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.)

For my friends who are parents

lynch

Ding Dong! The kid’s at school!

Oh, so cool that it’s a rule.

Ding Dong! The little shit’s in school.

Wake up, tiny fool.

Rub your eyes, finish your gruel.

Wake up, you snarky brat, there’s school.

Summer’s done, it’s time to go,

Grab your books before it snows,

Move your ass before the school bell tolls.

Ding Dong! And hidey-ho,

Sing it high, sing it low.

Let’em know, the little shit’s in school!

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because I’m old school.)

Approaches not panaceas

Image

As I said in Birth of a Reader, I am addicted to books. But even with my addiction, I must admit that every now and again, I wish there were no books on writing and most specific to me, screenwriting.

I say this not because the books available are particularly badly written, but more because they are well written by the author but often poorly understood by the reader; readers who more often than not are looking for the One True Way to screenplay writing.

The same is true in business books. If you tell me your favourite business author, I can tell you how—and possibly what—you think.

Seth Godin. Philip Kotler. Clayton Christensen. John C. Maxwell. Each of these authors has their own approach to various aspects of business, and the more you engage with each, the more your mind thinks in those directions. (It is probably more that they help you rationalize where you were going anyways.)

Linda Cowgill. Chris Vogler. Robert McKee. Michael Hague. Paul Joseph Gulino. Dara Marks. Each of these authors also has a trigger onto which student after student latches, like a remora on a shark, looking for their next artistic meal. Each offers an approach to screenplay writing that he or she found particularly useful.

Unfortunately, too many students miss the point that these are approaches or ways of thinking about screenwriting and not road maps to success. Each book offers one or more lessons that a writer can incorporate into his or her work today to make it better, but none of them are the One True Way.

In fact, too close a focus on any one author and you will never find Your True Way.

Too much focus on Dara Marks’ Inside Story and you will find yourself in a tailspin about Theme, as you struggle to force-fit your characters’ actions and dialogue around a theme that may or may not be true to your story.

If you find yourself able to quote Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, you’re likely describing your characters in terms of mythic archetypes a la Joseph Campbell and drawing parallels with The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars.

I’m not saying that novice writers should avoid these authors. I am simply saying that each should be approached cautiously as the novice writer—or seasoned writer, for that matter—can’t hope to achieve everything these authors discuss. The authors have the luxury of looking at a screenplay as a completed item and so discuss aspects and approaches for which you and/or your screenplay may not yet be ready. There is a reason that you will still find many of these books on the shelves of seasoned screenwriters…because they continue to find new lessons in old books as they develop their craft.

The authors and their tomes are more like a screenwriting buffet, offering you a variety of flavours that hopefully provide nourishment, but can also cause artistic indigestion.

So, sorry folks. The books offer no clues as to the One True Way. It doesn’t exist. And like everyone that came before you and will likely come after, you will continue to struggle as you search for Your True Way.

PS I own and have read books by all of the authors discussed here (and in Book larnin’), and every time I reread them, I find something new to apply to my screenwriting—including, interestingly enough, from the business writers.