity. This, however, is what Riggan is trying to shake off; although it's easy to fall back into such motivations.

The second antagonist is the absence of fear of Mike Shiner, who is the epitome of the method actor's demand that everything should come from within, everything should be real, not fake. Mike doesn't need the script because he believes that a correctly written script will be in tune with his natural, inner soul and the next line will naturally come to him. (And mostly it does.)

The Young Birdman initially teases and harasses Riggan to stick with the status quo of celebrity ambiguity, but it’s Mike Shinner that forces Riggan to really change. Riggan has a great deal of fear at the beginning of the story. Mike has no fear. Mike strips naked for his fitting in front of Riggan’s daughter and others. Mike (as Mel) tries to actually make love to Lindsey (as Terri) on stage in front of a full house. Mike also Riggan to essentially use a real gun without the red stopper in the barrel... to make it believable. In exposition dialogue we learn that Mike has no fear of being fired nor does he fear ruining his reputation by quitting projects.  He's guilty of both. When he joins Riggan's project, Riggan is thrilled and nearly worships Mike’s availability. Why? Because Mike is a real actor, which Riggan is attempting to be. And indeed, Mike’s fearlessness ("I own this town") is what makes him a great actor and consequently he get’s front page cover in the NYT Arts section, which may be the Moment of Grace for Riggan (Riggan's story is pushed to page 12.) This occurs on page 65 of the 118 page script.

There's also a Moment of Grace for Mike, when he tells Riggan in a bar that he owns the town and suddenly a fan approaches Riggan for his autograph and ignores Mike. That also signals a change that the antagonist's pressure is changing the protagonist. (this occurs on page 44 of the 118 page script)

THE STORY'S ESSENCE

The essence of the story, then, is that being an actor, especially on stage, requires a confidence that is greater than the fear being an actor creates. Riggan must acquire a confidence that he is the omnipotent god of his play and of NY. He can make things happen. He imagines that he has telekinesis powers just as an actor choses action verbs to telegraph his inner motivation to bring physical change to a scene and the other characters on stage he opposes.

This god-like, inner confidence and belief in oneself is equal to jumping out of a window and flying, yet WITHOUT the Birdman suit, which represents the fake and special effect side of acting.

Riggan learns that pretending to levitate in his underwear in his private dressing room where no one can see him, isn't enough. To have the confidence for his ego to acquire his id's dream he has to gain enough confidence to "literally" fly above 5th avenue fully dressed in public…or run through a crowd outside a theater in his underwear…a metaphor for his need to be totally vulnerable on stage. Successful acting requires extreme, emotional and physical vulnerability. You can have no fear of exposing yourself to ridicule and public criticism. The movie says that a Hollywood celebrity dresses behind a costume and externally becomes the character, but a real actor can go naked and internally becomes the actor. Only when Riggan acquires that inner motivation can he become the ACTOR he intends.

When Riggan confronts Tabitha (the critic) in the bar he tells her that she has no idea what it’s like to be an actor-director-producer-financier of a play, which is equivalent to being a god…you can kill actors with a sand bag, you can create a war on the streets of Manhattan, you can stare down fire breathing dragons, you can fly, and you can shoot yourself in the head and live again to do it again the next night. A critic (like Tabitha) can only use external labels which cost them nothing. Actors, o the other hand, risk everything to become their creation.

He says to Tabitha in reference to her use of labels to criticize his play:

None of this cost you fuckin’ anything? The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m a fucking actor! This play cost me everything.

That scene occurs on pages 92-93 which is a far cry and arc from what and where Sam says the same thing to Riggan on page 50.

ARCS


Riggan’s arc is his transformation from being the young Birdman who can “fly" (with the help of a mask and special effects —not real acting…it’s all make believe) to his resurgence as a real actor running down Broadway in his underwear, drawing real blood on stage, and, telling the young Birdman to “Bye-bye. And fuck you." (Our last glimpse of the Young Birdman is that he's no longer hovering over Riggan, but sitting silently on a crapper having been finally put in his place.)  Riggan has learned to turn the characters on stage into real, life—the epitome of verisimilitude.

Riggan's need to arc is emphasized during a public preview (of the play), when Mike rants about how nothing on stage is real "It's all fake. The milk is fake, the butter if fake…Your performance is fake…" and he tears the set up (page 34). Mike is an example of the method actor, where the internal emotions drive the physical action and because the actor actually senses his environment as real. Mike is fearless on stage, where as Riggan (in his past) hid behind a mask and special effects.

