Thursday, November 26, 2020

Hollywood and History


Controversy always swirls when Hollywood produces a movie about some moment in history and seems to get the facts all wrong, favoring instead the spectacle and the dramatic. The audience loves it, but the historians (supposedly) hate it. 

But if it wasn't for the spectacle and drama of the movie, would anyone even be curious about the historical moment?

A wonderful take on this juxtaposition of fictional spectacle and historical truth, is explained eloquently by practical historian and researcher Brian Allison in this interview on the Townsends YouTube channel in the episode titled: Spies, Espionage and Secret Writing in 1770's.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVpkrRKphcU
the particular few sentences about but this start about 15:12, although the whole episode is fascinating. 

Brian gives you permission to change the facts in order to get people interested. 

"The best way to use Hollywood is as a gateway..."



Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Chosen - A Few Notes on Structure


As many of you know I'm a Catholic Christian, although I was born and raised Evangelical-Protestant. Consequently, I've been exposed the the worse of Christian "faith" films over my life (my father had a bit part in a Ken Anderson film decades ago), and I personally know a few of today's current faith-based filmmakers.  Generally, I cannot stand to watch such "faith" films. They are sanitized and generally lacking in organic verisimilitude. I've walked out on more than a few, and often squirmed low into my seat. I put "faith" in quotes because the producers of most such films do not exercise any faith at all in their audience with their on-the-nose didactic dialogue and plots. 

There are exceptions. Long ago I loved Zeffirelli's TV series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) with Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine and James Farentino, Olivia Hussey, and Christopher Plummer.  (I should watch it again to see if I still like it.) And then there's the classic horror tale directed by Mel Gibson: The Passion of the Christ with Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, and other great performers. And lately there's something much different that is very good 80% of the time, and that's Dallas Jenkins's The Chosen with Jonathan Roumie, Shahar Isaac, Para Patel, Elizabeth Tabish, and the fabulous Erick Avari. 

Last night we had guests over for dinner and after we retired to sit in front of the big video display and voice of the theater speakers, we opened up a BluRay disc of The Chosen (Pam bought a case for Christmas gifts) we watched Episode 1  - I Have Called You By Name.  During the episode I kept thinking back to some recent "faith" scripts I've read as part of my script consulting practice and why The Chosen works most of the time. 

The Chosen has garnered a strong following for a number of valid structural and storytelling theory reasons. Let me recount a few. (I'll avoid the things that make me squirm.)
  • ALL of the main characters have serious character flaws. Such flaws allow us to identify with the characters because (subliminally) we know we are flawed. We can see ourselves bending rules, becoming legalistic, being paranoid, and having really bad things happen to us or those we know, and then responding selfishly. 
  • Each of the characters in The Chosen has a physical goal they are trying (by hook or crook) to achieve. 
  • Nicodemus wants to return to anonymity.
  • Nicodemus's wife wants him to continue because it gives her social status.
  • Simon wants to pay his taxes without losing his boat and home.
  • Andrew wants to help Simon stay out of trouble by cheating at betting brawls.
  • Simon’s wife wants peace and romance, and for Simon to wash because he smells. 
  • Lilith/Mary Magdalene wants to end her life because of her shame.
  • Matthew wants power, isolation and riches.
  • Quintus wants to collect taxes for the fish caught on the Sabbath. 
  • None of the characters have stated spiritual goals (this is good). Good characters have inner psychological or spiritual goals, but they should be portrayed non-verbally, not put into dialogue. Spiritual goals are akin to the moral values of the moral premise. But they are not physical goals, which is how we identify initially with characters. Our brains subliminally take the physical images and interpret them as metaphors for what's going on psychologically and spiritually. While The Chosen is a Christian story, we never see any of the characters praying, or reading the Bible (there wasn't one), or preaching…except Nicodemus, who, when he preaches, is NOT preaching the Gospel but pontificating like a typical flawed, legalistic Pharisee. 
  • Another aspect of at least the first episode, is that the scene structure is much like a Seinfeld episode. The producers have managed perhaps six subplots interwoven, each seemingly unrelated to the others, but with each scene ending in disaster or disappointment, which serves not only for a dramatic roller-coaster, but drives the narrative forward like the 7th chord of the musical composition that demands resolution. 
  • The subplots all deal with everyday issues that the 21st century audience can identify with: money, romance, competition, power and politics. The script is only secondarily concerned with spiritual issues, and only in a Pharisaical way are spiritual themes mentioned explicitly.  For the main characters, nothing is easy. At stake are fist fights, fraud, insanity, political power, abuse, etc.
  • And the best structural aspect of The Chosen is this: The stories are NOT ABOUT JESUS. That is JESUS IS NOT THE PROTAGONIST. If anything he's the antagonist. Finally, someone got this right. The series is about the flawed CHOSEN. Remember that.
This is all viscerally accentuated by great art direction, props, costumes, sets, direction, casting, and cinematography, which are not script issues but are interpretation of the script and the way the script acknowledges the verisimilitude organically in the story. 

