Nov 26, 2008
Changeling is a harrowing story of one woman’s nightmare when she tries to find her missing son. For screenwriters it shows the benefits, but also the difficulty, of combining the thriller with the social drama.
Drama is one of the great storytelling forms, but it has become rare in a Hollywood that requires all its movies to have blockbuster potential. Most writers of classic drama have moved to television where the level of writing has never been higher. But to get a drama made in film, you have to combine it with a more sensational genre that can pull in the big audience. Enter the thriller.
At first glance, this marriage of forms looks like a good idea. Social drama lets you explore human nature and social conflict in depth, while the thriller gives the story excitement, jeopardy and narrative drive. But these same qualities dictate virtually opposite story movements. Drama wants to slow down and dig deep, find the underlying causes and explore the subtleties of human character. Thriller wants to charge ahead, to find out who is attacking the hero. No subtlety here; it’s yes or no, he did it or he didn’t.
This is the crux of the problem that Changeling writer, J. Michael Straczynski, had to solve to make this film work. The story begins with the social drama. The hero, Christine Collins, returns home from work to find her son missing. Months later the police bring her a boy they claim is her son, even though she insists he isn’t. Her desire is simple: she wants her son back. But that creates a big structural problem for the writer. She can’t act on her desire. All she can do is repeat it to the corrupt cops. And while this generates anger in the audience at the arrogant injustice of the police who treat her as an incompetent child, it doesn’t drive the story forward.
This early part of the film also highlights another flaw common to the social drama. The hero has no moral need. All immorality is located in the opposition, the corrupt cops. This creates a good vs. evil contrast that is the kiss of death for good social drama, and exacerbates the hero’s position as a victim already established by her reactive desire line.
With the social drama line slowing to a halt, Straczynski introduces the investigation line and the story takes off with a burst of energy that’s palpable. A cop in the same precinct as the corrupt captain follows up on a kid’s claim that he helped a serial killer murder boys. The resulting investigation is not complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. It gives the story a goal with clear action beats. The writer then cross-cuts this line with a thriller line that comes from the corrupt captain sending Christine to an insane asylum for claiming the police gave her the wrong boy.
Does this story have a double desire line, and therefore two spines? You bet. And it does feel like two movies that have been cobbled together. But we also see here a writer making a unique story work on its own terms. Most stories have one or more structural roadblocks built in; they are part of the animal. If, as a professional, you have to make a story work, you pull from your bag of techniques and get the job done. Straczynski knows that neither desire line will support the story on its own. But by cross-cutting them, he creates a track with enough narrative drive to take us to the end of the social drama.
But not without severe costs. The story’s structural flaws prevent this from being a great social drama. Yes, the corrupt captain and chief of police are brought low and the mother is publicly redeemed. But subtlety and an exploration of deeper causes are nowhere to be found.
So what can we learn from Changeling? I’ve already mentioned the importance of making the story work, even if you have to break a few of the rules of good drama. The lesson of never letting perfection get in the way of success is always good for writers to remember. Changeling also shows us the power, and the difficulty, of combining drama with thriller. The key structural element is desire. If possible, try to turn the two desire lines – of drama and thriller – into one. Each line should help solve the other: investigating the crime should lead to deeper layers of the social conflict while the argument about the social issue should lead the hero to new clues about the crime.
Finally, Changeling shows us one of the keys to dramatizing a real-life story: finding the right frame. A true story must hit the same seven major structure steps as a fictional story. But a true story restricts you in how you find those steps, since you can’t just create them from thin air. Instead you have to focus on the frame, where to begin and end the story, and that means you have to start by identifying your battle scene. In Changeling, everything comes to a dramatic head at the trial, actually a cross-cut between the trial of the killer and the trial of the LA police. This battle brings a convergence of the two lines that this real-life drama-thriller desperately needs.
If you are interested in how to tell any story with maximum dramatic power, regardless of genre, look at our 22 Step Great Screenwriting Class. For tips on advanced drama and structuring true stories, check out the Advanced Screenwriting Class.
