Saturday, December 21, 2013

Gerry Mooney's Modules

Gerry Mooney -
If you have attended my workshops you'll recall my reference to Natural Law and how no human can escape it, and how successful story structure is the consequence of Natural Law. One of the illustrations I use is Gerry Mooney's popular GRAVITY POSTER; (purchase it at the link under the picture at right). As I explain, your characters, like real humans, can make any choice they want, but they have no choice over the consequence of their actions.

That inescapable cause (by us) and effect (from nature) relationship is why stories work and why humor works. The laws of nature transcend our physical realm and also pervade our psychological, spiritual, emotional, and moral worlds.

The productive juxtaposition of science, religion, politics, humor, and storytelling has perhaps never been so poignant than in a series of one-frame cartoons by Mooney, which appeared in Asimov's Science Magazine back in the 80s (that's the 1980's for the vampires reading this).  In each of his 51 creations, there is, like in all stories, a physical reality that metaphors the psychological reality -- which is what each module or story is REALLY about.

Below (left) is the first in the Mooney's Module series that links to the Modules, and a second image (right) to a wonderful story about a little boy and his teacher, Sister Mary Dracula that I recently purchased and "devoured".  CLICK ON EITHER IMAGE FOR THE SERIES, OR TO PURCHASE THE GRAPHIC NOVEL.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Great Art From Bad People" by Nikita Mungarwadi

Patrick Fifelski (DP) & Nikita Mungarwadi (Dir) on location
Guest Essay, from Nikita Mungarwadi, writer and director whom I've had the pleasure of tutoring and working with over the past six years. Picture is of her on the set of her short film Bad Luck Bella that will premiere in Ann Arbor Dec 22, 2014.


What is it about the arts that can manipulate human emotions, sending the witness into a sea of startling tears or a spiral of interminable laughter? What is it about art that inspires us, guides us, and acculturates us? Most hold true to the notion that the purpose of art is to better us and some experts claim art can “raise our moral levels”[1]. We respect the irony of art, the illusion meant to distract our attention from the real world, yet offers universal principles that can be applied to reality. We fasten ourselves so deep into art’s mirage we convince ourselves that the artists must embody and exude some kind of pure goodness. And yet contradictions are ever present. In an interview for the New York Times, Kanye West pronounced, “Great art comes from great artists.” But if we consider that Kanye West is the epitome of narcissism and controversy, it begs the question: Can great art come from bad people?

There’s no doubt that West’s brimming ego depletes his character. At the 2004 American Music Awards, West ranted to the press after country music singer Gretchen Wilson won the Best New Artist Award over him. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, West even dubbed himself a “creative genius.” In addition to his ego, Kanye West consistently finds himself in the center of controversy, from blatantly accusing President George W. Bush on public television of being a racist, to sporting a Confederate flag on his sleeve, to humiliating Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards.  It was reasonable for President Barack Obama to declare Kanye West a “jackass.” But when we consider all the musician’s flaws, we cannot stray from the fact that West’s music manifests considerable talent worthy of merit. With 21 Grammy awards and five platinum solo studio albums, West is immersed in accomplishment, even if his character is far from it.

West has certainly not been the only artist to contradict his art with his character. If we take a look at the 19th century German composer, Richard Wagner, we find his opera compositions to be notably rich in their textures, harmonies, and orchestration. His concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”)[2] revolutionized opera and continued to influence many art forms throughout the 20th century. Apart from distinguishing himself as a powerful composer, Wagner didn’t shy from publicly expressing his obsessive anti-Semitic views. Hitler deeply admired Wagner’s work and exercised his music in Nazi propaganda – Wagner’s music eventually becoming a symbol of fascism.  

The obvious answer is, yes, bad people, or people we consider to have socially reprehensible qualities, are undoubtedly capable of creating critically acclaimed art. But can we separate the man from the music, the art from the artist, and still appreciate the art by itself? Daniel Bareboim, a Jewish conductor who admires Wagner’s music, argues that while Wagner was a raging anti-Semite, he did not compose a single note that was anti-Semitic.[3] It can be argued that the artist and the art are two separate entities, and should be evaluated individually. The artist can be condemned from an ethical viewpoint while the art can only be judged from an aesthetic angle. Sure, Orson Scott Card does not reveal his homophobia in Enders Game[4], and Dickens continued to write about healing families long after discarding his wife[5], but some art cannot truly be fully appreciated without examining the life of the creator. A notable example is Picasso, who fueled his creative output from his countless romantic relationships of which two killed themselves and another two went mad.[6]

The inquisition between great art and ethics becomes even puzzling when we consider that great art can simultaneously glorify moral injustice. D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of A Nation, is known to have revolutionized the commercial film industry with its innovative film techniques, while at the same time presenting the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force.

Art’s purpose goes beyond mere entertainment or bettering the spectator. Art represents the human condition with all its complexities and contradictions. We make art to be human, we witness art to feel human, and we study art to understand humanity. Humans are complex characters, and great art is an extension of that complexity. Art can be analyzed exclusively from the artist, but cannot always be fully appreciated without acknowledging the artist. At the same time, great art does not always constitute morally apt ideals. Art is complex; Humans are complex. Art is ironic; Humans are ironic. Like both good and bad humans, both good and bad art is irreducibly complex, intricate, and embodies the contradictory creations of ingenuity.

[1] Williams, Stan. The Moral Premise. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006. 19. Print.
[2] Barenboim, Daniel. "Wagner and The Jews." The New York Review of Books 60.11 (2013): 1+. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
[3] Barenboim, Daniel. "Wagner and The Jews." The New York Review of Books 60.11 (2013): 1+. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
[4] Lorge, Lauren. "The conundrum of good art created by bad people." The Collegian . Web. 30 Nov. 2013.
[5] Schulman, Sam. "Good Writers. Bad Men. Does It Matter?" In Character, A Journal of Everyday Virtues (2010). Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
[6] McGrath, Charles. "Good Art, Bad People." The New York Times June 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"The Story Diamond Won't Work For Me"

I have had the pleasure of working as a story consultant with celebrated historical romance writer TAMERA ALEXANDER over the past few years. She's mentioned in a couple earlier posts.

This week she's going over the galleys to her latest book, A BEAUTY SO RARE, which will come out in April, 2014 from Bethany House Publishers.  Tamera has a couple of book series she writing this decade, turns out about one a year, alternating between Bethany and Zondervan (Harper Collins), both Grand Rapids, MI publishers. ABSR is for Bethany and is book 2 of the Belmont mansion series. Zondervan gets the series about the Belle Meade plantation. Both estates are real places, with real historical people, in postbellum Nashville, which is where Tamera calls home.

In a couple of emails we exchanged over the last 24 hours, and then a telephone conversation, Tamera shared the following:
ABSR was, by far, the hardest book I’ve ever written...Thanks again for the brainstorming we did on the front end. One thing I learned this go round…do not work from the white board (story diamond) when trying to write. The left brain and right brain do not mix. Nearly drove me to drink. Which actually might have helped, come to think of it. : )... I was trying to follow the story diamond, filling it in, trying to figure out the Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 thing, and it did not work for me. Doesn’t mean the story diamond won’t ultimately work for me, but doing that while creating is a killer for me. Just can’t mix the two at all.
Now why would I post this criticism of something I promote—The Story Diamond, pictured at left in its recent permutation. Posts about which can be found HERE, and the actual working tool HERE?

