Tuesday, December 30, 2014

ST. VINCENT Moral Premise Discussion


ST. VINCENT

(Updated 2-9-15 from our MEETUP Discussions)

Director/Writer: TED MELFI
Starring: BILL MURRAY (Vincent)
MELISSA McCARTHY  (Maggie)
NAOMI WATTS (Daka)
CHRIS O'DOWD (Bro. Geraghty)
JAEDEN LIEBERHER (Oliver)
TERRENCE HOWARD (Zucko)

IMDB Log: A young boy whose parents have just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door.


This picture is too good to be true. I may never analyze it just out of respect to the talent displayed. It is a classic example of structure while turning the tables on the traditional concept of Protagonist and Antagonist. 


Here are some notes that have come from out Screenplay Meetup Group discussion in Northville, MI. As the discussion continues I'll add more.



THE TAG


The Movie's tag line is "LOVE THY NEIGHBOR"... but on first appearances the neighbor (Vincent) is not very lovable; and it appears as if Vincent is not loving anyone else in return. Thus, everyone needs to love each other. It's a challenge. But then the curtain is slowly pulled back to reveal that things are not what they seem. No spoilers here...perhaps after the movie leaves theaters. 


THE CONFLICT OF VALUES


The Conflict of Values articulate the inner world-views that create the outer physical-conflict. The values must be naturally opposing.  These same set of values are at work between the all the characters in conflict in a movie, but may personify themselves in different ways. We only need one of these pairs for the film, but our discussion suggests the following possibilities:


Selfishness v. Selflessness
Self-Centered v. Others-Centered
Inward v. Outward
Apathetic v. Engaged
Narcissistic v. Sacrificial

This results in a Moral Premise Statement that could look like one of these:


Selfishness leads to hermitages; but
Selflessness leads to neighborhoods.

Narcissism leads to isolation; but
Sacrifice leads to community.

Self-Centeredness leads to despising your neighbor; but
Others-centered leads to loving your neighbor.


CHARACTERS

Director, Ted Melfi creates an intriguing structure with ST. VINCENT. He stays true to the classical definitions of the main characters' roles but giving us a fresh perspective of how they can interact. Here is my take of the characters and the roles they play. I may have convinced our MEETUP group of this construction, but please feel free to add your comments to the com box.


The MAIN CHARACTER is the character through whose point of view (POV) the story is told. While multiple points of view are often revealed in a story, one character takes precedence. In ST. VINCENT the main POV is Vincent. We spend the most time with him in his house, at the bar, at the race track and driving Oliver around. Often the MAIN CHARACTER is the protagonist, but in ST. VINCENT that is not the case (see below). The MAIN CHARACTER or POV character is also that character whose values we come to embrace by the movie's end, provided we have a redemptive story and not a tragic one. That is the only role of the MAIN CHARACTER -- to tell the story, possibly of another and sometimes of themselves. Think of the MAIN CHARACTER as the Narrator.

The ANTAGONIST CHARACTER is the character whose primary story purpose is to force the Protagonist to change. The ANTAGONIST does not have to change or arc, but often when they do, they change the least. Think of the ANTAGONIST like the hammer in the hands of a blacksmith, pounding away on the iron having just come from the fire and shaping that iron into something useful and good. In ST. VINCENT I think the antagonist is also Vincent. Except for some changes that have occurred in this life, but not of his own doing, he is the same at the end of the movie as he is at the beginning. In Martha Williamson's TV drama series TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL the angels are the antagonists who "hammer" the guest star into making decisions to improve their live. Vincent is such an angel, although a pretty disrespected one at the beginning of the story. 

How is Vincent the same at the beginning as he is at the end? My view is that Vincent is self-less, and takes interest in improving the life of hopeless causes around him, although he's pretty grumpy about it. His grumpy attitude becomes the ironic cement that draws us into his character. I believe Melfi (as well as many of you) could not think of a better actor than Bill Murray to play the part—a case when the actor's natural persona perfectly meet character traits. In this respect, Bill will not get an academy award nomination for being himself, although I'd love to see it.  