Life is a 1-hour drama that has been trying to break through after a strike-shortened season last year. I hope it does because it adds a number of fun twists to the police procedural that is the staple of American TV drama.
In the TV Drama Class, I go into all of the structural elements that must be present to construct a successful show. One of these has to do with the genre. Like film, TV requires that you take an existing popular genre or combination of genres and give it a unique twist. Life is a mix of detective, crime and buddy picture, and that’s a pretty strong combination. Yes, we’ve seen cop shows with partners many times before (for example, Law and Order SVU), but they aren’t using the buddy picture techniques. A buddy picture is a kind of action comedy in which the buddies form some kind of odd couple. The buddies love each other in a platonic way, but they act like a married couple, with constant lighthearted bickering.
In Life, the odd couple is Charlie Crews, a cop who was framed for a multiple murder-robbery and sent to jail before gaining his freedom and returning to the force along with $50,000,000 in “We’re sorry” money. He’s gained a Zen sensibility during his twelve years behind bars. And that drives his partner nuts. She’s Dani Reese, a practical, by-the-book cop who also just happens to be drop-dead gorgeous, like any number of other drop-dead gorgeous cops in Hollywood crime shows (for example, Law and Order SVU). Just once I’d love it if a character on one of these shows would ask our investigator if she realizes she’s beautiful enough to be an actress.
The two lead characters play well off each other, and I believe one of the reasons this show hasn’t done better is that the writers have not played this element up even further. One reason might be that the Reese character lacks detail. For a buddy picture to work the buddies must be equal. The writers have given Crews tremendous detail, to such a degree that he is clearly the hero of the show. This imbalance is a big mistake. William Goldman once told me that when they were shooting the early scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Butch has to fight Harvey for leadership of the gang, director George Roy Hill kept Sundance on his horse to visually increase Sundance’s stature relative to Butch. We forget that before the movie came out, Robert Redford was a nobody and Paul Newman was Paul Newman.
This may be why Life’s writers retooled the show this season by giving Reese and Crews a new boss, Captain Tidwell, with whom Reese could get romantically involved. Donal Logue, who plays the boss, is a funny actor and a welcome addition to the show. But while the move has boosted Reese’s importance a bit, the relationship between her and the boss is completely unbelievable. Hopefully the writers will strengthen this line, while also highlighting the more important buddy relationship between Reese and Crews.
Another structural element that determines a successful TV drama is the weave of the desire line. In other words, what gets accomplished in each episode and how are the episode’s goals intercut? Life uses a technique found in most cop shows of combining two main goals, one short-term and one long-term. The short-term goal is to solve the crime of that episode. The long-term goal is Crews’s determination to find the cops who framed him for the murder-robbery. The individual investigations all have a quirky quality that sets them apart from the standard crimes we see on most procedurals. For example, in a recent episode, Crews and Reese had to solve the murder of a mall Santa they find five minutes before the department store opens for holiday rush on Black Friday. They realize too late that the horde of hungry shoppers is going to trample their crime scene, and then discover that the shoppers have apparently taken Santa’s body as well.
The long-term investigation is more problematic. The conspiracy behind the murder-robbery and Crews’ frame-up is full of juicy possibilities, including one suspect who is Reese’s father. The brilliant Zen cop who sits in his mansion trying to unravel the conspiracy that took twelve years of his life is, besides being very un-Zen, great stuff. Which is why it’s been frustrating that the writers have done relatively little with it. I suspect that’s because they realize that once Crews figures out who did it, this line is over. The show’s creator has painted himself into a bit of a corner here. This concept is central to the premise of the show, and probably a good part of the reason Life got on the air in the first place. But it’s a big dead end when it comes to the extendability of the show.
Still, the writers must deal with this line. Giving it one or two scenes a show doesn’t work. Ignoring the line only makes it seem half-baked and unrelated to the main investigation in each episode. If the writers can expand this conspiracy from a single event in the past where Crews was framed to an ongoing, present-day corruption in the LAPD, this buddy picture of a Zen mind-master and his pragmatic, beautiful partner will turn into the hottest show on TV.