The story we see on the screen is best when it becomes a physical-secular metaphor for the deeper spiritual issues which are handled only in a subliminal way. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Introducing the Beat Plate (8 Mini-Movie Template)


During a recent story consultation I unwrapped the Story Diamond and laid it out vertically in an Apple Keynote file based on the eight-mini-movie scheme. In the image of the template at right, each mini-movie is 12.5% of the story. The straight forward layout provided an easy to manipulate document that allowed us to beat out the story over Zoom by sharing my screen.  (See Moral Premise's Writing Aids page.)

While the structural elements (colored boxes) are locked in place, the white boxes can be typed in with any style or color of text, and the boxes can be changed in size or moved easily. 

The template at right is laid out for four characters, where each of the character's main beats journey vertically from top to bottom. But this is probably not as practical as using the entire beat plate for one character's entire main plot. Thus  you'd have much larger boxes and probably only one column. (see image below)

One of the great aids this template suggests is to start each mini-movie with the character's goal for that 12.5% or 12.5 pages, and end each with a disaster where the mini- goal is NOT achieved, and which spurns the character on to the next chapter in the story.  Only the end of mini-movie 8 ends with success. This also provides the dynamic roller coaster effect you want for your audience.

The template (as displayed here) should also remind you that the story is about the protagonist (thus the most beats) and less about the other characters (with fewer beats.) 

At the Moral Premise's Writing Aids page you can download a jpg or (larger pdf) as a guide and create your own, or for $10 I'll send you the original Keynote file for you to save and manipulate at will. 






Saturday, September 12, 2020

Writing Convincing Movie Dialogue - 20 Tips


In preparation for a Zoom appearance at a film school where I was asked to talk on the topic "How to Write Convincing Movie Dialogue," I prepared an essay with 20 Tips and numerous links to YouTube examples. I considered adding this to my
Storycraft Training series, but I'm busy with a number of other projects and didn't have the time. Besides, none of the material I've written about in this essay is in any way unique with me. The 20 Tips are all well-known to good writers, although they are not always utilized, sometimes because they are not needed. For such reasons this is not copyrighted, so please feel free to download and use freely. It would be nice to hear back from some of you in the comments section about which of these or other techniques intrigues you the most when watching, writing, or directing a narrative film.

Clicking on the image below should result in the download.

Oh, and just so you know this is really from me, look for my signature typos. And if you point them out to me, I'll actually try to fix them ...if my fingers allow. 

Blessings.

Stan Williams

9/11/2020 Never Forget



Thursday, September 3, 2020

Hard Work Pays Off - Bragging Rights

I've been working long distance with screenwriter Rich Mauro on a drama titled WHEN WE WERE GODS for about 4 years, the last two intensely. It's a story I believed in early on, and signed on as Executive Producer to further develop it. We've since produced a Look Book, and short documentary video about the development (HERE). We received expectational coverage a while back from The Austin Screenplay Awards (Finalist), The Black List, and WeScreenplay. You can read about that coverage  HERE

Recently, Rich submitted a recent draft to the International Screenwriters Association (ISA) for their Development Slate. Yesterday, he received notice that WHEN WE WERE GODS is in the finals for that consideration. The coverage of the script was the most extensive and glowing that we've received. 

Now, let me clarify my participation in this effort. I am NOT the writer. The story is entirely Rich's. My contribution has been to the screenplay's structure, format, and grammar. I did make three detailed passes on the script making hundreds of very small but nuanced changes in an effort to make the read efficient, visual, and empathic. If I had a suggestion to move or delete a scene, Rich had to agree beforehand, and often he would make the change and improve it still. The whole process went back and forth dozens of times. 

So, it's refreshing to read coverage that appreciates our hard work.  Here are excerpts. Yes, I've deleted the discussions about improvements....there are some...a few we agree with [: )] 

----

Excerpts from ISA Development Slate Evaluation

OVERALL



When We Were Gods is a compelling script that demonstrates the writer’s ability to provide for imagery and story. There are some scenes here that would really pop on the screen. The writer makes solid choices. …


Initially, we did worry about the page count. It sits right at 120. … However, as we finished the script, we found…a deeply involved story that calls for some deeply involved moments. The standing count is fully justified.


…the scenes are wonderfully crafted and boast some impressive visuals.

The script has a polished look and feel… It is a genuine pleasure to read a script that is this well cared for.


CONCEPT


Conceptually speaking, there is a lot to like here. The era and setting are wonderfully established. The story is rich with conflict.  


