We could be heroes

A new day starts, and you rise from your bed. As you head to the shower, your mind drifts to the challenges your boss is having connecting with her 20-year-old son.

As your boss has focused on her career, both her son and husband have come to feel like second-class citizens, the younger adult acting out by joining a gang.

It’s not your place, but as you’ve known your boss for 15 years, you feel drawn into the family drama and spend your morning devising ways to intervene on her behalf while simultaneously coping with the poison-pill clause in the hostile takeover bid.

Hold it. Wait a second. No, you’re not.

Sure, if your boss is a friend and she’s struggling, you’d likely help. You have your own life, your family and your job, however, to worry about.

You don’t merely exist to serve your boss’s life.

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(Character likenesses are the property of DreamWorks Animation & are used here for teaching purposes only.)

Consider the movie Shrek, for a moment.

Among the characters, we have Shrek, Fiona, Farquad, Donkey, Dragon and Gingie.

Of those, who was the hero of that movie?

Given the movie’s title, it is pretty likely that the central protagonist of the story is Shrek. And given the way the narrative plays out, based on the scenes we watch, Shrek is indeed the hero of the movie.

But do the other characters see it that way?

Did Donkey wake up one morning with a mission to help an irascible ogre find acceptance not only within a community openly hostile to him, but also within himself through his sacrifice for another?

No, he had his own issues.

Did Fiona allow herself to be locked in a tower, guarded by a knight-immolating dragon, so that Shrek could see her example of isolation as a metaphor for his own, and in rescuing Fiona, he rescued himself?

Not so much. Girlfriend had her own agenda.

So, I ask again: Who was the hero of Shrek?

EVERYONE!

(At least from his or her own perspective.)

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Everyone saw the same events unfold, but everyone saw them differently.

Shrek followed his life course. Donkey followed his. Fiona hers. Farquad, Gingie, the Three Blind Mice, theirs.

And in seeking to fulfill their own wants and needs, they each experienced their own character arcs. They each suffered their own Hero’s Journey.

As a screenwriter—or more broadly, a storyteller—this understanding is vital to doing proper service to your characters. The secondary and maybe even tertiary characters cannot simply be treated as plot devices, or at least not if you hope to make them seem real.

As you introduce your characters to your story, give thought to what their journeys would look like. Consider what they hope to accomplish by spending time with your main protagonist or the other characters. See their various relationships through their eyes.

And then write them with that in mind.

When they react to a situation or another’s action, they must do so with their own interests at heart, at least as much if not more than their counterpart’s interests.

When one character acts, consider the consequences and stakes for each character, and then watch the dramatic tension rise.

Look for those moments when a character must choose between his or her agenda and the greater good, or those moments where another’s behaviour threatens his or her agenda. There lies conflict.

Hear the words a character speaks and consider if those words mean one thing to the larger story and a different thing to that character’s journey. This is the subtext—conscious or subconscious—that you seek.

You may not—likely won’t—accomplish this level of intricacy on your first draft. First drafts are about getting the central story line onto paper (or whatever medium you prefer).

It gives you several starting points, however, as you enter rewrites and search for ways to tighten and heighten your story.

And at the end of that process, you should be able to write a logline for each of the major characters’ perspectives.

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Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Movie memories for 2015

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For a guy trying to make it as a screenwriter, it takes a lot for me to go out and pay to watch a movie. I think it’s, at least in part, because I don’t deal well with disappointment and particularly when I’ve had to pay for it.

Luckily, my friends had some luck dragging me out of the house this year, so below, I offer one-line critiques of the various films I saw in theatres (with hyperlinks to longer reviews I’ve written).

Taken 3: When the hell did I see this, and more importantly, why?

Paddington: Charming and a lot of fun.

Kingsman: A rollicking good time.

It Follows: It bores me

Ex Machina: Oh My Deus, was this written by a robot devoid of emotions?

Age of Ultron: Miss a movie, lose a thread; think I am out of this series.

Mad Max Fury Road: You will believe a man can drive…that is all.

Inside Out: Underwhelmed, but appreciate I am only one.

Self/Less: Flawed but interesting

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Trainwreck: Not one, but Schumer can do better

Ant-Man: Most fun I’d had all year…Rudd is perfect for this

Man from UNCLE: Stylish throwback that I liked more than most people did

The Martian: Surprise hit for me; kudos to all including author of book

Steve Jobs: A metaphor for dysfunction…and sadly, not in a good way

In the Heart of the Sea: More like in the heart of my sleep

Star Wars The Force Awakens: Visually stunning, overly sentimental, disappointingly regurgitated story

Spectre: Good movie with a stupid ending…am I outgrowing Bond?

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Documentaries can change the world

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back near the water, SeaWorld announced that it will phase out its world-famous—and more recently, infamous—killer whale shows. The decision comes after months of pressure from community and animal-rights groups outraged by scenes depicted in the documentary Blackfish.

