Dec 30, 2002

Catch Me if You Can

The trickster is the most popular of all characters. In Catch Me If You Can, the con-man character generates a number of fun scenes. But the script has no idea how to tie them together.

This movie uses the James Bond approach. But instead of stringing stunts, it strings cons.

The writer makes some attempts to build a story. First, he tries to give some psychological foundation to what's happening by showing the failure of the hero's father. But it is unconvincing and way too long.

The writer also uses a framing device to kick the story up a notch. We begin with the capture of the hero, then flash back. But this frame gives us no new information about the story or the character, and only removes what little suspense we might have had about whether our con-man might escape.

One of the main ways you build a story is by having a main thematic line that is expressed through the need of the main character. This character is a teen-age boy who seems to con just because he is good at it and likes money and women. And no one seems to be getting hurt by it. So the cons don't lead to a more complex web of design or destruction. And with no need, it doesn't matter if the hero changes.

Without a theme or a point, all the story can do is come to an abrupt halt. The writer tries to set up a climactic ending by making us wonder if the hero will come back to work for the FBI. But it's never been set up, so it comes across as fake drama.

The main lesson from this movie is: the trickster character is more difficult to write than he appears. He seems to be so much fun that there seems no reason for him to change and do something else. That may give you some enjoyable scenes, but you can't build the story.

Dec 28, 2002

About Schmidt

About Schmidt does something that is rare in movies, especially from Hollywood. It depicts a lone man. That is both a blessing and a curse.

There is a very good reason films don't usually depict a lone man. Film is drama. It is public. We need someone for the main character to talk to. Otherwise the audience doesn't know what the film is about.

The main device this film uses to overcome the lone man problem is the voice-over where Schmidt reads the letters he's written to his African foster child, Ndugu. This technique not only gives the audience a great deal of information, it provides the best comedy of the film.

Missing from the script are opposition, hidden information and thus reveals. The lack of opposition means that we go for long periods without much happening, and worse, we get no depth or variation in the main conflict of the movie. The main opponent in the movie is Schmidt's daughter, who is about to marry a man Schmidt doesn't like. But the daughter is rarely present. And the conflict has no issue. It's an emotional thing; she's either going to marry the guy or not.

The lack of hidden information and reveals means there is little plot. True, Schmidt finds out about his wife's infidelity. But this reveal has little effect because the wife is already dead and we've seen very little between Schmidt and the friend who betrayed him.

In place of a developing opposition and reveals, the writers create a story line by sending the hero on a journey to his daughter's wedding. This gives the appearance of character development, but not the reality. Schmidt simply flips at the end of the film when he makes a speech praising his daughter's new husband and family. But he is clearly trying to be polite, not truthful.

This film seems to be getting praise because it is not a Hollywood mainstream picture, and Jack Nicholson is playing a schlub. That's not enough for me. I left the theater thinking the real drama of this man's life happened before this picture began.

Dec 27, 2002

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York may be the most ambitious film of the last few years. Its production design and cinematography are among the best I have ever seen. Unfortunately its story structure cannot support the film's ambition.

The main structural element that sets this movie apart from others is context. Most Hollywood fare shows nothing of the world of the hero. It wants to get to the goal as quickly as possible so the audience can start on its wild ride.

As a result, the average Hollywood movie has speed, but no subtlety or complexity. There is no sense of how the world drives the hero or how others manifest the hero's central problem in different forms in the world.

Gangs of New York, on the other hand, has a massive amount of context. Indeed, it depicts and compresses all of American history of the 19th century in one film. And it does so by setting up a number of powerful dramatic oppositions: nativists vs. immigrants, the powerful vs. the weak, rich vs. poor, Catholic vs. Protestant, tribes and sectionalism vs. government and the rule of law.

But there is one big problem with showing so much context. You have to have a great desire line. Context is world; it goes sideways in a story. Desire is linear; it is the forward line on which everything hangs. The more you put on the line, the stronger the line has to be.

