Thursday, December 29, 2011


At the onset, come clarifications:

(a) I have not studied horror as some have. There are some books (which I have not read) but which look valuable, and there are excellent articles on this topic that I have read, carefully, and recommend.

(b) My taste for horror is limited to those stories where the meaning is rich and thick, and the effects minimal.

(c) Most horror gratuity (explicit effects) is moral excess that can serve to dull and numb the conscience.

(d) I think well-crafted horror services a valuable purpose and I recommend such films, e.g. ALIEN, I AM LEGEND, THE DESCENT, (and the like) and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (yep, that's horror).

The best article I’ve seen is Brian Godawa’s AN APOLOGETIC OF HORROR that examines the horror genre in light of Christian theology and what is found in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.  I highly recommend it, and will again. I won't attempt to summarize Brian's work, because it is efficient and exhaustive, and doesn't need my spin. It stands alone.

In my consulting and teaching a question keeps popping up, and so I need to answer it briefly, and let other experts expound and correct me, like Brian. The question is this:

"If the popularity of a movie is proportional of the truth communicated by that movie, how do horror movies (which are very popular) teach truth?" In other words, “Why are horror movies so dang popular?”

I think there are a host of reasons. Here is a brief list, which assumes that the movie in question connects with audiences on a large scale. All of these reasons relate to “the moral premise” -- characters make moral choices that have physical consequences that correlate with natural law. In no particular order, and with considerable overlap which I am too per-occupied otherwise to correct at this time:
  • Horror movies emotionally involve the audience and remind them that their soul is in danger of damnation. Pay attention ye mortals.
  • Horror movies cause us to identify with the protagonist. We fear for him or her, we yell out to watch out. In short, we practice compassion...a virtue... and, thus we are taught to warn our friends of evil lurking in dark places.
  • Horror movies reveal the consequences of characters who are sinful or foolish or weak. Such stories remind us “DON’T DO IT”. They “scare the hell out of us.” (And that’s a good thing.)
  • Horror movies, as in all well-crafted movies, prove that SIMULATION is safer than ACTUAL EXPERIENCES. See what happens to others, but don’t go near it yourself. Learn from experiences or learn from simulation. I’ll take the simulation.
  • Horror movies boosts our self-confidence by reminding us (hopefully) that we will not be as stupid as the girl who just got killed.
  • Horror gives those in the audience who have experienced abuse, a way to get control of their emotions by CHOOSING to walk out of the theater, even at the end, and know that my life isn’t as bad as what was portrayed in the movie... or if it was that bad, to walk away from it.
  • Horror in many (if not most) circumstances is social commentary. Zombies might refer to mall rats or greedy predators. Vampires remind us of the monsters that tyrannical dictators lord over their populaces, controlling them with evil seductions. Monsters (on skyscrapers or in caves) metaphor social powers, physical abusers, or unconfessed sin dodging us as guilt.
  • Horror can remind us that suffering can be good, when the common or greater good is served.
  • Horror reminds us that no one is entirely innocent.
  • Horror presents commentary about the consequences of sin to a society that that has avoided softer words of warning. It instills a holy fear of sin, as well as a fear of foolishness and stupidity.
I discuss some of these points in my two posts on CLOVERFIELD and THE DESCENT.

And again, I recommend you study Brian’s excellent article referenced above.


It also seems that there is a ranking of horror sub-genres from realism to fantasy. By no means exhaustive, here is a short list that might be useful when comparing and contrasting stories for critique or for consideration by an author.

1.    Stark Realism (PRECIOUS, SCHINDLER’S LIST)
2.    Psychological Horror (BLAIR WITCH, THE VILLAGE)
3.    Spiritual Realism (THE EXORIST, THE RITE)
4.    Magical Realism (THE GREEN MILE)
5.    Gothic Horror (BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA)
6.    Monster Horror (CLOVERFIELD, KING KONG)
7.    Sacramental Horror (all Vampire and Zombie stories)
8.    Slasher Horror (gratuitous exploitation of all the above)

Friday, December 9, 2011


You can learn the principles of story structure discussed in this post by taking the on-line Storycraft Training workshop linked to in the right column of his blog.

HANCOCK Structural Analysis based on The Moral Premise

Director: Peter Berg
Writers: Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan

John Hancock – WILL SMITH
Aaron – JAE HEAD

Released: July 2, 2008
Budget: $150MM
Domestic: $228MM
World Wide: $624MM

THIS ANALYSIS CONTAINS A MAJOR SPOILER. If you have not watched HANCOCK yet, please stop reading and go watch it first. It’s worth the effort. For me this film contains the most surprising audience sting in the history of cinema. So wonderful is it, that I didn’t tell my wife for 3 years until I finally got her to watch it the other night on BlueRay. At 54 minutes I was glued, not on the screen, but to Pam’s face. Her reaction was priceless. She about fell off the coach. END OF WARNING.

HANCOCK is the story of an immortal “superhero” who has lost his identity to alcohol, his memory to amnesia, and the respect of the public who don’t hesitate to call him an “a--hole.” And although his deeds bring criminals to justice, they’re also a huge financial burden the city of Los Angeles inasmuch as his crime fighting has resulted in over 600 warrants for felony destruction of property. When Hancock rescues well-meaning trapped-in-his car-Ray from being killed by a train, Ray asks Hancock to “drop” him at home where he invites the “super” for dinner. It’s then that Hancock meets Ray’s wife, Mary, and son, Aaron.

Suffice it to say, Hancock redeems himself with Ray’s help. Ray is perhaps the biggest heart in Public Relations, and demonstrates an altruistic effort to change the world, with Hancock as Ray’s latest project. We should all have managers like Ray. As Mary, his wife says to Ray: “You see good in everybody, Ray -- even when the good is not there.” 

Here briefly are the physical goals for the main characters:

-->To physically find himself and his true identity, and to act on his physical purpose in life. This sounds ambiguous but the portrayal makes it visceral. This is also well-crafted insofar as his physical want is clearly the consequence of neglecting his psychological need—to pursue with dignity his in-born identity. It is clear that the reason he lost his physical knowledge and ability to fully act on his identity (when he was mugged in Miami) because he purposely ignored his identity as a super and tried to live a normal life with Mary.
Hancock has subplot goals as well, as do the other characters:
a) Public: To be respected again. (Redeem his character.)
b) Personal: To get out of prison.
c) Professional: To stop crime and save lives.
d) Family: To have a woman in his life.

Mary: To get Hancock out of her familiy's life, so she can life a normal life as Ray's wife and mother to Aaron.

Ray: To help the world be a better place by getting corporations to embrace his charitable "All Heart" logo and terms. And related to that, use  Hancock to prove his philosophy to the world, that the world can indeed be a better place with love and respect.

