Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Greenhouse Q&A

On Sunday night, May 6, 2012, I was the guest of The Greenhouse Arts and Media of Hollywood, CA that meets monthly at the CBS Studio Lot in Studio City, CA. From its website
The Greenhouse exists to bring creative artists to life. Its mission is to maximize the potential and productivity of individuals engaged in the creative arts by equipping them in all areas of life through relationships, mentoring, group discussions, and artistic projects. It seeks to engage and enhance culture locally and globally through superior artwork and entertainment. By seeking to value, serve, and equip artists and the artistic community, and by maintaining a commitment to creativity and artistic excellence, The Greenhouse will provide people with the opportunity to create quality art and entertainment that explores meaning, moves emotion, sparks imagination, and enlightens the soul.

You should not confuse the Greenhouse in Hollywood of which I was a guest with The Greenhouse in Hollywood, FL which is a vegetarian restaurant, or with Ann's Florist and Greenhouse, also in Hollywood, FL , or the Greenhouse Herbal Center Medical Marijuana Collective of Hollywood, CA.

Shun Lee, my host, kept me busy for over an hour asking questions. But then he made the mistake of inviting those in the audience (about 130 souls) to email questions to his smart phone and he'd ask me their questions. Well, we got though three of the questions before we ran out of time. So, then I made the mistake of saying, "Hey, Shun, send me the questions and I'll answer them on my blog."

So, here are the questions verbatim, and my answers.

Christ Y. For multiple film stories (trilogies), do you believe that the unidirectional character arc is still a solid way to go or does multiple films introduce the possibility toward turning the character arc a completely different direction and is this a good idea?
Stan: Each movie should stand on its own, and all the movies together should be about one super-arc moral issue. In fact, the protagonist in each movie may be different, as well as the moral premise. At the same time, premises, arcs, and goals, can be nested, so that each movie is about its own one thing, and altogether they can be about one things that where the issues are nested. Thus, the super arc can be about selfishness vs. selflessness, but each movie may feature a different character that struggles with sub forms of selfishness such as greed, tyranny, and power.
Hans Obma: Are there any moral premises that will work well in a book but not in a movie?  Or vice versa?
Stan: No. A moral premise is not media dependent. What works good in a movie will work in a book, will work in a movie.
Hans Obma: Could you break down the moral premise in Hitch?  Or Lord of the Rings?
Stan: I have not studied or broken down The Lord of the Rings. You'd think I should have done that, but it takes a while, especially with a long movie. The moral premise for Hitch is based on a Nicomachean Ethics Value Scale, with RESPECTABLE HONESTY (or the ABSENCE of SECRETS and RESPECTING PRIVACY) as the central virtue. On the extreme virtue side of the scale we'd find BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION and PREPARATION FOR OPPORTUNITIES (what Hitch does in his job as a date doctor). On the absence of virtue side of the scale we'd find MANIPULATION and TAKING ADVANTAGES OF SITUATIONS (what Sara does in her job as a gossip columnist). Put more simply, Hitch tries to find the truth in a possible relationship and plan to make the relationship work. Sara tries to find the treachery in a relationship and celebrates with the relationship falls apart. Thus the moral premise could be stated like this:

Pretending to be someone we aren't (playing a game of false identify)
leads to loneliness;
being honest about who we really are (our true essence)
leads to relationship.
Jessica Keath: Can you give examples of films that fail to realize their moral premises?  What could they have done better?
Jessica, I think you mean to ask for examples of films that fail to have a consistent or true moral premise and thus fail to connect with audiences. Examples would be: SEVEN POUNDS (false moral premise, general audiences will not accept suicide as ever redemptive); CITY SLICKERS II (acquiring wealth that is not ours, does not bring happiness); BELLA (fails to make clear what it's really about).
Jessica Keath: Does crafting a moral premise violate or conflict with the documentary story telling process?
Stan: Not at all. The process of constructing a story from documentary material is still the same, but it may be harder to find a natural dramatic structure without changing some story element that general audiences prefer to see in such a story.
Cheryl McKay Price: Is there a common moral premise for the most successful films?
Stan: Not really. Yet, there are some conflict-of-values pairings (the psychological virtues and vice that set up the left hand terms in a moral premise statement) that are more common due to their heightened universality: e.g. Selfishness vs. Selflessness
Kirsten Roquemore: Would it be like Christians in Nazi Germany lying to protect Jews? i.e. if they were totally truthful it would have led to the death of the people they were hiding
Stan: Are you asking, "Would it be morally right for Christians in Nazi, Germany to lie to the Nazis about their hiding of Jews in their house? If the Christians would totally truthful, it would lead to the death of those they were hiding?"

