Monday, March 13, 2017

The Sequence Approach (Paul Gulino)

[UPDATE: Please see Christopher Pratt's comment at the bottom of this post. It's instructive.]

Today I listened to a recorded webinar of ScreenwritingU's Chris Soth explaining a bit about Paul Gulino's book "Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach."  Soth calls this structure the Mini-Movie Method (MMM). It was really a sales pitch for ScreenwritngU's 30 day course on the same. Strangely, they kept comparing the MMM (with it's 8 Turning Point beats, which actually has 15) to Syd Field's 3 Act Structure as if the 3 Act structure had only 2 beats (not 8). Those two beats being the turning points at the end of Act 1 and 2. Clearly, there is a lot more to go on that the Act 1 & 2 climaxes, and any number of books, workshops and blog posts (this blog included), will explain the wonderful world of structural beats to you.

But considering that those eight segments of a movie (each 12.5%) of the whole, as INDIVIDUAL movies or long sequences, each with a beginning, middle and end, did intrigue me. The idea is nothing new, but Soth explained it in a fresh way that is worth sharing and expanding on. (Actually his explanation that intrigued me was because, although I had Gulino's book on my iPad for the last 2 years I had not read it. Am correcting that now.)

Let me challenge you to think about a movie as a number of long sequences, each with a beginning, middle and end. The 2016 Best Picture, MOONLIGHT, is constructed with three long sequences, each about a gay-black man raised in a poor, drug invested part of Miami. The three parts tell the the coming of age story of this person: First, as a boy (called Little); second, as a teenager (called Chiron, his give name); and third, as an adult (called Black). The three sections are each preceded by a title card, simply:




This simple and direct structure, made explicit to the audience, was one (of many) reasons the screenplay won an Screenwriting Oscar for BEST ADAPTATION.

What Gulino (and Soth) propose is that you divide your feature into 8 parts, two for each of the major 4 segments: Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, and Act 3. These 8 parts are the same segments (less the Prologue and Denouement) you'll see on my Story Diamond  or on the linear representation of a Story's 13-20 Beats --- both represented below in miniature. (Click on the links above for posts that explain. And, click on any diagram for a larger version, that you can actually read.)

[BTW: I have updated the StoryDiamond again, and for the first time in six years edited and updated the Annotation or Notes Document that goes with it. If you use the Story Diamond I encourage you to download the latest at the links herein.]

Now, here's the new thing I came away with. If we think of each of these 8 segments, or sequences, or mini-movies as each having a goal that the protagonist needs to achieve, then it's like you have 8 subplots, which run sequentially, as opposed to most subplots that run in parallel.  Here's a diagram I crafted. Below the diagram is a further explanation. (You can click on any image to make it bigger.)

1. One good way to hook your audience is that each of the sequences has a goal. Let's call the first seven, "subgoals," as the end point of each of the subplots. (In the digram, the subgoals are symbolized by the red stars). The story must be constructed in such a way that each subgoal MUST be achieved before the next subplot can be engaged, and the next subgoal be achieved. That is, the first subgoal is logically nested and necessary before the second subgoal can be pursued and achieved. This is very much like a video game (which I don't play) where to get to the end of the game you have to acquire all the earlier magic lanterns, or pots of gold along the way. If you miss one, you stop dead in your tracks. 

The trick is to construct a story where the eight subplots and subgoals are logically dependent, nested and chronologically sequential. The later goals all have to be subservient to the earlier goals. (Soth used INDIANA JONES AND THE LOST ARC as an example.)

2. Of course, each of the subgoals MUST support the final main goal. This is what I teach about subplots (that run in parallel) and their subgoals—e.g. every subplot goal must be related to the single moral premise, and the virtues and vices associated with it. That is, every subplot has to struggle with the same conflict of values, but perhaps in a different way.  In Gulino's Sequences (and Soth's Mini-Movies) the subplots are sequential, and logically dependent. This is brilliant. 

3. The process suggests that just after each goal is achieved, there is an increasingly terrible and epic failure on the part of the protagonist, which causes his hopes to descend into fear. According to the Moral Premise theology (yeah, I should start a religion), these immediate descends are the consequence of two related forces: (1) the action of the antagonist, and (2) the weakness of the protagonist, which is a milder form of the powerful vice exerted by the antagonist.

Do I need to point out the emotional roller-coaster effect this of my bully pulpits? 

This perfectly follows an age old concept of novel writing—in every scene-sequel sequence there is a DISASTER that spurs the action forward. Here's a diagram from my on-line workshop (Storycraft Training). An explanation follows.

Novel Scene-Sequel Sequence (simplified)
Running from left to right in the above diagram. (1) The protagonist has a physical GOAL to achieve. (2) The protagonist takes action to achieve that goal, and in so doing creates CONFLICT with the antagonist. (3) Because of the conflict, the goal is not fully achieved, resulting in a DISASTER. (4) The protagonist experiences an EMOTIONAL REACTION, which acts as a motivation to keep going. (5) The protagonist spends some time evaluating in his mind (THOUGHT) the DILEMMA faced, until... (6) The protagonist makes a decision about the next goal and takes the fist steps to achieve it. [And the process REPEATS starting with the new goal.]
Now, I've added a couple of things from my other workshop sessions (c.f. Storycraft Training). Let me repeat the diagram for ease of reference.

4. Each sub goal has to be harder to achieved, and the conflict and tension associated with its accession has to be higher than the last subplot and goal. I have gradated the vertical scale into +8 and -8 levels. 