Red: To kill Hancock out of revenge for taking his power away, (and his hand).

These physical goals are important because they become metaphors in each character's life for what the movie is really about — the moral premise. To the extent that each character psychologically embraces the vitreous or vice side of the moral premise we will see the metaphor lived out on the physical side of their life.


HANCOCK is an action movie involving mythic gods a.k.a. superheroes. The movie references Greek mythology as its antecedent. In Greek myths the heavenly action is motivated by the moral choices and soap opera behavior of the characters. Likewise, the action in HANCOCK, while eye-candy to be sure, is entirely motivated by the moral choices of Hancock and his co-protagonists and belligerents, to accept or reject who they are called to be. If they accept their in-born identity with grace and dignity they are successful, if they reject who they are by a faux self-rationalization or through self-loathing, they fail, or come to a diseased demise.

Thus, Moral-Physical Premise Statements that apply to HANCOCK are:

Ignoring our in-born identity through excuse or self-loathing
leads to
an unhealthy and aimless life;
Pursuing our in-born identity with dignity and perseverance
leads to
a healthy and purposeful life.

Short-handing that a bit:

Rejecting our God-given identity
leads to an aimless life;
Embracing our God-given identity
leads to a purposeful life.

Or, in the vernacular of the movie:

Choosing to avoid what we were created to be
leads to being an a--hole;
Choosing to pursue our calling
leads to being a “super” hero.

Looks look briefly how this effects the arcs of our three main characters:

Ray accepts his calling perfectly. He’s the perfect public relations manager, who sees the good in everyone even if there’s no good to be seen. He is faithful, loving, and kind. He demonstrates mastery of this virtue with fat-cat executives who arrogantly are unwilling to give away 1% of their wealth in order to help change the world. And he demonstrates the embrace of his calling with belligerent, superhero, self-loathing drunks -- that would be Hancock.

Hancock is the opposite. He does not know who he is (something brought on by an attempted mugging 80 years ago). But even before the mugging Hancock had rejected his calling. He was created to save the world, and gave it up to live a “normal life" and in the process screws up his life.  I can’t help but contrast Hancock’s backstory beats of his rejection to embrace his superhero status, with the climactic beats of Scorsese’ THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. In that movie, Christ is tempted to come down off the cross, live a normal life by getting married and have kids — e.g. not die on the cross for humanity. But Christ refuses the temptation to be normal and chooses to embrace what he was on earth to do — die on the cross. Christ’s calling was to choose to be a superhero and save the world. He did. And in that way Scoresese is faithful to the Biblical portrayle of Christ.

On the other hand... the mythic Hancock is also sent to earth to protect it. Ray says, “You have a calling, you’re a hero...” Hancock can choose to be who he was created to be. But, 80 years ago, in the backstory, Hancock rejects that calling, gives into the temptation to be “normal,” opens himself up to the susceptibility of mortality, and while walking home from the theater (Boris Karloff’s FRANKENSTEIN) with Mary (his superhero "wife") he’s mugged, forgets who he is, and seems destined to live the rest of his life in a drunken stupor. Thus, in the backstory, by rejecting the truth of the moral premise, Hancock chooses to lead his life down a deeper, tragic path, further rejecting his natural gifts as the world’s crime stopper.

Now, this arc is also true of Mary, in a mythic, historical sense Hancock’s goddess wife. Sometime before the backstory they chose to dismiss their calling as mythic gods or angels to protect humankind and pair-up to live normal lives. As the diegesis rules go, when the “pair” are physically close they become morals and lose their super strength, but also end up being able to love and die. In living so, 80 years ago, they’re mugged and Hancock is seriously injured. He suffers amnesia and can’t remember who he is.

Mary, in a moral dilemma over her calling (and his), leaves him. Her intentions are partly noble. She hopes Hancock will regain his strength (with her away from him). There’s a suggestion that she also wants to assuage her guilt at turning away from their created calling. When Hancock tells this story to Ray and Mary at dinner, watch the multiple takes of Mary and her eyes; at this time Hancock does not remember who Mary is and she's not willing to tell him. Hancock laments that nobody claimed him at the hospital after the mugging, and since then he has had no clue about his past. Mary's guilt is palatable. But there is something special about Hancock; she says to him late in the movie:
You’re built to save people, more than the rest of us. That’s who you are. You’re a hero. The insurance policy of the gods. Keep one alive. You. To protect this world.
She further explains that “they” (implying their super enemies) always try to destroy Hancock by coming through her. Thus, to keep Hancock alive, Mary has tried to say away and keep them apart. But Hancock always seems to “find” her, as if by fate, although she’s quick to point out that fate doesn’t control all our lives, sometimes we can choose.

[A LITTLE CATHOLIC SIDEBAR. Probably unintended by the filmmakers, but if you have some Catholic sensibility you'll notice that this piece of story exposition parallels the Catholic teaching that that you can't come to Christ without coming to him through his mother, Mary. It was her choice (not fate) to obey her created calling to be his mother that allowed Christ to come into the world as its savior. Thus, you'll often hear in Catholic circles that we come to Christ through Mary, or we come to the Church through Mary. This was why, at the Council of Ephesus in 431 in order to protect Christ's identity as God incarnate, the Church proclaimed Mary "the Mother of God." The enemies of Christ were attacking Mary to get at Christ. The proclamation by the Council of Ephesus wasn't to elevate Mary, but was designed to protect Christ's identity. Thus in HANCOCK we see Mary trying to protect Hancock's identity as the mythic savior, and the bad guys using Mary to get at Hancock. On second thought, the parallels are pretty strong... wonder if they were intended allegorically???]


Movie Story Length: 84 min

Inciting Incident (Ideal: 12:5% or 10.5 minutes. Actual: Begins at 10.5 minutes.)

The inciting incident is that moment or scene where the protagonist is reminded that his life is not perfect, and yet it could be, if he would just go on a journey of redemption.

In HANCOCK, our protagonist rescues Ray from a train. When Hancock first taps on Ray’s hood to announce his arrival, we’re about 10:15 into the movie. Hancock lifts the car off the tracks at 10:30. But the rescue doesn’t sit well with the many people watching. Hancock has destroyed a few automobiles, a locomotive, and derailed a long train. As the people remind him, he could have chosen to do the rescue differently and not destroyed any property. They all call him to change, to go on a journey. But he calls them all idiots.

Ray then steps to Hancock's defense: “I’m alive. I get to go home and see my family.” The scene ends with Ray asking Hancock if he’s flying by the valley and could he (Hancock) “drop” him (Ray) off. Indeed, Hancock “drops” Ray and his car at his house. Ray invites Hancock to dinner, where he meets Mary and Aaron. After dinner, as Hancock leaves the house, Ray INVITES Hancock to go on a journey of change and redemption. Ray becomes Hancock’s mentor. These beats are perfect in terms of story structure. And as all protagonists should do, Hancock rejects the journey -- at first – only to return to go on the journey.

