Dec 30, 2006

Dreamgirls


All musicals have a special problem when it comes to storytelling. They use two tracks of communication, drama and music. The writer must let each form do what it does best and then somehow connect them and make them appear to be one line.

Dreamgirls has many fine elements, most especially some of its pop songs and a number of dazzling performances. But the screenplay is not its strength. The script is serviceable, allowing the writer to hang the songs on a storyline. But even that breaks down about half way through, so the second half of the movie feels like a concert with too many songs stuffed down our throats.

Not surprisingly, the story problems come out of the character setup. In the beginning of the film, Effie is the main character. She is the lead singer and the driving force in the group's desire to reach the top. But the Dreamgirls are quickly taken over by Curtis (Jamie Foxx), who determines all the action steps the group will take. The problem with Curtis as a character is that there is nothing inside. He's not a person, he's a money-making machine. Also, even though he is driving the action, he is the Dreamgirls' main opponent.

This kind of character setup isn't a problem as long as Effie is the lead singer of the group. But halfway through the story, she gets tossed out. At this point Dreamgirls essentially ends. But there's still half a movie to go, and the second half feels infinitely longer than the first. Why? Notice the domino effect. Replacing Effie as lead singer is Deena (Beyonce Knowles), who has been chosen because she is so plastic and bland. So she can't carry the second half of the story. That leaves the plot pusher, Curtis, but all of his action steps at this point involve making more money, which is the same story beat. So the story fractures and grinds to a halt. Now the songs have no line to hang on, no emotion to punctuate. No matter how good a song might be on its own, each one feels, at this point in the film, like a big fat blob. I found myself begging the screen, "Please don't make me sit through another interminable song."

A lot has been made of the writer's attempt to go beyond the personal to the historical and the political. To show the rise of black music during the civil rights era and how black music was then co-opted by the white corporate establishment. I certainly applaud the effort. But the technique isn't there. Again the prime culprit is all those never-ending songs. The writer has no time to develop the complex interconnections between the musical history and the political history. So he relies on the old film chestnut, the montage. This is shorthand writing, and all it does is confirm the simplest stereotypes. In fact, Dreamgirls includes one of the most offensive scenes of the year, when it shows a terrific "black" song being stolen and defiled by a truly horrible white pop band that is supposed to stand for all "white" music.

For me the most interesting element in this movie is one it did not intend. Thematically it paints itself into a corner; it moves logically and inexorably to an indictment of itself. Dreamgirls supposedly shows the history of Motown music, but it doesn't have any Motown songs. It shows the corruption of soul music into generic pap, acceptable to all, and the movie is just another example of that endpoint.

Dec 14, 2006

The Holiday


The first requirement of any genre film is that you hit the unique story beats that define the form. Depending on the genre, you will have anywhere from 8-15 beats that you must include or your audience will be disappointed. The second requirement of any genre film is that you twist these beats in a unique way to make your inherently generic story original.

Most writers fail at the first requirement either because they don't know the genres they are using or because they haven't studied their genres sufficiently. More advanced writers tend to fail in the second requirement, and we need look no further than the romantic comedy, The Holiday. The Holiday is what you get when the writer hits the love story beats in the most predictable way possible.

This film seems to have a terrific "high concept" premise. Two women with love troubles, one American and one British, trade houses and find true love in the other's country. But premises can be deceiving, especially high concept ones. That's why I go through so many premise techniques in the Great Screenwriting Class. Premise is where 95% of writers fail, because they don't know how to break down a premise idea and figure out the structural problems they are bound to face.

The premise of The Holiday has a number of hidden flaws that almost guarantee it will be a predictable, phony script. Most importantly, we have two lead characters who cross paths in mid air and play out their stories in separate locations. Notice two crucial effects. First, the writer has half the time for character development for each of the two leads. Second, the story structure is by necessity a cross cut structure. Cross cut highlights comparison between characters. But with each character having half the time for development, the comparison between these two characters only highlights how clich├ęd and shorthand the writer has drawn them.