When We Were Gods is the sort of script that could easily get attention and for a number of reasons. To start with, there is a strong redemptive theme here. Höss is not a bad man, but a good man led into doing bad things. And what really works here is that the writer doesn’t over explore this theme. It simply lies there on the surface of the page, waiting for the reader to acknowledge it. The writer has a subtle style that really pushes these scenes together in unexpected ways.


So, we have religion and hope clashing against the regime of the Nazi empire in a compact setting. The building drama is thick, palpable. And the accompanying visuals that push the story are bold and telling.


When We Were Gods would easily affect a wide demographic. Though this takes place 80 years ago, the elements here are just as human as any who stand today. Man is capable of all the best and worst things. And man must be held accountable for it all.


STRUCTURE


The writer does a good job of providing for structure. The acts each openly support one another, and the result is a story that is well-paced and progresses naturally, without any hindrances to slow or disrupt it.


We were quickly impressed with the writer’s ability to provide for imagery. … Here, instead of dialogue, the scene focuses on a note passed from one character to another. Little is said but the note really seals the moment. Kolbe is a quieted man of intellect and this scene exemplifies the nature of his character with very little being said.


…there is a lot of building drama as we move through the conflict and towards the resolution. So much is happening and so quickly. Höss’s beating of Kolbe suddenly turned the story on a dime.


The closing here is impressive. At first, we thought the writer overstepped. The shot of the dandelions seemed an impressive choice to close on, but the writer kept going. We were unsure of this choice, even after the first pass. We then read the last two scenes again and, well, wow. Visually, this would be heart wrenching to see on the screen. This not a very practical choice to close on but the artistry of the scene, of the imagery is impressive.


CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT


These are strong characters. Seriously. …To tell a story like this with anything less would be a disservice to the tragedies of the time.


Höss is a remarkable protagonist. At first, we expected a very predictable arc. It’s easy enough to predict, considering the obvious redemptive tone here that is set early on with Hedwig’s closing line on page 3. And yet, there is more subtlety here than we expected and that’s what makes this story work so well.


PAGE WORK/VOICE


The writer has a strong voice for the genre. The mechanics here are quite good. The direction is concise, sharp and to the point. We see, with ease, the writer’s vision. As well, dialogue also proves to be very good. The characters interact quickly and with relevance. The scenes are not bogged down with needless prose and monologues.


Imagery rules the day here. There are some solid visuals that really sell the story and would impress upon the screen. The writer clearly knows how to take full advantage of the medium and in a way that would impress an audience/viewer.


Dialogue is quite good. The writer does a nice job here, allowing the characters to speak for themselves. Often, a writer might think, ‘what do I want to say here?’ but that is the wrong question. The right question is, ‘what would this character say here?’.


When a writer trusts his or her characters enough to speak for themselves, dialogue will read as more authentic to both that character and the overall story. The writer clearly has a grasp for pushing good dialogue.


SUMMARY


When We Were Gods goes deep and it should. This kind of story requires depth, but it also requires a subtle touch, a building tension that connects an audience to both the good and bad of humanity. The imagery here is solid. The writer really makes good use of the medium to visually impact the reader/viewer. The characters are meticulously crafted and arc very well.


There is very little to check here. Some direction cannot be accounted for in scene at the time, but this is not a big issue. One thread in particular is off to a promising start but then fizzles a bit.

Despite these concerns, we recognize the quality of the story and the writher’s clear skill and craftsmanship. 


We feel comfortable in recommending this script for the ISA Development Slate.

Thank you for the opportunity to read this strong and compelling story. We wish the writer well in all endeavors.

 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Power of Production Design - Halal Gurls

Production Design (which includes Art Direction) is about Color Palettes, Textures, Interior Decor, Set Architecture, Shot Selection, Props, Wardrobes, Makeup and Hair. Together these elements tell a story all their own. In many films you can discern mood, temperament, character personalities, and story beats just by the Production Design, the colors, and the costumes. And that's how it should be.

Production Design is one of numerous story telling tools filmmakers use to emotionally connect with audiences. Music and dialogue are two others, not to mention casting the right look of a character. The "art of the frame" serves the same purpose as a framed painting. And the colors the painter chooses, the textures, and the shot selection tell us a story. Except in film, you have 24 such framed paintings EVERY SECOND.

As I work to organize the Pomegranate shoot next year, one of my duties is to be aware of what other films are doing. One such streaming series that came to my attention this week is HALAL GURLS, the Australian comedy about three Muslim girls who all wear hijabs. The Production Design was by Isabella Andronos, an award winning designer in Australia.  In part that is what Pomegranate is about so I took a peak. The first thing that caught my attention was the color palette of walls, props, costumes, hair and  make-up and even the Posters (right). I have not yet seen the series, but I will. Yet, just looking at the stills from the trailer (which I've captured off YouTube) tell us something about the story of these three characters. Here is a selection.

