Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bring on the Hero

"Australia and Germany are two cultures that seem slightly herophobic."
-Christopher Vogler

About ten years ago I was first introduced to the Hero's Journey. Since then I have found myself regularly relying on it when explaining essential story structure. Today I wanted to write an article about why I believe the Hero's Journey is such a popular model for screenwriters and story teachers. Then I stumbled on the quote above and I got seriously distracted.

The National Screenwriters Conference is over and I didn't attend. But thanks to ScreenHub I know I missed an interesting discussion between AFC script guru Karin Altmann and Clubland scribe Keith Thompson.

I recommend reading the whole article, (as a matter of fact I recommend getting a subscription to ScreenHub and reading the full coverage from the conference) but here is the quote that set me off on my journey today:
Keith is wary of scripting how-to books, believing that they hold the potential for all movies to end up looking the same. Similarly, an overt focus on structure may be to the detriment of the script overall. He prefers to discuss scripts using more generic terms such as beginning, middle and end. The hero’s journey (a la Campbell and Vogler) should be approached warily.
Keep this in mind and let's go back to that quote above this post.
Australia and Germany are two cultures that seem slightly herophobic.
Vogler is a smart man and he must have good reasons for such a statement. In the case of Germany I accept the statement without further ado. Didn't their last hero get them in a bit of a pickle?

But on what basis would he put Australians and Germans in the same context?
The Australians distrust appeals to heroic virtue because such concepts have been used to lure generations of young Australian males into fighting Britain's battles. Australians have their heroes, of course, but they tend to be unassuming and self-effacing, and will remain reluctant for much longer than heroes in other cultures.[...]
That doesn't mean we don't have heroes at all:
The most admirable hero is one who denies his heroic role as long as possible and who, like Mad Max, avoids accepting responsibility for anyone but himself.
Now that last definition sounds like familiar Hollywood territory to me and it can be applied just as much to Maximus in Gladiator and John McClane in Die Hard as to Spider-Man, who needs to be constantly reminded of his responsibility as super-hero.

We all know that the movies Australians like are not very different from the rest of the world, as prove the numbers.

Obviously the situation is very different when we look at the type of films we are making. Suddenly Chris Vogler's words are getting a different meaning.

Have a look here: Australian Films at the Box Office

What does this teach us? If anybody is herophobic, it is the Australian screenwriter, not the cinema goer.

Ironic how I was going to make a very different point about the Hero's Journey but via a little detour I have come to the same conclusion:

If Australian filmmakers want to re-connect with the Australian audience - or any audience for that matter - they better stop refusing the call of the Hero's Journey.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Writing in Sin

Losing a wonderful actor like Heath Ledger at the age of 28 is sad. But watching his last Australian movie CANDY is saddening in more than one aspect. I'm baffled that so-called established filmmakers can get it so wrong.

My fifteen students of Saturday's workshop could have told you CANDY would never be a success. Sensational performances, strong direction and technically flawless. But: the absolute essentials for a screen story are simply not there. When will we finally get it right? Do Australian screenwriters really believe theirs is the only job in the world you can just 'do' without first learning the skill? Let's not be naive.

Look at these figures: In 1983, a report on "The State of the Australian Film Industry" by Deloitte Consulting identified that only 11 films out of over 250 had made a profit during the previous 10 years. 20 years later Variety reported that the FFC invested in 169 feature films in the previous 15 years of which only 8 had turned a profit. If I can add up, that's 19 out of more than 419. In a total of twenty-five years OVER FOUR HUNDRED MOVIES HAD LOST MONEY. I bet you're surprised so many were even made.

In response to an earlier post on this blog, Jack Douglas identified the Seven Sins of Australian Cinema. I would love to share these with you:

"1. Weak or non-existent desire for a goal in the protagonist.

Few characters are memorable or to be cared about because they rarely want anything much.
Tthe national 'quiet achiever' or 'aw shucks' syndrome yields passive heroes and heroines.
Cate Blanchett's character in 'Little Fish' wanted to open a video shop - but did we really care?
The list of goalless protagonists in low concept pottering plots (a la December Boys) goes on and on.

2. Imitation of overseas styles and trends and often an inability to find original cinematic forms
mirroring rich local content (the legacy of a colonial culture).


Weir Schepisi et al have highly original cinematic visions - but not embracing local content since the 80's. Interestingly two ex-Dutchmen (Cox, de Heer) have been our most innovative directors in recent years. They are not fettered by the neocolonial cultural cringe.

But has an Australian film ever significantly influenced an overseas movie maker?
That's the real litmus test. Where are the specific locations in our feature films? The bush, generic suburbs or tourist shots abound. But few filmmakers have explored with loving detail the couleur locale of our major cities - like Scorsese explores New York, Truffaut Paris or Wilder LA. Our audiences continue to live vicariously through the cityscapes of others.

3. Original talented screenwriters who think cinematically and form a screenwriting community.

In the US of A screenwriters fall out of the trees and pump out over 60,000 spec scripts per year. Can Ozzywood transform us muffin-munching leather-jacketed scribblers into suffering and disciplined artists with 'cinematic brains'? A tall order, my friend.

4. A lack of uberpromoters like Harvey Weinstein or Jerry Bruckheimer.

Where's the cinematic counterpart of Harry Miller? Glenn Preusker ('Kenny') may be the only marketing genius we have.

5. An inability (in screenwriters, directors, producers and funders) to identify the potential movie stories with the right form for a compelling high concept cinematic narrative.

For example, the Ned Kelly story doesn't have the right structure for a movie (hence none of the Kelly films work). Other bushranger histories (e.g. Moonlight, Thunderbolt) have greater potential. Compare Cecil Holmes' 'Captain Thunderbolt' (1953) with, say, Mora's 'Mad Dog Morgan' or Jordan's 'Ned Kelly'. Which is the best movie of the three and why? Which one is closest to depicting the 'hero's journey'? Americans make movies, the British produce films, Europeans create cinema - we do features.

6. Ignorance of screenwriting structure

Some local films should not have been made at all and many could have been vastly improved with some hefty panel beating on the bodywork of the script. If Steve Kaplan had got his hands on 'Kenny' in time and manipulated its floppy narrative spine... who knows? it might have won an Oscar.

7. Our contemporary box office audiences

The average Australian movie goer is aged 40-60 and going to the pictures for a nice night's

entertainment (as Frank Cox mentioned). Our baby boomers (and their attention-deficient offspring) want entertaining genre flicks not life-challenging redemptive cinema - that's for the film festivals.

And a flick is just that - an experience you flick from your consciousness as soon as you leave the theatre."
-Jack Douglas

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

What's the Story?

The Metro Screen story structure workshop sold out and it seems there will be another one soon. If soon is not soon enough, you can register now for an intensive one-day session on 1 June 2008.

