Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cut it! Then cut some more!

I recently did a big rewrite on a script. It was for a deadline, which concentrates the mind – and led to several all-nighters working on it.

By the end, the script was 20 PAGES shorter. Yes, I’d fixed the awful dialogue, strengthened the characterisations (hopefully), all that stuff. But the biggest thing I did was prune things out.

Here’s what I took out (btw, the best thing about removing the crap is that you can add in more good stuff!)

· Dialogue – some not needed at all. If there’s any way of saying it without using dialogue, do that. But I also cut it down. Sometimes a character says two sentences where they only need to say one.
· “Like, So” - People will also sometimes say conversational stuff in my scripts like, well, “like”. It’s useless - take it out! This has a nice, punchy impact on your dialogue. Remember, movie characters are much more articulate than us.
· Description – this is one of my biggest screenwriting sins. I write paragraphs of description, most of it redundant. I pruned this right down.
· “Is doing” syndrome – I’m always doing this. We open on Jake walking down a street. No we don’t! Jakes walks down a street. That’s it.
· Repetition – if anyone mentions an important detail anywhere in the script, that detail should not come up again. We got it the first time. I’m a terror for this sin too.

You may find, after doing this, that the script’s a lot shorter. Maybe too short. But that’s the true length without all the rubbish in it.

Now you can go in and develop your characters, expand the plot slightly and overall construct a much better script. Best of luck!

Cut it! Then cut some more!

I recently did a big rewrite on a script. It was for a deadline, which concentrates the mind – and led to several all-nighters working on it.

By the end, the script was 20 PAGES shorter. Yes, I’d fixed the awful dialogue, strengthened the characterisations (hopefully), all that stuff. But the biggest thing I did was prune things out.

Here’s what I took out (btw, the best thing about removing the crap is that you can add in more good stuff!)

· Dialogue – some not needed at all. If there’s any way of saying it without using dialogue, do that. But I also cut it down. Sometimes a character says two sentences where they only need to say one.
· “Like, So” - People will also sometimes say conversational stuff in my scripts like, well, “like”. It’s useless - take it out! This has a nice, punchy impact on your dialogue. Remember, movie characters are much more articulate than us.
· Description – this is one of my biggest screenwriting sins. I write paragraphs of description, most of it redundant. I pruned this right down.
· “Is doing” syndrome – I’m always doing this. We open on Jake walking down a street. No we don’t! Jakes walks down a street. That’s it.
· Repetition – if anyone mentions an important detail anywhere in the script, that detail should not come up again. We got it the first time. I’m a terror for this sin too.

You may find, after doing this, that the script’s a lot shorter. Maybe too short. But that’s the true length without all the rubbish in it.

Now you can go in and develop your characters, expand the plot slightly and overall construct a much better script. Best of luck!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Elliott Grove on selling screenplays, Roger Corman-style!

I went to a talk last night at Filmbase by the founder of the Raindance film festival and the British Independent Film Awards, Elliott Grove.

Grove, a Canadian with a Jeff Goldblum thing going on (I think it was the black suit and sunglasses – indoors) once made a movie called Table 5 for £200. He’s passionate about making movies on low budgets and his festival aims to bring as many as possible to audiences. He also runs training courses for filmmakers – some of his alumni include Guy Ritchie and Christopher Nolan.

Grove grew up in an Amish farming community near Toronto and didn’t see his first film until he was 16. He had been told that the Devil lived in the movie theatre, so when he went in and saw the tiered seating (like a church!) and the red velvet seats, he figured this was true! Then the movie turned out to be Lassie Come Home….

Farmers look for patterns in things – this is something that’s stayed with him.

Reading friends’ screenplays – he saw the same patterns of mistakes in every one! He read 50 screenplays from the BFI library and says he learned more from this than anything else.

Grove has a touch of a snake-oil salesman thing about him – he certainly had no qualms about flogging his books and DVDs. But I liked the guy and some of what he said was really interesting.

