Friday, February 26, 2016

Does "Catholic" get in the way of "catholic" Storytelling

The Four Cardinal Virtues and their Contrary Elements
(copied from http://csermelyblog.tehetsegpont.hu/node/25)

Today a story client asked a good question that I've never breached on this blog. She asked if my deeply held Roman Catholic values would get in the way of helping her with a screenplay that had some elements that were contrary to Roman Catholic teaching.

While this possible conundrum may be on the minds of some that have not worked with me (yet), the question offers me an opportunity to expound, again, on a universal truth: All successful stories connect with audiences BECAUSE they are universal, or "catholic" -- notice the lower case "c."

Here's how I responded, which I've edited for clarity.
Dear C: 
I’m not bothered by story elements that run counter to Roman Catholic teaching (or counter to perceived Roman Catholic teaching, which is more often the case). 
Here’s my standard on such matters: 
In order to connect with mainstream audiences you’ll face something called Natural Law. What you must realize is that audiences subliminally recognize what is natural to the universe (and their lives) and what is not. That your story resonate with such natural elements is what helps your audience connect or "get" your story. When you try to legislate a reality that is not natural to your audience, you will distance yourself from them. One of my tasks in consulting is to help you connect with a target audience, and thus be aware of Natural Law and how you represent it in your story. 
Drama stems from the conflict between what is universally natural and what is not.  The “universe” of which I write is both physical and psychological, but I focus on the psychological because that is what motivates the physical.   
Long before there was a Roman Catholic Church (or any other religion's set of propositional statements), there was nature, and the rules of such are written on all human hearts and consciences. Now, it is true that many people (or story characters) can and do harden their consciences to those natural truths....but again that's one of the sources of drama. But generally and universally human conscience is very stable…and that’s the realm in which I work.  
In my work I refer to these natural forces as "virtues (or strengthens)."  And the rejection of those truths I refer to as "vices (or weaknesses)."  
Yes, there is an alignment between Roman Catholic teaching and "catholic" universal vices and virtues.  The Roman Church claims that it's teachings are not arbitrary but are a careful articulation of how the universe and nature work, and that the development of correct theology is the consequence of thousands of years of human observation about both the physical and the psychological universe in which the human condition lives
Thus, for proper dramatic conflict that general audiences will recognize there must be catholic vices/weaknesses and catholic virtues/strengths (contrary elements), or you will not have conflict and thus you will not have drama that anyone will connect with.
That last paragraph also reads correctly this way:

Thus, for proper dramatic conflict that general audiences will recognize there must be UNIVERSAL vices/weaknesses and UNIVERSAL virtues/strengths (contrary elements), or you will not have conflict and thus you will not have drama that anyone will connect with.



Monday, February 22, 2016

Visual Storytelling

Here's a good example of visual storytelling with intersecting arcs from a filmmaker I've admired from the past. Good job, Chuck.

Word of Mouth from Charles Kinnane on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Hail! .... HAIL CEASAR. Brilliant!

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Writers/Directors: ETHAN COEN, JOEL COEN
Eddie Mannix: JOSH BROLIN
Baird Whitlock: GEORGE CLOONEY
Hobie Doyle: ALDEN EHRENREICH
Laurence Laurentz: RALPH FIENNES
DeeAnna Moran: SCARLETT JOHANSSON
Thora & Thessaly Thacker: TILDA SWINTON

I went for a lark.

I thought I'd go to the movies just this once for fun. No analysis, no timings in the back of the theater with my iPhone taking notes and risking getting kicked out. Pam was gone for the night, so I ate a Wendy's Apple Pecan Salad in the Emagine Theater parking lot as it started to snow. Went in, bought my Senior Discount ticket, got some chocolate covered almonds (Hey, Lent starts tomorrow), and sitting in my seat put in my new hearing aid so I could understand the dialogue.

I was expecting a brainless, escapism, night at the movies.

WELL!

Here's a hint.

Hail, Caesar! is (at the same time) all about the fragility and splendor of being human. It is about the inability of humans to do what is right and their perseverance in trying to be better. It's about the darkness of life and the candles we can ignite to bring light into that darkness.  And, it's about how incompetent Hollywood can be and how, at the same time, utterly brilliant and talented the people there are. It's about the difficult of doing what is right and not what is easy.  And all of that under the mercy of our creator. It is a pure movie about the human condition and how we help each other in this dark valley of tears.

