Saturday, November 18, 2006

Seizing the Sword

Once past the Ordeal, the hero is ready to Seize the Sword, says Chris Vogler. In July we received development funding for THE MORTAL COIL. Next it was selected into SPAAmart and now the AFC is funding the production of the animation ACID SUN, after only one application. It sounds like OZZYWOOD Films is seizing the sword. What is the secret? And is the Ordeal now finally over??
I have just returned from SPAAmart, Australia's film financing market, where Wojciech and I pitched THE MORTAL COIL to twenty-four industry executives from Australia and overseas. It was only the second time ever I applied for this competitive market. One hundred percent hit rate. Luck? Possibly. But my recent string of successes cannot be ignored as an unusually high hit rate. An AFC project manager with impressive film credits recently told an audience how his applications used to be rejected at a rate of 8/1. No future for me as an AFC project manager, I guess...

If luck is one factor, what other factors are there? The talent of the writer, first and foremost. I have the honour and the pleasure of working with brilliant people. Without an interesting concept you can edit until the cows come home. THE MORTAL COIL has the support of Richard Taylor at the famous Weta Workshop in Wellington. Given the amazing track record of that effects house, their attachment is a major bonus and it helps convincing decision makers that this project will fly.


There is no doubt in my mind that the story development approach is another crucial factor in those recent funding successes. I used to get sucked into reading, analysing and assessing screenplays. Most scripts have enough weaknesses on the scene level for a script editor to provide his money's worth in surface level feedback. The writer takes on board all the comments and does a - often completely useless - rewrite. My rejection rate used to be higher than average until I changed my development strategy. By focusing on the story, the writer doesn't touch the screenwriting software until the structure works. This sounds like a longer process, but the reality is just the opposite.

If there is an easier way, why do we keep getting caught in this trap? Why do we all give feedback based on the script? I believe that we are scared to tell you - the writer - to fundamentally review the story. What if you walked away to find yourself another editor? It would mean the potential loss of some hard-earned business. Will those essential story changes guarantee a movie that works? Of course not. The most quoted line in the movie industry is William Goldman's "Nobody knows anything." But a well-structured story will increase the chances that better people read your script and give you better feedback so you get a step closer to funding.

Once you have successfully applied the principles of story structure and you've made it past the Ordeal of story and script development, remember Vogler and don't confuse the Sword with the Elixir. I, too, am fully aware that the Final Confrontation is yet to come.


The Australian Film Commission is paying $60,000 towards the production of ACID SUN, the first project I took on as a producer after becoming a father late 2004. Parental responsibility had brought with it a greater focus and a more radical selection of projects and short films just didn't seem to cut it any longer. “Short films no longer work as a calling card.” or: “Short films can’t move an audience the way a feature does.” "They don’t make any money". Above all: I believed short films lack demonstrable narrative principles.

My involvement in AEROSOL opened my eyes. It taught me the importance of rigorous story development, even for short films. AEROSOL, an outstanding directing achievement by Wojciech, was selected into more than twenty film festivals but it only captured one significant prize. Hardly a successful conversion rate. The film is heavily effects-driven and makes a beautiful poetic statement about the society we live in. How could juries all around the world be so wrong and not honour this gem with an abundance of prizes?

I joined the project after the initial producer was fired. The film had already received funding and the script was locked off, so I proceeded immediately to getting the film made without questioning the script. When it became apparent that AEROSOL was not winning any prizes I finally analysed the story's structure, which revealed another good reason why the first producer should have been fired: he didn't have a clue about story. The film lacks a second act.

AEROSOL starts with the ordinary life of a worker, whose routine is soon disturbed by an ant: the inciting incident. Then starts a cat-and-mouse game between the two, which lasts until a major reversal. In a classically told story this reversal would have been the First Act Turning Point, defining the protagonist's objective. Instead what follows feels very much like a Third Act, with the ant now being the more active character and the only one showing a visible objective. Finally, a poetic epilogue ponders over the things that matter in our society. The ending leaves our characters' journeys very much open.

Regardless of its structure, AEROSOL is a beautiful statement and many people have genuinely enjoyed the film as a wonderful piece, both artistically and philosophically. But emotionally, it does not fulfill our instinctive needs for a three act story.

Looking back, it was an obvious oversight of myself to not critically examine the film's storyline (and I shouldn't blame the first producer no matter how little he cared). But how many of us really do analyse the structure of short films? In the case of AEROSOL, even the FTO assessors didn't pick up on the story flaws although a rewrite would have taken a fraction of the effort it took to produce the film. And the film would have won prizes.

If you want to read more about structure for short films, you might check out Writing Short Films by Linda Cowgill, who came to the same conclusion, only seven years earlier.


Last year I purchased POWERSTRUCTURE from the guys at WriteBrain and they offered a massive discount on a DVD box set called THE HERO'S 2 JOURNEYS. They explained it was voted DVD of the year or something by the Australian Cinematographers Society. I wasn't turned off the idea so much by the ACS reference - I'm about to believe our DOPs understand story better than our screenwriting teachers - but there is something very inconvenient about screenwriting theory on a video/DVD. I did end up paying the additional USD$$$ because 1) the discount was really huge and 2) I love the guys at WriteBrain, they know their stuff.