I've actually debated this question with theologians, because it is not hypothetical and a moral issue in any number of movies,  such as the one I've been pitching around town (Berlin. 1943. A 14-year old German girl dares battle her mother' fiance, an S.S. Colonel, in order to save her two Jewish friends from liquidation when the Colonel is assigned to destroy a ghetto. If you wish for peace.... PARABELLUM). Two answers. (a) With respect to the moral premise, the answer is that the audience's general perception of what is natural and true drives the movie's potential popularity, not some absolute, esoteric theological position... although, generally, natural law and theological truth should not disagree when both are accurate. (b) While it is never right to lie, in some circumstances the moral consequence of lying is insignificant. That is a Christian lying to a Nazi about Jews hiding in their attic is a sin. But some theologians would argue that God would look past the sin because to tell the truth would bring about something worse... the murders of humans.
Paul Rose Jr.: What about the Fast & the Furious, where the "bad guys" are the heroes?
Stan: Like a number of movies, Fast and Furious has a true moral premise, but it's about bad guys learning what "bad" is and how to "redeem" themselves. Right and wrong consists of degrees. Thus stealing a tanker of gasoline in wrong, but murder is worse. Another theme you'll find in movies like the James Bond movies, the TV show 24, the Mission Impossible stories, etc. is that there is a natural law that is above the laws of the state. The general movie goer understands this (subliminally), and thus they root for the best outcome for the hero, whether he's a good or bad guy. In short, bad guys can find redemption but not without some natural consequence.
Unknown: Since Oceans 11 almost promotes stealing, what would the moral premise be?
Stan: This sounds bad, but I have not screened OCEANS 11. But from reading the storyline, it probably seems the audience would think that stealing from a casino (who entices the poor and the rich to give up their money under the pretense of a hope driven by greed) is far less a sin than adultery or sexual slavery. This is another case where the audiences have this idea that natural moral law trumps federal and state laws. I sense that the general public believe that casinos are legal fronts for theft and greed. Thus, taking down such an evil empire by emptying its vault is a virtue.I have this speculative sense that God would smile on casinos going broke.
Brian Chan: Do you believe the journey of the protagonist from vice to virtue is a quest toward wholeness in his humanity that we desire to see in ourselves?
Stan: Ah, there you go, Brian, asking the theological astute question. I absolutely believe you are right and what you say is a major reason people go to the movies. They want to discover how to achieve that wholeness and live life more happily.
Brian Chan: Does the law of the moral premise parallel with the law of beauty in our own redemption and transformation?
Stan: Absolutely. And I recommend Brian's book. There is a perfect alignment of Brian's writing about beauty found in Christian theology, and the true and consistently applied moral premise in a story. (Brian asked this knowing I no doubt plug his book. Glad to do so. The Purple Curtain.)
Brooke Lander Shurtz: Can you talk a little about TV specifically half-hour comedy, relating to the moral premise and an example of a show you can think of that illustrates metaphorically?
Stan: I have not studied half-hour comedy that much. But "My Name is Earl," "Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire," and "That 70's Show" and "Friends" all would have true and consistently applied moral premises. In fact, in my book, I talk about "Married with Children." Check it out. Remember, a true moral premise is one that truthfully applies natural consequences to moral decisions within the diocese of the story's setting.
Unknown: Have you ever had a project rejected by a studio for its moral premise and accepted by another.
Stan: No. But then I've submitted very few scripts or stories to very few studios. Usually rejections come without explanation. I would venture to say that there are dozens of good reasons to reject a story before you get anywhere close to figuring out if the moral premise is true or false. In fact, in my Story Development Steps figuring out the moral premise is not at the top.
Jonathan Perkins: I believe you reference the "moment of grace" as happening at the midpoint. What is the difference of that at the midpoint versus the character's choosing the "winning" solution, which marks their breaking into act 3?
