Saturday, February 23, 2008

Metaphors and Equations

I watched a program the other day about Einstein's equation e=mc2. Einstein captured the nature of the relationship between energy and matter in the simplest possible way. The equation was a remarkable success, of course, but Einstein felt true grief and guilt when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. If only he'd never mentioned the equation and its potential to FDR. The equation opens a path to utter destruction within the tiniest sliver of matter.

Only after Einstein's death did thinkers really plumb the depths of the reverse side of the equation. Energy can be transformed into matter. This led to the Big Bang theory. Utter creation and utter destruction on opposite sides of an equal sign. Equations are reversible.

Equations are also metaphors. Einstein's genius was to find a relationship that defined the world in ways no one had really even conceived of previously. One equation changed how we thought about the universe -- about what it even was. Einstein didn't invent e=mc2. He named it, and in naming there is power.

Many of us are a little hazy on what exactly a metaphor is. We learned something about how "my love is like a rose" is a metaphor in high school English. Or was it a simile, or are similes metaphors? It's why most people stay away from the pink spaces in Trivial Pursuit.

Metaphors are equations. They take chaos and turn it into knowledge. There's nothing hazy or high-falutin' about them. And they work by shifting energy and meaning back and forth. The writer writes the equation into the script. The audience reverses the equation, and finds where the author started. A metaphor isn't a flower, or a dream, or a feather. A metaphor is your engine block, your transmission. It's how a little pressing of the foot against a pedal moves the car forward.

Metaphor is all around us. The War on Terror was all about creating a metaphor that fed power to the Bush administration. When those metaphors started falling apart, you get where we are now. Barack Obama is building a metaphor. Hillary Clinton is building a different metaphor. John McCain is trying to rebuild the old metaphor.

A writer is lucky in that they do understand the power a metaphor has. They do understand that a metaphor can suck a viewer in and get them identifying with a rat chasing an empty potato chip bag. Most people never really think about it. A metaphor is the thing they can't remember from high school.

Metaphors are equations that move power and meaning from one person to many. And a good writer knows they're reversible as any equation. Think about how you see the world. Metaphors are real, and they're all around us. The good news is that we can write new ones ourselves.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Writing the Frame

There's a lovely conundrum at the base of screenwriting -- writing for a visual medium. Your words don't make it to the ultimate audience. But your story does. Most aspects of good screenwriting relate back to this basic issue sooner or later. I remember with near grief a script I wrote coverage for. The writer was clearly under the influence of 20th century American poetry, circa The Sins of Kalamazoo.

Yes, Kalamazoo is a spot on the map
And the passenger trains stop there
And the factory smokestacks smoke
And the grocery stores are open Saturday nights
And the streets are free for citizens who vote
And inhabitants counted in the census.
Saturday night is the big night.
Listen with your ears on a Saturday night in Kalamazoo
And say to yourself: I hear America, I hear, what do I hear?

-- Carl Sandberg, "The Sins of Kalamazoo"

The writer had a true gift for poetic description, and I spent half the script in awe of it. The other half I pictured a cranky production designer complaining, "What the %$#@&% am I supposed to do with this?!"

The writer as a good poet, but he didn't understand the paradox of screenwriting.

There IS a place where screenwriting does come around and meet poetry again, and most screenwriters give it short shrift. There's an economy of images and description that determines if both are successful. There's metonymy -- using associations to convey meaning. There are resonances, and building conflicts and dynamics that work in the audience's mind, and not just on the page. There are beats, and rhythm, and voice. Both open up a structure that's greater than the sum of its parts.

How does a screenwriter achieve this in their script? One way is to write your frame.

Take this still from Children of Men:

There are many very carefully composed shots in this movie. Clive Owen is often at the center of the shot -- framed very precisely by the controlling elements of the script -- be they the commuters in the coffee shop, or a room papered over with news headlines, or a man escorting a woman and a baby through a sea of soldiers who'd been trying to kill him minutes ago.