The question is, can Riggan be like Mike. Can he top Mike. (Indeed can Michael Keaton get out from behind the Batman mask and be a real actor without special effects and cutaways?) Can he move from page 12 to page 1 in the NYT Arts section. We ask ourselves once again, can Riggan become the character... a real actor?  Blowing off his nose with a real gun is his own proof…he can now fly.

At the end of Act 2 (Near Death), Tabitha accuses Riggan of being a Hollywood celebrity and that she's going to kill his play. But once Riggan pulls out the stops, at the very end, when he's recovering from blowing off his nose, Jake reads Tabitha's glowing review of Riggan's "super realism" and praises the play.

Moments later, when he's alone in his hospital room's bathroom, Riggan removes the mask of bandages is a reprise of what he has done earlier internally, at the beginning of Act 3 (removing the mask and willing to become a martyr for the cause.) That the bandages looks like the bird man costume assures us that Riggan in fact has come out from behind his mask of being a “celebrity” to being an “actor”

In this same scene we also see the culmination of Sam's arc. Where earlier Sam despises her father's attempts to make the play succeed, they have this exchange:

RIGGAN: Listen to me. I'm trying to do something important. 
SAM: This is not important. 
RIGGAN: It's important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me... To me... this is - God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something. 
SAM: ….Well, there's a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn't even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't. It's not important. You're not important. Get used to it.

But at the end of the movie, Sam has come around and we're shown it this way. After Riggan removes his bandages, he goes to the hospital window, looks down at the media frenzy that has gathered, looks up at the sky and birds "dancing" in the sky. Then he steps up and out the window wearing only his hospital gown, open in the back.

The camera moves from the window to the hospital room's door.

Sam returns from getting a flower vase, which she now does lovingly as opposed to the angry errand she ran for her Dad in the first scene. She looks for her dad who's nowhere in the room. The last paragraph in the script says this:

She spots the opened window and registers the sounds from outside. Tentatively she walks toward the window. She gets there, summons her courage and looks down. Nothing. Slowly, confused, she tilts her head up and looks up into the sky. A smile, filled with pride, begin to wash over her face.


Log Lines, Tags, & Hooks

I recently received the following question from a reader.

Hey Dr. Stan, 
Can I get your reaction to my tagline for the script I'm currently working on (and constantly re-working).  It is: 
After defying incredible odds to become the first African-American female rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, Susan Carville is asked to embark on a mission that will require her to choose who will live and who will die.
Any feedback from you would be greatly appreciated. 
Thank you,   
Lady Writer

Lt. j.g. Lashanda Holmes, the first female
African-American helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard.
Dear Lady Writer,

Well, that’s not a tag line, but it’s a pretty good log line. A tag line suggests the emotional arc. For your story a “tag” might be: “Hope that Transcends Desperation.” or “Called to Save, Forced to Let Die.”

But as a story and a log line... you have several layers of outer conflict or potential story hooks:

  • Becoming a person who saves lives in desperate situations
  • Becoming a rescue swimmer
  • Being a female
  • Being African-American

Any ONE of those engenders social conflict and potential difficulties. Any ONE of them can become the basis of a movie's hook, because each has a perceived disadvantage.

A person that wants to become a rescue swimmer is prejudice against by her friends for being an a physical fitness junkie and courageous. That bias is not very different from how society’s patriarchal majority at times dismiss women, and white racism marginalizes blacks.

Putting all four together creates greater interest (and greater jeopardy) but also creates a bigger problem for the story. Significantly dealing with ONE of those issues, or perhaps TWO is enough for a screenplay. Dealing with all four suggests to me a novel. Dealing with all four in a screenplay will be difficult, and that difficulty is evident in what you have to do with the log line. (see below)

MULTIPLE HOOKS SOLUTION

But there is a solution. PICK ONE to be the spine of the story, and dramatically reduce the importance of the others to subplots. My recommendation is to pick the spine that has the broadcast audience appeal, and let the others tag along—their very presence will reinforce their validity. For instance, of those four story sub-plots, which do you think will appear to the most people? That then becomes the focus of your story, and the focus of your log line.

