Saturday, June 30, 2007

When Structure Gets in the Way

Before I wrote scripts, I studied Russian language and literature. Four years in college, then five more years in grad school. While I'm grateful for that education, it's also the kind of thing you can take years to get out from under. You can't read a book without analyzing it to within an inch of its life. You can't write a thing without seeing the critical structure. It crippled me as a writer, and it took all the joy out of reading.

I spoke Russian very well. One reason was that I loved the 'puzzle' aspect of it. Nouns and adjectives have six possible endings for both singular and plural. Verbs have two 'aspects' that are completely alien to an English speaker. Each word is marked for its role in the sentence, which allows you to jumble the word order, placing a noun on one end of the sentence and its modifier at the other. The complexity was completely addictive to me. One day I was chatting with a Russian friend when he used a dative case of a present active participle of a reflexive imperfective verb. I suddenly woke up: He can't be computing all this in his head. Of course he isn't. The structure helps me speak, but he's not thinking about it any more than I stop and think "hmmm... I need to form the direct object of the third-person pronoun" before I say 'him'.

I felt pretty stupid for ever making that assumption even while I had trouble shaking it. But it was only then that I really started to think in Russian. I needed to learn about present active participles. And then I needed to forget about them.

Same goes for story. Listen to a kid tell you about a movie. Listen to a kid tell you about her day. The three-act structure is in there. Listen to yourself as you tell stories. The three-act structure is there. Sometimes structure helps, and sometimes it makes things a lot clearer. If you've been nailing down your structure and it's not working for you know, try writing your story out free-style. If you're writing yourself in circles, maybe it's time to sit down with a really rigorous structure and force yourself to make some decisions. Lots of screenplay consultants will push one or the other. I think it completely depends on the circumstances.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Looking for Unities, Finding Tools

This posting builds on the last two, so if you haven't read those, it might make sense to start with "Props Manager" and then read "The Number Three" before reading this entry.

Or not. We talked about looking at the props in a scene as a way of working with meaning, and we talked about how you can build unity into a script by repeating just about anything three times or more. So now you're probably wondering how this becomes useful. Let me give you an example.

I realized recently that a script I'm planning out has three or four significant scenes built around meals. It opens with a birthday breakfast that goes horribly wrong. There's dinner with the white-trash parents. There's the main character realizing his girlfriend is cooking breakfast for her kidnapper. What does this do for me?

I realize that meals are a TOOL for me as I think through the plot. How?

I can characterize the location: the food is a source of humor.

I can characterize the main character with his reaction to it. I can build sympathy and dramatic interest. Can this poor guy just get a decent meal?

I can use the meals as a pacing device. Right now they're placed roughly every twenty minutes through the first hour.

And that last one helps me with the ending: Maybe he finally gets the meal he wants.

There are lots of "cans" and "maybes" at this stage. That's a given. But it's all worth trying out. I will try writing the perfect meal at the end of the script. I will try looking to the food as a source of visual humor.

None of it may work. All of it might. It's most important to look at this as an EVOLUTION.

Making a unity perfect isn't the point. A unity has to awaken a connection in the viewer's mind. It's best when it's not too obtrusive. The Coen Brothers are kings of this stuff.

Seeing the potential unity helps me think about the scenes the way an audience might view them. To capitalize on this, I'll write the scenes together. I'll make them work as a story. I'll do what I talked about in last posting.

I'll find a repeated food issue. I'll find the one thing he hates. I'll think of a line to repeat, and see how much meaning and humor I can get out of it. I'll tell the story of one poor guy and four meals. As I work to exploit the meaning, I'm learning more and more about the character.

When I take it back into the script, I will undoubtedly shift some material. It's not a script about meals. Meals are just a small part. Some stuff won't work. I will not be gentle. It doesn't help me if it's just funny. It doesn't help me if it's a perfect unity. It's what I can use. It's a tool.