WHAT YOU WILL LEARN:
This one day workshop is intensive but fun. It teaches you to distinguish between those screenplays with a strong potential to reach a wide audience and those that are just a fun read. You will finally understand what the 'three-act-structure' really stands for.

The workshop is packed with examples of great and not so great movies and at the end YOU will be able to point at the main causes for strong or poor box office results for most movies.

BACKGROUND:
The great careers in our industry are not built on volume of work but rather an informed choice of projects. This applies to writers, directors and producers but equally to screen technicians and particularly to actors.

Why do you think Matt Damon is the #1 box office actor today? Does he act better than Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, De Niro, Pacino etc.? No. He is a screenwriter and story genius. He understands which scripts will make money.

ESSENTIAL FOR FILMMAKERS:
Without the knowledge taught in this course, you stand a better chance of winning the lottery than making it in movies. A bold statement but painfully true. Story structure is not just another aspect of screenwriting. It's what makes or breaks your movie career.

This is the last opportunity for 2007 to take this course in one day. Of the 10 available places for each day, some will be taken by fimmakers on the waiting list from last month's course. Don't miss out this time!

INTENDED AUDIENCE:
Screenwriters - Does your concept hold up? How to improve the structure?
Actors - Which projects to fight for? Which projects will kickstart your career?
Producers & Directors - How to distinguish between hits and duds.

COURSE DATES:
- TBA

THE LOCATION:
The wonderful, sensational and inspirational NSW Writers Centre under the jacarandas of Callan Park, Rozelle where parking is never a problem. Check out the second hand book shelf with gems at $2 to keep you entertained during the breaks.

TESTIMONIALS:
"Karel's course is excellent. It finally sunk in, having studied structure twice previously with high calibre teachers. Karel delivers crucial basics, sound models and advanced techniques that work. Thank you Karel for sharing your extensive knowledge."
-Brenda Jackson

"I came to you with a bunch of scenes in the hope of finding a story and when I look back I'm still surprised at how far we have come. Now the script has won the 2007 Monte Miller award. Thanks again Karel."
-Nathan Fielding, Winner 2007 AWG Monte Miller Award

"He never gets distracted with the little stuff that tends to fix itself when the important parts are working harmoniously. Karel is a rare beast amongst story consultants - a film literate and long-standing aficionado of many film genres. I hold Karel in very high regard."
- Kieran Galvin, Writer / Director PUPPY, Writer FEED

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Anyone Can Cook

Earlier this year, a friend of mine bought an expensive High Definition Video camera. He had saved up for it for a long time. In stead he could have bought a second hand Subaru. But he doesn't care he doesn't have a car. He has a dream. The Australian Dream.

Australia is a hands-on type of nation. When I arrived in 2001, it didn't take me long to get my first short film off the ground. So many wonderful people, eager to get their hands dirty and help me out. After all, filmmaking doesn't have to be the cumbersome, expensive art it used to be. In a way it is still cumbersome but the essentials to capture and reproduce images have become so cheap they are now within reach of anyone with a job or a credit card.

The largest short film festival in the world started in Sydney. Meanwhile Tropfest has spilled out to all major Australian cities and even the rest of the world . The fact it started here in Australia is no coincidence. When an Australian wants to do something, he doesn't first sit down to ponder about how it is usually done and then wait for an opportunity to arise so the job gets a bit easier. The Australian goes for it. ASAP.

You can hear me coming: despite all the good intentions there is a downside to this "let's just do it" attitude. In the case of filmmaking, I cannot shed the impression the Australian believes there are shortcuts. What is the easiest way to get your idea on the screen? You hire or buy a video camera, get some mates to stand in front of it and "just do it". We are all made to believe this is how it works. Practical guides to the use of digital equipment make it seem like child's play.

It is an illusion that has cost us dearly in recent years. I have seen a fair few movies lately that were all made with lots of enthusiasm but not a lot of thought gone into the screenplay. What is it with movies that people just cannot stop believing the illusion? At this point I must add that what sets my friend with the HD camera apart from the crowd, is this: he had first invested a significant amount of money in learning the craft of screenwriting.


FINAL GOODBYE FINAL DRAFT?

Only yesterday I received an email from which I quote:

"I have about 3 ideas for scripts, they would be produced entirely by my friends and I. I need to put the first drafts down I am trying to round up a script writing program to make it easier."

There is the other myth: Final Draft will help you write your script. (On a separate note: soon that myth may be forever buried, when Celtx takes over. They have just released version 0.995 and it is starting to look better than anything on the market. Interesting detail: Celtx is free. At least no money will be wasted on the illusion that software could spit out a story.)

In his book STORY, Robert McKee makes the point:

"If your dream were to compose music, would you say to yourself: "I've heard a lot of symphonies... I can also play the piano... I think I'll knock one out this weekend? No. But that's exactly how many screenwriters begin: "I've seen a lot of flicks, some good and some bad... I got A's in English... vacation time 's coming..."

The essence of story is not rocket science. I keep repeating: it is a learnable skill. But a skill that must be learned nonetheless. What you cannot learn is the inspiration, the need to tell a specific story. Yet so many people with the desire to tell that story believe they can get away without properly mastering the craft. They want to build the house without a notion of engineering. They want to compose a symphony without knowing a C from a Cis. They want to serve a bouillabaisse but can't even cook a ratatouille.

If you were hoping there might be a new generation waiting to jump in and rejuvenate this general malaise, the following might put a stop to your optimism. At a networking event earlier this year, I spoke with a university student who had taken a screenwriting class the previous year. Asked about the one thing she took away from that class, she answered:

"I guess, that you can break the rules and still get away with it."


THE OMNIPOTENT FUNDING AGENCIES

Having recently caught up on some Australian films of the past few years (see my previous post) and listening to feedback from others on more recent films (Clubland, West, Suburban Mayhem etc.) it seems these pictures are unable to connect with a mainstream audience. Or any audience, for that matter. It's no longer an issue of getting the audience into the theater, if those who saw the films are not entertained. There are strong indications the problems don't lie in the execution but in the bare essentials of story. Yep, they are breaking the rules.

But where did things start to go wrong? I believe the lack of understanding of the principles of story has become endemic for our entire industry. Not only do writers lack the skills: producers and funding decision makers fail to see the flaws in screenplays. As long as the 'elements' are in place, the film will get made. The 'elements' being: cast, technically experienced crew, government funding etc.

On the government's role: while preparing development notes for a government funding application, a particular paragraph in the guidelines struck me.

"What is the point of view (POV) of the script? That is, where is the audience positioned in relation to the script? Are they close to one central character? Is it an omnipotent POV?"

An "omnipotent POV"?? Somebody has lost the plot here. Point of view is crucially important in a story. The terminology should be second nature to anyone even remotely involved in screenwriting, let alone the funding of it. If even the funding agencies cannot get their act together, why would anyone expect the writers would? Interesting to note that the same funding agency has been reported to have feature drama screenplays assessed by documentary film makers. Go figure.

