Snow White more an off-grey (a review)


I find it difficult to appreciate a movie in isolation (its, not mine). At the same time that I strive to enjoy the movie, I also try to break down its various elements, ideally without immediate comparison to everything else I have seen.

Some movies make this easier by being truly unique stories (The Voices, for example), whereas others are either so familiar or so derivative that I find it virtually impossible to see it in isolation. The latter situation was the case for Snow White and the Huntsman, the 2012 take of the very familiar Grimm Brothers fairy tale by director Rupert Sanders.

This is not the Disney version, by a mile, but rather a much darker, more sinister take on the story of a young beauty (Kristen Stewart) condemned to death by her vainglorious step mother (Charlize Theron) who fights for her freedom in the dark woods where she meets all kinds of people and mystical creatures, including dwarves. Together, they reach a castle of renegades and Snow leads them into battle against her step mother.

So, we have the check list covered: evil step mother, check; mirror-mirror, check; bring me her heart, check; dwarves, check; poison apple, check; Prince Charming, sorta check.

Doing my best to isolate this movie from everything else, I give it a moderately passing grade. It is a fairy tale, so the dialogue hits the extremes of leaden cliché to screaming cliché.

There is no subtext to this movie…none, zero, nada, zilch. So don’t go looking for any. It is on-the-nose storytelling, which again, makes sense within the context of a fairy tale, but given that the film targets young adults to adults (much too dark for small children), I would have hoped for more.

The screenwriters offered a brief moment, where the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) begins to let us into why he is so tortured over the death of his wife. But as soon as the moment starts, it slams shut and we are excluded from understanding the character beyond his alcoholic ramblings and Thor-like simplicity. (PS If I hadn’t seen the movie Rush, I might just think this is who Hemsworth is.)

So, where the dialogue wanes, the visuals have to take over and here, the director earns his keep. Special effects do not overwhelm the story, but instead are woven nicely into live action sequences to augment the reality. There was only one scene where I felt the director fell asleep at the SFX wheel and allowed his art director to run amok.

Dwarves huntsman

And perhaps my favourite part of the visual effects was how they took normal sized British actors and turned them into dwarves. Masterfully done. Imagine Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan all about a meter tall yet perfectly proportioned, standing next to or fighting alongside Hemsworth. Don’t know how they did it…don’t want to know.

Where I found the movie particularly weak, however, was in the development of Snow White. Rather than be the protagonist of the story, I felt she was the victim of the story, literally being dragged across the countryside to avoid capture. While she clearly wasn’t the “Oh my. Dear me” victim of the Disney version, she was also not the “Girl Power” version that I think the movie promised.

Two snows

When she wasn’t being rescued by one or more men, she was being rescued by a mystical inner force of which she was initially unaware and over which she had no control.

I was willing to let her be the victim over the first part of the story, but I needed her to turn around at the midpoint and attempt to kick some ass.

Now, to open the comparative flood gates, this movie has Tolkein written all over it. You’ll see dwarves walking across hill tops. Floating towns will burn. Dark forests will haunt you. Guys with swords and axes will be moody.

Now I appreciate that this is bound to happen, as there are certain pastiches that run rampant throughout fairy tales and epic sagas. I am speaking here more in terms of cinematography, however. In several parts of the journey sequence and the battle scenes, it looked like the director decided to save a few bucks by splicing in rejected footage left behind by Peter Jackson.

For what is it, Snow White and the Huntsman is not the worst 90 minutes I have ever spent watching a movie. It’s just a damned shame that the running time is 127 minutes.

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.


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.


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.



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.


Anyone writing stories NEEDS to read the blog post by Chuck Wendig listed below!

Wendig blog

Seriously. Please read this!

His pivotal point: “The story exists because of the character. The character does not exist because of the story.”

Too often, I read screenplays where the protagonist is merely swept along like a bobbing cork on a sea of conflict. They merely REACT to the injustice around them rather than ACT to change it. They are the victim of the story.

To my mind, a much more interesting character is one who takes action when presented with conflict and then deals with the repercussions of that action. In some stories (the best ones to my mind), the protagonist is his or her own worst enemy, bringing conflict upon him or herself.

It is not enough to chase your hero up a tree and then throw rocks at him. He can also catch some of the rocks and throw them back, perhaps hitting innocent bystanders who then turn on him as well.