This stuff is the fun part. This is what writing's for. But then comes the hard part:

Throwing stuff out. Moving it around. Being flexible. CONTINUING to think through new material. Rewriting. It's a long road, but you're writing. That's what makes a good day, right?

Unity is a tool. It helps you write the story, but it's not the point of the story.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Number Three

I've got toddlers visiting right now, and it's given me a great chance to think about the dramatic unities and Aristotle. Let me explain.

Like all toddlers, these two go from happy, curious, and delightful to screaming banshee devil spawn faster than you can say bath time. We were playing a dinosaur game: adding -osaur to everything. Scriptwrangler-osaur is going to get Dante-osaur with the help of... blanket-osaur! And then the little girl hit her brother. And the biting started. So Scriptwrangler-osaur let himself get killed by Dante-osaur, and it was time for a new game. More wailing. But we moved on.

Next day, we play the same game. As the bad stuff starts coming out, Scriptwrangler-osaur takes a dive. Time for a new game. There's wailing, but less so.

Third day, same game. As things are starting to get out of hand, I fall to the ground. Is he dead? Silence. I peeked. The little girl gave me a hug. They knew what this means, and they backed off. They learned the pattern. All right, maybe I just got lucky. But there's a point here.

There's something very special about the number three. If we see something once, it's an event. If we see it twice, it's a tendency. If we see it three times, it become a pattern: something that can be relied upon. Movie viewers rely on it. And writers rely on it. It helps create a unity, a cohesiveness, to your story which can be extremely helpful.

Humans are pattern-recognition machines. We are hard-wired for it. More than that, we love to do it. That's a large part of why we love stories. We love to find the one thing that is different. Building patterns and parallels into your script can communicate more than pages of dialogue. Take a look at the exercise in the posting below (Props Manager: The Game). We took a scene, and then swapped out props to see how that changed the meaning and the feel of the scene.

Now change it up a bit. Take your scenes, and try to lay out three variations in a sequence. Try to build a story. Try to show development. For example: three scenes with (much of) the same dialogue.

Say you've got an elderly man sitting next to his wheelchair-bound wife in the park.
They chat.

Next, he's walking with a cane in the park, talking to his daughter. Same dialogue, different character.

Third he's by himself, in a wheelchair. He talks to himself.

That's a rather sad story. But you can use patterns to achieve any dramatic goal, from humor, to relationship development, to plot development. You name it.

A geeky young man tries to convince his overbearing mother to go to the comic book convention with him. She tells him to grow up.

The same guy asks a fashion model on a date... to the comic book convention. He repeats the same lines. She rejects him mercilessly.

The same geeky guy rides the bus alone. Pulls up to the comic book convention. Meets eyes with a geeky girl as they both get off. She repeats his line to him. He smiles.

Ta da. Love story.

Try it. Play props manager. See what happens.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Props Manager: The Game

I'm not a big fan of writing games. There's one that's nearly unavoidable at screenwriting seminars. Drives me nuts. The guru du jour will walk among the lowly participants, asking us to close our eyes and imagine answers to questions like:

What's in your main character's pocket? Name five things.

What did your character have for breakfast?

Who is your main character's favorite person?

Et cetera. The guru then proceeds to have us read our lists out to the audience. While other writer's character's pockets are full of lockets with poems from their girls, bloody daggers, ransom notes, and secret codes for unleashing disaster, my characters have invariably chosen this day to carry a stick of gum, a bus transfer, half a movie ticket, some cookie crumbs. That's four things. And keys. Keys to unleashing disaster? No, regular keys.

The guru will then ask what my boring list tells us all about my character. When it's time for coffee and cookies, everyone oohs and ahs about how much they've learned about their characters. I stand aside, with my character smirking as I sneak a cookie into my pocket for later.

So no, I don't really like writing games. What I do like is work. Hard work. Lots of work. I don't think there's a way around it. Lucky for us, writing work is all about listening and noticing. It's about paying attention, getting it down on the page, then doing it again. It's about tweaking things until they work.

