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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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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Between the Step Outline and the Pages

I outline. I didn't use to outline but I outline now. Prior to screenwriting, writing was how I explored and discovered. Scripts would wander and meander through long soliloquies and meditations with complete disregard for structure and form. A first draft would take a year or two to complete. I let the artistic expression dictate the form.

Screenwriting is a little different. There's less "discovering" and more "knowing." That's why I outline now. That's not to say I don't let pages rip when the muse strikes me (I believe everything is valuable eventually), but I have to know where the story is going before I write pages. Therefore, I outline.

Writing for UCLA has made this a necessity. A quarter at UCLA is 10 weeks. Figuring that the first week is lost pitching for classes and the second week is spent discussing story ideas with your teacher, you're left with 8 weeks to write the screenplay. If you have an instructor who critiques during week 10, then your script has to be finished by week 9. So that leaves 7 weeks for pages. If your instructor spends a week going over your step outlines, then you have 6 weeks for pages.

Typically, there is a month during the quarter where we are squeezing out 30 pages a week, either by design or necessity. Unanswered emails, missed phone calls, long stretches of time between blog postings, a steady diet of pre-cooked foods from Costco... you get the idea.

This is when I developed my love/hate relationship with the three act structure. As much as I love to follow my muse where ever it leads me, the reality is that I (and all my classmates) have to finish a script by the end of the quarter. Valuable time and energy is wasted questioning the loss of creative freedom under this restriction. It simply is what it is and you deal with the task in front of you.

What helped me during this process is the page count. Once I've completed the step outline, I estimate how many pages are needed to realize each step. For example, suppose this is one step in my outline:

  • When CARL arrives at his apartment, there are seventeen messages from ROCHELLE demanding that he meet her.

I'll begin thinking: How many pages would it take to realize this scene? Carl checks his messages but what really happens? What does Carl want and what do I, as the writer, need? Does he listen to all 17 messages? Should the scene start when Carl enters his apartment? Where does the scene end? What does Carl do as a result of hearing the messages? What does this scene look like?

And then I'll jot some notes in the margin, and think, "I can write this scene in 1 page." What's good is that I force myself to justify the existence of each scene by asking the fundamental questions that most screenwriting books advise you to ask: What does my character want, what action does the character do, what is his obstacle, is there conflict, and how does he feel about it? Believe me, it's much easier to ask these questions at this stage than while you're cranking out pages.

What you also discover is that your 40 step outline will yield only 60 pages. That everything between the midpoint and the end of Act II is only 7 pages long or Act I is 45 pages long. Again, it's much easier to fix this before you write your pages.

The outline is a tool to help you see if your story will work before you write pages. Using it to estimate your page count is one way to use this tool. In the UCLA program (to quote Khan), "Time is a luxury you don't have."

By the way, the step above ended up being 3 pages long before I realized I didn't need the scene and cut it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Godfather and The Godfather: Part III

I'm taking Film Structure at UCLA with Professor Howard Suber. Our assignment was to watch The Godfather and The Godfather: Part III, compare them and write in 800-900 words why Part III was less successful than Part I. Below is the essay I turned in.

The story of The Godfather (G-I) is about Michael Corleone's rise to power fueled by his desire to protect his family (specifically his father Vito Corleone). Between Vito Corleone's rejection of Sollozzo's proposal to fund narcotic sales and the assassination of the heads of the five families are a series of events that are either a direct result of Michael's actions, or actions taken by characters in Michael's interest.

Once Vito is wounded in an assassination attempt, Michael proves to be a worthy leader of the family by taking action to protect him. Scenes where Michael stands guard at the hospital and where he assassinates Sollozzo and Chief McCluskey obviously serve this purpose. What makes G-I successful is that even scenes that don't include Michael are a direct result of action he has taken.

Even scenes without Michael bear his imprint. Sonny Corleone is the heir apparent however, his order to kill Pauli and his street brawl with Carlo demonstrate his impulsiveness and hotheadedness. Not only do these actions prove Sonny doesn't have the necessary leadership skills but they ultimately lead to his demise, clearing the way for Michael to assume the leadership of the family business.

The actions of Michael provides a strong spine for the action in G-I. Sonny's demise may appear at first as a simple sub-plot but it is directly related to Michael's decision to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey. The assassination created a war between the five families fueling Sonny's desire for revenge. The removal of Sonny from power was paramount in fulfilling the other families' interests. Sonny's death results in Vito seeking a truce, which allows Michael to return home safely.