His top ten maxims (I’m paraphrasing a lot of this):
1. Entertainment – it’s an industry. Not an artists colony.
2. Commerce - it’s a collaborative business, something a lot of writers try to ignore. Your job is to inspire the director, the actor and the editor, and then back off.
3. Reality – stories are crafted by the writer. Take reality and enhance it in the interests of your story. People pay to see something more than reality at the movies.
4. Peeping Tom – humans are transfixed by other humans’ misfortunes. We are the only species that does so! So capitalise on that in your scripts!
5. Maximise – make good use of every word in your script. But don’t overwrite.
6. Discipline – people will do anything to avoid writing. Household chores, watching TV. Be disciplined and use your time well!
7. Hollywood – Grove loves Hollywood films and doesn’t apologise for it. Movies take you to a new world, or bring you to somewhere new in your own world.
8. Audience – the audience for a screenwriter is a reader, preferably someone with a big chequebook or someone who can connect you to someone with one.
9. Misfortune – it will befall you. Your script will be directed by an awful director, or they’ll hire the wrong actor, or it will tank at the box office. Move on and don’t take it personally.
10. Sex and violence – there should be violence on every page of your script. But not just physical violence. Sociological or psychological violence works just as well.

Social setting for scripts – this is important because it encompasses what your character can or cannot do - their limits. There are 4 social settings, according to Grove:

Wilderness – typically where a male travels alone, in a wilderness like a jungle, desert, forest etc. He may have sidekicks or companions – this is mainly because he’s the best source of protection for them from external dangers or threats. The wilderness hero will usually achieve some sort of enlightenment and bring this knowledge back to other people – like Moses and the Ten Commandments for example. All great religious stories take place in the wilderness.

Village – A town where you can stand at one end and see the other. All the buildings look the same, no one lives in a nicer house than anyone else. There’s always a leader (sheriff, mayor etc.). The villagers usually face threats from external sources of one form or another. In village stories – or comedies – the hero doesn’t have to change by the end of the film. But THEY change the villagers’ lives forever. The Seven Samurai and Red Rock West are example of village stories.

City – Now we’re going up in the civilisation stakes. Some people live in great houses, some live in crappy apartments. There is far less social interaction – people don’t know each other as well. In city stories, a character usually fights to right an injustice of some sort (Erin Brockovich/City Hall).

Oppressive City – The rules have changed. Stuff you used to be able to do is now banned and things have gone a bit dystopian. The hero is an antihero who just wants to get on with their day but instead is forced to get involved in a struggle against the prevailing order. 28 Days Later, Children of Men and Shaun of the Dead are example of oppressive city settings, but thrillers also fall into this category – Minority Report and Blade Runner.

Most of our stories are now city-based. You can flip it around – Crocodile Dundee did this, as did City Slickers.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – at the start they’re in the village, successfully robbing banks and staying one step ahead of the soldiers who are searching for them. But then the railroad comes – the city encroaching on them. Now the soldiers are one step ahead of them all the time. They’re being hunted by the next social stage – and they can’t adapt to this change! “Who are these guys??, they cry at various points for the rest of the movie.

So what stage are we at now? Grove reckons oppressive city. Was 911 a first attack from the barbarians (I think he was going all ancient Rome here)? Is Big Brother our version of gladiators? (Um, yes – but I wish they’d bring in lions).

Ideas for movies – Roger Corman apparently starts his day by reading the newspaper headlines for ideas for movies. Some years ago, he saw an article about NASA discovering water on Mars. He immediately released a press release saying that his new movie was going to be about Mars.

This led to news teams sitting outside his office and a bigwig from Warner Bros calling him to discuss “the Mars movie”. The Warners man said he was on his way over. Corman judged that it would take him about thirty minutes, and proceeded to sit down and write a single paragraph – which he sold to Warners for a ridiculously large sum. That movie was Mars Attacks!

