OK the book now has a back cover!
A work of transcendent genius by our friend and SFSU alum Kevin Bicknell. I want to find a way to use it in a movie!
You can find more of Kevin’s movies and music at:
By the way, anybody know how to hide all the embed html stuff? Not experienced in the video linkage yet, but wanting to learn.
 Now corrected, obviously, thanks to friendly help from the people at ChivCo.
[Note: this is a short extract from my book, 'Write What You Don't Know: An Accessible Manual for Screenwriters' forthcoming in August from Continuum Books]
Everything in your world should be part of your overall mechanism of storytelling. Every location, design choice, rule (magical or mundane) and principle of your story world needs to be serving some aspect of your story. Specifically they should manifest part of the central problem or challenge of your story and its hero/ine.
Here is Terry Gilliam discussing his creative process in writing The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus 2009 (my italics):
“These kinds of worlds are me just allowing my imagination to run. I pretend I’m whoever the character is in there and I just go with it. Or I have an idea that already I’m trying to force onto the film and I make sure the character becomes something that serves the ideas that I’ve already wanted to get out of my system and get up on the screen.”
Take that wonderful adventure The Princess Bride (scr. William Goldman) 1987 with its Cliffs of Insanity, Rodents of Unusual Size and Fire Swamp all of which signify their challenge in their names. Or Labyrinth (scr. Jim Henson, Terry Jones et al) 1986 with its, well labyrinth – oh and who could forget the Bog of Eternal Stench and David Bowie in Tights, both offering a fate worse than death for its teenage heroine.
Remember, Labyrinth is about a girl who resents having to babysit for her brother in the real world and has to get her priorities straight and learn responsibility when the King of Goblins steals him away. The labyrinth of the story presents her with a series of tests of character and judgment – a process of maturation if you will – that earns her the right and gives her the inner strength and the skills to save her brother in the end. It is the world that does the work here. It is the lesson plan for Jennifer Connelly’s heroine, prepared most carefully and to character. In other words, the world is designed by the writers to test out and expose her personal flaws and weaknesses. It is not a random collection of ‘cool stuff’ crammed into a script. The former creates satisfying drama, the latter is just stuff that happens that we get to watch (see: Resident Evil 2002).
This is why we talk about story worlds rather than plot worlds.
Story worlds not plot worlds
One of the most difficult parts of the screenwriting process is to change your mindset from valorizing events (plot driven) to prioritizing motivations (story driven). This is the most important step on our film student road from generalized idea back to a workable movie concept.
By now it should be pretty clear what has to happen. Our discussion of story worlds has focused on how the world needs to work to and for character. Now we need to express that work in terms of a story concept rather than a plot concept.
Put another way we need to stop thinking about what a character does, but why she does it.
Every movie has both a story and a plot. Stories are about the internal challenges our characters face, the changes they go through and the lessons they learn or fail to learn. Stories drive the events of the plot and without a story a plot has no real meaning or emotional significance for the audience.
In filmmaking terms, therefore, plots are simply the external mechanisms we use to tell stories.
So how does this work in practice? Well, we just talked about Labyrinth which is about a girl, Sarah who needs to grow up, take responsibility and put the welfare of others first. The story of the film is about her learning to do that. It is an internal struggle for her as a person. We can’t see internal struggles (remember show don’t tell?) so we need a plot to show us the process by which she gets from where she started, selfish and immature, to where she is at the end, a good sister and a more mature individual all round. We are given final evidence of this transformation when Sarah passes on her beloved teddy bear, Lancelot, to her newly rescued baby brother. In symbolic terms, of course, the teddy bear represents the parts of her childhood she is now ready to leave behind.
In the plot Sarah meets other characters and has all kinds of labyrinthy adventures which help her get to the final plot event when she faces the naughty Goblin King and his worrying haircut.
In the story, those characters and adventures form parts of Sarah’s learning curve. They transform her from a spoilt brat to a clear thinking young woman (she finally remembers her spell) who is capable of actually defeating the lad Bowie and his worrying package.
So plot and story in Labyrinth are two parallel journeys, one traveled by the feet and the other travelled in the mind and personality of the character.
Plots get us into our seats; stories keep us watching.
Every film, even the most obviously plot driven films like 2012 (scr. Roland Emmerich & Harald Kloser) 2009, has a story. As a screenwriter, however important your plot and spectacle are to the final success of your concept, if you try and pitch without a story you will get nowhere. We will cover this in detail in the next chapter, but as a taster this is how Roland Emmerich describes his approach to 2012 in a video interview posted at Movieweb.com:
“I realized that, you know, in disaster movie format you have two things. You have very big images and you have very small, intimate stories and that’s a great combination. The heroes are normal people like you and me. They don’t have to have special talents or anything. They only have to have the will to survive.”