Put it another way, I have no problem with seeing all four in a story as your log line suggests, but if you focus principally on Susan's blackness as your main plot, you’ll make the film for only 18% of the American audience that identifies with being black, and you’ll be telling the rest of your potential audience that their lives matters less. If you focus the spine on the fact that Susan is a woman, you’ll marginalize 49% of your potential audience and tell them (the men) they don’t matter. If you focus the spine of your story or being a rescue swimmer, then you have marginalized 99.9% of your audience. But I think everyone in your potential audience would identify with the human need to help others and the moral dilemma of helping others in situations where you are useless to do so.

UNDERDOGS

At the same time, the most successful stories are “underdog” stories, or as Disney labels them, “fish out of water” stories. These are stories where the protagonist can easily be identified as one with the audience. They are just like everybody else, filled with fears and anxieties, and a lost sense of “What can I do?” When you put such a character into a situation that seems impossible you have the biggest interest, the deepest hook.

So my story and log line recommendation would be to focus the story on someone who wants to help others in desperate situations but has to overcome their insecurities of doing so. Keep their motivations high and noble that all your diverse international audience can identify with. Second I would focus on the technicalities of the difficultly of becoming a rescue swimmer. This will intrigue everyone. That Susan happens to be female and black will raise the noble pursue of her in an otherwise male and white world. And while you can make some minor points about her being female and black, you don't want to become so politically correct that you miss the point and open your story up to mockery.

The regular audience goer will believe (coming into the theater) that Susan should become a rescue swimmer ONLY if she can be a good one. Her sex and the color of her skin should not enter into her success of failure, although you can shore her struggling with her black-female identity. Just keep it a subplot. This is where Martin Luther King's call for judgment to be made on character not on skin color comes in. If you make gender or race an issue then you suggest that Susan should become a rescue swimmer BECAUSE she is female and black. If you make Susan female and black but don't make a big deal about it, then you reinforce the idea that gender and race are not the issue—character qualities counts. This was part of the success of THE KARATE KID I worked on with Will and Jaden Smith. While Jaden is black, the story was not about his blackness, but about the cultural issues between American and Chinese. Overbrook did the same thing with last year's ANNIE. Both were successful and appealed to broad audiences because race was not an explicit issue in the promotion or the plot...yet it was there.  A gender example would be KILL BILL where Uma Thurman's sex is an implicit not an explicitly issue, and it attracted a male audience.

Now, since Susan's story is a true story, and being female and black WERE issues for her, you will want to still deal with them. Just remember the more you bring them to the forefront of your story, the more you limit your audience to just black females, which would be about 9% of your potential audience.  If you don't made a big deal about then you garner a larger audience who will see black females as fully capable and you'll win their respect from a faithful portrayal of a rescue swimmer's difficulty of rising to that level.

LOG LINE DIFFICULTIES & SOLUTIONS

If you want to make all four elements a significant part of your story then you'll have a log line that reads like this:
After defying incredible odds to become the first African-American, female, rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, Susan Carville is asked to embark on a mission that will require her to choose who will live and who will die among the crew of a sinking ship who are a mix of men and women, whites and blacks. 
This log line is fraught with racial, class, and gender overtones and what becomes lost in such political messages is the remarkable universal nature of anyone becoming a rescue swimmer in order to save another's life. The audience is narrowed and the message debatable.

But if the log line is:
After defying incredible odds to become a rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, the newly certified swimmer is sent on a death-defying mission where the swimmer must decide who will live and who will die.
Then the log line has universal appeal. And when the trailers and poster comes out and we discover the swimmer is a black woman, the appeal for the story will skyrocket. People don't like to be preached at about any political issue, but they subliminally understand the gender and racial undertones.

Also notice this minor point. Proper nouns are never used in a log line. Use generic descriptions to (again) keep the appeal broad.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

ST. VINCENT Moral Premise Discussion


ST. VINCENT

(Updated 2-9-15 from our MEETUP Discussions)

Director/Writer: TED MELFI
Starring: BILL MURRAY (Vincent)
MELISSA McCARTHY  (Maggie)
NAOMI WATTS (Daka)
CHRIS O'DOWD (Bro. Geraghty)
JAEDEN LIEBERHER (Oliver)
TERRENCE HOWARD (Zucko)

IMDB Log: A young boy whose parents have just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door.


This picture is too good to be true. I may never analyze it just out of respect to the talent displayed. It is a classic example of structure while turning the tables on the traditional concept of Protagonist and Antagonist. 


Here are some notes that have come from out Screenplay Meetup Group discussion in Northville, MI. As the discussion continues I'll add more.