Recently a young filmmaker submitted a rough cut on DVD with an application for post-production funding. The application was rejected. The assessor didn't like the film? Correction: the assessor didn't like the screenplay. The rejection was justified in a multi-page assessment of the screenplay. The assessor did reference the DVD but the brunt of his tirade was directed at the script.

Why am I concerned... Very concerned...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Elephant in the Room

"Babies don't come from babies", Keith Jarrett said when he meant that great art isn't inspired by other art but by life itself.
This quote shot through my mind tonight while watching the Australian film 2:37 by Murali Thalluri.


I had ordered 2:37 from Quickflix, as reference material for a feature film in post-production I am currently working on in the capacity of co-producer and story consultant. Because of some friends' recommendations, I was really looking forward to watching young Thalluri's directorial debut. Imagine my joy when less than forty-eight hours after putting it on my wishlist, the DVD tumbled in the letter box!

Thalluri is obviously infatuated with Gus Van Sant and more specifically ELEPHANT, of which 2:37 is a blatant pastiche. The school, the parallel points of view, the moody light, the school massacre reference, etc. How much more derivative can you be without breaking the law?

But all this could have been forgiven. Other great directors have copied shamelessly, to create something better or at least equally entertaining. I hate to admit but this umpteenth Australian case of the emperor's new clothes is boring as hell. The best five minutes are the opening scene and this is indeed great cinema: a promising naturalistic build-up of suspense, leading to the discovery of a student's suicide.

The dead body is not shown in the opening scene and most if not all of the movie's anticipation (or lack thereof) hinges on that single question: "Who died?" For most of the 98mins running time, the filmmakers are trying to outsmart the audience, ultimately delivering a twist nobody could have possibly seen coming. It may work in novels but it doesn't in movies, as evidenced by that obscenely successful whodunit whose screen adaptation embarrassed even the die hard fans: THE DA VINCI CODE. Too bad 2:37 didn't have the same marketing pull to defy any story sense and make hundreds of millions nonetheless.


ANOTHER ELEPHANT: LACK OF DRAMA

The mystery around the identity of the suicide victim in 2:37 is equivalent to that bad whodunit in which a totally uninteresting character we have hardly seen, suddenly shows up with motive and weapon. Even when a whodunit is done well, it often lacks suspense. On this subject Hitchcock once said:

"Mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense."

That said, 2:37 might still have worked, if only the screenwriter had made the least effort to entertain or excite us along the way. Instead we are witnessing a never-ending tirade of profanities and artful but empty cinematography. Unfortunately I wasn't impressed either by the performances of the army of young and gorgeous actors. But you can't blame them, with this poor material.

The film does make various attempts to convey emotion but most of those lack drama. When the main characters talk about themselves and their youthful angst, the effect is theatrical, not cinematic. And until we know and understand the circumstances of these confessions, we will not fully invest emotionally in their content. That is why the 'talking heads' in this film don't work, no matter how desperately the actors try to convince us.

Bottom line: there are some basic screenwriting rules you break at your own risk such as: "you must not deceive the audience." I suspect Thalluri was considered an auteur and a prodigy, who de facto transcends the principles of storytelling. Here's my two cents: beginning writers should not try and outsmart their peers, let alone the audience.


WE DON'T GIVE A SHEET

Mysteriously despite all the above, the film was selected for the 2006 Cannes Film Festival where it received a 17 mins standing ovation, effectively paving the way for a successful theatrical release. Or so you would expect. Banking on the festival response, quick international sales were achieved reportedly bringing in three times the film's production cost.

The reality of the film's performance at the box office was sobering: at home it hardly grossed $500k. Of course some sources blame the distributor's bad release campaign. Or the exhibitor's marginal programming. And finally the audience, for not wanting to open up to the film.

And tomorrow me, for not supporting Australian cinema.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Little Things Got Bigger

Congrats to Nathan Fielding, recipient of the Monte Miller Award '07! Nathan walked away from the awards last night in Sydney with a broad smile and a cheque of $5,000.

About developing the winning script LITTLE THINGS with me he says: "I came to you with a bunch of scenes in the hope of finding a story and when I look back I'm still surprised at how far we have come. [...] Thanks again Karel. I'll get to work on another oddly thrown together bunch of characters and give you a call. I know you love a challenge."

It should be noted that the draft was developed with the assistance of the Australian Film Commission. Read Nathan's full testimonial here.

Big congratulations also to Story Dept. reader Andrew Slattery from Caves Beach who won the Monte Miller Award - Short Form for his screenplay NEAR SYNCOPE.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Avoid the Draft One Trap

You’re a screenwriter. And you're SO stuck. Nothing is moving, nobody wants to make your movie. You are on a crusade for recognition, for people to tell you how great the idea and how successful you will be. But your phone calls are not being returned. Are you caught in the Draft One Trap?

To appease your conscience you will make scene level tweaks. Lots of them. You will call it draft two, three, thirteen. The reality: this is still draft one. You will finally get sick of the script and move on to the next Great Idea. Years go by and many scripts may come from your hand but none will ever get made, let alone reach an audience.

Did you just recognise someone you know in the above description? Perhaps yourself? Do you really believe, off all the readers of all the blogs in all the world I'm trying to convert you? No. The above
was taken from a promotional blurb I wrote for a two-day story workshop at Metroscreen.

The course will be partially about the foundations of screen story and partially about practical ways to apply them to your work. You may not need those foundations for draft one. The first draft is all about "Don't get it right, get it written." But then comes draft two and reality kicks in. If you haven't written your first draft yet, you still need to be aware of the elements that will come into play further down the road.

Successful feature screenwriters don’t cherish that first draft. They know it is crap so they won’t show it to anyone let alone shop it around, except for advise on how to move to the next draft ASAP. Successful screenwriters listen to the honest constructive criticism from industry professionals and follow a process on the way to a wonderful, radically different Draft Two.

For these writers the second draft is an easier and more important leap forward than any next draft of the script. This has to do with the 'law of diminishing returns', but more about that in a later post on this blog.

Apart from making sure you will not unknowingly fall in that Draft One Trap ever again, the Metroscreen course will focus on most of those issues I have come across in unsuccessful scripts during my six years as a producer. The second day of the two-day course will show how to implement a writing process that may significantly speed up the development and create a genuine opportunity when pitching your projects to producers, directors or funding agencies.

If you are interested in this course or would like to know more, send me an email or contact Metroscreen. Or just download the enrolment form and send it in! If you're not a Metroscreen member, you can sort that out using this form.

But enough about me and my course.