The protagonists are surrounded by everything they're fighting against. The writer knows that the baby has come to symbolize hope. We know well that the soldiers are fighting for the fascist state. The audience has a profound reaction to this scene, because it more or less expresses the hope at the heart of the whole movie.

Now, many of you are probably objecting that the composition of the shots is the job of the director, the DP, the production designer. It's the job of everyone but the screenwriter, in a way, right?

Wrong. While there is a cardinal rule (especially in spec scripts) not to call the shots, you do in fact want to SUGGEST the shots. You want to inspire the next stage of creation. You want to put the idea in the reader's mind. You want the director saying, "I know exactly how to shoot that."

How do you do that?

Compose the picture of contrasts. USE the props that tell the story. Instead of worrying about lines of dialogue, worry about the thousand words the picture is worth. Compose all the elements in your head so they're as all working together to express the controlling idea.

This all goes back to the Fractal Theory of Screenwriting I was talking about earlier. When you know your structure, it starts to pervade everything. The structure within the beats starts to recapitulate the overall structure. The on-screen actions start to have more of a resonance with the main action of the script. There's a kind of ecstasy in this kind of writing -- it all ascends to something greater than you planned.

We all know how a photograph or a painting can tell a story. There's power in bringing your knowledge about the story to a micro level. Beyond that, there's a joy in finding a new and fertile level for expressing yourself. Write the frame. Compose the picture.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Creation Loves Constraint

I saw Once again today. What a marvelous little film. It's a musical. It's Irish. It's made for under $100K.

It's nominated for an Oscar.

It's competing against films made for five hundred times as much money. In a way, those other films are at a terrible disadvantage. When you've got that much money, and that many interests fighting for supremacy, it's hard to shoot a good story. You're showcasing too much. You're selling too much.

With a $100K, you have your story and not much more. It's got to be stripped down and direct. It has to be evocative. It has to invite the audience into the characters.

So often when I'm struggling with a scene, I realize that I'm trying to tell the audience everything about the characters at once. I'll put in a nice little touch that tells us what's going on. Then I'll go back and underline it. Then something else looks out of balance, so I'll get clever with that. Then I need an extra line of dialogue as well. Then I go for a walk because I'm frustrated.

When I get home, I either throw the scene out and look for the simple solution -- one scene idea that speaks immediately and tells us all we need to know. Often it's there, but something the best scene is no scene at all. What's great about a good story is how the audience builds it in their own head.

With a $100 million budget, you can't afford to take that risk. You need to drill that sucker into the audience. There needs to be one clear meaning, no matter how banal, that keeps the audience contented as consumers. And that's a heavy burden when you're trying to tell a story that matters.

So many novice screenwriters are hell-bent on winning a competition and then landing the big development deal and all that stuff. I've evaluated so many scripts that are at a real beginner stage. When we're done, they tell me they'll be sending it off to Spielberg next, and how soon should they expect to hear from him?

You probably have just as good a chance sending a mock up of a new car idea to General Motors. This is a business, and you're not going to get anywhere without a lot of hard work and a subprime mortgage on your soul.

Of course, if you want to get to the Oscars, it's probably easier to tell a simple, great story.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

No Country For Old Men

*Spoiler Alert* If you haven't seen this movie, don't read the post yet. Put your coat on and go see the movie. I've seen it three times now, and I need to discuss it.

I am fascinated with this movie. When it first came out, acclaim for the movie was more or less universal. But once the buzz factor started to ebb, voices of dissent started to rise up. Screenwriters' sites and discussion groups are full of conflict over the film. Writers either love it or hate it. What side of the debate you fall on says a lot about how you approach writing.

Those who hate it are almost universally dissatisfied with the ending. It simply isn't the big Hollywood thriller ending that they're looking for. The script very carefully lays out a kind of cat and mouse game between the protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, and the grim reaper figure, Anton Chigurh. And then, well, somebody else kills Moss. There's no final showdown between the good guy and the bad guy. There's no victory. To some viewers this feels like a betrayal. To others, it's deeply affecting.