Lucky. This is pure gold. Michael Hague talks in crystal clear terms about what makes a good protagonist and what are the essential steps for an outer journey to work. Next, Christopher Vogler sheds some light on the workings of the hero's inner journey. In a strong drama the one never goes without the other, so it makes perfect sense to discuss the hero's 2 journeys together and this DVD set does it brilliantly. Finally the theory is applied to Steven Soderbergh's blockbuster ERIN BROCKOVICH. Another stroke of luck: I found a perfect way around the inconvenience of the medium. A software program called DVD Audio Extractor literally changed my life. I now rip DVD sound to mp3 and listen to it on my Creative Zen while walking the dog. The same way I listen to DVD commentaries. I recommend you do the same and keep THE HERO'S 2 JOURNEYS among those mp3s you never delete from your player (like Robert McKee's audio book version of STORY).

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Just Ad Words

No post in September as I had other matters to attend to (photo). If you want the whole story, you may have to brush up on your Dutch.

You may be set in your writing ways and happy with your Underwood or whatever other writing tool you are using. In that case you better skip to the DVD Commentary section. Otherwise, here are some tips to save you the money and frustration I sacrificed on my way to stardom.

Being a decent citizen, a few years ago I replaced my pirate version of Final Draft with a legit copy, hoping the bugs would go. Now I believe it was the equivalent of going to see THE DA VINCI CODE in the cinema. I was caught in the trap of some excellent marketing. But what should you expect from a screenwriting package? Let's put things in perspective.

The last time I checked, Final Draft cost AUD$569, or roughly the same as the entire Microsoft Office Suite. All that, while some simple MS Word macros or style sheets can achieve what Final Draft does? Plus: you have the wildest flexibility in terms of backups, tracking changes, spell-checking, saving online etc. If you don't have MS Office or you hate Bill G.: OpenOffice. Free.

If you're really dying to part with your money on a script package, explore Movie Magic Screenwriter (formerly: Screenwriter 2000). Cheaper than Final Draft and better value for money in my view.

But why pay? A new, totaly FREE piece of software is called Celtx. Still in its infancy but growing rapidly, with a smart development team behind it and community-oriented.

Celtx intends to go a lot further than just the screenwriting bits: it aims at becoming the central command post for your film's entire project management. If they manage to stay afloat, it may well become a filmmakers' software of choice.

Now, if you believe that any of the above will help you writing better scripts, you have fallen prey to the Film Industry's Greatest Con. These are all just word processors with serious formatting limitations. Jazzed-down versions of MS Word if you wish.

Here is my advice for the cash-poor: don't spend a cent on script formatting and save your money for software that helps you with the hard work. Instead labour on the story using Dramatica Pro, John Truby's Blockbuster or best of all: Powerstructure.

I prefer the last one, as it distinguishes itself from the others in pretty much the same way MM Screenwriter does among the script software. Powerstructure has immense flexibility, allows you to write full scenes, just one liners, or whatever in between you feel comfortable with.

You can customise it to your own favourite structure, be it three acts, sequences or Vogler's THE HERO'S JOURNEY, then export directly to a text file or into whatever script software you use. If you're a member of that circle of writers who first write their entire first draft before starting to outline, you can import your existing script to reshape its structure. Admitted, I've had a few quirks doing that but the PS support team helped me out.

Powerstructure makes a lot of sense, as it works in the way most movie decision makers think. It is being distributed by the wonderful guys at WriteBrain, where you can download a trial version.

Even better than burning your money on software: give it to a human story/script editor who could really make a difference for you. ;-)


I found a downright great commentary on this unsung masterpiece by writer/director Robert Altman, in which Warren Beatty opens a whorehouse in the Old West.

Although thirty-five years old, this movie could be seen today alongside the razorsharp doco THE CORPORATION and - to a lesser extent - AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. It ultimately tackles corporatisation and if you wish globalisation within the genre of the western. And as the commentary puts it: Altman won't give you a John Wayne type of Western hero. No. Warren Beatty's protagonist will shoot you in the back if his life depends on it.

The voice recording of this commentary track is so crystal clear you can literally hear producer David Foster's watch ticking in the background as he explains why every man and his dog in Hollywood wants to work with this director. I agree: Altman has a vision and integrity that is so rare you won't even find it with masters like Scorsese. Unlike the latter, Altman will NEVER make 'one for the Studio'.

My favourite bits are the account of Leonard Cohen's musical collaboration, Altman's hilarious tirade about western's big hats and the master's view on dialogue:

"The dialogue in these kinds of films [...] is part of the character [...]. It is not the words that are important. [...] That's too related to theater, where you [...] advance plot with the words. When you have close-ups of people and faces [...], it's just better that the words come from the moment or from the actors themselves."

Altman makes this statement in the context of Beatty's soliloquies in the film. He asked Beatty to mumble to himself inaudibly before actually delivering the crucial lines in soliloquy. As a result, the audience is used to the character talking to himself in a more or less natural way. And here is the mark of a good commentary: the director sharing with us his struggles to make the movie work.


Recently I consulted to a team of comedy writers, which was a completely new and refreshing experience to me. As I'm not a comedy expert, I focused on the (lack of) drama in the script and afterwards the writers were happy enough about the outcome to hire me again for a look at the next stage.

Comedies that don't work often still work on the scene level but they have issues with the overall story arc. Situations and dialogue may be absolutely hilarious. If there's no dramatic undercurrent, the audience WILL switch off.