Think, tweak the scene, and LISTEN to what that tells you. And then do it again.

And so, a writing game, Scriptwrangler-style: PROPS MANAGER!

The goal of the game is to make the props guy on your set earn his keep.

1. Find a scene you're having trouble with.

2. Underline the PROPS (the objects in the scene).

3. Think about each prop. Come up with two alternatives, and tell your props guy to go get 'em! These can be the same object described with another word (say, 'six-shooter with mother-of-pearl inlaid handle' instead of 'gun'). They can also be completely new (say, 'banana' instead of 'wallet').

4. Now the important part: LISTEN to the scene. NOTICE what you've changed. Realize you do have the power to effect major changes with some fairly small moves.

You can do the same thing with verbs (call the game "Acting Coach") or adjectives (Art Director). And there's definitely a game called "Locations Managers".

One more thing. It's natural to help characters out by giving them the tools they need. But did you happen to notice that it can be a lot more interesting if you make it hard on them?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Structure H Telepathic

Sorry to have neglected the blog... It's been a busy week of scriptwranglin'. Just thought I'd pass along this short that a client forwarded to me.. If you're a 3-act fiend you'll love it. If you're trying to figure out the three-act beats (or just to see them in action)... it's also for you. Check it out. And I'll get a more substantive blog entry in soon...

While you're watching, notice just how easy the filmmakers made it on themselves: some smoke, some curtains... and a lot of voice over. Voice over sounds like another step, but they saved themselves worrying about audio the day of the shoot, and gave themselves a lot more flexibility on how to put the whole thing together.

P.S. It's not nearly as shocking as the image suggests...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

There are two?

There's an article in the New York Times that's worth checking out about the screenwriters for You Kill Me: Two Screenwriters with No Complaints. You'll have to go through the free registration process to view it, unfortunately.

I love the title. If you've spent any time in L.A. (or the quieter cafes of San Francisco), you probably did not realize that there were any screenwriters without complaints, let alone two. I point to the article because so often we forget just how long a career path the average screenwriter has before finding success, and just how much work it takes to really professionalize. I've read plenty of one-off scripts that clients swear just need a touch up before they're ready for Spielberg, Costner, Peter Jackson, et al. These people missed the article in Vanity Fair about the eco-friendly furnace in Peter Jackson's studio fueled by 100% biodegradable spec scripts. This is a tough business. It's a tough craft to learn. You have to stick with it and enjoy it if you have any hope for survival.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Script is a Working Document

So many books about screenwriting are about storytelling that it's easy to forget that a screenplay is also a set of instructions for a very complex operation -- the shooting of a film. I've always believed that learning about how other filmmakers look at a script is a tremendous nuts and bolts discipline. Many, if not most, new screenwriters have little or no experience with production, and so are writing a bit blind. Not infrequently they fill that void by writing a novel.

I've been working on a short film for the last several months. It's a surreal film set in a hyper-real location designed by San Francisco installation artist Megan Wilson. We had a site visit yesterday during which the cinematographer saw the set for the first time. To my mind, the set is more or less a cinematographer's wet dream: Gorgeous floral patterns mounted inches off the wall throughout the apartment, tiny details that tell a story wherever you look, a sense of the surreal meshing neatly with a very real, homey apartment. It's comfy and claustrophobic. It's unique and familiar. It's hard to take a bad shot in there: color and patterns and careful composition wherever you look.

The cinematographer had trouble with the script. "This part here, this is normal, right? But this next scene is supposed to be... weird?" Now I wrote the script with the director, and we knew the location and most of the people we'd be working with, so we didn't really worry about "selling" the idea. We knew exactly what we wanted to do.