In Act 1, Vincent (as the Main character), introduces us to the people in his life and their hopeless causes (or ironic, hopeless goals), that Vincent (as the Antagonist) will shape into something better. 
  • DAKA the stripper/prostitute. The first lost cause we meet in Vincent's life is Daka. When the movie opens he is letting Daka bounce on him having sex. Vincent's attitude toward Daka is one of obligation and compassion not lust. He "allows" the relationship because she needs the money, she's a "working girl" and he feels sorry for her. This becomes even more evident when he watches her strip at the club. Her pregnancy prevents her from getting off the floor after sliding down the pole. Vincent doesn't look at her with sexual interest, but with fatherly compassion, and he's embarrassed for her. He is constantly paying her way as best he can. She wants to know the sex of her baby, so he takes her to a pregnancy center to find out and "pays" for it. Further evidence of this is in Vincent's non-verbal attraction to Sandy vs. Daka. There is love in his eyes for Sandy, and later, after Sandy's death, there's the beginning of a love for Daka. 
  • OLIVER, is a Latchkey Kid. His father, David, was taking up sexually with his mom's hairdresser and so his mom, Maggie, runs from David taking Oliver with her, and tries to start a new life on their own. But she has to work late as a CAT scan technician. Vincent takes Oliver in, for a baby sitting fee he negotiates with Maggie. Oliver is not fond of Vincent at first and is a fish out of water in Vincent's world. He's lost and hopeless, or so it seems at first. Also, Oliver hopelessly cannot defend himself against the school bully (Robert). So, Vincent shows Oliver how. Oliver is afraid to take risks, so Vincent takes him to the race track, where Oliver takes a huge risk and wins.
  • MAGGIE, the Spurned Mother. Maggie, heartbroken over David's dalliance with her hairdresser, runs away and tries to start a new life. By happenstance she rents a house next to Vincent's. She's hopeless because of her failed marriage, but also because she knows she is failing her son by always being gone, and forcing Oliver to be taken care of by Vincent, who is not the best of role models. Indeed, David gets partial custody over Oliver because Maggie is a half-hopeless parent in the court's eyes.
  • SANDY, Vincent's wife who is dying of Alzheimer's Disease. Sandy hopelessly can't remember Vincent, and yet Vincent lives everyday to express his love to her by trying to pay for the best care in the world for her. He can't pay for it, however, and in his desperation gambles at the track and is in hock to his bookie, Zucko, and secretly Oliver. Vincent does Sandy's laundry, which he does not need to do, and he buys her flowers, which he can't afford, and he negotiates her dinner menu with the staff, and he sits with her and pretends to be a doctor....hoping for that moment when she remembers him. 
  • ROBERT, is the school bully. Robert comes off as an irredeemable bully who has no good male role model in his life. But his dad is out of the picture, and having a family again seems hopeless. 
  • FELIX the cat. Vincent selfishly feeds felix gourmet cat food, while eating sardines and leftovers himself. It is a Blake Snyder classic SAVE THE CAT scene. We can't help but like Vincent because of his kindness to animals.
  • VIETNAM WAR BUDDIES are hopelessly lost on the battle fiend until Vincent saves them. 
  • DEAD PLANTS in Vincent's Backyard. We get a hint of this when 40% into the film we find Oliver mowing Vincent's backyard of dirt, to help him learn responsibility, as Vincent is paying Oliver. But during the credits we find Vincent watering the backyard of dirt, and the dead plant...both hopeless causes. But he takes it in stride, this time with a less than grumpy attitude over Bob Dylan's Shelter in the Time of Storm. (see song description below). Watering hopeless causes is who Vincent is. He had not really changed, but we know that the dirt "lawn" and the dead plant have a chance if Vincent is involved. 
Yes, Vincent is grumpy, as if he is arguing constantly with God about his calling, of giving himself up as the tree stump in The Giving Tree, for people to use him. (Remember after meeting Vincent for the first time, Oliver reads from The Giving Tree and the tree stump's willingness to give even more.) But Vincent never rebells from his calling, and he is obedient to it...although he doesn't do it happily. His ironic behavior (doing the right thing but not liking it) is how many in the audience identify with Vincent. Many of us do what is right, but we don't want to. Deep down we want to be selfish, but we know helping others forcing us to sacrifice our own will is the better thing. We see ourself in Vincent, and we identify with him emotionally. We may try to hide our weariness of doing what is right and being good, but Vincent wears his weariness on his forehead like a neon sign. Out of obligation (and a deep but hidden love of humankind) Vincent does what is right. 

Please make note that if Vincent was a character that was uplifting, positive, and nice the movie would fall flat because there is no "hook" or "irony" to engage our intrigue. The log line: "Happy, clean cut, nice guy helps others be better," is boring compared to "Disgruntled, self-serving bum, can't help himself to help others."