Because Tamera's observation is instructive, and allows me to reinforce why we call writing aids like The Story Diamond an "aid" and not a "rule". Indeed, Chapter 4 of The Moral Premise, "Storytelling's Natural Law and Processes" attempts to explain how every successful writer, while they may end up at the same place, cannot use the same method. Just as every protagonist is different in terms of psychological makeup and action, so is every writer in how they must listen to their muse and get the work done.  I remind writers in my workshops that if they follow my "secrets" and suggested rules of successful writing literally, they will marginalize the story's natural dynamic, and output will be a dud. One of the reasons well-written stories connect with human beings so well is that they are all different—meaning both the stories and the humans. The Story Diamond is meant as an invisible guide, to give the writer an underlying structure, not a step-by-step rule.


Tamera is a pantser. She writes from the seat of her pants. It's like writing with the right brain. Left brain writers are called plotters.  Both methods, in their extreme, have problems. And since most of my material promotes plotting I have to guard against its inherent dangers, of which Tamera has reminded me. On one level, the pantser will write deeply emotionally charged prose—because they are discovering every day, for the first time, what happens to their characters. Now and then Joe reminds his wife,
 "Tammy, they're not real."
But through tears, Tamera can only reply:
"They are to me. And I love them."
I tell the story in workshops about, how a few years back, superwoman literary agent Natasha Kern called one of her clients to see how her latest book was coming, only to find the author a sobbing mess, and unable to talk coherently. All Natasha heard over the phone were cries of woe, gasps for breath, and deep sobs. About that time, the author's husband came into the office to find the wastebasket overflowing with tear-soaked tissue, and said author on the floor curled into a fetal position under her desk, juggling the phone and tissue box. Natasha figured the author's mother had just died, the house had burned down, or the Feds had taken over her home for use as an alien internment camp. No, it was none of that. It took 20 minutes but finally Natasha had figured out that her author, the epitome of pantserdom, had just figured out what happens to her protagonist at the end of the novel.

Yes, pantsers, like Tamera, write great stories. But at times the stories, guided by such deeply felt emotions, need rewriting to be understood as a whole, and it takes time for massive rewrites.


The plotter on the other hand can lose interest in the daily grind of writing if the story is so well known beforehand. The other problem, which the above panicked author's experience alerts us to, is the plotter's lack of emotional involvement in the characters lives by refusing to let the characters "act for themselves." For characters to be "real" they must have the force of "free will" behind the minutia of their motivations. They cannot be robots from Stepford. And a writer who plots too much is going to end up with robot characters without their own force of nature. I suspect this is what Tamera was fighting, and rightfully so.


My advice has been to plot just enough to know where you're going and then write for the fun of it. You'll avoid writer's block and massive rewrites, but your writing will also be full of attitude, vigor and personality — human traits that allow readers to connect with you and your characters, which are extensions of you.  Early in the conception of ABSR I spent hours on the phone with Tamera reviewing character arcs, plots, and various moral premise issues. Tamera writes:
Tamera Alexander
Our work on the plot up front (and the Story Diamond) definitely helped, but then I should have put the “plotting board” aside and just written the story, instead of trying to write toward the climax, or the moment of grace, or whatever. I need to let what I’ve learned from you and others guide my sub-conscience as I write, but I need to write from my gut. So it’s a blend. But it’s not a blend with the story diamond peering over my shoulder. And me turning around to look at the blank spaces and wondering why I don’t know what I’m knowing. When I really do, I think. I just do it intuitively. Though not consistently, I know. But that’s what rewrites are for. : ) Make sense?
Sure does.


Now, part of the sinister counter argument to this discussion is that the added knowledge Tamera has developed about plotting has allowed her stories to become more sophisticated, with more subplots, more characters, and a thicker real-world fabric. There's a debate about whether or not the kind of novel she's been writing lately will still attract her audience who publishers believe want shorter books. Time will tell, but after reading a Tamera Alexander novel my wife and I DON'T WANT IT TO END, and I've read similar comments from other readers.

This reminds me that movies that win BEST PICTURE Oscars are not the 90-110 page scripts that Hollywood agents are always requesting. The best movies average somewhere in the 135-165 page length, although there is the occasional 110 page winner. Why is this? Because deeper, well-developed, connectable characters require time and pages to develop. Audiences and readers love to identify with characters and participate in their lives. It takes time and higher than normal page counts to do that.  Tamera's publishers are hoping for novels that are 120,000 to 130,000 words max. But To Whisper Her Name came in at 170K and ABSR is estimated to be about 174K. These are too long to fit the normal business model for Bethany and Zondervan, Tamera says.  I reminded her, however, that Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth is about 350K, Susan Howatch's Absolute Truths is 212K, and Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger is about 234K. Tamera is pithy.  QED!

ABSR was so hard to write, I believe, because Tamera had the added confidence of plotting so that she could indulge her love of reality and thus involve more historical figures, and more cultures into her normal postbellum North vs South mix. In ABSR, in addition to the true story lines of the rich white mansion owners, and the poor black former slaves of Nashville, Tamera has tightly interwoven political and romantic intrigue from the European House of Hapsburg, the historic breakthrough discoverys of botanist Luther Burbank of Boston, the activism of nursing pioneer Dorothea Dix, and Gregor Johann Mendel, a European scientist and Augustinian friar who is credited with founding the science of genetics.

And while her books may at first appear to be too long for the publishers, there's an evident upside given voice to by the decisions of her editors: The multiple storylines of the characters are so interwoven and engaging that you can't take even one out (to make the books shorter) without destroying the novel's magic. And so, bless their corporate souls, the books Tamera writes are not chopped up by the editors and ruined, but are left as is, and sent to press.

Exactly. Love it. Can't wait.

P.S. I  have a confession. I have conspired to coach Tamera the way I do for the sake of a few more evenings of reading enjoyment... and my wife is happier, too. We enjoy reading Tamera's books, and this way the reading lasts longer. 

A full explanation of the Story Diamond is presented in my On-Line Storycraft Training series.

Update to 13 Beat Story Structure Post

I have just revised a post that I often refer writers to study is titled Story Structure Basics - 13 Major Beats and is listed and linked at the topic of the Topics & Labels listing in the right column.

I've been meaning to do this for over a year and have grimaced each time I'm asked a question that was semantically confusing in the former post. (Not that any revision isn't also going to cause questions and a grimace.) I've also updated the diagram that goes along with the post which is here.

CLICK IMAGE to Enlarge

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Teen Community of Filmmakers

Nikita (L) & sister Monica (R)
Over the past few years I've taught a Story Symposium for a group of teens, and later helped them produce a short movie. One of my students is Nikita Mungarwadi, of whom I've written before about. The picture at right I took at her older sister's high school graduation dinner. Nikita's on the left, in dresses they purchased on a recent trip to their parent's cities in Southern India.

She asked my opinion of several of her college application essays. The one below was priceless and thought it applied to stories of all kinds. It tells one.

The application prompt is followed by her essay:

Essay #1 (Required for all applicants. Approximately 250 words) Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.

We are a community of filmmaking teens.  A community of all Caucasians and one Indian.  A community of devout Catholics and one devout Hindu. I am the latter, yet I belong with the former. 
When I attended my first Story Symposium workshop freshman year, I was mildly surprised to find that I would be the brown sesame seed among the pot of white rice.  I was already accustomed to be the minority.  In school, I was one among the two Indians in my grade; in ballet I was the one Indian. 

I wasn’t expecting hostility, but I braced myself for the discreetness that was sure to exist.  Strangely… I got neither.  The rest of the teens completely ignored the fact that my external features were incompatible with theirs, and adopted me within their circle.