Noice how colors are coordinated and how there is usually only one accent color per frame. Notice also the frame composition and the position of faces and how they are facing. The character of lighting also plays a big role...reflective, overhead, point source, direct, and backlight.


     









And finally the Facebook Selfie (below)...which is in Pomegranate, as well.  What do you suppose the harsh color "ORANGE" here infers?  Or for that  matter the color RED in shots above? And what do you make of the shot when ORANGE and RED both appear in the shot, as below? Notice the red sparring gloves. They're not red just by chance. Or, the RED side light trim in the office shot.




Low Budget Indie with Star Power

As producer for a SAG moderate low budget indie we plan to shoot in Michigan in 2021, the attributes of other successful indie productions catch my eye. Today it was Brett Haley's THE HERO (2017).

All this information is from IMDP Pro. There are clear cut lessons here for people like me...actually NOT for people like me, because I'm not in such a position as Brett Haley was and today is.  But there are lessons.

Here's the synopsis written by IMDB fan Kenneth Chisholm:

Lee Hayden is a veteran actor of Westerns whose career's best years are behind him after his one really great film, "The Hero". Now, scraping by with voice-overs for commercials, Lee learns that he has a terminal prognosis of pancreatic cancer. Unable to bring himself to tell anyone about it, especially his estranged family, Lee can only brood alone as troubling, yet inspiring, dreams haunt him. Things change when he meets Charlotte Dylan, a stand-up comedienne who becomes a lover who inadvertently jump-starts his public profile. Now facing a profound emotional conflict of having a potential career comeback, even as his imminent death is staring him in the face, Lee must finally come to terms with both realities when he finally confesses his situation to the one person he can.

ATTRIBUTES OF INTEREST

Budget $1.2 M

Domestic Gross: $4.1M

Shooting Location: Looks like one plus exteriors all in Los Angeles

Cast and their IMDB Star Rating as of this posting:
-- Sam Elliott - 975
-- Laura Prepon - 1,015
-- Nick Offerman - 1,167
-- Krysten Ritter - 838
-- Katharine Ross  - 1,793
-- Ali Wong - 2,890
-- Andyu Allo  - 1,549

Sam Elliott is married in real life (and in this story) to Katharine Ross

Theatrical Release Pattern (No. of Screens):















The lessons here for a producer wanting to make a movie include:


  • Write a story about aging Hollywood actors. (easy to attach famous actors)
  • Set the movie in L.A. and shoot it there. (no travel cost)
  • Promise actors back end, keep budget low, easy funding (or so it seems)
Most producers, this writer included, would love to get 1 or 2 actors attached with such high ranking, and probably strong marketing attraction. But seven such individuals for a $1.2 M picture? Unlikely...unless you write a story about the actors and set it in their backyard and promise that the leads, who are married in real life, are married in your movie. 

I do not know Brett, but this seems like a project that just rolled off a log. 


Friday, July 24, 2020

OF GODS AND MONSTERS

OF GODS AND MONSTERS is a short documentary about the unique WW2 story and the screenplay developed it titled WHEN WE WERE GODS. The screenplay and this documentary were written by Richard Mauro. I edited the doc and have signed on as WWWG's  Executive Producer. If you want to get on the project's e-list, SIGN UP HERE.



Thursday, July 23, 2020

Bird of Prey - Good Short


This just in from an aqutaintance, writer-director Dan Cortes. The structure here is amazingly good for such a short story. It has a number of traditional beats, a Moment of Grace, and an ironic but beautiful end.

It also reinforces that casting is 80% of the job.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MviDgHOaB8

Monday, April 27, 2020

Kevin James's YouTube Channel

This is some seriously funny stuff. Short films every week from Kevin James. My favorite so far is the I AM LEGEND SOUND GUY.  I have directed or produced hundreds of film and the sound guy (or gal) is the one person that can always hold up production. (And he (or she) better, because sound is more difficult to get right than the video or the lighting.) As starters here are two links.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAsmEzP84eE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ojcUwSlEHk


Tuesday, April 21, 2020

WHEN WE WERE GODS by Rich Mauro - Exceptional Coverage

As Executive Producer and script editor, I've worked with screenwriter Rich Mauro for 4 years to perfect his script WHEN WE WERE GODS. Getting the structure right was easy. But the nuances took us years. Below are some of the exceptional comments from festivals and contests, including: The Austin Screenplay Awards, The Blacklist, and WeScreenplay.

Look Book Here

Further coverage from ISA HERE.

AUSTIN SCREENPLAY AWARDS

WHEN WE WERE GODS is a script dripping with personality. This is reflected in the unique characters, but also in the inventive action description evident from the humorous first line “Much of this is true.” The writer does a wonderful job of presenting the story in a very visual way, showing their own specific style in the description.