There's a great deal to talk about in this movie, but in this post I'm going to focus on the one big lesson I think writers can take from this movie:

All rules on how to build story elements, from plot structure to characters, are tools. They don't magically tell you what the story is. They help you find it.

No Country For Old Men is adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy. The book is not a thriller. It doesn't have a neat three act structure like a screenplay. Ninety percent of writers and studios adapting the book would turn it into a thriller. The Coen Brothers knew better.

This is a movie about old men. For me, the Ed Tom Bell character, played by Tommy Lee Jones, provides the unity and the true three-act structure to the piece. But, like the rest of us, he's watching this fascinating cat and mouse game. And he knows he's outgunned. This is no country for old men. In the words of his father, "You can't stop what's coming. It's not all about you. That's vanity." It's a horrifying message delivered without flinching.

There's a thriller inside No Country For Old Men. But the movie's not a thriller in itself. It uses and plays with our expectations to take us somewhere deeper. How do they do this?

From the standpoint of structure, there's a carefully laid out, very Coen Brothers kind of cat and mouse game being played. I think it climaxes in the scene where Moss wounds Chigurh in El Paso. That's your big chase scene if you're looking for it. There's still forty minutes of film to go, of course.

At that point, the Coen Brothers systematically start to deny your expectations. The Woody Harrelson character, who came in incredibly late, is killed incredibly early. Even more emphatic is the way we cease to actually see the murders. Chigurh keeps killing, but there's no need. It's not about that. Humor starts bubbling up through the cracks. Llewelyn Moss tells Chigurh he's coming after him, but well... he doesn't.

Before he can even get started, he's killed by Mexican gangsters. We don't see this murder either -- just the result. The murder comes out of left field -- basically the result of a comic scene with his mother-in-law. Chigurh himself is late to the scene.

When we see Moss dead, it's a huge shock to the system. My heart just crumbles each time. The reason, I think, is good screenwriting on the level of character. Every screenwriter knows that you have to engage a very clear, simple strategy for maintaining audience engagement in your main character. The Coen Brothers are masters of this, of course. And they do a tremendous job with Moss. In his first series of scenes, he shows us how to watch the movie -- how to enjoy it. Follow the blood tracks on the ground. Read the clues. He's not a good character or a bad character. He's ambivalent. As Ed Tom Bell puts it, he could be involved in drug running, but it doesn't sound like him. He's just a human being -- good and bad rolled up into one. This makes his role as the underdog uncommonly affecting.

He's us. And while the real main character here is Ed Tom Bell. The Coens know we're watching Moss. The decision to take him away from the viewer, to force us to reevaluate the whole story through different eyes right at the end, is deeply dislocating. And it's incredibly effective for 90% of viewers. As you search for the thread -- for the meaning of the story -- Ed Tom Bell steps to the foreground and delivers his carefully laid out message straight to your undefended heart.

There's true passion here. A true need to communicate. Listen for this when you write. You don't always feel it in yourself, but it's there.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Film Susu

A few months ago I gave an interview to a new indie film website named The interview was pleasant enough. Just really, really short. Like 30 seconds long. I expounded on screenwriting in response to one fairly vague question. And then we were done, apparently.

I went to the website the other day to see if it was up. To my surprise, access to this interview is now a benefit of 'premium membership', along with another interview and 'technical and creative support'. If readers of this blog are seriously considering dropping forty bucks on the chance to hear me... they should know I'll gladly answer emails for free.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Toward a Fractal Theory of Screenwriting

I've been sitting on my students for the last few weeks to build their toolkits, which are lists of elements that they know about their story. They know what the unity is. That is a tool. They know their conceit (well, they better). Conceit is a tool for solving script problems. They've learned how to define a character through an essential conflict that's locked into the overall plot. They've learned to balance character palettes and all that. They know the basic beats of the 3-act structure. My sense is that the toolkit idea is a little hokey for them -- it's all so simple, in a way. Who needs to break it down so much? Takes the fun out of it, right? Next class is where it all gets complex and fun again. And they'll want the toolkit to get there.

