Tuesday, December 30, 2014

ST. VINCENT Moral Premise Discussion


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

Director/Writer: TED MELFI
Starring: BILL MURRAY (Vincent)
CHRIS O'DOWD (Bro. Geraghty)

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 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 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.


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. 


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.] 


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

Directed by WILL GLUCK

JAMIE FOXX (Will Stacks)

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...

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


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.)

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.