Whither the losers

coyote

History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.

Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.

It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.

illusions

Faces or a vase? Old woman or young?

Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.

If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.

What happens when you don’t follow the model?

What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?

Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.

Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.

groundhog-and-emma

Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.

(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)

You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.

elvis-lisa

And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.

Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).

rossio

See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)

Writing is its own success

(I’m going to post this here, now, so that when I do make it big financially, I can prove I really did believe this while I was still poor.)

A writer writes

A writer writes

If you don’t love writing for the sake of writing, get out. For the sake of your own sanity, do something else.

I would like to make a career of my screenwriting and novel writing, but if I don’t, I will still do it and be glad that I do.

The truth is that the majority of us (like 99.9997%) will never make it big as writers…not Terry Rossio big, doubtfully Damon Lindelof big, nor Nora Ephron big. Hell, I’m not even sure the simple majority (50%+) will even make a livable wage as writers.

But as much as I want to hit it big and spread the gospel of my genius (he says only half-facetiously), I write because I love writing and I don’t know how to not write.

I can do other things to keep food in the house and a roof over my head, but I don’t want to if I don’t have to. It all interferes with my time for writing.

Perhaps this passive approach to accomplishing something with my writing will keep me from making it big. But I prefer to think that by focusing on the joy of writing, the excitement of expressing my thoughts and feelings, I will be happy throughout the entire process, from now to wherever and whenever I end up.

If nothing else, this attitude means that everything that comes down the road is a known positive rather than a potential disappointment.

Good luck, everyone.

Bonus!

Bonus!

The Throw – Austin Film Festival (part two)

Terry Rossio, Pirates franchise

In Part One of this post, we talked about Terry Rossio‘s comments at the Austin Film Festival regarding the different kinds of cuts in films: storyline cuts and storyteller cuts. But how do you establish these cuts?

With the throw, which Rossio divides into two categories (a fixation, it seems): the strong throw and the soft throw.

[Added note: Rossio provided a film clip to demonstrate each of these throws but I was only able to record so many in my notebook…hopefully, you’ll be able to figure them out for yourself.]

Strong throws can be very obvious and are used for a variety of reasons. He offered the example of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, where a strong throw is used to set up a flashback. Alternatively, a throw can be used to convey story information so that the audience can discern the link between two scenes. Rossio quotes someone from Pixar who once suggested: “Give the audience 2+2 and they will love you forever.” Throws can also be used to move us through a montage, where each snippet is linked in some way.

Rossio described the discovery throw, where one scene is the answer to the question raised in the previous scene. As an example, he offered the scene in Aladdin where Jafar and Iago complain they will need a new victim to attain the lamp, “a diamond in the rough”, at which point, we move to Aladdin running across a roof with guards yelling “Stop thief!”

And he described the comic throw—also known as the Gilligan cut—where a character repeatedly comments on something (e.g., refusing to wear a dress), only to see the character immediately in that situation (e.g., Gilligan in a dress).

And finally, Rossio suggested strong throws can be used to set up reversals in a story, where we see characters moving a story in one direction, only to see the exact opposite in the next scene.

Soft throws, Rossio suggests, are much more common in film and are by nature more varied and artistic, providing a greater range of effects.

Such throws can provide a promise of things to come for an audience, such as in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy remind his partner what a cautious fellow he is, only to then grab a gun from his desk and head into the fray. Alternatively, such throws can also imply that the next events will be really boring in this scene and that something is more interesting elsewhere. The example he gave was from The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke is leaving Hoth for Dagoba, a long boring journey, and so he tells R2D2 “I’d like to leave it on manual control for a while.” A signal that we’ll kill time here, so let’s go watch Han and Leia run the blockade.

Such throws can also be used to cut off a scene before key information is revealed, creating a sense of mystery and a promise of an answer to come. Rossio warns, however, that this type of throw can feel very manipulative to an audience. The example he gives is again from The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke is in a hurry to leave Dagoba to rescue Han and Leia but Yoda and Obi-Wan’s apparition try to hold him back. As Luke leaves, Obi-wan says “That boy is our last hope.” only to have Yoda correct him, “No, there is another.” Is that Leia in Cloud City?

Rossio describes these throws as connective tissue in a film or screenplay, unifying disparate elements and speaking to the audience in a subliminal, symbolic or subtextual manner.

There is the intentional misdirect throw, to keep the audience from figuring out what’s going on too quickly, and the throw to set up a passage of time, often so characters can have sex, Rossio quips. The train entering the tunnel.