HAIL, CAESAR! was entertaining (after a while). I cringed at first...it took a while to figure out what was going on. Hey, it's the Coen brothers and they are two smart directors, but you have to stick with them—they will make you work. There were moments of profound seriousness and scenes that seemed obscure at best. And yet, there were scenes I could not stop laughing (although many of the jokes for me were filmmaking inside jokes. I've directed actors enough and been in editing rooms enough (even with upright Moviolas), that the moments were gut busters...with many homages to the greats of the industry.   There were repeated sends-up of Hollywood and it's ridiculous attempts to get things right but didn't. (When you see the rear view of Jesus on the Cross is not satire of Christianity, it's satire at Hollywood trying to tell the
story of Christ....big difference....don't be confused). There is a dance number that puts Gene Kelly to shame, and Esther Williams's grand water choreography makes an appearance. Enjoy the respites of talent, they're there to remind you of humanity's goodness and how the struggle is worth it.

Thus, I identified easily with the protagonist and his arc....Eddie Mannix, the CAPITAL studio head played by Josh Brolin. Watch him carefully. The movie is NOT about George Clooney's character Baird Whitlock, although Baird's predicament is what drives Eddie's primary, physical goal.

I'll watch it again and do a little amendment on the Moral Premise later. Let me know what you think.

March 20, 2016 (1 AM) in response to James Shiels in the comments below:

James, I wish more people would push back like you did. I've been involved in pre-prep on one shoot while supporting the production of another and so haven't had time to write more about HAIL, CEASAR, although I did see it a second time and took good notes which are now opened before me.

It's late at night...I've got 10 hours of production tomorrow...but I'll hack this out and clean it up later. Sorry for the typos. Hope they're not too bad.

Thank you for taking note of one of my "rules" that if a movie is popular it probably has a valid moral premise. But what I have also claimed is that a valid moral premise is no guarantee of success... because so much else is involved...like marketing, and...in the case of HAIL, CEASER (HC) not telling a story that is hard to understand at a moral level because the surface artifacts are so thick.

I promise to write about this when I have time, but for now here's a brief explanation of what I saw...even more the second time.

First, I did not know much about the real Eddie Mannix, upon which Josh Brolin's character is based-- I guess loosely. Supposedly, from the little I've read about him, he was an interesting but not a very redeemable person...and for a comedy or a redemptive ending film you need a protagonist likable in a very broad sense. You have to make him both flawed and have him seek the higher human good.  So, my evaluation if of the HAIL, CEASER Mannix, not the real one.

Second, while the HC Mannix is clearly the main character, and my some definitions the protagonist, he plays more of the antagonist character in relationship to his studio charges. Did you ever see any television episodes of the series TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL. In that series, at first glance, one would think the protagonist(s) are the angels. If you have not seen it here's the premise. Some person on Earth has got their life all screwed up and God sends three angels to help him or her get straightened out. The protagonist is the "guest star" with the problem. And in that way the guest star arcs from living a life that is messed up, to getting it fixed...BECAUSE of the angel's interventions in his or her life. The angels do not have control over the protagonist's free will, but they try to find a way to manipulate situations and provide counseling to the  person so they choose to do better and fix their own life.

In that way, Mannix (in HC) is the antagonist, but he's also the main character and the POV character. But the protagonists are  the various studio characters for which he has some responsibility. Now, Mannix does have an arc, and he is clearly better off at the end of the movie than at the beginning, but the deeper arcs are played by the protagonists of the various sub plots.

Third, here are some of the obvious arcs.

Baird Whitlock (Clooney) changes from taking his job for granted to taking it seriously. He plays the vacuous, Hollywood star who lets others do his thinking for him and gets dragged into the foolery of the  writers who really are Communist Sympathizers. His last soliloquy at the foot of the cross is the opposite of his attitude earlier. He's still flawed (and can't remember the more important word of the speech ("faith") but by his forgetting it, the writers of HC get to emphasize it.  Baird moves from skepticism to faith (in multiple areas). And yet, skepticism and faith are the two key values of the moral premise.

Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenrich) also moves through this same arc. He's skeptical of his ability to be in a talkie. But he  get's his talkie legs. And the same time  he's able to translate his "on-screen hero skills" to the real world and rescue Whitlock and bring him back to the studio.

This is also reinforced by the Lockheed recruiter who is stuck on the negative side of the moral premise (skepticism) and refers to Hollywood as make believe and a useless vocation for Mannix to be involved with. The recruiter stays permanently on the skeptical side of the moral premise.

DeeAnna Moran (Scarlette Johansson) arcs from skepticism about marriage (because of her failed marriages and relationships in the past) to marrying the studio attorney who adopts her kid.

The Thacker sisters arc likewise from skepticism about anything Mannix or the studio does to realizing they were wrong about a great many things, and that perhaps gossip isn't always the best for their readers. Thus they move from skepticism about Mannix to faith in him.

Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), on the other hand at his Moment of Grace turns to the dark side, rather than embracing the truth, and hops on a Russian sub and leaves his recruited writers to fend for themselves. You can say that in a Nicomachen way, Gurney arcs from skepticism to treason.

And finally, Mannix moves from skepticism about the difficulty of running production at the studio to realizing it's what he's really good and doing and so his career calling is reinforced. The subplot with the Lockheed recruiter reveals that Mannix is skeptical about his job in several ways. But by the end he has rejected that skepticism in favor of faith in his calling.  Mannix's goal, in the life of every one of his charges is to help them achieve human dignity. His "stars" are very talented...and in that talent they each have a lot of faith to do their work good. But they are not faithful to that dignity when confronted with things off camera. Their lives are a mess, and they are unsure and lost, often times giving The Thacker sisters something to write about. Yes, on the surface you might understand that Mannix is just trying to make a buck for the studio. But that goal is questioned when he so quickly tries to pay off Gurney with a $100,000 ransom for Whitlock. From the very beginning to the end, Mannix's goal with EVERY character Mannix interfaces with is to save their dignity from their own stupid decisions. He is their agent of mercy. He takes on himself their grief, and tries to cover it up by getting them to do what is good.

The most obvious motif that Mannix plays are the movie's bookends....his sessions in the confessional with his priest. The smoking is both a red herring for the audience....and also a metaphor for everything he does. Notice he's skeptical about his ability to please and provide for his wife and family. That is why he's trying to stop  smoking, and get a more stable job that would provide for retirement for his missus.  In the confessional at the end, what the movie is really about is talked about explicitly. He says to his priest, "If there's something that's easy is that wrong?"  He's not sure if the job is what he should be doing, but it seems that protecting the dignity and trying to straighten out his charge's lives ..."it's hard...but it seems right." And the priest says, "God wants us to do what is right."

And with that Mannix, through his secretary tells the Lockheed recruiter "Thanks, but no thanks."

Now, there is a pretty heavy dose of religious overtones in the whole movie that is consistent with a theme in Christianity, especially in this particular year for Catholics. It's the "Year of Mercy." Mannix's job is one of showing mercy to those under the studio's employ...and avoiding scandal. But the Cohen brother's Mannix really cares more for the lives of his charges than he does money. He is also deeply concerned about what he's doing in everything he does. He goes to confession every day...and he takes it seriously. Notice, he's very Skeptical about his ability to be the man he was called to be. Notice also toward the end he goes to the set of HAIL, CEASER and prays at the foot of the cross. We don't hear his prayer. But we know he struggles with every subplot thrown at him. And while he's at the cross (much the way Brad Whitlock is at the end of the movie delivering his soliloquy, he finds his faith...and things work out...and he realizes he's where he should be at the studio. Brad says "faith" (or forgets it) but it's Mannix that finds it.

In the same way that Jesus Christ was skeptical in the garden as to whether or not he should allow himself to be crucified, he comes out of the garden prayer with faith and goes through the very hard time of submitting to his death. And why does Christ give of himself and the security of a life on earth?  To be merciful to those in his charge. So, that, also is what Mannix goes through. He realizes that his very hard life is noble value, and he willing moves forward out of skepticism into faith that he was called to bring mercy (like Christ) to those under his care.

The moral premise:
Skepticism about one's life leads to trial, disillusionment and treason; but
Faith about one's life leads to purpose, vision, and fidelity. 

I don't think there's a character in the movie with at least a three beat subplot that doesn't reinforce that moral premise.

James, thanks for asking.

Stan

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why LITTLE BOY Was a Bomb

LITTLE BOY (2015) PG-13

DIRECTOR: Alejandro Monteverde
PRODUCER: Leo Severino (Metanoia Films)
EX PRODUCER: Eduardo Verastegui, Sean Wolfington, Mark Burnett, Roma Downey

STARRING
Tom Wilkinson (Fr. Oliver)
Cary-Hioyuki Tagawa (Hashimoto)
Emily Watson (Emma Busbee)
David Henrie (London Busbee)
Kevin James (Dr. Fox)
Jakob Salvati (Pepper Busbee / Little Boy)

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

I am asked now and then to talk more about movies that fail because of a false or misguided moral premise.

So, a couple years back, I girded up my loins and analyzed and blogged about some big MOVIES THAT FAILED. It was hard work, looking at all that money and talent being wasted. Terrible storytelling. Clear, obvious, universal, common sense story rules were just thrown out the window by filmmakers and studios alike... because, it seems, they come up with an ironic hook. But irony has to support the story, not just be ironic for entertainment's sake. Ionic stories (with good hooks) yet without the proper story foundation will always fail.

