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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Boring Work of Story

I did a guest blog on Rex Sike's Movie Beat where I reviewed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

In it I mentioned that in the original film the story worked because Captain Jack was basically a wild card while Will and Elizabeth were doing the main plot work. It may sound like I'm encouraging writers to create boring characters. I should clarify.

Now first off, I may be in the minority, but I never found Will and Elizabeth that boring. Sure, compared to Jack Sparrow they're as dull as oatmeal but so is every one else including Geoffrey Rush and Jonathan Pryce. Especially in the first film Will and Elizabeth are sympathetic and even a little funny in their own right. Plus they set the emotional stakes for the story.

Go back to the very first scene in the very first film. That scene is a marvel of economy. It sets the ominous and mysterious tone of the films that follows with the ship coming out of the mist. It sets up the menace of the Black Pearl with the wreckage of the ship. The speaking roles are all important characters later on in the story, Gibbs, Norrington, and Governor Swann. It sets the plot in motion with Elizabeth discovering the cursed gold piece. But most importantly it establishes the relationship between Will and Elizabeth. Even though she's just met the boy, young Elizabeth still takes away his gold piece, which she believes will condemn him as a pirate. This is an important point, she takes the gold piece out of altruistic motives. It would be very, very different if she simply stole it. But the relationship starts on a positive note. So when we cut to the next scene of Will and Elizabeth the characters are on firm footing. These aren't just two young people making goo goo eyes at each other despite their station. They've a relationship going back several years. In Elizabeth's eyes she's even saved Will's life. Whether or not you personally find this aspect of the script compelling or whether you love Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley or hate them, the important thing is that it makes sense as far as the story is concerned.

Captain Jack hasn't appeared yet but the story has already started. When he does come in, he doesn't have to worry about the plot or the emotional stakes, he can just be Captain Jack Sparrow and the movie is better for it. That freedom he has is part of his appeal. I remember a lot of my characters seemed to lose a little bit of their luster when you got down to the emotional stakes. And every story needs emotional stakes even if we want to resist it.

Emotional stakes means grounding the character in the stuff a mass audience can relate to. Will and Elizabeth's romance may not be a love story for the ages but it is a love story. That's where the new movie flounders most of all.

The trick is to find a character as explosive as Jack Sparrow yet give him believable emotional stakes. That's one of the trickiest feats in all of writing. The magic is in the mystery, in not knowing where a character like that is coming from. To give him emotional stakes is to take away a bit of that mystery, to make him more of a recognizable human being. But stories are about recognizable human beings.

So no I don't advocate writing boring characters. I advocate writing the characters that your story needs. Those emotional stakes have to be set by somebody.

Monday, May 23, 2011

You'll Never See This Again: Too Late The Hero

I love great action scenes. Here is a classic from Robert Aldrich's Too Late the Hero from 1970. In it an exhausted Cliff Robertson and Michael Caine have to run across an open field to get back to the British base while the Japanese try to gun them down. Aldrich shoots this scene perfectly. It looks like no matter how fast the two of them run they can't get any closer. The music builds. The soldiers at the base cheer them on. There's plenty of gunfire and explosions. It's one of the great action finales in my book. (The fun really begins around the 1:30 mark)

And it will never be done again. Why? Look at the scene again. You never see the actors' faces once they start running. That turns out to be very important towards the end and gives the scene that added bit of suspense. There's no other way to really film or write this scene. But that's just not allowed anymore. Stars cost too much money and if you're going to pay the big bucks you'd better get as many closeups as you can. Closeups would ruin this sequence in my opinion. The fact that you can't tell who's who is just too critical.

Now maybe a lower budget film like a direct to DVD or a SyFy original movie might be able to get away with a sequence like this. The question is why don't they?

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Showrunners" Documentary - AT LAST!!!

You know I wish this film had come out years ago. I mean YEARS. AGO. I haven't seen it yet but I know I am going to own it eventually.

Way back when I thought I wanted to be a chef. I lasted about 2 months in real restaurant. Now if Anthony Bourdain had written Kitchen Confidential a few years earlier I would have been prepared and maybe would have thought long and hard about whether it was for me or not. I hope this doc has a little bit of that quality; that it demystifies and makes clear the business of writing for Television. Could have used that when I started out.

Showrunners Trailer! from Christof Bove on Vimeo.

Monday, May 9, 2011

One of My Favorite Openings

I love the Lion in Winter.

To me it never ages. One of the things I admire mostly is the economy of the story telling. The story is full of complex plots and incredible monologues. It could easily become stagey or worse incomprehensible if done wrong. But the writers and filmmakers deftly avoid that trap.

Look at the very first scenes. Just two images and a single line sum up the story perfectly.

Swords clash. Then we get Peter O'Toole yelling "Come for me!" But he has an insane grin on his face. He is in fact sparring with his beloved son, Prince John. Trying to teach him to be a king. But in those first few moments you have the entire film. This is about violent people. Their world is full of conflict. But Peter O'Toole's Henry isn't afraid. "Come for me!" he yells at the audience, daring to take on the entire world. And he's got a grin on his face. He's not afraid. He loves this. Conflict, battle, war make him feel alive and young. But that's the problem, he loves battle too much. It may be the only thing he truly loves. He can't relate to his wife Elanor or his sons Richard and Geoffrey except through the prism of conflict and war. He's sparring with his son. His entire personal life is just one long duel. Later in the movie he says he wants peace, but that's a lie. Such a man as this can never be truly happy in peace. It would kill him.

All that is explored in great depth during the rest of the film but it all begins with that one simple scene.

That's how you open a picture!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Suggested Reading For Action Scenes

Action scenes can be tough. As a screenwriter you fortunately don’t have to do much. You just type in “They Fight.” It was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for you. But what if you want to give your fight scenes a little more flavor? Here’s some recommended reading.

Martial Arts Around the World Volume 1 and 2 by John Steven Soet. It’s out of print but you still might be able to find this in second hand bookstores. Very little text but a ton of pictures as various martial artists demonstrate defenses against a wide range of attacks. The great thing about these books is you get a sense of how the martial arts vary from country to country. If you want to see how Brazilian Capoeria differs from Indonesian Silat these books will show you.

The Complete Book of Combat Handgunning by Chuck Taylor. This book will teach you how to pistol shoot. This will give you the basics of a gunfight. It can give you a lot of insight into other genres as well. After reading this I could never look at the Star Trek Next Gen phasers the same again. What do they use to get a sight picture on those things? Their thumb?

Osprey Military Press. Just about anything this company puts out is worth it. They cover wars, battles, and fighting men and women from ancient Egypt all the way to the modern age. Their latest entry is called the Raid series and it covers light tactics. Obviously a lot of World War II operations but also campaigns from the Middle Ages and even one from feudal Japan. The research in these books is meticulous. They are a must have resource for anyone interested in historical adventure writing, sword and sorcery, or modern day thrillers.

Recommended Reading and Tools

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