And what is the desire line these writers use to hang all of 19th century American history? A young man wants to take revenge on the man who killed his father in a street brawl when he was eight.

An eight-year-old seeing his father killed in a street brawl is not the stuff of Hamlet. This is no prince whose throne has been usurped by a murdering uncle who has also married the murdered king's wife. Which is why this boy¹s burning desire to take revenge rings so hollow. And why the forward movement of the story collapses almost immediately.

A weak desire line in a film with so much context is already big trouble. Add to that an almost complete lack of plot and we have narrative suicide.

The interesting thing is why there is so little plot. I found myself wondering about that while I was watching the film (also a very bad sign). It didn't make sense. Here was a fascinating period of American history, with developments coming fast and furious, and yet nothing seems to be happening in this film.

And then it hit me. Gangs of New York has almost no reveals. Plot doesn't come from a lot of things happening. Plot comes from hidden information about the opponents. When this information is revealed to the hero and the audience, the story turns. The audience is surprised and engaged.

So why does Gangs of New York have almost no reveals? It all goes back to the choice of a desire line. By giving the hero all the knowledge with his revenge desire line, it is the opponent, Butcher Bill, who must discover hidden information about the hero. The opponent has the reveal, and it is information the audience already knows. This is a fatal mistake.

The choice of a desire line also causes a break in the movie's spine. The first movie ends after Bill learns the hero's true identity and plot to kill him. In the annual tribute to the hero¹s slain father, Bill brands the hero in front of the entire community and sends him into exile, which is just down the street.

Besides being unbelievable - Bill the Butcher isn't a man who shies away from killing his enemies - this action ends the first story and forces the movie to have to restart. In a movie this long, that's a real audience killer.

The second movie represents a considerable drop off from the first, which already suffered from a weak desire line. Incredibly, for a movie this long, this second film felt both rushed and boring, as the branded outcast quickly rises to lead all Irish in New York. I guess there's nothing star power can't do.

Not surprisingly, the writers have trouble coming up with an organic ending. They have already given us a final battle when Bill exposes the hero and brands him in the tribute. Now they have to come up with another battle, this time in the midst of the terrible race riots of 1863.

But, curiously, the writers purposely undercut the showdown between hero and opponent by having the federal guns blow up the opposing gangs before they can fight.

Thematically, this is quite interesting; we are shifting from one social stage to another, from the era of New York ruled by gangs to an era of New York ruled by a nation of laws.

But the cost of this thematic choice is severe. It further de-dramatizes a final confrontation that is too-long in coming and is a pale repetition of the previous story beat.

There is much about Gangs of New York that is worthwhile, even awe-inspiring. But the movie is also proof, once again, that great filmmaking comes from a great script. And the best visuals in the world won't save you if your script isn't there.

Aug 9, 2002

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

The script for this film, written by the lead actress, is very funny, even though it covers familiar ground.

It confirmed for me a valuable lesson for the writer: find the gold in your idea and stick with it.

This is a love story. Yet, unlike the normal Hollywood love story, there is almost no time spent on the courtship.

Why? Because the writer understood that the comic gold in this idea is the contrast of the crazy Greek family and her WASP boyfriend and parents.

The lead character is quite normal relative to her family. So the moments between her and her almost perfect boyfriend, while sweet, produce little comedy.

Best to get that stuff out of the way as quickly as possible so the real comic machine can produce as many laughs as possible. The result is a very funny indie hit.

Aug 8, 2002


M. Night Shyamalan has been a wildly successful writer in Hollywood, and it's almost all due to his ability with plot. Shyamalan is a master of the reveal, and in the blockbuster world of mainstream movies, that is the best talent to have.

Signs has nowhere near the quality of The Sixth Sense. But it does show some of the writer's techniques.

Plot comes from hidden opposition. One reason the plot in Signs is not as strong as the one in The Sixth Sense is that Shyamalan exposes the opposition fairly early. Partly that is because Signs is a horror film, a form that is based on the attack of the opponent. When a relentlessly attacking opponent drives your plot, you have a lot of problems hiding the opponent's power and setting up reveals.

