Dec 29, 2003

Cold Mountain

Spoiler Alert: This breakdown contains information about the ending of the film.

The myth-drama is one of the most powerful story combinations that we have. Myth gives us the hero's journey and the epic scope. Drama gives us the family and the deep, complex issue. When the love story is added, we have the potential for a real knockout.

Unfortunately, the original writer of Cold Mountain structured his story in such a way as to remove much of the power of the myth-drama. By doing a straight cross-cut between the two leads for most of the story, the hero's journey does not build and the family cannot explore a central issue through conflict.

Cold Mountain is obviously The Odyssey set during the Civil War. In The Odyssey, Homer also cuts between the traveling Ulysses and the faithful Penelope back home. But notice the key difference in structure. Homer doesn't do an equal crosscut. He heavily weights the story in favor of the traveling hero. This gives the story a building line and a powerful spine on which to hang all the symbolic elements that come with the myth form (for more on this see the Myth Class).

The biggest drawback to doing a crosscut throughout most of Cold Mountain is that it kills the love story. The lovers barely have time to meet and have a quick kiss before they are separated. Yet we are supposed to believe they will both fight through three years of silence and the worst assaults of war to get back together.

Of course the thematic point of the crosscut is that the juxtaposition of the two story lines creates a larger point through comparison. But here that comparison remains on the broadest level, showing that the two leads are equal in the obstacles they must overcome for their love. But the specific scenes where the crosscuts occur are largely wasted.

This film almost overcomes its foundation structural weakness through a number of excellent scenes. But then it commits one of the great sins of storytelling, the false ending. When an audience invests two and a half hours of their time watching two people struggle through hell to be together, you better have a profound reason to kill one of them at the end.

In Cold Mountain, we're not even close to profound. Yes, in war, especially civil war, a lot of people die. But by that logic, you could kill off everyone in this story. But killing off one of the lovers after all that effort serves no thematic point, and gives no new story value.

It is fake tragedy, what I call "death ex machina." It doesn't make your movie better. It just pisses people off.

Dec 20, 2003

Something's Gotta Give

Something's Gotta Give comes off as an argument in praise of older women, which is exactly what one of the characters preaches at the dinner table near the beginning of the film.

If you're writing a script where you are literally trying to prove a premise, you have to hide and sugarcoat it. For example, the writers of Tootsie want to show that men are chauvinists with women, and they do so with a guy forced to dress up as a woman and a swirl of characters creating an intricate plot weave.

When your premise is out in the open like this one is, you cause yourself all kinds of problems. First, your dialogue is stilted. Second, you make the actors look like they are acting whenever they try to say the lines. Third, you kill the plot. If we are waiting for both characters to play out their side of the premise and they do, just as we thought, we have no surprise and no payoff.

Sure enough, tough but brilliant Erica learns to live a little. Harry learns to fall for a woman's "deeper" qualities and decides to spend the rest of his life with a great older woman.

But the writer (and director) gives Erica too little time to fall, based on too little from Harry. It's not as unbelievable as Helen Hunt falling for Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, but it's close.

All love stories are contrived. The trick is to hide the contrivance, give characters some real reasons to fall for each other, and give them enough screen time to do it. Don't underestimate this form. Love is among the most highly choreographed of all genres, and when it's connected with comedy it's even tougher. (See either the Comedy Class or the Love Story Class). But when it is done with a high level of craft, it is always popular.

Nov 5, 2003

In America

In America shows how powerful a small family drama can be when it is written and acted with a high level of craft. It's a film where you remember the moments. But those moments are memorable because the writers wove them into an overall structure that builds to a surprising emotional climax.

The story begins with an Irish family pretending to cross from Canada to the US for a vacation. The scene is both scary and funny, and it gives us shorthand character descriptions of each family member, especially the youngest girl, Ariel, whose personality is so cheerful and outgoing it almost gets the family into trouble.

The opening also introduces a voice-over by the oldest daughter, Christie, who is eleven. In it she refers to three wishes her deceased little brother, Frankie, gave her, one of which she must use to get the family over the border. This technique tells the audience this film will be a memory, which makes it feel more personal. The voice-over also gives the story a spine that will help tie the various moments together, and that is especially important when you don't have a strong desire line.