THE TAG


The Movie's tag line is "LOVE THY NEIGHBOR"... but on first appearances the neighbor (Vincent) is not very lovable; and it appears as if Vincent is not loving anyone else in return. Thus, everyone needs to love each other. It's a challenge. But then the curtain is slowly pulled back to reveal that things are not what they seem. No spoilers here...perhaps after the movie leaves theaters. 


THE CONFLICT OF VALUES


The Conflict of Values articulate the inner world-views that create the outer physical-conflict. The values must be naturally opposing.  These same set of values are at work between the all the characters in conflict in a movie, but may personify themselves in different ways. We only need one of these pairs for the film, but our discussion suggests the following possibilities:


Selfishness v. Selflessness
Self-Centered v. Others-Centered
Inward v. Outward
Apathetic v. Engaged
Narcissistic v. Sacrificial

This results in a Moral Premise Statement that could look like one of these:


Selfishness leads to hermitages; but
Selflessness leads to neighborhoods.

Narcissism leads to isolation; but
Sacrifice leads to community.

Self-Centeredness leads to despising your neighbor; but
Others-centered leads to loving your neighbor.


CHARACTERS

Director, Ted Melfi creates an intriguing structure with ST. VINCENT. He stays true to the classical definitions of the main characters' roles but giving us a fresh perspective of how they can interact. Here is my take of the characters and the roles they play. I may have convinced our MEETUP group of this construction, but please feel free to add your comments to the com box.


The MAIN CHARACTER is the character through whose point of view (POV) the story is told. While multiple points of view are often revealed in a story, one character takes precedence. In ST. VINCENT the main POV is Vincent. We spend the most time with him in his house, at the bar, at the race track and driving Oliver around. Often the MAIN CHARACTER is the protagonist, but in ST. VINCENT that is not the case (see below). The MAIN CHARACTER or POV character is also that character whose values we come to embrace by the movie's end, provided we have a redemptive story and not a tragic one. That is the only role of the MAIN CHARACTER -- to tell the story, possibly of another and sometimes of themselves. Think of the MAIN CHARACTER as the Narrator.

The ANTAGONIST CHARACTER is the character whose primary story purpose is to force the Protagonist to change. The ANTAGONIST does not have to change or arc, but often when they do, they change the least. Think of the ANTAGONIST like the hammer in the hands of a blacksmith, pounding away on the iron having just come from the fire and shaping that iron into something useful and good. In ST. VINCENT I think the antagonist is also Vincent. Except for some changes that have occurred in this life, but not of his own doing, he is the same at the end of the movie as he is at the beginning. In Martha Williamson's TV drama series TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL the angels are the antagonists who "hammer" the guest star into making decisions to improve their live. Vincent is such an angel, although a pretty disrespected one at the beginning of the story. 

How is Vincent the same at the beginning as he is at the end? My view is that Vincent is self-less, and takes interest in improving the life of hopeless causes around him, although he's pretty grumpy about it. His grumpy attitude becomes the ironic cement that draws us into his character. I believe Melfi (as well as many of you) could not think of a better actor than Bill Murray to play the part—a case when the actor's natural persona perfectly meet character traits. In this respect, Bill will not get an academy award nomination for being himself, although I'd love to see it.  