As a reader and viewer, it is through the actions of your characters that we learn their perspectives, their world views, and thus, their flaws. And if your story has a redemptive angle, it is through the complete failure of this world view and the character’s re-evaluation of it that he or she is reborn.

Just like giving the same premise to 12 writers results in 12 different stories, placing any of 12 different characters into the identical situation with identical opponents will result in 12 different outcomes if the characters are real.

Honour that in your writing and honour your characters.

They are called char-ACT-ers, after all, not char-REACT-ers.


Wendig is on Twitter:

First page of new screenplay (opinions please)

Hey guys,

I am working on a new screenplay and would love your split second reaction to this opening page.

Does it grab your attention? Are you intrigued? Do you want to know what happens next?

Any thoughts…positive, negative, inflammatory…are welcomed.

And so the new story begins

And so the new story begins

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.

The First 10 Pages – Austin Film Festival

Lindsay Doran

For a new screenwriter trying to break his or her way into the film or television industries, one of the toughest tasks is getting someone to read your script. But even if you can get someone to crack that front page, the job isn’t done. You have to catch the reader’s attention and you may only have 30 or 10 or maybe a single page in which to do so.

At the 2013 Austin Film Festival in October, producer Lindsay Doran presided over a session called The First Ten Pages, which examined the opening pages of five scripts from people who had submitted to the screenplay competition. Below are some of her general thoughts on telltale trouble spots.

1. Boring title: From the cover itself, the title should grab the reader’s attention. Ideally, it will trigger a question in the reader’s mind or play with the reader’s imagination. Can you imply action or hint at something interesting inside. Don’t be vague or boring.

2. Story doesn’t begin: So often, the writer spends the first ten pages simply setting up the real world and its cast of characters that he or she forgets to actually start the action of the story. Without starting the story, you risk boring the reader.

3. Not actually a comedy: Presumably, she is talking here about comedy scripts that aren’t comedic. Funny is subjective, but is the movie actually a comedy or light drama, which Doran described as a bad place to be. If the writer is heading in that direction, perhaps it is better to write a drama that incorporates humour as a form of relief or due to specific characters.

4. Unlikeable main character: Not to say that the protagonist has to be a good person, but that the reader has no reason to root for him or her. Show us the human side of the protagonist that helps to explain why he or she is redeemable or needs the reader’s support.

5. Too many characters: One script Doran reviewed introduced 7 characters on the first page alone, which aside from being a lot to take in, left the readers with little sense of who the protagonist in the story was. As well, it was difficult to determine how these multiple characters related. Even with an ensemble piece, it is possible to introduce the characters more slowly, perhaps only introducing one subplot at a time.

6. Obstacles without stakes: While it is important to present the protagonist with challenges, the rising conflict, for the reader to engage in the story, those challenges must have important implications to the future of the protagonist. Delaying the protagonist from making it to the office is one thing, but make sure the reader understands why it is so important for the protagonist to make it to the office and what happens if the character doesn’t.

7. Confusing: Doran suggests there is a fine line between intriguing and confusing. If the reader finds him or herself lost while coursing through the opening 10 pages, he or she is unlikely to press further into the story.

8. Transparent exposition: On the flip side, make sure that any important bit of information is woven within the fabric of the narrative and/or dialogue and not simply plopped on the page. Clumsy, transparent exposition lifts the reader out of the story simply because it doesn’t flow and almost seems like a side thought.

9. Comedy based on a superficial world: Again, assuming a comedy, does the writer really understand the world she describes or is she simply aiming for cheap, cliché laughs at a well known environment and archetype? The Devil Wears Prada is a good example of a movie that went deep inside the fashion industry and avoided the superficial jokes about models, designers and photographers.

10. The three most terrifying words in the history of the American screenplay: Here Doran was being a bit playful, but wanted to make the point that it is difficult to get people to read a screenplay about a mature woman from outside the United States. Any one of those protagonist features is hard enough to promote, but to have all three is screenplay suicide, according to Doran.

The dignity of characters


Every human has an inherent nobility and dignity, and it is only in the limits of that dignity that people differ. Some people (the snots) hold themselves to a very high standard, while others (the goofs) appear significantly more relaxed in their approaches to life.