Soon, we became a cult, enthusiastically learning the craft of a perfect screenplay.  We contributed recommendations on others’ screenplay ideas while absorbing advice for our own. 

We all shared a mutual desire to become part of the channel through which we could manipulate human emotions, sending the audience into a sea of startling tears or a death of interminable laughter.  We realized that films were the illusion meant to distract people’s attention from the real world, yet offered universal principles that can be applied to reality.  The irony of filmmaking and the longing to be a part of it was what brought us together.

Even though our complexions clashed and our religious devotions disagreed, they considered me to be synonymous with themselves­­–a united community of teens indulged in fascination for the art of storytelling.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Antagonists, Settings, Protagonists, and Environments

Theory: In successful stories Antagonists are the product of their environment or setting, while Protagonists are the change-agents of their environment or setting. IOW: Antagonists are the out growth of their own status quo, while Protagonists challenge the status quo of others. Is that a rule that is always true of successful stories?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Moral Premise on Twitter

@MoralPremise is my twitter handle. While in Dallas I picked up two books in the Omni Hotel Gift Shop. 101 Things To Learn in Art School (Kit White [Art]), and 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (Matthew Frederick) [Arch].

Flipping through the pages I found inspiration in how art and architecture apply to story structure and what I do in my consulting. So, I've started a TWEET series that will only appear @MoralPremise.

If I remember or have enough characters I'll end each with either ART or ARCH and the page number. Thus ART5 refers to page 5 . Of course I've already used TILIAS5 for this, but I'll get in the groove tomorrow.

Great little books to add to your library.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What's a Story Producer?

You've all seen the credits at the end of a movie. In recent years they go on forever. Just by their length six-digits is likely added cost of prints and bandwidth each year. Next to the CGI department, with even their hundreds of names in movies without special effects, the next longest list belongs to producers. What the heck do they all do, you may wonder?

Let me make an important suggestion. We need a new kind of producer with one production-wide responsibility— the story.

A little background.

Most producers are nothing more than a coordinator who has a particular affinity to detail. Although due to their obsession with detail, especially those involving schedules and expenses, "nothing more" is a serious oxymoron. The proper idiom is more likely "everything plus more".  The industry's nod to this important personality disorder is to list the producer's name above the director's in the opening credits, e.g. a BRAIN GRAZER production of a RON HOWARD film. Of course they switch places at the end of the movie, where all the other producers share the spot light with Mr. Grazer.

Here is the list of Grazer and Howard's RUSH from IMBD. I'll leave the links in place.
Tobin Armbrust.... executive producer
Andrew Eaton.... producer
Eric Fellner.... producer
Brian Grazer.... producer
Jim Hajicosta.... co-producer
Todd Hallowell.... executive producer
Daniel Hetzer.... co-producer
Ron Howard.... producer
Jens Meurer.... co-producer
Peter Morgan.... producer
Kay Niessen.... co-producer
Brian Oliver.... producer
Anita Overland.... co-producer
Gernot Schaffler.... associate producer
Raj Brinder Singh.... co-executive producer
Tyler Thompson.... executive producer

My work on films over the last decade, which includes tracking their box office progress, suggests that if more attention was paid to the integrity of the story in all aspects of the filmmaking craft, movies would attract a larger audience.

I've written this before, but William Goldman was wrong when he wrote on page 39 of his famous book ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE (p.39) that "NOBODY (sic) KNOWS ANYTHING."  (emphasis is Goldman's).  The truth is Somebody does know something. Just drive through Beverly Hills. Either they know something or they're printing money faster than the U.S. mint. In fairness, however, Goldman isn't claiming that E.P.'s are stupid. His context is that before a picture is released the E.P.'s don't really know how well the movie will be accepted by the public.

I contend they CAN know...if they follow the story principal of The Moral Premise, and if they had a Story Producer that was trained in those principals, and whose sole responsibility was to watch over every aspect of development, production, post-production and marketing. Of course, there's the assumption that the E.P. Producer, and Director will need the Story Producer's advice.

Back to Goldman. He points to the holiday release schedule for 1981-82. Of the 17 films released, ONLY ONE film did well at the box office. (Again, recall that numbers reflect connection and audience resonance, all other things being equal.)  Here's the list, box office numbers in millions from

On Golden Pond $119
Reds $50
Taps $36
Sharky's Machine $33
Neighbors $30
Modern Problems $24
Ragtime $17
Ghost Story $16
Rollover $10
Pennies from Heaven $6
Whose Life is it Anyway? $6
Heartbeeps $6
Buddy Buddy $5
Pick-up Summer $0
Four Friends $0
Clash of the Titans $0
Man of Iron $0

I admit, I have not analyzed any of these films for a true or consistently applied moral premise. But I have studied hundreds of movies since, and if the pattern holds, I would predict that ONLY GOLDEN POND possessed a true and consistent moral premise and that REDS had some inner truth going for it, but the presentation of the moral argument was not consistent. That's why a movie about two old people beat the rest of the pack.

Here's a description for a person on the project team that can substantially help connect stories with audiences.

The Story Producer is a co-producer who reports to the Producer and Director. The Story Producer has overall advisory responsibility for the consistent implementation of a true moral premise in all creative aspects of the project, including but not limited to the decisions and activities related to producing, writing, direction, photography, art direction, casting, scoring, effects and marketing. The Story Producer's work is based on the integration of a true and consistently applied Moral Premise as discussed in the book and blog of the same name. The Story Producer begins work during development with the writer and director to determine a true and resonating set of Story Fundamentals e.g. Hook, Log Line, Conflict of Values, Moral Premise, major plot beats for all main characters and sub-beats for minor characters including visual and aural motifs,  metaphors, script pacing, emotional roller-coast of beats, and dialogue.  The Story Producer reviews and gives notes on everything the writer generates including synopses, treatments, and final screenplay. During Production and Post-Production the Story Producer monitors all aspects of production for consistent execution of the moral premise in everything seen or heard by the potential or actual audience.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hook Exercise Results

I've run this exercise before in my workshops, but rarely have I received the results that I did in Dallas at the T.D. Jakes Film Festival workshops on August 30, 2013. After several slides explaining the first Secret of Successful Stories, an Ironic Hook, I asked the participants to write down their ideas and pass them forward. Here, with some minor editing, is what came to me — grist for the story mill. I have no names, so if you turn one of these into a book or movie, be sure to give credit to the "T.D. Jakes IFFFF Moral Premise Workshop Participants"

Cancer 9-1-1
The Baby Teacher
Babies Raising Moms
Big Shoes, Little Feet
Sugar Ain't Sweet
A life insurance salesman is a serial killer
An Army Drill Sargent gets elected POTUS
Female POTUS appoints all male cabinet
Navy seal appointed commander at West Point
A bird is afraid of heights
A bear raises a boy in the wild
A Grandma becomes an astronaut
An alien becomes a civil war hero
A man takes over the world with an army of Shih Tzu
Due to climate upheaval Manhatten and Florida switch places
Skateboading park on the moon
Strong man fights army with large bone
A man can't fall
A man to lazy to cook sells his inheritance for a sandwich
The adventures of a quadriplegic world traveler
Black girl from Louisiana becomes 5-Star Chef in Italy
A beautiful white woman wakes up as a black woman the morning of wedding
A retired madam starts a church
A man wakes up from a coma as a woman
A man is unable to speak until he turns 30
A baby disarms a mad assailant.
A musical chair
A preacher is possessed by the devil
Boy with no hands plays the guitar
Preacher summoned to be a wartime spy
A dysfunctional family functions
Blind white racist falls for a black woman pairs up a black racist with with white racist.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Story Symposium Query

Are you interested in participating in a Story Symposium that I would lead once a month, for 9 months, on Saturdays for three hours? It would include all of my various workshop content plus interactive discussions, sharing, and story critique opportunities. This new version of the symposium would be available to distance participants via WebEx, or to live participants who would come to the meeting location in Novi, MI.