There is no equivalent spine in The Godfather: Part III (G-III). In fact, there is no concise, succinct storyline that unifies G-III. The action of G-III is split between the competing objectives of two characters: Michael, who alternately wants legitimacy for his family's business dealings and wants to absolve himself from his sins; and, Vincent Mancini, Sonny's illegitimate son who aspires to become a part of the Corleone family by being an enforcer.

An argument can be made that the main spine of G-III is Michael's quest for legitimacy through the acquisition of a controlling interest in Immobiliare. But is the acquisition of Immobiliare a result of Michael's quest to absolve himself of his past sins or vice versa? When the Pope delays his approval, Michael is powerless to do anything about it and is no longer an active force driving the story forward.

A strong argument can also be made that the main spine of the story is Vincent's rise to power in the Corleone family. Yet Vincent kills Joey Zasa under orders from Connie, not Michael. Nor is Vincent able to prevent the assassination attempt on Michael's life. Vincent intervenes only after the assassin's weapon is drawn and fired. Vincent does not possess or inherit Michael's skill of outsmarting and outthinking his enemies.

Many events and characters in G-III do not expedite or complicate either objective. Andrew Hagen (Tom Hagen's son) is introduced but never plays a pivotal role in any of the story's events. Reporter Grace Hamilton has no influence on Vincent. Mary provides minimal complications in Vincent's quest for power in the Corleone family. Even though Michael asks Kay for forgiveness, his request is neither accepted nor refused. Anthony's desire to sing opera doesn't create a void in the family power structure simply because Anthony was never strong or smart enough to be considered an heir to the throne.

In G-I, the motive behind the assassination of Vito is clear. The five families want Vito's influence to facilitate the sale of illegal narcotics and when he refuses his help, his removal is necessary to completing their task. There is a strong sense of cause and effect in G-I, which shows Michael's transformation from an honorable, almost naïve war hero and outsider into the ruthless head of the family business.

In G-III, the forces that conspire to stop Michael from acquiring Immobiliare do not appear to have any deeper purpose other than to stop Michael. Even though it is revealed that Don Lucchesi is behind the Pope's delay tactics, no deeper reason or motive is ever revealed. This conflict does not serve to force Michael to change or transform. Michael is merely a man haunted by a past that has finally caught up with him. It is a past that long precedes the events of G-III.

Though the events of G-III hint at a King Lear-like transfer of power from Michael to Vincent, the connection is lost despite a nearly inconsequential scene where Michael tells Vincent to use the Corleone name. Vincent very quickly demonstrates his ability to kill in cold blood leaving little room for character evolution. His estrangement from Mary at Michael's order does not factor as a cause for Vincent's ascension nor as a cause for her unfortunate death. Her death, which is pivotal to Michael's demise, is random, the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Structurally, G-III is less successful than G-I because the events of G-III seem unmotivated and arbitrary while G-I has strong cause and effect relationships. Michael is fundamentally a different person at the end of G-I than at the beginning. Neither Michael nor Vincent transform in any meaningful way during the course of G-III.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Dirty Little Secret of Screenwriting Books

Books about screenwriting don't teach you how to write. What they do is analyze successful movies and reveal recurring patterns while offering tips for economy and clarity.

The best advice I ever got about writing was from my ninth grade English teacher Richard de Rosa who said, "The only way to learn how to write is to write." While this advice hasn't turned me into a great writer (yet), it has definitely made me a better writer.

The proliferation of screenwriting books has been a double edged sword. It gives us a common vocabulary to discuss story, plot, character arcs and themes. Unfortunately, it also sets an arbitrary standard for expectations that oftentimes quashes creativity and innovation in favor of mitigating risk: the risk of losing all that money someone (usually not the writer) is spending to bring the screenplay to life.

Successful and respected screenwriters are able to employ their unique creativity within the restrictions that modern screenwriting requires. Very few reasonable people would label this skill as a betrayal of some vague notion of "artistic integrity."

We aspire to become the things we admire. However, as you live your life, the desire to use your experiences, point of view and all the things that make you unique, will force your writing to expand beyond imitation and mimesis.