The PROTAGONIST CHARACTER is the character that the audience identifies most with because the character has a physical goal, is imperfect and changes the most. Protagonist's have moments of grace where they recognize the truth of the moral premise and make an active decision to change.  In ST. VINCENT I think all of the main characters are protagonists, with Oliver being the lead protagonist. The audience sees a little of themselves in each imperfect protagonist, both in their lost nature, and their honorable goals, the most common of which is to have a family.
  • DAKA's goal is to have a baby, get a decent job, and have a loving home. Through Vincent in her life, she gives up stripping and becomes a housekeeper, mother, and cook.  She goes from being selfish to selfless, from taking care of herself to taking care of Vincent, as he's been taking care of her. His kindness is returned by Daka changing.
  • OLIVER's goal is to have a family again and defend himself. He gains the ability and will to defend himself, and see the good in others, like Vincent, and especially Robert. This change, that Vincent effects in Oliver, effects both Maggie and Robert, who befriends Oliver. 
  • MAGGIE's goal is to have back her family, earn a living, and to provide for her boy. Through Vincent's hammering, she becomes a mother again by staying home from work and spending time with Oliver, and indirectly she welcomes David back into her life. 
  • SANDY dies, which at first does not seem to be a change for the good in her state. Except, there's a beat in the script that didn't make it into the final cut of the movie. In the script, Sandy leaves behind a life insurance policy, unknown to Vincent, that pays off Vincent's gambling debt and allows Vincent's life to go forward. In that subtle way she goes from being taken care of, to taking care of others, which follows the moral premise arc of Daka, Oliver, and Maggie. 
  • ROBERT wants to be called "Robert" not "Ozsinski" and have a dad figure in his life, e.g. a family. This is accomplished by story's end.
  • DAVID also, comes back from he playboy ways to becoming a Dad and Husband. The script actually gives David a few lines that are not in the movie, like when he agrees with Maggie that he was "an asshole."
  • VINCENT is the protagonist of this own story, and although his values change very little form the beginning, by the end he's managed to have done his best for Sandy, mourn her death, pay off the debt to Zucko (evident more in the script), and he has a family. 
The final scene represents the family that everyone wanted. Around the dinner table, a dinner that Daka has cooked, are all the main characters, including Robert. 

SONGS

We also discussed several of the songs used in the movie to underscore the moral premise and  the character's arcs. Briefly, ONE STEP OVER THE LINE [Nitty Gritty Dirt Band] relates to the movie as it encourages the characters to step from selfishness to selflessness. It applies to Robert, Oliver, Maggie, Vincent, and Daka. That the original lyrics (Ggogle them) that refer to sex in the backseat of a car, indicates the risk and passion that the characters in St. Vincent need to embrace for their transformation. The song is played under the scene where Oliver is mowing Vincent's backyard DIRT...and that the song was made popular by the Nitty gritty Dirt Band helps. 

I FOUGHT THE LAW (and the law won) [CLASH] is played under the clash between Oliver and Robert in gym, where both get bloodied up. The lyrics immediately reinforce how bullying and revenge are selfish acts that have consequences. But they also refer to the natural law consequences of drunkenness, gambling, leaving your spouse, a dying spouse, and taking others for granted. In each case, or subplot of the movie, natural law wins out. If your motivations are virtuous you have a better chance at happiness than being motivated by a vice. 

START A WAR [The National] plays under Vincent's major loss at the race track. What's significant here is that he's not drunk when he leaves, but he realizes that he's going to have to face facts and the reality of life...and in doing so he's going to start a war...and indeed his bookie is waiting for him at home. The consequences turn the story and the characters in dramatic ways, just as starting a war does. But in this case, because a virtue is in play, the consequences of the war take us to a better place. Vincent as an opportunity to "Walk away now" or "start a war." He has finally come to grips that the war is what he has to face for transformation of the moral premise to occur..

SHELTER FROM THE STORM [Boy Dylan] is played over the final credits when Vincent waters the dead plants and barren dirt in his backyard. At the very end Vincent even "washes his feet" a spiritual sign of true redemption. Download the words and look at how they recount the whole movie, "Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood" [Vincent fought in Vietnam, but also when Maggie and Oliver and Daka needed a friend.] ...Come in, she said, I'll give you shelter from the storm." What is the "storm"? [The situations of hopelessness in the lives of those around Vincent.] And, who is "she"? [Vincent...Vincent is the shelter in the time of storm... and you could say, as well, that his friends, when they change, are create a shelter for Vincent in his time of storm.] 


RESOURCES

To study this more, as we will be in coming months, here are some resources links:
Scene times and percentages in Excel worksheet
The Screenplay, submitted for an Oscar from TWC
As is usual, my recommendation is to figure out the Story Fundamentals, the 13 Major Beats using the linked resources. The Story Diamond may help you, as well. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

ANNIE - Go See It!

ANNIE (2014)
An Overbrook Production
Producers: WILL SMITH, JADA PINKETT SMITH, CALEEB PINKETT, JAMES LASSITER

Directed by WILL GLUCK
Screenplay by WILL GLUCK and ALINE BROSH MCKENNA

Starring
JAMIE FOXX (Will Stacks)
QUVENZHANE WALLIS (Annie)
ROSE BYRNE (Grace)
BOBBY CANNAVALE (Guy)
CAMERON DIAZ (Hannigan)



Pam and I saw ANNIE (PG) this afternoon and loved it. It is not only faithful to the story and the spirit of the original films, but with adds some insightful lines and good kicks.

