Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Counterfeiters

A friend and I went to see The Counterfeiters yesterday. The movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It's the story of a Jewish counterfeiter forced to fake dollars and pounds for the Nazis in a death camp during World War II.

Have you ever walked into a film with the completely wrong idea about it? I only had the vaguest sense of the plot, and something about the title 'The Counterfeiters' just made me think of a 60's comedy caper or musical or something. In other words, I thought the Nazis would be of the Captain Klink variety, or at least know how to dance in a line.

Uh, no. These were some decidedly more authentic Nazis. But after I readjusted my entertainment perspectives in the most drastic of ways, I got swept up in the movie and its main character, Salomon Sorowitsch. He's a funny choice of a hero for a Holocaust movie. He's a career criminal. He's not remotely interested in the plight of his own Jewish people as the Third Reich decimates it. He's not much of a talker. He's completely out for himself. Most heroes in Holocaust movies are morally upright, steadfast and true. Not Salomon. He knows who he is. He's the first Holocaust anti-hero.

The main action of the film involves a plot by the Nazis to produce mass quantities of British pounds and American dollars to flood and destroy the Allied economies with. Salomon was a career counterfeiter with a huge reputation, and he's forced to manage a crew of printers and engravers and whatnot to fill the Nazis need for fake bills.

Salomon sees the deal: survival in return for counterfeiting. And he likes it. While some of the other prisoners grumble and struggle with the moral dilemma, Salomon knows exactly where he stands. In his words, he'd rather be gassed tomorrow than shot today. A day is still a day.

As you read this? Do you care about Salomon? Does he have character sympathy? Would you keep watching? Not necessarily. In most Holocaust movies, he'd be a side character. He'd get his just desserts about 2/3 or the way through.

But if you watch the film, he has a great deal of character sympathy. Why?

First and foremost, he's consistent. We can see how he thinks. How he thinks is constantly going to bring him into Faustian deals, both with the Nazis and with the prisoners who want to resist and undermine the whole operation rather than help the Nazis. For all the pages and pages written about character sympathy, I'm beginning to suspect that simple scene-to-scene consistency is the most important (and a tremendous tool for a writer).

The more satisfying reason is some very crafty writing. Writers have trouble with anti-heroes. They don't have all the neat bag of tricks that a regular hero has. And many writers simply keep hitting the same 'anti-hero' note over and over again.

Not writer Stefan Ruzowitsky. What happens to Salomon is remarkable. He is the only prisoner not crippled with moral qualms, so he rises to the top of the camp. He's got fewer qualms than the Nazi who runs the counterfeiting operation. And he overcomes him. And he manages to keep all the counterfeiters relatively healthy and safe right through to the end of the war.

His choices are fascinating, and in the end they reach a nice three-act climax. It's not a script I'd teach beginning screenwriting from, but it has something to teach all of us at some point.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Writing Other People's Scenes

We all know movie scenes that feel like magic. We've all been overpowered by scenes that somehow are more than the sum of their parts. We've all seen something ineffable on screen that stayed with us. And we all feel that somehow we'll never attain something like that ourselves.

But there's something about ineffably powerful scenes -- they're usually the product of some tremendous but fairly straightforward thinking by a writer who knew what tools he had on hand. There's something incredibly economical in the use of those elements, just like in any other great art. And a writer can learn from the masters by taking apart how the whole thing works.

Most great scenes have a powerful set up: say, two priests talking in a bar (as in the Exorcist), or a cop hitting on a cokehead (in Magnolia), or a police line up with five guilty men (as in The Usual Suspects). That set up is usually a direct and simple expression that springs from the conceit.

Most great scenes -- okay, ALL great scenes -- are based around conflict. That conflict is visual, so there's the setting coming into play. The writer knows the two main elements that make up her main character. She also knows that they need to be present throughout as a way of making a character's complexity accessible to the audience.

All these things are tools, and the greater the scene, the more likely that there's a seamless union of conflict and set up and conceit and character and plot structure. It's simpler in great scenes than it is in your average scene.

As an exercise, try watching your favorite scenes. Write down as much of the toolkit as you can surmise. Look at what's going on in the foreground and the background. Look at all the actual, physical acts and objects in front of you.

Now, write the scene. Take your time with it. Maybe watch several times. Try to get the visual beats down so that a fresh reader can understand them.

Can you pull it off? Test yourself. See if you can create the sum greater than the parts. And while you're at it, see what a great scene really looks like -- in all its humility and simplicity.

I like this exercise because it forces my students to really engage creativity, even as you're trying to simply re-create someone else's work. You need to think down into someone else's thinking. So many new writers slip straight into what seems quicker and faster -- thinking the scenes out through dialogue. Most great scenes aren't written that way, if only because that kind of writing doesn't allow you to think down into your OWN thinking.

When you're done, you can check your work against the actual script (or some version of it) by doing a search on

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Quote of the Day: Tax Time Edition

"Writing is the hardest way of earning a living with the possible exception of wrestling alligators."
– William Saroyan

New "Best of..." Sidebar

I've just added a "Best of Scriptwrangler" section to the sidebar on the right of your screen in celebration of my first year of blogging. Enjoy!