5. Likewise the disasters (represented by the black dos) are increasing terrible. Thus, the goals and the disasters, get farther and farther apart, creating an escalating emotional roller coaster. the dipole here is HOPE vs. FEAR—a good way to convey it on an emotional level, which for a story is critical. Of course there are other ways to define the roller coaster, e.g. rationally (Is the protagonist progress toward the goal progressing or retarding?), and/or morally (Is the essential truth of the moral being tested true or false?

6. Lastly, going back to my earlier description of the 13-20 beats, the Turning Points and the Pinch Points have a characteristic difference in how each of those seven disasters occur. The odd number disasters (above, i.e. 1, 3, 5, 7) are initiated or caused by the antagonist's power, whereas the even number disaster (above, i.e. 2, 4, and 6) are caused by the protagonist's weakness, blindness, and poor judgement. 


MOONLIGHT and Screenplay Rules

Each year I read one or both of the screenwriting Oscar winners. The theory is, in doing so, I'll learn how to write better screenplays and help others do the same.  In this case the learning from MOONLIGHT (Best Adaptation) was two fold.

I watched the movie on iTunes, then found the PDF shooting script HERE. The challenge I knew was to discover how Barry Jenkins wrote something that was so interior in scope, and was so silent. While there is some action and dialogue, the interior emotional tension is thick.

A screenplay is suppose to describe what is SHOWN and HEARD on screen, without TELLING us what the character is THINKING. The screenwriter describes the setting, the props, the posture, the bodily response, and when all of that is done rightly, then we give the writer permission to tell us what is actually going on inside the mind.

The adage is, learn to do it well, and then you can break the rules. Here's an excerpt from the third act. There are somethings here, expertly done, but they break the rules. Can you identify the rule breakers? (I use the term "rule breakers" with derision. )

This starts on page 79.
  1. We watch the children at play a moment longer. We’ve seen none of these kids before, we’ll see none of them again. 
    A final beat of this, then... 
    A door closed -- Black’s car parked deep in the corner of this parking lot, in the farthest back corner away from street light, obscured by low-hanging shade trees.  
    The diner is away from us, across the parking lot. Black takes it in a moment, pulls on a fresh shirt. 
    He’s moving, crossing the parking lot at an easy clip. It’s quiet out, a few passing cars to Black’s left running north on Biscayne Boulevard, no foot traffic -- can hear the SOUND of his footfalls on the pavement. 
    As he nears the threshold of this diner, takes the handle on the entry... 
    CLOSE ON: an old school bell, the sound of it jingling as the door it’s affixed to parts. 
    And right away, the sound of music, something old, soft, and lilting (think Aretha Franklin’s One Step Ahead). 
    Black scanning this room, his view of the place a clue for us: this is definitely the same diner we saw Kevin working in during the earlier phone call. 
    All the details are there, the old-school register, vintage chairs and table-tops. And in the corner, that old school jukebox blessing us with Aretha. 
    ...on the move now, crosses the diner with eyes down and ahead of him. There’s a counter lined with stools, directly opposite the staging station and adjacent the register. 
    Black eases up to the counter, places his cell atop it and takes a seat. 
    No one stirs at Black’s movement, no one watches. Looking about the place again, we notice the other patrons: a quartet of college girls in a corner booth shoring up for a night on the town, an elderly gentleman sitting to himself, staring into a cup of mild coffee. 
    As Black watches the elderly gentleman... 
                    VOICE (O.S.)                                        (moving)                                            Be right with you. 
    A figure moving past, carrying an urn over to the old man, sets a new cup down and pours a fresh coffee, scoops up the old cup as he moves on. 
    As he crosses to the girls, we see him better: it’s Kevin. 
    We watch as he speaks to them; can’t hear any of it but from the feel of it, very jovial, Kevin is good at this work. 
    A beat of watching Kevin here, isolated bits of him from Black’s perspective: Kevin’s lips as he speaks, the hand he rests to his neck instinctively.
    Finished with the girls, Kevin turns back toward the counter, hands full with their spent dishes. As he approaches, he looks right at Black, right at us... 
                    KEVIN                                                (moving)
              Be right with you, boss, just                           let me get this out the way.
    ...and moves past. 
    Somehow, Kevin has not noticed him. 
    Something lodged in Black’s throat, without thinking places his hand there: Am I breathing? 
    He must be, he’d better be: those dishes discarded somewhere in the back and... here comes Kevin. 
             How you doin’ tonight, what                            can I get you?
    Kevin flipping through a stained note-pad, hasn’t bothered to look up yet. As he does, his eyes settle on Black’s. 
    Kevin watching this man. And Black watching back, the two of them silently holding each other’s gaze, pure curiosity. 
Here's what I noticed throughout the script, but I'll restrict my examples to the passage above.

1. The tone and mood of MOONLIGHT is expertly included in the visual descriptions. The setting, the lights, the movement (all visual), are also metaphors for what the audience should be feeling. We're not TOLD how the audience should feel, but phrases like those underlined SHOW us.
  • "Black's car parked deep in the corner of this parking lot..." 
  • "the farthest back corner away from street light, obscured by low-hanging shade trees."
  • "...away from us, across the parking lot..."
  • " foot traffic -- can hear the SOUND of his footfalls on the pavement."
  • "...the sound of music, something old, soft, and lilting..."
  • "...with eyes down..."
  • "...staring into a cup of mild coffee..."
But the "rules" tell us that we should never use past tense verbs, present participles, break the fourth wall, use adverbs or gerunds. And all of those "errors" are used extensively throughout the MOONLIGHT script. Can you see them in the bulleted list above? Here are a few more.

