Thursday, September 27, 2007

3:10 to Yuma II: Creating Empty Space

3:10 to Yuma is the story of a peaceful rancher who takes a job escorting a notorious killer to justice in order to pay his debts, save his ranch, and earn the respect of his 14-year-old son. It's a marvelous drama that hinges on just how awful and awesome the bad guy is. Like a lot of good movies, the bad guy, Ben Wade, is TRULY bad not because he's a one-trick pony sadist or fighter type. He's truly bad because he's a deeply ambivalent and intelligent character who acts from his own interests, whether that be to slit your throat or save your life.

He's complex. A lot of writers stumble trying to create a character like this. Building that kind of complexity and driving it forward with decent pacing (and without a lot of expositional dialogue) is a tricky thing. But most writers get tripped up before they leave the gate. They don't create the empty space their complex character will develop in. Showing what your character ISN'T is the frame that tells the audience what he has the potential to be.

In 3:10 to Yuma, Ben Wade's empty space is created by another character named Charlie Prince. Charlie's everything Ben Wade is not. He IS a sadistic animal. He's a monster.

The first time we meet Ben Wade, he's drawing a sketch of a hawk. The set up is clear here. Ben Wade is a thinker. Ben Wade sees beauty. Ben Wade sees a creature like himself. We cut to the horrible, skull-like stare of Charlie Prince riding up to him. His blue eyes burn a hole in the screen. There's something truly creepy here. As he rides up to Wade, the hawk flies away. And Charlie announces that the stagecoach they're planning to rob is arriving soon. Clear enough.

The stagecoach arrives. Interestingly enough, Ben Wade doesn't actually take part at first. He sends Charlie and his men down on the stagecoach (not unlike trained falcons), while he watches from above. Again -- he's the observer. Charlie kills with joy and precision. Ben hangs back, then drives a herd of cattle into the path of the stagecoach. He's a thinker first, and a killer second.

The writer uses Charlie to build empty around Ben throughout the movie. One particularly interesting moment occurs in the saloon after the raid on the stagecoach. Charlie's a strangely effeminate character... and he makes a play to be closer to Ben Wade, like old times. Ben responds with weariness... enough to raise the question of something homosexual in their past, or perhaps a some deeper longing to Charlie's loyalty.

Now, the writer's goal here is not to add a gay subtext to the story. I see no gay subtext here at all. But by RAISING THE QUESTION of Ben Wade's sexuality -- by opening up that empty space -- he gets his audience watching closely for clues as he seduces an old flame in the bar. And by assuring they're watching every move, he drives home his plot points. The writer uses Charlie to pose a question that Wade's action will answer. Suddenly a scene that could have any number of meanings means exactly what the writer intended. The interaction with Charlie frames the seduction for the audience.

One thing we learn from the subsequent languorous love scene is that Ben Wade has a thing for green eyes. It's an important piece of information that ties together some major pieces of the plot. They represent what he can't have. Which is a form of empty space. And the writer's posed another question for us to follow. Who has green eyes?

Deeper in the plot, Charlie's been chasing after the coach he thinks Ben's being held captive in. When he catches up to it, he realizes he's been fooled by a decoy -- more empty space. He sadistically sets the coach ablaze and what do we see?

Green eyes. Charlie's green eyes.

Now, I'd appreciate it if someone could check this out and let me know if I'm right about this. But I'm pretty sure Charlie's eyes are blue the first time we see them. And as he burns a stagecoach in a rage at not finding Ben, they're green. In fact, they're very emphatically green when he's burning the coach.

Is there plot significance here? No. Is there a resonance here between green eyes and absence and depth of emotion? Absolutely. Does a filmmaker use that tool? Absolutely. And a good screenwriter puts a tool like that in a filmmaker's hands.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

Westerns are coming back! They've been out of favor for a long time. It's almost as if we have to forget about them and rediscover them again. I'm very excited about this. Despite the stereotype shoot 'em up, Westerns are an incredibly fertile genre for exploring our culture. There's room for true ambivalence and emotional engagement while talking about American history... and entertaining the heck out of the audience. Thousands of grainy black and white films of art school students smoking cigarettes in messy kitchens notwithstanding, Westerns represent the true American existentialism on screen.

