Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Getting Focus Group Feedback

Like a lot of you, I continue working on a number of story projects. One current project is NAUGHTY LITTLE NAZIS (D.K.N.), originally written by Nikita Mungarwadi when she was 13. At the time Niki went to the middle school where my wife, Pam, teaches. One day Pam came home and said that one of the students at school (but not one of hers) had read my book, The Moral Premise. That got my attention. It wasn't exactly written for early teen consumption.

The second sentence out of Pam's mouth was that the girl had written a screenplay and wondered if I'd read it for her. If the sentences had been reveresed I would have said "No, thank you." But how could I refuse to at least flip through the first few pages of the screenplay a teen had written after reading my book? It seemed "sacriledge" to say no.

Nikita Mungarwadi
So, a few days later a screenplay came home with Pam titled NAUGHTY LITTLE NAZIS. To say the least, it rocked my socks. I could hardly put it down. It needed some work to be sure, but the third thing that caught my eye was the author's name, "Nikita Mungarwadi." I have some connections to India, and as I found out Niki was an American off spring of Indian immigrants. Her Dad is the director of water distribution for S.E. Michigan for the City of Detroit.

I had to meet her. To make a long story short, I volunteered my time to work with Niki at their kitchen table with her dad helping us with Internet research about Germany during WWII.  We worked off and on for six months, and then I bought an option on the project to develop it further.

Here's the log line for the war-time action story:  A rebellious 14-year old German girl battles the Nazis to free her Jewish friends from the Ghetto before it's liquidated.  (The story is loosely based on a compaction of the teenage resistance groups active in Berlin during the war, which required considerable research on Nikia's part.)

Sanjeev (dad) and Nikita Mungarwadi, Stan Williams, Alex Krüger, Pam Williams. 

One of the problems with stories that are outside your experience is how to get a reading form someone that might know more than you do about it. The story had to read well to a German teenager, preferable form Berlin, I figured. Where was I going to find one of those, I thought. I'm in Michigan, and it's been decades since I was in Germany.

Niki and Alex. Alex returns to Berlin this week.
As it happened (for the convenience of this story) my son's family, who lives nearby, were hosting a 17-year German boy from Berlin as a foreign exchange student. The boy's uncle was in the Hitler Youth Corp. Such luck. Alex agreed to read the recent draft, and after Niki read it, and Pam, we all met for dinner at a local Indian restaurant.

Alex had a lot of great ideas for the character names to make them more traditional and German. With Nikita and Alex we refined a few scenes that they thought needed more danger and excitement. It's been fun working on a script written by a teenage an American-Indian girl, with a teenage young man from German (who's nearly forgotten how to speak in German after being the U.S. for a year), while sitting in an Indian restaurant in Michigan. Great Feedback. Now it's on to the next draft.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Good of Conflict and Immorality in Movies

What follows is an article I wrote for a Catholic website in 2003, while I was writing the first draft to The Moral Premise. I'm resurrecting it here for the record and to facilitate some discussions with some I consult with about the nature of the motion picture industry.



Often I hear Christians complain about the protagonist in a movie because he or she made one or more immoral decisions, and is therefore a poor role model. Another oft heard criticism is that movies are filled with too much on-screen conflict or violence, thus giving audiences the wrong idea about how to resolve problems.  

These are definitely valid concerns to the extent that the on-screen portrayal of conflict and immorality is gratuitous.  But for most popular films there are some very good and moral reasons why movies must be about imperfect, immoral human beings, and why the conflict and suffering must be made visible. 

The word "must" in that last sentence is pretty strong, so let me explain. In the history of civilization, stories have played a very important role in forming our culture by passing on history, defining cultural norms, teaching us how to deal with problems, and answering burning questions like, "Why is there suffering?"

Educational gurus might divide the world of learning into three kinds of instruction: (1) experience, (2) observation, and (3) lecture. Experience is the best teacher. Lecture is the worst. The reasons for that have a great deal to do with the number of senses, and consequently the degree of emotional involvement of the learner. The greater number of senses involved, the greater the emotional tension, and thus the deeper the learning.
Whereas lecturing involves only one sense—hearing, experience demands the active participation of all six senses [Footnote 1].  

Experience also involves physical and emotional risk. Risk situations cause the release of adrenalin into our brain etching deeper memories about the experience and its lessons.

Somewhere between experience and lecture is observation, and the modern "movie experience" which is closer to SIMULATION. 

Why Simulation? The darkened theater is replaced by extreme realism, and audience members are transported into the on-screen character's world. To a great extent, movies become so real for audiences that they are almost as good a teacher as experience itself...including the sense of personal risk. 