2. We're told: Don't break the fourth wall. Yet, the MOONLIGHT script includes the audience/reader a great deal.
  • "We watch..." 
  • "We've seen..."
  • "We see..."
  • "...he looks...right at us..."
  • "...we notice..."
3. We're told: Avoid adverbs, present participles, and gerunds. Yet, they're everywhere. 
  • "scanning the room..."
  • "blessing us with Aretha."
  • "Looking about the place..."
  • "an elderly gentlemen sitting to himself, staring into a cup..."
  • "As Black watches the elderly gentleman..."
  • "...watching Kevin..."
  • "Kevin watching this man. And Black watching back. The two of them silently holding each other's gaze..."
4. We're told: Only describe what can be seen, and never say what the characters are thinking:
  • "..but from the feel of it, very jovial..."
  • "...Something lodged in Black's throat, without thinking places his hand there: Am I breathing?"
  • "He must be, he'd better be..."
NOW, this is NO CRITICISM of BARRY JENKINS. The screenplay reads easily, visually, and most of the writing is PRESENT ACTIVE. But to communicate this interior sense of emotions, the gerunds, the adverbs, and the other things work wonderfully. 

Yes, you might argue that this is an example of learning to follow the rules so you can break them. But here's what's different about Jenkin's situation. He had written and directed a bunch of shorts, but this was only his second full length movie, and his first, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, was something he directed for $13,000 and no studio readers were involved. Add to that, Plan B executives (Brad Pitt) had seen Medicine for Melancholy and liked it and wanted to work with Jenkins, so with Plan B behind him,  they persuaded a A24, new distributor, to get behind Moonlight as their first feature to finance and distribute.  (Jenkins also said in an interview I watched from a Netherlands film festival, that the OSCARS SO WHITE protest from 2015, heightened awareness of movies by black artists.) So, Jenkins was not in a situation where the grammar or the format was ever an issue. His previous work and his connections spoke louder than the grammar of his screenplay. In other words, the executed work is what's important, not the screenplay's grammar.


This is further reinforced when voting occurs for the Best Screenplay categories. It was clear to me (having lived it numerous times) that no common Hollywood reader had ever read Jenkin's screenplay without being told by their boss, first, "We're going to make this movie." Of course, I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet MOONLIGHT was never subjected to the anonymous eyes of a first tier reader. Had it been, I'm sure it would have been immediately rejected. But yet, like a Quentin Taratino script, it wins an Oscar. (And, PLEASE, do not tell me that Quentin Taratino has learned how to write a script so he can break the rules. If you've ever, ever seen a Taratino script you would know by page 2 he never learned the rules in the first place.)

Yesterday, I wrote four screenwriters I know in Hollywood, all who have worked on many films that were produced and two who are Academy members. I asked if those voting for the BEST SCREENWRITING categories actually read the scripts they're sent. The answers came back: "Probably not," and "Usually, no." What they do is watch the finished movie and infer what the screenplay was like. 

So, I'll say this I have in past posts. If you're a screenwriter that wants to waste your time, heave your screenplays at the anonymous studio blockade, and see them bounce off into the rubbish pile. They may be Oscar winners, but 90% of the readers in Hollywood wouldn't recognize it as such. Readers generally are not going to take the time to understand your story, but find fault out of a personal bias or tell you to follow the rules. For the rest of you, who want to get your screenplays made....ignore the obsessive format and grammatical rules, and find someone to help you make the story into a film.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Roller Coaster Action Scale and How Bad Scale.

I frequently write and talk about the importance of a logical and emotional roller coaster for a story's main spine. (See: That is, how does the audience perceive the protagonist's (hero's) progress toward the visible, physical, and highly ironic goal.

On a logical level the roller coaster can be evaluated as to whether or not the protagonist is making objective progress or has experienced a set back.

On an emotional level the roller coaster can be evaluated in terms of the audience's fear for the protagonist's safety or eminent demise.

Often the two roller coaster "tracks" coincide.

One thing I have not talked or written about that much is how the heights and depths of the roller coaster track should escalate as the story continues, which is just the opposite of an amusement park's coaster, where the tallest hill is at the front. Your story's tallest hill and deepest valley should be at the end, the Climax in Act 3.  In my own writing I have taken the threats of the antagonist and listed them on a spreadsheet or scrap of paper and attempted to make sure that each successive threat was greater than the one before.

