Monday, January 19, 2009

Clever Idea.

One fellow (who gives advice about screenwriting--and also write K-9) says:  take two weeks and read one script every day for two weeks.

A nice idea.

And he has a list of scripts with links (and two different versions, no less).

--E. R. O'Neill

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Rhetoric and the Screenplay: The Wrong Question.

Rhetoric Means Controlling the Question You're Answering.

There's a well-known thing in rhetoric.

You answer the question you want the other guy to answer--
because it's to your advantage to do so.

That is:  you don't let the other team pick the question.  You pick the question.

You talk about "how I'm going to lower taxes."  Then the other guy has to say how he's going to lower taxes--even if he thinks that's a terrible idea.
(Sometimes people even remark in debates when one person just answers a different question.  'What you're really asking is....?'  This is why.  It's not a question they want to answer.)  
So the team that controls the question controls the playing field, because it's the question you want to answer.

Make the Audience Dwell on the Wrong Question.

There's something similar in feature film screenplays.

The writer wants to control the questions in the audience's mind, the questions about how the story will unfold.  

More exactly:  you're never exactly posing the question that the plot will answer.  You must always force the audience to answer the wrong question.  If they know the right question, they would essentially know how the plot resolves, and so suspense is greatly diminished.

Star Wars doesn't start with "Will some team of misfits blow up the Death Star?"
No.  It starts with "Who will rescue the Princess?" and "Will Luke escape his family and grow up?"  
Then, with Luke's family conveniently killed, the question becomes "Can Luke and Obi Wan rescue the Princess?"

And then it becomes:  "--with the help of Han and the wookie?"

And they all do rescue the Princess.  

Which means the rest of the movie concerns another question:  "Can the Star Fleet fighters blow up the Death Star or not?  
And this question takes precedence over other questions, like "Is there a romance?  Will someone end up with the Princess?"  (I rememeber being totally puzzled about that when I first saw the movie.)
Every screenwriting manual is wrong about this, because every screenwriting manual is written as if the protagonist is given a problem which he solves at the movie's end.

Not so.

The protagonist starts with one problem, then gets another, then another.

The initial problem is almost never the one solved at the end--just as the question on the audience's mind almost never directly bears on the actual resolution of the story.

Sunset Boulevard and its Questions.

Or consider Sunset Boulevard (which I've been looking at quite a lot lately).  It poses a series of questions.
First the audience wonders:  Can Joe Gillis manage to keep his car?  Can he make it as a writer?  Can he even borrow $200?  Or will he instead be forced to crawl back to Dayton, OH where he bragged how he'd go to Hollywood and become a big shot?

Then--turning into Act II--Joe meets Norma Desmond, and she's rich, and she'll hire him to rewrite her thousand-page screenplay.

So now he's set, right?  The initial question is answered.  Except it's not.  It sort of is.  

But really it's replaced by another question, something like:  "What will become of the bargain between Joe and Norma?  Will they finish the screenplay?  Will it succeed in getting Norma's career back?"

We think probably no.

At the midpoint, then another question emerges.  Norma confesses her undying love for Joe, and she manipulates him into being her lover.

Now it's still "what will happen with Joe and Norma's screenplay?" but it's also "what will happen to this odd couple?"--really a variation on our earlier question.

The screenplay isn't sold, but Norma thinks it is.  And Joe starts writing and falling in love with someone (appropriately) named Betty.

Now we're down to a romantic triangle.  It's our same question of "what will happen to the Joe-and-Norma couple?" but it's more focused:  "Will Joe choose Norma or Betty?"  

And also:  "Will Norma ever realize that she's deluded?"
What of course happens--spoiler alert for everyone who's never seen Sunset Boulevard--is that Joe chooses neither.  He packs his bags and gets ready to go back to Dayton, Ohio--which he was so frightened of doing at the outset.  
This shows us Joe's changed.  He's less of a weasel.  Not so little of a weasel that he should get a nice girl like Betty.  But less of a weasel.  
Therefore, the question the audience is wondering about--and often it's posed explicitly by the characters to each other--is almost never the one the subsequent movie answers.  
We don't at all start wondering, "Will Joe be killed by a jealous lover?  Will an old lady become deluded out of her mind?"
Because if the audience knows the question, and it's a reasonably focused question, it only has so many answers, and there is little or no room for surprise--or really much pleasure.
This is a delicate balance, beause if the question is completey off-base, it seems like two or more separate movies.  But it's a risk that must be taken.