I found a quote on the commentary of ANTZ that makes the exact same point about the input from Jeffrey Katzenberg (photo), who was uncredited producer (and the "K" in Dreamworks SKG):

"We added a lot of comedy kind of after the fact. It's one of the things that Jeffrey Katzenberg really pushes hard: get the drama to work because if you're rely on the comedy, you're gonna loose the audience's interest in the characters. So sure enough we really focused on the drama and afterwards we [...] ended up upping just the silliness of it, the humor of it."

This charming animation, in which Woody Allen voices the neuroses of the ant "Z", dates from the turbulent days when Dreamworks went head to head with Disney's A BUG'S LIFE. Ironically it was Katzenberg who had sealed the deal between Pixar and Disney.

Directors Johnson and Darnell don't deliver by far the cutthroat commentary we're used to hear from the Pixar guys, but they do give some insight in their struggles during the development. Notably their work on the character of Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) and her relationship with the protagonist are interesting from a story point of view.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Structuring The Facts

Turning real events into a working screen drama is a hell of a challenge. Whether it be a historical movie, biography or docu-drama, the smart screenwriter remains true to the spirit of the subject rather than an accurate report of the events. Plus: the principals of drama must dictate how the story is (re-)structured. UNITED 93 turns out a phenomenal success on all fronts.

Have you noticed the almost unnerving consensus that this is great movie? The SMH gave it 9/10 in yesterday's paper, Roger Ebert hands out four stars, on IMDb it scores 7.8/10. Who believes that the magnitude of the events guaranteed the movie would work, should check out the TV dud "FLIGHT 93" and think again. I believe here's a hell of a great script at work.

I watched Paul Greengrass' movie last weekend and was truly impressed. When I had recovered from the emotional rollercoaster ride, something quite unexpected dawned upon me: this story boasts an amazingly conventional structure.

If you go with me that the protagonist in this movie is made up from the collective passengers of the flight, you'll agree the film reflects the following 3-act structure:

- ACT ONE: Boarding until cruise altitude; hijackers take control.
- ACT TWO/A: Passengers try to notify the ground.
- REVERSAL: News of the WTC attacks - this is a suicide flight.
- ACT TWO/B: Passengers prepare to fight back.
- ACT THREE: Attack on the cockpit and crash.

An important subplot dominates the first half of the movie and intertwines with the First Act: Ben Sliney's struggle at the FAA to stay in control of the US air space. Here I'd like to refer to my very first post and my structural note on SCHINDLER'S LIST and THE INSIDER. Both movies start with a major subplot, in the case of THE INSIDER possibly even a second protagonist. Once we're in the Second Act of the subplot, the main story kicks in. Same here: we're well into Ben Sliney's Second Act before the action on board United 93 starts.

For all above reasons - and I know this one is hard to prove - I believe the movie would have worked fine for anybody completely unfamiliar with the 9/11 events. While we sit through the relatively uneventful First Act (if you don't know what's coming up), we empathise with Ben Sliney whose air traffic controllers are steadily losing control.

You may argue that this structure is a mere reflection of the facts. Don't forget filmmakers have always made their own choices about how and which events are presented over the course of the available screentime. With this subject matter I don't believe Greengrass really had to be this rigorous in his structuring for the movie to have an adequate effect. Still he did. Why? To create maximum empathy with the protagonists. And boy it pays off!

It's waiting now until October to find out what Oliver Stone did with WORLD TRADE CENTER, but the rumours are positive.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Diagnosis: Obsession

Occasionally I receive requests to read a first draft and even a first draft by a first time writer. I do indeed offer story consultancy but these are requests to read - for free - with the hope of getting a producer's attachment. With all due respect, but you've gotta be kidding. (Disclaimer: if you're allergic to preaching, better skip this blog. If you disagree with anything, you are invited to comment)

First-time writers sending out a first draft should get a grip. Get out of your hole and find out how competitive this industry is. But is the writer really to blame? Our industry itself has created a perception that writing for the screen is a fun occupation, a lifestyle thing that can be easily combined with any other job. And every attempt is to be taken seriously. Believe me, the reality is different. If you consider yourself a dilettante, your chances of breaking through are minimal. If your entire life doesn't revolves around movies , the odds are very much against you. Better get used to the idea or reconsider your future.

Like 'aspiring practitioners' in other industries where the stakes are high, screenwriters and filmmakers tend to love the success stories of those who've made it, hence the popularity of events like POPCORN TAXI etc. However, success stories are filtered, censored and jazzed-up versions of the boring, down-to-earth and painful true events they are based upon. Like their screenplay counterparts, true facts don't sell.

The six movies to which writer Andrew Stanton contributed, have made several billions of dollars worldwide, yet he calls his growth to understanding story: “MY JOURNEY OF PAIN”. Andrew is part of the Pixar team and more about that in a minute.

Unlike Stanton, most great examples usually provide handy tips 'n' tricks, common sense advice or even sheer nonsense. Mostly it boils down to: if you really want something, you can get it. It's great stuff to remove feelings of guilt (for not being serious about your business) and doubt (about your chances of ever making it).

Now here is something only a few honest - and therefore 'boring' - speakers will ever tell you: if you want to get there, you will have to make sacrifices. And your partner/family etc. will have to make sacrifices with you. Single? Your chances have just doubled. Still, the higher you want to reach, the greater the sacrifices.