Notice that just after the train rescue, Hancock is also encouraged to go on a journey of change by the public who demand that he should have rescued Ray differently. But Hancock just ridicules them and rejects their invitation.

Crossing the Journey’s Threshold or End of Act 1 Climax (Ideal 25% or 21 minutes. Actual: 21 minutes.)

It’s Hancock's return to Ray’s house (around 21:00) that signals Hancock’s wiliness to be guided on the journey, but he has reservations, and doesn’t really cross a physical threshold until he agrees to go to prison for the past warrants for felony destruction of property (at 26:58). Thus, we see two thresholds crossed. First is Ray's doorstep and willingness to talk about what he has to change, but the second is the admission of his faults at a press conference and then entering prison.

While the threshold can be thought of as either or both of those two moments, I prefer to think of it as the first because: (a) he makes a conscious effort to consider the explicit offer, and (b) it fits with an audience’s need for a bump or beat to see the story advance. Indeed, at 20 minutes, just before Hancock greets Ray outside the house, there is a foreshadowing of Hancock’s arc when Hancock meets Michel, the neighborhood French bully of Aaron. When Michel calls Hancock an a--hole for the third time, Hancock throws Michel skyward and is caught moments later. Michel has traveled one of the faster arcs in cinema, literally, and emotionally. He leaves the street (aiming for the stars) as an arrogant bully, and returns to Earth a humble crybaby. The arc is similar to what we’ll see Hancock travel, from arrogant, dismissive, destructive “god” to humble, accountable, and constructive superhero.

Thus, the first half of Act 2 is in two sequences. The first sequence is at Ray’s house where Ray tries to convince Hancock that he can change and he needs to change, and that in changing, Hancock will better know who he is and (re)discover his purpose in life. The second sequence is Hancock in prison, where he comes to accept his need to do public penance and deal with his anger issues. Indeed, it works. After only a few weeks of an 8-year sentence, with crime on the rise in the city, Hancock is called out of prison by the Chief of Police. And we have a MOG.

Moment of Grace (MOG). (Ideal 50% or 42 minutes. Actual 40 minutes, with Hancock actually showing up at the bank robbery scene at 41 minutes.).

I’ve written somewhere before that MOG’s are essentially the time when a character figuratively looks in a mirror and sees a different person. Filmmakers sometimes, at the MOG, have the character literally look into a mirror. HANCOCK offers us a perfect example. At 40 minutes into the film, shortly after Hancock gets a call from the Chief of Police, there are several shots of Hancock looking into his prison cell’s tin mirror and then saving off his scruffy beard (with his fingers). Thus, every shot of Hancock before the MOG he wears a scruffy beard and a belligerent expression. Afterward the MOG he’s clean-shaven and accommodating.

Hancock shows up at the robbery scene at 41 minutes. For the first time he walks among the police and with a clean-shaven demeanor says to the cops in a staid silly way, “Good job.”(the actor playing the cop, by the way, is Will Smith's personal trainer.)  It’s a line that Ray rehearsed with Hancock during their PR training sessions in the prison visiting room. Needless to say, Hancock gets the job done in super heroic style and is rewarded with grand applause from the by-standers and the reinstatement of his popular hero status.

Near Death/Act 2 Climax: (Ideal: 75% or 63 minutes.) Actual: 63 minutes.

If mythic gods are going to fight in the heavenlies, then movie “gods” must do battle on the streets of Los Angeles (makes sense -- I guess.) The battle here is between Hancock and Mary, who is determined to keep Hancock from ruining her happy life as a mother and wife, and is likewise determined that he live his life apart from her so he can continue to be a superhero. After a bit of exposition at Hancock’s hilltop “trailer complex” she tells him they were (before) "brother and sister," But, he knows better and calls her a liar and flies off to tell Ray. Afraid that Hancock will ruin her marriage, she’s determined to stop him.

After an aerial chase that ricochets off a few hills they do battle on a street in downtown L.A. -- as Ray watches from a presentation boardroom in an office building, of which Mary and Hancock have stripped of its windows in a super sideswipe. The whole battle is the climax of Act 2 where Hancock battles Mary to discover who he really is, his goal. Her goal is to keep her "normal" life intact. She holds a secret and in an effort to reject HER created purpose and live a normal life, she wants to keep Hancock’s relationship with her and his past a secret as well. But Hancock is determined to not let that happen. It’s at 62:50 that Hancock calls her “crazy” to which Mary responds, “Call me crazy – one more time.” He says: “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!”  And at precisely 63 minutes she picks up a truck and slams him into the pavement. It's near death for most of us, and super eye candy for the rest.

Following the street battle, Hancock and Mary fly back to her home, just after Ray shows up. And the “Dark Night of the Soul” scenes commence with all three of them none too happy about the revelations and their tangled relationships.

Final Incident (Ideal: 87.5% or 73.5 minutes.) Actual: 75.5 minutes.
(followed by hand-to-hand combat to the death)

Red and his escaped cons attack Mary and then Hancock in hospital and would kill them both if it wasn’t for Ray who comes to Hancock’s rescue. Hancock is vulnerable becasue of his close proximity to Mary, who lies in a hosptial bed from a gunshot wound... something she sustained because she was so close to Hancock.

Final Climax/Act 3 (Ideal: 95-98%/ 80 min-82 minutes.) Actual: 81 minutes.
Hancock struggles to get away from the hospital so that Mary and he will both live -- and so he can live to fight crime another day, e.g. live to be who he was created to be.

The Dénouement finds Ray and Mary at a county fair as he drills her about the  men in her life and what they were like. He:" Attila the Hun?" She: "Cross-eyed." etc. Meanwhile, Hancock has relocated to the peak of the Empire State Building in Manhattan, where he stands guard with an Eagle at his side.

What’s next?