TRIBE OR TRITE? STONEKING'S MANTRA

At a recent AWG NSW event poet and AFTRS teacher Billy Stoneking performed a short version of his 'tribe act'. Many in the audience were confused. And yes, over the years some have questioned the contribution of the national film school to Australian screenwriting culture. But rather than fueling the controversy, I would like to give Stoneking credit where credit is due.

Stoneking's 'tribe' theory focuses primarily on the writer's connection with both the material and the audience. If you think Stoneking has a purely artistic, individualistic approach to screenwriting, think again. He pays ample attention to the importance and the meaning of 'drama' and he acknowledges that a good movie is made for an audience. And not just 'an' audience: it must be the audience you have - in some way or other - a connection with. Do read the article here. Being a poet, the man masters his language in a way I can only envy.

If on the other hand you would like to see the entertainer Stoneking, you might be lucky enough to still find his Sony Tropfest videocast of the 'tribe act'. Have fun!


HOLLYWOOD VS. OZZYWOOD

As you may have noticed from earlier posts on this blog, Creative Screenwriting Magazine is a personal favourite. It was recently named "the best magazine about screenwriting" by the Los Angeles Times.

Their 'Story Department' (photo above) web forum opened in April 2006 and since then they have received 42 posts from writers all over the world.

Closer to home, four months ago some passionate story consultant opened a little forum on the bulletin board of the Australian Writers' Guild (photo left) to answer questions from writers.

The writers dropped by ... and they keep coming back! If you're an AWG member you should be able to check it out here. If you're not, perhaps you should become an associate? The benefits are surely worth it.


WRITING FOR ACTORS
(Or: why writers should win the Best Acting awards)

Until recently I was only a producer and story consultant. I can now add 'writer' to my credits. Well, in spirit that is. The credit will never be on the screen. It was a rewrite-for-hire job and although in my humble opinion the story is now 200% better, the original writers will get the praise, if any. In any case, it is exciting to know after my rewrite the script was deemed ready for consideration by a Hollywood Studio (Fox) where it is at the time of writing.

But all that is beside the point. The project in question is supposed to launch the career of a particular actor, which I could hardly believe after reading the draft I received. The actor's character was NOT the story's protagonist, he had limited screentime and worst of all: he was given the most unspeakable dialogue.

Which set me thinking. How do you write dialogue for a beginning actor? You don't. You write emotion. And emotion the actor will not need to perform. I have had this conversation a dozen times over the past month so I apologise in advance for those who have heard me preach about this before.

Let's go back about eighty years (or ten blogs) to the work of Lev Kuleshov (Photo: The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, 1924).

Kuleshov took unedited footage of a completely expressionless face [...] and intercut it with shots of three highly motivated objects: a bowl of hot soup, a dead woman lying in a coffin, and a little girl playing with a teddy bear.

When the film strips were shown to randomly selected audiences, they invariably responded as though the actor's face had accurately portrayed the emotion appropriate to the intercut object.

As Pudovkin recalled: "The public raved about the acting of the artist. They pointed out the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead woman, and admired the light, happy smile with which he surveyed the girl at play.

But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same."
(from David Cook's splendid A HISTORY OF NARRATIVE FILM.)

These results are known today as the 'Kuleshov effect' and it explains why often actors win awards for performances they didn't give. When Russell Crowe broke onto the Hollywood scene with his nomination for THE INSIDER, it had IMHO nothing to do with his acting skills but everything with Eric Roth and Michael Mann's terrific writing, which effectively projected the feelings we share with the Jeffrey Wigand character onto Crowe's blank face.

A more recent example is the late Ulrich Mühe's performance in THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Das Leben der Anderen), which won him numerous best actor awards including at the European Film Awards. The second half of the movie is an emotional powerhouse, yet the actor's face is near blank.

Conversely, great actors have been blamed of bad performances where the only culprit really was the screenwriter. The actor could have avoid the blame by politely passing on a screenplay that was not worthy of his attachment.

Bottom line: if you want to write great drama for any actor, irrespective of the experience level, don't describe the emotion you want to see on the actor's face. Make the audience feel the emotion before the character has to respond to it. Great drama does not have visible emotion; it makes you, the audience feel it. If you must, write a tear on an expressionless face.

Hitchcock would say: "I need actors who can do nothing well." He understood perfectly that it was the writer's job to convey the emotion, not the actor's. He also perfectly understood the power of the Kuleshov effect and consequently: the power of editing.

Great actors are not those who can be express sadness, anger or desperation better than others. Great actors are those who can pick great scripts.


AUSTRALIAN FILM: FRANK COX AND ERIC BANA

Frank Cox of Hopscotch can help greenlight a feature film. He is one of the 'good guys': he looks at films that don't necessarily fill the multiplexes. Better even: he reads those screenplays. But that doesn't mean he will be betting the house.

"I ask 'Who do you think the film is for?' Some of them say 'Frank, I make movies for myself, because I'm an artist and the audiences will follow it if I do something fantastic. I've got a vision." "And I'm going 'Good on you, if you've got the stuff to do this and you find a market, fantastic. But if you're not going to talk to me while you've got these ideas, then don’t come to me at the end and get disappointed if I tell you I don’t know what to do with it.'"

I had to think of these words tonight while I was watching a freshly shot Australian film (I'm bound by secrecy as it's not out yet). Multi-protagonist, not done badly but just not good enough. Another case of "I've got a vision"... In today's market, anybody with a brain would steer away from multi-protagonist for a first feature. But what I found completely baffling was the fact that a government agency had put money in the project, both for development AND production. What are we doing? Anyhow, where does Frank Cox see the current Australian cinema?

"Australian films are a bit of a question mark." The talent is certainly there, proved by the success of Australian industry people overseas, but "It seems to me that most projects in Australia are hurried. In other words, the development process lacks, the stories are not fully developed, and they don't reach their optimum because everyone seems to be in a hurry to put their film in development and then production." It's a familiar story; the problem is understood throughout the industry."

Thank you to ScreenHub for the kind permission to re-publish. You can read the full interview here. here.

Recently a good friend and fellow Belgian interviewed Eric Bana in Rome for his latest LUCKY YOU (another Eric Roth screenplay). My friend asked his opinion about Australian film and I have a funny feeling he would not have given this answer to a reporter on Australian soil:

"It may sound weird but working in Australia is not that important to me. It can even be dangerous to a career."
[...]
"I know an 'international name' can help, for instance if you want to get a high budget film financed or if you want to launch a difficult project. But as I said, there is a real danger. You receive a lot of scripts that aren't ready. The producers then believe a big name will solve the problem. So I am very careful"



THE STORY DEPT.: FROM IDEA TO PRINT

My preparations for the Metroscreen course explain why it's been a bit quiet in The Story Dept.; for the other reason behind the temporary silence I have to profoundly thank many of you, the readers of this blog! Over the past months I have been increasingly busy as a story consultant, both on projects in development as some films in post-production.