There’s often slight editorializing, humor, and colorful analogy that makes for entertaining moment-to-moment reading. Throw in varied language and syntax and the action was often as entertaining as the scintillating dialogue. The writer’s style is always present, but it doesn’t get distracting. The plot isn’t buried under unnecessary detail or overly literary language. The action still remains concise and clear, just a bit beyond rote fact delivery. Again, there’s personality.

I also like how the script works in a lot of conversations surrounding philosophy and religion. It’s never too preachy, yet the characters constantly have their ideologies tested in ways that often go beyond a straight conversation. Actions and plot points force characters’ backs against walls where words must be backed up with conviction and action.

Knowing early on what each character believes and seeing the differences in worldview clash is a real highlight of the script. It shapes the internal conflict and often leads to the more obvious physical challenges. It’s also presented in such a way that eschews melodrama. With the WWII backdrop, it can be tempting to rely on easy clichés or uninventive plot points. WHEN WE WERE GODS does well to forge its own path.

This script succeeds because of fantastic characters and solid structure. These two qualities make for the bedrock of any good script, but this narrative has a lot of other positives on top of this. Ever escalating tension, great moment-to-moment writing in the action description, impressive formatting – these all add up to give the impression of a very professional script.

I enjoyed my time with this story because it swings for the fences with interesting plot points, but gives us a reason to care about the action with nuanced characters. A good read from beginning to end.

THE BLACKLIST

WHEN WE WERE GODS is a very good script, with some truly beautiful and visionary moments. It’s a very powerful story that still somehow remains untold in cinema.

The script is emotionally charged and engaging which introduces something new to the conversation within the genre rather than relying upon themes that have been explored in previous films.  This adds a sense of urgency to the project and gives it potential to move forward as a viable film project.

If done well, this kind of movie could generate awards talk, although it will require the attachment of A-list actors, director, and producer in order to receive the requisite financing required to make it in the most meaningful manner possible.

With the right team in place and proper execution during production, this is a project that stands to attract interest on the festival circuit before landing on a premium cable network like HBO or a streaming service like Amazon given the prestige nature of the film.


WESCREENPLAY

Concept: TOP 1%
The concept is exceptionally luring. You've done a remarkable job. This script is almost cooked, and ready to be served and pitched.

Characters: TOP 3%
The central characters are historic figures. Roles like these are dream roles of every A-lister actor. Actors love to play historic, iconic figures. It is also an honor for the actors to be able to be a part of a big budget Holocaust film. You are going to attract big names just by tossing Hoss' name. It's going to be a casting treat. Multiple British/ American A-listers can play the role of Hoss.

Plot: TOP 4%. 
This film must be made...it is ready to be pitched. Structurally, this script is quite strong. The dialogues are near-perfect.


Stan Williams, Executive Producer
248-344-4423 (ET)
StanWilliamsphd@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Hollywood and Hygene

Maybe some of you saw this.  (see link below)

I will do this going forward.

Excellent article. I’m somewhat of a germaphobe. But I rarely thought of this.

This will impact budgets somewhat. Hygiene protocol will always be part of pre-production form now on. 

Duh!


stan williams

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Creating Accurate Road Maps

I'm writing a story. It's a novel based on a screenplay based on a legend based on a ream of historical documents and letters. It's rich. It's about Early America and includes events like the New Orleans fire in 1788 and the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution that same year.

There's a sea voyage from New Orleans, to Philadelphia, and a covered wagon journey from York, PA to Charlestown, VA (now WV) and there is a dangerous ferry crossing at Harpers Ferry, MD when John Harper actually operated the ferry. The story is filled with political giants (Washington, Jefferson, Franklyn and the Carroll clan) and there are bigoted immigrants, religious zealots, and an unconventional slavery abolitionist.

This week I'm trying to write about the segment of the journey that takes place along 100 miles of frontier road from York to Charlestown. There's a covered farm wagon pulled by two huge conestoga horses named (Calvin and Luther), and two conestoga freight wagons pulled by two teams of four mules driven by teamsters (the predecessors of today's Teamsters).  Tied to the back of the various wagons are four smaller horses and a dairy cow.

There was research about covered wagons, farming, and money. Did you know the conestoga freight wagons were built to ford rivers and streams so the stuff inside stayed dry? This was four years before the 1792 U.S. Coinage Act, so there were some 12 different coinages in circulation all minted in different countries? The Spanish 2-escudo gold doubloon was the most popular.  And a Spanish piece-of-eight (of pirate lore) was used in trade. Very confusing when you wanted to buy something. I had to build am Excel conversion table to keep it all straight.

But what was the trip like from York to Charlestown like in early October 1788? There there many creeks to ford in early October. Did you know few traveled long distances in the spring because the roads were too muddy, and the summer was too hot. So most travel was done in the fall and winter.

I needed to construct a map for the journey, so I could name the towns (if they were around back then). And what about water crossings, and mountains? Was there a road that avoided the mountains, like through a pass?

