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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Screenwriting: One Unnatural Act

There is nothing natural about screenwriting.

As a mode of self-expression, it is highly restrictive, serving function over form. If screenplays were the artistic experience, then you would go to museums to look at blueprints. Screenplays use written language to suggest a visual language where the writer is not the final interpreter.

However, like any discipline, when a screenplay is executed well, it looks easy and effortless.

Perhaps the greatest disservice a writer can do when struggling with a scene is to ask, "What would I do if I were in that situation?" It's a disservice because we tend to be conflict-averse, mediating disputes before they become problems. We will often make personal sacrifices to maintain the status quo, seeking a peaceful equilibrium. This is our nature, this is who we are.

By contrast, our characters must be agitators, destroyers of the status quo who hurl themselves head first into physical, psychological or emotional danger. Characters who are so obsessed with achieving their goals that they are willing to risk everything, including their lives. Not only is this unnatural, it is contrary to the very instincts that help us survive.

A good protagonist drives the action. He must constantly be the domino that starts a chain reaction of events. Do you initiate action or do you merely react to the world around you? Are you the barbarian pounding at the gate demanding entrance or are you waiting for someone to fire the starting pistol? How many of us are the protagonist of our own lives?

Many of us aren't. Many of us need these stories of conquering heroes to feel powerful in a world where, as individuals, we are growing more and more powerless. Acknowledging the role you play in your own life is vital to understanding the role your characters assume in the stories you tell, especially if you rely on your instinct to navigate your characters through their adventures.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Logline: James Franco endures trials and tribulations to survive his first year in the Naval Academy.

The good idea:

It's "An Officer and A Gentleman" only different.

What didn't work:

Jake Huard is set up as a hot headed, anti-authority misfit. However, neither in his home life nor in his plebe year does he demonstrate this trait to the level where we can believe it has held him back.

The first half of the film is interminably episodic. Scenes happen to Huard. Nothing happens as a result of his drive or determination.

The film stretches believability. Plebes are thrown out of the academy for lying about a shower and failing to run an obstacle course in under 5 minutes. Yet, Huard remains in the academy despite punching a superior officer.

The character parrot all the necessary bon mots (you'll never make it, you're not tough enough) required in a coming of age film but the actions don't reflect this. Despite Huard's protestations that his father stands in his way, his father really doesn't. He benignly stands by and lets Huard kill his own dreams.

What could have been a touching moment where Huard returns to his old job dressed in his navy whites is tepid at best. This is because the film never builds up to this point. We never get the feeling that this act is important to him.

The most important thing to Huard is getting into the academy to fulfill a promise to his dead mother. This accomplishment is handed to him in the first ten minutes. The dream of completing the academy is one that he abandons and reclaims with no motivation.

What makes this film ordinary is that there is no exploitation of naval culture, specifically customs, rituals, hazing and the sense of honor and patriotism that pervades a military institution. What makes this film less than ordinary is its liberal use of tired and worn cliches.

Good Night and Good Luck

Logline: A TV newsman puts his network at risk confronting a US Senator on his investigation tactics.

The good idea:

Recreate the behind the scenes discussion at CBS during the Senate hearings investigating Communist activities in the US.

What worked:

Edward R. Murrow's own words. An unconventional story structure, probably based on the needs from actual historical events, the movie is more a four act play than a conventional film structure.

Act One ends with Murrow's decision to run the story about Milo Radulovich being brought up on charges because his father subscribed to a Serbian newspaper which makes Murrow a target for Senator McCarthy.

Act Two ends with Murrow's report on Senator McCarthy.

Act Three deals with McCarthy's interrogation of Anne Lee Moss, his rebuttal to Murrow's original report, Murrow's subsequent rebuttal, and Don Hollenbeck's suicide.

Act Four Murrow is, for all intents and purposes, demoted by CBS for losing corporate sponsors for his reporting. Murrow delivers a prescient analysis of the future of television.

What didn't work:

I don't know if Murrow and McCarthy ever met face to face in real life. The lack of a final confrontation between them left the story unsatisfying. Even though the Senator's downfall was directly precipitated by Murrow's reporting it didn't feel like a triumph for Murrow.

Dan Hollenback's suicide didn't leave a significant emotional impact. His relationship with Murrow was respectful but hardly a friendship. The choice to show Murrow only in his professional environment denies us an opportunity to learn how his decisions affected him on a personal level. By confining the locations almost exclusively within the halls of CBS, we don't see how Murrow and McCarthy affect the average person.

While he did ultimately lose his show, he didn't really lose anything, CBS did and it's hard to have sympathy for a corporation.