Of course what I liked the best was the consistency of the moral premise portrayed in the various character arcs, the casting, the art direction, and the songs.

The title song, "Opportunity" by Sia, which Quvenzhané sings in Act 3, is a great example of taking the moral premise and putting it in lyrics. Watch the video embedded here, with the lyrics written out below, although this will not be as meaningful until you see the movie, so...

STOP! GO SEE THE MOVIE FIRST...TAKE THE WHOLE FAMILY. 
Then come back here...I'll save a place for you in line.



OPPORTUNITY, by Sia, performed by Quvenzhané Wallis 
Under the glow of the very bright lights
I turn my face towards the warm night sky
And I...I'm not afraid of a thousand eyes [the stars]
When they're above Five hundred smiles [the stars of hope seem far away]
Oh, I used to think (she used to)
What wouldn't I give (what wouldn't she give)
For a Moment like this.
This Moment, this gift
Now look at me and this opportunity
It's standing right in front of me
But one thing I know it's only part luck, and so
I'm putting on my best show
Under the spot light I'm starting my life
Big dreams becoming real tonight
So look at me & this Opportunity
You're witnessing my Moment
You see
I find myself here & it's time
This is real and it's a Gold...mine
I'm not afraid to fly
When it's above five-hundred smiles
I used to think (she used to think)
What I wouldn't give (what wouldn't she give)
For a Moment like this
This Moment, this Gift.
Now look at me and this opportunity
It's standing right in front of me
But one thing I know
It's only part luck
I'm putting on my best show
Under the spotlight I"m starting my life
Big dreams becoming real tonight
So look at me and this opportunity
You're witnessing my Moment, you see
My big opportunity
I won't waste it
I Guarantee

Those of you familiar with the Moral Premise concept know that it's a simple concept that universally relates opposing motivational values and their natural law consequences. Humans cannot escape these, and so when fictional characters reflect the organic and naturally true relationships (between values and consequences) the audience is sure to identify with the characters on a deep, moral level. This enhances the box office.

ANNIE (2014) is thus an elegant expression of the adage:
Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.
Little orphan Annie exudes optimism and hope although she has every reason (it would seem) to be pessimistic and despaired, like some of the other characters. But in Act 1 we notice how her optimism prepares her for the opportunity. As the song says "It's only part luck" and so when the opportunity stands in front of her, she puts on her best show.  (Watch for this in other characters, too.)

There are some good permutations of the moral premise that I'll expand on later, but for now try this:

Pessimism leads to rejection of your Moment (of Grace) 
and squandering what's in front of you; but
Optimism leads to the acceptance of your Moment (of Grace) 
and not wasting a golden opportunity.  

Now the consistent application of this concept is played out in ALL the subplots and even in one character's name. It's beautiful to see. But I'll not spoil it now by blogging all the beats and metaphors, and reinforcements.  Go see the movie, and after the DVD comes out (or if Overbrook wants to get me a copy sooner....hint!) I'll be PREPARED.

I will blog on this later, but I don't want to spoil it by telling you. Let the movie SHOW YOU. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

IRONY: VISUAL vs. AURAL...A Fairy Tale

I watched a festival film the other day, which can't yet be posted on-line, in which what we saw and what we heard were opposites in tone. The film is called FAIRY TALE. What we see is a father tucking his little girl into bed and we hear (in Voice Over) the little girl asking her father to tell her a story. He reluctantly agrees and tells the story of a little princess that lives with her mother and father and teddy bear in a castle. They are King and Queen of the whole world and their lives are full of joy.  A soft melodic piano plays in the background.  But what we see, in one long take, is a distraught father tucking in his little girl to bed and giving her a teddy bear, then walking into the next bedroom to find his wife drinking. In frustration he pulls out a suitcase and starts packing. The wife argues with him, and he argues back. They verbally fight and it's clear that they hate each other.  As the VO concludes, "the reason they were so happy is because the King and Queen loved each other very much..." ... the father gets into his car and drives off into the night. FADE OUT.


Another marvelous example of visual/aural irony is a movie we watched on TCM last night (Long Live TCM). The movie is LILI (1953) starring Leslie Caron, Mel Ferrer, Jean-Pierre Aumont, with Zsa Zsa Gabor in a minor role. It's a Charles Walter directed and choreographed picture, where the actors wear their emotional motivations on their sleeves. Great piece of visual storytelling and wonderful ironic arcs. The great visual and aural irony is seen/heard in the Paul Berthalet character (played by Mel Ferrer), a ballet dancer who has broken a leg, hates the world, and has taken up puppeteering in a carnival. His inner emotions are portrayed by four of his puppets which represent his emotional conflict, and also which become the masks that he must learn to cast off, and which Lili must learn to see through. She's in love with Paul's ESSENCE but he hides behind these four artificial characters' IDENTITY. Thus we see one thing, his inner hate turmoil, but all we hear (from the puppets) is compassion and love. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

SCRIPT LENGTH VS. BEST PICTURE

I've made this point many times before, but just updated it.

