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.

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