A perfect example of this is the ghost and need of the Cameron Diaz character, Amanda. In love stories the ghost and need is always some version of a cycle of fear that is preventing the hero from being able to love. Amanda's inability to love comes from the fact that her parents split up and left her literally unable to cry. When Amanda explains this ghost and need to her love interest, it's so phony and on-the-nose that I thought I saw a flashing red sign above her head saying: STORY BEAT ALERT!!! This leads to the phoniest, on-the-nose self-revelation of the year when Amanda discovers that she really is in love with her guy because, you guessed it, SHE CRIES REAL TEARS!!!

Genres are formulaic, but that doesn't mean you have to write them that way. If you want to know how to meet but also transcend the story beats of the romantic comedy, take a look at either the Love Story Class or the Comedy Class. It's all about learning your form well enough so you can take a chance on being original and know you have a rock solid story structure to back you up.

Nov 21, 2006

Casino Royale


It's tough to say that a movie franchise generating revenue in the hundreds of millions per picture is in need of an overhaul. But the Bond pictures have been stale and predictable for years. In certain ways this is unavoidable. Bond is a super-hero, and the action genre, of which these movies are a sub-set, has a tendency to deteriorate into a string of stunts and action set pieces.

The obvious difference that accounts for the revitalization of the Bond franchise is getting a new actor to play the part. But the crucial changes in the new Bond have nothing to do with acting or directing and everything to do with story structure. Put simply, the writers have moved the character away from god and myth and toward the real and the dramatic.

This shift is apparent right from the start when the film establishes the new Bond's physical bona fides. Which is a fancy way of saying this guy can believably kill someone with his bare hands. This is not the suave but slight Bond who dispenses with his enemies using a few karate chops. This Bond has a long, brutish fight to the death in a grimy bathroom. No fancy technology. Just messy, ugly hand-to-hand combat.

Casino Royale also uses the Batman Begins technique of giving the hero a recognizable weakness and need. This is still James Bond, superhero. But he is clearly troubled by his coldness and his inability to love. And he is not proud of the fact that he treats women as conquests and only sleeps with women who are married (and even gets them killed as a result).

A third structural area where this Bond moves toward the real and the dramatic is the opponent. The villain here is not the evil World Dominator, a mythical figure with no effect on the audience. The opponent here is someone who funds terrorism. His attacks are against real people and their deaths make an emotional difference to the audience.

Perhaps the biggest change here is the most difficult one to see, which is the shift from action to plot. Most Bond films are a sequence of stunts with no plot. There are certainly some big action set pieces in Casino Royale. But they are grounded in a developing plot. Plot is the most complex of the major writing skills and involves, among many other things, using the full 22 steps of every great story (see the Great Screenwriting Class). But one of the keys to plot is creating opposition not primarily from strangers but from those closest to the hero. Casino Royale does this much better than most Bond films and it makes a huge difference.

Films like Casino Royale, Superman Returns, Spider-Man, The Incredibles and Batman Begins show that sound story structure techniques don't just work in serious dramas. They work just as well in super-hero myth stories. And if you don't know what these techniques are, you're not in the game.

Oct 30, 2006

The Prestige


Using advanced storytelling techniques (see the Advanced Screenwriting Class and the Masterpiece Software) is probably the single best way to set yourself apart from the Hollywood screenwriting crowd. But this approach is extremely challenging as well, and if you aren't careful you can weaken the very story you are trying to showcase.

In their story of competing magicians, the writers of The Prestige use a double storyteller. While not uncommon in a medium like the novel, this advanced technique is extremely rare in mainstream Hollywood film. Structurally a double storyteller creates two equal main characters. When you have virtually unlimited amount of time to explore character (as in a novel), this isn't a problem. But in the relatively short two-hour time period you have in a Hollywood movie, it's a huge problem.

If you add the advanced technique of making both characters unsympathetic, you compound the problem even further. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, characters don't have to be sympathetic. But they do have to be compelling. By cross-cutting between two main characters in the time a writer normally has to define one, these writers make both of their heroes superficial and opaque.

The great strength of The Prestige is the plot. But ironically, that simply highlights the fatal weakness of the story. This film about slight of hand and trickery has plenty of slight of hand and trickery in its plot. But without the proper character work, it's all just pulling strings. By being extra complicated, the mechanics of the plot actually become more, not less, obvious. The audience pulls back and notices they are watching a movie.