In Act 1, Vincent (as the Main character), introduces us to the people in his life and their hopeless causes (or ironic, hopeless goals), that Vincent (as the Antagonist) will shape into something better. 
  • DAKA the stripper/prostitute. The first lost cause we meet in Vincent's life is Daka. When the movie opens he is letting Daka bounce on him having sex. Vincent's attitude toward Daka is one of obligation and compassion not lust. He "allows" the relationship because she needs the money, she's a "working girl" and he feels sorry for her. This becomes even more evident when he watches her strip at the club. Her pregnancy prevents her from getting off the floor after sliding down the pole. Vincent doesn't look at her with sexual interest, but with fatherly compassion, and he's embarrassed for her. He is constantly paying her way as best he can. She wants to know the sex of her baby, so he takes her to a pregnancy center to find out and "pays" for it. Further evidence of this is in Vincent's non-verbal attraction to Sandy vs. Daka. There is love in his eyes for Sandy, and later, after Sandy's death, there's the beginning of a love for Daka. 
  • OLIVER, is a Latchkey Kid. His father, David, was taking up sexually with his mom's hairdresser and so his mom, Maggie, runs from David taking Oliver with her, and tries to start a new life on their own. But she has to work late as a CAT scan technician. Vincent takes Oliver in, for a baby sitting fee he negotiates with Maggie. Oliver is not fond of Vincent at first and is a fish out of water in Vincent's world. He's lost and hopeless, or so it seems at first. Also, Oliver hopelessly cannot defend himself against the school bully (Robert). So, Vincent shows Oliver how. Oliver is afraid to take risks, so Vincent takes him to the race track, where Oliver takes a huge risk and wins.
  • MAGGIE, the Spurned Mother. Maggie, heartbroken over David's dalliance with her hairdresser, runs away and tries to start a new life. By happenstance she rents a house next to Vincent's. She's hopeless because of her failed marriage, but also because she knows she is failing her son by always being gone, and forcing Oliver to be taken care of by Vincent, who is not the best of role models. Indeed, David gets partial custody over Oliver because Maggie is a half-hopeless parent in the court's eyes.
  • SANDY, Vincent's wife who is dying of Alzheimer's Disease. Sandy hopelessly can't remember Vincent, and yet Vincent lives everyday to express his love to her by trying to pay for the best care in the world for her. He can't pay for it, however, and in his desperation gambles at the track and is in hock to his bookie, Zucko, and secretly Oliver. Vincent does Sandy's laundry, which he does not need to do, and he buys her flowers, which he can't afford, and he negotiates her dinner menu with the staff, and he sits with her and pretends to be a doctor....hoping for that moment when she remembers him. 
  • ROBERT, is the school bully. Robert comes off as an irredeemable bully who has no good male role model in his life. But his dad is out of the picture, and having a family again seems hopeless. 
  • FELIX the cat. Vincent selfishly feeds felix gourmet cat food, while eating sardines and leftovers himself. It is a Blake Snyder classic SAVE THE CAT scene. We can't help but like Vincent because of his kindness to animals.
  • VIETNAM WAR BUDDIES are hopelessly lost on the battle fiend until Vincent saves them. 
  • DEAD PLANTS in Vincent's Backyard. We get a hint of this when 40% into the film we find Oliver mowing Vincent's backyard of dirt, to help him learn responsibility, as Vincent is paying Oliver. But during the credits we find Vincent watering the backyard of dirt, and the dead plant...both hopeless causes. But he takes it in stride, this time with a less than grumpy attitude over Bob Dylan's Shelter in the Time of Storm. (see song description below). Watering hopeless causes is who Vincent is. He had not really changed, but we know that the dirt "lawn" and the dead plant have a chance if Vincent is involved. 
Yes, Vincent is grumpy, as if he is arguing constantly with God about his calling, of giving himself up as the tree stump in The Giving Tree, for people to use him. (Remember after meeting Vincent for the first time, Oliver reads from The Giving Tree and the tree stump's willingness to give even more.) But Vincent never rebells from his calling, and he is obedient to it...although he doesn't do it happily. His ironic behavior (doing the right thing but not liking it) is how many in the audience identify with Vincent. Many of us do what is right, but we don't want to. Deep down we want to be selfish, but we know helping others forcing us to sacrifice our own will is the better thing. We see ourself in Vincent, and we identify with him emotionally. We may try to hide our weariness of doing what is right and being good, but Vincent wears his weariness on his forehead like a neon sign. Out of obligation (and a deep but hidden love of humankind) Vincent does what is right. 

Please make note that if Vincent was a character that was uplifting, positive, and nice the movie would fall flat because there is no "hook" or "irony" to engage our intrigue. The log line: "Happy, clean cut, nice guy helps others be better," is boring compared to "Disgruntled, self-serving bum, can't help himself to help others."