From May 2010 through May 2012 I taught and facilitated, along with Jan Swedorske, a Story Symposium class in story writing (screenplays and prose) at my home in Novi. Students would come at 2 PM, and we'd be done by 5 PM. Some months the times shifted due to my travel schedule. The sessions were a mix of lecture, interactive, discussion, story sharing and critique. I presented my workshop material on various story topics, and I coached participants (as a group and privately) in the development of their own stories. Although this started out as a on-going workshop for teens involved in a Catholic Home School organization, at times welcomed adults, parents, and non-Christians to the group. The original symposium ran for two years. Recently there have been requests to run it again.

I am considering rerunning the symposium, but in a version that would only run for only 9-10 sessions during the regular school year (Sept through May) AND be available for people outside the area to participate live or (if a session is missed) to access the session file for playback. The live session would meet once a month on a Saturday for 3 hours. The "live" location would be in Novi at my home where I have easy access to electronic media and Internet transmission. If there was wider interest for the in-person live sessions than I anticipate we would meet at a larger venue.

This time there would be a cost, but as of yet I have not figured out what it would be. Distance participants would need a good internet connection for the transmission of visuals and movie clips, that you would be required to watch ahead of time.

Participants would also be required to have a copy of The Moral Premise that we would use for reading assignments. There would be additional handouts, access to a password projected website for downloading additional material, writing assignments (nothing very long as I wont' have time to read everything), one or two field trips, and a guest speaker from time-to-time. As before my opening lectures would be richly illustrated with my workshop slides and clips.

If you are interested in this (feel free to forward this to others), please write me ASAP to and provide me with your contact information and level of interest. There is no age or faith restriction.


Monday, August 19, 2013

New Bookmark Now Availalble

Over the years of my work on many a story I've refined my "check list" of important story structural criteria. In recent workshops I've wanted to coordinate the "secrets" presented in the workshop, with the Moral Premise Bookmark, at least the check list on the BACK of the bookmark. Finally did it.

So, now (on the back) there are not 10, or 21, but 18 "Secrets of Successful Story Structure." And we all know that this is somewhat arbitrary because as you dig into a few of those so-called secrets they get bigger in terms of how they are applied. For instance, some people say that the Protagonist must be likeable. I'd say we must identify with him or her, which means we have to like them enough to follow and be intently interested in their decisions and outcomes. This is covered under item 17, and if you break that down there are over 20 techniques to help the audience identify with any and all of your characters. You don't use all of them... but the more the better the identification.

So, for what it's worth....and I figure each is worth thousands of dollars if they are understood and applied... on the left they are for FREE. AND THE LINK. (scroll to the bottom)

Your comments and improvements are always welcome.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Stan Williams to present at Rochester Writer's Conference

I've been asked to present two, 75-minute workshops at the Rochester (Michigan) Writers' Conference, Oct 5, 2013. Here is their website where you can register: Rochester Writers' Conference website. I was the keynote presenter at their conference last year.

Secrets of Successful Story Structure

Story Masters Class, Part 1 by Dr. Stan Williams
The 18 Secrets of Successful Story Structure: How successful stories of any genre connect and engage audiences while avoiding writer’s block for the author.

This workshop is an update of the keynote workshop Dr. Williams presented in 2012.
It is based on his work with novelists, producers and writers in Hollywood based on his book, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success. This workshop is a summary of his all day workshop and in part will cover the 2 spines present in all good stories, the 2 realms of natural law that characters can never escape, the 8 steps of story development, the 5 ingredients of a great hook and log lines, the 4 parts of the moral premise statement, the 13 basic beats of all stories, the 1 moment of grace, and 9 contributors of story thrust. Motion picture clips are used for examples. WORKSHOP

Who should attend: Narrative writers, novelists, producers, and directors of all story genres and media will find these sessions beneficial, if not foundational. This session will give you an introduction to the critical story concept of the moral premise and how it will speed along and improve the quality of your story telling through proper structure. In many ways the moral premise is a powerful muse; when used correctly it will inspire and focus your efforts, and powerfully connect you with your audience. Say “Good-bye” to writer’s block.

Irony, Goals and Plots

Story Masters Class, Part 2 by Dr. Stan Williams
Irony, Goals and Plots: How to create and structure well-rounded, engaging characters, plots and subplots around a single motivational premise.

Is this well illustrated story workshop, you’ll learn the secrets of how characters transform, how goals are defined, how plots and subplots are created and how every character’s arc (regardless of their outer journey) are all related to a single internal moral premise that ties the story together around one core idea. You’ll also learn the critical important of irony and how it dramatizes every character’s storyline. We will reveal 3 paths to audience-character identification, the 3 poles of the Nicomachean Character value scale, 3 story-breaking (or beating) tools, and the 3 relationships of plot arcs, character goals, and dramatic irony. Bring your story ideas; there will be opportunity to practice some of the techniques Dr. Williams explains and get valuable feedback from him and other participants. This is the same content Dr. Williams has presented to working writers and producers in Hollywood, at film conferences around the country, and what he uses to help his story-consulting clients. WORKSHOP

Who should attend: Knowledge of the story structure secrets in Part 1 will be helpful, but not entirely necessary. Writers who want to investigate Moral Premise story structure on a deeper and more practical level, or writers who are challenged or face writer’s block are encouraged to attend.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Stories Convince Better Than Logic

Want to be more effective communicator and persuader. Tell a story.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau

(November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905)
The picture facing me when I wake each morning.
Buttressed by my comments, here are excerpts from a blog post by David Lavenda. You can find the original essay here: Once Upon A Time At The Office: 10 Storytelling Tips To Help You Be More Persuasive.