Instead of showing us how clever they are, these talented writers show us how they have failed in the first job of the writer, to make the audience care.

Oct 13, 2006

The Departed


The Departed is very instructive in showing us how to write a crime thriller, and how not to. It starts with a terrific premise: cops and criminals have a mole in the each other's organization. But this is also a premise that is loaded with pitfalls. In the Great Screenwriting Class, I talk extensively about how you develop your premise, to learn not only the potential strengths of your idea but also the hidden structural weaknesses.

In The Departed, the writers must immediately confront the difficulty of two main characters (see my breakdown of The Prestige for more on this problem). Again, the need to cross-cut between two leads first takes a toll on the definition of the characters. The writers are so interested in getting the plot going they fail to give Billy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) a motive for going undercover. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that no one in this movie has a motive for what they do.

Lack of character motive (which is connected to the first major structure step, the Need) is always a big weakness. But in a story already dominated by plot, this is a disaster. The characters are nuts and bolts being moved by plot mechanics.

The premise does highlight the strength of The Departed, which is the plot. But it also shows us how even the best plot can spiral out of control.

Plot in crime stories is all about opposition under the surface, and The Departed is worth studying to see how to create that, not only in a crime story but in any work of fiction. But when you are creating your plot, you have to be aware of the fundamental trade-off between plot and believability. The more you try to hide the opposition under the surface - thus giving you more plot - the more you push the believability of your characters to the extreme. You become so conscious of creating surprise that you force the characters to take actions that they, and indeed no human being, would logically do.

This believability problem surfaces right away when Billy, who has been to the police academy, becomes the mole in the Costello crime family. It would be so obvious that this guy is the snitch that I was immediately reminded of Clark Kent and Superman. Somehow when Superman puts on a suit and a pair of nerdy glasses no one can see that he is Superman. In a fantasy superhero story, the audience accepts that convention and lets it pass. Not so in a realistic crime story.

The writers keep the believability problems at bay for most of the story. But any story that emphasizes plot always pushes the reveals to the end, where whatever believability problems it has will be magnified as the reveals come fast and furious. Sure enough, The Departed rapidly disintegrates into farce and stupidity. The final sequence is filled with reveals and assassinations, but they are based on actions so mindlessly dumb that the audience is left muttering, "No! No! No!"

Even worse, this sort of false plot, sprung at the end, kills the audience's sense of investment in the film itself. If it's so easy to assassinate these characters, why didn't they just shoot Costello in the first place and save me 2 1/2 hours of my time.

Oct 5, 2006

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip


Studio 60 has not been the big hit everyone at NBC hoped it would be. And it's taken more than a few shots, mostly from insiders who say that it's not an authentic view of a sketch comedy show. Why? Because it's not funny. And they're right; it's not funny. That could be because creator and writer Aaron Sorkin can't write funny. Or more likely it's because the show's not a comedy. It's a drama about working in a corporation, a corporation that just happens to be in the business of making culture.

Sometimes Sorkin gets too cute in his writing, typically from updating a classic story beat. He always does the beat well, but it's still a recognizable beat. And I get the feeling that he is writing so much so fast that for long stretches he just puts it on automatic and lets his considerable knowledge of story carry him along.

To see one of the reasons why Studio 60 may be having trouble with audiences, let's look at a technique that is crucial to a TV drama: the episodic desire line. In other words, what is accomplished in each episode? In a classic cop show, it's solving the crime. In a courtroom drama, it's winning the case. In a doctor show, it's saving the patient. On Studio 60 it's … Well, we know what it isn't. It's not putting on a 90-minute comedy show. So what is it?

The desire line in each episode is what gives the story its shape, and is one of the key elements of a show's DNA. You can create a show in which the desire line extends over many episodes, but you will have more difficulty holding a mass audience. So many shows provide at least one desire line that is accomplished by the end of the episode, and extend the others. Aaron Sorkin doesn't do that on Studio 60. It's not a bad thing. It's just not popular. Regardless of Studio 60's essential structure, there is a lot to like and learn from by watching it.

