Monday, March 30, 2009

sympathy for the devil

This week I had the class take a look at The Honeymoon Killers. I rarely assign B movies for study because it tends to backfire. I used to have my classes watch Freeway every year until I assigned it to a class and they universally hated it. I get it- it is graduate school, we're supposed to be looking at good films. Anyhow, The Honeymoon Killers is a deeply flawed film but it has remarkable characters you won't find anywhere else. It's loosely based on a true story about a couple who would scam lonely women of a certain age out of their money. Eventually they were pushed to murder the victims of their scam leading to their tragic end.
There are few cinematic monsters like Martha. I think what makes her such a compelling character is the fact that she's so sympathetic. Here are the facts: She's an overweight nurse, hated by those who work under her. She sees women her age getting married left and right yet she's un-loved. Her mother is overbearing and manipulative. She writes to the Lonely Hearts Club to find a relationship and is rewarded with an introduction to a scam artist, Ray. At her core she just wants love- anyone can identify with that. It's just that she has to compromise everything to get it. Still though, she figures it's the best she can do. And in his own way Ray actually does love her- as much as a sociopath can love.
Whether your character is an outcast or the most popular girl in school, we grow to love them when you reveal their most painful vulnerabilities. This is where we understand their humanity and are able to identify with them no matter how alien their life is to our own.
A movie I saw recently, Hunger, directed by the visual artist Steve McQueen (not the dead actor but the artist who just won the Camera d'Or) is a similar study of a group of unlikeable people. It is about the 1981 hunger strike lead by IRA member Bobby Sands. McQueen disposes of the usual historical context that one normally sees in bio-pics. He starts the movie following a prison guard who is as complex and flawed as the prisoners he is "guarding." It's a movie where everyone has blood on their hands and there is no "good guy" to root for. The result is emotionally alienating in terms of character but valuable in terms of understanding the cause and effect of violence and political supression. Viewed through the lense of 9/11 the actions of the characters both British and Irish are revealed as utterly pointless, resulting in an ever escalating one-up-manship that can lead only to death. The film reminded me of Sarah Silverman's joke about how she can't understand the politics of Israel and Palestine. She says, "it's like yams hating sweet potatoes... They're both pushy and brown."
So there's no movie for the next two weeks. It's spring break at AFI. I will, however, be back next week with an entry about dialog. Until then...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