A true and consistently applied Moral Premise
Explored through a variety of World Views
Portrayed by difference characters
Struggling to accomplish an assortment of goals
made visible in a diversity of plots and subplots
Will result in audience's engagement...
...and a Successful Box Office.

That takes time....and pages

The fewer pages
the fewer world views
the fewer differences in characters
the fewer goals
the fewer plots
the less engagement
the lower the box office.

Producers and investors want shorter movies because they think they will be cheaper. They are right...along with the cheaper (smaller) return on investment.

This is NOT to say that a movie with more pages will be a better movie or one that naturally connects with the audience due to its length alone. There are many other factors, like a good story and acting.

But, this DOES say that for a movie to be successful, length, and pages, and plots, and characters, and world views are necessary....as much as good acting. It is all because the audience needs time to assimilate with the characters and identify emotionally with them. That takes time.

Here is a listing of BEST PICTURE OSCARS from 1990-2014.
(see notes below table for how numbers were calculated.)

AVERAGE SCRIPT LENGTH: 136 pages
MEDIAN (middle value): 145 pages
RANGE: 95-196 pages

The shortest film, The Artist (2011), at 95 min, was mostly a silent movie—little dialogue; it stands apart from the rest—the next shortest film being 107 pages and the longest 196 pages.

YEAR       TITLE               PAGES    MM$:WW     MM$/PG
2014 American Hustle ...........133.......249.......1.87  
2013 12 Years a Slave ..........129.......181.......1.40
2012 Argo ......................115.......227.......1.97
2011 The Artist .................95.......128.......1.35
2010 The King’s Speech .........113.......432.......3.81
2009 The Hurt Locker ...........126........50.......0.40
2008 Slumdog Millionaire .......115.......385.......3.35
2007 No Country for Old Men ....117.......164.......1.40
2006 The Departed ..............146.......291.......1.99
2005 Crash .....................107.......101.......0.94
2004 Million Dollar Baby .......127.......232.......1.83
2003 LOTR: Return of the King.. 196.....1,142.......5.83
2002 Chicago ...................108.......308.......2.85
2001 A Beautiful Mind ..........130.......318.......2.45
2000 Gladiator .................150.......458.......3.05
1999 American Beauty ...........116.......356.......3.07
1998 Shakespeare in Love .......118.......279.......2.36
1997 Titanic ...................189.....2,208......11.68
1996 The English Patient .......157.......232.......1.48
1995 Braveheart ................172.......210.......1.22
1994 Forrest Gump ..............137.......680.......4.96
1993 Schindler’s List ..........192.......321.......1.67
1992 Unforgiven ................126.......159.......1.26
1991 Silence of the Lambs ......113.......276.......2.44
1990 Dances with Wolves ........175.......424.......2.42

Pages = Running length via IMDB.COM minus 5 for the end credits.

MM$:WW = WW Gross Box Office via THE-NUMBERS.COM. Total gross is greater than these numbers after inclusion of Home Video, PPV, and licensing for TV etc.  These numbers do not imply proportional profitability. Numbers have NOT been adjusted for inflation or ticket price variation over the years.

MM$/PG = $Millions of WW Gross per page.

Sorting this data by page number and plotting MM$/PG is shown in chart below. It reveals there are peak grosses around 113-116 pages, 130-150 pages, and above 172 pages.  The chart also reveals (in the approximated dotted line) that the MM$/PG increases at a rate slightly faster than the script length, that is, on average, the longer the script the greater the MM$/PG grossed.

Box Office Gross (WW $Millions) per Script Length for Best Picture Oscar 1990-2014.

Consider this information when someone tells you you need to write a 95-110 page script to be accepted by Hollywood. Perhaps you do, to win a pseudo screenwriting contest. But the data above is are the results of the ultimate contest.


........................................................

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Theory of Everything

I hope to have something to say about this great film in the future. But I'll wait until I can study the script, or see the film with subtitles. The sound in the theater wasn't the best and it was hard to hear the dialogue...although there wasn't a whole lot, which for this film was necessary. Having been interested in cosmology since my early years, and having a degree in Physics, of course, drew me to the story of Stephen Hawking. But I heard it was a love story, which intrigued me. Boy, is it every a love story. Pam came out of the theater in tears. (good tears). Unusual for a biopic, the movie had a strong structure that drove the drama easily forward. Script, acting, directing all suburb.