Indeed the principles of story don't stop with the shooting script. From a story perspective the assembled footage is a work that hardly ever reflects the story beats exactly as they were intended in the script. Or if they are, sometimes a better option becomes apparent in the editing suite.

For a team that has laboured over the same movie for months or years, it is hard to make far-reaching decisions without being consumed by feelings of insecurity and doubt. Fortunately there may be a guiding light as the principles of story still apply! If areas of the story don't work for the outsider, sometimes the reasons can be found in a breach of (one or some of) those principles. Enter the story analyst!

Next to the consultancy work I have been happily producing the short animation ACID SUN (photo) by writer/director/animator Rodney March. The third OZZYWOOD short film is also the first one rigorously co-developed in terms of story and I am hopeful this will bear fruit at the film festivals once it will hit the screens later this year.

As a matter of fact the validity of my mission as a story consultant (see 'about us') has been proven repeatedly over the past year.
It's been a wonderful ride and I hope my clients agree even if it has been rough at times. I have seen filmmakers look at their works with professional and passionate scrutiny, think outside the box and at the same time question the reasons and motivations behind their stories. In most if not all of the cases we have improved their works, sometimes immensely, resulting in a marketable draft, a re-energised development process or at worst: an improved insight in the mechanics of story structure and the dynamics of our film industry.


THE QUIZ

If you have taken the quiz before and failed miserably, try again. Most likely it was not because you can't see the difference between a main plot and a subplot but ... you only had 3.7 secs to type in your answer. That has been fixed, so you can now improve your score!

To pass you need to answer 14 out of 20 questions correctly. The quiz is definitely not for beginners but most of the answers can be found somewhere in the articles of this blog. Click through to see your score and the right answers. Finally you'll be guided back to the OZZYWOOD web site. Good luck!

http://ozzywood.com/quiz

Friday, June 01, 2007

A Good Read

Recently I had the privilege and honour of reading a script by one of the most hyped young writers in this country, face on covers of magazines and all that. My expectations were high and yes: it delivered! I spent an amazing two hours reading it as the characters really jumped off the page and the writing was beautiful. Then I put the script down and I knew the movie would fail.

What I had read was a great short novel. Brilliant prose, lively detail and sharp dialogue. But the story didn't work because we would not care for the protagonist. This is a typical mistake: confusing a good script with a good story. Beware of the 'good read'. Or as my best friend Chris always says: "Armaggedon was a good read too." In the case of this Australian hopeful, the story was told from a protagonist without any clear objective. Ironically, a character close to the protagonist would have much better fitted that role without the need to significantly change the premise.

The joy of the 'good read' is truly a danger and one of many reasons why you don't rely on friends for script feedback, even if they work in the film industry. I have heard of aspiring screenwriters asking advice from assistant directors, decorators production managers. Although like everybody in our industry, these people SHOULD have a notion, in reality they hardly ever do. (As a matter of fact, a lot of decision-makers don't have a clue either.I could give you a recent example of a script where even the writer admitted 'there was no story'. Still he got the money to develop it. Develop what? The novel? I won't name the example or I would be dead. Fact is that the writer in question ironises about this reality when he says that "to get your hands on delicious development money you don't have to have a great script, it only has to be a little 'better' than the norm. And if you can do that with no story...good times."


THE WISE AND THE NOT SO WISE

As somebody who takes the craft very seriously, I'm sometimes frustrated to see how people who should know better send out confusing messages. Now take this quote, which I found on a web site claiming to give story advice and tips to writers:

"As for the content of your screenplay; structure counts, usually. Have a clear Act I, II, and III. Try to hook the reader on the first page! Make the first five (or ten pages at most) be Act I, wherein you introduce all the main characters and show the reader the who, what, where, when and why of your story. Notice that I said SHOW. Telling is not so good. Film is a visual medium and you should actually be writing a FILM, not a script. Act II is the rest of the story, where you build on what you started, and it climaxes at the clear end of Act II. Act III should be five or ten (max) pages, where all loose ends are tied up and all conflicts are resolved."

I must admit I had never heard of the Ten Minutes First Act. And the second act being "where you build on what you started". How can you be more vague? You know what is REALLY frightening? The person talking is the director of an internationally renowned film festival. And as for: "structure counts, usually"... The festival director is probably hoping of getting the new KOYAANISQATSI.

Let me counterbalance the nonsense with a solid quote from Chris Vogler, the man behind The Writer's Journey. This time not about the 'big structure' or the Journey Stages but about scenes:

"A scene is a business deal. It may not involve money but it will always involve some change in the contract between characters or in the balance of power. It's a transaction, in which two or more people enter with one kind of deal between them, and negotiate or battle until a new deal has been cut, at which point the scene should end. It could be the reversal of a power structure. The underdog seizes power by blackmail. Or it could be the forging of a new alliance or enmity. Two people who hated each other make a new deal to work together in a threatening situation. A boy asks a girl out and she accepts or rejects his offer. Two gangsters make an alliance to rub out a rival. A mob forces a sheriff to turn a man over for lynching. The meat of the scene is the negotiation to arrive at the new deal, and when the deal is cut, the scene is over, period. "


THE POWER OF A PARADIGM SHIFT

Years ago a good friend returned from L.A. where he had attended a much hyped screenwriting seminar. The speaker made a point by asking the room who would visualise
the scenes while writing. I agreed with my friend's astonishment when he reported that only half of the writers raised their hands. What were the others thinking? What idiots to believe you can actually write movies without thinking visually???

I have come to fundamentally change my view on this. Did Alan Ball necessarily think visually when he wrote SIX FEET UNDER? Or AMERICAN BEAUTY? The last boasts wonderfully visual scenes but most of the script's power lies entirely not on its visual level. We do indeed need visible elements to show character subtext, but not necessarily a visual context. Think about CRASH or more recently THE LIVES OF OTHERS. On what level do these movies make an impact?

Whether a movie works or not, is decided on an entirely different, almost abstract and non-visual level. Until a late draft, a screenwriter doesn't always need to visualise. And you can take this right through to very visual action flicks such as DIE HARD, THE FUGITIVE or even SPIDER-MAN. Visual elements such as setting, time of day, camera angles etc. could have been easily replaced without really changing the story. They might have even worked without the eye candy but they surely wouldn't have without the character drama underneath.

Recently I was recommended THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE. Early in the book Stephen Covey speaks about the Paradigm Shift. (Beware: this Paradigm has nothing to do with Syd Field.) It's about looking at something from a specific angle and (not) seeing what others see. I found this concept very similar to reading text vs. reading subtext. I had been reading screenplays on the surface for years before it most literally 'clicked' in my head; it felt as if a 'sixth sense' had switched on, as if I was suddenly reading with an infrared eye.

Switching on the understanding of this subtextual level is a skill writers, just like producers or directors, need to develop before they can become successful. It is just as essential as switching on your desk light at night to read.