Shyamalan tries to delay showing us the opponent as long as possible by tracking a series of signs that a possible opponent is attacking. But that gets old pretty fast.

To make up for a genre that tends to kill plot (along with everything else in the story), the writer sets up a number of traits and facts about the characters that will pay off in the plot at the end of the film. These traits and facts - like the son's asthma and the brother's ability as a home run hitter - are improbable enough that you can tell when you first see them they are set ups. You know they will be paid off, you just don't know how. Still, when they finally are paid off, it is pleasing to the audience. And Shyamalan's greatest strength as a writer is his ability to hold out as many plot payoffs as possible until the end of the story.

The other major technique that Shyamalan uses is connecting supernatural stories with realistic psychological weaknesses in his characters. This technique, pioneered by Stephen King, is difficult to do well because it is inherently ridiculous. Typically, a character that has undergone severe trauma in his personal life must then confront a number of sensational, otherworldly events.

In Signs, Shyamalan doesn't completely overcome the silliness of the technique. His hero, after all, is an ex-minister who finds his faith by defeating extra-terrestrials. True, I know a couple of ex-ministers who had this experience, but it is rare.

Shyamalan's main tool for taking the stink off is humor. By making fun of a lot of the conventions of the genre - like wearing aluminum foil caps so the aliens won't know what they're thinking - the writer makes it ok to accept the fundamental premise that aliens are attacking. He also alternates serious or scary moments with funny ones, a difficult flip in tone that, when done successfully, makes the characters seem more real.

What is most important to understand about this technique is that you can't be afraid to use it. Yes, it can seem stupid and contrived. In Jurassic Park, it made no sense that the lead character hated kids. Except that it gave him a character weakness he had to overcome by working through the plot. Audiences don't just want to see a plot played out, no matter how ingenious. They want to see a character deal with a personal weakness and come out better on the other side. Even a contrived character need is better than none at all.

Jun 14, 2002

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Is there a double standard when it comes to evaluating "chick flicks" compared to male-oriented action and war films? According to one critic, we incorrectly assign more value to the drama of male bonding than we do to the female bonding portrayed in such films as Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood.

Such a double standard may indeed exist, but you can't prove it with this film. The reasons for its problems have everything to do with the structure upon which it depends.

Most notable is the use of the storyteller. A group of women kidnap the heroine, who is feuding with her mother, and proceed to tell her the story of the mother's life.

The first rule of the storyteller structure is that the present tense story must be more interesting than the past story. Why? Because the act of telling the story should lead the hero to learn something and solve something now. Otherwise, there's no point in jerking the audience forward and backward.

This first rule is broken right from the start when the heroine is kidnapped by the mother's friends and flown south. This action is so ridiculous that the writer/director doesn't even show it, in hopes, I assume, that the audience will somehow overlook the contrivance of the setup.

Once trapped in her new location, the heroine doesn't call the police or get the hell away from these idiots. She calmly listens as they tell her information about her mother that the heroine would already know because she lived in the same house.

The present problem is dealt with by the equivalent of a group therapy session and solved by nothing more than the mother and daughter saying they are sorry. The past story of the mother's life is filled, in contrast, by death, alcoholism, and a moment of despair and insanity when she beats her children.

The past story is supposed to show the audience and the heroine the reasons for the mother's failures. But other than the one scene where the mom hits her children, virtually every scene shows how wonderful she is.

The deeper issue here is not whether "chick flicks" are devalued, but rather how you dramatize family life. Action and war films have it easy; they show life and death situations. Nobody mentions that the vast majority of the audience will never encounter these situations.

They will encounter growing and living within a family. And how they deal with the conflicts of that experience will determine whether they have a good life or not.

The lesson here is clear: use the storyteller form correctly or you will heighten the sense that we are watching false or petty drama.

Jun 7, 2002

The Sum of All Fears

This film is textbook Tom Clancy. He is the master of the funnel effect. He starts by cross-cutting around a huge circle worldwide. He tells us the general endpoint fairly early and adds a ticking clock. The cross-cutting spirals tighter and tighter, in both space and time, with all the actors converging at a single point.