Here then is a generic list that will help you do that. I don't think I came up with it...found it on a Stickies' Note. Make up your own and create  your own for each story, and each subplot (arc) of each character's goal. If you came up with this list and sent it to me, or if I copied it off some other blog, please tell me and I'll give you credit. The higher the number the deeper the valley.
Action Scale for Roller Coaster Chart
0 establishing
1 transition
2 looks
3 friendly banter
4 debate between friends
5 talk between enemies - walk near enemy
6 threat threshold
7 slow chase - stalking
8 chase / threat of gun or capture
9 bullets fired
10 imminent death
Now here's another list like the above, sent to me by novelist Mary Connealy ( Mary writes Romanic Comedy Westerns. Fun reads. Back in 2010 we shared an email thread in which she wrote this to my response after reading her novel, "Petticoat Ranch" (Barbour, 2006). I had complained that she didn't kill off the bad guy. This excerpt from her email will give you an idea of her writing. Love it. (Sorry, Mary, I didn't ask your permission to use this, but I think it's past the statue of limitations...and it's deliciously good.)
Mary writes: 
I'm sorry I didn't kill Judd off, very bloodthirsty of you, but I know what you mean. I did stab a stake through his leg and I PROMISE YOU he was hanged, so rest easy. :) 
I've killed a few villains in my day. Read  Cowboy Christmas if you want a bad guy who is particularly dead at the end.  Deader than dead. I've made two notes of how bad guys die in fiction, movies, books,  whatever. 
First is the 'Good bad guy' syndrome. The good bad guys tend to die
while the bad bad guys go to prison. The moral there? Prison is worse than
death???  When the bad bad guy DOES die, you can judge how bad he is by the number of times he died.
1. Shot through the heart. Bad. 
2. Shot through the heart, stumble back into an electric grid and be
electrocuted, very bad. 
3. Shot through the heart, stumble back into an electric grid and be
electrocuted, then fall six stories, very horribly bad. 
4. Shot through the heart, stumble back into an electric grid and be
electrocuted, then fall six stories and land on a highway and get
run over by a semi, miserably ugly viciously bad. 
5. Shot through the heart, stumble back into an electric grid and be
electrocuted, then fall six stories and land on a highway and get
run  over by a semi, which overturns and explodes...well, you get
the progression.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Mistakes: The Mystery of the Wizard Clip Demon

It's confession time.

When I find the time I DO write screenplays....that will probably never get made. Yes, I do write a lot of stuff that does get produced, but generally only for my documentary/corporate clients. (In fact, we just finished a hour long television special in December, but I can't talk about it or even show the trailer until the client gets their release scheduled figured out. It's looking like July if they can four-wall the theater.)

But back to the screenplays I'd love to see made. As much as I consult with filmmakers and storytellers in various genres, it's always surprising to me how I (supposedly the expert at some of this stuff) am totally blind to it.

Case in point. Here's the "comp" poster, log, and synopsis for the seventh major draft (over as many years) of a project I just sent off to The Black List for evaluation and the WGA (again) for registration.

GENRE: Historical Haunted House Drama-Comedy 
LOG LINE: The "true story" of a demonic infestation from Early American history. Refusing last rites to a dying sojourner, an Early American farmer battles a haunting and enterprising demon who destroys the family's home and farm while bargaining for their souls. 
SYNOPSIS: In 1795, Adam Livingston and his family were farmers in the Shenandoah Valley. A visiting stranger became deathly ill and begged his host to find a Catholic priest to come and administer last rites. But the Livingston's, who despised Papists, refused. As he died, the stranger cursed the Livingston homestead. Immediately after, a demonic presence came to haunt. The poltergeist, among other things, made a name for itself by cutting crescent moons out of linens, silks and leather goods  Why crescent moons? They say the demon was the moon god. And since no human would speak a demon's real name, it settled for a nickname—The Wizard Clip. Over 2-3 years the Wizard destroyed the family’s homestead. Admitting that the Haunt had religious intents, Adam begged various preachers to come and exorcise his property. But they could do nothing but run away. Then, after a couple of nightmares, he discovered that to achieve his greatest desire, he would have to embrace what he hated most.

The mistake I warn others often about, but that I've made for the first five drafts on this story was this:

I was loyal to the historical record. 

This is particularly true of life stories. Several times a year a client will come to me and with great excitement tell me the adventurous story of their aunt battling city hall, or their brother who battled the cartel in Texas. Inevitably there's a slow beginning, middle or end so that all the exposition can be crammed in. Or some event cannot be eliminated because the writer's mother-in-law would be offended.

And yet, at the same time these writer's will claim that they want their story to be embraced by main stream audiences who long of the big and regular emotional roller coaster ride of a well-structured story designed to entertain mainstream audiences.

Well folks, you can't have it both ways...usually.

In my Wizard Clip story (above) the historical record tells how Adam Livingston battled the demon tooth and nail for three years, but was unsuccessful in getting it to leave them alone. (SPOILER AHEAD) Then he has a nightmare of a man performing some kind of incantation followed by an otherworldly voice that says, "This is the man who can relieve you." Of course Adam doesn't know what that means, but starts asking around...and some neighbors...whom he had previously despised (because they were Catholics), tell him that the dream was that of a Catholic priest celebrating Mass. So, the McSherry's introduce Adam to Fr. Denis Cahill, who eventually comes (after some earlier failed attempts), celebrates the Mass in the Gathering Hall of their farm house...and the demon never comes to haunt again.

Being a Catholic, the story sounded cool to me. So that's what I wrote and stuck to for the first five drafts. (I was loyal to the historical record.) That is, for Acts 1 and 2 my protagonist/hero is Adam Livingston. And then suddenly in Act 3 I switch heroes to the priest.

DUMB! I would never tell you to do that for your story, but that's what I told myself for five years.

My mistake was made crystal clear to me in a very short review I got back from The Black List two years ago, which pointed out that I had switched protagonists in Act 3, and all the emotional collateral I had built up in Acts 1 and 2 were suddenly, and without explanation, thrown out with the bath water.

I was distressed. So, I decided to write a novel, went on a 10 day research trip to Virginia where the events occurred, and a year later I traced Dennis Cahill's life to his grave in Pittsburgh. You see, I had figured out that the story was really about the priest, BECAUSE he's the one that does the hand-to-hand combat with the demon in Act 3.

EXCEPT... the historical record and a lot of cool scenes and action are about Adam Livingston...not the priest...who still doesn't show up until Act 3.

It takes months, but finally I start to listen to my own advice....resulting in the last two drafts where Adam battles the demon in Act the excited CHEERS of my wife, Pam, when she reads it.

