Nov 28, 2007


It's easy to underestimate the fantasy form, especially when it's a Disney family picture like Enchanted. But writer Bill Kelly knows his genre and its potential, especially when it's mixed with other forms.

Enchanted is really a combination of fantasy, fairy tale, romantic comedy, musical and the traveling angel story. That's a lot of forms, which is why this film is more complicated than it appears. Most writers trying to mix all those genres end up with a structural mess. Too many heroes, too many desire lines, too many story beats and so on. But Kelly makes it work.

One reason for the film's success is that Kelly has combined genres that work well together. Fantasy and musical have very similar thematic underpinnings. Both are about learning how to live well, which they define as forming a community. Love stories are about creating a community of two. The traveling angel story concerns a (usually) perfect person who enters a community in trouble and sets it right.

Now all of this thematic unity doesn't change the fact that mixing so many forms is tricky. Kelly starts by establishing the foundation of the story, which is the fantasy and fairy tale opening world. Though an apparent utopia, the world has a big flaw, which is the jealous queen. And the princess, though apparently perfect and about to be married, has a flaw as well. She has no emotional depth and therefore is about to marry the wrong person. One of the nice touches here is that the audience is no more aware of this at the beginning than is the princess. The viewer, having seen decades of Disney films, is as caught up in the promise of fairy tale life as the princess is. But this weakness is crucial because it creates the need in one of the lovers that is essential for a good love story.

With the foundation set, the heroine travels to the second, fantastical world. Ironically this film flips the beat and makes the second world all too real, modern day New York. But for the Princess it is a nightmare, a dystopia, and, true to the fantasy form, it is where the heroine will learn her great life lesson. It is also where the traveling angel plot kicks in. Using music and her own boundless, fairy tale optimism, she begins to help the characters who are in trouble and turns the cold New Yorkers in Central Park into a utopian community.

This is also where the love story line resumes. The man who helps her out has his own weakness and need. He's a single dad who doesn't believe in love. He needs to feel love again, for himself and his daughter. From this point on the film plays out the key beats of the fantasy, love story and traveling angel story. One of the fun aspects of modern fairy tales is seeing how the writer comes up with modern equivalents of fairly tale elements, like transformations, spells and kingdoms. For example, when the Princess finds herself in need of a fairy godmother, the daughter pulls out the greatest wish fulfiller of all time, dad's credit card.

Hollywood blockbuster films are all about mixing genres. Even pleasant little children's stories are more difficult than they appear, because they usually require a lot of forms. If you are interested in modernizing a fairy tale - which is a very successful story strategy - check out the Great Screenwriting Class. For fantasy, of course, go to the Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction Class or the Fantasy Software. You can learn Romantic Comedy in the Love Story Class or Software, or in the Comedy Class or Software. I explain the ever-popular Traveling Angel story in the Comedy Class and Software.

Above all, try to combine forms that work well together. In Enchanted, writer Bill Kelly shows the tremendous advantage that comes from knowing your craft.

Nov 9, 2007

American Gangster

The gangster story, like the Western, is a quintessentially American genre. And, in many ways, it is the opposite of the Western. The Western is about the taming of the frontier and the making of a nation. It values individual initiative through hard work and playing by the rules, along with material wealth and the spirit that comes from community. The gangster story bemoans the corruption of the American Dream. It shows individual initiative through illegal means, a corrupt, paranoid community and a success that is defined only through wealth.

The gangster genre is really a form of crime story, and when you write one you need to be very aware of this larger context and deeper theme. It is all about how an individual succeeds in American society. Knowing this allows you to tell a larger tale. And it prevents the audience from distancing themselves from your story by saying, "Oh, that's just a bunch of foreigners killing each other in some pocket on American soil."

Writer Steve Zaillian knows this larger context, which is why he can justifiably call this story of a black drug lord American Gangster. True to the form, he uses the story structure of the rise and fall of a king. Frank Lucas is the American businessman gone bad, and the fact that he is black is relevant only in that he represents the latest ethnic group in America to take this dark path to success.