Rumor has it that HANCOCK 2 is in development.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Character Management

I came across an old overhead projector cell (remember those?) from a workshop I gave to corporate managers on management styles. I was about to toss it, when I realized that these ten Management Styles could easily define Character Styles, or how a character interacts with the rest of the world. This could be useful for envisioning what a character is like and how to write him or her:

Management by Control (MBC, aka Theory X)
Autocratic, demanding, threatening. Or manipulative, detailed, or use of sanctions.
Management by Walking Around (MBWA)
Letting people see you watching them. Being curious about what they're doing and asking questions that helps them think about the consequences of their actions.
Management by Objective (MBO, aka Theory Y)
Getting others to accept mutually agreeable goals and deadlines.
Management by Listening (MBL)
Getting others to talk to you about their problems and talk them out. Usually the person, if they're interested, will solve their own problems, by you just listening.
Management by Motivation (MBM, aka Carrot Theory)
If you have something others want, barter. Could be for a benevolent or sinister end.
Management by Encouragement (MBE)
 Cheerleader for your goals, or so other will like and follow you.
Management by Exception (MBX)
Ignore anything unless it is really irritating, then use another management style to fix it.
Management by Hearsay (MBH)
Do your research by asking for the opinion of prejudice individuals around you.
Management by Assumption (MBA)
Don't ask. Don't research. Just jump to the conclusions. It's faster.
Management by Theatrics (MBT)
Jump up and down and yell all the time. The sky is falling. 

Take a current script or story project and assign one of the Management Styles to each of your main characters. Are there going to be sparks, or is it a slumber party?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

FREE E-BOOK: Top 10 Reasons Why It's a Great Time to be a Filmmaker Vol 1

My publisher for The Moral Premise, Michael Wiese, came up with a promotion idea for a free e-book. It came out today: Top 10 Reasons Why It's a Great Time to be a Filmmaker Vol 1.

Sure, it's a great promotion for his filmmaking books, but it's more than that. A lot more. Fifty of his authors, including myself, responded. We wrote fifty short chapters that promise to inspired storytellers and filmmakers for years to come.

You can get it for FREE by going to Michael Wiese On the front page you'll see the promotion. All you have to do is give them your email address or confirm it, or buy a product from their website, and you'll get an email to download the e-pub free of charge.

My contribution, THE INSPIRING PROVIDENCE OF FILMMAKING, you'll find near the front on page 11.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dr. Henry Russell On the Role of Cinema in The Great Conversation

An Interview with Henry Russell, Ph.D.
by Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D.

Henry Russell
Henry Russell, Ph.D. is a classics educator, headmaster of St. Augustine’s Homeschool Enrichment Program (founded with his wife Crystal), and president of the SS Peter and Paul Educational Foundation. He is known particularly for The Catholic Shakespeare Audio Series. His writings have been published in various journals.


STAN WILLIAMS: What do you make of this idea that narrative cinema can participate in The Great Conversation.

HENRY RUSSELL: Well, film is primarily a visual and auditory medium. It can’t easily handle the complexity of philosophical ideas that words allow. So, film demands that the director and producers spend enough time with the ideas to understand them, and then pick which ideas to make the movie around. Filmmakers have to know which 10% of a book to make into a movie. The selection process probably needs to be more collaborative. Because what will happen is that one person, who knows the ideas really well, selects the book’s topic, and the director in exasperation says, “Good, God! How am I going to visualize that?” Consequently, directors default to the ideas that are easiest to visualize. And, as a result society experiences this discontinuity between a good book and an important film.

STAN WILLIAMS: Is there an example in modern cinema?
HENRY RUSSELL: Sure. Peter Jackson in THE LORD OF THE RINGS (TLOTR) had generally no idea what major ideas Tolkien was getting at, such as the patient certainty of Aragorn and his complete confidence in his destiny. The film’s portrayal of Aragorn is one of a man with an identity crisis. Another thing Jackson misses is the power of words. When said relatively slowly and cumulatively, words can change the human heart, and define eventually what is true.  Literature, unlike philosophy and theology, functions by the accumulation of words. Like chipping away at a stone, a little bit at a time. But a film functions by large scale visual declarations. In the TLOTR books the telling of tales to each other is a big deal. But that doesn’t communicate easily to film. When characters talk all the time you lose the line of action that drives the film.

STAN WILLIAMS: Because you’re telling not showing.

HENRY RUSSELL: Yes, but it’s the telling that is how people function.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Kite Runner and VALUES TABLES

Writers: DAVID BENIOFF (SP), and
Khaled Hosseini (N)

AMIR: Khalid Abdalla (adult), Zekeria Ebrahimi (young)
HASSAN: Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada
BABA: Homayoun Ershadi
SORAYA: Atossa Leoni
RAHIM KHAN: Shaun Toub
ASSEF: Abdul Salam Yusoufzai (adult), Elham Ehsas (young)
GENERAL TAHERI: Abdul Qadir Farookh
SOHRAB: Ali Danish Bakhtyari (Hassan's son)
ZAMAN: Mohamad Amin Rahimi (Orphanage Director)


(It was late when I posted this, so please advise of typos.)
Amir, Baba and winning kite.
It's 1978 in Kabul, Afghanistan. A crazy place with humans trying to find dignity in the midst of hell. A puppet Communist government thinks it's in power. But the Islamic Mullah's really control the the people through intimidation. At the same time the Afghan guerrilla Mujahideen movement is born. The Russians invade the next year. When the Afghans defeat Russia in 1989 killing 40,000-50,000 Soviets, with help from U.S. shoulder fired rockets,  there is more fighting.

In 1992 there are elections under a tenuous run Mujahideen Islamic State. More fighting. In 1994 the Taliban with their version of extreme Islamic fundamentalism (believe or die, or die because we don't like you -- tyranny) they make rubble out of Kabul. There is Pakistani and Iranian interference. More fighting. Mass killings by the Taliban, and the Hazaras sect is massacred.

God tries to slow the Taliban down by bringing Earthquakes to the country that kill tens of thousands. But the Taliban tries to out-do God. Osama bin Laden makes plans from within Afghanistan, attacks the U.S. (NY and Washington), setting up the U.S. attack in 2001. This is a very crazy place, and the reason many didn't want the U.S. to get involved, even to stop the Taliban --who  seem to have been infected with the same demons that possessed the Nazis.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Not Without My Daughter

Director: Brian Gilbert
Writers: Betty Mahmoody (book), William Hoffer (book), David W. Rintels

Sally Field as Betty Mahmoody
Alfred Molina as Moody
Sheila Rosenthal as Mahtob

(This summary includes political observations mostly from the book. The movie leaves out many dramatic beats that help to understand the story's meaning and moral premise.)

NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER is the true story of Betty, an the American-Christian wife of the Americanized and trained Iranian doctor, Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody, D.O. (Moody), who was born-in-and raised in a strict Islamic family in Iran.  Betty and Moody lived in Corpus Christi, TX and later Alpena, MI, where Moody was an anesthesiologist. They met when he treated her for back pain. When the American backed Shah of Iran (the last of 2,500  years of Persian monarchs) was deposed, allowing the Iranian Revolution on 11 February 1979 (and the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran), many Iranians longed to go back to Iran. The idea of a strict Islamic state (where men ruled with impunity -- a family level terrorism) is very attractive, in a demonic way, to the male ego.  Moody was one of them, and in the process of re-embracing his Islamic heritage, also embraced the Islamic revolution's anti-American ideology.