A fractal is a geometric shape that looks the same no matter the scale you view it at. Crystals form in fractal shapes. So do cows, apparently:

And so do stories. Any good screenwriter knows that a strong story looks like itself no matter how you look at it. The overall three-act structure resonates like a crystal. Its structure is replicated in all the smaller beats. Within the beats, the three-act structure plays itself out, and with each vibration on every level, the story becomes more and more significant, whole, and moving. Wow, dude. No really.

There's nothing stoner about this. An experienced screenwriter thinks about this stuff. A good writer builds it in. You start with a good overall structure, and some strong conflict to drive the character. But then you continue, driving down through into the microscopic worlds that blow up into whole universes also known as good scenes.

When we watch a movie, we expect to find those resonances there. There's a tendency to think through them, but you only get so far without keeping the elements that define your script on the tip of your mind. And that's what separates the good stories from the ones you forget. Some need to resonate. Some make us resonate. And some make us want to check our email.

There's a method behind keeping things simple and carefully laid out. There's also a madness. A really joyful, wonderful madness.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


Kismet is that wonderful property of fate that typifies successful projects. You know when a project has kismet. You definitely know when it does not. Kismet is probably what dragged me out from behind my desk and away from my very serious prose and brought me back into connection with actual human beings through screenwriting. Kismet means that everything works together. Everything somehow fits.

I fell into my first screenwriting job with next to zero experience. I knew how to write, but I didn't know how to write drama. I was used to being in complete control of what I wrote. I hadn't dealt with actors before. I hadn't had to describe every little thing I wanted to do to the director, and again to the producer who wants to be the writer, and the wardrobe guy. And so on. It's incredibly humbling. Your characters suddenly talk back to you. They have flesh. And you can't gloss over what you don't really understand about them. I was lucky enough to be fascinated by it and not overwhelmed or dismissive or lacking in confidence.

At the time, I really thought that kismet was something that just happened. You hoped it was there, but there was no way to invoke it. You had to patiently stand by and hope that the director saw the same thing the actors did. You had to hope that the production designer could figure it out. There was something both frustrating and magical about working with actors. They don't deliver lines the way they should. But then they'll just nail a glance, or simply be there, in a way that explains the whole scene.

Now that I'm a bit older, I've learned that kismet is something you do your best to lay into a script. You sow the seeds. I've learned two paths to kismet. The first is being obvious. Being incredibly obvious. Everyone is on the same page because everything is as simple and basic as possible.

There's something to this, of course. Things need to be simple and clear as they encounter a variety of different people doing a variety of different things to the script. But obvious is also boring.

The higher path to kismet has to do with finding a sweet spot where everyone can do their best work. Each individual, no matter how small his or her role, wants to shine. Knowing this fact about your reader is key.

If you write for a director, think about what will entice them to excel. Think about what they want to shoot. Nine times out of ten you'll find more action, more drama, and more entertainment for the audience. In the tenth instance, you're probably working with a director who likes boring, talky stuff.

This is where you sow the seeds of kismet for the other filmmakers to reap. Your job is to make the overall skeleton of the story deeply, profoundly dynamic. You are building the overall structure that keeps everyone's assumptions on the same page. The first block in the foundation has to be a strong and clear character desire. We know what the scene is for. We know how it fits into the overall plot. The second keystone is probably use of setting. Having the story present on the set in the shape of a prop is incredibly useful. The third keystone is probably a nice tight edit. I'm getting into the 'probably' range here. It's probably a little foolish to rank kismet-related tasks. Every aspect of a script deserves to be sown with kismet.

I try to do all these things with others in mind. I try to stay both in my own head, but open to other thoughts as I go along.

Many new writers don't have access to directors or knowledge of production. That's okay. Imagine you do. Build your own director in your head. Start using actors -- even the ones you'll never actually know. Very soon you'll stop worrying about whether to furrow their brow in an action line, and start worrying about making the story as dynamic, original, and enticing as possible.