But, do we want movies to teach us things? After all, the people making movies, so conservative Christian sentiment goes, are immoral pagans who ridicule God, don't go to church, and well, do everything in their life wrong. On some level, with some filmmakers, that can be true. Yet, when it comes to moral lessons that agree with Judeo-Christian values, there is an astonishing phenomenon. 

As it turns out, when a movie conveys moral truth it "sits right" with audiences, and word of mouth increases the film's popularity, tremendously. Conversely, when a movie is morally deceitful, people avoid it. Over the years, filmmakers have recognized this. (Actually, in POETICS, Aristotle was the first to write about the correlation between the truth of a play's moral message and its popularity.) As a result, today, it is a safe bet that a box office success is also a movie that conveys a true moral message [Footnote 2] 

All of that brings me back to the criticism about immoral characters and on-screen conflict. Without these elements movies would be incapable of presenting positive moral messages, infusing us with hope, or suggesting answers to why we suffer. If we remove the immorality and conflict we are left with no drama, no story to tell, and no lesson to learn. Showing the problem allows us to learn how the protagonist overcame it, or the consequences if he doesn't. 

Here then are seven reasons why the appropriate, and not gratuitous, portrayal of conflict and immorality are necessary, not just in motion pictures, but in all stories, if those stories are to effectively teach us moral lessons.

1. Identity. Conflict and immorality are revealed in the life of a protagonist who is like us. This allows us to identify with the protagonist, and see that his problems are, or could be, ours.

2. Meaning. How the protagonist resolves the conflict and immorality reveals the meaning of the associated suffering. We translate that meaning to the suffering in our lives. 

3. Consequences. The protagonist's decisions regarding the conflict and immorality result in consequences. We learn that similar decisions in our lives could result in similar consequences.

4. Hope. The protagonist's hope and perseverance in dealing with the conflict and immorality allows success. We are thus encouraged to hope and persevere, and likewise overcome our problems.

5. Risk. The on-screen protagonist must count the cost and take risks in opposing the conflict and immorality. This reminds us that our noble intents are worthless unless we honestly count the cost and are also willing to take risks to defeat sin and evil. 

6. Sacrifice. On screen heroes often suffer and sacrifice emotional and physical loss in their effort to love and save others from harm. Those are examples to us, of how we are asked to love our neighbor and families, and resist sin, even shedding our own blood in the process. [Footnote 3]

7. Visible. Movies are really about spiritual and emotional conversion. But since we can not see such journeys, filmmakers make the reality of that most important journey visible in the physical realm, as a metaphor. While we may think our spiritual journey is only spiritual or mental, the proof is in our behavior, in our actions and works. What we do in the physical realm, represents exactly what is going on inside.

So, the next time you go to a popular movie, recognize what it is you're watching. Look for and analyze the moral messages, and recognize that without the appropriate portrayal of conflict and immorality, there would be little to be learned about how to live in our conflicted and spiritually dangerous world.

[1]  There are six, not five senses. Most forgotten is the sense of balance, which is necessary for physically activity, including sitting in a chair during a scary movie. 

[2] Whether a movie conveys a morally true message has nothing to do with its ratings or appropriateness for children. See MEANINGLESS RATINGS.

[3] "In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood." Hebrews 12:4

Meaningless Ratings (2002)

What follows is an article I wrote for a Catholic website in 2002. The article reveals some of the motivation behind the research that resulted in The Moral Premise, which was begun the next year. I'm resurrecting it here for the record and to facilitate some discussions with some I consult with about the nature of the motion picture industry. It is dated, so I've done a little editing and added a few comments [in brackets].

"I'd rather write an R-rated film that told the truth than a G-rated film that lied." That's what respected Christian producer and screenwriter, Brian Bird, said to me over lunch recently in Hollywood. He was tired of taking his children to see G-rated Disney fare that presented a worldview that was distinctly non-Christian — e.g. elevating faith in magic and fairies over faith in God and the angelic hosts.

For Christians, the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) film ratings, and the recent TV-ratings, do not tell whether or not a film is acceptable — to children or adults. But as a rough gauge of acceptability, they have provided some help. Or so I thought until recently.

When we first started our motion picture development company we made a decision to focus our efforts on writing only G, PG, and PG-13 rated films. No "R-ratings" we said — unless we felt particular inspired to do something as poignant as Schindler's List and we avoided gratuitous elements. But in recent months, some of the PG-13 films that have hit the theaters have caused us to rethink that rule. [And in 2004 there was THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST with a strong "R".] Increasingly, films that used to be rated R now appear to be rated PG-13. So recently we made the decision that our efforts would instead focus only on G and PG ratings, with PG-13 as the rarely allowed exception. [This makes business sense as well. The fewer admittance restrictions to a film, the higher potential box office.]