Virgins waiting in paradise for Islamic fundamentalist men.
[There is a fundamental anti-conscience aspect to radical Islam where rote ideology supports a culture where suppression of another person's conscience (the inner sense of what is right or wrong) is allowed and encouraged. This is done in order to bring about the outward observance of Islam, if not by free-will, by fear and oppression. It is a culture where the disposition of the heart is meaningless, i.e. the individual's right to determine moral right and wrong is suppressed.  It is a form of tyranny where a few control the lives of many through fear. In Nazi Germany the central figure was a man backed by a political machine. In radical Islam the central figure is a perversion of God's character and a religious machine.  Islam's version of paradise (for a man) promises the attention of virgins when he gets to heaven. This is hilariously parodied in the picture above.]

MOODY by Alfred  Molina
Thus, Moody manipulates Betty to take their daughter back for a 2-week visit to Iran to visit his family, but secretly he has no intention of leaving, or letting them leave the deeply misogynistic culture.  Betty realizes this, in part, because of Moody's involvement in pro-Iranian/anti-American student activism here in the U.S.. She knows Iran is not a pleasant place, especially if you are American and female. But she loves her husband and wants to please him. Upon arrival in Iran, it appears that her worst fears are realized: Moody declares that they will be living there from now on.

Why would Moody (an American trained doctor) stay in a culture that seems to have jumped backwards 1,000 years in terms of hygiene, medicine, science, human rights, freedoms, and basic knowledge about the human condition? Several reasons. (1) It's revealed that his political activities in the U.S. have resulted in his termination from two jobs, in two states, and two different hospital systems -- further resulting in the loss of his Green Card.

[Some may see this as racism here in the U.S. or cultural prejudice. But prejudice is an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason. And there is reason to not trust an overtly active, anti-American doctor, treating American patients, in the American Hospital system, like Moody.]

BETTY by Sally Fields
(2) The second reason Moody relapses to his upbringing is that (as Betty surmises in the book) there is an basic inability of the Islamic culture to think independently -- a trait ingrained by the educational system upon her daughter, where all learning is by rote repetition. There is no opportunity in the system for reasoning or independent thinking, or creativity. In other words the conscience is improperly formed. You are taught only to say and think what is spoon fed to you. This becomes evident in Moody's refusal to do anything his ego does not want him to do, and Moody's cousin who, when in America, refuses to take a entry level position in a bank as a teller. The only job the cousin is willing to consider is an offer to be president of a company. Being the CEO sounds like a creative, take-initiative position, until you realized that the cousin's demand is the product of a rote ideology ingrained culturally into the male ego. The culture, thus, only survives through severe autocracy of various kinds and at various levels.

Betty conscience tells her to return to America. When he finally allows her return he refuses to led their daughter, Mahtob, go back with Betty, insisting that Betty (under the pretense of attending her Father's funeral),  sell their extended American assets (homes and checking accounts) and send the money to Moody in Iran. Moody is desperate for money because his license to practice medicine in Iran has not been approved due to his American training. Nothing from America has any value to the government. And so, with some-half-efforts on the part of her female Iranian friends (who love intrigue, which is brought on by their suppression), Betty is determined to escape from Iran. But the obstacles to taking her daughter with her seem insurmountable.

MAHTOB by Sheila Rosenthal
I often think the book and movie are both good, although movie versions always show less. But in this case, the movie is sub-standard in terms of story telling and production value. Some of it is the director's decision (or budget requirement) to minimize the visuals-on-screen because the Iranian culture is visually minimal. (Shot in Israel.)  Everything is stark, gray, black, and sensual. In the book, even the food is bland and apparently unappetizing.  But the camera angles chosen, framing, lighting, and the "god-awful" music (more German classical than anything Persian or Iranian) was distracting and seemed like a cheap library afterthought. Indeed, some of  the scenes could have used music but were barren. "Barren" does depict the production values. But the acting was very good, especially little Rosenthal as Mahtob. How little kids get their timing and emotional arcs amazes me. Good direction, helps. The screenplays choiceof scenes seemed right, but left out major plot points that would have confused me had I not read the book. Being from Michigan, I was disappointing that Atlanta stood in for it.

Throughout the book, Betty reiterates that her father brought her up to believe: Where there's a will, there's a way. This engenders in Betty, a perseverance in the midst of persecution, that allows her achievement of the goal -- getting out of Iran with her daughter. And the odds and obstacles for the unlikely, common hero are immense -- natural structure for a successful movie.

Now, consider "Where there's a will, there's a way" in light of the cultural artifacts that I've discussed above, namely the autocratic Islamic culture of rote learning and behavior, -- or the training that dislodges a properly formed conscience from what it means to be fully human. In this story, Betty retains or embodies the practice of listening to her (properly formed) conscience (or will) while her antagonists (the autocratic Islamic culture, represented by Moody) embody a rote-mentality (or suppression of the will) and a willingness to live under tyranny.

Thus, this becomes the story's moral-physical premise statement (where "conscience" is understood as the natural, organic, true-to-natural law sense of right and wrong):

Suppression of the conscience leads to tyranny; but
Preservation of the conscience leads to freedom. 

or stated with words from Betty's father:

Suppression of an individuals will leads to tyranny; but
Preservation of an individual's will leads to freedom.

The paradox of all this occurs when one individual's will has the goal of suppressing another person's individual will.

Book Jacket: Mahtob and Betty
Reading the book (and watching the movie) was at the same time a fearful and hopeful experience, that reminded me of my own failings as a man, and the promise of being fully human. It was revealing, satisfying, and even a sacred time of reflection on our world and much redemption is needed.

It reinforces what I write at the end of The Moral Premise: 

Vanquish Fear, Bestow Hope


Friday, October 7, 2011

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth is a emotional book-movie combination of Metaphors and Premises. It is one of those rare marriages of novel and motion picture (i.e. TV mini series with big budgets) that define the concept of epic literature and the motion picture arts. I would classify this with the Lord of the Rings, but without the fantasy. While some historians of 12th Century Western Europe would no doubt whine about it's accuracy, my joy is seeing a story told well, in both mediums. It also reinforces my observation that the best stories are not short, nor limited to 120-page screenplays, or is it 90-110 pages, now?

Eight, 60-min episodes on STARZ or DVD
High production value, fabulous casting, directing and acting and seamless special effects.
Accuracy: Fictional based on real events, but structured for story with a true moral premise.