The PROTAGONIST CHARACTER is the character that the audience identifies most with because the character has a physical goal, is imperfect and changes the most. Protagonist's have moments of grace where they recognize the truth of the moral premise and make an active decision to change.  In ST. VINCENT I think all of the main characters are protagonists, with Oliver being the lead protagonist. The audience sees a little of themselves in each imperfect protagonist, both in their lost nature, and their honorable goals, the most common of which is to have a family.
  • DAKA's goal is to have a baby, get a decent job, and have a loving home. Through Vincent in her life, she gives up stripping and becomes a housekeeper, mother, and cook.  She goes from being selfish to selfless, from taking care of herself to taking care of Vincent, as he's been taking care of her. His kindness is returned by Daka changing.
  • OLIVER's goal is to have a family again and defend himself. He gains the ability and will to defend himself, and see the good in others, like Vincent, and especially Robert. This change, that Vincent effects in Oliver, effects both Maggie and Robert, who befriends Oliver. 
  • MAGGIE's goal is to have back her family, earn a living, and to provide for her boy. Through Vincent's hammering, she becomes a mother again by staying home from work and spending time with Oliver, and indirectly she welcomes David back into her life. 
  • SANDY dies, which at first does not seem to be a change for the good in her state. Except, there's a beat in the script that didn't make it into the final cut of the movie. In the script, Sandy leaves behind a life insurance policy, unknown to Vincent, that pays off Vincent's gambling debt and allows Vincent's life to go forward. In that subtle way she goes from being taken care of, to taking care of others, which follows the moral premise arc of Daka, Oliver, and Maggie. 
  • ROBERT wants to be called "Robert" not "Ozsinski" and have a dad figure in his life, e.g. a family. This is accomplished by story's end.
  • DAVID also, comes back from he playboy ways to becoming a Dad and Husband. The script actually gives David a few lines that are not in the movie, like when he agrees with Maggie that he was "an asshole."
  • VINCENT is the protagonist of this own story, and although his values change very little form the beginning, by the end he's managed to have done his best for Sandy, mourn her death, pay off the debt to Zucko (evident more in the script), and he has a family. 
The final scene represents the family that everyone wanted. Around the dinner table, a dinner that Daka has cooked, are all the main characters, including Robert. 

SONGS

We also discussed several of the songs used in the movie to underscore the moral premise and  the character's arcs. Briefly, ONE STEP OVER THE LINE [Nitty Gritty Dirt Band] relates to the movie as it encourages the characters to step from selfishness to selflessness. It applies to Robert, Oliver, Maggie, Vincent, and Daka. That the original lyrics (Ggogle them) that refer to sex in the backseat of a car, indicates the risk and passion that the characters in St. Vincent need to embrace for their transformation. The song is played under the scene where Oliver is mowing Vincent's backyard DIRT...and that the song was made popular by the Nitty gritty Dirt Band helps. 

I FOUGHT THE LAW (and the law won) [CLASH] is played under the clash between Oliver and Robert in gym, where both get bloodied up. The lyrics immediately reinforce how bullying and revenge are selfish acts that have consequences. But they also refer to the natural law consequences of drunkenness, gambling, leaving your spouse, a dying spouse, and taking others for granted. In each case, or subplot of the movie, natural law wins out. If your motivations are virtuous you have a better chance at happiness than being motivated by a vice. 

START A WAR [The National] plays under Vincent's major loss at the race track. What's significant here is that he's not drunk when he leaves, but he realizes that he's going to have to face facts and the reality of life...and in doing so he's going to start a war...and indeed his bookie is waiting for him at home. The consequences turn the story and the characters in dramatic ways, just as starting a war does. But in this case, because a virtue is in play, the consequences of the war take us to a better place. Vincent as an opportunity to "Walk away now" or "start a war." He has finally come to grips that the war is what he has to face for transformation of the moral premise to occur..

SHELTER FROM THE STORM [Boy Dylan] is played over the final credits when Vincent waters the dead plants and barren dirt in his backyard. At the very end Vincent even "washes his feet" a spiritual sign of true redemption. Download the words and look at how they recount the whole movie, "Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood" [Vincent fought in Vietnam, but also when Maggie and Oliver and Daka needed a friend.] ...Come in, she said, I'll give you shelter from the storm." What is the "storm"? [The situations of hopelessness in the lives of those around Vincent.] And, who is "she"? [Vincent...Vincent is the shelter in the time of storm... and you could say, as well, that his friends, when they change, are create a shelter for Vincent in his time of storm.] 


RESOURCES

To study this more, as we will be in coming months, here are some resources links:
Scene times and percentages in Excel worksheet
The Screenplay, submitted for an Oscar from TWC
As is usual, my recommendation is to figure out the Story Fundamentals, the 13 Major Beats using the linked resources. The Story Diamond may help you, as well. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

ANNIE - Go See It!

ANNIE (2014)
An Overbrook Production
Producers: WILL SMITH, JADA PINKETT SMITH, CALEEB PINKETT, JAMES LASSITER

Directed by WILL GLUCK
Screenplay by WILL GLUCK and ALINE BROSH MCKENNA

Starring
JAMIE FOXX (Will Stacks)
QUVENZHANE WALLIS (Annie)
ROSE BYRNE (Grace)
BOBBY CANNAVALE (Guy)
CAMERON DIAZ (Hannigan)



Pam and I saw ANNIE (PG) this afternoon and loved it. It is not only faithful to the story and the spirit of the original films, but with adds some insightful lines and good kicks.