The cinematographer went on and on about diffusion screens and 35 mm adapters and how the relationship between light needed and depth of field was completely counter-intuitive on his fancy new HD camera. I will admit that at first I glazed over a bit. And in the back of my head, I was thinking that this guy's job was relatively simple. He has to shoot a woman getting dressed, talking on the telephone, walking down the hall. One actress. Beautiful color-saturated set. It's shooting fish in a barrel. But then I started to listen.

He was trying to work out the story. He was talking about diffusion screens and F-stops because this was his way of getting a handle on the story. This is his creative process. He thinks in terms of color palettes. He thinks in terms of natural color vs. non-natural color. He understands how a long shot contrasts with a tight shot. And as he works out how and whether to gel a light, use a practical, use a dolly or a jib, he's figuring his way into the story. He's realizing the potential of the story. He's finding more. He's thinking of similar movies and camera work. The script is becoming a movie at that moment, in his head.

Many writers dislike screenwriting because you don't have a finished project when you're done. A script is just the first step. A successful script inspires that next step. I can't begin to tell this cinematographer to do his job. And I don't have to. I just have to inspire him.

On this script, I didn't really do enough. I had a mind meld with the director, and we felt like we knew what was going on. We'd break it down later, in the shooting script. So we punted. By the end of the site visit we had the cinematographer fully aboard. But you don't usually get a chance to coax, convince, and explain. I'm rewriting the script this weekend. It's gonna be dead clear by the time I'm done. And I'll know more about it too.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Punting, Paradox, and Action Lines

I talked earlier about the power that a writer has in using action and visuals to frame a scene for a viewer. We played with framing scenes by changing the kind of club the cops were staking out, by changing what the cops look like, etc. This is the real meat of a screenplay. Experienced screenwriters know that this stuff, when used effectively, communicates immediately to an audience on both a conscious and subconscious level. Dialogue, on the other hand, requires that they both listen carefully and remember. On top of that, they have to interpret the dialogue the way you intend. It's more difficult, more risky, and just not as entertaining.

So now let's talk a bit about how to right a good action line. There are two ideas to keep firmly in your mind: SUCCINCT and SET UP.

SUCCINCT. Trained readers typically skim and visualize a script. They have neither time or interest in reading your script like a novel. Want to know how to lose them?

Angela delicately pushes her hair into place to cover her nerves as Brandon sits down to his untouched plate of food. A wave of emotions ripples across her face in a way that reminds Brandon of his mother. He grimaces.

Yes, a viewer may read all this into a scene. Yes, an actor may well have worked out all this backstory. But it's the actor's job to ripple waves of emotion across the character's face. It's your job to build the set up that communicates the difficulty.

Does the movie viewer have access to your action lines? Nope. How are they going to figure out what you mean? With a little luck, the actor may decide to accept your puppeteering rather than engage their own craft. But basically, you're punting. Rather than work the meaning of the scene into the set up or the actions, you've pretty much just stated your goal and called it a day. Guess what. The reader is looking at the feasibility of your script. It might seem like a paradox, but by relying on your brilliant prose, you're punting on the screenwriter's #1 goal: communicating visually.

Now look at this:

Angela glances at her watch.

It's 8:16.

She glances at her watch again. Still 8:16.

Brandon re-emerges from the bathroom, slipping his CELL PHONE into his pocket as he exits.

He smiles weakly as he sits down at the table.

First thing to notice. My action lines are more or less a shot list. A script is basically a set of instructions for telling a story, right? Second thing: you can SKIM through mine without missing anything major. I communicate visually that she's anxious by having her look at her watch twice. I communicate the backstory by having him slip his cellphone in his pocket. We're done.

This brings me to the SET UP. Writers often have trouble decided what to include; either puppeteering every gesture and facial movement the poor actor has, or simply writing out dialogue, hoping that the producers share your assumptions. This uncertainty can be a symptom of a bigger issue: not knowing what a scene is for.