For example, we see a great technique in the second part of a two-part episode in which Harriet gets an award. It's the technique I call the "dialogue of equals." Good conflict dialogue should be a heavyweight fight. Punch/counter-punch. One throws a hammer blow. The other comes right back with a hammer blow of his own. Not only does each line have dramatic power, the scene builds in the sequence of the blows (lines), ending in a knockout punch.

To create a building punch/counter-punch, you have to have two equals, by which I mean two characters with an equal ability to verbally attack. If one is too strong, he or she will get in the most blows and the scene will not build. In the concluding episode of the two-parter, Matt and Harriet go at each other with ferocity. Matt is the obviously more aggressive and nastier of the two. But Harriet does not shrink back and ends up having the more powerful blows, including the lethal knockout punch.

Sep 18, 2006

Hollywoodland


I'm sure it seemed like a great idea at the time. Cross cut between a detective story where a guy digs into the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and the drama of a C-level movie star committing suicide. These are two very different genres that have the potential of getting to the dark side of the American Dream. Some of the greatest movies in film history deal with this theme.

But it doesn't work here. In fact, this story devolves. A quick look at why highlights how important it is to explore your premise thoroughly before you write your script.

The first big structural mistake has to do with the detective line. This one doesn't build its revelations, leading to the biggest reveal of all, who-dunnit. Building revelations are the main reason people go to see detective stories, so that's a pretty big mistake. The detective in Hollywoodland goes through various scenarios. But about halfway through it becomes clear that his investigation is just one big stall. Without the rewards of ever-bigger reveals, the fuel runs out of the desire line. The result: the audience gets really pissed off.

The second structural problem has to do with the second storyline: the drama concerns a person I don't care about. This guy supposedly commits suicide because he can't get any parts other than Superman. That's a drag, no doubt, but Norma Desmond he ain't. A drama about a personal tragedy has to start with a complex character who has great flaws but also has an heroic quality, even when he's Willy Loman. The George Reeves character is bland, with little talent. He doesn't have great flaws. He doesn't have great strengths. Without a complex character to start with, the drama can't build as it explores the deeper issue at the hero's core. So again, the story becomes less, not more, interesting as it proceeds. You can't make a bigger mistake than that.

The third cause of failure has to do with the requirements and expectations of a cross-cut structure. When you do a cross-cut over the course of an entire story, you are highlighting the comparison between the two main characters and the two lines of action. That means that the juxtaposition between scenes in each line must create a greater meaning that only comes from comparison. That doesn't happen here beyond the most superficial level. Yes, both main characters are little men in the hierarchy of LA. Yes, both have personal problems with petty jobs and broken families. But you need a lot more detail than that for a comparison to trigger new insights.

If you want to see how to write a good drama and figure out the structural problems buried in your premise, take a look at the Great Screenwriting Class. Techniques for writing the detective story, including all the unique story beats, are found in the Detective, Crime and Thriller Class and the Detective Genre Software.

Aug 25, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine


This comedy has one of the best scripts to come along in a few years. It's a small indie film, so it's not going to make blockbuster money. But don't let that fool you. You can learn a lot from studying this script.

Comedies are almost always underestimated because they're all about making people laugh. How hard can that be? Very. If you can make people laugh on the page, Hollywood will pay you huge sums of money. Most writers think comedy comes from good jokes. That may be true in a stand-up routine, but it's not true in the movies. In the movies, you have to tell a comic story that lasts about two hours. If you start from the gag or the joke, you have no chance of writing a funny script.

The key is to find the right comic structure by which you can tell your two-hour story and on which you can hang the jokes. One of the reasons movie comedies are so hard to write is that there are so many comic story structures, all of which sequence in a different way. If you don't pick the right comic structure for your idea, or if you don't know the story beats of your form, you're in big trouble. And no amount of jokes is going to make any difference. Without the right comic structure, even the best jokes won't be funny.

Little Miss Sunshine uses one of the oldest comic structures, the comic journey. This form goes all the way back to Don Quixote and is really a combination of the comic and myth forms. Part of the success of this combination is that these two genres are in many ways opposites. The myth form, using the journey as its main technique, wants to be big, heroic and inspiring. Comedy is about cutting things down to size, finding the falsely big and poking a hole in it. So in a comic journey story, the myth sets up the laughs (puffing up the characters), while the comedy provides the punchline.