I tired using Google Maps, which you see below. The problem with Google Maps is that the route you want to trace will only follow existing roads today. And it's hard to see elevations on Google. So, I looked up the cities and towns along the way. Most had elevations listed...but they weren't for the roads, but for hill peaks and airports. This was useful, but there was no real contour information that covered wagons might encounter.
I then found two free resources that were much better than Google Maps. The first was TopoQuest.com. It provided a lot of information and I was able to see where the common roads found their way around hills and between mountain peaks.  See below for Harpers Ferry You can easily read the topographical lines and elevations and where the roads (today) are. There are also labels and the location of actual buildings (at the time of the map's creation).
But the cleanest is at https://viewer.nationalmap.gov/advanced-viewer/
This is the United States Geological Survey site for the Advanced Map Viewer. The ease of zooming in and moving around, and other tools here, is amazing.
There are numerous tools, too, for measuring things, like distances, where you can make your own path. You're not forced to use the existing streets, but you can with little effort. Here's an example.

There are a host of tools at the top that allow you to measure square miles (BTW 1 sq. mile = 640 Acres.) the tool bar allows you to create layers, legends, add data, see elevation profiles, and paint on the map to print out or download.

There are dozens of other features at USGS.gov including historical maps of cities. It's all worth checking out and bookmarking in your browser.

Friday, March 20, 2020

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD


  • Writer-Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and many others in minor roles.
No spoilers.

A friend of The Moral Premise blog wrote and asked:
“I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the other day. I found it to be an interesting sermon on fame, relevance, meaning in life, and identity. However, I am troubled to pinpoint a specific moral premise. Any thought on this title? It felt like it was the work of a brilliant director who couldn’t quite articulate what he was trying to say.”
I wrote back:
“Why can’t I just enjoy a movie? Must I work? Geez! I have no idea what the MP is. I guess I’ll have to think about it.”
So, I did…think about it.

I enjoyed Quintin’s “Untitled 9th" as it was originally flagged. (Sounds like the title of a Symphony by a  classical composer). Production notes claim the first cut was over four hours. Someone finally got down to 161 minutes, which is 61 pages longer than you want to write your first feature. But when you're Tarantino, so the saying goes, you can get a budget for the Yellow Pages.

I was attracted to these characters and enjoyed their stories. Thus, OUATIH proves again to me that depth of characters and their relationship to the audience is directly related to length. Not any length, but a good length, and one typically longer than 100 or even 120 pages.

Let’s look at a few bullet points of the characters for a clue about what the Moral Premise might be.

Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) wants to resurrect his flagging career.
  • Why is his career flagging? Probably due to neglect and alcohol.
  • His very loyal friend and stunt-double, Cliff Booth, is honest and encouraging, “You’re fucking Rick Dalton.”
  • But Rick is not disciplined and lets this less-than-stellar-name take its toll.
  • MOMENT OF GRACE: On the set of his latest job, as the Heavy who will be killed at the end of the story (it seems this is his characters' reoccurring fate) he twice forgets his lines. That upsets him. He knows a professional is expected to show up early and know his lines.
  • He turns his life around, and the next day he nails a performance in one take. He’s rewarded by the director fawning over him (but he doesn’t take the director’s praise seriously). Yet when his co-start, 8-year old Trudi Fraser tells him, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen,” Rick tears up, realizing that integrity wins the day—not only his integrity for knowing his lines, but Trudi's for her honesty. This scene also diminishes the director's integrity, whom we think would fawn over any actor, even if the lines were screwed up. 
  • As the story continues, Rick perseveres and accepts who he is and doesn't worry about who he isn't.
  • And at the end of the movie Rick gets his long-hoped for opportunity.
Cliff Booth (Pitt) takes a backseat to his friend, Rick as his double and stuntman.
  • Cliff is comfortable in his supporting role.
  • He seeks to be a loyal friend to all he meets, if they have an ounce of integrity.
  • He is not anxious for his career. He doesn’t want to be a star. He likes to work and he’s good at it.
  • Rick goes to bat for Cliff and gets him a job as his stunt double on his latest gig. Cliff is happy about it, he's humble, and appreciative of the opportunity.
  • Cliff has little respect for bravado that often comes with stardom. Bruce Lee is portrayed as a man who is prideful and arrogant. With humility Cliff destroys Lee, but also gets fired off the set. He is disappointed but accepts his fate and happily goes back to his fall-back job as a handyman.
  • MOMENT OF GRACE: A curb-side hippie girl who he’s flirted with on occasion hitches a ride with him to where she’s living with a bunch of other girls at the Spahn ranch. On the way she offers Cliff a blow job. He makes no effort to take her up on the offer (which probably involved some latent effort at blackmail). But he is interested in what’s going on at Spahn ranch and with his old friend (from 8 years ago) George Spahn, where Cliff had worked as a stuntman.
  • At the Spahn ranch he risks his life and Rick’s beautiful Cadillac by checking in on George who has gone blind and has clearly been manipulated by the Manson Family. He demands integrity of the head young woman in charge of the girls, and of one of the hippie men.
  • This sense of being himself, not trying to be someone he’s not, and sacrificing his safety for his past friend (George), expecting nothing in return, in the end, saves the life of Rick and his new wife. Cliff's character in this regard further catapults Rick’s career and thus Cliff’s on-going work as Rick’s double.
  • Cliff's last name "booth" implies he's running the projector in the booth, and not on the screen out in front. Yet, he's absolutely necessary for the star to been seen and known. 