Corman’s sales technique is apparently to get a graphic designer to come up with a glossy “one-sheet” with images and the title/logline on the front and a paragraph description on the back (sort of like a DVD cover). Then he uses this to gauge interest with buyers. If they hate it/are disinterested, he bins the idea. If they love it, he hires a screenwriter and makes the movie!

Grove reckons screenwriters should do the same – do a one sheet, see if producers etc. like it, then write the script. I’m torn on this one. It makes twisted sense, but you’d have to be one efficient writing machine to pull it off! Not to mention the madness involved in essentially writing to order. I guess it might be worth doing if you had several ideas and wanted to know which one to write?

Pitching – writers hate it. Grove reckons you should start by asking, “What if…”? Draw comparisons to stuff people know. Bring them in by painting a picture for them.

Budget – don’t let it rule you but bear it in mind. Moving locations costs money. Write something with 2-3 locations and cut between them instead.

He told us about a friend of his who wrote a low budget (300k) horror movie and put it out on video on demand in the States. He made the money back plus a small profit in a week. His secret lay in choosing a title starting with “D”. The VOD screen shows titles A-D, then you have to press a button to get to E-G and so on. Most people are lazy and pick something off the first screen!

TV, web streaming companies, gaming corporations, mobile platforms – all looking for content. This represents a huge opportunity for writers.

Grove’s golden rules:
1. Sit down and write. Even for only 15-20 minutes, but do it EVERY day. Yes, you’ll work 12-15 hours if you’re on deadline, but most days 20 minutes is better than nothing at all. If you don’t write every day, you’re not really a writer.
2. It’s not about quality, it’s about quantity with the first draft. Get it down, then fix it!
3. You need to learn to reject rejection. It’s a depressing business at times, but 500 new members were admitted into the WGA last year. The only way they could have done this was by getting something made. So there is hope!

Check out http://www.raindance.org/ for more info on the festival, which takes place next week in London.

Elliott Grove on selling screenplays, Roger Corman-style!

I went to a talk last night at Filmbase by the founder of the Raindance film festival and the British Independent Film Awards, Elliott Grove.

Grove, a Canadian with a Jeff Goldblum thing going on (I think it was the black suit and sunglasses – indoors) once made a movie called Table 5 for £200. He’s passionate about making movies on low budgets and his festival aims to bring as many as possible to audiences. He also runs training courses for filmmakers – some of his alumni include Guy Ritchie and Christopher Nolan.

Grove grew up in an Amish farming community near Toronto and didn’t see his first film until he was 16. He had been told that the Devil lived in the movie theatre, so when he went in and saw the tiered seating (like a church!) and the red velvet seats, he figured this was true! Then the movie turned out to be Lassie Come Home….

Farmers look for patterns in things – this is something that’s stayed with him.

Reading friends’ screenplays – he saw the same patterns of mistakes in every one! He read 50 screenplays from the BFI library and says he learned more from this than anything else.

Grove has a touch of a snake-oil salesman thing about him – he certainly had no qualms about flogging his books and DVDs. But I liked the guy and some of what he said was really interesting.

His top ten maxims (I’m paraphrasing a lot of this):
1. Entertainment – it’s an industry. Not an artists colony.
2. Commerce - it’s a collaborative business, something a lot of writers try to ignore. Your job is to inspire the director, the actor and the editor, and then back off.
3. Reality – stories are crafted by the writer. Take reality and enhance it in the interests of your story. People pay to see something more than reality at the movies.
4. Peeping Tom – humans are transfixed by other humans’ misfortunes. We are the only species that does so! So capitalise on that in your scripts!
5. Maximise – make good use of every word in your script. But don’t overwrite.
6. Discipline – people will do anything to avoid writing. Household chores, watching TV. Be disciplined and use your time well!
7. Hollywood – Grove loves Hollywood films and doesn’t apologise for it. Movies take you to a new world, or bring you to somewhere new in your own world.
8. Audience – the audience for a screenwriter is a reader, preferably someone with a big chequebook or someone who can connect you to someone with one.
9. Misfortune – it will befall you. Your script will be directed by an awful director, or they’ll hire the wrong actor, or it will tank at the box office. Move on and don’t take it personally.
10. Sex and violence – there should be violence on every page of your script. But not just physical violence. Sociological or psychological violence works just as well.