What is going on inside the MPAA rating board wasn't announced but it is being noticed. Peter Bart, VP and Editor-in-Chief of Hollywood's most respect trade publication, Daily Variety, wrote in his August 5, 2002 editorial “PG-13 Pictures Rate an 'R' for Raunchy” (p. 19):
More and more films like Austin Powers in Goldmember — movies steeped in toilet jokes and sexual innuendo — are earning PG-13 ratings rather than the more restrictive ratings they might have received a few years ago.

Is it pure coincidence that ratings mavens have seemingly become more liberal at a time when the major distributors are more conservative? When I asked one studio chief last week, he sat back and grinned: "Puzzling, isn't it?"

But parents may not be puzzled about whether they'd like their 13-year-olds to become aficionados of Austin Powers. Sure, no nasty penises or vaginas are on display (just some interesting facsimiles), and no one commits sexual intercourse, but the overall level of humor makes American Pie (which got an R) seem like a course at the Harvard Divinity School. When Dr. Evil refers to his lair, a submarine, as "long, hard and full of seamen," he is actually lifting the level of dialogue.
To set the record straight there are a number of motion pictures with PG-13 and even R ratings that, although they are not suitable for children, tell morally valid, redemptive stories with strong Judeo-Christian themes and values. Among such recent PG-13 films are: PAY IT FORWARD, THE APOSTLE, and WHERE THE HEART IS. Worthy R rated fare include WE WERE SOLDIERS, AMISTAD, THE GREEN MILE, AND BLACK HAWK DOWN, [and in 2004, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST].

On the otherhand, there are also movies that deserve their restrictive R rating for no reason other than the filmmaker, in possession of a truly redemptive Judeo-Christian story, made stupid decisions regarding language and sexuality. One such movie is MAGNOLIA — a film that I would highly recommend if it wasn't for the zillion or so [unnecessary] expletives.

What Peter Bart suggests is that the MPAA ratings board has caved into the desires of filmmakers and the studios to produce raunchy, vile movies yet not necessarily jeopardize their $50 million marketing budgets. Instead of an R rating they get the more marketable PG-13. Why is the R rating now a problem when five years ago it wasn't? Because, not only are parents keeping a closer eye on what their kids are seeing, but theaters are doing a much better job of keeping kids out of R movies.

Additionally, TV shows with kid audiences are likewise turning away advertisements for films with R ratings. All of that hurts attendance. And while that's good for parents, it's bad for filmmakers of such fare. So, to help the studios and distributors appear to have a cleaner image, MPAA has embraced what might be called “ratings equivocation”. What used to be R can now be classified as PG-13. The result? Less conflict with critics, and more tickets sold ... to kids.

Parents beware. Don't read too much into a rating. Instead, get the scoop on the story and read what good Christian reviewers are saying about the picture, [although I still cringe at how some Christian reviewers count sweat words, and the number of times little Billy gets slugged in the stomach by big Bully. See my other post on "The Good of Conflict and Immorality in Movies.]  Better still, go ahead of time or along with your child or teen, and don't be embarrassed to walk out.

I love the movies. I produce them. But in regard to my children and grandchildren, I have little patience for irresponsible filmmaking.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Villains "Noble" Intent

In story development we often speak of heroes as having a weakness or imperfection. It is what allows audiences to identify with the protagonist and morally be sutured into his or her life. We also speak of villains has having an understanding (within themselves) that what they are doing is just, good, and right. No one else may believe it, but the villain, in his or her twisted logic, believes it.

This "light" of righteousness, as dark as it may be, also allows the audience to identify with the villain. Why? Because subconsciously, we, the audience, know that our best intentions often miss the mark. What we think is right, is often wrong. Maybe not to the extent that we'd be thought of as a villain, but it does put us in that arena.

What is right and wrong lies on a continuum. See this POST.

Today I was struck by three headlines where the three villains written about all have noble intent behind their actions. AP reports both:

From the AP & Fox News: Dr. Jack Kervorkian, the Michigan pathologist who championed physician-assisted suicides, died early Friday after being hospitalized with kidney problems and pneumonia. The 83-year-old Kevorkian, who said he helped some 130 people end their lives from 1990 to 1999, died about 2:30 a.m. at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan."

Notice the "noble" smile on Jack's face as he prepares again to help kill someone. Have you seen this man's "art."  Google it. It's what an art director would create for a villains lair.

And then there's Ratko Mladic claim:

From the AP and Fox News: "Ratko Mladic defiantly refused on Friday to enter pleas to what he called "obnoxious" allegations that as the Serb military chief during the Bosnian war he orchestrated the worst atrocities of a conflict that claimed 100,000 lives. He claimed he was defending "my people and my country."

Notice the ironic patriotic salute.

Well, we don't want to be like these guys, but they're great "role models" for our story's villains.

And just a reminder... the villain can be the protagonist.