Directed by: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Written by: Ken Follett and John Pielmeier

Starring (L-R, above)
Ian McShane - Bishop Waleran
Rufus Swell – Tom Builder
Matthew Macfadyen – Monk Fr. Philip
Eddie Redmayne – Jack Jackson
Hayley Atwell – Aliena
Donald Sutherland - Bartholomew

It was a year or so ago Pam and I watched the Episodes 1-8 on our Apple Box and big screen display with our nearly voice-of-the-theater speakers. What a great experience. We tried to spread it out over 8 nights, but the production was so well done in every respect, we watched 2 or 3 episodes a night... and then were disappointed when it was over.

Episode Titles:
1. Anarchy
2. Master Builder
3. Redemption
4. Battlefield
5. Legacy
6. Witchcraft
7. New Beginnings
8. The Work of Angels

I'm reading the novel now. I bought a used Library binding, Morrow edition. (I still like paper books, that I can mark up and hold in my hand without running on reserve power half way through a transcontinental flight and then using even more energy off the power grid. Yes, I'm into killing trees...they're a renewable resource and have proven to benefit humankind over the millennium.) Nice smooth, off-white paper, clear serifed font.  I've estimated the word count, for what some say is Follett's most popular novel, at  405,000 words. Bring it on. I love epic stuff that takes a long time to read. Problem is I read before bed, in a nice leather chair in our bedroom. I keeps me up. But, Pam is always asleep across the room when I do this under LED glasses or a focused reading light. In spite of the drama in what I'm reading (last month is was the Padre Pio and Vatican corruption, now it's Medieval rivalries and hypocrisy) , my wife sleeps soundly, safety within eye-sight. I enjoy those times immensely. Deep joy. 


But it wasn't until this morning during prayers that I came across (by "accident") what I'm sure was the moral premise or thematic basis for the story. For the first time I happened to read the Canticle of Anna (1 Sam 2:1-10). There, toward the end are these words written thousands of years ago:
The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord; on them he has set the world. He guards the feet of his holy ones, but the wicked perish in the darkness; he grants the wish of him who asks and blesses the years of the just. For it is not by force that a man prevails: the Lord it is who shatters his enemies.
Reading that on my iPhone's iBreviary sent chills up my spine. I played back (in my head) the entire series, and re-read the first sentence of the novel:
The small boys came early to the hanging.
Classic first sentences, like the first image of a movie, can show us a lot. 

Here's stab at the moral premise statement for the story

Wickedness leads to years of darkness; but
Holiness leads to years of blessing
(after generations of hardship and testing, I might add)

The moral-physical premise statement of course, is embedded organically into the 1 Samuel 2 passage, and properly imbued into every one of many chapters of the book, and 8 television movie episodes.  When done right, you can read the statement, and connect it to all the events and actions, heroes and villains, settings, and (especially) motivations. Exciting, focusing stuff about what the story is REALLY about.


In all story telling metaphors (showing) always work better than didactic (plain telling). and when you do both, organically, all the better.  Follett's first sentence "The small boys came early to the hanging" paints a picture of evil in high places and its consequence. At first it seems that the evil is whatever the man being hung had done. But it doesn't take long to come to the telling moment in that Prologue -- and how the curse will be passed down to successive generations through the values of the "fathers." Follett doesn't use that word "fathers" but the implication and layered meaning of the term is there.  Here's the passage, faithful reproduced in the movie version. This happens at the base of the gallows as the man is being executed.
    There was a scream, and everyone looked at the girl...
    The girl turned her hypnotic golden eyes on the three strangers, the knight, the monk and the priest, and then she pronounced her curse, calling out the terrible words in ringing tones: "I curse you with sickness and sorry, with hunger and pain; your house shall be consumed by fire, and your children shall die on the gallows; your enemies shall prosper, and you shall grow old in sadness and regret, and die in foulness and agony. . . ." As she spoke the last words the girl reached into a sack on the ground beside her and pulled out alive cockerel. a knife appeared in her hand from nowhere, and with one slice she cut off the head of the cock.
    While the blood was still spurting form the severed neck  she threw the beheaded cock at the priest with the black hair. It fell short, but the blood sprayed over him, and over the monk and the knight on either  side of him.  The three men twisted away in loathing, but blood landed on each of them, spattering their faces and staining their garments.
Enough said. Do you see the showing, both in her telling curse, and the metaphor of her actions. She is not telling us her "feelings" but is painting a visual picture of them.

AND THE PILLARS? The title says a lot. Mankind (especially the male variety) think of themselves as the pillars upon which everything, of any "good," gets done. I know the feeling. I'm a man recovering from rotor cuff surgery in my right shoulder, and something similar but less sever to my right knee. Both sailing injuries. I want and think I should and can do it all. It's humbling when your wife has to dress you. Hopefully, I'll heal... physically, but in the meantime healing of the spiritual kind is working on me -- the consequence of suffering. And that is what The Pillars of the Earth is significantly about -- male, patriarchal egos. The image at the top of this blog (from STARZ TV) is constructed like six vertical pillars (these are the characters about which the story is about). Then there are the pillars of the cathedrals that Tom and others are building... not all successfully (when not properly designed, resulting in death). And then there are the Angels that build the Church. And to make sure you really, really get the connection between the moral decisions, the natural physical consequences of attention to natural law, and the story's metaphors, the final scene (in the movie at least) SHOWS us the corrupt, egomaniac bishop as he takes a suicidal plunge from the properly designed and built pillars of the cathedral.
The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord; on them he has set the world. He guards the feet of his holy ones, but the wicked perish in the darkness; he grants the wish of him who asks and blesses the years of the just. For it is not by force that a man prevails: the Lord it is who shatters his enemies.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

ACFW Workshop Slides and Q&A (9-22-11)

I presented a five-hour version of The Moral Premise workshop at the American Christian Fiction Writer's Conference Sept 22, 2011 from 8 AM to 1 PM. In the days following I met with a number of authors and hope-to-be authors helping them beat out their stories.

I was also privileged to sit in on several other workshops, have dinner with super-agent Natasha Kern, and talk with numerous multi-published authors, with 20, 30, and even 50 books to their credit. It was a great few days in St. Louis. Between the questions and answers below I'll post some pictures taken during the trip.

Looking East from our conference meeting rooms
All of the photos in this blog were taken with my iPhone. the conference was held at the Hyatt Regency at the Arch. Thus the pictures of the full arch (like the one at the right) are actually taken through windows in the hallway next to the meeting rooms.

Here are the questions I was handed, some of which I answered in the session, and my answers.