The downside of combining these two genres is that it causes you all kinds of structural problems. The biggest has to do with the episodic quality of the story. Characters on a journey encounter a number of unique opponents who are usually strangers. This means that every time your hero goes up against a new opponent, that's an episode. In effect, a mini-story. String too many of these together and you get a very bored and tired audience.

Comedy exacerbates this episodic quality. With rare exception, whenever you do a joke or a gag, you are stopping the narrative drive so the audience can see the character knocked off his pedestal. String too many of these together and your story stops dead in its tracks.

Obviously one of the keys to a successful comic journey story is finding techniques that can give you a strong narrative line. Little Miss Sunshine uses two techniques that are especially valuable: the endpoint and the family.

Near the beginning of this script, writer Michael Arndt tells the audience the endpoint of the comic journey. What's more, the characters will be going on a single-line journey. This apparently simple technique is crucial because it gives the audience a line, literally, on which to hang the events and the gags. Instead of becoming impatient with what happens next, the audience can sit back and enjoy the ride - and the jokes. You have already promised them where they are going to go. In effect, you are letting them laugh.

In journey stories with a single hero, all the opponents in the story must be new and they must be strangers. But in Little Miss Sunshine the writer sends an entire family of six on the road. That means that the main opposition is among people the audience knows and it is an ongoing opposition. Instead of a succession of unconnected events, the story has a steadily building conflict. That makes the jokes funnier and it lets the writer build to the funniest gag of all when the family gets to the beauty pageant at the end of the journey.

If you're interested in how to write any of the various comic story structures, take a look at the Comedy Class or the Comedy Software.

Jul 12, 2006

Superman Returns


Movies based on comic book super-heroes are more difficult to write well than they appear. These stories are a sub-form of the action genre, with a number of fantasy and horror elements thrown in. Mixing these three genres properly is tricky, which is why most super-hero films are huge and expensive flops. Superman Returns has a better script than the Superman films of 20 years ago. The writers have obviously learned two big lessons from recent successful super-hero films like Spider-Man, The Incredibles and Batman Returns.

The first lesson is: give the hero a serious weakness and need. The writers don't just recycle the usual Superman history, which is generic by now and has little psychological force for the audience. Instead Superman's weakness is focused on his relationship with Lois Lane. Clearly they were in love and he abandoned her, and it has had painful consequences for both of them. This is written and played seriously, so while the man has superhuman strength, he is recognizably all-too-human.

The second lesson is: give the superhero a dangerous opponent. Some have complained that Kevin Spacey's performance is too jokey (I don't agree). But as written, this Lex Luthor is not campy, like the opponent Gene Hackman played in the original Superman. He's nasty and deadly. In the Great Screenwriting Class, where I talk about how you create the right opponent for your hero, I start with one of the keys to great storytelling: your hero is only as good as the opponent he fights. This is certainly true when you write a super-hero story. You begin with a big problem: the super-hero is almost never in believable jeopardy. So creating an opponent who can give the hero a fair fight is extremely difficult already. If you then make him a campy joke, you have effectively killed your plot.

The Superman story uses another storytelling trick that audiences love. I refer to it as the Scarlet Pimpernel technique. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, the hero appears to be an effete and effeminate bon vivant who cares about nothing but the latest fashion. Secretly, he is a dashing action hero saving the unfortunate (but not poor) victims of the French Revolution. Superman pretends to be the bumbling and possibly cowardly nerd, Clark Kent. In reality, he is the Man of Steel, saving mankind from all sorts of crimes and disasters.

The contrast between these two personas - the weak and the heroic - is inherently fun for the audience. It also makes the central thematic point of these stories, which is the importance of living courageously. Just how much the audience loves this technique is readily seen in any Superman film. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, the hero does his heroic deeds in disguise, so his pose as a fop is completely believable. In Superman, the hero simply removes his Clark Kent glasses and greases back his hair. Apparently no one in Metropolis has facial recognition, and the audience couldn't care less.

