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...