Which is easier to remember: statistics or a story? What tugs on your heart logic or a story? 
Robert McKee, famous Hollywood story guru, is quoted in the essay as saying:
Trying to convince people with logic is tough for two reasons. One is they are arguing with you in their heads while you are making your argument. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.
I would add that stories that make an emotional connection that evoke adrenalin which sears memories into the bran. Facts, apart from a story, can be lost in an instant because they are not personal.
But there’s more proof of storytelling's effectiveness than just anecdotal evidence. For example, studies carried out by Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock at Ohio State University have empirically shown that people’s beliefs can be swayed more effectively through storytelling than through logical arguments. The researchers posit that persuasion is most effective when people are "transported" to another place using a story.
More accurately a story, told right, uses a combination of three types of Identification Techniques (physical, emotional & moral),  that place the story listener INTO the story and more significantly into one or more character's minds, where the audience participates emphatically in the journey of the character. That is a literal "transportation" and allows the audience to EXPERIENCE the situation as if present in person. In other words, the story becomes a simulation of reality.  Things are much easier to remember that way because "experience" is the best teacher.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down to discuss this topic with Susan Fisher, a strategic communication expert and principal at First Class. “People are always telling stories; why don’t they do it at work?" asks Fisher. “It’s because they have been taught that at work you use logic and slides and statistics; this seems more professional. Telling stories seems too emotional and possibly manipulative. So people stick to facts and numbers. But the truth is that real emotions always work better, because that is the way to reach hearts and minds, and also people get to see the real you. It’s authentic.”
Here then are Fisher's top ten list of being a good storyteller at work. These are right out of the screenwriter and director's handbook for making successful motion pictures, or writing engaging novels.
  1. Plan your story starting with the takeaway message. Think about what’s important to the audience. The ending is the most important point of the story. This is the message we want to deliver, and the one that will linger with the audience.
  2. Keep your stories short for the workplace. Three to five minutes long is about what people can digest in today’s ADD world.
  3. Good stories are about challenge or conflict. Without these elements, stories aren’t very interesting. The compelling part of a story is how people deal with conflict–-so start with the people and the conflict.
  4. Think about your story like a movie. Imagine you are screenwriter with a goal to get your message across. The story has to have a beginning, middle, and end.
  5. Start with a person and his challenge, and intensify human interest by adding descriptions of time, place, and people with their emotions.
  6. Be creative. Create a storyboard; draw it out, while listening to music or reading something for inspiration. A good story always has ups and downs, so "arc" the story. Pull people along, and introduce tension, just like in a fairy tale. (“From out of nowhere, the wolf jumps onto the path…”)
  7. Intensify the story with vivid language and intonation. Tap into people’s emotions with language. Use metaphors, idioms, and parables that have emotional associations. (Note: For more on this, see Leo Widrich’s article entitled, “Which Words Matter Most When You Talk” and studies on intonation performed by Ingrid Johnsrude at Cambridge University).
  8. When using a story in a PowerPoint presentation, use appropriate graphics/pictures to convey your message. Stay away from text and complicated graphics. A single picture interlaced with emotional language will go a long way to convey your message.
  9. Most of us have not told stories in front of an audience since English class in high school. So you will need to practice. Tell your story in front of a friendly audience and get feedback. Gauge your pace, and take note of the story’s length and your use of language. It will be a bit rusty at first, but underneath it all, we are all born storytellers.
  10. The most important point is to make the switch within; because once you internalize that today’s "left-brain" communication style doesn’t work very well and you realize that stories are how people really communicate, you will find it a lot easier to proceed…because it’s authentic. And that is what really persuades.
Fisher also recommends signing up for a storytelling workshop.
Duh! I have a great suggestion....

What is Motion Picture Development?

As announced earlier I'm facilitating TD Jakes' International Faith and Family Film Festival Short Treatment Contest. (I'm also presenting two workshops at the event, August 30, 31, in Dallas.) The winner of the treatment writing contest will be offered a motion picture development deal with TD Jakes Enterprises. 



Development of a motion picture can take years. The process begins with a story idea, such as the selection of a treatment that has been submitted for the IFFFF Short Treatment Contest. Development typically involves the following steps, but not necessarily in this order:

a. The writer (you) and the Executive Producer (EP, e.g. TDJE) would sign an "Option-Purchase Agreement" that would temporarily transfer ownership of the story and script (referred to an the Intellectual Property (IP), to the EP for a period of three years.  The OP Agreement is in two parts. Part A is the Agreement for the EP to try to get the story through development and into pre-production. For that the writer is paid a small fee. Part B of the Agreement for the EP to purchase all rights in perpetuity to the story, for a larger fee. The Purchase is not executed until the EP is absolutely sure the story will actually get produced, usually on the first day of principal photography.  If the story cannot be fully developed and entered into production, the ownership of the IP reverts back to the writer, and the writer keeps the option fees.  

b. There may also be an over all "Development Agreement" with the writer, wherein the writer is hired to help develop and write the story and the script. But, like the OP Agreement, signing a development agreement is no guarantee that the project will eventually get made into a movie. It is often the case that multiple writers and script story-consultant are involved. The EP pays all costs.

c. Working with a team of story experts the story idea (or original draft of the script) is "broken" or "broken down" or "beat out". That is the story is formally structured to meet the demands of a mainstream movie.

d. The story or script is then written and rewritten (over and over) to make it so good that others will want to be part of the project, and agree to "attach" themselves to the effort.

There are both technical (objective) and aesthetic (subjective) aspects to the above two steps.

e. The EP then attempts to "attach" to the project a line producer, production manager, director, and principal actors. With each attachment (a task that is subjectively dependent on the opinion and taste of the various parties) the script will go through another revision as each person that comes onto the project will make suggestions.

f. The EP will search out and attach funding from a combination of private equity, production entities (studios), and distributors. This may involve writing a business plan and creating preliminary marketing materials.  This step can be long and finding the money very elusive.

g. Along the way, all parties sign "Deal Memos" that confirm the parameters of the parties' involvement in making the picture. Deal Memos are short letters that precede formal contracts that are not signed until pre-production begins, which is the stage following development and just before production. Pre-production does not begin until all the deal memos are signed and the executive producer (and TDJE) agrees to actually make the picture. The approval to proceed with production is called a "Greenlight."

h. It is sometime during the above stages that the "Option Agreement" is executed and the actual sales of the intellectual property (the story and script) is transferred permanently to the executive producer and the writer is paid his or her purchase fee.

Yes, it can take years, and not thing is guaranteed.  Welcome to "Development Hell." 

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Moral Premise in Chinese

The images say it all... I think. A Chinese university exchange student staying with  my daughter's family said that the Chinese title is more interesting than the American title. But he offered no further explanation. (?!) My publisher was surprised the cover got past Chinese censors, but then neither my publisher nor I had anything to do with this except collect the royalties.


Page 158's Table

Page 51

T.D. Jakes Film Festival Workshop Presentations and Treatment Contest

Mike Epps (L) talks to T.D. Jakes (R) on the set of the hit movie Sparkle.
For those of you in Texas, especially near Dallas, let me invite you to the International Faith & Family Film Festival (IFFFF) (Home Page:  run by T.D. Jakes Enterprises. T.D. Jakes is an internationally known pastor, writer, producer and actor of several films. Here's his IMDB page:

The IFFFF is actually part of TDJE's Megafest held in Texas August 29-31, 2013. As part of the film track, I've been asked to run the Screenwriting program, which will consist of two master class workshops on August 30 and 31, plus facilitate the Short Treatment Contest, the winner of which will get a development deal with the film production arm of TDJE. Submission guidelines can be found here:

The two workshops are titled: 

Workshop Day 1 (3 hours): "The 21 Secrets of Successful Motion Picture Stories: How to tell box office successful stories that connect and engage audiences about what is good, true, and beautiful."

Workshop Day 2 (3-hours): "Irony, Goals and Subplots: How to create diverse, well-rounded characters on a single moral theme that connects with audiences."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Story Diamond

With his permission, here's a snap that friend and client Curt Nickels sent me of a six-foot piece of white board he salvaged from a construction project in order to make a story diamond board. Wish I had one of these. He could even paste post-its on this, or little pieces of computer printouts with Elmer's Repositionable Glue Stick on the back. Very cool, Curt.

A full explanation of the Story Diamond is presented in my On-Line Storycraft Training series.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


Dr. Stan Williams with directors Ryan Coogler & Destin Cretton
Biola Media Conference, Morning General Session, May 4, 2013
Stan Williams interviews up and coming film directors Ryan Coogler and Destin Cretton

[edited for print]

STAN WILLIAMS: With us today are 2 young acclaimed filmmakers.

Destin Daniel Cretton has written and directed four award-winning short films including SHORT TERM 12 (, which won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance
Film Festival and made the short list for the 2010 Academy Awards. We should all be jealous. His featured script, Short Term Twelve, developed from the same material, was awarded a Nicole Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film went into production last year in September, 2012, and premiered then at the 2013 South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), where… now get this… Short Term Twelve won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award, an unprecedented achievement. Destin’s feature film debut, I AM NOT A HIPSTER, also premiered at Sundance in 2012.