Even within an individual, there may exist multiple levels of dignity befitting the person’s roles or functions throughout the day. As a corporate executive, she may hold herself tightly constrained to maintain her air of authority, while as a doting mother, she may release her inner child for a game of tag.

And yet, even with the role-playing variations of life, each of us has an underlying threshold across we are hard-pressed to pass.

What is true for people is true for the characters we create, or at least should be, I believe. And it is in finding that central sense of dignity that we truly begin to understand these characters.

It is pivotal to their thoughts, actions, words and silences. It is also critical to how they view the world and how the world responds to them.

The goofiest, the most nebbish and most loathsome of characters has a line they will not cross, which writers exploit by presenting each one with a crisis. And while the writer and reader may think of that line as representing different things to different characters—for example, a move from light to dark for the good guys and dark to light for the bad guys—it is important to view the line from the character’s perspectives and aspirations.

Thus, the line is always a move from my light to my dark, my good to my bad, my right to my wrong. To approach it any other way would weaken and potentially two-dimensionalize the character’s resistance to change.

Scar from The Lion King completely believed in the truth and the righteousness of what he was doing. He understood that his actions flew in the face of tradition, but truly believed he was acting for the greater good.

Likewise, the anti-hero Edmond Dantès of the Count of Monte Cristo felt completely justified in his criminal actions because he was removing men worse than himself.

In both cases, as I have said elsewhere, each character was the protagonist of his own story.

In the end, society consumed Scar when he reached his line (i.e., bow to his nephew Simba) and he refused to cross it, and almost consumed Edmond Dantès until he released his anger and found peace.

Regardless of how prominent or fleeting a character, they all have their dignity, and although we may not explore all equally—lest we never complete our works—an awareness of that line will make for amazingly richer and more memorable characters, and thereby, better stories.


Some interesting recent blog posts on character:

Caroline Norrington’s Get to Know Your Character: 15 Minute Character Development Prompter

Persikore’s Context Matters

Richard Ellis Preston Jr.’s Character Development: Finding a Friend for Life

Just a Tasmanian’s Character Development series: ProtagonistAntagonistSidekick/Supporting characters

You’re quite the character


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.


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.

What more did you need?


There is an allegory that was better told by Karl Malden on The West Wing, but it goes something along the lines of:

There was a man who lived by a river, and one day, he heard a weather report that said the river was going to flood and that everyone should move to higher ground. A devout man, he said, “God will protect me. I do not have to leave my home.”

The rains started and a policeman came knocking on the man’s door, telling him he had to evacuate. The man smiled and said, “The Lord will protect me. I’ll be okay.”

The river flooded and the man was stranded on his roof, when a rescuer in a boat rowed by, telling him to get into the boat. The man shook his head and said “I have prayed and God will protect me.”

Eventually, the river swept the house away and the man drowned, and when he got to heaven, he stood confused before God and asked, “Lord, you let me drown. I am a good man, why did you not protect me?”

And God looked down and replied, “I sent you a weather report, a police officer and a rescuer in a boat. What more did you need?”


I recount this story because I have a colleague who is going through similar stages with her screenplay.

After months of feedback from writing groups and instructors that suggested several issues with her screenplay, the most prominent being the passivity of her protagonist and complete lack of conflict in her story, my colleague stood fast by her story. She defended her choices vigorously and left us in no doubt that she was going down the right road.

As it is her story, that is her right, and so many of us stopped discussing these issues with her.

More recently, she’s had the opportunity to send her screenplay to a film producer she knows, who was more than happy to give my colleague her thoughts. A few days later, she shared the feedback with us and smack in the middle was several issues related to the behaviour and actions of the protagonist. My colleague was unimpressed and vaulted upon her Steed of Rationalization, charging into the night.

A week or so later, my colleague received feedback from a film director and again, was smacked with a lack of central conflict and a passive protagonist. And again, this elicited response of being misunderstood and dismissive anger.

And the screenwriting gods looked down and replied, “I sent you a screenwriters group, a film producer and a film director. What more did you need?”


We all want people to agree with our views, particularly when it comes to something as personal as our art. Agreement validates us as individuals and confirms that our art has merit in the world beyond.