Suspense and Resolution in The Office 

There was a nice recent episode of a clever sitcom called The Office that worked like this, too.
Andy was engaged to Angela, but Angela was sleeping with Dwight.  

For weeks and weeks the suspense and humor revolved around:  "Will Andy ever find out?"  

Then Andy was told, and--like those cartoon characters who run off the cliff but don't know and so don't fall--Andy didn't realize he'd been told.  (It's a comedy:  real-life cluelessness can be exaggerated for 'comic effect.')  

Finally, someone tells Andy, and Andy and Dwight must face off.  The show constructed the question as "Who will win?  Who will end up with Angela?"
The resolution was a nice exposure and development of the characters.  (Spoiler alert--don't read on if you haven't seen the episode.)  We've been seeing Angela sleep with Dwight but not Andy.  It turns out she was sleeping with both.  
Both men thus lose respect for Angela--'okay she was lying to him but not to me!--and neither stays with her.
(There was a blues song by Little Milton some time back whose key line was "Hey Mister, your wife is cheating on us!")
Thus the resolution of the plot is never simply "what will happen?" The resolution of a plot always involves a rhetorical relationship to the audience in which the audience is forced to consider the wrong question and thereby given pleasure in a surprising resolution--which is really a reframing of the problem.  
And there's something of life in this framing of the wrong question.  
Because when we have a problem, and we can't see the solution, it's so often because the way we frame it prevents us from seeing another solution--which means seeing it as a different problem.

Why All This Sleight-of-Hand?

In a sense, there's no other satisfying way to do it.

You must give the audience the wrong questions to ponder.  You must give them first one question, then another, and change the issue every ten or twenty minutes.  

Why, you ask?  Why does one question give way to another like this in the feature film?

Very simply, because any more than twenty minutes is just too long for us to be curious about anything much.

I'm serious.  It doesn't matter how fascinating the people are.  We will get bored if the same issue is unresolved for too long.

Consider sporting events.
Yes a baseball or football game has one question:  "Will team A win?  Or will it be team B?"

But it's always smaller than that:  "Who will pull ahead?  Can that team come from behind?  Can this team expand its lead?"  


And if we wonder about these for too long--it's either a nail-biter or a yawn.

It's probably a nail-biter if one team has a very narrow lead and must hold it for a long, long time--because they could lose at any moment.  The question is very intense.  It's always very sharply in our minds.
And I would argue that this is one reason why Revolutionary Road is so awful.  
The question after the first five minutes is "Can these people ever be happy?"  or "Will this couple ever stop being so miserable?"

And then the movie really kicks off when they get the idea--'Yes, we could be happy, if only we lived in Paris!'  (No one's unhappy in Paris.  Are the characters idiots?  Or is it the movie that's idiotic?  Hard to say.)

Then it soon becomes clear:  these folks aren't going anywhere.

So then it's more like "How will they get out of going to Paris?  And what other kind of awful misery will then ensue?"

So it's really back to the original question--very quickly.

Which is why it seems like such a very long and very unhappy movie.  The couple is married--what?--six or eight years.  The movie feels twice that long--because we are not given different questions to wonder about.  
But reasonable people will disagree about which movie gives pleasure or fails to.  But the point of dramatic writers framing plot questions so as to mislead the audience--well I think this speaks for itself.

--E. R. O'Neill

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

My Problem Is Your Solution...

"Wouldn't it be nice if your problems were my solutions--and vice-versa?"

Is this really a line from a movie?  Or am I imagining it?  Strangers on a Train perhaps?

I feel like there's some movie where someone says almost exactly this.

For my online course, the other day I was outlining some structures in Sunset Boulevard

I realized that a very common structure is:  
  • one character has problems, 
  • and another character has problems, 
  • and together they find a single 'solution' for both problems.  
Joe needs a job and money.  Norma needs a screenplay.  Voila!  Hijinks ensue.

