Lessons from bad movies – The Canyons

canyons poster

I believe that you can learn something from every experience you have, and because I am trying to learn more about screenwriting and films, this means watching bad movies. Thus, I was intrigued when I saw Netflix was showing a film called The Canyons.

Written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn-star-going-legit James Deen, The Canyons shows the decay of Hollywood through the eyes of a struggling young actor who is still in love with his former girlfriend who is now the adornment of an unbalanced but oh-so-controlled producer on a trust fund. Paranoid from birth, the producer eventually learns of rekindled flames between the two and slowly his self-control ebbs. To tell you more would be to spoil the (complete lack of) surprise in this film.

Although the story was straightforward and highly predictable, I have to admit to being confused by one very big thing: I don’t know who the protagonist is. Through whose eyes is the audience supposed to see this story?

Lindsay Lohan’s Tara (the girlfriend) shares almost equal screen time with James Deen’s Christian (producer) and Nolan Gerard Funk’s Ryan (actor), and the story’s perspective seems to shift on a whim. If I go purely by a scale of which character left me feeling least icky in their behaviour, I would have to say Ryan was the protagonist. But he feels more like an unwitting pawn in this film.

Interestingly, however, if I was forced onto a limb, I would actually say Christian was the protagonist despite his antagonist schtick. As a character, he is reminiscent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman…possibly his baby brother…although there is no comparison between Christian Bale’s performance and James Deen’s.

Speaking of which, the wooden performances of the actors don’t help my quest for a protagonist. (At her best, Lohan’s glamour-gone-gory Tara was reminiscent of Ann-Margret’s characters in Carnal Knowledge and Tommy at their most strung out.) Without distinct emotive clues and any sense of subtext, I really have no clue what any of the characters hopes to accomplish…there simply aren’t any goals, again with the possible exception of Ryan.

Lohan-Margret

To continue piling on, I would be intrigued to find out what kind of movie director Paul Schrader thought he was making.

On the one hand, with rampant over-use of black & white images of derelict movie houses, it seemed Schrader was going for art-house film, using the photographic decay as a metaphor for the social decay of Hollywood (this is the man who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo).

At the same time, his rampant insertion of lengthy scenes of graphic sex gave the film a B-movie, soft-core porn feel. Here, Schrader may have been going for a moral decadence metaphor, but if so, I think he failed terribly. Instead, we were left with a humping morass of buttocks and breasts that a 13-year-old boy couldn’t be bothered to whack off to.

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But the one scene that truly grabbed my attention was a lunch conversation between Tara and Christian’s assistant Gina, played by Amanda Brooks. What caught my attention, however, was not the scintillating or captivating dialogue (there wasn’t any) or the repressed subtextual exchanges (they were incapable) but rather the fact that even the camera was unable to pay attention to the scene.

On either close up, the camera angle perpetually slid to the left or the right, and sometimes back again. Not panned to capture a background element. Slid, as if someone had forgotten to tighten the flange that holds the camera to the tripod. The camera literally nodded off.

So then, if this movie was so bad, how could I learn a lesson?

The lesson of The Canyons is that if you can get an actor of sufficient name recognition who is trying to prove something (e.g., I’m not washed up) interested in your script, you can get anything made.

 

Postscript:

As I looked up some background facts on this movie, I learned that The Canyons was the first film to be largely funded via crowd-sourcing. Given the performance of subsequent crowd-sourced films like Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here (poor) and Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars (modest), I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t some merit in studios having some influence on whether and how a film gets made.

Just tell the story – Austin Film Festival

Ron Nyswaner

Perhaps the most interesting advice I heard while attending the 2013 Austin Film Festival came from the Just Tell the Story session by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who suggested that not all stories are movie-worthy. It’s not that such stories are unimportant or not worth telling, but rather that film is a very specific medium—as are novels, videos, television, etc.—and therefore requires specific criteria be met for appeal.

1. Do you have a worthy protagonist? It is important that the audience understands the protagonist’s struggle, that the character is constantly dealing with questions of life, loss, yearning. There should be clearly understood interior and exterior conflict.

2. Does you protagonist have face worthy obstacles or a worthy antagonist? The antagonist should represent the opposing view, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the antipode to your protagonist’s views. Overall and within individual scenes, there should always be a sense of ideas in conflict. Nyswaner stressed the importance of the hope-dread axis—What do you hope is going to happen and what do you dread is going to happen in a scene—suggesting that the stronger the axis, the more tension you build in your story.

3. How strong is the central relationship? Sydney Pollack suggested that every story is a love story, and Nyswaner followed on that, suggesting that the relationships between your characters, and particularly the protagonist and antagonist, is what drives the story forward. The stronger that relationship (positively or negatively), the stronger the story. He also discussed the idea of triangulation; the effect of adding a third party into a scene to increase the tension or stakes.

4. Where am I (the writer) in the story? Who am I? All good art is personal, Nyswaner said, so the writer should look for his or her emotional connection with the story. By making the story personal to you, you develop a deeper story.

5. Take your audience into a world that’s interesting. If the audience cannot connect with the environment that you’ve created, they will find it difficult to get into your story. This doesn’t mean that the environment has to be familiar so much as understandable and relatable.