Sharon Tate is portrayed as a young actress who innocently wants to enjoy her new career.
  • She is innocent and faithful.
  • She even questions the “dirty pictures” theater down the street from a legit theater, an optional career that she has rejected for it has little integrity.
  • She humbly enjoys a private moment watching herself on screen at a local theater in a bit part with Dean Martin. She quietly enjoys the audience’s laughter at her prat fall. She’s not proud or haughty. There's an innocent integrity about her.
  • Her generosity to Rick at end of movie reinforces her integrity and we believe she will be successful for something other than her good looks.

Arrogance and haughtiness are consistently discredited in the story. Earlier we saw how Bruce Lee is treated for his swagger. But the “nail in the coffin” occurs when Tex Watson shows up in Act 3 with his Manson Family accomplices, and we witness how:
  • Undeserved arrogance is met with swift justice.
In these and many smaller ways the following moral premise(s) are illustrated, although it helps to know that Charles Manson (from whom Tex Watson took orders) was an undeserving, wannabe musician who was rejected by Hollywood.
A swaggering hip leads to destruction; but
Pursuit of excellence leads to possibilities.
or
Arrogance undeserved leads to swift justice; but
Humble integrity leads to eventual opportunity.








Borders and Quarantines, the Essence of Successful Stories

    EVERY SUCCESSFUL STORY IS ABOUT BORDERS AND QUARANTINES

    Stories we love are about the reoccurring cosmic battle between order and chaos. They are about how (1) we fall off the serpentine border between the two extremes, how (2) we quarantine ourselves in one or the other, and then (3) how we get back our balance and live on the edge between them.

    Thus, stories that engage us are about:

    A Conflict of Values

    Life out of Balance

    The Dragon and Its Gold

    The Decent and Indecent

    An Elephant in the Room

    The Threshold into Act Two

    Obstacles that Escalate Tension

    A Protagonist's Impossible Dream

    Our Greatest Desire and Greatest Fear.

    As storytellers our current state of quarantine over fears of COVID-19 is wonderfully illustrative of the crux of all good storytelling—the Moral Premise, where characters are motivated by vice and virtue to tear down (or build up) borders or establish (or break down) quarantines. 

    Storytellers should be aware that the internal conflict of values (i.e. borders & quarantines) between characters is made external through the physical conflict seen and heard on screen. What the story is really about is the internal conflict of what external borders to erect or tear down, and what quarantines to enforce or break out of.

    Likewise, COVID-19, while essentially invisible, creates visible effects upon our body's normal biology. And that effective conflict extends to our homes, our communities, and our countries.

    WHAT WAS SUBTEXT IS NOW ON THE NOSE

    Remember when Trump was demanding walls, borders, and travel bans? Many citizens objected. They believed America was a country of immigrants and great diversity. (For the sake of illustration, I'm sidestepping the "legal" vs. "illegal" equivocation). America had values that didn't discriminate. There was a way we should do things, and we needed to stay true to the practices that made us a great nation. etc. etc. At the same time there were political battles about socialism, the organizational principle of subsidiarity, and government handouts. Notice that both sides in that conflict of values had barriers going both ways. Both sides wanted to quarantine the others.

    Then, suddenly, COVID-19 changed everything, on both sides. What Trump tried unilaterally (walls, and travel bans) now governors and mayors are demanding. What Trump fought against (socialism and government handouts) now he champions.  (Why write fiction when real life is more dramatic?)

    In those real-life stories there are internal and external conflicts, and there are character arcs and situation outcomes that resulted. Both sides were involved in a fight for (or against) borders and for (or against) quarantines.