Soft throws can also help set up a change in the state or tone of the movie or to introduce a new character. Rossio gives the example of the movie Key Largo, when the suspicious guests of a Florida fishing resort reveal themselves to be mobsters who take the other guests hostage. A second later, we meet the mysterious boss (Edward G. Robinson) upstairs. The mood of the story has changed, for the worse for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

These cuts can also be used as an internal cut within a single scene to cue the passage of time in a scene that would take too long to play out and would bore the audience. The cigarette that is lit and rested in a clean ashtray, only to be followed seconds later by another cigarette being placed in a full ashtray—ah, the 70s.

As Rossio explains, whether strong or soft, the throw allows the audience to fill in the gaps within a movie. He offered a quote that suggested “Filmmaking is giving the audience the experience of completing the image.” And he added the idea that no scene should be complete except for the last one. There should always be something that prompts the audience to move willingly from this spot to the next one.

He then offered a self-deprecating moment by presenting a quote that suggested a very popular use of throws is to give a movie a sense of consistency or connectivity when in fact the story makes little or no logical sense at all. The quote was referencing a movie that Rossio wrote and acknowledge had a plot that was all over the place.

In the Q&A session afterward, someone asked Rossio if throws were something for which you should aim in the first draft of a screenplay and his answer was basically no, that it was something you added in later drafts. His thinking was that in a first draft, you don’t really know if your scenes are in the right places and if things will need to move around for the sake of the best story.

You only look to incorporate a throw once the story is pretty much set, he says, adding that not every scene abutment requires a throw and you should never simply add one for the sake of adding one, if it will look arbitrary or out of place. The throw, he says, should smooth the transition between scenes, not highlight them by standing out.

 

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission for a sense of continuity.)

The Throw – Austin Film Festival (part one)

Terry Rossio on AFF panel

One of the sessions I was determined to attend this year was The Throw given by screenwriter Terry Rossio, the man who brought us Aladdin, Shrek, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and The Lone Ranger (okay, so nobody’s perfect).

Rossio is a legend at the Austin Film Festival; his The Rewrite session being one of the many highlights. But last year, he went one step further with The Throw, which this year, the folks at AFF decided to put in a hotel ballroom rather than a side meeting room.

For the uninitiated, Rossio explains, the throw is that thing designed into the end of the scene that sets up (or throws to) the next scene. It is a connective element that suggests the two scenes belong side-by-side at a level beyond plot or story.

It can be a visual to visual cue, such as the famous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the victorious ape throws the bone club into the air and as it spins end-over-end, it turns into a space station.

Alternatively, the throw can be verbal to visual, such as in the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones has made his way into the Nazi camp and learns that the Ark of the Covenant is being shipped out on a truck. Indy’s response is “Truck! What truck?” and the very next second, we watch a truck move through the Nazi camp, onto which Indy has somehow hidden himself.

According to Rossio, there are two ways to organize the narrative structure of a movie or screenplay: using storyline cuts or storyteller cuts.

Storyline cuts emerge from the events of the story, seeming natural and seamless. For example, the storming of the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, where we see the soldiers move from one section of the beach to another.

Storyline cuts, Rossio explains, maintain the tension and keep the audience immersed in the story. It is a way to maintain and build story momentum while asking for minimal effort from the audience. It is much like a series of dominoes.

Another example Rossio offers is the end of the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz, when the house finally stops spinning and Dorothy moves from the sepia tones of Kansas into the Technicolor world of Oz. She even states, famously, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

Storyteller cuts, in contrast, imply there is a grand design to the story or an author, who is choosing what you see and when rather than simply presenting events as they happen. This is common in ensemble films such as Love, Actually and American Graffiti.

This sense of a grand design can be comforting and reassuring to an audience, says Rossio. It creates a distance between the audience and the story, with the less immersive story being seen as a creation.

These types of cuts often support a narrator or guide who practically sits alongside an audience and takes them through the story. The guide can appear on-screen or perhaps as a voiceover. Think Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption.

According to Rossio, storyteller cuts are also very good at renewing a story’s momentum, jumping to new locations or situations before a prior scene’s energy drops and thereby re-engaging the audience.

But how do you establish these cuts? With the throw, which Rossio divides into two categories (a fixation, it seems): the strong throw and the soft throw.

(See the next post for Part Two, which actually goes into the different throws and how you would use them.)

(Images is property of owner and is used here without permission, because I don’t give a toss.)