Jul 5, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada


The Devil Wears Prada is a simple little comedy that appears to have almost nothing going for it. The hero doesn't go through much character development. She gets caught up in trying to be successful, forgets her friends and her boyfriend, and ends up opting for integrity and a substantial career instead of climbing the executive rungs of the fashion business. It's all very predictable and trite. But this obvious character change is there to give the writer a clean line on which to hang a sequence of funny bits. The secret to the success of this comedy is found in three structural elements: a horrible but believable opponent, a unique and authentic story world, and a psychology the audience is all too familiar with.

A great opponent is just as important in a comedy as it is in an action story. Since comedy structure is based on snowballing nightmares (see the Comedy Class for how to set this up), you always have to start with a powerful opponent who can generate the nightmares. A great comic opponent is not literally deadly like an opponent in an action story. But she must be socially deadly, able to inflict severe humiliation or loss. Here, the hero's boss, Amanda (played perfectly by Meryl Streep), is a monster with no end of ways to torture her assistant and make her feel small.

The comic scenes and lines come out of a unique story world - the fashion industry - that is both foreign, and thus surprising to the audience, but is also part of our everyday lives. A sense of authenticity is very valuable in storytelling because it gives the audience the exciting sense that they are peering into a hidden world. When that world is fashion - the clothes we wear to look good - that excitement is magnified.

The comedy also relies heavily on a deep psychological scar, especially for women, that is embedded in American culture. This is the pressure to be thin and beautiful. A lot of the fun in this movie comes from the fortunate casting of Anne Hathaway in the lead, an actress more beautiful than most supermodels. But I'm sure the script was written from the beginning based on the assumption that a beautiful actress would play the part. So when the fashionistas remark with disgust that the Anne Hathaway character is a size 6!!, the joke is funny because it is both absurd but also, within this world, totally real. With each joke the audience senses that if it can happen to a "normal" woman who is this beautiful, what chance do I have. A joke or gag is always meant to create laughs by diminishing the character. If you can also give the audience some recognition or revelation about their own life at the same time, the joke is ten times more effective.

Jan 12, 2006

Children of Men


As the most creative, literally, of all genres, science fiction places a tremendous burden on the writer. You have to create the world, in detail. Children of Men gets some of this right. But there's a lot missing, too.

The first rule of science fiction is to remember that you're writing about the present world, not the future. Indeed, the biggest mistake science fiction writers make is they place the story in such a bizarre and unrecognizable world that the audience can't identify with it. The viewer takes a clinical attitude toward the story, and all emotion is gone.

The world of Children of Men is just weird enough to feel like the future, but it is also horrifyingly present tense. Immigrants are outcasts, torture is justified, bombs explode anywhere for no apparent reason.

It is in the details, however, that Children of Men runs into problems. The most important detail of any science fiction world is the basic rules by which the society works, and that is not clear here. Why all the deportations? Why the war with the immigrants? Why is a baby born to this woman and no others? I can guess at these things. But the writer doesn't want the audience to guess, because that means they are thinking about the construction of the story and not the story itself.

Children of Men also fails to explain or justify the desire line. This is the motive for the quest. Everything else relies on it. So it must be very strong and completely believable. Why is this guy facing almost certain death to escort a woman he doesn't know? Telling us he needs money and is a former activist doesn't cut it. Why does the woman have to go on this trek at all? Saying the British government won't recognize a baby born to an immigrant woman is absurd.

And that leads to the biggest problem with the script, one that is very common to science fiction stories. Science fiction often borrows the journey technique from the myth genre in order to structure the story. The problem with the journey is that it can easily become episodic. The hero encounters a series of opponents on the road but each attack is essentially the same beat. Which means that this kind of science fiction story has no plot. Sure enough the plot in Children of Men quickly becomes tiresome. The two leads drive for a while and then get attacked. Then they drive some more and get attacked again.

This film has some amazing cinematography that goes a long way toward making this world seem intensely real. There is a single take during the battle scene - about ten minutes long - that will take your breath away. But ultimately any film, including science fiction, comes down to story. If you don't set up the story world and the plot properly, no amount of camera work will cover the holes.

If you would like to learn all the techniques for setting up a detailed world and a plot that builds steadily to the end, take a look at the Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Class or the Science Fiction add-on to Blockbuster.