Of course what I liked the best was the consistency of the moral premise portrayed in the various character arcs, the casting, the art direction, and the songs.

The title song, "Opportunity" by Sia, which Quvenzhané sings in Act 3, is a great example of taking the moral premise and putting it in lyrics. Watch the video embedded here, with the lyrics written out below, although this will not be as meaningful until you see the movie, so...

STOP! GO SEE THE MOVIE FIRST...TAKE THE WHOLE FAMILY. 
Then come back here...I'll save a place for you in line.



OPPORTUNITY, by Sia, performed by Quvenzhané Wallis 
Under the glow of the very bright lights
I turn my face towards the warm night sky
And I...I'm not afraid of a thousand eyes [the stars]
When they're above Five hundred smiles [the stars of hope seem far away]
Oh, I used to think (she used to)
What wouldn't I give (what wouldn't she give)
For a Moment like this.
This Moment, this gift
Now look at me and this opportunity
It's standing right in front of me
But one thing I know it's only part luck, and so
I'm putting on my best show
Under the spot light I'm starting my life
Big dreams becoming real tonight
So look at me & this Opportunity
You're witnessing my Moment
You see
I find myself here & it's time
This is real and it's a Gold...mine
I'm not afraid to fly
When it's above five-hundred smiles
I used to think (she used to think)
What I wouldn't give (what wouldn't she give)
For a Moment like this
This Moment, this Gift.
Now look at me and this opportunity
It's standing right in front of me
But one thing I know
It's only part luck
I'm putting on my best show
Under the spotlight I"m starting my life
Big dreams becoming real tonight
So look at me and this opportunity
You're witnessing my Moment, you see
My big opportunity
I won't waste it
I Guarantee

Those of you familiar with the Moral Premise concept know that it's a simple concept that universally relates opposing motivational values and their natural law consequences. Humans cannot escape these, and so when fictional characters reflect the organic and naturally true relationships (between values and consequences) the audience is sure to identify with the characters on a deep, moral level. This enhances the box office.

ANNIE (2014) is thus an elegant expression of the adage:
Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.
Little orphan Annie exudes optimism and hope although she has every reason (it would seem) to be pessimistic and despaired, like some of the other characters. But in Act 1 we notice how her optimism prepares her for the opportunity. As the song says "It's only part luck" and so when the opportunity stands in front of her, she puts on her best show.  (Watch for this in other characters, too.)

There are some good permutations of the moral premise that I'll expand on later, but for now try this:

Pessimism leads to rejection of your Moment (of Grace) 
and squandering what's in front of you; but
Optimism leads to the acceptance of your Moment (of Grace) 
and not wasting a golden opportunity.  

Now the consistent application of this concept is played out in ALL the subplots and even in one character's name. It's beautiful to see. But I'll not spoil it now by blogging all the beats and metaphors, and reinforcements.  Go see the movie, and after the DVD comes out (or if Overbrook wants to get me a copy sooner....hint!) I'll be PREPARED.

I will blog on this later, but I don't want to spoil it by telling you. Let the movie SHOW YOU. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

IRONY: VISUAL vs. AURAL...A Fairy Tale

I watched a festival film the other day, which can't yet be posted on-line, in which what we saw and what we heard were opposites in tone. The film is called FAIRY TALE. What we see is a father tucking his little girl into bed and we hear (in Voice Over) the little girl asking her father to tell her a story. He reluctantly agrees and tells the story of a little princess that lives with her mother and father and teddy bear in a castle. They are King and Queen of the whole world and their lives are full of joy.  A soft melodic piano plays in the background.  But what we see, in one long take, is a distraught father tucking in his little girl to bed and giving her a teddy bear, then walking into the next bedroom to find his wife drinking. In frustration he pulls out a suitcase and starts packing. The wife argues with him, and he argues back. They verbally fight and it's clear that they hate each other.  As the VO concludes, "the reason they were so happy is because the King and Queen loved each other very much..." ... the father gets into his car and drives off into the night. FADE OUT.