Plus, I have a western script I really love, and there's suddenly a snowball's chance in hell I might sell it.

3:10 to Yuma is a perfect manifestation of the resurgent Western. It's a remake of the 1957 version, in which Glenn Ford played the bad guy (who is played almost too convincingly by Russell Crowe in the 2007 remake).

Anyone with questions about what the three-act structure really needs to watch this movie. It's textbook. Set the protagonist: problem; misbehavior; clear, concrete, goal; link external and internal conflicts, get the dynamic character in place. Set the antagonist. Show them in contrast. And your inciting event. Kaboom. Want to know what a midpoint looks like? Watch the action undermine all the protagonists reference points in a brilliant genre move.... I don't want to spoil the movie here, so I won't go into too many specifics. But you get the idea.

Why DOES the movie follow the three-act structure so religiously? I think a lot of it has to do with the climax. Keeping the audience clear on the character intention for both Russell Crowe and Christian Bale is an incredible balancing act in the final scene -- and absolutely essential. If we can't watch the subtle interplay, there's no depth... and suddenly we ARE just watching a shoot 'em up. If the character intention wasn't carefully laid out at EVERY STAGE up to that point, we'd be lost in the climax. If the writers hadn't thought it through carefully, and worked it into the set ups and action at every stage, it just wouldn't have been satisfying.

And it wouldn't have said nearly as much as it does. Writers often tire of discussions of structure and character intention and so on. Dialogue is so much easier, and it's right there, on the page in front of you. But getting your story clear on the screen is a whole other ball of wax. And hopefully Westerns will be teaching a new generation of writers just how much you can say with a little structure.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

So That's Why They Call It Layback

We're in the very last stage of post-production on Mr. Gary today. It's called layback, because it's when your audio mix is laid back into your finished picture. We've been driving like crazy to get this done in time for the Sundance deadline for short films. 'Layback' is also what I'll be doing shortly after it's in the mail. Along with 'breathe again' and 'sleep enough'.

Our layback is happening at Video Arts, one of the top online edit facilities in the country. It's been truly inspiring working with this team. You know edit-head? When you're deep in a script, and you've opened it all up and you're trying to make it all work together. You get obsessive. You start breaking down the story into smaller and smaller elements until there's almost infinite complexity in front of you? That's what happens in the online edit. And a good color correctionist or compositer is deeply engaged in that obsessive attention to detail every day of their working lives. Yeesh.

What's exciting for me as a writer is to realize just how important story is to these professionally obsessive people. A compositer's job is to pull together diverse elements and make them all work together and look natural on screen. If you see a TV show on a TV show, the compositer is the one who puts it there. To make it look natural, you have to understand how reflections that the average eye won't pick up affect your perception. You have to understand how to mimic the light in a room. And you have to understand why an old TV screen looks the way it does -- how it skews toward one part of the spectrum or another. There's no "looks natural" to a computer.

To a compositer or color correctionist, each of these tweaks is a chance to tell the story. Your story. Do you sit down and explain everything to them? Well, to an extent. But if they're going to do a really exceptional job, they need to be inspired by the story. They need to know what they're building on. That's when a professional decision becomes an aesthetic decision.

As Mr. Gary builds toward its climax, the beginning of the movie starts showing on the character's TV set. The compositer decided to skew the spectrum on her old TV toward purple. How did he decide that? He saw how the 'red' in the script and on the screen was otherwise darkening, and going toward purple. Now, the untrained eye just sees "old TV". And most people don't even give the compositing a thought. But it's clever, script-based choices that make the composition seem coherent and engaging.

Hiring these professionals usually costs thousands and thousands of dollars. We got to use them for our weird little masterpiece because of an HD Residency Grant from the Bay Area Video Coalition. The grant also got us top-of-the-line audio recording and engineering in-house. So a big shout out and thanks to them!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Structure is Everywhere

I've been a little light on posting recently. Mr. Gary is done tomorrow, at which point I can clear out the mental real estate I need to blog properly.

For now, watch this trippy video. It's magnificent. What's it got to do with screenwriting? Well, it's beautiful. And when a writer or artist sees a beautiful thing, they should watch it and see what it can teach them.