Stan: The Moment of Grace (of the protagonist's main storyline) and the film's Mid-Point do occur at the same time, and the closer to the middle of the picture the better. The Moment of Grace is that point where the character consciously or subconsciously discovers the truth of the moral premise and begins to pursue the physical goal with the truth of the moral premise as his or her motivation. (That's true at least in a redemptive film. The opposite is true in a tragedy.) But the protagonist is not perfect. The MOG is not a 180-degree turn. And until the final Climax of the story (end of Act 3) the protagonist is still learning. There will be setbacks, such as at the end of Act 2 and his or her "near death experience" where it seems that the antagonistic force has forever prevailed. But something more happens at the Act 2/3 crossover. There's a moment after the Act 2 climax where the protagonist is utterly defeated and goes through the dark night of the soul. And then, for some organic and dynamic story reason that the writer comes up with, there's a moment of realization, or a resurrection beat, or something that causes the protagonist to remove his or her mask of false identity and turn to his or her true essence and the solution that wins the day. That "winning solution" that you mention which appears in the early part of Act 3, was first foreshadowed and recognized by the protagonist at the Moment of Grace. But it's not until Act 3 that he or she fully realizes the extent, or the martyrdom, that has to be embraced to win the day.
Paul Rio: In relationship to your faith in God, what is the premise of your life?
Stan: I often sign my books, "May you discover the true moral premise for your life's story and follow it to eternal success." In that sense, I would answer two ways. First my mission in life is this: "To discover divine truth and promote it to those within my sphere of influence." Second, to restate that as a moral premise statement (which I have never done before, so thank you for the question) might go like this (subject to revision): Embracing fallacious falsehoods as guidance for life leads to dissatisfaction and dread; but embracing divine truth as guidance for life leads to satisfaction and fulfillment.
Unknown: Isn't Skeeter in The Help a traveling angel character?
Stan: I'm not familiar with that term or the narrative system it comes from. But I can see where calling her that could make some sense. One of Joseph Campbell's geniuses is recognizing that the mythic identities of characters can overlap at times, and one character can play multiple roles. But Skeeter isn't without conflict, although she is a steadfast character, which is where you get the idea of the "traveling angel." Her steadfastness changes a number of characters that make choices off her worldview, her boyfriend, her mother, the Help, and her editor.
Kirsten Roquemore: I was deeply impacted by "A Simple Plan". What is your opinion of the storyline?
Stan: Greed leads to distrust; but extreme greed leads to murder—a true moral premise. Tragedies don't do well at the box office, however, for reasons other than the moral premise.
Yong Hwan Kang: Can you tell me (if) Star Wars (is) based on George Lucas' family experience?
Stan: I have no idea. But usually there is some aspect of "write what you know" in all successful films.
Sarah Williams: When holding your sessions how do you decipher the writing style of your students of "pantser or plotter" and how do you groom them?
Stan: I don't groom writers, they don't like being brushed. You can tell a pantser from a plotter only after viewing their work or talking to their agent or talking to the writer about their writing history. After describing the difference and the  pros and cons of each, usually a person will tell me what their tendency is, and we can go from there. Where my coaching goes from there depends on the writer's discipline to apply what I suggest. We discuss what they think their problem is, and I'll suggest a solution or process to apply for the next few weeks of writing. The writer will come back and show me what they did, or tell me, and we make adjustments. Ultimately, every writer is different, and subtleties of practice make all the difference in the world in terms of completing a work.
Chuck Hayes: When does a moral premise become cliche?
Stan: When the statement is so general that is applies to too many stories. e.g. "Hate leads to death; but love leads to life." A good moral premise statement will specifically respond and describe a particular story and not so many others.
It's also probably important to point out that the moral premise statement never needs to be written or spoken in a story, and since it is essentially a secret tool of the writer the statement has the opportunity of never becoming "cliché." The danger is in the statement being so broad that anything goes for the characters and what the story is really about becomes obtuse or ambiguous to the writer during the writing, and to the audience during the viewing. 
Samantha Marquard: What do you make of the phenomenon of the Twilight series and Hunger Games. What is the moral premise of both?
Stan: Both the Twilight Series and the Hunger Games movie (with more to come) are about true moral premises. The Hunger Games' moral premise is this:
Ignoring conscience leads to TYRANNY; but
Heeding conscience leads to FREEDOM
where conscience is understood to be an individuals' moral conscience that is conformed to natural law.
The Twilight  stories are all about rebellion, conformity, sacrificial love, vs. selfish lust. I have not worked out a moral premise statement for the series, but in the first film James says this: "Whether you want to be rebellious or conform I think it really boils down to choices, and every Teenagers goes through these choices, and where they want their lives to end up."
And in an interview, author Stephanie Meyer says, "The idea that these creatures are so strong and yet they try so hard to be good when they really don't have to. I think that appeals to a lot of young people. You can be whatever you want, no matter what stereotype you fit into, you don't have to go by those rules.