AFTER you see the movie, you'll find this interview at UCTV interview with the producer and screenwriter, very enlightening and realistic in terms of what it takes to make a good movie. The story of how the screenplay finally gets through the  approval states is significant for all serious filmmakers to take to heart. It takes time...there is great risk...and perseverance and passion pay off.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Greetings


This was the scene during one of my walks along Novi Road, to break up the long hours of writing at my computer. 

It reminds me of you--my friends, family, clients, and customers over the years. For all of you I am most thankful. 

The fertile richness of your lives have given me a sky-blue clarity of who I am and to what I have been called. 

Like the swan, a protagonist in the midst of the sea, we are all in the midst of personal sojourns. We begin as orphans, then as wanders, then warriors and finally we give ourselves to martyr's work ...in order to make our world a better place where truth, beauty and goodness can reign.

With deep appreciation and my prayers for a blessed Holiday,
Stan Williams

Monday, November 17, 2014

IRONY and NATURAL LAW, INSEPARABLE

I have my expectations of ANNIE. I hope they're not ironic.
Stories are all about Ironic Expectations and Reality. 

This essay is NOT about the upcoming movie ANNIE, but I'm including this image taken of me recently standing next to a lobby display to make a point. The stories of our natural lives can be filled with expectations which may not be the reality...and that can be entertaining or not, depending on how the surprises conform to natural law.

I get to work on some interesting films. Sometimes it's only to read a single, early draft of a movie and comment on it as I did with ANNIE. I saw an early script, sent in my comments, and as is typical I've heard nothing since.... except what we all read in the trades and see in trailers. I'm cautiously excited about the release of ANNIE next month and you can be sure Pam and I will be buying tickets to see it opening weekend. I have expectations.

The traditional story of Annie is filled with expectations that are turned on their nose, but yet, in the hands of crafted storytellers, the seemingly impossible juxtapositions come off as natural, and we the audience buy into the character's lives and situations. To the extent that stories expertly juxtapose impossible situations with natural law reality- - dramatic irony is created that magically engages the audience, even when the audience knows the story beforehand.

So, with that set-up, let me tell you about...

Yesterday, Sunday, November 17, 2014.

It was generally normal...except that I was more observant than normal.

So, I woke up this morning, the Monday after, thinking about the juxtapositions of several things that, seemed normal, and they were, very normal, except they were great examples of dramatic irony that pervades our lives and how observation can lead to an emphasis of time and place in storytelling that will always create interest and engage audiences.

For this exercise, let's use these definitions:

IRONY:
The reality IS NOT the expectation...when you don't think about it. (Gut sense.)

NATURAL LAW
The reality IS the expectation...when you think about it. (Logical sense.)

The cool thing about great stories is that both IRONY and NATURAL LAW must work together. It's not an EITHER/OR situation, because good storytelling makes AND/BOTH true.

Here are examples from my day, just yesterday. How many can you find in your day's activities?

Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 1 - Regular vs Mob Mass
I attended a MASS MOB here in Detroit. This is where on a particular Sunday people from all over the metroplex descent on an old but beautiful parish buildings for mass... which originally were occupied by capacity crowds, but since populations have moved to the suburbs, the inner-city church are only sparsely attended.
Typical Sunday Attendance - Expected
Mob Mass Sunday Attendance - 2X S.R.O. Reality 

Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 2 - Exterior vs. Interior
The Mob Mass was held yesterday at Our Lady Queen of Apostles parish in Hamtramck, MI...a multi-ethnic city totally surrounded by Detroit. It's estimated that 19 different languages are spoken within it's 2.1 square miles of land. Historically it was settled by Poles, and this parish still is Polish. As is true of many Catholic Churches the outside is fairly boring and plain. the inside however is transformative. This is the irony and metaphor, too, of Christ and Christianity. On the outside things may look like everything else, but inside, there is something glorious, incarnational, and divine that is not what was expected. Even in movies that are not overtly religious, this illustrates the character transformation that audiences look for in good stories, and that character transformation is often told with sets that transformative like these two pictures. That domed image is a celebrated mosaic, and astounding to see up close.
OLQ of Apostles - INTERIOR
OLQ of Apostles - EXTERIOR





















Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 3 - Mountain Top vs. Village at the Bottom
Also yesterday I took in the St. Cecilia Sing at the Detroit Cathedral. Sponsored by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, the afternoon event featured some of the best choral and instrumental groups from around the Detroit Archdiocese. My wife plays flute and sings in one, directed by Glenn Porzadek. The groups were diverse but extremely talented, and the afternoon was punctuated by the organ mastery of the virtuosity of Cathedral organist Joe Balistreri on a 32-rank Austin organ. The glory, warmth, and beauty of the inside concert was in contrast to what was outside when we left. Cold, snow flurries, and a lady who's jeep was blocking traffic because she ran out of gas. I got her some gas and helped her on her way. But, later we saw a car nearly lost in a ditch and repair truck preparing to get it out.  There was the mountain top experience and the natural law reality of the village outside.
The Mountain Top Experience
The Village at the Bottom of the Mountain




















Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 4 - Transfigurations and Demons Transformed
My reference above to the Mountain Top Experience is to a couple stories that are juxtaposed for Ironic and Natural lLaw effect in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 17. First we read about the Transfiguration of Christ on a high mountain. There, the Apostles, Peter, James and John see Jesus in a aura of light talking with Moses and Elijah. So starling is the experience that Peter, James and John want to build a swank spiritual retreat enter on the mountain top to they and others can experience this spiritual high, and no doubt charge admission. (Much like the St. Cecilia Sing, except admission to the concert was free.) But instead, Christ leads them off the mountain top to the reality of the village below where they are confronted by a man with his demon possessed son, begging Jesus for help because Jesus' disciples could not cast out the demon. Jesus says, "O unbelieving and perverse generation...how long do I have to put up with you?" Then Jesus calls the boy over and heals him. The Irony is that without thinking much about the situation the Apostles want to stay up on the Mountain Top, but the Natural Law reality (if they would think about it) is that there's much to do in the village below. There are demons to get rid of and cars to pull out of ditches.
Heavenly Irony - Spiritual Retreats
Village Reality - Demons




















Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 5 - Muzak vs. Life Talent
At the end of the day Pam and I went to The Masters Restaurant in Madison Hts, MI with her choir for dinner. Throughout our dinner in a private dinning room this gentle jazzy trumpet music was coming over what we thought was their muzak system, although it sounded a bit too good for traditional elevator music coming out of cheap ceiling speakers—the expectation. As we were leaving, Glenn walks us to the door and then pulls me into the bar to show me where the music is really coming from. Meet PLEZE RAYBON, playing his muted trumpet and singing with his iPad playback. Pleze is what we call in the industry "talent"...hidden in Madison Hts.  I was mesmerized, came home, purchased and downloaded his two CDs from CDBABY.COM. Listening to them now.
What we expected.... but the irony awaited us.
The reality, the talented Pleze Raybon.




















These are the kind of wonderful surprises that stories can provide our audiences and readers if we will only observe the space and time around us, and learn how to use IRONY and NATURAL LAW. Let's review these two organic definitions again...

IRONY - The reality IS NOT the expectation...when you don't think about it. (Gut sense.)
The seemingly impossible plot point.

NATURAL LAW - The reality IS the expectation...when you think about it. (Logical sense.)
The skill of the writer makes the impossible seem not just reasonable, but normal.



Sunday, November 9, 2014

Moral Premise MEET-UP

At the request of a number of workshop attendees and book fans, to have some sort of additional access to a Moral Premise event, I am launched a monthly MEET-UP event here in Northville, MI. 

Information about the 2-hour informal gathering at a Northville's STARBUCK'S LOFT (302 E Main St, Northville) PDF MAP, to discuss screenwriting tips, techniques and to get peer-to-peer feedback, can be found here; Novi-Screenwriting-Moral Premise Meetup

Next Meeting Wednesday, December 17, 2014 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM.

I encourage others around the country to begin something like this, and using my materials. I will give support as possible, but of course attending may be difficult

Stan Williams
http://www.MoralPremise.com

Cell: 310-962-8696

Saturday, November 8, 2014

ST. VINCENT - My Picture of the Year

ST. VINCENT

Director/Writer: TED MELFI
Starring: BILL MURRAY (Vincent)
MELISSA McCARTHY  (Maggie)
NAOMI WATTS (Daka)
CHRIS O'DOWD (Bro. Geraghty)
JAEDEN LIEBERHER (Oliver)
TERRENCE HOWARD (Zucko)

IMDB Log: A young boy whose parents have just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door.

This picture is too good to be true. I may never analyze it just out of respect to the talent displayed. It is a classic example of structure while turning the tables on the traditional concept of Protagonist and Antagonist. 

Here are some notes that have come from out Screenplay Meetup Group discussion in Northville, MI. As the discussion continues I'll add more.

THE TAG

The Movie's tag line is "LOVE THY NEIGHBOR"... but on first appearances the neighbor (Vincent) is not very lovable; and it appears as if Vincent is not loving anyone else in return. Thus, everyone needs to love each other. It's a challenge. But then the curtain is slowly pulled back to reveal that things are not what they seem. No spoilers here...perhaps after the movie leaves theaters. 