But Zaillian isn't content to simply twist the gangster form by using a black main character. He tries to expand the scope of his story by using the larger crime genre. This is a broad category of stories - with gangster as one of the sub-genres - that focuses on the battle between cop and criminal. Ironically, Zaillian's choice only serves to diminish the scope and power of the film.

Crime stories derive much of their pleasure from two main elements: the plot machinations between the cop and the criminal and the blending of moralities by which the cop and the criminal live their lives. The first element is almost non-existent in this story. Frank's rise to power is unique only in his use of US Army personnel to bring his heroin from Southeast Asia. Cop Richie Roberts uses techniques that have been standard on TV crime shows for years.

This weakness in plot puts a serious dent in the dramatic power of the film, because it also means there is not enough mano-a-mano. There's none of the pleasure of Heat or The French Connection here. Frank and Richie, played by two powerhouse actors, have essentially one confrontation in the entire film. It's a good one, but it only highlights how much direct confrontation is missing in the rest of the movie.

The writer's choice of having two central but separate characters takes an even greater toll on the other key element of the crime story, the moral blend. We normally think of cop and criminal at two opposite extremes of the moral spectrum. A good crime story will use the battle between these two characters to show that the moral difference between them is much more ambiguous.

Zaillian shows the moral contradictions within each of these characters individually. One of the reasons the classic gangster story is fascinating is that the gangster holds two wildly different moralities within his own head. On the one hand, Frank believes in family, integrity, and professionalism. He also believes in selling dope and killing people who get in his way. The gangster's ability to compartmentalize these impossibly different ways of living is one of the great examples of the human mind's almost infinite ability to rationalize.

Cop Richie is pretty good at compartmentalizing his morality as well. He turns in a million dollars of corrupt money and goes after dirty cops, but he's also a bad husband and father. An ongoing dramatic confrontation between these two men could have produced a deeper look at what is truly moral and immoral in American society. But it never happens.

Instead, the most interesting aspects of these characters and their real moral contrast come at the end of the film, in written epilogue. Richie, the incorruptible cop who brings down kingpin Frank and three fourths of the cops in the narcotics division, switches from prosecutor to defense attorney, and his first client is Frank. He succeeds in getting Frank only fifteen years in prison. But we've already seen that Frank has not only destroyed hundreds of lives through his drug running, he is a cold-blooded killer.

When I read that my eyes popped out of my head. And I wondered, Where's that movie? This script just started getting interesting on the last page.

Nov 1, 2007

Dan in Real Life

Romantic comedy is one of the most contrived of all genres. It's literally a complex mating dance with prescribed story beats designed to allow the audience to feel the love the characters share. Which is why it is essential that you execute the form well enough so you don't let the contrivance, the mechanics, show.

Another word for story beats is plot. And lack of plot is the biggest problem writers of love stories have. Plot is what creates the magic in a story. It's the slight of hand, and mind, that delights the audience. It's also the structure that everything else hangs on. So when it is missing or obvious, especially in a romantic comedy, the story collapses and the audience realizes the magic is fake.

Dan in Real Life is the story of an advice columnist who falls in love with his brother's girlfriend at a family get-together. But this is not real life. Dan's parents live in a rustic little mansion by the shore. And his extended family has apparently won the Happiest Family on Earth Award. These people love each other so much that they spend their entire vacation in one uproarious communal activity after another.

The audience may well wish they lived in a family like this. But it is so far removed from reality that it becomes mechanical. The love between the characters is obviously being manufactured by the actors, because it has never been earned in the writing. And that makes the supposed love between the two leads seem manufactured as well.

But the biggest problem with this sequence of communal love scenes is that it kills the plot. The big reveal - that Dan has fallen for his brother's girlfriend - is in the opening set up. The rest of the movie repeats the same beat of yet another family get-together where everyone is having incredible fun but Dan. On those few occasions when the entire family isn't having fun, they are all gathered around in a kind of intervention/group therapy session helping Dan get his emotions and morals right.