Social setting for scripts – this is important because it encompasses what your character can or cannot do - their limits. There are 4 social settings, according to Grove:

Wilderness – typically where a male travels alone, in a wilderness like a jungle, desert, forest etc. He may have sidekicks or companions – this is mainly because he’s the best source of protection for them from external dangers or threats. The wilderness hero will usually achieve some sort of enlightenment and bring this knowledge back to other people – like Moses and the Ten Commandments for example. All great religious stories take place in the wilderness.

Village – A town where you can stand at one end and see the other. All the buildings look the same, no one lives in a nicer house than anyone else. There’s always a leader (sheriff, mayor etc.). The villagers usually face threats from external sources of one form or another. In village stories – or comedies – the hero doesn’t have to change by the end of the film. But THEY change the villagers’ lives forever. The Seven Samurai and Red Rock West are example of village stories.

City – Now we’re going up in the civilisation stakes. Some people live in great houses, some live in crappy apartments. There is far less social interaction – people don’t know each other as well. In city stories, a character usually fights to right an injustice of some sort (Erin Brockovich/City Hall).

Oppressive City – The rules have changed. Stuff you used to be able to do is now banned and things have gone a bit dystopian. The hero is an antihero who just wants to get on with their day but instead is forced to get involved in a struggle against the prevailing order. 28 Days Later, Children of Men and Shaun of the Dead are example of oppressive city settings, but thrillers also fall into this category – Minority Report and Blade Runner.

Most of our stories are now city-based. You can flip it around – Crocodile Dundee did this, as did City Slickers.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – at the start they’re in the village, successfully robbing banks and staying one step ahead of the soldiers who are searching for them. But then the railroad comes – the city encroaching on them. Now the soldiers are one step ahead of them all the time. They’re being hunted by the next social stage – and they can’t adapt to this change! “Who are these guys??, they cry at various points for the rest of the movie.

So what stage are we at now? Grove reckons oppressive city. Was 911 a first attack from the barbarians (I think he was going all ancient Rome here)? Is Big Brother our version of gladiators? (Um, yes – but I wish they’d bring in lions).

Ideas for movies – Roger Corman apparently starts his day by reading the newspaper headlines for ideas for movies. Some years ago, he saw an article about NASA discovering water on Mars. He immediately released a press release saying that his new movie was going to be about Mars.

This led to news teams sitting outside his office and a bigwig from Warner Bros calling him to discuss “the Mars movie”. The Warners man said he was on his way over. Corman judged that it would take him about thirty minutes, and proceeded to sit down and write a single paragraph – which he sold to Warners for a ridiculously large sum. That movie was Mars Attacks!

Corman’s sales technique is apparently to get a graphic designer to come up with a glossy “one-sheet” with images and the title/logline on the front and a paragraph description on the back (sort of like a DVD cover). Then he uses this to gauge interest with buyers. If they hate it/are disinterested, he bins the idea. If they love it, he hires a screenwriter and makes the movie!

Grove reckons screenwriters should do the same – do a one sheet, see if producers etc. like it, then write the script. I’m torn on this one. It makes twisted sense, but you’d have to be one efficient writing machine to pull it off! Not to mention the madness involved in essentially writing to order. I guess it might be worth doing if you had several ideas and wanted to know which one to write?

Pitching – writers hate it. Grove reckons you should start by asking, “What if…”? Draw comparisons to stuff people know. Bring them in by painting a picture for them.

Budget – don’t let it rule you but bear it in mind. Moving locations costs money. Write something with 2-3 locations and cut between them instead.

He told us about a friend of his who wrote a low budget (300k) horror movie and put it out on video on demand in the States. He made the money back plus a small profit in a week. His secret lay in choosing a title starting with “D”. The VOD screen shows titles A-D, then you have to press a button to get to E-G and so on. Most people are lazy and pick something off the first screen!