Clancy adds another element crucial to his huge commercial success. Most political thrillers, especially in film, show the hero hunted by vast, hidden forces and often end with the hero's death or defeat.

Clancy, on the other hand, finds a way to place his single hero at the center of these vast forces, almost like a man riding a hurricane. The hero figures out the one key to turning the vortex from disaster to victory.

Structurally, Clancy is combining thriller and epic, two forms that don't naturally go together. It's a combination that is very popular when it's done right.

Jun 1, 2002


One of the best shows on television this season has been 24. The high concept of the show is that the season of 24 shows tracks 24 hours in the life of CIA agent Jack Bauer.

What this means structurally is that 24 is almost totally a plot-based show. The creators aren't just using the ticking clock technique to speed the story as it nears the end. They have to fill real time, and real time is boring. That means they have to rely heavily on cross-cut storytelling in which we cut between a number of story lines happening simultaneously.

Cross-cut storytelling allows you a number of plot advantages. First, you increase suspense by showing two lines racing to the same point. For example, will the hero save the girl tied to the railroad tracks before the train runs her over?

Second, the cross-cut allows you to remove any action that is boring. Instead of watching someone drive somewhere or even have a conversation (heaven forbid), we can jump from crisis point to crisis point, so long as we have enough story lines going at once.

But notice that puts tremendous pressure on the writers. They have to not only create a number of story lines that are believably happening at one time, they have to weave them together so that each helps build the other and both the episode and the season have a dramatic line.

That's really hard. One of the pleasures for me watching the show was seeing how the writers accomplished these feats of plot with such success. Plotting is the most under-estimated of the major storytelling skills, so watching these writers perform their high wire act over 24 hours of tv time was pretty amazing.

But as they say in basketball, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. When your show is built almost entirely on plot, you lack the character definition to make some of your plot tricks believable. And when that happens, the plot mechanics immediately become obvious and audience scorn is severe.

To the writers' credit, this didn't happen often. However, I laughed out loud when they used the old amnesia trick for Jack's wife.

The most grievous example of the false plot trick occurred on the biggest plot twist of the season. In the second to last episode, the writers revealed the identity of the hero's opponent-ally. Because there had been virtually no character work during the series, and because there had been no clues woven in earlier, this reveal not only felt false, it seemed like a betrayal of the audience.

Revealing the hidden opponent is a common problem, not just with plot-based stories but, more specifically, with detective stories. Detective writers are so worried that the audience will guess the big reveal of the killer early, they often give no clues at all. But as the master, Agatha Christie, once said, that's cheating. The audience should be totally surprised, but also be able to think back through the story and realize the information was there all along.

Ironically, what saved the writers of 24 is the fact that their big reveal happened at the end of the second to last show. By that point, the only people who were watching were real fans who had already forgiven lesser plot grievances.

What will be interesting to see is how the writers of this show overcome another weakness inherent to plot-based shows, the second season blues. When you put all your eggs in the plot basket of the first season, the audience feels they have had the experience. For example, when Laura Palmer's killer was revealed at the end of Twin Peaks' first season, no one felt they needed to come back the next year.

Now that I've seen Jack Bauer's worst nightmare, I don't think I want to see a different one that's almost as bad.

May 30, 2002


Insomnia shows one of the dangers of writing the thriller form. This is a very popular genre, but it is extremely narrow. Most writers of thrillers have great difficulty creating plot because there is usually just one suspect. The audience learns fairly soon who probably committed the crime.

In this film, casting compounds the problem of the single suspect. The audience knows you don't cast Robin Williams as the bad guy unless he's really the bad guy. The only surprise comes from how the opponent attacks the hero - which isn't much - and how the hero catches him.

The writer tries to compensate for this basic deficiency by making the hero morally culpable. But the result is that both the main plot line and the hero's moral decline are given short shrift.