There should pretty much always be one simple, clear reason for a scene. If you don't have that, you probably don't need the scene, or you need two shorter ones. Once you've nailed down the goal of the scene, nailing down the action lines should be relatively easy. How much to describe about the restaurant or the food? Well, think of how your characters react to it. What's the import? Is it clear what I'm trying to do? What's the one, simple, skimmable phrase I could add that would make the set up crystal clear?

Let's take an example. Writers will often wonder how much they should include "He smiles". The rule of thumb: is it part of the set up? Is it essential that the actor smoke the cigarette, smile, nod, look wistful, etc. at that particular moment? Say a character is walking down the street with his girlfriend on a sunny day, talking about their upcoming honeymoon. We know he's smiling. So leave it out. It's already implicit in your set up.

When would you use it? How about:


Fred, dressed all in black, holds up his sobbing mother as his father's coffin is lowered into the ground.

As she buries her face in her hands,

He smiles.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Night at the Museum

I was visiting with family and friends this weekend. I saw Night at the Museum in a small living room filled with three generations, two languages, piles of food, misbehaving kids, and no beer.
We all watched the whole thing. The two year old watched it. Her grandmother, who speaks no English, watched it. I watched it after spending nearly four hours in a minivan on a crowded California highway with aforementioned kids. If you think about it, this is pretty amazing.
Night at the Museum is a remarkable movie.

Now, by remarkable, I do NOT mean 'good'. By remarkable, I do not mean 'original'. By remarkable I just mean 'effective'. It does exactly what it sets out to do. And it does this through the awesome, awful, awe-inspiring power of the three-act structure. Love it or hate it, it must be reckoned with.

The conceit of the film is simple: a night watchman finds that the museum comes to life each night. It is, plain and simple, a vehicle for a series of comic sketches based around the conceit. There's not a lot of dramatic import unless you find suspense in hoping that the lions will devour Ben Stiller soon. The three-act structure pretty much gives us a reason to sit there, to engage his otherwise not terribly real, believable, or even sympathetic character.

At first I was a little shocked at how long the first act ran. We're treated to this unbelievably textbook protagonist set up. Ben Stiller needs a job or he'll lose the respect of his son, who's gravitating to his mom's jerk of a boyfriend. There's a suitable love interest/history docent conveniently located behind the information desk, but she thinks he's a loser who won't amount to anything, and gee, if only there was a way he could bring history to life for her.

If you're a screenwriter, you're groaning. And for some reason, the first act just won't end. But as soon as the second act gets rolling, you realize why. The audience will be getting NOTHING but Ben Stiller playing fetch with T-Rex, spanking monkeys, and arbitrating fights between dioramas for the next 45 minutes. They WANT the story to be as simple as possible. The simpler it is, the more that question is out of the way. The story here is nothing more than the stakes that hold up the tent. When this is the case, all you have to do is drive them deep into the ground.

I hear lots of people, often very new screenwriters, say that "they could write something better than that". And it's true sometimes. Why does Hollywood hire these morons? Well, because they aren't morons. They realize when a simple, painfully obvious story is the goal. What separates the men from the boys is mostly a matter of how conscious you are of your story elements, and how you exploit them as tools. And in that sense, Night at the Museum is no less remarkable a film than Magnolia, or Midnight Cowboy, or even Shaun of the Dead.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Fun and Games with Genre and Visuals

It's been a fairly dour stretch here at the blog recently -- discussions of dense Russian movies and how to reduce, recycle and reuse tough and/or poor criticism. Let's lighten the mood a tad.

Many relatively new screenwriters have a couple tendencies in common. They see their material as straightforward drama. And they underutilize visuals. Often by the time they get to me they've hit a wall and writing's no fun anymore.

While these seem like disparate issues, in a way they have a root cause: not understanding how the audience interprets your material. Getting a new writer to realize how this stuff works together is like showing a new driver how to shift out of first gear. Suddenly writing is fun again, and you can't wait to get the car out on the freeway again now that you know how to avoid stalling on the onramp.