TV, web streaming companies, gaming corporations, mobile platforms – all looking for content. This represents a huge opportunity for writers.

Grove’s golden rules:
1. Sit down and write. Even for only 15-20 minutes, but do it EVERY day. Yes, you’ll work 12-15 hours if you’re on deadline, but most days 20 minutes is better than nothing at all. If you don’t write every day, you’re not really a writer.
2. It’s not about quality, it’s about quantity with the first draft. Get it down, then fix it!
3. You need to learn to reject rejection. It’s a depressing business at times, but 500 new members were admitted into the WGA last year. The only way they could have done this was by getting something made. So there is hope!

Check out http://www.raindance.org/ for more info on the festival, which takes place next week in London.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Writing Great Reversals

Reversals, of course, being the little things that make a script hum. Instead of things happening in a dull, expected fashion, the script keeps the audience guessing, on the edge of their seats.

Now, we all know William Goldman writes great scripts. If I’d written even ONE of All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride or Butch Cassidy to name but a few, I’d consider myself lucky. To be honest, if I’d just written Adventures in the Screen Trade, I’d be happy!

He has a great section in Adventures where he talks about reversals. He was writing a spy caper at one stage and there was a scene where the hero was locked in a cage by some circus people (sidekicks of the bad guy), beside another cage containing a huge vulture. The villains stupidly left a set of keys on the table right beside his cage. We’ve seen this kind of scene, right? With some small effort, the hero gets the keys and effects an escape.

What actually happened in Goldman’s script was this: the hero couldn’t reach the keys. But there were some small pieces of twig at the bottom of the vulture’s cage. So our man sticks his hand in, nearly getting it pecked off by the bird, and gets a twig. Still can’t reach the keys. He tries again, gets his knuckles savaged, and grabs a longer twig. STILL no joy, the keys are just too far away.

He painstakingly constructs a tool using the two twigs and with a huge effort is able to finally grab the keys…

Which are the wrong ones.

This is my current aim: come up with a reversal even a quarter as good as that. Keep the surprises coming!

Writing Great Reversals

Reversals, of course, being the little things that make a script hum. Instead of things happening in a dull, expected fashion, the script keeps the audience guessing, on the edge of their seats.

Now, we all know William Goldman writes great scripts. If I’d written even ONE of All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride or Butch Cassidy to name but a few, I’d consider myself lucky. To be honest, if I’d just written Adventures in the Screen Trade, I’d be happy!

He has a great section in Adventures where he talks about reversals. He was writing a spy caper at one stage and there was a scene where the hero was locked in a cage by some circus people (sidekicks of the bad guy), beside another cage containing a huge vulture. The villains stupidly left a set of keys on the table right beside his cage. We’ve seen this kind of scene, right? With some small effort, the hero gets the keys and effects an escape.

What actually happened in Goldman’s script was this: the hero couldn’t reach the keys. But there were some small pieces of twig at the bottom of the vulture’s cage. So our man sticks his hand in, nearly getting it pecked off by the bird, and gets a twig. Still can’t reach the keys. He tries again, gets his knuckles savaged, and grabs a longer twig. STILL no joy, the keys are just too far away.

He painstakingly constructs a tool using the two twigs and with a huge effort is able to finally grab the keys…

Which are the wrong ones.

This is my current aim: come up with a reversal even a quarter as good as that. Keep the surprises coming!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Learning from a stinker: Fool's Gold

As well as reading scripts, you can learn a lot by watching movies and deconstructing them. I read recently that Sly Stallone used to work in a cinema as an usher and watch some films like MASH over and over again, breaking them down to see what worked. You might be going, “Stallone?” Well he got an Oscar nom for the Rocky script…

But I often find that it’s just as important to watch misfiring films as it is to see successful ones. Why didn’t they work, and what lessons can we learn from ‘em?