6. Do you have enough turning points to carry through a feature? A good film story is constantly changing direction, keeping the audience engaged and intrigued. Without sufficient turning points, audience members disconnect from the story or worse, get bored. Attitudes and powerbases should shift throughout the story to keep the audience guessing.

7. Does the audience love the story and its characters? Nyswaner suggests writers must be ruthless, paraphrasing a quote (trying to remember by whom) that a writer is a person who will betray the people he loves to impress people he will never meet. The key for a writer is to give everything to the story he or she is trying to tell, even at the cost of real-world expectations and relationships. This is not to say that success comes from being the biggest asshole, but rather that it is important to keep the focus of a film on the story and its characters to the detriment of other external factors (as best as possible).

 

Ron Nyswaner is perhaps best known for having penned the movie Philadelphia, but has also worked on television (Ray Donovan) and in print, and teaches film at the Columbia University School of the Arts.

You’re quite the character

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I just finished a post by fellow blogger Bare Knuckle Writer, entitled: Mutants: You and Your Protagonist. In it, she describes how her protagonists eventually end up being some version of herself; her beliefs, her mannerisms, her idioms. Not a carbon copy, you understand, but a variation on the theme that is she. (If you don’t know what a carbon copy is, talk to your grandma.)

This got me thinking about my own writing habits and quickly crystallized into the realization that all of my characters, or at least the major ones, are some variant of me.

Although I would never—or at least rarely—expect me to perform any of the actions or give any of the speeches of my characters, to make the characters believable, for me to truly get inside their heads, I have to give them free range inside mine.

I have no expectation that I will ever chase a murder suspect down an alley or cut off my enemy’s oxygen supply to get him to submit to my will, but I can’t say the idea is impossible given who I am (and what I have muttered in traffic).

To bring out the best and the worst in my characters, I have to be willing to reveal the best and the worst in me. The process is a variation on what makes other writers’ characters relatable to me.

othello-iago

If we look at one of my favourite plays—Shakespeare’s Othello—I can quite easily visualize aspects of my personality and even past behaviours in all of the main characters.

I have spit venom and schemed like Iago, been as empassioned as Othello, been as blinded by lust as Roderigo, as fawning for favour as Cassio, and as blinded by love as Desdemona. All various aspects of one person’s personality.

In an ironic footnote of life imitating art, my wife finally took me aside one day to explain that asides only work in the theatre. Although it was true that no one could hear Iago’s asides in Othello, everyone in the real world could quite easily hear mine. This, of course, helped explain why all of my evil and cunning plans failed so miserably.

I am my characters and my characters are me.

It is less “you are what you eat”, for people like me, and more “you are who you write”. Thus, to thine own characters, be true.

Now I’m her-o

It may sound incredibly self-centred, but I am the hero of my personal journey through life, and by that, I don’t mean a literal Hercules or Aeneas so much as the protagonist. Everything in my life is interpreted through my eyes in how it impacts me.

Sure, if I try, I can step outside of my ego and try to consider life and specific events through others’ eyes, but even here, if I am to be completely honest, I am still tempering those reflections through my own life experiences and biases.

And now to the controversial aspect of this vignette.

When creating characters for a story—a novel, screenplay, poem, excuse for lateness—each character in that story is the hero of the story, if only in their own eyes. The events you record as a writer are witnessed by the characters in your story from their own perspectives and their responses and reactions to events and other characters will be based on their individual experiences and biases.

Sure, the story you are trying to tell may only have a main protagonist, perhaps a secondary protagonist and an antagonist. Everyone else is just there for colour or to help your main characters rationalize their worlds and world views. But you have to be honest to those other characters if we, as readers, listeners and viewers, are to believe them.

When I read screenplays, I often get quite attached to the main characters, whether positively or negatively. More often, unfortunately, I end up watching minor characters for whom I have no opinion if for no other reason than I cannot believe they exist.

They are placeholders to keep me from watching 95 minutes of nothing other than antagonist and protagonist in earnest conflict. To call them two-dimensional would be a slight to some finely crafted animated characters I’ve watched in well written cartoons.

Even if a character has one line or is silent, I want to know in my gut, if not my head, that the character has a reason to exist, not for the sake of your plot, but for the sake of his or her universe.

I’m not asking for 37 stories for 37 characters. I’m asking for one story for 37 characters that matter.

A lot of people tell me that this over-complicates things—you may be thinking this right now. I obviously disagree, believing that a Who is a Who, no matter how small.

That character’s reality doesn’t have to be on the page, but it better be in your head, because the reader will know if it’s not. The character won’t pop, if it isn’t.

If it helps, think of this as another way of telling a story that’s been told a thousand times before. Rather than tell the story from the perspective of the protagonist everyone knows, tell it from the perspective of the character few people ever remember. The 100 bajillion Christmas stories are perfect examples of this.

The Little Drummer Boy was the story of the birth of Christ and yet it wasn’t.

What if you retold the story from Pretty Woman but from the perspective of the hotel manager?

Make every character in your story believe he or she is the hero of his or her universe, and they will live on beyond their few lines of dialogue.