Ha! Ha! Well, we will see what my anonymous Black List evaluators think.

Such is my advice...(if I'd only listen to it). Write movies for the public, and not ABOUT your family or close friends...or ABOUT a pubic figure that everyone knows everything about (e.g. biopics).

It's for the restructuring reasons that such successful movies being this way:

and my favorite
(from American Hustle)

Of course,  your opening title could be:


And because movies are generally understood to be fiction...make everything up...even the opening title.

Friday, January 6, 2017


Tonight Pam, and I screened a preview of Scorsese's SILENCE with a group of friends in Ann Arbor. As usual, Scorsese presents a compelling story with a moral dilemma that few of us think about or want to think about.  SILENCE is also the kind of film I wish Christians could learn to produce—hard hitting, unflinching, explicit faith, deeply spiritual, and very difficult. No easy answers here. This is not a film about praying, getting saved, and all is happy at the end. But it is a film about praying...when God is silent...which often it seems that He is...and what real faith entails.  

No analysis, too early. But here are the links:

IMBD and Trailer

Blog post by Jesuit Consultant Fr. James Martin S.J. on SILENCE

Transcript Martin Scorsese Interview with Fr. James Martin, S.J.

YouTube Martin Scorsese Interview with Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Emotional Journies

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  Have you been keeping up with all the new films. I have NOT, but will try over the next few weeks.   Here are some some holiday catch-up notes that may be of interest....on three topics:

"Emotional Journeys"

Emotional Journeys
Creating an emotional roller coaster for your story is important because it is what your audience experiences every day in nearly every aspect of their lives.

Not only should a writer "write what he/she knows" but "write what his/her audiences knows."

As I continue to work on my own screenplays and help others with theirs, this important value was reinforced this morning when I came across this interesting image depicting "The Emotional Journey of Creating Anything Great. "

Then I came across the following emotional journey maps.

They all look pretty similar to this, don't they? 

They all looked very similar to slides from my on-line Storycraft Training module 5A and 5B on "The Evolution of Story Structure," where we explain how to create story with a great emotional roller coaster.

The point is, write what both YOU and YOUR AUDIENCE knows. 


In a fit of weakness I sat down with Pam and Netflix to watch ABC Family's 2011 TV Movie, 12 DATES OF CHRISTMAS. It's about, Kate (Amy Smart), a young woman on the rebound who, in a homage to Groundhog Day, relives a blind date on Christmas Eve 12 times before she learn to be less self-centered, turn her attention to the needs of others, and lands Miles (Mark-Paul Gosselaar).  The main plot is predictable, but the sub-plots are wonderfully say nothing of the elaborate and festive art and prop direction. What makes this movie worth a second and third look, however, is the sub-plotting of secondary characters, their goals and a number of props that have their own three beat motifs. Every time Kate relives her Christmas Eve date, she not only makes progress in her transformational arc (which gives us opportunity to see how the writer's developed it), but she meets new people, and encounters new obstructions...all of which have their own arcs and get resolved by the end. It's really an amazing piece of holiday writing...and a movie to be dissected and studied. Highly recommended.

PASSENGERS - Metaphors, Love, and Jennifer Lawrence

Pam and I also risked a very busy night at the local multiplex (Emagine Entertainment in Novi, MI) to see PASSENGERS. The parking lot was jammed, but the staff at Emagine had done a great job staggering show times, and staffing the ticket booths. Even though we were in a large 80% capacity theater, there were no long lines.

The critics that pan PASSENGERS are stupidity wrong. PASSENGERS is noteworthy on several points. But, first, in summary, it's the story of a spacecraft ferrying 5,200 or so humans to a new planet some 100 light years from earth. With all those people on board, it's fascinating that only 3 of those humans are awake and have speaking parts...Okay, 4 if you count Arthur (Michael Sheen) the robot bartender. For Moral Premise followers here are things to appreciate:

A. The big physical premise (a for profit company populating planets far from earth) is totally over the top, stupid, unbelievable, and preposterous...although the filmmakers make it seem all plausible and beautiful. We are drawn to the awe of the universe and this hi-tech spaceship on auto-pilot as its cargo hibernates for a couple hundred years, and the ship navigates on its own through asteroid fields and whips past stars for gravity assists.

B. BUT, as in many GREAT stories, THAT IS NOT WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT. It IS about how love can grow and develop between a man and a woman in any situation. And THAT is the connection this story has with audiences.  Yes, the visual digital effects are stunning, the art direction and sets really amazing.  (The list of digital artists is almost longer than the movie...I challenge anyone to count them as they go by in the credits.) But PASSENGERS is a love story that suggests we are all passengers, on a sometimes lonely journey where we have a choice to make the best of our life, regardless of the odds we're handed.

C. What kept me deeply intrigued, however, was the rich metaphors about love between a man and a woman. The kernel of the idea seemed to come from the Garden of Eden and Adam longing for a mate. Eve comes along and together the two encounter great tragedies but manage to create a life together...and alone.

D. And then there is Jennifer Lawrence. She makes any film worth going to. One of the few real actresses today.

But so see it for the metaphors and to understand a bit more about what love is really all about.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016



TOM HANKS - Captain Miller
TOM SIZEMORE - Sergeant Horvath
EDWARD BURNS - Pvt. Reiben
BARRY PEPPER - Pvt. Jackson
ADAM GOLDBERG - Pvt. Mellish
VIN DIESEL - Pvt. Caparzo
JEREMY DAVIES - Corporal Upham
MATT DAMON - Pvt. Ryan

Heroes have arcs. They change. But they don't change like protagonists.