THE LOGLINE

"A logline is a one-sentence summary of your script. It's the short blurb in TV guides that tells you what a movie is about and helps you decide if you're interested in seeing it. It's the grabber that excites your interest." (-Scriptologis.Com).

The logline shouldn't be confused with the tagline (marketing one-liner for the poster) or even slugline ("EXT. KAREL'S OFFICE - DAY").

Once I believed you can only write your story's logline when you have finished your script and even the one page synopsis. Until then, it may not even be clear what the story is about.

Here are a few good reasons why you should start thinking of the logline earlier. First of all: a good logline is a good indication that you have a story. If after a few drafts you still can't find a logline that captures what your movie is about, you really need to think hard about the story again. Secondly: it will become an essential selling tool for your script. A strong logline will give you the confidence that you have a story: you'll be able to pitch it with passion! In both senses the logline does pretty much what I promote about the synopsis in my consultancy services: it helps you improve AND sell the story. All that with the economy of one simple sentence.

I am currently working as a consultant on an amazing high concept story with some major story issues. It is always nerve-wrecking having to break the news that to unleash its potential, a story needs to be significantly reworked. But when I found out the writer had already written a logline expressing exactly what I believed the story should deliver, I sighed: we were on the same wavelength.

The moment you find a logline expressing your intentions, you have found an invaluable tool to stay on track. It could be the road map saving you from disaster. If the logline is selling and you stay true to it during the writing of the draft, chances are you will have a selling story.


THE $5 SCRIPT SOFTWARE: ASHAMPOO'S TEXTMAKER:

I recently had a computer scare when it looked my four year old laptop was about to die. That would have been a disaster in a few ways, not the least because I recently bought a - legitimate - OEM version of Office Standard. I lose my laptop, I lose that.

No wonder I was interested when recently I received an offer to an elegant software program called 'Textmaker', which does everything I use MS Word for. Only for $4.99 only. And legitimate. If you are looking for a good quality text processor, which is BTW faster than MS Word and whose license won't expire if your computer dies, have a look here:

http://www.ashampoo.com

I believe the offers on these newsletters remain open for at least 1 purchase per customer.


BEATS VS. TURNING POINTS

While working on a step outline with one of my clients, it bothered me a number of scenes ended in the exact same way: the protagonist would respond to a situation by rejection or reluctance to respond.

None of these scenes really ended in a plot point, there was no hook nor change to the story's direction. So I didn't find the scenes' ending strong enough and almost suggested to cut them altogether. Still, the point the writer was trying to make about the protagonist was a valid one: it gave us important information we would need later in the story.

The solution we came up with: keep the protagonist's reaction as a scene beat but work towards a stronger scene ending by creating a new plot point for each in order to turn the scene, create anticipation and propel it into the next one. Not an easy task but ultimately better than cutting.


THE QUIZ

As part of a Google Adwords campaign I've created a quiz about the craft and - to a lesser extent - history of screenwriting. If one or two questions are a matter of opinion rather than fact, you will find the answers in The Story Dept. Twenty challenges, definitely not for beginners (and neither is this blog, apparently) but essential knowledge for whomever is serious about the craft. Anyway, if you consider yourself an expert, or at least intermediate level writer, you shouldn't be intimidated. Click through until the very end of the quiz and you'll land back on the OZZYWOOD web site after seeing all the right answers. Have fun!

http://ozzywood.com/quiz

Friday, April 20, 2007

That Mid Point Thing

Many unsuccessful movies run out of steam halfway. Even a fair few memorable pics are weak in the middle, or have a 'soft belly'. The Second Act seems to be the hardest nut to crack. But why? Perhaps because the protagonist is chasing the same objective all along? After all we have a massive chunk of script to fill, about an hour of screentime on average. One remedy is to chop the movie up in quarters. First and last act are roughly one quarter each already, so Act Two we just cut in two.

It's variously called the mid-act climax, the mid-point, first culmination or the mid-point reversal. I prefer the latter, although it is not always a strict 180 degree turn. It doesn't necessarily have to be a climax either but it must be a 'major turning point'. Things will be dramatically different from this point onwards.

Syd Field describes it something like this: "An important scene in the middle of the script, often a reversal of fortune or revelation that changes the direction of the story." Field suggests that driving the story towards the Midpoint keeps the second act from sagging. For once I find Field more helpful than others. An executive at the talent agency ICM is trying to get his head around it:

"An event occurs wherein the character cannot give up his pursuit. It is a “no turning back point.” The bridge has been burned behind him (figuratively speaking), and he can only move forward. Often, this is manifested as a TICKING CLOCK. In classically structure (sic) romantic comedies, this is the point where the man and woman sleep together." Hmmm... Not sure about that last one.

Personally I don't like the "point of no return" approach too much, even though the otherwise very wise Michael Hauge mentions it. It's vague and not very practical in the writing. Here's my favourite definition, from Frank Daniel:

"Mid-Point or First Culmination: a Major Reversal of fortune, making Main Character’s task even more difficult. Often, give the audience a very clear glimpse of an answer to the Central Dramatic Question – the hope that Main Character will actually succeed at resolving his problem – only to see circumstances turn the story the other way. First Culmination may be a glimpse at the actual resolution of the picture, or its mirror opposite."

Let's look at a few examples to understand the mid point better:

THE UNTOUCHABLES - Not only a well-structured, commercial movie with a top notch cast; it has a midpoint that ticks all three boxes: After a shootout on the Canadian border far away from the crime-ridden streets of Chicago, Elliott Ness and his team find out they can get to Capone through his accountant. The mid-point sequence happens halfway the movie (ironically, not all midpoints really do), it changes the course of the story (Ness is no longer after Capone but after his accountant) and it takes place in a very different environment/change of scenery from the rest of the movie. And indeed: catching the accountant does get Capone in court.

JAWS - It's more than thirty years old and scary as ever, and not because of its state-of-the-art FX. Look closely and you'll see: that plastic shark is a big joke! This is one piece of brilliant writing. Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has been unsuccessful in trying to stop the shark killings by urging the mayor to close the beaches. The midpoint reversal forces him to change tactics (different direction): he must go and attack the shark in its own habitat. It brings a fresh turn to the movie with a change of scenery and the stakes are heightened because we are now fighting the killer on his own territory. What's more: the protagonist is under greater jeopardy because he can't swim...

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST - In his book THE SEQUENCE APPROACH, Paul Gulino mentions another function of the midpoint: it gives the protagonist a flavour of the possible outcome of the story (Frank Daniel's "glimpse of an answer to the Central Dramatic Question"). Here, Nicholson's character tastes freedom when he takes the patients out on a trip. The reality however is that after this point he learns he may never leave the asylum again. A powerful reversal: rather than proving he's insane, he now has to try and get out. The scene/sequence of the mad men's outing is another beautiful example of a change of scenery. At one stage during the edit, director Milos Forman cut the sequence out. About the result he says: "I cut it down television style, under two hours. And you know what was funny? It felt much longer."