1. On the Emotion Plotting Slide, how do you decide numeric values on each action line, that are used for the graph. (Judy Christie)

Judy, the numbers assigned are subjective and objectively determined. Subjectively, they are based on my sense of how emotionally UP or DOWN the scene will come across to the reader/audience when I'm done editing it. In some scenes/lines the number is my INTENT. In others, it's what it is already. For instance when my protag's husband dies, it's a major DOWNER, when she is able to board the ship safely with her girls to go home, its a minor UPPER. Objectively, the "emotion" I hope my audience will feel is the degree to which they perceive my protag making progress toward the physical goal (positive numbers), or being set up from achieving the goal (negative numbers). I assign a number from -10 to +10 to each scene, and then accumulate a balance, like a checking account balance. It's the balance that is plotted, not the individual scene values.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Inside the Mind of a Hollywood Director: Bitterness, Love, Verisimilitude

An interview with Gavin O’Connor director of WARRIOR
Gavin O'Connor

WARRIOR is a motion picture story about two bitterly estranged brothers who end up fighting in a cage for the mixed martial arts world championship. It is also about their relationship with their father, whom neither can forgive. The violence we see in the cage is visceral. Brothers fight. But more impactful in this story is the spiritual warfare that pits the brothers and their father in a three-way psychological cage. All three are warriors. Yet the movie dares to be about how each of us is called to fight the good fight and be a warrior for love.

Why do Hollywood directors make movies that contain intense violence, offensive language and questionable thematic material, which are the elements that earned WARRIOR its PG-13 rating from the MPAA? Some will object to the film’s realism, calling it gratuitous. But O’Conner would disagree. Why? Because he’s intent on telling the truth about the spiritual warfare that exists in every man. And that includes you.

So, offered below is a different kind of interview with a top Hollywood director. It offers a spiritual and psychological glimpse into a director’s motivation for the kind of tough but true films that someday be may be dubbed the “Gavin O’Connor genre.”

While I have edited out the spoilers from the interview, it will nonetheless make more sense if you’ve first seen the film, or have read a thorough review or synopsis of the story. You can do so HERE.

Gavin O’Connor is truly one of the best director’s in Hollywood, although his filmography is not that long. He’s known for three major films: MIRACLE (2004, starring Kurt Russell) about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s victory over the seemingly invincible Russian squad; PRIDE AND GLORY (2008, starring Collin Farrell, Edward Norton, and Jon Voight) the saga of a multi-generational family of New York cops and moral corruption; and now WARRIOR (2011, starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte).

Stan Williams: We hear about actors asking a director: “What’s my motivation?” Let me turn the tables. What motivated you to make WARRIOR?

Gavin O’Connor: That’s a very difficult question to answer. There were things going on in my life that I knew I wanted to deal with or gain some type of insight or understanding of them. I was really struggling with forgiveness. There were also things that happened in my childhood that I think I was trying to explore through my art. I also have a love of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), and I had never seen it dynamic portrayed in cinema before. So, I thought that was an interesting kind of possibility. Then it started to culminate with this idea, which I called “intervention in cage.”

Stan Williams: Which is a metaphor for what the film is really about…
Gavin O’Connor: Yes. What started to emerge, as I was thinking about the characters, was the idea of one man living in his higher self and someone living in his lower self and a third someone living in his spirituality. Then there is the idea of spiritual warfare. All these things were matriculating in a weird way, and they all started to come out.

Stan Williams: WARRIOR successfully engages audiences with several impossibilities: (a) it’s about two underdog brothers, who have been estranged for years, and (b) and yet they end up fighting each other in the final match for the mixed martial arts world championship. Ironically, it’s (c) their estrangement out of the cage that entangles and embraces them in the cage. While that’s intriguing, what do you do as a writer and director to help the audience embrace such improbabilities and make it seem so real? (1)

Gavin O’Connor: When I walked my co-writer, Anthony Tambakis, through the idea for the movie, he said, “You can’t have these two guys fight each other in the end. How are you going to pull that off?” Well, the way we approached all of this is to only tell the truth. We don’t write it and then shoot what we wrote. What we write becomes the blueprint for months of work-shopping the film with the actors.

Stan Williams: What do you do when you workshop a movie?

Gavin O’Connor: You meet extensively with the actors and you start connecting emotional lines. You start going so deep and dissecting the verisimilitude [the quality of realism in a work of art (3)] of every scene, that if anything seems false you address it. Like, how do we capture the essence of a marriage? How do we do that in the most truthful way? We always try to put everything under a microscope. We call it “non-acting.” For me, the word “acting” has a certain falseness to it. When I hear the word “acting” I always go for “non-acting.” We’re always trying to get to the truth of the scene. If we can keep doing that systematically and consistently throughout the whole film, hopefully, by the time we get to the impossibility [of the story’s plot] we’re so immersed in the emotionality of the piece and the characters, that the audience will want it, desire it, and be convinced of its reality.

Stan Williams: It seems that what you’re talking about is the psychological or moral motivation of the characters — because if you don’t tell the truth about their psychological motivations with respect to natural law, then the audience is going to pick up on that, and they’re not going to identify with the characters.

Gavin O’Connor: Absolutely. That’s exactly it. The characters must be rooted in their true psychological motivations. We’re always putting the microscope on the “want.” What do you want in this scene? And how are you going to get it?

Stan Williams: The Physical Wants and the Psychological Needs.

Gavin O’Connor: Yes. And they have to come from a truthful place. You really have to challenge it and poke it and prod it, because if it’s flimsy at all, it’ll fall like a house of cards.

Stan Williams: I’ll tell you, what you did in both PRIDE AND GLORY and WARRIOR translates incredibly to the screen. How long did you workshop?

Gavin O’Connor: I call it making the movie before you make the movie. With Nick Nolte [Paddy], the dad, we spent months together working on the character. Everyone has to do a biography on their own character. I give them a questionnaire with 100 questions to answer. And I want detailed answers. Because that’s what will inform everything, such as the emotional story lines. Then we start doing backstories on the [characters’] histories because since we’re making a movie about a family, there are things that everyone [among the actors and characters] has their own perspective on about what is true. We spent months doing it.

Stan Williams: What inner values are motivating Tommy to fight? Is he really trying to make things right with the Marines? Or is there a deeper motivation? Is he looking for an excuse to find forgiveness with his father?

Gavin O’Connor: The intention is that Tommy’s making a statement against God. He’s rejecting everything good. He’s rejecting love. He’s rejecting beauty. He’s rejecting all that is good in his life. There’s an expression, “Hurt people hurt people.” He’s a man who’s living in a lot of pain. And when you live in pain, it’s easy to inflict pain on others because that’s what you’re feeling yourself. I used to say to Tommy [the actor was Tom Hardy], think about Tommy as a guy who’s hitting a crack pipe.

Stan Williams: What’s that like?