Let's try a little game. From your own work, find a scene you are really, really sick of. Something that just won't work. The one that makes you check your email three times before you can tackle it again. Say your scene is two cops on a stake out outside a club.

What does the audience see:

Two cops.
Their car.
The street.
The club.
The people on the street.

And whatever else. Sounds like an action flick, right? Now CHANGE THE VISUALS, like a Madlib, and see how you can automatically change the meaning.

Take the two cops. Make them undercover. They're African-American. They're dressed to kill. Sitting in a BMW.

They're looking at a hopping hip-hop joint, complete with limos full of hoochie mamas, long lines, and a bouncer in a red fedora.

First thing the audience thinks? These guys are going to the club. That's a strong visual cue, and laying the "cop" information on top of that says a very particular thing to the audience.

Change it up. Now see this movie in your head:

The two cops are old-school, Irish, tough guys. An assault rifle sits in the rack between them. They don't say a word.

The club is a the same hip hop club. But now you're sending a very, very different message.

Change it again.

One cop is female, gorgeous, Latino. The other is a fresh-faced Matt Damon type. They're eating take out sushi and laughing.

The club is a bowling alley. Kids play out front on bikes. A pick up drives up and the kids scatter.

There's a very different movie.

How about this one:

Two cops in uniform. One's pudgy, short and white. The other's an African-American lady's man. They stare intensely at a deal we can't see going down. They talk about pick ups and drop offs.

Then we show the club, which is a bingo hall with a traffic jam full of minivans dropping off grandma for her big night of the week.

Starts to look like a comedy, right?

Do this with your hated scene. Let it be fun again. Change the genre. Nobody's gonna know. Keep swapping in new visuals, and you'll start to understand just how essential they are to telling your story. Beyond that, you'll start to understand what a cool tool you have at your disposal.

We're writing movies. Get that visual down on the page. Every set up has the power to communicate almost infinite different messages. Don't assume the reader knows what you mean.

Monday, June 4, 2007


Useful, informed, honest criticism is absolutely essential to any screenwriter. It's also incredibly difficult to find.

Most of us have an English major somewhere around us: maybe they're making your coffee, or teaching third grade, maybe even writing copy for a marketing firm. These are good, strong readers with serious attention spans and the best of intentions. Their advice can be useful, but they don't often know much about reading a screenplay. They'll frequently feel the lack of a character's internality. They'll turn your script into a novel if you let them.

Then there's the first draft issue. First drafts by definition suck. It's a given. That's why you want criticism, yo. Often you'll get a reader who can't get around that fact, and won't get to the next place: saying something useful.

Let's not forget readers who latch onto a character. You write a misogynist character, for instance. Your reader gets creeped out. On screen, they might delight in a juicy negative character. On the page, it just makes the reader uneasy. Maybe they identify with a character who makes stupid or self-destructive decisions. They'll hate it. It colors everything they say.

There's the careless reader. These are not infrequently producer types. They probably read twenty pages. And they're giving you notes over the phone as they get frisked at the airport.

Guess what: listen to ALL OF THEM. But don't give any of them power over you. You don't have to agree, but you should listen.

I was preparing to market a script once. I gave it out to some colleagues to read through and give notes. One reader told me that the dialogue was very weak, and that I frankly should know better than to consider the work ready. I was more or less crushed. Next day a second reader responded. My dialogue was now "utterly phenomenal". I didn't agree with either reader, but I did realize that people have strong reactions to my dialogue, and it's worth revisiting that issue before I waste many a lonely hour trying to market the thing.

I went back to the script, and realized that I'd learned things since I put it to bed several months previous. I knew more. And part of the issue was the dialogue. But I ended up improving the script in several ways.