10 tools

So last night I went to a directing workshop at Film Independent. Whenever I go to these things I always feel like a big loser for the first thirty minutes. Like here I am, leaning hard on forty, trying to reinvent myself as a director. Oh god, the shame. And inevitably there are freaky people in the room just reinforcing the idea that "I'm too old/lazy to go back to school for real so I'll waste time and money at these little workshops in a vain attempts to convince myself that all my dreams are in fact not dead... when really they are." I dunno, there was this lady in her sixties with severe plastic surgery face, some LA-Ground-Zero guys with "that hair" and $300 "lady-jeans." Plus a mouth breather who knocked over three glasses of water on three separate occasions. I was like, just get a sippie cup and be done with it, dude. But there were also about 40 other perfectly normal people so the freak to normal ratio was fairly low. But enough about my neurosis. The workshop was great. I can always tell when a workshop is going well because I start thinking about my project and I get ideas that I have to write down that instant. Two sets of notes; the notes on the workshop and the notes on what I have to change in my script.
Without further ado, Adrienne Weiss' Ten Essential Tools for Getting Great Performances.
  1. Create Trust. Adrienne said that this tool was a recent addition because it never occured to her that she needed to teach it. In her experience a lot of directors fail to form a bond with their actors. You have to love your actors and go into the process of working with them fully trusting that they can get the performance you want. She says, always relate to your actor like a loving parent with the attitude, "they can do it." In addition to this you want to ask them lots of questions. Get to know them personally if they're open like that. Or, if not, talk to them about their process. When reviewing their performance she says diagnose before you prescribe. That is to say, approach the adjustments to their performance as a conversation. "What were you going for here?" or "I notice you've made a choice to do X here. Tell me about that." or "At this point in the story your character needs to be doing X and here's why..." Communication with your actor needs to be as clean and misunderstanding free as possible. Give them space to explain their position. If you love something that they've done in a scene, be general about your praise. Don't point out specific body movements, gestures, etc. They'll try to keep hitting that mark and it will make the moment less organic. Where you want to be specific is about trouble spots. When talking about "trouble" remember, you're the captain and your authority allows the actors to relax and do their job- they know you're steering the ship.
  2. Compelling given circumstances. These are the facts that are pressing on a character and pushing them into action. What this means is you may need to remind your actors of the backstory. You're there as that extra bit of memory just in case the actor hasn't fully connected with the character's circumstances. Simple adjustments here can yeild big results. For example, an actor may play a scene completely different if they understand that their character is coming from a place of sympathy rather than frustration. If you explain the given circumstances "they've been in this guys shoes before and know what he's going through" it changes the outcome. When going over the given circumstances it's important that you express it in a way that connects to the emotion of what you're saying. Don't give a flat bullet point list of the circumstances, be their "bad friend" encouraging them to take action and jump into that conflict; "Yeah, he did all this to you and you're not going to take it! You're better than that! Go kick his ass!"
  3. Personalization. Seems fairly straight forward. The simplest way to do this is ask the actor, "have you ever been in a situation like this?" If they say yes, great. If they say nothen you're going to have to work more to remove the block that's keeping them from connecting emotionally to the text. Start by doing a character interview. Ask them, as the character, how they feel about the situation. See if you can't help them find a connection.
  4. Contrary Expectations. I love this idea. As the "bad friend" lie to them about the expected outcome of a scene. You've both read it. You both know that at the end of this scene she is going to dump him, but you lie to him. Tell him that he's fixed the damage she can't stand about him. He's chased after her and prooven himself to her. She's totally going to take you back and you'll be great. Give your actor that pep talk and then send him into the scene where he gets dumped. His response will come from a place of contrary expectations and as a result be that much more alive.
  5. Objective. Simple stuff here. What is the actor's goal in the scene. What do I want the other person to say or do? It has to be concrete and observable in the room. I want them to say "yes." I want them to leave me alone. I want them to come with me. That sort of thing. When your actor has a clear objective all of their actions come from that objective. Even when they're listening to the other character they're listening with an agenda.
  6. So that... This is the character thinking about the future. Their objective "I want him to come with me" so that... This is why your character is doing what they're doing in a larger sense. It should be something that they are conscience of. For example: I want him to come with me (objective) so that I can show him the evidence that will solve the case.
  7. Emotional Action. Your actor may need to know what emotional actions they are taking to make the other character feel a certain way in order to get what they want. For example, your actor may be trying to make the other person feel guilty, or sad, or angry so that X results. The actor may need to try several emotional actions in order to get the result they are looking for. This is manipulation at its best. Adrienne suggests taking time to look at how much emotional manipulation you engage in on a day to day basis as a way of understanding how this works.
  8. Pinch and Ouch. This is a simple cause and effect relationship. If your actor isn't giving you the response you want, the trouble may not lie with them- it may be with their scene partner or partners. For example; the break up scene... your actor's being dumped by his girlfriend. He seems really flat about it. Or maybe he's angry when he should be happy. He might have a set of notions about the scene that you can't talk him out of. Adjust the other actor. You want a bigger reaction out of him? Get her to really lay into him. She needs to give him a bigger pinch to get that bigger ouch you're looking for.
  9. Thought Bridge. It sounds like Scientology, doesn't it? I walked my body-thetans across the thought bridge of my tone scale. Actually what this is about is helping your actor make a connection to the turning point in a scene. Maybe they're rushing past the big emotional A-ha moment. You could simply tell them to take their time with it. But if that's not working then you need to walk them across the bridge. Examine the subtext, "she's telling you that you've never acted like a man, you're still a child and in your heart you know this is true. You also know at this moment exactly what you have to do." Whenever the subtext of the movie comes to the surface you have a turning point, a moment of greatest truth. Don't rush past these moments of truth, underline them to make sure they are seen.
  10. Details. The novice director gives only details when directing. "When she says this to you, you've always hoped someone would say this." Now you can give details for sure, but only if you're sure you have the strong foundations underneath. You don't want to over do it with details, otherwise your actor is spinning plates, trying to hit all these specific things. Details should just be little bits that come from the organic facts of the story.
Afterward she did a scene from Moonstruck with two actors and put these principals into use. She got the scene to go from zero to 60 in a reasonable amount of time. It wasn't the performance of a lifetime but it was enough to see how they worked in a practical setting.

I'm probably going to take Adrienne's workshop in May. It's $725 and limited to ten people and requires an interview to get in. My hope is that at that price it will limit the number of freaks sort of like how the $14 ticket price and assigned seating at the Arclight keeps out the riff-raff. Yes, little bundles of money burnt up to keep my dreams alive.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

i've got something for your face!

As my writing instructor at AFI used to say, "Yearning equals earning." What he meant by that was if you show characters who are obsessed, who have deeply felt yearnings for someone or something (their plot goal) then you have a movie with great potential for earnings.
This week we took a look at the documentary Crazy Love for the purpose of studying character. It has all the classic details of a conventional narrative film (somebody wants something very badly; Burt's desire for Linda. It's almost impossible for him to get it; she's engaged to someone else, he's married- plus it gets worse when he hires thugs to throw acid in her face. In the end he gets what he wants; Burt and Linda have been married since the mid-seventies.) What sets this film apart though are the characters. Burt and Linda are unlike any conventional characters we know, and as such they're unforgettable. Normally I'd talk about the tricks the writer used to create these characters but in this case they are their own creation. Nevertheless we can break them down into specific traits that can be applied to your characters.