Tonight, in order to test out a new hearing aid...I've lost a lot of my high frequencies...I turned on our Apple TV, Netflix, and New Releases (for Netflix, not in the theaters). The first movie on the list was Metanoia Films' LITTLE BOY. Metanoia is run by some talented devout, Catholic filmmakers that I've had the opportunity to meet and talk to a few times.  But I had not seen LITTLE BOY, so, Pam and I settled down to watch and listen (as long my new hearing aid worked...and it did.)

As a period piece, the production values on LITTLE BOY are fantastic. The art direction, prop department and carpenters all deserve some sort of award. The photography and editing are eye-popping good.  The supporting actors are wonderful, and the overall direction is tight and purposeful, and who can deny that watching Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, David Henrie, and Kevin James is anything but a joy. And Jakob Salvati, as Pepper, the  Little Boy, held his own as the protagonist.
There are scenes that will make you cry...my wife was taken numerous times with heavy tears. The movie is just plain captivating.

But at the end, I was left with this awful empty, contradictory feeling. Why, I wondered? I couldn't put my finger on it for a while. I ran to the computer and checked what I had remembered about the box office being mediocre. BAM!!!  Yes, something was seriously wrong.

With an estimated budget of $20M-$30M (in Mexico no less where things are a lot cheaper to shoot), the U.S. Domestic Box office was a trifle $6.5M (rounding it up) with apparently no International distribution.

Folks, this is horrible. For a movie that has so much going for it in terms of production value, and scene value—there are wonderful sequences with deft parallel editing, scene-after-scene are just fabulously made—why would this film not connect?  First weekend it opened in 1,000 plus theaters and does a modest $3.3M. Not great, but if the movie was really as good as it looks, it would have dropped only 30% by the next week. But it dropped 62.3%. Fatal. Word of mouth was tepid at best. In later weeks it dropped three successive weeks by 50% and in 8-weeks it was history.

ANALYSIS

The reason this movie about Christian faith did not connect, even with it's Christian/Catholic target audience, has everything to do with the Moral Premise and common sense storytelling's black and white rules.

THE STORY, on the surface is about a little boy who is learning about how faith as small as a mustard seed, can movie mountains. In the movie, he tries and sort of succeeds to move a mountain. It's also about the hateful prejudice some Americans showed American Japanese during WWII. The little boy's father is called off to war and Pepper, with the astute help of Fr. Oliver (Wilkinson), passionately and actively pursues an increase in his faith (through good works) so that his father will return from the war safe and sound. THAT IS, THE PHYSICAL GOAL OF THE PROTAGONIST (Pepper / Little Boy)....is TO GET DADDY HOME ALIVE. Making that goal tangible and visible is well executed in the film. Pepper's family lives in a town on the West Coast of California and there are scenes where Pepper holds up his arms toward the setting sun over Japan (which at that moment may be the Rising Sun of Japan), grunting and shaking in a Star Wars'esque effort to morph "Christian faith" into "The Force." The atheistic Mr. Hashimoto challenges Fr. Oliver to stop the charade and protect the boy psychologically. But Fr. Oliver...is having his own crisis of faith, and doesn't know what to tell the kid...because to Fr. Oliver it seems like the kid does have faith (alas, the kid is demonstrating faith in his own selfishness not in God's power to save...so what we have here is really poor understanding of fundamental theology.) Admittedly, the movie makes no attempt to suggest that what Pepper is doing is Christian faith. But neither does the movie define Christian faith, otherwise. So the audience is left to believe what is shown. And what is shown is logically invalid and subliminally the audience figures that out. (BTW: The Coen Brother's HAIL, CAESAR! does a better job of presenting the Gospel.)

Thus, when the first atomic bomb lands on Japan (shortly after one of Pepper's arm shaking episodes aimed at Japan) the town wildly celebrates because they believe that is was Pepper who was responsible. Why? Because his nick name around town is "Little Boy" and the nickname of the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was "Little Boy."  Immediately thereafter and for solid minute there is great rejoicing. The film suddenly shifts to the somber destruction and the celebration stops. To make things worse, the family hears that Dad is taken as a POW, and then that he is killed. But through mistaken identity, the soldier that is killed is not Dad. And Dad returns home at war's end shell shocked but reunited with family.