I wouldn't necessarily call the following movies class examples but I'll give them any way because their mid-points worked really well for me:

THE PARALLAX VIEW - Bang in the middle of this classic conspiracy thriller, Warren Beatty's character undergoes a five minute brainwashing. The scene is borderline unbearable and would have probably been cut by today's studio heads. We undergo the character's psychological torture first hand while we stare at the seemingly random images, exactly like the protagonist experiences them. After this, Beatty's character is no longer the curious outsider vs. the mysterious corporation; he is fighting the system from within, which will ultimately lead to his demise.

GIU LA TESTA (A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE) - Very much like in THE PARALLAX VIEW, we share the point of view of Rod Steiger's character Juan while he watches what will cause a major change in his personality and in the course of the movie. At the very midpoint in the movie Juan witnesses a lengthy, traumatic shootout with a life-changing effect: from a mindless and merciless robber dreaming of the ultimate big heist he has now become a freedom fighter and finally commits to the cause of his alter-ego Sean (incarnated wonderfully by James Coburn).

THE QUEEN - The Queen is stuck in the lonely hills near Balmoral, her Land Rover having let her down. Without help from anybody she is out of her comfort zone when she notices the dear her grandsons have been stalking, upon her own advice and encouragement. A moment of realisation (with a lot of symbolism) leads to the decision to chase the dear away in an attempt to save its life from the hunters. The parallel with Princess Diana's end becomes even more apparent when it turns out the deer was shot by a group of hunters after a chase on a neighbouring land (France?). The Queen has witnessed something that has changed her view and we see it externalised in her lukewarm response to the Queen Mother's statements about the British people in a following scene.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST - The single most memorably scene of this film sits right in the very middle: the famous cropduster scene. Again, an entirely new setting in the movie, with hardly any other characters around. While most of the movie is rather talky, this sequence offers pure visual cinema with minimal sound design, then gradually picking up the pace and finally (literally) exploding in a symphony of action and music. The reversal: Roger Thornhill learns that Eve has betrayed him.

In my earlier blog "STRUCTURING THE FACTS" I briefly mention the midpoint reversal in UNITED 97: The passengers learn this is a suicide flight, therefore they have to change their tactics from trying to notify their relatives on the ground to actively fight back the terrorists.

SCRIPT EDITORS SPEAK

Recently the Australian Writers Guild NSW organised a night with prominent script editors. If you're a Guild member, it is worth checking the transcript of that night as it sheds some light on common issues writers have in the various stages of writing and rewriting. And if you're not an AWG member yet and you are eligible either for full or associate membership, it's worth checking out all the benefits!

One of the questions to the panel of script editors was about the most common mistakes writers make and I found it interesting enough to list them below together with the ten most common problems I have recently come across.

Script Editors' Top Ten:

- long descriptions
- lack of practical insight
- too many characters
- too many subplots
- over-writing
- passive protagonist
- weak antagonist
- not enough obstacles
- absence of logic
- breach of genre rules

Karel's Top Ten:

- weak protagonist
- lack of conflict
- lack of subtext
- lack of turning points
- shifting point of view
- on-the-nose dialogue
- too clever dialogue
- camera direction
- lengthy scenes
- bad use of parentheses


KAREL'S FEEDBACK FORUM

Recently I had spent quite some time on the members bulletin board of the AWG and when I offered to visit it on a weekly basis with the intention of giving my personal feedback to members' story questions, the idea grew to start a dedicated forum. I'm honoured and proud to announce that last week we launched "KAREL'S FEEDBACK FORUM", so if you are a member of the Guild and you have any specific questions about story or script issues, feel free to post it on the forum. I will magically resolve all your problems and instantly catapult you to intergalactic fame! Well, I'll do my darn best...


FINALLY: THE BUSINESS PITCH

You may have digested all the books, read the top screenplays and attended some of the hype seminars, nothing will ever replace the fresh eyes of an external reader. If you're a novice or unproduced screenwriter, discussing your work with a story expert is the way to see all those principles applied to your own work and fix the weaknesses in your story along the way. After all, no matter how hard you try, you may never see the plot holes because of the so dreaded writer's blindness... That's the point where you decide to speed up the way to galactic fame and call in the help of the pro.

As the demand for my specialised story and script consultancy grows, I feel the need to reflect that on the OZZYWOOD web site. An honourable start was made last month by publishing my rates together with a brief description of the services available. The approach is simple and transparent and its uniqueness lies in two main sessions: the synopsis analysis and the step outline work session (details not yet uploaded at the time of publishing, but do contact me for the full info). The first one is designed specifically to identify major story issues at an entry level cost. The last explores in a collaborative way how the story's structure can be improved while staying true to your intentions and inspiration.

For novices or writers in need of full draft assistance, I offer a tailored service, which is a often a combination of the two sessions above plus full draft assessments and a polish. The cost of that is available on application but always in line with the going industry standard.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Main Man (m/f)

"Most writers work alone. They send in the script and it gets rejected. And they never find out why. The fact is, you can't succeed as a professional writer if you don't get professional feedback. You must find out the weaknesses of your story or script before you send it in." This is not me talking, it's John Truby (photo).

People who, like me, get to read a great number of Australian screenplays are astounded how poorly developed most of these works are. The ones that stand out are often the ones that have had and taken on board professional feedback.

Really baffling is how many writers seem to have trouble with the protagonist. Writing for the screen is ALL about the protagonist. You can mess with pretty much everything else, not with your hero. When script gurus talk about the structure of a story or a script, they almost always mean: the structure of the protagonist's journey. Before you can build a journey, you need a protagonist and that, so it seems, is not as simple as it sounds.

I have listed below six of what I believe to be crucial principles against which budding writers are often sinning in terms of their heroes. Although these principles are to a certain extent flexible and extremely skilled, talented and experienced writers have bent the rules with great success, you cannot ignore them altogether. If you take liberties on one, you must compensate on the others or your script will be rejected. Please note that I will be using the ecumenical pronouns "he, him, his" in a unisex fashion when referring to the protagonist.

0. Desire: Driver of all strong characters' actions and decisions.

Drama is based on character, desire and conflict (and if you have trouble with these, check out THE HERO'S TWO JOURNEYS, there is a link in the right hand margin of this blog). Desire is the central one as in a screenplay it defines both character and conflict. It is so important it precedes everything else: if your protagonist does not have a strong desire, whether internal or external, you don't have a movie. As a writer, you will need to know at any point in the story what your hero's objective is. To find out who is the protagonist, most of the time you only need to find out who has the strongest desire in the movie. And don't forget that it takes great obstacles (conflict) to prove a strong desire.