  • An underdog with a tragic past who makes the most of his present
  • Driven by a passion that exceeds logic and reason
  • Admits when he makes mistakes, breaks the rules
  • Aware of his crazy actions and unable to stop himself
  • Has initiative and ingenuity
  • Is charming when he gets what he wants
  • Is a real threat when denied what he needs

  • An underdog with a tragic past who makes the most of her present
  • Aware of her talents and abilities but does not abuse them (her youth, beauty and charm)
  • Takes adventure when it is offered, not one to shy away from life
  • Takes the moral high ground when confronted with betrayal
  • Lives life in defiance of her attacker as best she can
  • Finds overwhelming compassion and forgiveness for the unforgivable
  • Cutting insight and sense of humor
If you set out to write a fictional story about a man who throws acid in the face of his ex-girlfriend only to end up marrying her fifteen years later you might struggle with the plausibility issue. A documentary obviously does not have this problem. In fiction we have to believe in the characters first and foremost. Everything else hangs from that. I feel you can solve any plausibility problem in terms of plot so long as you've done the work of making your characters real. That doesn't just mean a well drawn character will work in any situation. Your characters have to be perfect for that situation.

When I start out to write a new script I begin by asking myself, why does this character have to go on this journey? From that question comes a set of character traits and flaws that they will explore and repair over the course of the story.

For our class I had my students watch the film then write a 1 to 3 page scene based on Burt and Linda. It could present any moment before, during or after the story in the film. The results were uniformly terrific. The reason, in my opinion, is that when you really know who your characters are your writing becomes more life like and dynamic. I encourage writers when struggling with a character's identity to try a couple of tricks. First go through your address book and see if there's anyone from real life you can base this character on. If not, go through IMDB and look at characters and actors. Sometimes having an actor in mind makes it easier to write. Either way, having that solid foundation in reality will make the process of writing for your characters easier and hopefully yeild a better script.

I'm going to a Film Independent seminar tonight; ten tricks for getting great performances from actors. I should have my notes posted tonight or tomorrow.

Next week we'll be taking a look at unsympathetic main characters in our analysis of The Honeymoon Killers.

Friday, March 13, 2009

insider information

This week we took a look at the film Inside Man in an effort to understand the mechanics of a thriller. I always talk about these films as if you've just finished watching them, so if it's been a while you may want to check it out before reading this post. The first thing we did was take a look at the scene breakdown. As with every film I assign, I like to have a list of all the scenes that we can refer back to. It's a good habit to get into if you're trying to deconstruct a film and it certainly helps to understand structure.
We noticed that almost every scene in the film deals with the A story: the heist. The B story (Detective Miller's troubles at work with the missing $140K) and the C story (his girlfriend and the pending marriage proposal) account for about 2% of the movie and they are usually handled within the context of the A story. That's something to keep in mind about thrillers-- there tends to be room for just the A story and not a lot of tangential information.
Raymond Chandler said, "When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun." Good advice. Scenes of quiet introspection are followed by quickly paced scenes that raise the stakes and generally involve a degree of life-and-death risk. It keeps the reader/viewer on edge and the juxtaposition of quiet with noisy can create an interesting effect.
Often writers will make things too easy for the protagonist in the early draft. I always say get them up a tree and start throwing rocks at them. Whatever you can think of that will make it as hopeless, as impossible and bleak as you can imagine is probably the right way to go. Never give your protagonist a convenient break. Making this work is a matter of setups and payoffs. In the film Detective Miller meets up with Ms. White (Jodi Foster) and you pretty much figure she's going to manipulate him into doing her bidding. She's got everyone, including the mayor, wrapped around her finger so preventing a low level detective from doing his job and exposing her client is not a big deal. However, she turns out to be key in Detective Miller's successful exposure of the larger crime (the Nazi diamonds) and ultimately is the reason he is cleared of any wrong doing in the missing $140K issue back at the station. Another way to do this is to give your protagonist a time limit and then if possible, shorten the time limit. Miller has a hostage situation and a ticking clock that lets us know how close or far he is from solving the case.
Just as important as making things hard for your protagonist is giving them enough initiative to see them through the story. They MUST solve this case. More depends on it than doing their job. It's all about something larger and more important than that. They have to heal some wound, protect their family or friends, in some way they must have skin in the game.
For sure, one of the worst mistakes you can make when writing a thriller is not doing the research into your protagonist's career. Most likely your protagonist is a detective. This does not necessarily mean they work for the police or an agency, though. They may be a Miss Marples type-- someone with no official license or training. But you have to know the details of investigation in order to make your story feel real. In Inside Man one of the details that gives this film it's texture is the careful portrayal of racism in the post 9/11 NYPD. Then there's the standard stuff; teaching us new information about hostage negotiation and the technology that makes it possible.
One of my favorite things about this film is the way it continues even after it ends. We had a bit of a debate in class about whether Detective Miller keeps the diamond at the end or not. The class was pretty evenly split. The open-endedness of this question mirrors the larger themes in the film and does not lend itself to easy answers. The writer sets up a very interesting moral dillema and lets us see all the arguments for each side then leaves us to make up our own minds about what is right and wrong. The recent film Doubt does the same thing.
You may be hearing a lot lately about how the studios are only interested in genre films (comedy, horror, thriller). There is some truth to that, genre films are easier to market and because the studios are beholden to corporate parent companies they're under ever greater creative constraints. You might be tempted to write a genre film for a quick buck. This is a mistake. First off, the notion of a quick buck is a complete fallacy. I've never seen anyone make a quick buck as a writer. If you spend a year or longer of intense work on a script it MIGHT result in a sale. That's a big if. The second thing is you have to LOVE what you write or it won't work. I've read many thrillers that weren't thrilling, horror scripts that weren't horrific and comedies that weren't even remotely comedic. The only script you should write is for the movie you are dying to see. You have to go into your story with enthusiasm because it is the only thing that will sustain you when you are on draft twenty three in year two of the writing and you've yet to see a single dime. In short, the only way I know to succeed is to write for love and not for money.
Next week we'll be discussing character based on a viewing of the documentary "Crazy Love."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