In Sunset Boulevard, Joe muses:  "here was a cozy set-up."  It's a nice line to describe the appeal of the purported 'solution.'

In fact, it's usually a terrible idea.  

But if it were a good idea, we wouldn't be interested in watching what happens next--since we often watch a movie not much differently than a rubbernecker at an accident.

How many movies have this structure?!
  • Leia needs to be rescued by a Jedi knight.  Luke needs to get off the farm and become a Jedi knight.  Voila!  Adventure ensues.
  • Tennis player has loathsome wife.  Psychotic loafer has loathsome father.  Psycho suggests they each kill the other's problem--but the tennis player doesn't really agree.  (Only unconsciously.)
  • You beat your son, hate your wife and drink, and we have an isolated hotel that needs a caretaker who won't murder his family and himself.  
The charm and richness comes in each problem in itself being banal, but the 'solution' of the two problems together is likely to be more unique and memorable.  

--E. R. O'Neill

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What's it all about, Alfie?

What is life ALL ABOUT?

A big question.

And everyone has their own answer.

Often we can't say exactly what it is--but we know it when we see it.

Movies that affect us deeply often jibe with our sense of--gee, life is really like that.

Sometimes it's a sense of how life is that we'd rather weren't so.

I remember reading about the writers of the sitcom Roseanne trying to come up with one particular punchline.

Roseanne had to be skeptical that something good could really happen.

The line the writers eventually came up with was--"Yeah, and there's chocolate air."

Maybe not the funniest line on earth, but it captured the sense of--yeah, chocolate is the best thing in life, and wouldn't it be great if it were plentiful and calorie-free?

But that's a punchline.  And most punchlines don't go that deep.

Sometimes, when I think about how life turns out, I think about that old hymn "Simple Gifts."  Some of the lyrics are:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,

'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be....

And when we find ourselves in the place just right...

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

That is: 

things happen,

and things happen,

and then things turn out a certain way,

and maybe it's not what you wanted,

and not what you expected,

and not what you tried to achieve--

but there it is.

And in a certain way, it's right.

Often we glimpse this sense of life by looking at the movie's ending.

What is Million Dollar Baby about?

"It's hard to let go"?

"Fight--and don't stop"?

"If you gotta go, go out slugging"? 

Or maybe it's:

The hardest fight is the one you don't want to fight.

But even then, you want someone who cares about you in your corner.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Is a Feature Film?

It's not an easy question to answer.

Ninety minutes--sure.  But why does it last that long?

We look at the finished story, and imagine it was, so to speak, born that way.

We imagine it didn't start out as a vague notion, that it was born fully formed--like that goddess born from the forehead of Jove.

It sounds like film criticism, but I believe that writers know what their stories are about.  And they're very clear about that--they need to be to write them. (I read recently that the author of Lord of the Flies said much the same.)

In a sense you need to start from--here's a movie you find interesting, why is it interesting?  

There must be reasons.

The head fake, that's one explanation for the middle of a feature film, the largest chunk, the "second act" (of three).  Life is one way, then something outrageous happens that takes life in a different direction.  But ultimately it merely sets the stage for a confrontation with the original reality.

Crisis exposing character--that's another way of thinking of it.  Someone finds exactly the kind of thing that's terrible for them.

Instead, most writers are writing short films--beginning, middle, end.  

But feature films are longer than that, so they have more complications.

A feature film is more like this.
Someone has a problem.  They find a solution--which turns out to be a worse problem.  Their problems get worse and worse, multiply. For everything that goes well, another problem sprouts up.  Finally, they find a way of making it all go away--though at a a cost.  And they return to the starting point to face the initial problem again.
That's feature format.
A writer needs a job.  He finds one.  But the lady is crazy and angry.  She moves him in.  He becomes her butt boy.  The film he writes for her will never be made.  He falls in love with someone else, and this makes the angry crazy lady real jealous.  The girl he loves is engaged to his best friend.  Finally, the only thing to do is be honest with the girl he loves, and pack up and leave town.  Which he begins to do.  But the crazy old lady shoots and kills him.  And SHE gets what she wants--cameras turning towards her.
THAT is three-act structure!  It could not be plainer.  

Yet it seldom comes easily.

--E. R. O'Neill