Case in point: Fool’s Gold, which was on the telly recently. Most people seem to think that this film misfired mainly because Matthew McConaughey spends the entire time half-naked. I don’t see a thing wrong with this J

No, the problem is actually to do with lack of stakes. Lots of stuff happens in this film – people go here, spout exposition, go there, there’s a diving montage and a bit of comedy with Donald Sutherland’s bimbo rich-girl daughter. But none of it means much, cos there is nothing really at stake! Sure, Matthew might be about to lose Kate Hudson forever. But she’s already divorcing him, (not that this is remotely convincing). Donald Sutherland, who’s possibly the best boss ever, agrees to fund their treasure trip with his millions. No danger there.

Ray Winstone pops up as Matthew’s old boss, but all he does is yell a lot and threaten him a few times. Big whoop! The main baddie is a rapper called Big Bunny D. Apart from the fact that I can’t really get fearful of a rapper, especially one with such a silly name, it’s hard to see why anyone would be afraid of him. We’re TOLD that Big Bunny shot someone and killed all the witnesses, but we don’t see him do anything bad, apart from murdering hiphop lingo and rocking an awful white suit. It would have been much better if he’d been shown knocking off some other treasure-hunter (or one of his own guys who’d double-crossed him) by throwing them into his personal shark tank, something like that. NOW that would be bad!

Overall, the whole film is just too cheerful and lacking in any tension. The result is that it lacks an emotional punch and the plot goes along in a straight line instead of building to a satisfying conclusion.

So the lesson from the Barbados Tourist Board video that is Fool’s Gold: raise the stakes or watch your move sink without trace…

Learning from a stinker: Fool's Gold

As well as reading scripts, you can learn a lot by watching movies and deconstructing them. I read recently that Sly Stallone used to work in a cinema as an usher and watch some films like MASH over and over again, breaking them down to see what worked. You might be going, “Stallone?” Well he got an Oscar nom for the Rocky script…

But I often find that it’s just as important to watch misfiring films as it is to see successful ones. Why didn’t they work, and what lessons can we learn from ‘em?

Case in point: Fool’s Gold, which was on the telly recently. Most people seem to think that this film misfired mainly because Matthew McConaughey spends the entire time half-naked. I don’t see a thing wrong with this J

No, the problem is actually to do with lack of stakes. Lots of stuff happens in this film – people go here, spout exposition, go there, there’s a diving montage and a bit of comedy with Donald Sutherland’s bimbo rich-girl daughter. But none of it means much, cos there is nothing really at stake! Sure, Matthew might be about to lose Kate Hudson forever. But she’s already divorcing him, (not that this is remotely convincing). Donald Sutherland, who’s possibly the best boss ever, agrees to fund their treasure trip with his millions. No danger there.

Ray Winstone pops up as Matthew’s old boss, but all he does is yell a lot and threaten him a few times. Big whoop! The main baddie is a rapper called Big Bunny D. Apart from the fact that I can’t really get fearful of a rapper, especially one with such a silly name, it’s hard to see why anyone would be afraid of him. We’re TOLD that Big Bunny shot someone and killed all the witnesses, but we don’t see him do anything bad, apart from murdering hiphop lingo and rocking an awful white suit. It would have been much better if he’d been shown knocking off some other treasure-hunter (or one of his own guys who’d double-crossed him) by throwing them into his personal shark tank, something like that. NOW that would be bad!

Overall, the whole film is just too cheerful and lacking in any tension. The result is that it lacks an emotional punch and the plot goes along in a straight line instead of building to a satisfying conclusion.

So the lesson from the Barbados Tourist Board video that is Fool’s Gold: raise the stakes or watch your move sink without trace…

Friday, September 10, 2010

Would a caveman get it?

What does your main character want? And will the eventual audience know and understand their goals?

I think these are two really key questions when it comes to writing a script. Failure to engage with a character, especially when it’s the lead, is often down to fuzzy aims and an unclear set of objectives. Where your main guy or girl starts is important, but so too is where they want to go. Is it interesting or engaging enough for us to want to follow?