book report

My current students know that after two years of resisting Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" I finally broke down and bought a copy. Well worth it. Particularly for chapters four and five. My resistance to the book stemmed from the fact that I found it somewhat... there's really no other way to say this, vulgar. It breaks screenwriting down into a method that felt a bit mechanistic and formulaic in my opinion. However, if you're having trouble with structure, frankly there's no better way to go than mechanistic and formulaic.
Unlike the 70 beat outline you're familiar with, Snyder breaks structure down into 40 scenes with 15 specific sections. It's a unique approach that results in a shorter first act and a longer 3rd act than the method I've been teaching. I used his methodology to develop a pitch for my most recent writing assignment and found it incredibly helpful. Still waiting to find out if I got the job.
In these budget conscious times it's even available at the public library. Remember those?

Friday, March 6, 2009

ali: fear eats the soul

So this week we watched the Fassbinder masterpiece: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The misleading title sounds kind of like a horror film but it's not. I failed completely to catch the connection between Fear Eats the Soul and Harold & Maude. They'd make a good double feature: Age transgression films of the 1970's.
The reason I assign this film is because it's so simple in terms of plot yet complex in terms of emotions. This is the kind of film where the story is the big special effect. It explores the taboo relationship between an older German Putzfrau (cleaning lady) and a Moroccan Gastarbeiter (guest worker). The details of their relationship are covered in honest and emotional detail. There's nothing exploitational going on here and the sincerity of their feelings for each other hooks the viewer in and keeps you hanging on to see how things will turn out.
I've heard a theory recently that we go to movies to worry. We sit there in the audience asking, "will they be able to stay together despite everything that's happening to them?" Each plot point in the movie deepens that worry. They defend themselves against external racism in the first half and then come to terms with their internalized cultural clashes in the second half.
In the beginning of the story Fassbinder uses examples of rascism both overt and understated to make his point. Some people in their orbit give them the evil eye so to speak. My favorite is the waiter at "Hitler's favorite restaurant" who stares through them with a gaze that could mean anything but almost certainly means disgust. Of course the most shocking moment comes when Emmi's family meet her new husband, Ali for the first time and they FREAK OUT. Her son even goes so far as to kick in her television. It's awesome. The lesson here is that you've got to let your characters freak out from time to time. It's a huge moment and an emotional release for the audience.
The second half, as I mentioned, deals with the internal enemy to their relationship. When it was Ali and Emmi against the world they were united. Once the people near them begin to accept that Ali's not going anywhere Emmi and Ali grow apart. Why? They have the acceptance they originally sought. Well they're not done growing. See your characters need to have 2 fights in every movie. The first fight is against the outside world. Whatever villain they're chasing or antagonist they're dealing with represents the external fight. The second fight is a bit harder to describe. It's psychological. The way I like to pin it down when I'm outlining a new story is I ask myself, "Why does this character have to go on this journey?" There's some part of the journey that will heal the damage done by life, society, or themselves. For Emmi she needs to let Ali be the man he is instead of trying to turn him into a respectable German. If you think about the movies you love and ask yourself, "why did the main character need to go on this journey" you'll come up with the answer. A good exercise is to outline those films and highlight the specific scenes that deal with that internal fight.
Fassbinder's one of my favorite filmmakers because I love watching Germans be mean to other Germans. Schadenfreude, Weltschmertz und natürlich Verfremdungseffekt.