What does it teach me? That three-act structure is hard-wired into our perception. That symmetry between the set up and the resolution is innately satisfying. That when a setting is a creative reimagining of a world we've seen before, it excites and moves us. It reminds me that great narrative usually arises from a simple conceit, not ornate structure. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Neanderthal Car insurance Salesmen

I thought I'd talk about character in commercials one more time here. Commercials are, after all, short films. And short forms force you to think quick -- to come up with solutions that immediately engage your audience. Screenwriters struggle to establish characters in ten pages. No such luxury here. It's got to work immediately. And it has to work up against multiple other narratives.

I talked in my last post about how a typical character is structured around an internal conflict. They have a flaw (also known as a misbehavior) that keeps them from easily resolving the plot problem. They've got a desire that pushes them through the plot problem. On this basic level, this much is true of a Tide commercial and the Godfather both. I did my best to cram the Nasonex Bee into that structure. Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that this internal/external conflict is more of a thought process for a writer than a finished product. You can't really just paint by numbers here. You have to dig down and think.

And so: what's up with the Geico Cavemen? This commercial is interesting to me because the company it's for is actually the opponent in the ad. On the face of it, this seems like a crappy idea. Why associate yourself with the image of a callous, unthinking corporation oppressing a sympathetic underdog? There's got to be an easier and less risky way to sell car insurance.

Think back to the first commercial. Two cavemen advocates sit in a fancy L.A. restaurant, and some cheesy guy in a bad suit says, "Seriously, we're sorry. We didn't even realize you guys still exist." Then there's this great line, where the caveman looks up and orders the roast duck with the mango salsa. And the second caveman is too disgusted to eat.

Something very interesting is going on here. First, yes -- the company is projecting itself as this cheesy, somewhat shifty, and completely outgunned average business shmo. The audience is smart enough to know this is an ad for Geico. The writer knows this. He knows he wants to get the audience on Geico's side. What's he say? "Hey, you can laugh at us. And we know that this stuff is real." Most adult Americans can relate to feeling disrespected by an auto insurance company. The idea of an insurance company, on the other hand, is, uh, unfamiliar.

Now look at the whole insensitive comment issue. About twice a month America works itself into a froth over some nappy-headed comment made by a semi-lucid celebrity. While some Americans are truly outraged, others are amused. Some think it's a waste of time and hot air. Others hate that anyone should be fired for expressing a belief. We're all over the page on this one. Why would a writer go near that in a car insurance commercial?

Well, because it's conflict. And it's one we can identify. And conflict lets the audience engage the story.

The writer won't go in there willy-nilly. He thinks of a strategy for his character. He obviously can't make the character resemble any minority group. This would be death. So he knows that the character has to be safely distanced. Hence: cavemen. Of course the cavemen need a conflict too. What conflict would really drive the insensitivity issue? They're articulate cavemen.

What's the end result? We can identify the situation: a blow up over insensitivity. And we can take either side.

The writers and producers thought through all this stuff. They didn't opt for a female caveman. They didn't choose a Latino actor, or an African-American. The guy's voice is clearly that of some nerdy white guy. Now take a look at his make up. What's that got to do with writing? The writer comes up with the original character conceit.

The writer is looking for the safest way to frame his character. The safest place is not only as far away from anything that could be read as race. It's also a well-defined, very particular place. And so the cavemen look straight out of 'Land of the Lost'. They are a type. I'd imagine this decision was based on the target market, which probably has positive associations around those cavepeople from their childhood.

The character was successful enough to spawn a whole series of commercials. And before you know it, there's a whole world view that's been worked out very carefully. There's the caveman seeing his shrink. She's a very similar type to the Geico representative in the restaurant. Simplistic thinking. lack of understanding. No real way of dealing with a caveman. We're still in L.A. (look out the window). And again the caveman wins, and we're happy (and reminded of Geico). There's the caveman who sees the offending poster in an airport. It repeats the character conceit, which allows the writers (and Geico) to build a memorable commercial. And that ain't easy.