Bella has this line: : I've never given much thought to how I would die. But dying to take the place of someone I love is a good way to go.

Finally, I think Stephen King over simplifies the movie Twilight a bit, but there's an element of sarcastic truth in his comment about our culture when he says, "Harry Potter is about the importance of sacrificing one's life for your life. Twilight is all about how important it is to have a boyfriend."
Michael Mitchell: Is there a film that has a major lack of moral premise that was successful?
Stan: Not that I know.
Jim Krueger: C.S. Lewis talks about how he has no desire to gamble.  No inclination at all.  And then he states that this is not necessarily a good thing, because it also means that he lacks the virtue that gambling is the fallen form of.

How would this fit into your Moral Premise approach to story?  And, does this sort of character only work as a supporting character to the protagonist/antagonist, as a metaphor/warped mirror of the main moral conflict.
Stan: I think C.S. Lewis is wrong about himself. First, he gambled when he embraced Christianity, although he waited and debated a long time to minimize whatever risk there was.
Second, he gambled every time he wrote a poem, essay, or book. He gambled on England and his reputation when he gave his war broadcasts. I think that what he meant to say was this, "I have no desire to risk what I think will ultimately fail." That is perhaps gambling in a pure state, but it is practiced only by the weak of mind and fools, of which C.S.Lewis was not a participant.

Third, Lewis, perfectly in my estimate, demonstrated the virtue that is opposite of gambling; e.g. reason, debate, thorough analysis, comparison to natural law, etc. He was not a gambler because he was such a good critical thinker. QED, he was wrong.
Shaun Pilkington: Some movies break box office records but are very skimpy on anything related to morals or plots. What do you think of movies like The Avengers?
I have not seen the Avengers, but I have read the synopsis. I dare say it has a true moral premise at it's core and a lot of plot, although both are probably swallowed up in SFX and CGI candy. But both are there. In terms of plot there are the protagonists and the antagonists who want to take over Earth, but the protagonists (The Avengers) fight as a team and figure out how to defeat Loki and his accomplices. From reading the synopsis is appears, as in all good stories, the protagonists are not immediately successful. They start out not being very productive then discover the right way to attack, and finally do so to win.
In terms of a moral premise, you probably having something like:
Lust for power leads to defeat; but Sacrifice for others leads to success.
Now that's a good example of a moral premise statement that is almost too general for its own good. But until someone looks carefully at the movie and figures it out in the com box, that's what I have to offer.
Thank you for your good questions, one and all.

I hope I was able to help.



Paul A Rose, Jr. said...

Actually, while a lot of folks assume that effect laden blockbusters are light on plot and moral premise, it would appear - especially in light of your book, Stan - that this is not the case or they would not do as well. That said, I have no idea what moral premise is present in the Transformers films.

However, Avengers, on the other hand, has several benefits - first it was co-written and directed by Joss Whedon, a man who knows and uses moral premises better than just about any other screenwriter out there - especially for a man who claims to adhere to secular humanism and eschews religion of any sort. Second, it is based on a rich history of stories told with a moral premise. Maybe Stan Lee didn't always see it that way, but a majority of the comic book stories from Marvel have this basis.

As to The Avengers' moral premise, I would say that Stan's analysis of the synopsis was spot on.

"Lust for power leads to defeat; but Sacrifice for others leads to success." may be oversimplifying it, but it's accurate.

The Avengers as a team have to deal with the same problems as Loki and his associates - pride, impatience, and, as Tony Stark himself states, "doesn't play well with others". What's more these are reinforced by the global council of watchers or whatever - those shadowy figures that Nick Fury has to deal with who are fearful and impatient, not willing to rely on the team to accomplish the goal of saving the world. And with Nick Fury's secret plans that the team discovers.

The moral premise may best be summed up this way: Seeking power and promoting oneself/selfishness leads to destruction and death; but self-sacrifice and teamwork lead to victory and life.

I could provide more details, but I don't want to spoil the film. But if you look at each character's journey: Tony/Iron Man, Loki, Thor, Steve/Captain America, Banner/Hulk, Nick Fury, I think you'll see they either choose selfish motives or self-sacrifice and that leads to their win or loss as the story progresses.

Stan Williams said...

Thanks, Paul, for your contribution.