Friday, February 27, 2009

geriatric therapy

This week we watched Harold and Maude the Hal Ashby film from Colin Higgins screenplay. It's one of the most perfect comedies in my opinion. Usually a comedy this old does not really hold up, you know? Like how everyone talks about how hilarious The Apartment is but when you watch it it's kind of depressing with zero laughs. I mean it's amusing, but come on, straining spaghetti with a tennis racket is not super hilarious. No disrespect to the genius Billy Wilder- it's just that over time what we thought was funny becomes less funny. It's the march of culture. Anyhow, back to Harold and Maude. Here are ten lessons I learned from watching the film this week:
  • Do it with style. Harold is a one of a kind character. Sure he’s a weirdo, but he does it with such panache- we can’t help but admire his resourcefulness. A fake hanging, that crazy wrist cutting- buying a hearse. Where have you ever seen this guy before?
  • Bring into the life of your Protagonist the unlikely instructor. They learn lessons from their opposite- from the person they’d like to be or the person they fear the most. Harold is someone obsessed with death even though he's so young. Maude is near death and yet in love with life.
  • Make a decision about the moment your character falls in love and show it. When does Harold fall in love with Maude? We’ve had lots of reasons why they’re a good match, but what is it that makes him fall for her? In my opinion it's the oderifics moment in her train car. If you look at his face as she "plays" the smell of snow falling on 45th street for him you can see him falling in love. It's further illustrated when he has him reach into her sculpture which is basically a giant wooden vagina.
  • State your philosophy and illustrate it. At the 38:00 minute mark Maude says, “I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this (indicating a single daisy), and yet allow themselves to be treated as that." (indicating a field of daisies)
  • What your main character wants and what your main character needs can be opposite of each other. Harold wants to die (attention from his mom) and yet he needs to live (independence from his mother’s world).
  • Actions speak louder than words. At the 60:00 minute mark we get more about Harold from what he does than what he says. This is the moment where his mom brings over yet another prospective "date" for Harold. As the date is talking about her job Harold proceeds to fake cutting off his hand in front of her. He has not a line of dialog and yet he has said so much.
  • Your hero’s unhealthy talents should be used in a new way; in the service of good. In the scene where Harold meets with his uncle in advance of being shipped off to the Army he and Maude stage an elaborate "murder" to paint Harold as a liability and unsuitable for enlisting. Here everything he's good at comes to play to quite literally save his life.
  • Your antagonist (Harold's mom) is all the more formidable when they have the institutions of society on their side. Your hero isn’t just battling their situation, they’re righting a larger wrong. Harold's mom is at the pinnacle of society. She's rich and proper and everything you're supposed to want to be- and yet, we'd rather be with Harold.
  • Take us to unexpected places. But it’s all the better when we go there willingly. By the time Harold and Maude consummate their relationship we're on board. It's a bit of a shock but we're kind of okay with the fact that a 20-something and a 70-something just had sex.
  • Pain and the scars of life define us… and your characters. Often your main character is on the verge of drowning in life’s grief. This is their struggle for liberation and in some cases maturity. This moment will define them for the rest of their days- choose wisely. No trivial moments will do. This essentially represents the point in Harold's life where if change does not happen he will die. It's true. If Maude had not come into his life it's a pretty good bet that in ten years or so he would have killed himself for real.

summer writing program

So for the past two summers I've been teaching at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers near Lake Tahoe. They offer a screenwriting workshop that is an intensive week-long program focusing on craft. It's pretty much designed for writers who have a draft of a script that they want to perfect. I'm a big fan of programs like this one or the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab because unlike the Sundance Lab, you can actually get into them without knowing someone. They're not as well known, but they offer the same level of instruction and support.
The Squaw Valley program was created over forty years ago by a group of writers including the head of AFI's screenwriting department, Tom Rickman. It's basically like a summer camp for writers. The deadline for applications is Saturday April 25th. The cost of the program is $750.00.

Friday, February 20, 2009

i'll be back

This week our movie was The Terminator. While we can all agree it's no masterpiece there's a good bit to be learned from the film. Particularly taking notice of how James Cameron handles secondary characters and the revelation of exposition.

Secondary Characters
The film is populated by secondary characters who are pretty memorable. This is no accident and serves to make them stand out on the screen, but also on the page. When reading a script you've probably run into a character on page 60 and had to ask yourself, "who is this again?" If you give them a big characteristic, even if it's just one note, we'll always remember who they are and not be confused by a reappearance after vanishing for twenty pages or so. There are many examples but Sarah's roomate is a good one. We call her walkman-girl because she is never seen without her walkman (pictured above sharing an intimate moment with her boyfriend and a Tones on Tail cassingle.)

The other thing about these secondary characters is that they serve to reinforce the theme of the movie. It's all about a world gone mad. Most of the secondary characters are in support of that idea. The Terminator could steal clothes from anyone when he arrives nude at Griffith Observatory in act 1. But instead, he steals them from a group of new-waver punks. The aformentioned walkman girl with her giant 80's hair and narcisistic need for constant musical entertainment. The freaky overall wearing hillbilly in the phone booth (remember those?) Even the soon-to-be-dead detectives chain smoke with nihilistic abandon.

Exposition largely occurs during moments of intense action. It's a great way to get a lot of information across without it suddenly turning into My Diner With Andre. Sarah Conner is brought up to speed about time travel, terminators, the coming machine revolution and her role as the rebellion leader all while fleeing the Terminator. It's a ten minute car chase sequence that by itself might be boring. It occurs so early in the movie we know our heros will get away. So what to do? Combine the obligitory action sequence with the obligitory exposition sequence and suddenly you have something that grips your attention. It's always a good idea to have your scenes do double duty, but this one works particularly well. It happens right at the start of act two (around the 36 minute mark) and is worth checking out. Action combined with exposition works in more than just this particular genre. In a romantic comedy you could combine the first date exposition with a comedy set piece to achieve the same effect.

Next week we'll examine the voice of the writer with Harold & Maude.