I wonder if the next step might be to bring their ad campaigns into conflict. Maybe the Geico gecko struggles to placate an angry caveman? Or they swamp him at a protest, and we end somehow with "I just saved hundreds on my car insurance."

Maybe not. There's a problem here. The caveman has to score a small but meaningful victory here. But the gecko does too. Two strong character conceits would probably make the whole commercial feel like Geico had finally jumped the shark. There's only one thing that's certain: brainstorming through these problems would almost inevitably produce a stronger ad than not considering them.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Very Animated Spokesbees

There's clearly something deeply weird going on in our culture right now. I'm not going to delve into simplistic statements about attention span or media saturation. But clearly we're riding a real cleft in the culture between people who grew up in a world of linear, carefully structured narratives and the young ones, who fall into a pit of worry if they aren't blasted by three or more narratives and/or image streams at the same time. There's something entirely new going on in human history right now. It's just beginning to play out.

But there are some things that are basically constant in how narrative is constructed. I don't care how non-linear or avant-garde your movie is, chances are it really sucks if you didn't sit down and work out the chronological structure of events. Non-linear narrative doesn't free you from the requirements of drama. It does the opposite: you MUST plan that stuff out well if the audience is going to stay with you through your ever-so-elegant leaps and breaks.

Characters also are constructed in the same basic way they always were. It doesn't matter what terminology you use -- character arc and flaw, misbehavior and desire, mode and need -- you are pretty much talking about building a clear, strong conflict that makes a character both "feel" real, and propels them into and through the plot. It doesn't matter if it's Shakespeare or a detergent commercial. The character is carefully constructed to garner sympathy (read: our attention) and drive the plot to the resolution the writer's aiming for.

That's why the protagonists in soap ads mirror a very specific image of a suburban housewife. That's why the protagonists (germs, grass stains, her smelly family) swarm down. And each resolution is her overcoming her character flaw -- she didn't know there was this wonderful substance named Boraxo.

So what to make of the Nasonex Bee? Have you seen this bee? Who hasn't? It's a computer animated bee that speaks with a somewhat gay Mexican accent. And you gotta ask: how on earth did they decide that this particular character would sell allergy medication?

I puzzled over this for a while. The bee isn't a protagonist per se. He's more of a narrator. So his main job is to get us to listen. But what's his inner conflict? How does the writer construct the character sympathy? Why should we care?

My guess is this. Bees have an association with pollen and summer. When an allergy sufferer sees a bee, they make a link to their stuffed up nose. Perhaps there's something a little deeper. Bees eat the pollen -- and make something useful out of it.

Now the bee is obviously animated. If you're going to employ a spokesbeee, you probably want one generated in a computer. For me, it's still creepy when the bee helps pop the cap off for the suffering human. Who's going to grab a bottle with a bee on it? There's a particular connection between bees and allergies: reactions to bee stings. I'd think you'd want no bees in your allergy commercial. But someone decided this was a good thing.

Next step: choosing the voice. Anyone who works in animation will tell you that this is a critical choice. Audiences want to know where to put your character. If the voice is too loopy... you look for a bit of humor, but put little investment in the bee. You've got a cartoon. If the voice contrasts sharply with the visual, you can build humor, but you also risk a certain dissonance. If you want to get your audience engaged in the character, it helps if the voice is distinctive or even well-known. That's why Robin Williams still has a job.

So picture the ad exec bigwig types sitting around a table in their Madison Avenue skyscraper, deciding on the voice. Someone says, "Let's mirror the voice to our target audience: white females, 30-49". (This is an example. I have no idea who buys Nasonex.) Great. They test it out. The audience just thinks it's strange.. or feel put down somehow.

Hmmm. What'll make the bee work? "Let's get Robin Williams in the studio!" They try it, but the audience is now looking for a joke, and start laughing when he tells us Nasonex causes swelling of the brain lining and hallucinations involving talking insects (Nasonex does not cause this. I'm sure it's a delightful, completely safe allergy medication.). So no go. Thousands and thousands have been spent on this ad.

"I know. We need a voice that sounds helpful and polite, yet knowledgeable around the subject." Someone thinks of the concierge at their day spa. And you've got yourself the first gay Latino spokesbee in history.