Gavin O’Connor: It’s one of the most godless acts you can do. People who smoke crack experience an immediate high. But it’s a false high that goes away very quickly. It happens very quickly and then it goes away quickly. You’re always chasing it; and it’s so destructive. So, I’d say to Tommy, “When you get into the cage, you need to get high. You need to hit the crack pipe so you can actually experience this godless act that makes you feel good in the moment.”  But once it’s over Tommy has to deal with himself again and ask himself, “Who is this guy who’s living in all this pain?” That’s what I was going for with Tommy.
Stan Williams: By the end of the movie Tommy changes, in a surprising way. I promise not to give away the ending. But where does Tommy begin to change? Where does he start to turn and start to embrace the good like he uncharacteristically embraces his father?
Gavin O’Connor: That’s very perceptive. That’s exactly what’s going on. At the top of the movie Tommy’s waiting on the doorstep and he offers his father a bottle of the brand that his father used to love. His father says, “No, thank you.” And we come to learn that Paddy is a thousand days sober. Tommy in essence is becoming his father. And he’s come home to get drunk with him.

Stan Williams: Ah!

Gavin O’Connor: Tommy’s expecting the man he knew as a boy growing up [drunk and abusive]. But it all gets turned upside down. Now his father’s not the man he knew at all. He’s an entirely different human being. And Tommy’s becoming like his father was. So, when Tommy finally gets his father [Paddy] to take a drink and become drunk once again, even while Paddy is listening to Moby Dick on tape as he does throughout whole movie, Paddy [the white whale] gets in Ahab’s face [Tommy] and yells: “Ahab! You godless son-of-a-bitch.” At that point, Tommy sees himself reflected back in his father’s face. It’s an Jungian archetype thing. And that’s the beginning of the surrender. It’s the first time you see Tommy become compassionate toward his father. To be healed, Tommy has to die to self. (2)

Stan Williams: We’re rooting for Brendon, Tommy, and their father, throughout the film. But it’s like Brendon and his Dad are both trying to pull Tommy along.

Gavin O’Connor: Tommy is on this godless path, this warpath of personal destruction of anything in his way — but his father and his brother force him to change.

Stan Williams: In PRIDE AND GLORY there are crucifixes on the wall in everyone’s house, even the bad guy’s. But you don’t bring the spirituality forward as you do at the beginning of WARRIOR. In Tommy’s absence, Paddy has dramatically returned to his Catholic faith and Tommy tears him to shreds over it, as if what Paddy is doing is hypocritical. Why is that? Why the shift from one film to the other? Why did you bring the spirituality forward in WARRIOR?

Gavin O’Connor: I think it was something that was a little more prevalent in my life, and also more prevalent in the characters’ lives. In short, the story demanded it. And I always intended the title, WARRIOR, to be about spiritual warfare, and warrior lives outside of the cage. The intention of the title was never about guys fighting inside [the cage].

Stan Williams: A strong metaphor to be sure. I see that the movie is really about love, but there’s a lot of bitterness, hatred, and violent fighting in the cage. Isn’t love about being kind and gentle?

Gavin O’Connor: If you want to dramatize love you need to see the flip side of it. I think visualizing love is a hard thing to do without seeing the opposite because you want something organic to emerge from it. (4) Then, there’s the balancing act as a filmmaker trying to capture the verisimilitude of this sport, which is violent. But what I was going for, and maybe it doesn’t come through, is to at least root the violence in the characters and never make it gratuitous. It is also mixed martial arts and I also have to shoot the sport in the truthfulness of its intensity, although I tempered it a bit. Once again, that all served the intent of the movie because I was driving toward [the metaphor of a spiritual] intervention in a cage. So, the spirituality in the film and the love in the film and the message of the film were all driving toward those five rounds [at the end] in that cage with the two brothers.

Stan Williams: What I think makes the film unique is that neither are fighting for selfish reasons, not pride, not ego, not to be rich, but for other things. They are both sacrificing themselves, in the cage, for something greater than themselves.

Gavin O’Connor: I think there’s nobility to both of their causes and quests. There’s something beautiful within Tommy’s pain — his loyalty towards what he calls his [Marine] brother, whom he calls Manny, whom he lost. There’s a nobility to what he’s doing – to try to save somebody else. He can’t save himself, but he can honor a promise and save Manny’s wife and children, and give them a life — that sacrifice is really important to him.

Stan Williams
: What about Brendon?

Gavin O’Connor:
In regard to Brendon, there’s the nobility of fighting for your home, to save your family. But I didn’t just capture it in the movie. As a nation were in the midst of the housing crisis [when we shot the film] and it hasn’t changed three years later [now, during its release]. You have this man being in debt, and because of his mixed martial arts background he literally is able to fight his way out of debt. I thought that was, in a way, wish fulfillment. There are so many men in this country that are on the doorstep of losing their homes and have wives and children and are trying to put food on the table – they’re working several jobs. They’re just trying to keep a roof over their head. So, they’re [figuratively] fighting their way out of debt. But Brendon literally fights his way out of debt. I just thought it was a perfect metaphor to explore.


1 When O’Connor and Tambakis were writing WARRIOR, on their door they placed an Aristotle quote: “A convincing impossibility is better than an unconvincing possibility.” That’s good advice for all storytellers.

2 For my Moral Premise readers, this is Tommy’s Moment of Grace. While it does seem that both Brendon and Tommy are co-protagonists, and that is Gavin’s intent, Brendon changes little, and Paddy changes not a bit, although for one scene he slips off the wagon. But Tommy changes a lot. It is Tommy’s arc, not Brendon’s or Paddy’s, that creates the catharsis for the audience at film’s end. For that reason Tommy is the real protagonist, with Brendon and Paddy as the co-protagonists. The antagonist in this film is the bitterness, hatred, and inability to forgive, which is so prevalent in our culture. All of that is metaphorically represented by the hatred we see in the MMA cage and the tournament’s opportunistic promoters. Another way to analyze the characters is that this is a buddy road trip film, with three buddies. Each is the antagonist to the others who are their own protagonists. Remember, antagonists exist to change protagonists. But, however you analyze the film, O’Connor has created a masterful work drawing us in and helping us understanding a bit more about what sacrificial love is all about.

3. For more on the importance of verisimilitude (the quality of realism in film), and how it’s absence can kill the most nobly intended of film projects, see Life As It Is vs. How It Ought To Be.)

4. This is an important point that needs some explanation. When O’Connor says you want something “organic to emerge” from the juxtaposition of hatred and love, he means this: Just saying it, or TELLING it (as in a didactic sermon, homily or teaching) will not connect emotionally or memorably with the audience. Audiences learn through experience (or simulation of the experience which a well produced movie is). It’s the adrenalin rush that creates memories. So, you have to SHOW something with such verisimilitude that it’s ingrained in the audience’s mind, and not just a passing intellectual thought. This explains the power of stories, and why the Bible is 75% narrative.