Another thing: your "real" reader -- the studios, Coppola, whoever fills that slot for you -- is not above these concerns. Hollywood employs legions of angry, frustrated English majors to weed through scripts. Some know their job. Others don't. Either way, it's their job to read twenty pages and skim the rest. Maybe they've read five shoot-em-up scripts already today, and the last thing they'll be entertained by is a misogynist and his girlfriend. Maybe your characters lack a satisfying emotional core, just like your barista keeps telling you. You don't have to please every reader, but there are always ways to satisfy readers along the way.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Day Watch

Day Watch is not a new feature film starring Pamela Sue Anderson. Day Watch is a phantasmagorical action thriller full of witches, devils, vampires, shapeshifters and god knows what else in present-day Moscow. It's Russia's answer to The Matrix.

Day Watch continues the saga started in Night Watch. Basically, the forces of good and evil have held a truce for the last 1000 years, but now evil is looking for a way to break the truce. When a man tries unsuccessfully to abort his son in the womb through black magic, they think they have their chance.

The father becomes a force for The Light, albeit severely morally compromised. His son is growing up to become the most powerful force of evil.

I can only imagine what the screenplay looks like. It's nearly impossible to follow, even if you've seen Night Watch. But you just don't care, because you've never seen anything like it before. I love this movie. I love it as a screenwriter, gaping plot holes and all.

Why? Because unlike most of the dreck that Hollywood puts out in this genre, it's the whole package. It's breathless action mixed with humor and strong characterization and a convincing hero who is more than capable of screwing things up. He gets drunk/poisoned and does karaoke at his son's birthday party when he's supposed to be saving the world. And somehow that makes me want to see him so much more than Bruce Willis and his mild little character flaws.

Let me point to one very minor plot point as an example. The hero, Anton, has to sneak past a security guard watching a soccer game. When his team scores, he jumps up and kisses the team calendar hanging above his desk. As he returns to his seat, we get the briefest glimpse of the calendar. The player who got the kiss is wiping his face.

It's completely unexpected. It's a high tension moment, and suddenly you're laughing. If this was a Bruce Willis story, the tension would be carried by methodically putting together some dumb ass weapon, a low, ominous tone in the soundtrack, and a couple of karate chops. This is a lot more fun.

The Day Watch approach takes advantage of some basic storytelling that a lot of Hollywood has forgotten about. The more beats -- the more contrasting moments -- you can stuff into a scene, the more excited and attentive an audience will be.

What does this small visual joke accomplish for a filmmaker? It rewards the audience for paying attention to the small details. This gives him another avenue for telling his story. For me, this is a large part of why Day Watch is a much fuller, more satisfying experience than, say, Spiderman or Pirates of the Caribbean.

A side note on Day Watch. Yes, it has subtitles. This is why it'll gross $3M tops at the US box office. But the filmmakers did what any good screenwriter should always do. Look at a challenge or a problem, and see how you can turn it around to your own benefit. The director (Timur Bekmambetov) made sure that the subtitles were unlike anything you'd seen before. They appear in blood on a wall, or get pushed into the snow by a truck, or "knock" when there's a knock on the door.

There was also a conscious choice to frame the plot material for an American audience. Russians have a higher tolerance for dialogue in their movies. They have a higher tolerance for ambiguous or ambivalent characters. American audiences don't want things explained to them, they want to see them. So what does a good filmmaker do?

He'll look at his problems (here: subtitles and ambiguous, talky characters), and rethink them as tools. He makes the subtitles themselves a source of entertainment. And when an American audience has all the info they need, he CHANGES THE SUBTITLES. When the Russian is still talking about the plot material, the English subtitle is on to a quick joke or pun. When the Russian dialogue between the dark overlord and the rising evil son character is all about the hierarchy of good and evil, etc., the English subtitles are more focused on introducing the silver ball thing that will play a huge part in the climax (and would be rejected as too quick a device in an American action movie otherwise). Take two problems, put them together, come up with a solution.

Yes, the problems I'm talking about are driven by money. The filmmakers want to cross over to the American market. But they responded creatively to the question, so I have no problem with it.