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.


Liljana said...

A very impassioned analysis, good to see.

Before I comment, contemplate this: “We've all been conditioned to think within the given parameters, ‘the square’ of storytelling.”

So, I don't necessarily agree or disagree. Rather, I chose to take a completely different POV.

I do however agree with you that Linda's criticism of 'The Insider' didn't appear justified in the light of the accolades the film received. In fact, what the workshop (the 'Cold Mountain' exercise in particular) confirmed for me was that not all stories lend themselves to being structured into ANY of the given frameworks. Mainly because the framework is the wrong primary focus, it is not as important as the elements, or the main driving principles, as Tolstoy called them. Bearing in mind also that, whichever model you choose, you're still dealing with a different version/extrapolation of the Aristotelian 3-Act structure.

As story telling models go, firstly, McKee, Field, Vogler and others (Aronson, Trubi, Siegel etc.) are all re-modeling Campbells's analysis of the mythical hero's journey. And there's the 'clue': Campbell provides, as he called it in his original/1948 Preface, a psychoanalysis of the ancient storytellers, Aristotle being one of them. In bringing together a host of myths and folk tales from every corner of the world, Campbell was striving for a "comparative elucidation", and summarized the hero's adventure into 17 "keys", within 3 Acts. Vogel tidied up the maths(!?) - he actually didn't change much.

In all fairness to the 'story (re)modelers', when you're attempting to systemize a complex, creative process, that deals with numerous elements and different layers, focusing on the overall framework definitely simplifies the task, particularly when you're trying to sell your ideas. What most seem to have forgotten is that the main driving principles, the story elements, are what gives any story a memorable 'flavour'. Films like North by North West, Pulp Fiction, Traffic, Syriana and similar, testify to this.

There are a myriad of possibilities of entwining the story elements and the junctions, or 'story knots', cannot always fall on pre-defined plot-points. So there goes the framework out the window. But if the story has rhythm (its own, whichever it may be), depth, relevance and emotional bankability, it will work, it just may not be as easy to see what it is that makes it appealing - the expert craftsman will make it seamless.

If the storyteller is not competent to develop the individual elements, entwine them at relevant points and build the layers into a unique world, as much as a framework can be useful, without expertly crafted and merged ingredients, it is just that - a vessel.

As Tolstoy's main driving principles of Transition, Context, Story and Character go, I'm not convinced that he intended it to reflect his priorities as such. In fact, as exemplified by his work, they are all as important as the other. What these principles are, are the WHO WHAT WHEN & WHERE - Focus on any one at the expense of the others and you have a simplistic story. Leave one out and you have a questionable story, if it can still be called that.

Aristotle gleaned same similarities as Campbell from mythical stories, but chose to define his within the context of a 3 Act structure. Clever man! A 3 Act structure is so general that it is pretty much all encompassing. The only opening for deliberation is in the timing - where exactly does one act end and the next start - and there are only two of those instances. Certainly, the 7, 9 or 12 point structures are much more open to debate.

But why debate? What transports audiences to another place and time, not just today but throughout man's history, are stories that show character depth and complexity, they're believable in the context of the story's environment and, are psychologically/emotionally relevant on a personal level - the viewer can associate with the character(s) and get lost in their world. If they make us think, I believe that's an added bonus.

So that’s what I think. Not specifically of your blog but on the subject in general. Hope its useful?...


Jack said...

I think the “World’s Fastest Indian” is a screenplay that breaks many of the sacred rules without appearing to do so. McKee states that “…people are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind a fa├žade of traits. No matter what they say, no matter how they comport themselves, the only way we ever come to know characters in depth is through their choices under pressure.” This suggests that good screenwriters need give their characters hidden motivations and that their inner character arc is only achieved under pressure.

In “The World’s Fastest Indian” there is no character arc. Bert Munro is the same person at the beginning and at the end of the film. He undergoes no hidden or obvious transformation. His aim - to gain the speed record for a motorbike under 1000 cc’s - is his aim at the beginning of the film and at the end of the film. Bert’s character does not change. He is at the beginning and at the end a likeable eccentric and endearing old codger. This great piece of scriptwriting suggests that you don’t need a character arc or transformation if you have an engaging character at the outset. If the character is interesting enough all you have to do is place him in various situations and enjoy the outcome.

Another great principal of screenwriting - the creation of almost insurmountable obstacles - is also lacking in “Indian”. Bert has problems raising the money to go to America, breaks an axel and has difficulty registering for the land speed trials, but none of these problems seem overwhelming. We can see from the film poster that Bert is going to ride his motorbike across the salt lake, so we know from the outset that his problems are not going to stand in his way. Because he is such an engaging character we don’t need overwhelming obstacles. We can just sit back and enjoy the way Bert overcomes minor problems (heart attacks included).

I therefore think “The World’s Fastest Indian” is a great example of a film that creates and focuses on one engaging character, then invites us to enjoy his experiences without worrying too much about artificial character arcs or “insurmountable” obstacles.