I'm obviously speculating here. But someone really does make choices like this. Someone thinks through this stuff. And they're paid well for it.

Yer kiddin' me. Nope. And they probably earn every penny. They know about these memes and types and characters floating around in Americans' heads, and they know how to play them. Rush Limbaugh probably wants to run a check on the bee's work papers. The Nasonex bee would probably get fired if we found out he shares a well-appointed duplex hive in West Hollywood with another male bee model.

But with the right touch, that bee does exactly what it's constructed to do.

Friday, September 7, 2007

New Indie Filmmaker Podcast

If you're interested in knowing who's up and coming in the world of indie film, it's worth checking out the Renart Films Podcast. Definitely a mixed bag, but worth a trip.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Strange Culture in Theaters This Month!

Strange Culture is getting theatrical distribution. The film tells the tale of Steve Kurtz, a real-life artist suffering outrageous harassment from the Justice Department. Following the sudden death of Kurtz' wife in 2005, Steve found himself the subject of an investigation leading to bio-terror charges. Though the health department ruled that there was no foul play in his wife's death, and a grand jury refused to hand down any bio-terror charges, the Justice Department continues to pursue JAIL TIME for misdemeanor charges dealing with improper paperwork used to requisition harmless bacteria used in high school labs all over the country.

It's a scary, Kafka-esque tale, and anyone concerned about civil liberties in this country needs to see this film. Indiewire called it, “…probably the best and certainly the most urgent film in the (Sundance) Frontier section…”

Lynn Hershman directed it. Hiro Narita shot it. I consulted on the script.

The film opens in the Bay Area on September 21.

ROXIE FILM CENTER in San Francisco
Nightly at 6:00, 8:00 & 9:30. Plus Sat, Sun & Wed at (2:00) & 4:00.

For showtimes: or call 415-454-1222

It opens in New York at the MOMA(!) on October 1, and at Cinema Village on October 5.

I'll keep you updated if this film gets broader distribution. Let's hope it does!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Chasing Chickens Around the Yard

Brainstorming is one of the most rewarding processes for a screenwriter. There's something really exhilarating about free-associating, finding connections, and building drama out of a rough idea. You remember that your brilliant idea is connected to a whole world -- and that world brings life to your story.

Brainstorming is also a chaotic process. It can be very threatening to a writer. You follow a character's traits and the main action to its logical conclusion... and it doesn't work. Or the message changes. Or you start drifting into delicate territory. Or it starts sounding like that movie you really, really hate. Or the big one: suddenly you realize that all your work so far is for naught.

It's one thing to comfort yourself with the knowledge that you've merely written yourself up to the next stage of understanding around a story idea. You find your happy Zen place, and destroy the Mandala you've been working on for weeks.

Or, like the rest of us, you get that horrible feeling that you're spinning your wheels in mud. There's no traction in any of your plot points. You're stuck. And it's all crap.

It's way too easy to find yourself in that dark place where nothing really makes sense, or matters, or will even remotely appeal to Spielberg. That's when I like to throw my hands up and chase chickens in the yard.

Have you ever done this? You catch very few chickens. But there are two or three things you can do that will turn the task from an ordeal into an enjoyable experience.

1. Have a plan. If you run around randomly, you can be sure the chickens will too. You ARE spinning your wheels if you don't do some basic work to structure your process. I like to work with a rough set of guidelines around the three-act stucture. But what's more important is that you have a structure that gives you discipline.

2. Have a friend. It's much easier to catch chickens if you're not the only one in the yard. And if you're both working with the same strategy, you're gonna catch lots of chickens.

Having the basic beats of the three-act structure as a common language is very helpful indeed. Even when you reject a solution that the three-act structure points to, you're learning a lot about the script, and developing a better shared sense of the script with your collaborator.

3. Have fun. Be a kid. Follow your bliss. Play. An adult will wear themselves out chasing after chickens. A kid will have a blast, and be energized by the task. Brainstorming is the same way. You get more strong, organic solutions if you're losing yourself in the task. You get more entertaining plot points when you're entertaining yourself.

There's a reason we tell stories. The more connected you are to that, the more grounded you feel in your material.