Friday, May 1, 2009

carnitas flu

So after a somewhat busy couple of weeks I'm back. And look at what's broken out in the interim. I'm obsessed with the carnitas flu and how it's just moments away from turning everything into a dinner theater production of Stephen King's The Stand. But I shall endeavor to press on, here in my Tami-flu fortress.
This week we watched Sexy Beast. I had the class outline the script according to Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" model which works for most movies as a way of understanding the components of the structure. What's interesting to me is the way that structure reveals the deeper meanings of a film. The essential interconnectedness of plot, character, and theme. As Snyder describes it, "we are building precision Swiss watches of emotion." Sexy Beast is of course a caper film that's light on caper and heavy on emotion. I think it's a good example of what we really care about when we see a movie: the stakes. Very few capers are actually interesting enough to hold our attention let alone our concern. In this film, they do away with the caper, relegating it to the second half of the film- and even then, the caper is not that hard to pull off. Sure they're breaking into the world's safest safe- but it's not much more than a night of tunneling. What the film is really about is a man protecting everything he's ever wanted: his family, his friends, the good life. Simple stuff, but that's why it works; it's primal. The main character Gal, retired from his life as a gangster, finds himself being pulled against his will into the world he never wanted to return to. What's at stake of course is not just his life, but the happiness of those around him. His wife, disgraced in their old world, has a chance at happiness with him in Spain but only if Gal can lay to rest, permanently, the ghosts of his past. Thematically this movie is all about dealing with the past once and for all. Nothing stays buried unless it's good and dead.
What I want to hammer home here are two simple ideas: first your character's stakes have to be clear and universal. I understand in a simple and practical way what it is that my character wants and what will happen if the don't get it. The more dire the consequences the better. Plus you have to be specific about what they want. So often I'll ask a writer what it is their character wants and I'll get back a laundry list of vague complaints; she's the kind of person who has always achieved perfection but now she has to let go of that in order to forgive her brother because there was this time when they were kids... and on it goes. Secondly, you structure your movie around this want. You show how it evolves, what it means, what happens if it doesn't work out. Everything. 95 to 100% of your movie should be about THIS ONE THING: what your main character wants. Tangents, when they happen, should be brief and rare. The more tangential the less we care about your film. Why? Because we feel adrift and and keep asking, "what does this have to do with anything?"
So that's it for this week. Next week we'll be looking at "Junebug." I've been having a bit of a Celia Weston film festival lately. She's amazing in "Observe and Report" plus I just saw her in "Joshua" last night (which is a fantastic "children are evil" thriller). For Junebug we'll be looking at the specific steps a character needs to take from start to finish in order to have a complete and satisfying arc.

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