To further show the power of documentaries, however, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced that it would phase out the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, transferring its remaining test subjects to an ape sanctuary.

NIH officials have given numerous reasons for the decision, citing the weakness of animal models for human disease and technological advances that make such animals less necessary. Many, however, suspect the government agency is bowing to pressure from community groups fearing the post-apocalyptic world highlighted in the documentary series Planet of the Apes.

In particular, the actions of former laboratory test subject Koba scared the shit out of everyone.

There is no doubt that this trend of documentaries changing animal policies will intensify. For example, it is anticipated that the 2016 release of Ice Age: Collision Course will prompt the U.S. government to change its policies regarding the Scrat…whatever the feck that is.

Inside definitely Out (a review)

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Earlier today, I had the opportunity to see the latest Pixar movie Inside Out in the company of one of the film’s writers and its story supervisor Josh Cooley (a very nice man). And aside from receiving a lovely lecture about story development at the famed animation house, the connection afforded me an opportunity to appreciate the movie much more than I did on simple viewing.

To briefly bring everyone up to speed, Inside Out tells the story of the emotions that rattle around inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley as she struggles with a move across the country. Although we are introduced to 5 main emotions in Riley Headquarters (get it?)—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear—there is no mistaking that Joy is numero uno in this space.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) sucks the oxygen out of any room she’s in and proves that even the best intentioned of assholes is still an asshole. Her goal in life is to make every moment of Riley’s life a happy one and is not worried about shoving aside the others (ever so happily) to ensure that.

But where Joy has developed a respectful détente with Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader), she firmly but gently has no use for Sadness (Phyllis Smith), practically ostracising the poor creature to the periphery.

With the upset of the move from Minnesota to San Francisco, though, Sadness seems to want to be more involved and in a fracas with Joy, the two get sucked out of headquarters and into the long-term storage hinterlands of Riley’s brain.

At this point, the story basically turns into the Odyssey as the two emotions struggle to return home before Riley falls completely apart at the hands of the others. (To say much more would be to offer spoilers.)

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

The challenge I had was in trying to figure out exactly at whom Pixar was targeting the movie.

Superficially, this is a pure kids movie (ages 6 to 10, maybe), unlike many previous Pixar concoctions, which had elements for both kids and adults. Inside Out doesn’t have the depth of Toy Story or The Incredibles to truly speak to adults, much as the most mature 11-year-old isn’t ready for the adult world.

I’m not saying there aren’t adult-focused jokes interspersed throughout the film, but rather exactly that. They are interspersed, like small granules of sugar designed to feed the parents accompanying the kids to the theatre.

Up talked about loss and aging

Up talked about loss and aging

There is no real adult storyline to this film to touch adults as there was in Up or Wall-E. Instead, the film has sweet, adorable moments of baby bums and first goals that might tug at a parent’s heartstrings but never engage the soul.

But as a friend suggested, it is not strictly a kids flick either because it touches on esoteric aspects of the psyche that kids that age would never be able to comprehend, such as abstract thought and the concept of forgotten memories. The problem is these aspects are more conversations of the mind and not the soul. So even here, the adult is largely passed over unless they have an interest in neurology and psychology.

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

And as a writer, perhaps the biggest sin with Inside Out is there is no sense of what’s at stake.

Sure, Joy is losing her cool as she fights to get back to headquarters. For her, Riley having a down moment is a disaster.

And Sadness isn’t exactly having a picnic as she is routinely sideswiped or ignored by Joy in their efforts to get home. If anything, she increasingly takes the blame for everything onto herself.

But what’s at stake? What if they don’t get back to headquarters?

Does someone die? Is life no longer worth living?

I don’t know because that was never a question on the table. And without stakes, I find it difficult to root for the hero.

And this challenge is made all the more difficult by the fact that the hero (Joy) is also the villain, albeit passively. She is truly her own worst enemy, and so I quickly find myself irritated by her with no great concerns about the outcome.

The six hour conversation and lesson with Cooley helped me see a lot more of what the writers, animators, editors, directors and producers were trying to accomplish. And that did help me understand the movie better. The thing is, few others were going to get this kind of help.

The movie will do well at the box office. Of that I have no doubt. It is a wonderful vivid distraction for young kids.

But it won’t have the staying power of Pixar’s earlier efforts and likely won’t be spoken of again in a few years other than in possibly hushed whispers.

Belated laurels

Ah yes, almost forgot. This showed up in my in-box back in December. The laurels for my Best Animated Feature Screenplay at the 2014 Nashville Film Festival.

The winner was my screenplay for Tank’s, a story that proves even a fish in water can be a fish out of water.

Tank's for the love!