Forget sports, hobbies, friends etc. Forget those success stories in Weekend Magazine about millionnaire business people who work out an hour a day, eat every dinner with the family and spend half of the year holidaying in Europe. Bullshit. Before they got there, they all went through divorce, mental breakdown, booze, suicide attempt or even worse: 18 hour days working for a boss!

You better be prepared as screenwriting is no different. To get through these horrible times of wanting but not getting, what you need is: obsession. It may or may not speed up things, but like drugs or alcohol, it alleviates the pain. Unfortunately it is just as socially unacceptable.

Here is a test. How much time do you spend on movies every week? Watching, reading, talking, thinking, writing about movies and the business of movie making? If you rate over 20 hours, I reckon you have a chance. Between 10-20 it may still work if you are an unusually smart person and/or have the financial resources to sit it out for a while. Under 10 hours you should stop kidding yourself: this is a hobby and you're not serious.

Aaah!! I can hear the geniuses object! Obviously I need to make a special exemption for you. The odds are indeed VERY different. If you are one, give up your dreams NOW as you'll have to die before finding recognition. Nobody will understand your genius touch anway.

I could go on for a while but it would take too many CAPITALS and italics. Boring.

Cut to the bottom line:



This October sees the fifth edition of the SCREENWRITING EXPO in Los Angeles. For the cost of an airline ticket + USD$140.95, you'll have the opportunity to hear the most successful working Hollywood storytellers, all in one day: PIXAR STORYTELLING.

For the first time to my knowledge, the people behind PIXAR's story department will speak about their craft in public. And if you're not convinced about their skills and talent, try coming up with any other studio matching their hit rate. For twenty years now, they have been churning out hit after hit, reaching the broadest possible audiences worldwide.


If you can't afford the trip to LA, the least you can do is check out the commentaries on the Pixar DVDs. I mean: every single one of them. From the very first TOY STORY to their most recent THE INCREDIBLES, they are all diamonds of storytelling. Most of these movies have been written or co-written by the director and if they aren't, chances are the writer sits in on the commentary. As expected, a lot of attention goes to the digital work but the Pixar guys ALWAYS provide excellent comments on the specifics of their stories.

On MONSTERS INC., they go as far as calling up one of the writers during the recording to ask him why they cut Mike Wezowski's marriage proposal to Celia (answer: it would have diluted his 'buddy' relationship to Sulley). Here is your complete Pixar shopping list, to make sure you don't miss out on any of their gems.

The commentary on FINDING NEMO is definitely the most sophisticated as it jumps out of the movie into side tracks showing various aspects of the 'making of', with a total duration of well over the movie's running time.


It has just been announced that mid next year, the travelling exhibition PIXAR, 20 YEARS OF ANIMATION will come to Melbourne. Here's hoping some of the talent will come over with it.

And if you haven't already seen CARS (because some idiot told you it is a lesser Pixar), go see it.


If you recognize the first four pictures in this blog, email me the corresponding movie titles and you will be taken off my 'dilettante list' PLUS I'll send you a DVD*, VCD* or soundtrack CD* (*of my choice) if you're among the first five correct answers. And I will read the synopsis of your next work. For free.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Stop Reading Scripts

THE DA VINCI CODE came and went, PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST came and stayed and our own dear THE MORTAL COIL receives development funding from our own dear AFC! But let's not distract from those other Things That Matter in the world of story and screenwriting.

According to respected screenwriting gurus, one of the most important things to do for an emerging screenwriter is to read and study as many screenplays as possible. It doesn't matter if the film was a success or a flop: you learn either way.

For years, I blindly believed this dogma as it seemed to make a lot of sense. Learn from good and bad examples. Don't we all do that in other fields? With hundreds of screenplays readily available for download from, and other sources, it is also a cheap way to improve your skill.

But does it?

I try to watch on average a movie a day, either in the cinema or on DVD. With the birth of my son late 2004, that became a bit more of a challenge. I found myself falling asleep in the second act. To remedy the 'early fatherhood syndrome', I would make notes, forcing myself to stay awake. As long as I had the discipline, I would even type them up into structural diagrams.

Suddenly this revelation: the more I liked the film, the easier it would be to find the Aristotelian three act structure and the principles of dramatic tension.

Revelation? Hardly.

What was truly phenomenal was that to crack the key to the film's story structure, it had taken me only the duration of the film plus a few minutes .

If I had read the screenplay instead, it would have taken me hours to read and take notes. Then the work would have only really started in order to piece the structure together from the notes. A finished film underscores the drama in many ways that help you identify the importance of the beat, scene or sequence: through music, fades or even the use of light and colour (Soderbergh's TRAFFIC).

With Wojciech - "Aerosol" - Wawrzyniak, I am developing a story whose structure is vaguely similar to Kenneth Brannagh's MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN (Thank you, Chris) so we decided to read the screenplay and watch the movie.

That's when the REAL value in reading screenplays became apparent: it allows you to compare script and finished film. It shows the areas where filmmakers struggled because things didn't really work the way they wanted.

Comparing script and film also reveals where directors made last minute decisions because they didn't believe the script worked, or more often: the money ran out. A great example is the Chicago Train Station climax in THE UNTOUCHABLES. Mamet's original Third Act had Capone's accountant going on the train, with a chase and shootout following. However, De Palma had blown the budget and was forced to improvise. For years he had been dreaming of shooting a hommage to Eisenstein 'Odessa Steps' sequence from THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. Finally the opportunity was thrown into his lap because of a budget issue.