The storyteller technique also introduces the ghost of the story, Frankie's death, which will be the biggest and most ongoing opponent for this family that is starting over in America.

The ghost, as alums of the Great Screenwriting/Story Structure Class know, is the event from the past still haunting the hero in the present. It is one of the most important story beats in a good script. But often a strong ghost in a film is a big problem, because it literally pulls the story backward and drives the conflict too much into the mind of the hero. But the writers here avoid that mistake by keeping the ghost in the background of a number of difficulties this family faces in the present as they try to rebuild their crippled lives.

The other key to this script is the "yelling man" who lives downstairs from the family. By creating an outside character who is facing his own death, the writers give the family and the audience a character in the present who can personify what dying really means.

When the writers connect the death of this character with the loss of Frankie, the punch at the end is remarkable. Only drama, written with solid story structure, has that kind of emotional power for an audience.

Oct 28, 2003

Runaway Jury

John Grisham is a master of plot, specializing in the courtroom thriller. And in this complicated and underestimated writing skill, he has a lot to teach us.

Runaway Jury sets up as a battle royal between Dustin Hoffman's Wendall Rohr and Gene Hackman's Rankin Fitch, with Fitch the powerful opponent. Most writers would work their plot from there, using the hidden powers of the main opponent to provide most of the surprise upon which plot is based.

But Grisham adds another element that magnifies his plot tremendously. John Cusack's Nick Easter seems to be the innocent little guy who will, in classic thriller form, come under intense attack from the powerful opponent. But instead of using the reactive victim, Grisham gives Easter his own desire line, his own hidden agenda. The result: three sources of action and massive plot (see the Great Screenwriting Class for details on plotting, opposition, surprise, the reveals sequence and plot weave).

Oct 22, 2003

Mystic River

Mystic River is a classic example of what is referred to as an "actor's movie." Big monologues, gnashing of teeth, tearing of scenery.

Being an actor's movie is not necessarily a bad thing. Big stars want to be in them. And actor's movies often win Oscars in the actor-heavy Academy.

But that doesn't make them great movies. Mystic River is a hybrid script, combining drama with the detective/crime forms, where the seams show. And the closer you look at the script the more you see how failures in story structure and genre make this highly ambitious film ultimately disappointing.

Mystic River uses the classic technique of showing the three lead characters as boys, when one of them is molested. The rest of the story therefore has to turn on how one boy's ghost haunts all the boys as adults. But this central connection is never made. Yes, the molested boy, Dave, is a broken man. But the other two, Sean and Jimmy, seem to be no different than they were as kids. And Dave's horror has no real effect on them as adults.

In short, the ghost creates drama, but it is irrelevant to the drama in the present. When the detective/crime genre is added to the drama, the viewer keeps looking for the connection that will make each pay off to its fullest potential. This never happens. Thus the crosscutting between these two tracks in the body of the film simply doesn't work.

On one track is the investigation. But this has a clumsy set up as well. The script is so heavy-handed in suggesting that Dave committed the murder of the girl that we know he obviously didn't. Clearly this movie is going to be about, among other things, false accusation. But this way of introducing theme is not good for surprise and plot. We may not know who did it, but we sure as hell know it wasn't Dave.

As this investigative line plays out, we dig into another ghost concerning Jimmy's past life of crime. But none of this is played out in the present, so it has very little revelatory power.

What's worse, to keep the false accusation line alive, the writer has Dave's wife tell Jimmy she thinks Dave killed Jimmy's daughter. This is so overwhelmingly stupid and unbelievable that the moment comes across as a plot contrivance, immediately kicking the viewer out of the movie-going experience.

The second track of the film is provided by the drama of losing a daughter. This gives the actors a lot to chew on. But the drama is ultimately hollow, because the girl has not been a character in the present and she has had no effect on any of the major characters except Jimmy.

The full disappointment of the movie comes after Sean tells Jimmy who really killed his daughter. The false accusation theme is pretty much dropped. Jimmy's wife, suddenly sounding like a modern-day Lady MacBeth, tells him he could be the king of this town. And Sean's estranged wife finally talks to him on the phone and returns. None of it makes any sense. But it does suggest that this film could have really expanded at the end had it been set up properly at the beginning.