THE CONFLICT OF VALUES

The Conflict of Values articulate the inner world-views that create the outer physical-conflict. The values must be naturally opposing.  These same set of values are at work between the all the characters in conflict in a movie, but may personify themselves in different ways. We only need one of these pairs for the film, but our discussion suggests the following possibilities:


Selfishness v. Selflessness
Self-Centered v. Others-Centered
Inward v. Outward
Apathetic v. Engaged
Narcissistic v. SSacrificial
This results in a Moral Premise Statement like this:


Friday, November 7, 2014

ACTIONABLE INNER VALUES with MICHAEL JANN


MICHAEL JANN - Emmy Nominated TONIGHT SHOW writer
Making the invisible visible.

That's the job of the filmmaker, and even the novelist, although, I think, the novelist has the more difficult time of it.

Show, don't tell.

That's the mantra of all storytelling, although, again I think, the novelist has it more difficult.

Make it visceral, not abstract.

That's the job of all communication. Although our essences are spiritual, we identify ourselves primarily in physical terms.

Psychological Values leads to Physical Actions.

That's the concept that The Moral Premise concept builds upon. But, what matters to film audiences and novel readers is what transpires in the physical realm. Our psychological world may house and care for our moral motivations, but something does not become part of our neighbor's universe (and the larger realm of humankind) until we push it into physical space.

These are the storytelling dilemmas all of us storytellers are faced with. And, perhaps I've made this a bit more difficult to resolve by sticking to my strictly speaking "inner to outer" litany. I mean by that, this: Most of the time when I speak or write bout The Moral Premise it is in this form:

Inner Value leads to Outer Action.

But to the screenwriter and the even the novelist, that inner value has no practical identity until it is made visible through some action. I know this, but I don't always practice it. In helping writers with log lines and moral premise statements I may get there, but my mind isn't purposely doing so, i.e. making physically explicit the inner motivations. 

This was brought to my attention recently in dialogue with MICHAEL JANN, Emmy nominated writer who wrote for THE TONIGHT SHOW with both Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon. He's been working on a few screenplays in his post TONIGHT SHOW reality when he wrote me this about current screenplay (this used with his permission):
I’m so happy right now!  After reading your chapter 10 again (more carefully, this time), I got less rigid with my prose, and more “writer-y”, and fine-tuned my Moral Premise to: 
“Hiding behind masks and shields leads to isolation, loneliness and misery. But, giving yourself to others in an authentic way leads to community, intimacy and love”. 
It was so cool to express my virtue and vice in external terms (moral, i.e., affecting others). rather than internal terms (abstract, i.e., affecting only the hero).
Now the woman he falls in love with must confront this same moral premise.  She might boast that she doesn’t hide behind a “mask", but she bludgeons people with her “honesty”, which is still hiding  (albeit in a different way -- behind a shield, rather than a mask.)  Now they both have to confront the moral premise:  "Hiding is bad, authenticity is good."
To some, this may be subtle. But the distinction is worth emphasizing because it empowers the writer (and the director and actors) to communicate effectively with audiences. I wrote Michael back:

You make a good point that I’m not sure I’ve ever emphasized, although I’ve come up with MPS like this. But I need to make this more explicit. The human process is still internal value drives external behavior, but for screenwriters I won't argue with your insight.  While the novelist would speak in more internal terms, the screenwriter can’t … except perhaps on a 3x5 card taped to the frame of his computer. “Hiding behind” is more physical than “lack of self confidence” or “selfishness.” And, “giving yourself” is more physical than “self confidence” or “generosity”.  “Hiding…” and “Giving…” are “action” terms, which is a key concept for actors.
At this point I referenced ACTIONS: The Actors' Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone & Maggie Lloyd-Williams, (also available as a SmartPhone APP, it appears.) In my own directing efforts I've found this book invaluable when working with actors at table reads, centering their performance on actionable interpretation of lines and scenes. ACTIONS also contains an excellent introduction explaining Stanislavski's acting method and the necessity of "finding an action for a particular moment or line of text." I think I should write about this book and how it can help screenwriters connect better with actors and audiences.

In a followup email to the above, Michael pointed out the practical benefit of thinking more visible, physical, and actionable:

That finesse point was the biggest thing I learned from both you and then from John Truby.  He talks about how the hero's flaw must be a moral, i.e. negatively affecting other people. The example he gives is if a guy is alone in his bedroom doing heroin, we don't really care and it's not much of a story. But if his kid is waiting at the school bus stop while he's in his room doing heroin -- now you've got a story. I recall him initially apologizing for the word "moral", in anticipation of the "I don't want to moralize" backlash. But that's why I thought I would share this development today with you, as you have always been a fearless proponent of that idea. Seeing it come to life for me made me today made me really happy and I immediately thought of you -- the Moral Premise-Meister! 
Thanks, Michael, for the kind words, but even more so for the great insights.