In my view, reading lots of screenplays is the hard way to writing good stories. But analysing one or two classics on language, style and formatting may help you find the right balance to turn your final draft into an easy read.


Admittedly, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the last person you would expect to add value to a movie commentary. Well actually Paul Verhoeven does most of the job on this SPECIAL EDITION DVD, "innit?". Can you believe Richard Dreyfuss was one of the original choices for the lead role??? Lucky Verhoeven told Carolco to snap the rights to the script off De Laurentiis, who had financial problems at the time.

More trivia: Verhoeven pinpoints the scene in TOTAL RECALL that gave him the idea to cast Sharon Stone for Basic Instinct. More interestingly, the director elaborates on the philosophical aspects of the story and Philip K. Dick's original short story it was based on. It made me curious to hear his commentary on the controversial STARSHIP TROOPERS.


I find it brave of a director who claims his movie was very much misunderstood, to expressly deal with this issue on a DVD commentary. It probably helped that a few years had gone by and the initial frustration had faded.

Anyway, the dialogue between Verhoeven and writer Neumeier is interesting in the sense that it removes any doubt about the team's intentions. Yes, fascism is BAD. And those that preach violence as a solution are BAD PEOPLE.

But further into the movie, the concepts get a little bit murkier to the point where writer and director are almost - but entirely unintentionally - contradicting each other on the subject of whether or not an audience should be given what they want, even if they happily consume the fascist material without raising questions. As long as the filmmakers' intentions are pure... Hmmm. Not sure about this. Still: fascinating material to think and converse about!


What exactly is a synopsis? An outline? A treatment? If you are a writer trying to get your works produced or sold, it is important to know AND USE these formats. On the way to success, almost every writer will have to produce at least one of each for almost every work.

A while ago, the Australian Film Commission published an excellent document explaining the difference and the importance of these different formats. As unfortunately it lies buried deep somewhere within their extensive web site, I have taken the liberty to make it available for download here.


I am a total JB Hifi addict, a foible shared by my lovely wife (phew!). But this time, I must draw your attention to the following AMAZING deals at EZYDVD (Australia):

Godfather DVD Collection, The (5 Disc Box Set)
Apocalypse Now Redux
Crash (2004)
Nicolas Cage Collection (4 Disc Box Set)
Searchers, The - 50th Anniversary Special Edition (2 Disc Set)
Wild Bunch, The - The Original Director's Cut: Special Edition (2 Disc Set)
Dead Again
Deer Hunter, The
Forbidden Planet

I have a nasty feeling HD-DVD and/or BluRay will be upon us soon...

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Indian's Journey

"In “The World’s Fastest Indian” there is no character arc. Burt Munro is the same person at the beginning and at the end of the film," says Jack Brislee in a comment to the first post in this blog, NOT STORY.

I nearly fell off my chair when I realised I could not prove Jack wrong (which he knows I would have loved to).

The film has been a runaway success in New Zealand, received rave reviews all over the world and has done some pretty good box office for a kiwi film with such an awkward title. It seems like most people in and outside the industry agree: This is a good movie.

How on earth could such a strong, moving film lack an Inner Journey??

Well in fact it doesn't. There is even more than one 'Inner Journey'. Only not for the protagonist. Screenwriter/Script Doctor (and longtime friend) Chris Craps points out this is a "Christ Story". The protagonist doesn't change, but his intervention changes the lives of those around him. And look at it: pretty much each character Burt Munro meets, redeems itself in some way or another. From the petty neighbours, over the initially cynical transvestite to the unrelenting race officials.

Jack is right if he means you don't need to slavishly follow McKee to make a screenplay work. But what Chris Craps says is: if you don't, you need to know HOW to make it work in a different way. Without the 'Christ Story' approach, i.e. if Burt wouldn't have changed anybody's lives, this movie would have felt a lot less rich and endearing.

Burt may not go through an Inner Journey, he sure as hell does have an 'Outer Journey' and his obstacles are indeed 'seemingly insurmountable'. I do believe Roger Donaldson's screenplay reaffirms McKee's strong stance on the 'Forces of Antagonism': at about every stage Burt Munro is fighting increasing odds, from his lack of funds, the battle to bend virtually all the rules of the race until the ultimate test of his own fitness and his pain threshold. As a viewer truly engaged in the movie (and not knowing the 'true story'), I was indeed considering the possibility that Burt might not survive the race.

Once the DVD is released, I'll have a closer look and make an attempt to identify Chris Vogler's twelve stages of the journey as I have a slight suspicion Donaldson might have had them in mind for this story. And don't underestimate the development process behind this screenplay: nearly thirty-five years is a long gestation from documentary to feature film.


The two-disk release of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO's nest features a great commentary by director Milos Forman and producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz. Forman is known for his ability to bring out phenomenal performances and with his trademark Czech accent he expands on his process, from selecting the cast to cutting their dialogue. Zaentz tells how people at the time didn't recognise Jack Nicholson (yet), but asked Michael Douglas for autographs instead. The anecdotes are at times moving, as Forman tells about William Redfield's illness during the shoot and his subsequent death of leukemia.

From a story point of view, I found it surprising to hear that Forman wanted to cut the fishing trip out of the movie. Apart from marking the story's mid-point reversal, this sequence also gives us a taste of how McMurphy's story could possibly end. But the director had a problem with the duration and as he says "I cut it down television style, under two hours. And you know what was funny? It felt much longer."