(A trailer plays of Destin's work)

Please help me welcome Destin Cretton.

(Audience Applause as Destin takes a seat on stage)

Ryan Coogler recently wrote and directed FRUITVALE STATION (, co-starring Octavia Spencer—you’ll remember her from THE HELP, which won her an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. Ryan developed FRUITVALE at the Sundance screenwriters lab and at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival the completed film was awarded—here we go again—the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award. The first time that’s ever happened at Sundance. He has written and directed several award-winning short films, including FIG, which won the HBO short film-making award and LOCKS, which appeared at the Tri-Beca Film Festival. Ryan is a Fellow in the Disney ABC directing program and a recent graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

(A trailer plays of Ryan's work)

Please help me welcome Ryan Coogler.

(Audience Applause as Ryan takes a seat on stage)

STAN WILLIAMS: Ryan and Destin, because most of us have not seen the films that have brought you here today, please tell us what they are about? Destin, how would you explain SHORT TERM 12, and where does the name come from?

DESTIN CRETTON: SHORT TERM 12 is the name of a foster care facility where probably eighty-percent of the movie takes place. It follows the story of Grace, who’s a mid-twenty year old supervisor the facility, and she’s in charge of about 16 or so teenagers. The story just tracks her through a piece of her life where she significantly has some issues that she’s dealing with both personally and with the kids. It’s at a point in her life where she’s figuring out how to finally deal with the stuff from her own past that she’s been avoiding.

STAN WILLIAMS: And, who have you signed with distribution-wise?

DESTIN CRETTON: Cinedigm is going to be distributing August (2013).

STAN WILLIAMS: Ryan, what is FRUITVALE? Where does the name come from and what’s it about?

RYAN COOGLER: Fruitvale, comes from the name of a district in Oakland, CA. It’s also the name of a BART [Bay Area Rail Transit] Station. The movie deals with the 2009 BART police officer involved shooting of Oscar Grant, who was a 22-year old male in the Bay Area. The story follows Oscar and reimagines his day leading up to him being shot. He was shot on New Year’s Day, 2009, so the film follows him on New Year’s Eve, which so happens to be his mom’s birthday.

STAN WILLIAMS: Who plays the title roles?

RYAN COOGLER: Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar Grant, and Octavia Spencer plays his mom.

[FRUITVALE STATION is being distributed by The Weinstein Company.]

STAN WILLIAMS: Gentlemen, as you’ve experienced many times before, interviews like this are opportunities to talk about craft. How did you do that? How did you get that performance? How did you land Octavia, you know, attach her? How did you find the funding, is a question we all want to know, right? And, obviously you guys have mastered a great deal of this craft, otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten the awards and the acclaim that you’ve both gotten, and you’re to be commended for that obviously, that goes without saying.

But, we think there’s some deeper reason why you guys are being successful, …and why people are being just totally obsessed and attracted to your film. And, that’s why we want to ask the question “Why?” Why are you picking the films that you’re picking? Why are you going after these stories and—we talk about filmmaking being an obsessive affair, an affair with obsession, because it’s so all-encompassing, especially as the film-maker and the director. But, why do you… how do you… I guess the question I should ask first

What criteria do you use to figure out what project you're going to pursue and be obsessed about the next year of your life?

RYAN COOGLER: In all the films I’ve had a chance to make, I have always tried to make something that was about something that was important to me, something that I was passionate about, personally -- things that I had questions about in society -- things that I’m struggling with, in myself. If you have a personal passion about something or a personal question about something, or something has effected you on a gut level, either an experience or something that you’ve seen, you can use that energy to drive you through the process of making a film -- and, staying true to that can always be a source of confidence.

DESTIN CRETTON: I think the best things I write are the things that I’m feeling as my fingers are on the keys. When I’m writing a scene about a character who is making a mistake or a character who is doing something so frustrating -- when I’m writing those scenes -- I’m pissed. Or, sometimes, and it’s strange personally, when I step back and I look at the things that I’m doing, I have no idea …I don’t think I have that great of an idea. But, there are times when I make myself cry when I’m writing. And, it’s because I think it feels similar to writing in a diary or writing in a journal where I’m processing my thoughts through these other people’s lives that I’m writing about. For some reason that [personalization] helps me process things better than if I’m just thinking about it all by myself.

STAN WILLIAMS: So, you’re starting from within. You’re not starting from without. Interesting. Because most of the people in this room — sorry for the generalization if it's not true, and perhaps I’m speaking just for myself — want to make films that are going to touch society, change the world, because we have a message, supposedly. But, you guys have just said is that is not how you first approach your films. Is that right?

DESTIN CRETTON: I thought like that for a long time. And this is just completely personal, it's my personality, but I get stressed out easily. I grew up on an island, Maui, where things are slow. Consequently, I get intimidated really easily and I can freeze. Like when I was going through college, I was operating under the idea that “I want to make movies that change the world!” That won’t change just one person, but that are going to go down in history as the thing that changed society. That pressure was way too much for this guy to handle, and it would paralyze my writing.

My first screenplay was… well, I will never show it to another human being, although my intentions were really wonderful. I wanted to write a screenplay that was going to be the commentary on the state of homelessness in America. And, I tried to write this thing. But it is so pretentious and so forced… that it was actually really depressing when I was done and when I started getting feedback. So, I quit for a while. Now, I write for myself. Like, I have no idea what other people are going to connect with. I have no idea what society needs in a story. But I do know the emotions and things that I’m going through in a certain period of my life...and for me, whether or not anyone else likes it, at least I’ll have gained something through the process -- I think.

RYAN COOGLER: What you’re talking about here is how people are connecting with your films. It’s honesty. You’re being honest with yourself when you write, as oppose to going from the outside-in, e.g. your homelessness script. Now, you’re going from the inside-out. You’re being honest with yourself to the point where you make yourself cry when you write. You’re burying yourself into your script, through being specific and honest with yourself as an artist. Human beings [audiences] recognize honesty. They recognize when something is being truthful… in any language.

I come from the Bay area. We’re super diverse; there are a lot of languages spoken by the Bay area. I’m ashamed to admit that English is the only language I know. Sometimes you see a Pilipino couple arguing in Tugaloo, and I don’t understand a word they’re saying, but I know they’re arguing. I know she’s pissed at that guy for something he did, and that’s what I recognize. The situation is specific to the couple, but through their honesty and their
specificity, others can relate to them and recognize and be moved by their situation. So, I think that that’s why your films (both of them) affect people the way they do. Because, you (Destin) were being honest; you were cutting out the pretention and all of that stuff, and people recognize that and are moved.

STAN WILLIAMS: Both of you have this desire for honesty, and for it to come from you interiorly; it’s moving you emotionally, and so you’re not worried about what message you have for the world. And while the end products will change the world in some small way, that is not how you've oriented your motivation for the project. Yet, from that interior orientation, as directors you now have the task to translate and transfer those ideas to the set, to your crew, to your cast... and ultimately to your audience. What do you do on the set to make sure that that interior honesty is communicated externally in your film?

DESTIN CRETTON: A lot of it has to do with before you get on the set. For instance, it’s who you choose to be working with and whether your actors really get what you’re doing -- and whether they are connecting on an honest level. You want to make sure your actors actually want to do the character and the film and not just perform. I mean certain actors will look at a role and just see that they can kill it in this performance and further their career. And, other actors will want to do this because they are in love with the material and really get something about that character. And, the same goes with your DP. (Director of Photography) and everyone on your crew and your producers.