In a brief post on Nov 5, 2016, with the assistance of Christopher Vogler, I explain the difference between a Hero and a Protagonist. I promised to write a bit more about that topic by examining SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (SPR) and Capt. James Miller's (TOM HANKS) arc. In SPR Miller is the hero not the protagonist.

To most viewers it will not appear that Capt. Miller changes. If we compare Miller to a common protagonist, I would agree that he does not change...much.

From the Hero and  Protagonist post here's the relevant comparison.
A. The protagonist will start off with an obvious weakness or vice that (in a redemptive story) for example, will arc toward the polar opposite strength or virtue.  
B. By comparison, a hero, at the story's beginning, will almost epitomize a strength or virtue, but have a subtle flaw, which, in the course of the story will arc in the same direction, not the polar opposite. That is, the hero will find a way to increase his strength and deepen his virtue. 
In both cases (the protagonist and the hero) the Moment of Grace (the story's mid-point scene) will clearly fulcrum around the hero's motivational challenge. We might normally ask (for SPR's story question): "Will Captain Miller successfully rescue Pvt. Ryan?" But the question at SPR's Moment of Grace is refined: "Will Captain Miller successfully rescue Pvt. Ryan for the right reason?"

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason, is sometimes the story question in tales about heroes. One of the best known stories that deals with this theme is T.S. Elliot's play, "Murder in the Cathedral" that portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.  It's fairly clear form the beginning that Becket is going to be murdered. The question remains, however, if he will seek it for the glory of martyrdom (a sin), or allow himself to be killed for what is morally right.

Captain Miller, while not seeking martyrdom, believes from the beginning that the mission (to save Pvt. Ryan's life) is NOT worth the lives of the 8 men he takes with him. And yet, Miller is a good soldier, although he has already lost over 90 men under his command in the 3 days since they landed on Omaha, Beach.

We get an opportunity to understand Capt. Miller's attitude early in Act 2 (at 41 minutes). As the men are walking through the countryside, they gripe -- indirectly -- about the orders they've been given. They discuss the senseless purpose of their mission—"for the sake of a mother." Griping is what solider's do. But Miller is a Captain for a reason. He says, "Reiben, pay attention. This is the way to gripe! Continue, Jackson." At which Pvt. Jackson (BARRY PEPPER), the sniper in the group, gripes (about their mission) in a very high-minded, hopeful way.
JACKSON: What I mean, sir, if you put me and this rifle within one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir... Pack your bags, fellas. War's over.
Then we get to the heart of what Miller is thinking. Notice the subtext. The dialogue is not on the nose. It's good script writing, and for reasons like this example, Robert Rodat's screenplay was nominated for an an Oscar.
REIBEN: So, Captain, what about you?
You don't gripe at all?
MILLER: I don't gripe to you, Reiben. I'm a captain. There's a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superiors and so on. I don't gripe to you or in front of you.
REIBEN: I'm sorry, sir, but, uh...Let's say you weren't a captain. What would you say then?
MILLER: Well, in that case, I'd say this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir,
worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover...l feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and will lay down my life and the lives of my men, especially you, Reiben, to ease her suffering.

A  moment after a few of the men sarcastically congratulate their Captain for his clever answer, there is a THUNDER CLAP, and a FLASH OF LIGHTING.  These are alerts to the audience to pay attention...for what Miller has just described sarcastically, will indeed be the case of his mindset at the end. It is a foreshadowing of Miller's arc.

Before we're half through, another of his men's lives is taken. And why he is killed is important, for it underscores the moral premise of the story. For not taking the mission seriously and disobeying orders,  Pvt. Caparzo (VIN DIESEL) opens himself to sniper fire. For a moment he ignores their mission and does something he deemed more noble — ironically trying to save the life of a village family's daughter. Caparzo believes saving this young girl's life is more important than saving Pvt. Ryan's life. And for that mistake Caparzo is picked off by a sniper and dies.

NOTE the experience here that Miller and his men learn from: Children of parents are important. The mother and father had asked for the soldiers to take their daughter to the better protected village up the road. This is exactly the same thing they've been asked to do by General Marshal, for Pvt. Ryan. They don't see this immediately, but it adds to the subtle evidence of the argument for the audience. If you're willing to die for a young girl, why not a brave soldier?

There are other moments about such relationships. One instance is Miller's discussion with Captain Hamill (TED DANSON) who also has a brother in the war and understands the importance of Miller's mission. Hamill tries to encourage Miller of the mission's importance. But Miller is silent, unconvinced.

At 1:05 into the  film we come to Captain Miller's MOMENT OF GRACE. You're going to see how he changes, not by changing his value system, but by reinforcing his willingness to follow orders. As a leader of men in a war, Miller has done a suburb job up to this point, but his mind is about to be changed...and he will become more deeply committed to saving Pvt. Ryan as will the rest of his men.

The Moment of Grace scene occurs moments after Miller talks with Hamill and Pvt. Caparzo is killed. The men are holed up for the night in an abandoned church. Some men sleep, Jackson copies a blood stained letter that Caparzo had written to his parents. (Note by this action how Jackson shows that he understands the important relationship between son and parents.)  Before he died, Caparzo asked Jackson to copy the letter on clean paper, because Caparzo's blood is on the original...which would be a great shock to Caparzo's mother.