So in 2012 there are parallel, macro and micro plot tracks, the global Noah’s Ark plan to save (the richest members of) the human race and the personal struggle of John Cusack’s character, Jackson Curtis and his family who understandably want to be among the saved rather than the drowned. Both of these tracks are run by stories which suggest you have to earn your own redemption. In the global plot, the story has Chiwetel Obamiofor – sorry Ejiofor – teaching Americans to basically suck less: “The moment we stop fighting for each other, that’s the moment we lose our humanity.” In the family plot, Jackson Curtis earns his redemption as a father and as a husband by proving he can be more than the obsessional flake who drove his wife and kids away before the start of the movie.
Both of these stories come from and play to character. Jackson Curtis is ‘flawed’ and needs ‘correcting’ just as the human race – or at least the American part of it, personified by Oliver Platt – needs a metaphorical smack on the nose with a rolled up newspaper: “Bad America, no biscuit!”
How seriously are we expected to take these stories? The answer is: not very. My old friend, the brilliant film academic Martin Stollery, put it like this as we were leaving the cinema (I paraphrase slightly): “Don’t you feel that at the heart of all his films Roland Emmerich is just taking the piss?”
Nevertheless, the stories are there so that plot can be hung upon them in a functional sort of way.
Cue California sliding into the sea…
…so that John Cusack can prove he’s a good husband and father.
JH: Congratulations to Alex for winning our first ever movie review competition on Write What You Don’t Know. Fame and fortune are sure to follow, only probably not from this blog! Now here’s his review.
By Alex Fu
There is a scene early in Fast Five where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson debriefs his hand picked, in-it-for-the-right-reasons rookie cop on the charges levied against the film’s heroes. Steadfast in her commitment to truth, the rookie raises inconsistencies with the official story—and being a native of Rio (where the movie takes place), she’s not unused to law enforcement cooking up an old-fashioned set up. In a very revealing response, Hobbs (The Rock) turns to her and yells “You know what makes sense?!” then tosses the entire stack of dossiers to the ground.
And from that moment it’s clear: Fast Five knows what it is and what it isn’t.
Whenever Fast Five feels like it’s about to elicit groans from an increasingly film literate audience, it maneuvers with a kind of playfulness absent in say, a Jerry Bruckheimer film. And while I enjoy my Bruckheimer-Bay pairings more than a Hoxter alumnus should, one gets the sense that Michael Bay finds nothing silly about his work. Fast Five is no parody however; it is deeply invested in what is both goofy and awesome about the genre. Where a film like Scream 4 (1) had nothing but contempt for itself, Fast Five respects and reveres its two-dimensional characters, making sure the stakes are still high and the violence still matters (2). An indispensible lesson emerges: if you’re going to make it dumb, at least make us care.
Director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan pull an impressive move to reinvent a franchise that was close to stalling on its original conceit, the culture of street racing. (3) They do this by shifting gears (sorry) to the world of outlaws and heists. The film assembles most of the remaining characters from the previous films, a la The Avengers,(4) to bring down a drug lord that has taken hostage, not only the people of Rio, but our protagonists’ freedom. With back-stories built up over four films, an affection has grown for these meatheads. The escalating scenarios are grounded in motivations that ring true (at least to them) and despite all the hammy dialogue about God and fathers; you really believe that this is what “dudes” talk about.
Hobbs is a formidable antagonist, a character who is built well enough in both his physical and narrative appearance to make us believe he might actually capture our guys. But it wouldn’t be a F&F film if he didn’t switch sides, as the franchise is ultimately based around what Armond White describes as: “…the intrinsic moral codes mutual to cop and criminal…who feel a common, desperate appreciation of engines, women, loyalty, and the money it takes to acquire them”.
(1) In pursuit of a panacea for cynical moviegoers, there’s been a trend of “meta” gimmicks used as a substitute for the hard work of figuring out how to make the familiar feel fresh.
(2) A Fast Five review without any comment on the action? I was under strict guidelines, but suffice it to say the action is stunning, thanks to great direction and the predominance of practical effects over CGI. We still have to care about the characters though.
(3) Another example of the film’s fun self-awareness: just as we’re about to get into the obligatory ‘street race scene’ the film cuts away from it. A signal to the audience: we are moving on.