Another marvelous example of visual/aural irony is a movie we watched on TCM last night (Long Live TCM). The movie is LILI (1953) starring Leslie Caron, Mel Ferrer, Jean-Pierre Aumont, with Zsa Zsa Gabor in a minor role. It's a Charles Walter directed and choreographed picture, where the actors wear their emotional motivations on their sleeves. Great piece of visual storytelling and wonderful ironic arcs. The great visual and aural irony is seen/heard in the Paul Berthalet character (played by Mel Ferrer), a ballet dancer who has broken a leg, hates the world, and has taken up puppeteering in a carnival. His inner emotions are portrayed by four of his puppets which represent his emotional conflict, and also which become the masks that he must learn to cast off, and which Lili must learn to see through. She's in love with Paul's ESSENCE but he hides behind these four artificial characters' IDENTITY. Thus we see one thing, his inner hate turmoil, but all we hear (from the puppets) is compassion and love. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

SCRIPT LENGTH VS. BEST PICTURE

I've made this point many times before, but just updated it.

A true and consistently applied Moral Premise
Explored through a variety of World Views
Portrayed by difference characters
Struggling to accomplish an assortment of goals
made visible in a diversity of plots and subplots
Will result in audience's engagement...
...and a Successful Box Office.

That takes time....and pages

The fewer pages
the fewer world views
the fewer differences in characters
the fewer goals
the fewer plots
the less engagement
the lower the box office.

Producers and investors want shorter movies because they think they will be cheaper. They are right...along with the cheaper (smaller) return on investment.

This is NOT to say that a movie with more pages will be a better movie or one that naturally connects with the audience due to its length alone. There are many other factors, like a good story and acting.

But, this DOES say that for a movie to be successful, length, and pages, and plots, and characters, and world views are necessary....as much as good acting. It is all because the audience needs time to assimilate with the characters and identify emotionally with them. That takes time.

Here is a listing of BEST PICTURE OSCARS from 1990-2014.
(see notes below table for how numbers were calculated.)

AVERAGE SCRIPT LENGTH: 136 pages
MEDIAN (middle value): 145 pages
RANGE: 95-196 pages

The shortest film, The Artist (2011), at 95 min, was mostly a silent movie—little dialogue; it stands apart from the rest—the next shortest film being 107 pages and the longest 196 pages.

YEAR       TITLE               PAGES    MM$:WW     MM$/PG
2014 American Hustle ...........133.......249.......1.87  
2013 12 Years a Slave ..........129.......181.......1.40
2012 Argo ......................115.......227.......1.97
2011 The Artist .................95.......128.......1.35
2010 The King’s Speech .........113.......432.......3.81
2009 The Hurt Locker ...........126........50.......0.40
2008 Slumdog Millionaire .......115.......385.......3.35
2007 No Country for Old Men ....117.......164.......1.40
2006 The Departed ..............146.......291.......1.99
2005 Crash .....................107.......101.......0.94
2004 Million Dollar Baby .......127.......232.......1.83
2003 LOTR: Return of the King.. 196.....1,142.......5.83
2002 Chicago ...................108.......308.......2.85
2001 A Beautiful Mind ..........130.......318.......2.45
2000 Gladiator .................150.......458.......3.05
1999 American Beauty ...........116.......356.......3.07
1998 Shakespeare in Love .......118.......279.......2.36
1997 Titanic ...................189.....2,208......11.68
1996 The English Patient .......157.......232.......1.48
1995 Braveheart ................172.......210.......1.22
1994 Forrest Gump ..............137.......680.......4.96
1993 Schindler’s List ..........192.......321.......1.67
1992 Unforgiven ................126.......159.......1.26
1991 Silence of the Lambs ......113.......276.......2.44
1990 Dances with Wolves ........175.......424.......2.42

Pages = Running length via IMDB.COM minus 5 for the end credits.

MM$:WW = WW Gross Box Office via THE-NUMBERS.COM. Total gross is greater than these numbers after inclusion of Home Video, PPV, and licensing for TV etc.  These numbers do not imply proportional profitability. Numbers have NOT been adjusted for inflation or ticket price variation over the years.

MM$/PG = $Millions of WW Gross per page.

Sorting this data by page number and plotting MM$/PG is shown in chart below. It reveals there are peak grosses around 113-116 pages, 130-150 pages, and above 172 pages.  The chart also reveals (in the approximated dotted line) that the MM$/PG increases at a rate slightly faster than the script length, that is, on average, the longer the script the greater the MM$/PG grossed.

Box Office Gross (WW $Millions) per Script Length for Best Picture Oscar 1990-2014.

Consider this information when someone tells you you need to write a 95-110 page script to be accepted by Hollywood. Perhaps you do, to win a pseudo screenwriting contest. But the data above is are the results of the ultimate contest.


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