If you haven't seen this amazing movie or not for a while, don't hesitate and get the double disk release. Apart from the commentary it includes a 48-minute documentary featuring the actors, the moviemakers, and writer Ken Kesey recounting the history of the original novel to its stage and movie adaptations plus 8 additional scenes. Gold.

I have uploaded an audio excerpt with Michael Douglas about finding Chief Bromden and Milos Forman about his struggle with the film's duration. Hold the 'shift' key while clicking the link to the mp3 and this page will stay open. I apologise for the sudden ending of the clip, as this is how the DVD's chapter ends.

I have also included a link in case you want to check any deals for this DVD on Amazon. I will do this for each DVD mentioned in this blog as some titles may be hard to find at times.

From the same production house as SIX FEET UNDER comes CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. If you like Seinfeld, Woody Allen or even Ben Stiller, it's probably worth giving it a try. I was told NINE aired it in Australia at some unholy hour but I'm not a television watcher so I caught the first three seasons all on DVD. Sofar I found the third season the strongest with the "Special Section" episode (featuring Martin Scorsese) my favourite, as it is generously pushing the boundaries of political correctness and good taste.

Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, built 'CURB' around his own persona but Seinfeld fans will recognize a lot of Seinfeld's George in the character. There is probably as much of the real Larry David in this show as there is of the real Woody Allen in his movies, but the confusion between reality and fiction works wonderfully well. And like Allen sticks to his Manhattan, CURB stays in Santa Monica and surrounds. The comedy is mostly verbal, jewish, self-conscious and hilariously far-fetched. Love it or hate it.

For more serious drama, world-class character development and high-tech plotting, check out THE WIRE (HBO, again). It came recommended by my above mentioned friend Chris and I would like to pass it on. The DVD box states ambitiously "The best show on TV" and I must agree, I haven't seen anything like this before. No series has ever succeeded in hooking me onto more than a handful characters, let alone dozens.

One example of the genius of creator David Simon and writer Ed Burns: the arc across the first season. Episode One introduces a murder case and one bad-ass drug dealer. We know he is guilty as hell and when he walks with a dirty grin, we want him dead. At the end of Episode Thirteen, you'll be rooting for this fellow. Nothing is black and white, there is no pure good or evil.

Season Two was released in Australia last week and after having seen four episodes, I cannot wait to recommend it to you all. But rather than looking for more superlatives, here's a brief review I found and which hits the nail on the head:

The Wire must be seen, heard, and absorbed to fully appreciate the way in which over 40 characters are flawlessly incorporated into a sprawling but tightly disciplined plot that deals, in the larger sense, with the deindustrialization of America and the struggle of longshoremen in a changing economical climate. Offering a privileged and occasionally frightening glimpse of the inner workings of shipping ports and cargo transports, The Wire is also a detailed exposé of organized crime and blue-collar corruption, and an authentic, well-informed study of political maneuvering among police and city officials. There's not a single false note to be found in the cast, direction, or writing of this phenomenal series, hailed by many critics as "the best show on television." With all due respect to HBO's other excellent series, The Wire tops them all.--Jeff Shannon

- DO watch Season One first.
- DO switch the subtitles on, you may learn some colourful slang.
- Do NOT check the organisational chart on the HBO web site. Though it may be tempting due to the insane amount of characters, the chart offers some unforgivable spoilers. To see cast and characters, rather go here.


A while ago, I tried all Australian home-delivery DVD services and settled for Quickflix for its HUGE collection, including some obscure titles I had been chasing for a long while. Check it out for free: If you enter the promo code TX2030 on the home page, you'll receive up to 5 DVDs in your trial. THE WIRE Season One comes on five DVDs, so you can enjoy the whole season for free. Try before you buy!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A Director's Approach

Following my post on SYRIANA writer/director Stephen Gaghan, I came across an interesting discussion on the necessity of rigorous structuring vs. a more liberal, visual approach to screenwriting.

Jim Mercurio makes the following point about Gaghan's comments in the notorious CS podcast: "Gaghan's comments are showing that he is evolving from a screenwriter into a filmmaker. "

With 'filmmaker', he undoubtedly means 'director' and with his quote he hits the nail on the head. However, Mercurio makes it sound as if this is a natural evolution, when he goes on to explain how his own latest script too is told with transitions. All of a sudden Gaghan is fashionable, and screenwriters are re-inventing Tolstoy. Now let's not forget the following facts:

1. Tolstoy was a novelist
2. Gaghan is NOT a meanstream screenwriter
3. Transitions do not stand in the way of proper story structuring

What everybody seems to be missing in this discussion is that transitions play on a shot level, or at best on a scene level. Story structure goes way beyond that. Whatever Mercurio may think, a screenplay written solely from transitions will most likely end up in the same tiny niche market as KOYAANISQATSI.


The same day I stumbled on the discussion above, I heard writer/director Michael Mann's commentary on the Restored Director's Cut of MANHUNTER.

Mann's comments focus mainly on the parallel psychology of the serial murderer and the cop, besides a few killer anecdotes about production nightmares. My favourite: the airplane scene with the little girl freaking out over Will Graham's bloody crime scene photos. The only way to shoot this was to book the entire film crew on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Orlando without informing the airline of their plans, keeping all equipment as hand luggage. Mid flight suddenly these hundred or so people got out of their seats and started filming. No need to say that Mann could kiss his United air miles goodbye.