But in the search for that agreement, we must be prepared for disagreement. And while it is always our prerogative to ignore contrary opinions, we lose the right to complain when the contrary feedback is consistent and still we choose ignore it (or worse, rail against it).

I don’t believe that anyone has to accept external feedback; positive or negative. But if you want your art to be more than mental masturbation, you should be prepared to listen to all input and incorporate what makes sense to improve your art.

Otherwise, shut up and let the rest of us evacuate the flood plain.

Unpacking baggage – Part Two

In Part One, I discussed the idea that to understand any characters you create and to make them more alive to your audience, you need to understand their baggage, the emotional and psychological events of their past that informs/moulds their behaviours and responses today. Today, I want to talk about making sure you let your audience in on the cosmic joke.

A couple years ago, I wrote a pilot episode for a new sitcom that I was developing—and still am; oh producers, where are’t thou?—and I asked my long suffering wife to read the teleplay.

My concern, I explained, was that of the four main characters, I didn’t feel I had a handle on three. The protagonist I nailed—knew him inside and out—but the other three seemed a little superficial. I wanted a second opinion, though, in case I was just being hard on myself.

Upon reading the script, she asked me a question. [SIDEBAR: Keep all friends who ask questions before offering opinions.]

Which of the four characters did I think I was most like? The protagonist, hands down. She smiled.

Based on her single reading without any background information, she proceeded to describe the other three characters in the script. And nailed them! She matched almost perfectly what I had had in mind for them.

But as was her wont—never in a malicious way—she then burst my bubble by telling me that she had almost no clue as to who the protagonist was, other than he was very similar to me. Without the benefit of 10 years of marriage, the protagonist was a black box. A name followed by narrative action or dialogue.

We walked through scenes and I explained motivations. My explanations made sense to her, but they weren’t on the page. My protagonist was so close to me that it never occurred to me that things weren’t obvious.

More recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading other people’s developing screenplays, and very often, one of the problems I find as a reader is that I don’t have a clear vision of a character’s motivations in a scene. Why did they do what they did, say what they said?

One fellow student in particular I pressed for explanations about some characters in her otherwise amazing script (which horrified the bejeezus out of me btw). She waxed eloquent on her characters’ motivations and histories, offering amazing little vignettes from their pasts that helped explain why her characters were now behaving as they were.

But it wasn’t on the page!

Before I go further, this is NOT a call for more flashbacks (or cowbells). I am addicted to flashbacks, so I understand their power. Please avoid unless it is really there to move your plot along and not just a underhanded form of exposition designed to keep you from having to learn how to write subtext.

My recommendation to my friend, and something I will do on occasion, is to actually write out those vignettes, full narrative and dialogue, but only for myself and not for inclusion with the screenplay. Don’t just think about them, though. Actively write them out. For it is the act of writing that you will find the emotion of the scene, and it is that emotion that will provide the subtext of your screenplay.

That emotion will inform your dialogue and narrative word choice. That emotion will mould the flow and cadence of your dialogue (e.g., short, terse response vs. raving diatribe). It will also help inform how other characters will respond.

As I have experienced, having this information in my head makes it an intellectual exercise, with all of the cold aloofness that goes with it. But putting it on paper forces you to acknowledge and release those demons. It activates your lizard brain, as another friend of mine liked to call it. It is more visceral, more real.

It also has the added benefit of giving you something back to which you can refer when working on the story after six months of doing something else.

When someone reads your work or an actor performs it, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to get your characters, to understand the turmoil in which your characters function. Except at the highest levels of your story, do not ask your audience to think. It takes them out of the story.

You want them to feel the anger; the amusement; the sadness. If your protagonist is being oppressed, you want your audience to feel angry at the mistreatment, frustrated by the inability to change what is happening, and vindicated/exhilarated when your protagonist triumphs.

They can think on the way home from the theatre or after they close the back cover of the book.

If it is not on the page, none of this will happen. You audience will not engage and your story will suffer.

Sure, it sounds like extra work—it is!—but you’ve already invested this much time and effort on your story. Do you really want to risk that being all for nought because you’re the only one who gets why this story is important?

Who is this man and what is he thinking? What is he waiting for? If he looked at me, would I see boredom, anger, fear, joy?


(Taken in Tofino, British Columbia.)