In the Moment of Grace scene, the dialogue and visuals, although they seems to bounce off the walls, are really about ONE THING...the relationship of the men to their parents...and how much the parents care for their children, and how much the children (these men) care for their parents, and how Miller has to embrace that reality of Natural Law. ALSO NOTE: Don't miss the analogy of Capt. Miller as the "parent" for the men in his squad.

I've edited a transcription from "Springfield! Springfield! (movie script website) for this MOG scene. I will interrupt it from time-to-time with comments to point out how the events and dialogue in the scene change Miller's attitude about the mission.  I have also broken up scene into sub-scenes, which I will denote with hyphen separators. (I've left nothing out.)  Each section represents a propositional statement (or premise statement in the argument) that Capt. Miller needs to believe in his heart what he sarcastically intoned to his men minutes earlier in their discussion about griping.  Remember, he said:
MILLER: ...this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover...l feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and will lay down my life and the lives of my men...
Of course, this is exactly what Miller comes to believe in this scene, which the DVD labels "CHOICES."

Scene Begins

Miller's hands shakes uncontrollably.
HORVATH: What's with your hand?
MILLER: l don't know. It started when they brought us down for embarkation. It comes and goes. 
Although Miller TELLS us that his hand was shaking at embarkation (and we do see a moment of it after he's landed on the beach), we SEE it in the close up of the shot that begins this scene. Spielberg and Rodat SHOW us that there is something inside Miller that is unsure of their mission. At no time does Miller say, "I'm nervous and unsure about the invasion but also Saving Pvt. Ryan."
HORVATH: You may have to get yourself a new job. This one doesn't seem to agree with you any more.
The "job" here refers both to Miller's occupation as a soldier, and their current mission. NOTE the subtext.

(Miller chuckles) 
HORVATH:What? (beat) What? 
MILLER: Nothing. What was the name of that kid at Anzio? He was always walking around on his hands, and singing that song about the man on the flying trapeze? 
HORVATH: Yeah, Vecchio. 
MILLER: He was a goofy kid. Remember he used to pee 'V' on everybody's jacket, for Vecchio.
HORVATH: For victory. 
MILLER: Vecchio. He was so short. Wasn't he a midget? How did he become a Ranger? 
HORVATH: Got shot in the foot once. 
MILLER: He could walk faster on his hands. He could run faster on his hands than... (trails off.) (Beat) Vecchio. (Beat) Caparzo.
Miller reflects.

We, with Miller, reflect too...about how similar Vecchio is to Caparzo. They are both Rangers. Miller as a "parent" is grieving the memory of both. Both got shot. Both find a place in Miller's heart...something he is not supposed to allow to happen. He is not suppose to "care" for his men, even someone as crazy as Vecchio. (Remember this: Miller does not respect Vecchio; he can't understand how Vecchio became a Ranger.) That Miller does care for his a mom cares for her children causes a problem for him. How can he lead his children to their death if he cares for them? (As we'll see in a moment, these jocular comments about Vecchio are poignant. Don't cast them aside as filler. Nothing in a good movie is filler. )

We're beginning to see some conflict in Miller over this dilemma. So, what does Miller do? He rehearses what he's been taught by his superiors. He vocalizes the paradox that he is struggling with. He can't shake it off. 

MILLER (cont): You see, end up killing one of your men, you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two or three or 10 others. Maybe a hundred others. Do you know how many men l've lost under my command? 
HORVATH: How many? 
MILLER: 94. (beat) (quiet sarcasm) But that means I've saved the lives of 10 times that many, doesn't it? Maybe even 20, right? 20 times as many? And that's how simple it is. That's how you--rationalize making the choice between the mission and the men. 
HORVATH: Except this time, this mission is a man. 
Thus we see that Miller's mission conflict with everything he's been taught about leading men...don't care for them so much. Do not worry if they are killed. Carry on. BUT RYAN must not die. Miller's mission is to bring him back alive.
MILLER: This Ryan better be worth it. He'd better go home
and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb or something. I wouldn't trade 10 Ryans for one Vecchio or one Caparzo.
NOTE: Do you see Miller's attitude, which is now expressed not just on the nose, but on Miller's sleeve?  Miller does not believe in this mission, and he's not willing to give his life for Ryan. Miller considers crazy Vecchio (a man who should not have been a Ranger) more important and Ryan.
And his men clearly feel the same way.

(Miller's hand shakes.) 
MILLER: Look. There it goes again. 
HORVATH: Sir...are you all right? 
MILLER: Look, we're gonna move out in two hours. Why don't you get some sleep?
Interpretation: "Don't start caring for me, Horvath. It's against our constitution as soldiers."