But let's skip to the last few minutes of the commentary in which Michael Mann summarises his approach to filmmaking. "Film is made in the editing room. In the writing and in the director's preparation you're planning what you're gonna do in the editing room." He then refers to the Russian theory of montage from the 1920's, which was followed by the Brits in the next decade (and used later to great commercial success by Alfred Hitchcock a.o.).

I don't want to get too theoretical here, but anybody with a real interest in the effect of montage, should really do some reading on Lev Kuleshov and what is still known as the Kuleshov Effect. Using this, I could easily build a case to prove that transitions are structure. I'll spare you that one for now. But isn't it remarkable that seventy years apart, two Russians were telling the world about transitions in their respective art forms?

To conclude: Mercurio is right when he says that Gaghan writes like a filmmaker. Like Michael Mann, he is already thinking of what he will do in the editing room and therefore writes his story from scene transitions rather than starting from an overall dramatic arc. This approach to script writing is indeed in many ways similar to that of Hitchcock or Mann but I am sure those last two went through far less drafts than Gaghan.

BTW: Don't rush out to get Manhunter from HMV or unfortunately Mann's commentary only features on a rare DVD which has been out of print for a while, which limits your options largely to eBay. But as a bonus from OZZYWOOD, you can download the last four minutes of Michael Mann's director's commentary here.

LOOSE ENDS: The First Act Monolith

Recently I watched BRUBAKER, not knowing anything about this 1980 drama directed by Stuart Rosenberg. If you haven't seen the film but are planning to do so in the near future, don't read on as I will spoil the pleasure (and surprise).

The film strays from the traditional structure mainly because of its offbeat First Act. For the life of me, I could not detect an Inciting Incident, nor any significant protagonist characterisation. Instead we witness from Robert Redford's detainee character's POV how the most appalling injustice and brutality is inflicted relentlessly upon the inmates.

Over thirty minutes into the movie, Redford's character identifies himself as the new warden and announces in the same scene that he wants to force through some serious reform. Finally we have our 1st Act Turning Point. I am still trying to understand why the warden's identity was kept hidden from the audience all along. Apart from a sudden surprise, it doesn't add a thing. The use of dramatic irony (i.e.: the audience knows, but the other characters don't) would have been much more powerful and it would have allowed for the badly needed character development.

Leading US critic Roger Ebert wrote about this film: "There's no room for the spontaneity of real human personalities caught in real situations. That's especially annoying with the character of Brubaker himself, played well but within a frustratingly narrow range by Robert Redford. "

Redford's performance is rock solid given the material. BRUBAKER's real problem is its flawed structure: half an hour into the movie, we have run out of screentime to sufficiently set up the protagonist's character and potential internal conflicts. Redford didn't have anything to work with, which makes Ebert's comment rather unfair.

What the screenwriters did achieve quite well though, is the setup of antagonists and external obstacles in the way of the protagonist's objective. Perhaps this explains why the film did work for me.

It still beats me though why BRUBAKER was nominated for Best Screenplay back in 1980. Perhaps it was a fluke. In my view, this theory gains strength when we look at co-writer W.D. Richter's latest work: STEALTH...

Monday, April 24, 2006

NOT Story

Last year I attended Linda Aronson's PLOT CONSTRUCTION WORKSHOP and was disappointed with her analysis of Michael Mann's THE INSIDER. Indirectly that disappointment would lead to the creation of this blog.

Rather than opening a dialogue about why THE INSIDER works for some people and not for others, Linda treated it as an example of a failed script. To her defense: it was only part of that night's workshop and time constraints didn't allow her to divert.

THE INSIDER not only put Russell Crowe on the celebrity map with a Best Actor Nomination, the movie was also nominated for another six awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. That's a pretty good result for a 'failed script'. As a matter of fact, it smells a bit like my not so smart move to call WOLF CREEK a 'missed opportunity' in terms of screenwriting at the offices of Australia's Film Financing Corporation.

Linda Aronson's workshops got me thinking and inspired me to the idea of an online forum about issues like this and about story structure in general. Australia doesn't have a screenwriting culture which recognises the importance of story development as opposed to script development.

We have an abundance of script assessment services happily charging writers hundreds of dollars for a full screenplay assessment without assessing the story's overall dramatic structure first. Does any established producer / government funding body / Hollywood Studio read a full-length spec script without judging the story outline first? Right.

But enough of this sub plot for now. Back to the main story.


I don't recall Linda's argument about THE INSIDER in detail as I have the arrogant habit to shut down when I am not allowed to argue my point. In essence, I believe the bottom line was: the casting of Al Pacino shows that the filmmakers considered his character the protagonist (Russell Crowe was pretty much a nobody on the international scene until that movie) but Pacino's character is too weak and underdeveloped to carry the movie for its runtime of over two and a half hours.

A lot of movie buffs (including members of the Academy) will agree that THE INSIDER worked, despite its slightly unconventional structure. Linda is right: the script does not follow a straightforward three act plot.

Instead I believe here are two main stories with three acts each, hooked into each other very much like SCHINDLER'S LIST in which we first follow Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who's objective it is to get as many Jews into the factory as possible. Once we are well into his journey's second act and over an hour into the film, Schindler (Liam Neeson) witnesses the clearing of the Krakow ghetto which demarcates his first act's turning point. Now his objective is to get the workers out of the factory and into safety. Think about it: the Schindler character doesn't really have a strong enough dramatic objective to get the story to that point. But Stern does.