Mystic River shows the potential power as well as the many pitfalls of writing a transcendent crime story, detective story or thriller. Combining one of these genres with drama so that both lines work through each other is extremely complex (see the Detective, Crime and Thriller Course). But just attempting it is enough to set your script apart and get you the attention that every writer in Hollywood needs to succeed.

Oct 20, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty shows once again why combining love and comedy is among the most difficult tasks in fiction writing. Love wants to get close. Comedy wants to step back and make fun. If you don't find the right balance between the two, you're dead.

That's exactly what went wrong with Intolerable Cruelty. With all the smart satire and farcical comedy in this film, this is still at heart a love story between Miles and Marylin. Which means there's got to be real emotion. You can't just tell the audience that characters have feelings for each other. Emotion must be set up, nurtured, brought into the story carefully.

That doesn't happen here. One, Miles doesn't trust Marylin from the beginning, given that she is a total gold-digger. Two, Marylin doesn't trust Miles, given that he is the ultimate sleazy lawyer.

This is not a screwball comedy. But it does share the same story problem: how to make the love real while doing so much broad comedy. Screwball comedy knows you have give the two leads time together. And it has to be quiet time, where they can respond to the deepest part of the other person, so the audience can see that they are capable of love and not just pawns of the plot.

Intolerable Cruelty also fails to set up the comic plot properly. In a story about two master scam artists, the scams better be ingenious and the artists better be smart. But Miles is unbelievably dumb, leaving himself wide open to a woman he knows has only one desire, to take revenge against him.

This film has some very funny lines. But that is not enough. The key to any romantic comedy is setting the proper comic structure (for details, see the Love Story Class or the Comedy Class). Fail there, and nothing else is going to help.

Jan 31, 2003

The Hours

The cross cut story structure of The Hours sets a high standard for the film. By doing a "day in the life" of three women from three different decades, the film inevitably 1) compares and contrasts the three, 2) highlights the importance of the cut from one scene to another, and 3) relies on subtle reveals to carry the plot. Unfortunately, The Hours does not pay off these three elements as well as it should.

David Hare's script of Michael Cunningham's novel compares the women in superficial ways - how they turn in bed, wash their faces, enjoy flowers, etc. - but not with a depth that could help each illuminate the others. We could say that each is paralyzed by her traditional role as care giver. But that is a pretty broad generalization with limited payoff, and one that, in the case of Virginia Woolf, is a bit of a stretch. Her husband is the care-giver, and she is trapped as much by her own mental illness as by his efforts to protect her.

The cross cut structure brings our attention to the juxtaposition of scenes, and in The Hours not much comes of that. The "day in the life" technique leads to certain obvious insights about these women, since they each do similar things at each moment of the day. But it struck me that the scene sequence could have been changed to a number of different orders without much difference in audience understanding.

The one moment where the juxtaposition of scenes is more than superficial is when the film goes from Julianne Moore driving to Richard, who is dying of AIDS, and we realize that he is Julianne Moore's little boy. This gives the film a much-needed jolt. But it also highlights what is largely missing from the script, the subtle reveals necessary to build a story of daily life.

The cross cut is a very powerful structural tool in film. You can compare at the speed of light. But if you are also adhering to the rule that a feature film must come in around two hours, you run the grave risk of being superficial. The more lines you cross cut within that two-hour frame, the less depth you achieve.

With The Hours we have three short stories that are playing simultaneously. One or more of these stories may be interesting, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

Jan 26, 2003


The key story device of the film adaptation of Chicago is the decision to do the musical numbers as fantasies from the mind of the lead character, Roxie, who dreams of being a star.

This device has two advantages. First, it gives the audience an excuse for why "real" characters are singing and dancing. This is the first problem that must be solved in any movie musical. Putting the numbers in Roxie's head not only lets the audience enjoy the pleasure of song and dance, it makes the music come from character.

Second, the device lets the filmmakers avoid the other great problem with movie musicals, their length. Movie musicals have to tell a complete story and also do ten or so songs. Typically, the story comes to a grinding halt while a song is performed. And while the songs may be lovely, the leapfrog of story and song can seem interminable.

But using the fantasy device in Chicago, the filmmakers are able to cross-cut story material with the musical number, thus making the overall film considerably tighter.

Catherine Zeta-Jones does an excellent job pretending to be a dancer. But no amount of trick editing and skirted costumes can hide the fact that she is too heavy for the part. And when the "women behind bars" dance number comes on, the sight of women who can dance makes it clear just how much we lose aesthetically by having to use a star instead of a professional dancer.