I recently saw Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a film where the main character has a very clear ostensible goal: to win the heart of the apparently unobtainable Ramona. To do this, he must face and defeat her seven evil exes. So far so good. To use Blake Snyder’s barometer, even a caveman would be able to grasp this goal.

BUT – the film reveals near the end (spoiler alert!) that Scott has really had another goal to achieve all along, a goal that Ramona’s affections have formed only part of. He doesn’t realise it at first, but he needs to learn to accept responsibility for his actions and to face up to his own mistakes. And it’s only when this dawns on him that he is able to yank the Sword of Self Respect ( a brilliant name!) out of his chest and claim his own true self. He gets the girl, but he also finds himself, to use horrible therapy speak on a perfectly good movie.

My point is that this is a great example of a goal changing slightly over the course of a film, and being done well. Of course, it helps that both goals are very basic and primal. Can’t we all relate to trying to win someone’s heart and develop our own sense of self?

Problem in scripts tend – IMHO – to start either where someone’s goals aren’t clear (what the hell do they want, anyway?) or where we know what their goal is but it’s just not interesting or involving enough. Either we don’t know, or we don’t care.

Sometimes the not caring can be down to the main character themselves. Maybe they’re not likeable or their predicament is not something we can relate to. When that happens, audience switch off. For example, the Spielberg movie AI. I was unable to relate to the robot child (or indeed anyone else in the film) so their fate didn’t matter too much to me. Plus, the child’s goals weren’t made clear enough and the plot plodded along with no obvious direction. Big dud all round.

What’s funny is that action movies, which tend to suffer critical maulings for their characterisations and dialogue, tend to have very clear, easy to understand goals. It’s always obvious that Steven Seagal/Jason Statham/whoever want to kill all the bad guys and save the hostages/hot girl/entire city. And horror films tend to have the most relatable goal of all – surviving.

Whatever genre you pick, to keep the audience on the edge of their super-large seats, choose a decent, relatable goal and make it clear. Do that, and they’ll be prepared to follow your hero all the way…

Would a caveman get it?

What does your main character want? And will the eventual audience know and understand their goals?

I think these are two really key questions when it comes to writing a script. Failure to engage with a character, especially when it’s the lead, is often down to fuzzy aims and an unclear set of objectives. Where your main guy or girl starts is important, but so too is where they want to go. Is it interesting or engaging enough for us to want to follow?

I recently saw Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a film where the main character has a very clear ostensible goal: to win the heart of the apparently unobtainable Ramona. To do this, he must face and defeat her seven evil exes. So far so good. To use Blake Snyder’s barometer, even a caveman would be able to grasp this goal.

BUT – the film reveals near the end (spoiler alert!) that Scott has really had another goal to achieve all along, a goal that Ramona’s affections have formed only part of. He doesn’t realise it at first, but he needs to learn to accept responsibility for his actions and to face up to his own mistakes. And it’s only when this dawns on him that he is able to yank the Sword of Self Respect ( a brilliant name!) out of his chest and claim his own true self. He gets the girl, but he also finds himself, to use horrible therapy speak on a perfectly good movie.

My point is that this is a great example of a goal changing slightly over the course of a film, and being done well. Of course, it helps that both goals are very basic and primal. Can’t we all relate to trying to win someone’s heart and develop our own sense of self?

Problem in scripts tend – IMHO – to start either where someone’s goals aren’t clear (what the hell do they want, anyway?) or where we know what their goal is but it’s just not interesting or involving enough. Either we don’t know, or we don’t care.

Sometimes the not caring can be down to the main character themselves. Maybe they’re not likeable or their predicament is not something we can relate to. When that happens, audience switch off. For example, the Spielberg movie AI. I was unable to relate to the robot child (or indeed anyone else in the film) so their fate didn’t matter too much to me. Plus, the child’s goals weren’t made clear enough and the plot plodded along with no obvious direction. Big dud all round.