IT'S A HORRIBLE MISTAKE for a movie that tries to battle prejudice to turn to celebration the killing of hundreds of thousands of Japanese in the shadow of what the little, smiling and celebrating Pepper believe is "Christian Faith." Even when, moments later, the movie puts on the appropriate somber moral mood for the bomb, a bitter taste is left in the mouth. A scene like that in any film, least of all a purported Christian film, is like a moral sin. It's nearly unforgivable. It's abhorrent. As one commenter on IMBD wrote "Christian Faith Nukes Hiroshima"  Of course the filmmakers don't say that...but (Damn It!) they SHOW it.

As bad as that scene was conceived, it is not what kills the movie...although the movie deserves to die because of it.

What kills the movie is something more subtle and at once obvious. To explain that I have to take a stab at the moral premise....that sentence that should be controlling everything about the story and it's presence on screen.

[NOTE TO FILMMAKERS OF ALL STRIPES: If you understand an apply the moral premise, your films won't go bust, assuming everything else is well done But when you screw this up, money will never save your investment.]

MORAL PREMISES

There are two possible moral premise statements for LITTLE BOY based on the explicit issues portrayed:

Moral Premise A
Racial hatred and lack of faith leads to hatred, separation and death; but
Brotherly love and faith leads to friendship, family and life.

Moral Premise B
Racial hatred and lack of faith leads to Daddy not coming home; but
Brotherly love and faith leads to Daddy coming home.

Moral Premise A would be a good statement if the movie had a protagonist with some goal that related to life and friendship within the community and physical efforts were put to that end.

But LITTLE BOY is about a little boy who wants his father to come back from war. The kid is not motivated to make the town better. 

Having made that clear (I hope)...

All successful stories MUST follow a few simple rules. Let me mention one of the most important:

  1. The inner transformation of values that the protagonist experiences, logically motivates the action that causes the physical transformation.  Psychological Motivation ALWAYS leads Physical Action...and the connection better be logical. 
  2. The protagonist's physical action toward the goal, logically causes the goal to be achieved. The goal cannot be achieved by any other action than that of the protagonist. 
If you need to understand this, take my Storycraft Training Online. There's not the room here.

A story cannot succeed if at the end of the plot, the protagonist steps aside and someone else saves the day. The protagonist must do the hand-to-hand combat, not another less important character. Thus LITTLE BOY fails due to three violations of these Natural Laws of Story Structure.

1. THERE IS NO LOGICAL PHYSICAL CONNECTION BETWEEN PEPPER'S ACTIONS AND GETTING HIS DAD HOME.

There is no direct acton that Pepper takes that remotely effects the return of his dad.  It's as if all though the movie Pepper pursues his goal with various actions, but at the end, a superhero swoops in and rescues Dad. The superhero being the guys on the Manhattan Project...some would say, far from innocent lads. Audiences subliminal are left dissatisfied. The catharsis is cut short and quick, if there's any at all. (Bad word of mouth #1.)

2. PEPPER'S LEARNED VIRTUE IS ACTUALLY A VICE

There is a hidden theme in the story that "innocence trumps reality." In other words, as the audience, we want the kid's wishes to come true BECAUSE and only because he's an innocent kid. If an adult acted like Pepper we'd call the character selfish, narcissistic and self-absorbed. Pepper's not wanting his Dad to come home for a selfless noble purpose. This is not A WONDERFUL LIFE where George Bailey's presence in the community benefits the good of all. Yes, we can see that Mom (Emily Watson) is sad and that she's being stalked by the friendly doctor in town (Kevin James). And we recognize that Pepper's older brother is getting in trouble because Dad is gone. BUT NONE OF THOSE have anything to do with Pepper's motivation for wanting his Dad back. That is, Pepper doesn't want Dad back because the Savings and Loan has to be saved for the sake of the town's livelihood. He wants Dad back for himself, alone. And we buy it because the kid is young, and sweet and  innocent. But the kid's motivations are not pure, they are filled with vice.  Subliminally, audiences see that. (Bad word of mouth #2.)

3. THERE'S NO LOGICAL CONNECTION BETWEEN PEPPER'S INNER TRANSFORMATION AND THE OUTER PROGRESS OF RETURNING DAD.

The moral premise also demands that it's the vice or weakness in the protagonist that creates the bad consequences, and that a transformation of that inner value to a virtue or strength will bring about the good consequence. But what does this movie do? Pepper achieves his goal, and we're led to believe in some way that it was his Christian faith that brought his Daddy home. But that's not true and Christians and non-Christians subconsciously know such an idea is fable and heresy. (Bad word of mouth #3.)

And ironically, I'll bet almost no one leaving the theater could explain any of this. It's a feeling, a sense, that something isn't quite right, and quite right they are.

Consequently, Little Boy was a Bomb.

Come on guys and gals out there making movies. READ MY BOOK at least, and try to understand this stuff. I'm not making money off these books, but you could.