Bottom line: if you are going to do a thriller, pay the dues and do the genre right. Hit the beats that make it a surprising plot. Without them, you have a small film that lasts way too long.

Jan 20, 2002

The Shipping News

This film doesn't work for a number of reasons. Let me focus on two.

Every story starts with the problem/need of the hero. But this one is ridiculous. In the first ten minutes of this film, a strange woman named Petal jumps into the hero's car at a gas station. The hero, Quoyle, says he loves her, she has their baby, and she brings other guys back to the house for sex.

Wait, there's more. Quoyle gets a message on the office answer machine that his parents are committing suicide, Petal sells their daughter and then dies in a car crash.

By the time this sequence is over, the audience is gone. Instead of feeling sympathy for the hero, I was laughing out loud at the overkill and feeling that this was the most pathetic guy in history.

Shipping News also suffers from a lack of plot. Plot comes from hidden information. And the most powerful hidden information is about the opposition. This film bases its plotting on a technique used in a number of psychological stories, like The Prince of Tides. The hero uncovers information, not about the opposition, but about the ghost.

Virtually all the major characters in this story are hiding something from the past that is still haunting them in the present. Notice that means the reveals always take us backward. Instead of a plot that has dramatic power in the present, and therefore in the future, this film leads to a climax based on actions that ended years ago. Result? Boredom.

One final quibble: this total loser somehow wins the affections of Cate Blanchette and Julianne Moore. Which means the rest of the guys in this movie must be dead. And the women must be crazy.

Jan 12, 2002

Gosford Park

Altman's latest foray into horizontal storytelling succeeds mostly in showing the limits of this approach.

Horizontal storytelling is the result of increasing the number of major characters and emphasizing simultaneous action over sequential action.

The primary advantages of horizontal storytelling are that it allows you to explore a society, show the society's effect on the individual and compare characters.

These advantages quickly dissipate, however, the more horizontal you make the story. At some point the tensile strength of the bridge connecting characters becomes so weak that the center does not hold and the entire structure comes crashing down. If there are too many characters within a two-hour span, each character is so superficial that comparison between any of them is useless.

That is precisely what happens in Gosford Park. The writers steal their basic idea from the French classic Rules of the Game in an attempt to show the corruption at the core of a class system. But by adding so many characters to the mix, no one comes across as more than a resume. The writers have just enough time to show that almost everyone is hiding something, but not enough to make any of it matter to the audience.

As a result there is no emotional payoff for any of the characters in pain. And the comparisons between them yield nothing more than the insight that the master-servant relationship is crippling to both.

But that is something we all should have discovered long ago.

Jan 10, 2002

A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind is one of those small dramas that we used to pejoratively refer to as a tv movie. We can't do that anymore because the best drama written today, by far, is found on tv.

This film has some wonderful moments. My favorites are when the hero, Nash, figures out his great economics theory by strategizing how best to pick up women and when he uncovers a conspiracy by spotting the coded patterns in vast wall of numbers. Making genius public so an audience can see the character¹s brilliance in real terms is very difficult in drama. So this is no small accomplishment.

But A Beautiful Mind is deeply flawed in its structure. Once we learn that Nash has the mental disease of schizophrenia, the drama though not the conflict - essentially comes to a halt. Nash has no control over the visions he sees, so showing scene after scene of Nash struggling with those visions is false dramatics and thus redundant and boring.

The structural line of this story isn't Nash's struggle with schizophrenia, but rather the love story between Nash and his wife. Nash overcomes his problem primarily because of the love between him and his wife.

But that line is not set up properly. To show that his wife would stay by him through the hell of his disease, you have to show them falling in love deeply, and for deep reasons.

Instead we get a few short scenes of a socially incompetent man telling a woman he wants to skip the romance and go right to trading fluids. Boom, they're off getting married. That sort of chatter may qualify Nash as different, but it is not the groundwork for a great love story.

Because the audience has not invested real emotional time in the love of these two characters, the wife's loyalty and sacrifice for her husband make no sense.