Jan 16, 2003


I'm sitting here struggling with how to write a critique of this highly-praised yet flawed screenplay. Besides my usual feeling of not being good enough - in spite of being highly-successful in Hollywood - what I really want to do right now is have a muffin, and I might as well have coffee too, although it might be better to exercise first.

Kaufman - the writer not the character - has been applauded for his very post-modern technique of including his own struggle to write an adaptation of "The Orchid Lover" as part of the story. If we're comparing to mainstream Hollywood genre films, yes, I will go along with that. But it's also a technique many of us used in high school when we had to write a paper for which we had no subject.

What matters is the technique's effectiveness. Does it give Kaufman a structure that allows him to tell a great story?

Like Kaufman's earlier script, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation has some funny scenes in the opening, and then structurally falls apart. In fact, this script is really a long opening and a long ending stuck together, with little in the middle.

I'm not arguing for a three-act structure script, or for the dreaded genre story that Kaufman considers so beneath him. But I am arguing for a story, an organic unit that builds steadily and expresses a set of themes.

Kaufman's character, Charlie, gives us the key clue to why this organic story never happens. To make this script work, he says he must connect the screenwriter's story with that of the author and the botanist. He never comes close.

Charlie, the character, clearly has needs. He is down on himself, paralyzed, way too self-conscious and is unable to show a woman how he feels about her. Susan, the author, is apparently unhappy in her marriage and wants to feel passionately about something. The botanist, though quirky, does feel passionately about orchids. But his need - to overcome the loss of his wife - has nothing to do with the hero.

The problem comes from the fact that Charlie's desire, to adapt Susan's book, doesn't connect these characters in any but the most superficial way. Whatever weaknesses Charlie may have, he is certainly passionate about good writing. His only connection to Susan and her problems occurs in the ridiculous final scenes when she tries to kill him, an action that is totally out of character and thus has no emotional meaning or payoff.

For most of the film, Charlie's only connection is with his twin brother. This character provides lots of laughs, especially for any writer who has spent any time in Hollywood. And I was certainly grateful for that.

But even here Kaufman's set-up doesn't allow an organic story to develop. The brother represents the writer's urge to go commercial, to hit the simple formula of the hack and make a lot of money. But this is set in opposition to a character who has become highly successful within Hollywood by being original. Sure, he's having some problems adapting this particular book, but that's because the book shouldn't be a movie in the first place. And if Charlie fails, it certainly won't mean the end of his lucrative Hollywood career, or even give it much of a dent.

Playing out this conflict between brothers, then, has nowhere to go. Charlie's brother is at most an inconvenience, and his success at selling his formulaic thriller should cause Charlie, the golden boy, little more than a bemused, "That's Hollywood."

The conflict between the brothers also has nothing to do with the author or the botanist. Neither is dealing with the issue of selling out. The botanist is an obsessed scientist who loves his work; the author is writing an article and book about an orchid man, and trying to match his passion.

All this explains why the story doesn't develop, and why the ending is from another movie. I'm sure that Kaufman the writer justifies the ending by figuring that when Charlie hooks up with his hack, thriller-writing brother, the story they are playing out turns into a thriller as well.

It's a gag idea, too clever by half, and only highlights Kaufman's inability to connect these characters and tell a full story. These characters do have an emotional reality that has been established for most of the film. That is immediately tossed in the toilet. Charlie, no matter how desperate, would never have asked his brother for help with this script, never have gone to see a writing teacher (I like to think he would have called me eventually), never have followed Susan to Florida, etc. etc. etc. Susan would never have tried to kill Charlie, nor would the botanist.

It's all absurd. Unfortunately it's not played absurd. It's played straight. So when the tragedy hits, it's fake tragedy, death ex machina, with the emotions painfully hollow.

As this movie played out, I started smelling the overwhelming odor of disdain that Kaufman seems to have for his audience. He figures he can do a fancy cross cut between three unrelated characters, toss in some inside Hollywood jokes, include himself as a character, staple on a big Hollywood genre ending and everyone will call him a genius.

Given the response of the critics, I guess he's right. I need a muffin. Or maybe coffee. Or maybe I'll call mom...