What’s funny is that action movies, which tend to suffer critical maulings for their characterisations and dialogue, tend to have very clear, easy to understand goals. It’s always obvious that Steven Seagal/Jason Statham/whoever want to kill all the bad guys and save the hostages/hot girl/entire city. And horror films tend to have the most relatable goal of all – surviving.

Whatever genre you pick, to keep the audience on the edge of their super-large seats, choose a decent, relatable goal and make it clear. Do that, and they’ll be prepared to follow your hero all the way…

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Hero's Journey - a tired formula or an invaluable map?

"Give me something the same - only different!"

Every writer must at some point have read Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey or at least heard of it. If you haven't, you've probably read Christopher Vogler's excellent interpretation of it, which a friend has kindly lent me, or his seminal 1985 memo on it that sent Hollywood into a spin.

Vogler's memo was subsequently blamed for a lot of formulaic flops, as well as being credited with inspiring hits like The Matrix. Critics of this and systems like Save the Cat claim that they're nothing more than movies by numbers. But it's not possible to write a movie without any kind of underlying structure or principle, right?

Well it is. Harmony Korine gives it a pretty good go most of the time. BUT - Korine does not have a large audience. I don't think he cares, mind.

The fact is, people have been telling stories around campfires for thousands of years, and even campfire stories tend to have a beginning, middle and end. A hero and a villain. An unimaginable challenge, and an act of bravery or ingenuity that surmounts it.

It's like the universal, innate archetypes that Carl Jung described. Why do people all over the world respond to the same basic stories? Why do children who've never lived in the country draw a detached country pile with five windows and a door when asked to draw a house? There are common threads that every human recognises: the search for love, the battle between good and evil. 

These universal stories can be used in an film like Office Space, where the villain is a company man and the hero a disaffected desk jockey. Or in a film like Fight Club, where the villain is more complicated and closer to home.

If someone buys Vogler's book and designs a screenplay that sticks painstakingly to the path of the Hero's Journey, the result may well look formulaic. But if the common threads are pulled in an unexpected direction - writing the hero of Alien as a woman for instance, you have something which is at once universal and very unique.

Take the principles and learn 'em - because you have to recognise them if you're ever going to subvert them.

The Hero's Journey - a tired formula or an invaluable map?

"Give me something the same - only different!"

Every writer must at some point have read Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey or at least heard of it. If you haven't, you've probably read Christopher Vogler's excellent interpretation of it, which a friend has kindly lent me, or his seminal 1985 memo on it that sent Hollywood into a spin.

Vogler's memo was subsequently blamed for a lot of formulaic flops, as well as being credited with inspiring hits like The Matrix. Critics of this and systems like Save the Cat claim that they're nothing more than movies by numbers. But it's not possible to write a movie without any kind of underlying structure or principle, right?

Well it is. Harmony Korine gives it a pretty good go most of the time. BUT - Korine does not have a large audience. I don't think he cares, mind.

The fact is, people have been telling stories around campfires for thousands of years, and even campfire stories tend to have a beginning, middle and end. A hero and a villain. An unimaginable challenge, and an act of bravery or ingenuity that surmounts it.

It's like the universal, innate archetypes that Carl Jung described. Why do people all over the world respond to the same basic stories? Why do children who've never lived in the country draw a detached country pile with five windows and a door when asked to draw a house? There are common threads that every human recognises: the search for love, the battle between good and evil. 

These universal stories can be used in an film like Office Space, where the villain is a company man and the hero a disaffected desk jockey. Or in a film like Fight Club, where the villain is more complicated and closer to home.

If someone buys Vogler's book and designs a screenplay that sticks painstakingly to the path of the Hero's Journey, the result may well look formulaic. But if the common threads are pulled in an unexpected direction - writing the hero of Alien as a woman for instance, you have something which is at once universal and very unique.

Take the principles and learn 'em - because you have to recognise them if you're ever going to subvert them.