In HALF NELSON with Oscar® nominee Ryan Gosling the protagonist gradually shifts from Dan (Gosling) to Dray (Shareeka Epps), depending on who has the strongest desire or more accurately: with whom we share the desire. Interestingly this transition doesn't happen for every viewer in the exact same way as we don't empathise in identical ways. The writers keep tight control as we see how the movie's POV shifts with the centre of desire. These things are not coincidental. In a subtle and complex movie such as HALF NELSON, the understanding and careful manipulation of these elements makes the difference between an unbearable arthouse bomb and a quality indie with Oscar potential.

1. Single vs. Multiple Protagonist: Hardly a matter of choice.

Here are two questions for you. 1)"Are you an experienced writer with produced feature drama credits?" 2)"Are you targeting an audience of intellectuals?" Multiple protagonist stories are risky business but if your answer to either question was NO, it would be insanity to even contemplate going there. The emotional impact of multiple protagonist dramas is limited because empathy jumps from one character to the next, resulting in a more cerebral experience. The lovers of these movies will almost always be an audience of intellectuals. Think about directors such as Paul T. Anderson and Robert Altman.

2. Screen time: Stay with your hero.

It is not good to abandon your protagonist. This goes hand in hand with the principle that single POV movies have a stronger emotional impact than omniscient or multi-POV movies (see below). If you divert into a subplot, keep it lean. A great example of an amazingly tight subplot arc is the one of the executioner in QUILLS. On the other hand I seem to remember that the last movie in the Matrix Trilogy failed miserably, partially because protagonist Neo suddenly disappeared to make place for a gargantuan subplot diversion. The Wachowskis couldn't care less for their hero. What were they thinking!!?? By the time Neo returned into the story, the movie had flopped. A successful movie is all about the protagonist. Once he's gone, your movie is too.

3. Action: The protagonist drives the story.

Screentime is essential but not sufficient. While the protagonist is on screen, he should be driving the scene. Or rather: his desire/objective should be driving it. Any other character can be central to the scene but the objective should be related to the protagonist's. If this sounds too technical, try an example: say the hero's objective is to save her son from the hands of his kidnappers and a particular sequence is about finding the last person who saw him. A scene may show how the antagonist prevents the hero from finding that person. Though it may seem as if the antagonist is driving the scene, its purpose can be easily traced back to the protagonist's main objective. Action can also be: resisting strongly to act. Andie MacDowell's character in SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE is a good example of that.

4. Empathy: Share the desire

Most paying audiences want to forget they are watching a movie. They want to be absorbed by it. To achieve this, ideally you should make them feel as if they have moved into the hero's mind, as if they become the protagonist for the duration of the movie. This complete identification is ideal but not essential. Empathy is. Where lies the distinction?

Michael Hague (photo) has a five point test to create empathy with the protagonist: likability, sympathy, jeopardy, humor and power. Those elements certainly help but I believe the real test for empathy lies in the degree to which we share the protagonist's desire. If identification means wanting to be the hero, than empathy means wanting to be what the hero wants to be*.

(*Note after publishing: Rightfully, Jack Brislee points out although he loved KENNY, he did not share the ambition of wanting to be a top rate outdoor toilet contractor. He is right, but not until the credits roll. Until that point, you think and feel with the protagonist and you share the desire. Take DOWNFALL, about the last days of Hitler. Some perfectly sane people have told me how they felt sorry for the character in the movie, although that very character explicitly expresses how he doesn't care if the German people would be wiped out. If they can't win the war, they're too weak to deserve the Third Reich anyway. Wow... Why do we feel sorry for such a character? Because for (at least part of) the duration of the movie, we feel his desire and the pain of not being able to fulfill it.)

5. Point of view: Single vs. Multi vs. Omni

In his book STORY (link on the right) McKee says: "the exclusive Point of View of the protagonist is a creative discipline. [...] The result is a tight, smooth, memorable character and story." Seeing the world through the eyes of the hero often helps us understand his desire and therefore it enhances empathy. It makes it easier to plot the hero's main story arc and it guarantees ample screen time.

McKee claims "[single PoV] is the far more difficult way to tell story." Here I disagree. Not limiting yourself in this way will make it infinitely harder to write a story that works for the screen. Bottom line: if your story is in trouble, try rewriting it from a single POV. It may be a shortcut to resolving a lot of issues...

PARALLEL NARRATIVE: BABEL

Writer Arriaga bends the rules of screenwriting but compensates by telling each of the four parallel stories as a class example of traditional narrative: four protagonists with strong desires, major obstacles and a three act journey each.

Despite its nomination for best screenplay, BABEL's breaking the code has caused controversy. Just compare the top four 'external reviews' for the film (IMDb)! I found the Tokyo story's connection to the events in Morocco manufactured and to me it worked on a logical level but not on an emotional one. However, in this movie it's the only story about the search for love and therefore inevitably the most powerful of all four. No wonder its resolution concludes the movie.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Great traditional narrative. When Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) finds out somebody is controlling his life, he wants to stop her from killing him. The conflict: antagonist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) needs to finish her book and can't without doing exactly that. A beautiful example of a strong inner and outer journey for protagonist Crick plus an exemplary 'relationship line' around the Ana Pascal character (Maggie Gyllenhaal). As Michael Hague puts it: the hero needs to complete his arc in order to get the girl.
From the trailer I believed the antagonist would have had more screentime but this is another case of a story arc told with the greatest economy. Everything we need to know about Kay Eiffel is there in a handful of brief scenes. Instead the writer focuses increasingly on the love thread, which is the smartest way of getting an audience head over heels involved in the drama.


I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but the ending left me confused. It turns out that I'm not the only one. Some reviewers hinted that Miller had reached Pixar levels of perfection with this film but to my taste this is not entirely so on a story level.
HAPPY FEET is a hugely successful movie, and deservedly so. Still I suspect the ending could have been more gratifying had Miller stuck to the Pixar way of developing story.
In case you have seen HAPPY FEET, ask yourself: What is Mumble's journey? What is his main desire that drives the whole movie? Does he want to fit in with his peers and be accepted by the penguin colony? Or does he want to prove that he is not the cause of the food shortage? From the first scene with Lovelace, I would have thought he actually wanted to resolve the mystery of the Aliens.
Of course it is a combination of all three and each has its own resolution in one way or another. But had it been set up more clearly, I believe we would have had a more satisfactory feeling at the end. Right now the ending is kinda cool and happy and euphorious and all that, but you somehow feel the climax is slightly off the mark. As a matter of fact, the whole third act felt a bit messy to me, probably because of the lack of a clear Act One Turning Point. I have never had that feeling with a Pixar movie.
I may be completely wrong here and I'll surely have another close look once the DVD is out. Meanwhile I'd love to hear some other opinions on this one!