Tank’s for the love!

To read the opening pages of Tank’s, visit:

Tank’s (Part One)

Tank’s (Part Two)

BoJack-sh!t (a review)

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Unless this is a satire about satires, I don’t get the new Netflix Original Series BoJack Horseman.

Ostensibly, the zany life of a washed up sitcom star from the 90s, who also happens to be a horse, who is trying to find meaning in a life of idle emptiness, the show is instead an endless string of really bad puns and lame jokes about anthropomorphic animals and Hollywood, punctuated with long speeches to highlight the irony of a scene or episode.

I am surprised the character giving the speech doesn’t hold up a sign reading “Ironic part” or “Satirical condemnation of status quo” just in case the audience was too stoned to realize that’s what the speech was about.

Episode 3 starts with an establishing shot of a bar called The Pelican. We then cut to BoJack sitting at the bar which is being tended by a…wait for it…pelican. Or in Episode 2, BoJack has a run-in with a Navy Seal who is a…here it comes…actual seal. Oh, and at the apex of humour, whenever BoJack’s girlfriend/agent puts him on hold, he listens to music from Cats…oh, did I mention his girlfriend/agent is a cat? Them’s the animal jokes, my friends.

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There are attempts at social commentary, of course. In Episode 3, BoJack’s memoir ghost writer tries to make him feel better about a friend by claiming she was a victim of her circumstances and the pressures of society. But silly BoJack…he misunderstands this to mean that no one is responsible for their actions and that the fault universally lies with society, so he can act like a jerk and it’s not his fault. Silly BoJack.

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The voice talent is, well, talented. Alison Brie (Madmen, Community), Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Amy Sedaris (Strangers with Candy), Paul F. Thompkins (No You Shut Up!) and Will Arnett (everything else)…these people can act.

Show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg is a mystery to me. An actor and writer, all I can really find out about him is he a member of a sketch comedy group called Olde English.

And the more I read about him, the more I wonder if my original comment wasn’t dead on…this may just be an amazing meta joke perpetrated by a very funny man. Or it’s just not very good.

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Because I only lose 25 minutes of my life at a go, I will continue to watch to see if it gets better…dear God, let it get better…or let me in on the divine joke of this comedy.

Our story so far…

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It’s been roughly two years since I stepped off the ledge of the normal world and into the free fall of who I am…and perhaps it is not surprising that I am still discovering who that is.

 

For the uninitiated, a brief recap:

After spending the better part of my adult life as a scientist, magazine writer, communications manager and ad copywriter/creative director, I realized I wasn’t happy. Adding fuel to that fire was the death of my beloved grandmother and of my marriage (thankfully not an acrimonious separation). But where I might have let these events take me to darker depths, I realized that I had never been freer in my life…and the freedom felt good.

Thus, with nothing to hold onto and therefore nothing to lose, I stepped into the abyss of uncertainty and am pursuing my life as a storyteller. And nicely, two years in, I am starting to see dividends.

 

After taking screenwriting classes for a while, I now feel confident that I know what I am doing and have no problem trusting my instincts when it comes to storytelling. I’m good at this.

My latest and possibly most commercial screenplay to date, The Naughty List, awaits external validation in 4 different screenplay competitions. (I may be good at this, but my name is hardly renown at this point.)

My first screenplay Tank’s has slowly climbed its way up the “charts” of screenplay competitions over the past year, and after being a Second Rounder at the Austin Film Festival, it took top prize in the Nashville Film Festival as Best Animated Feature Screenplay.

SomeTV!, the sketch comedy show that I co-wrote, is in front of cameras, and I am told by our Producer/God-head that the initial cuts look amazing. You’ll see the footage as soon as I can send you to it.

Eye of the Beholder, the novel I am co-writing with Agah Bahari—based on the real events of his life in Iran—is starting to write itself (a wonderful moment for a writer) and already has anticipatory buzz in New York entertainment circles.

Eye of the Beholder

I wrote a short children’s book, Butch Goes To Work, that teaches children about working dogs and the abilities of people with disabilities. It is currently seeking a publisher.

Really, really slowly (sorry Kevin Scott), I am co-writing a comedy album in the understanding that what doesn’t lend itself to YouTube is perfect fodder for iTunes!

I almost signed an agreement to develop a screenplay treatment of a mystery novel, and even though this project didn’t come to fruition, I will continue to work with the novelist on future projects.

And I am in the process of taking my new life to the next level by moving to Los Angeles. When the move will take place is still a question.

I am grateful to the folks involved in the magazine and advertising work that continues to pay my bills. And I am over-the-top grateful to all of my friends, family and other supporters who applaud my journey at every turn.

I am a storyteller. I tell stories. And I have never been happier.

PS I don’t know if Bradbury actually said the quote at the front of this piece, but he or whomever was right.