If there is a sour apple in that barrel, it’s going to just start spreading and there’ll be maggots everywhere. It’ll be disgusting and smell really bad. So, for me, it’s making sure everybody is very clear about what the story is, and how the serious moments of it are part of the tone of the set -- in those moments. And then, there are the fun moments where you want things to be sporadic and you want people smiling. When you hit “cut” and you want people joking around, and having a crew that’s willing to go through that with you.

I think [hiring people that are in sync with you in these ways] -- the most important part. And, then once you get on set, it’s just making sure that the environment outside of the actually shooting, when you’re not rolling the cameras, that the environment is the best type of environment for what you’re trying to capture on film. [Other than that kind of preparation,] I have no rules for anybody.

STAN WILLIAMS: Destin, your producer told me that you try to leave the set in such a way that your hand, the film-maker’s hand it not seen? Can you explain what that means in terms of honesty?

DESTIN CRETTON: For SHORT TERM 12 we came up with an aesthetic that we all agreed on, which was that we all did not want our personal, obvious fingerprints on every frame of the movie. Which means basically that we didn’t want to show off. Nobody wanted to show off. I mean, as an artist, I think there is something inside of everybody that wants to show off. Like, when I show you a movie of mine, there’s something inside me that wants you to be like, “Whoa, he thought of that cool shot? My gosh, like he’s so cool!” But, we knew that would harm this particular story. Some movies you’re supposed to do that; so, just go for it. But for this particular movie, the aesthetic that we came up with was we didn’t want to see too much of ourselves flauntingly in the direction, in my DP, in the shots that we were choosing and the set decoration. We wanted it to at least get as close to feeling like it’s just there, as opposed to perfectly created.

STAN WILLIAMS: Ryan, what do you do on the set to bring honesty and truth forward, and transfer it to your crew and cast?

RYAN COOGLER: I only made one feature. And it was FRUITVALE. With this situation, it was more about making sure the film was shot in the Bay Area where the event happened. And then, once we crewed up, making sure the crew knew how important the film was not only to me as a film-maker but to the community where I was involved -- both the film-making community and the community at large. I think that helped us a lot in terms of dealing with all that adversity that you deal with on a film set. You know how it is, especially making films for small budgets, where the days are long, there’s not a lot of people for everything that you need, and the talent doesn’t have as many amenities as they may be used to on larger projects. It was that spirit of doing something for something greater than everybody individually that helped to bring us through.

STAN WILLIAMS: What impressed me about the honesty of this film is how the community got behind it. Here you have a BART Station police officer [who is Caucasian], shoot and kill an unarmed black man and it caused chaos in the community at the time. And now [just a few years later] you come back and you get the BART people to help you recreate this event on film in the actual station. Is that true?

RYAN COOGLER: Yeah. I guess so. Yeah, …(chuckles)

STAN WILLIAMS: Talk about honesty, credibility and just authenticity… was it difficult to get to that point?

RYAN COOGLER: It wasn’t easy, but I wouldn’t say it was difficult either. The film itself isn’t really about the shooting or the trial. It doesn’t really sensationalize those things. The film is really about Oscar and about the community, and I presented it to them like that. I met with BART officials and sat down and talked with them about how we weren’t going to film or record anything that happened [in the shooting] but we would like to film in the actual locations to be honest. And, I told them what the film would be about and how we like to do it, and they agreed to treat us like any other project.

STAN WILLIAMS: That’s really great, Ryan. Destin, Grace, your 20-something supervisor, why do we care or what's important about her character that we would be interested in her?

DESTIN CRETTON: I don’t know why anyone else should care about Grace, but I know why I care about Grace. (chuckles)  I think most people can personally identify with things that she’s going through --very basic things that she avoids dealing with -- something that you have to deal with at some point, just something inside you that you just [put off] because you know it’s going to be long and hard and really difficult to even think about. And, so you just keep putting it off and putting it off, and that’s basically the struggle of Grace. So, regardless of whether or not you are dealing with something as specific as she is -- and I am personally both close to people who do that and I do that quite a bit myself -- she’s also just a really a nice person. She’s cool!

We were really careful with the way she is portrayed, because she is a character who always has something on her mind. Even when she’s laughing at a joke or smiling or having a decent moment, she always has this thing in the back of her mind that’s a little more brooding, so it was a careful balance to not show somebody on screen who is depressing to watch. But, yeah, I think she’s a cool person.

STAN WILLIAMS: I think Grace exemplifies a well-rounded character, which we always try to get in a film. One of the ways to do that is by telling not just one story about Grace, but several. Grace has multiple facets in her life. She has her romance life. She has her supervisory life. But, then she also has several subplots exampled in the different teenagers she’s trying to care for. And, so there’s a number of story lines there that remind us of ourselves. Like you said, “We’re never thinking about just one thing.” There’re things that are conflicting, and I think that’s why we identify easy with Grace and why we care about her, because she’s very much like us.

Ryan, why do we care about Oscar Grant? Now, I want to ask that, not in terms of the headlines and his killing, but before that. And, that’s what most of your film is about, the life before the headline event. Why do we care? And can you tell us a little bit about how you make us care about Oscar Grant?

RYAN COOGLER: I think it’s a lot like what Destin says about Grace. I think that for me, a big reason to get involved in the project was because I was in the Bay Area when Oscar was killed, and I’m originally from the area. The crazy thing about him is we were basically the same age. He got killed when he was 22. And, I was 22 at the time.

What happened in the media was that the story got sensationalized. People who were on one side of politics basically dragged his name through the mud and said all the bad things that he had done in his life, almost saying he deserved it [to be killed]. People on the other side, made him out to be a saint, said he had never done anything wrong, and said he was this perfect guy and he just stepped off the train and was shot for no reason.

And I knew that the tragedy in what had happened -- was that his humanity, who he was as a person, and all of the gray areas-- were completely lost. So he became this kind of make-believe guy. Like this kind of face that you see in a paper and you just walk past.

I think that when you know someone personally, that the things about them that make them human are the things that are very gray -- the good things and the bad things and they’re never completely one or the other. So, I think that we tried to show those aspects of Oscar, those aspects of him that everyone can relate to. We tried to show what he was struggling with, showing him with his family, showing what he cared about, showing him with his friends. Everybody has those things, and they can relate to that. So, one of the reasons that people care about him in the film is that we see all sides of him and we get to hang out with him on his day.

STAN WILLIAMS: And, that’s the other interesting thing about getting a well-rounded character with which audiences can really identify. One aspect is investigating the different facets of the character’s life [the various subplots of their interests and friends]. But the other is realizing that our characters are not perfect and they cannot be purely evil. They’re imperfect individuals who are trying to do better. We, as audiences, identify with that because we know that we’re imperfect. We have problems in our lives, and we’re constantly striving to do better with what we’ve got. And from what I’ve read, that’s exactly what Oscar Grant is.

RYAN COOGLER: Yes. It was interesting because the day that he lost his life was New Year’s Eve. That’s usually a time when everybody has a holiday, everybody celebrates, it's everybody's time of celebration. It’s a time where people tend to be optimistic. They look forward to a clean slate, a new year. So, it’s interesting that that day would be the day [he would be killed]. We see him on a day where he’s struggling. Imagine that somebody on New Year’s Eve is hungry for cupcakes, [or something bad for them]. They're tempted to eat cupcakes, but they don't because they know they would struggle if they gave in to the temptation. In a lot of ways, Oscar is like that. He’s trying to do better, at least for a day. And, I think everybody can identify with that, trying to break habits and doing that first day, whether it’s cigarettes or food or the Internet, which I think all filmmakers are probably are addicted to (chuckle). But characters like that -- I think people relate to.