(4) Including a very fun Marvel Studios-type tag for the fan-bros at the end of the credits.
The attraction of access
Some of the finest documentaries attain their greatness in large part through the simple gift of access. They allow us to go where otherwise we could never go. They allow us to see things that otherwise we would never have been able to see. Indeed access is one of the primary and most primal attractions of the cinema. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, travelling movie showmen like Lyman Howe would advertise their sensational entertainments on these exact lines. Cinema was about wonder in all its forms long before there were screenwriters wondering [sic] why they always had problems with story beats in act two.
The lessons of cinematic wonder have never been lost on Werner Herzog, either as a narrative (Fitzcarraldo) or documentary (Grizzly Man) filmmaker. He has built a career on introducing Western audiences to worlds at the very edges of our experience and culture in films such as Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Where the Green Ants Dream. In his latest documentary Herzog takes us underground to witness an instance of human culture unseen and untouched for at least 20,000 years. In simply allowing us even mediated access to the Chauvet caves and their wonderful treasure-trove of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings he gives the most important gift to audiences of Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
The film is Herzog’s personal, expository, yet somehow hesitant meditation on the birth of recorded human culture. The filmmaker uses 3D technology to help the viewer appreciate how the paintings are designed to flow with the contours of the cave walls. Herzog and his crew deploy this most contemporary of cinematic attractions astutely, yet when attempting to approach the meanings and use value of the ancient images he offers us flashes of possibility only. We learn that the cave is clearly a ritual space. We are told that ancient cultures believed in the permeability of the real and the spirit worlds, navigated by shamanic ritual. Herzog notes drawings of animals with multiple legs and persuasively argues this is a technique to hint at movement. Here we are in the presence, he suggests, of a kind of “proto cinema”.
Inhabiting the vast chasm between Herzog’s words and the world of the paintings, the viewer has to look inward for resonance. In so doing one thing at least is abundantly clear, the Paleolithic artists who drew these animals in the firelight cared deeply about representation. The exact cultural meaning and ritual purpose of their images may be obscure to us now, just as the surfaces on which they are painted are frequently obscured in the film by Herzog’s constantly moving portable lights. Yet the images are so beautiful, so accurate, so full of individuality and animation – perhaps in multiple senses- in sum so staggeringly aesthetic that we still feel a profound and surely authentic connection with them. In the 30,000 years between our world and theirs, Herzog’s remarkable film shows us, there has been at least one cultural constant and it brought tears to my eye: the transcendent power of human talent.
A final reminder to everybody, entries to the movie review competition are due Friday midnight. We have some already but there’s always room for more. Check below for the rules.
Dear esteemed readers. Just a quick reminder that the review competition ends midnight Friday. I’m cutting and pasting the rules below:
This week, I am soliciting reviews for: The Beaver, Fast Five and Water for Elephants. If you have seen any of those and have a tale to tell write in and I’ll post the best of each if they are half way decent.
1. Maximum 500 words please.
2. No illustrations – I’ll find images if needed.
3. Avoid all the cursing and the naughty words please.
4. Deadline is next Friday (May 27th) midnight.
5. Use your review to make a clear argument about the movie. Don’t give us a plot synopsis, make your case clearly why we should or shouldn’t go see it and try and focus on why things work or don’t in screenwriting terms. Character development, story and plot structure, dialogue and so forth are more important than how cool the explosions are.
6. By submitting an entry you agree for your work to be published on this blog under your name, but without payment of any kind. You also agree to allow me to edit the material as necessary.
7. Send your submissions to: email@example.com
Too filthy to care
There’s a moment in the middle of the new HBO financial crisis explaino-movie Too Big To Fail in which the camera tracks in on Jimmy Woods (playing failed Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld) as he reacts to news of the bailout of AIG. The government wouldn’t bail out his bankrupt investment bank but now they step in to save the insurance company… The score offers a melancholy phrase and Jimmy does his best to convey the tragedy of a Wall St. tycoon brought low.
And all I’m thinking is: “Fuck you.”
And I’m watching this whole lavishly produced, darkened room and darkened suited production and thinking: “Fuck all of you. Fuck every single character, including your supportive wives and families. I hope you die slowly and in pain.” And then I get angry with HBO for even trying to explain and humanize the history in dramatic form. I am insulted at every moment in which my empathic response is triggered automatically by filmic technique or narrative turn.
This is a subject that should only have been covered by documentary.
Was that a review? Yeah, that was a review.