CUT TO one of the men sleeping soundly.
PVT. REIBEN: I don't know how he does it. 
SOLIDER 1: What's that? 
PVT. REIBEN: Falls asleep like that. Look at him. He's lights-out the minute his head's down. 
SOLIDER 2: Clear conscience. 
The shot of the soldier sleeping is reminiscent of a child sleeping, safe in his bed at home. The men looking over him subliminally reminds us of parents...a mother...looking in on her child.
SOLIDER 3: What's that saying? 'If God's on our side, who's on theirs?' 
CORPORAL UPHAM: 'If God be for us, who could be against us?' 
SOLIDER 3Yeah, what did I say?
MEDIC WADE (transcribing Caparzo's letter): Well, actually, the trick to falling asleep is trying to stay awake. 
ANOTHER: How is that, Wade? 
MEDIC WADE: My mother was an intern, she worked late nights, slept through the day, so the only time we got to talk was when she'd get home. So I used to lie in my bed and try to stay awake, but it never worked 'cause the harder I tried, the faster I'd fall asleep.
More mother-child remembrances...and Miller hears all this.
PVT. REIBEN: That wouldn't have mattered in my house. My ma would've shook me awake, chatted till dawn. That woman was never too tired to talk.
ANOTHER: Probably the only time she could get a word in.
PVT. REIBEN: Funny thing is, sometimes she'd come home early, and I'd pretend to be asleep. 
ANOTHER: Who? You...your mom? 
PVT. REIBEN: (ZOOM IN) Yeah. She'd stand in the doorway
looking at me. And I'd just keep my eyes shut. I knew she just wanted to find out about my day, that she came home early... just to talk to me. (tears) And I still wouldn't move. l'd still pretend to just be asleep. I don't know why I did that.
This line by Reiben is significant to the director because we see a very slow zoom in on Reiben as he delivers it, tears come into his eyes, and the filmmakers milk the moment for every frame of emotion. It's the love of a son for a mother, and the love of the mother for a son. NOTE: Contrast this moment with the ridicule we heard earlier in the griping scene when the guys griped about getting Ryan back "for the sake of a mother." Their attitude now, in this moment of grace is pivoted 180 degrees.  Will Miller also shift? Will the hero change?

(silence - contemplation) 
MILLER: We only got a couple hours. Go to sleep.
This line is instructive for two reasons: (a) it reminds us that Miller is paying attention, and (b) he's uncomfortable with the topic and wants it to end.

But the filmmakers are not done. Miller is not yet convinced. So, we pile on more evidence for the argument that Miller needs to be willing to risk his life for Ryan, and truly believe the mission is important.
CORPORAL UPHAM: Captain? Sir? 
MILLER: Corporal?  How you doin' there? You all right?
CORPORAL UPHAM: Yeah, I think this is all good for me, sir. 
MILLER: Really? How is that? 
CORPORAL UPHAM: (quiet reflection): 'War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.' 
MILLER: Yeah, well, I guess that's Emerson's way of finding the bright side. 
CORPORAL UPHAM: You know Emerson, sir? 
MILLER: I know some. 
CORPORAL UPHAM: So where are you from, Captain? What'd you do before the war? 
MILLER:  What's the pool up to? 
CORPORAL UPHAM: (taken back) You know, I think it's around 300, sir. 
MILLER: Well, when it gets up to 500, I'll give you the answers and we'll split the money. How about that? 
CORPORAL UPHAM: : Well, sir, I feel it's my duty under your command to suggest we wait until it gets to a thousand, sir.
MILLER: What if we don't live that long? 
MILLER: 500 would be good, yeah. 
MILLER: Yeah. Get some sleep, Corporal.
Those are the last spoken lines in the scene. But it continues for another 40 seconds as Miller walks off by himself and thinks, we suppose about Emerson's lines. Miller has to decide:
  • If war will educate his sensitivities.
  • If he can exercise his will, and not just those of his commanders.
  • If he has the physical disposition to do what is right for the right reasons.
  • If when critical decisions have to be made swiftly in close combat, he will measure up to his ideal of a man.
The camera zooms in and the swift light of explosions that bring sudden death illuminate his profile.

During the rest of the film, we see example of example of how Miller and his men come to see their mission with renewed dedication. There is no more griping, and many of them men give their lives willingly for the cause.

In the end, Miller willingly gives up his life to protect Ryan, acting out the sarcastic description early in Act 2.. As he lays dying on the bridge approach Miller tells Ryan: "Earn this! Earn this!" 

At the end of the movie,  an elderly Pvt. James Ryan comes to the graveyard at Omaha Beach to pay his respects to Captain Miller. He finds Miller's marker, and with tears in his eyes, the humble man, who probably didn't cure a disease or invent a longer lasting light bulb, delivers this soliloquy to Miller's grave:
OLDER RYAN: My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn't sure how I'd feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I've tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I've earned what all of you have done for me.
Ryan's elderly wife, joined by their children, come up behind him, and tenderly grasps his shoulder. She sees he's been crying.
RYAN'S WIFE: James? 
OLDER RYAN: Tell me I've led a good life. 
OLDER RYAN: Tell me I'm a good man. 
RYAN'S WIFE: You are.
NOTE: That although Pvt. Ryan (MATT DAMON) and his elder self Older James Ryan (HARRISON YOUNG) take up very little screen time, Ryan's life also has an arc...a hero's arc. At the bridge PVT. RYAN refuses to go with Miller and leave his platoon who guard the bridge. When the Germans show up and Miller is shot, Ryan experiences his Moment of Grace. Before he dies, Miller pleas with Ryan: Earn this. Earn this.

And evidently Ryan has earned it. Indeed it seems clear that Ryan has, everyday of his life, relived that Moment of Gerace on the bridge, and rededicated his life to strengthen the virtues for which Miller died. 

Therefore, the moral premise for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN seems to be:

Griping about one's mission in life, leads to questionable manhood and purpose; but
Devotion to one's mission in life, leads a man to a good and purposeful life.

Please know that your comments are welcome. 

You'll find a great deal of good instruction and come closer to mastering your storytelling skills by making use of my on-line Storycraft Training. Housed at Vimeo's VOD site, it can be accessed from  Your rental or purchase of the training helps to fund my continued research and writing of essays like this. 

May your writing continue to Vanquish Fear, and Bestow Hope.

Stan Williams

This picture has nothing to do with this post, but I have admired this man all my adult life. It was fabulous to meet him and help introduce him at a film conference in Los Angeles a few years back.