STAN WILLIAMS: We’ve been talking about how audiences relate to your protagonists and your characters, in your movies. But, most of us in this room are filmmakers, and you guys are like protagonists, of your own story, and we’re watching your story. We’re reading about it in the press, we’re up here talking it out, and we’re talking about the different facets of your lives as a director, and I'm sure this interview is touching on some of the things those of us in this room want to improve on as filmmakers.

With that in mind, would you talk to us a little bit about how as protagonists of your own story -- what do you hope to improve? What are the different facets of your life, and how are you struggling as a protagonist toward your goals? What can we learn from you in terms of what you hope to overcome and improve as you go on your journey?

DESTIN CRETTON: Yeah. I can talk for like a full day about things I want to improve.

STAN WILLIAMS: But, you see yourselves as protagonists in your own stories, though. You must.

DESTIN CRETTON: It’s a great question… I mean, every film that I’ve done, every short that I’ve done, every documentary that I’ve done has been -- when I’ve decided to start working on it, it’s because there’s something about it that I want to get better at or learn more about. And, the really cool thing about that is, there’s no end. There’s no end! I mean it goes from practical things, like SHORT TERM 12, the short, which was my first exploration of writing dialogue and writing something that was a dialect in a movie.

I did another short because I specifically wanted to build sets. It could be really practical or it could be subject-wise. Right now I’m writing something about that moment in a mother’s life when all the kids leave and she’s redefining herself again because I saw my mom go through it and I’m kind of curious about it, and I want an excuse to go and interview my mom and my grandparents. So, yeah, I don’t think that ever ends. But, I don’t ever think I’ll ever get to a place when I think, yeah, I’m here, where I want to be.

STAN WILLIAMS: This goes back to asking the right questions, not coming up with the right answers.


STAN WILLIAMS: What you’ve described to me, is that you’re both constantly asking, you’re constantly curious. You’re not here with an agenda. We hear this all the time, that movies are great at asking questions, but they’re not great at providing answers. You want answers? You go listen to the Bishop. The Bishop will give you the answers, right? This afternoon, we’re getting answers. [Pastor (Bishop) Kenneth Ulmer, who delivered the closing keynote, was sitting in front.]

Ryan, what about you? What do you hope to overcome and improve on your journey?

RYAN COOGLER: As soon as I came out of grad school, I started making this film, and I’m still making it. It’s funny, I was talking with Destin backstage, and we are concerned about about the same things -- like trying to figure out our trailers and working with our distributors. So, I still feel like I’m making the film, at this point. I’m still very new to it. What I hope is that I can find a way to continue to make projects that make me uncomfortable that put me in a position of fear. Like each project I’ve ever made, has been about something -- yes, a story that I wanted to tell, but also something that terrified me as a person, and something that I didn’t fully understand. I think through making the film and exploring what those questions are, it’s kind of a way of venting.

I feel like I grow a little bit each time, even though I don’t figure anything out. I leave with even more questions. I hope that I’m able to make a career for myself that enables me to continue to ask those questions, as I continue to explore those things each time. I think that…  [turns to Destin] it’s kind of what you’re speaking to, is always to be learning. Always be learning something from the projects and the people that you’re involved with and the subject matter that you’re dealing with. [turns to Destin] You said you wanted to do a short working with dialogue; the same thing here. It’s like I want to do something where I can learn this facet of the craft more and move on to something else once you feel you’ve got an understanding of that. So, that’s what I hope to be able to do. I hope to continue growing as a filmmaker and as a person.

STAN WILLIAMS: One last question for both of you. You’re two humble guys with a lot of talent. But just for a moment, step out of the humility. I know, this is going to be hard, but you do know something William Goldman famously wrote in his book Adventures in the Screenplay, “Nobody knows anything.” Well, obviously, if you drive through Beverly Hills, some people know something! Right? Obviously, you guys know something, for all your graciousness and awards. So, please, would you tell us ... tell the filmmakers in this room, what is the one thing, or the two or three things, that are most important to know about how to make a good film?

DESTIN & RYAN: (Silence)

STAN WILLIAMS: Awww, come on, guys!

DESTIN CRETTON: Okay. For me personally, the thing that I keep having to remind myself of, almost daily, is that for me -- (and there’s not big difference between being a good person and being a good film-maker) -- I don’t want my film-making to wreck any relationships I have, and if so, I want everything to be a balance. I’ve learned that the hard way. I’ve quit filmmaking so many times. I haven’t been doing it that long, and I’ve quit a lot of times already, so… (chuckles)

I found that for me to continue to move forward in this industry, I just have to constantly remind myself that other people’s opinions. When I go into a room and I’m talking to executives or whatever, and telling them ideas that I have -- I’m not there to please them, and if they don’t like what I’m saying then it’s fine. It’s not a big deal. We’re not going to work together, and it’s perfectly fine.

I’m also fine working at the pace that I’m working. I feel that I am nearly the opposite of how people in this industry expect you to be: I just move slower than most people. Yet, when I’m on set, we move really quickly. I talk slow, so people think I’m going to write slow and work slow.

But, anyway, all that to say that, the thing that I tell myself is that it’s okay to be exactly who you are in this industry, or in any industry, whatever you’re doing. I teach students sometimes, and some of my students who are really hyper, love like going into a room and working it. And that’s who they are. I’m like, that’s awesome. Do that, if that’s who you are. Other students are really shy, and they are like, "I don’t even know how to pitch anything." That’s perfectly fine. If you came in and pitched me something, I would love you, because I am also shy, and there are people like that. Usually, I find if I go to a networking event, I end up in the corner with the other shy people. But, we’re networking together. (chuckles)

STAN WILLIAMS: Asher Goldstein, your producer did tell me that you shot SHORT TERM 12 in 20 days. That wasn’t slow.

DESTIN CRETTON: Yeah, we didn't move slow. But, I think there’s something about me that seems slow. Regardless, all that to say, I think the most important thing is, just be happy with who you are. It doesn’t have to be terrifying to do this.

STAN WILLIAMS: Great. Thank you so much.
Ryan, what do you want to share with us? What do you know that we need to know?

RYAN COOGLER: My dad told me that a wise man doesn’t know anything. I think that, as human beings, none of us really have anything really figured out. But, I think that if someone were to ask you, who is the person you really know the best, the answer would have to be yourself. So, I think that I struggle to find out who I am. I ask myself that every day, like every morning when I’m brushing my teeth, am I being the best version of myself. Am I being true to myself?

I also think that if you make stuff that’s important to you, at your base level is important to you, and it's more important to you than anything else in the space of art, I think that you’re going to be fine in terms of making films, whatever that is. It might be something that nobody else really sees as being important, but if it is to you and you can see that clearly, and you can articulate that with other people through your enthusiasm, through your work ethic, and through the passion that you have, you’ll find success on a personal level.

And, what is success? What is a good movie? I don’t know… I haven’t met anybody who could give me an answer to that question. Yes, one person could say a good movie is when I made a lot of money. Are they wrong by that statement? Or, someone might say a good movie is a movie that the critics like. Are they right or wrong by that statement? It’s such a moving target with art. In terms of art, what is good? So, you gotta make something that you want to do yourself, and when you do that, you hit that target, and then the rest of the stuff will usually takes care of itself.

STAN WILLIAMS: Great. Gentlemen, thank you very much. We have a lot to learn from these guys. We so appreciate your being with us today. Thank you.