    A DISTANT BUT RELATABLE ILLUSTRATION
    Some years ago, just after the Sundance Film Festival, I was with a few other writers and story gurus as the guest of an actor-producer at one of those large vacation rentals in the mountains above Park City, Utah.  We spent days breaking a story down on colorful four-by-six index cards taped to a glass door wall around which we sat trying to figure out how to tell the story in subtext. We were stumped about how we should show the story and not just tell it. We had worked all day and it was now 10:30 at night with no apparent solution. We gave up and went to our respective rooms for the night. The next morning, our host (the actor-producer) came down to breakfast beaming ear-to-ear. He had figured out a solution. Referring to the protagonist, our host said, "He gives a speech!"  And then he proceeded to act out the speech, which explained explicitly (presumably to the audience) what subtext couldn't. Of course! It was perfect! It worked! We had crossed a threshold, a barrier, we were no longer "quarantined" in our little subtext rooms. What we had fought against, we were suddenly for. 
    ALL STORIES ARE THIS WAY...even stories about creating stories.

    In Once Up a Time in Hollywood, washed-up actor Rick Dalton feels quarantined. He's always playing the heavy who gets killed in Act 3. His career is fading. One day he realizes he's living next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. But there's a wall and a big iron gate that keeps him out. Then tragedy strikes (through the kindness of producer, Tarantino's, revisionist history) and Rick finds the wall/iron gate opening for him (music cue) as if by magic, and he's released from his "quarantine."

    In Knives Out, the Thrombey family is quarantined in deceased Harlan Thrombey's mansion until Benoit Blanc can knock down enough walls and barriers to find the murderer. Meanwhile Marta Cabrera, Harlan's personal assistant and nurse, is psychologically quarantined thinking she killed the novelist as she hides behind a "porous wall" of deceit (and vomit).

    In Elizabeth (the Shekhar Kapur directed Cate Blanchett's vehicles), the Queen is continually quarantined by her throne and responsibilities, as multiple figures of court and France attempt to tear down her walls or the walls around England.

    In Midway, U.S. military characters battle the walls erected by Japan's Imperial Navy in the Pacific by self-quarantining their lives in doomed dive bombers and ships to build a wall around their country and keep the Imperial Army out of America.

    In a sense, EVERYTHING is about walls, barriers and quarantines.

    DAO's YING/YANG

    The Dao Ying/Yang symbol illustrates several things about the conflict in stories and arcs of characters. Ironically, the ancient symbol visually represents one of the 2001: A Space Odyssey themes from Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra—that of eternal reoccurrence. To the Daoist it is a symbol of the oneness of the cosmos. In a simple way the Ying/Yang symbolizes the eternally rotating day and night, and how the earth (and our lives) forever rotates between light and dark, good and evil. That is true not just physically, but psychologically.

    Therefore, a good story, as explained by The Moral Premise principle, is a conflict between the light (a particular virtue, or strength) and the dark (a particular vice, or weakness). And if you're watching a successful television series, which is eternally caught in Act 2, the conflict between that vice and virtue continues every week for years. The Ying/Yang rotates as the light chases the dark's tail, and the dark chases the light's tail, all the while the dark has some goodness to it (the white dot), and the light contains some imperfection (the black dot). This is life. This is the cosmos. There is constantly this internal and external conflict that keeps life interesting.

    But there's something significant about walls and quarantine in this symbol of the cosmos. Jordan Peterson suggests that our best life is lived in the border between the light and the dark or to use his terms: between "perfect order" and "abysmal chaos."  To be quarantined inside perfect order (the white) there would be no innovation or human progress. Why? Because innovation and progress demand we take risks and step into the unknown, the chaos. And by experimenting with things unknown in the world of chaos we discover ways to enhance the order in our lives. Likewise, if we were to keep our lives absolutely pure, we risk getting a disease for which we have no antibodies....and we die. In that case our bodies have not built up knowledge of how to deal with chaos, which is dangerous. Vaccines introduce small amounts of the disease in our healthy bodies and teach our ordered lives to develop anti-bodies. 

    Stories are like that. In Act 1 our protagonist lives in the ordered-balanced-lighted world. Everything is supposedly fine. But something alien enters his life and throws it into chaos. To solve the chaos and rebalance this life, he has to enter the world of chaos, the unknown, the dark, Act 2, the Special World. While in Act 2 he learns about the problem firsthand. In Act 2 he returns to his village with the elixir in hand to solve the problem for the rest of humanity. In this way, our protagonist lives on the border between order and chaos. He straddles the wall. An effective protagonist is not quarantined on either side—although in the early pages of Act 1 he may be quarantined—and by entering Act 2 he breaks out and crosses the threshold. Recall the Moment of Grace in LIAR! LIAR! when cashless Fletcher Reede stands on the fence line between the car pound and his ex-wife, Audrey, who holds the check book, and he suddenly realizes (music cue), "I'm a bad father. I'm a bad father."  And Audrey says, "You're not a bad father when you stop 'quarantining' yourself with your lies and show up." (Okay so she didn't say that exactly.)  But you get the point.

    So, go quarantine yourself away and write that story. That's what I should be doing, but I'm writing this instead. I'm not sure which is the quarantine...writing or finding an excuse not to write.

    Blessings,

    stan