Similarly, in THE INSIDER it is Wigand's (Russell Crowe) Second Act objective to get his inside information safely to Bergman (Al Pacino), at which point we're already into Bergman's Second Act, which is all about getting the information to the public through his television show. Obviously we are now only talking about what Vogler would call the Hero's Outer Journey, i.e. the 'visible desire'. But I believe the Inner Journeys of these characters very much follow the same structure.

I would love to hear your view on these (admittedly rudimentary) story analyses. To me these two movies illustrate that:

- it is a myth that a movie should have three acts.
- it is a must that major characters have three acts.


SYRIANA recently scratched a thin layer off my confidence in the traditional three act story structure. For a short while at least. To say that writer/director Stephen Gaghan is not really a slavish follower of the Syd Fields and Robert McKee's of this world, is a bit of an understatement. Instead he learned from reading Tolstoy's diaries in which the novelist explains his four main driving principles, the first of which is NOT "story". Instead, in order of priority Tolstoy lists: Transition, Context, Story and Character.


Clearly, this approach to screenwriting works for Gaghan who won earlier accolades with his script for Soderbergh's TRAFFIC. Showing structural similarities with the latter film, SYRIANA paints a multi-textured, multi-protagonist tapestry giving us a hint of an insight in the complex issues that govern the world of the oil trade and middle-eastern politics. If you dig it, it's riveting cinema and you'll want to watch it again. If you don't, you certainly have a valid reason for that.

SYRIANA is a brilliant piece of screenwriting but it appeals to the mind rather than the heart. Because of that, I don't believe this type of political manifesto will mobilise the masses any time soon. Audiences today firstly want to be emotionally moved rather than intellectually engaged.

The above consideration is only an introduction to what I find one of the most entertaining discourses on screenwriting I have recently heard. In a podcast of nearly 90mins, Gaghan talks to CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE about his journey to screenwriting stardom, about his writing process and of course: SYRIANA.

Go to CREATIVE SCREENWRITING to find out how to download this podcast as well as other Q&A's with the writers of CAPOTE, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE etc. If you're having trouble with that, you can download the 80Mb Gaghan show directly from here:


Not a lot of DVD's come with a commentary that is useful from a story or screenwriting perspective. Hence the excitement when we do find one that sheds a good light on the movie from the writer's pov.

Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST comes with a commentary track by Hollywood legend Ernest Lehman. And although he doesn't go into a lot of detail about the actual writing process, he reveals a goldmine of facts and anecdotes about his working relationship with Hitch. Ironically, it's another movie that wasn't written following the screenwriting text books.

Speaking of which: a great analysis of NORTH BY NORTHWEST can be found in a work that I have been recommending a lot lately: Paul Gulino's SCREENWRITING - THE SEQUENCE APPROACH. This book offers only about twenty pages of theory, followed by a thorough dramatic analysis of such great and diverse works as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DINER, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and TOY STORY. The basis is the Aristotelian Three Act model, the principles of drama and anticipation as taught by the late Frank Daniel.

LOOSE ENDS (potential spoilers warning)

THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN: Wonderfully crafted feel-gooder. The only problem with this movie is its title. A more appealing label would have drawn even more people to the Box Office and made word of mouth easier. Hopkins is sensational and most side characters go beautifully against cliche. Somebody on IMDb calls it "A Chick Flick for Guys". So true.

V FOR VENDETTA: When your name is Wachowsky, you don't have to worry about story structure or character development. As long as you have a strong concept, the fans will queue. I applaude the subversive concept of portraying Guy Fawks as a hero but I wish I could have loved this movie more. The story would have been helped with a more rigorous development of the V / Evey relationship. Also, the Wachowsky's have the bad habit of leaving their heroes for too long, one of the problems I seem to remember sunk Matrix III.

THE PROPOSITION (DVD): Now this one is out on DVD, I would recommend having a look at it from a story structure point of view. I sincerely enjoyed this movie until the scene when Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) throws the keys to the jail in the sand. To me this marks the end of the second act, which comes way too early in the movie. It also takes the wind out of the sails of the Stanley / Martha subplot which up until that point had been really nicely developed.

KING KONG (DVD): If you don't like the 1933 original, you probably won't like this one either. After all you're expected to empathise with an ape and his consenting playmate. Despite the groundbreaking and breathtaking visuals in Jackson's KONG, the real action after The Longest First Act in Human History (that is not counting SCHINDLER'S LIST) starts with a dino stampede which just briefly looks downright clumsy. But I didn't mind it and the FX only get better towards the movie's phenomenal finale on top of the Empire State.

In terms of Jackson's (or rather: Fran Walsh's) structure and drama skills, I'd like to refer again to a great article in Paul Gulino's SCREENWRITING - THE SEQUENCE APPROACH in which the author makes a razorsharp analysis of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. It shows weaknesses that have been largely ironed out in the later instalments of the trilogy and now also his version of KING KONG.

But I think I love this movie for a different reason. Peter Jackson is one of the very few living directors who can handle a colossal production like this and still retain a fresh, innocent and boyish feel. You forget the years of preparation and the sheer unmanageable machinery involved in getting this on the screen. It's the type of magic which George Lucas has long lost.