In the meantime, I offer you my synthesis of all the analyses performed in those screenwriting books. If you're trying to emulate popular films with your writing, chances are you're emulating some variation of this structure. Like all tools, its success depends on the person using it.



Something happens or has happened that throws the world out of balance. If someone can't figure out how to restore the status quo (the "central question"), the world as we know it will come to an end (the "stakes").


The hero is given an opportunity to solve the problem but he won't participate. His refusal usually results from some anti-social behavior he engages in (the "flaw") to avoid re-experiencing some deep-seeded, emotional wound. Re-experiencing his deep-seeded, emotional wound is typically the hero's greatest fear.


The hero is compelled into action by the antagonist.



Usually with the advice of a mentor, the hero learns, but doesn't fully appreciate, a new set of skills and values.


New friends join the quest to save the world. Their friendship is usually bonded by some sort of initiation rite or shared ordeal.


The hero scores a small but decisive victory and erroneously believes that the quest is easy and will be over soon.



Having suffered this setback, the antagonist proves to be much more formidable than previously believed. Will now actively hunt down and destroy the hero.


The hero battles the antagonist or his agents. All his skills and abilities prove inadequate and his confidence is broken because the antagonist is able to embody and exploit the hero's greatest fear.


The hero comes as close to death as he can without dying. He has lost everything and suffers.



The hero can't return home nor is he able to live with his failure. With great pain he fundamentally transforms himself by embracing the lessons of his mentor, atoning for his past sins and healing his emotional wound.


The hero takes the battle to the antagonist. Once he chooses to apply the lessons of his mentor and conquer his own fear of emotional pain (thereby, fixing his "flaw"), is he then finally able to face his antagonist without fear and vanquish him by answering the "central question."

The pithy life lesson the hero had to learn to heal his emotional wound is typically the story's theme.


A new status quo for the world is achieved. Society is safe, life goes on, mostly the same but presumably a little better for the experience. The hero reaps the reward of his victory.

If you find this tool unsatisfactory or inadequate, may I suggest you break down 3 to 10 films of your own choosing and analyze them for their patterns. After all, that's what screenwriters did before 1979, the year Syd Field first published Screenplay.

The Rhetoric of Sean Hannity

I was flipping through the news channels and heard Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes interviewing Dan Dewalt, a Selectman in the Vermont legislature who voted to pass a resolution to use an obscure procedural rule to impeach the President. Mr. Colmes let him state his position and then Mr. Hannity joined the conversation.

Well, it wasn't much of a conversation. Mr Hannity insulted Mr. Dewalt, got him off topic and insulted him again. It might have been entertaining if it didn't feel so much like a mugging.

What troubled me the most was Mr. Hannity's admonition at the end that Mr. Dewalt's opinion was a selfish act that hurt our troops.

I'm ashamed to admit it but I've used Mr. Hannity's argument technique when I wanted to make a fool out of someone in public. Insult them about something personal to get them emotional, force them to accept a premise I know to be true regardless of its relevance to the topic of discussion, and then dismiss their entire argument based on their acceptance of the premise.

I must also add, the last time I used this argument technique was in third grade after which I got the shit kicked out of me on the playground. From my teachers then and now, I learned that name calling was not a proper way to argue, even if you believe they are blatantly misrepresenting your position or the facts behind their own position.

However, Mr. Hannity's admonition did send chills down my spine.

While Mr. Hannity's opinion is his own, does it represent a sentiment shared by many who believe that dissent is harmful to the well being of our society? If an elected official can be admonished for his dissent, what about someone with a video camera or a blog who expresses an unpopular or controversial opinion?

Is it possible to measure the harm that dissent causes? If dissent does cause harm, does it require a remedy? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that freedom of speech does have restrictions. Do the actions of Mr. Dewalt violate those restrictions?

I don't believe that the resolution of a state committee impacts the morale of our troops. I have more faith in our troops than that. Mr. Hannity did not attack Mr. Dewalt's position as much as he attacked his motive and right to express it and he did it in a way that was disrespectful, regardless of the justification.

Freedom of speech is something we take for granted in this country. I was reminded by a fellow writer about the time a writing workshop I was in was visited by a group of artists from Communist China.

They asked us what we were writing and were shocked at our descriptions. They remarked that it would never occur to them to write about such things because they would surely be subjected to imprisonment if they attempted such projects.

What good is sacrificing lives to defend our Constitutional rights if we are not freely able to use them? Mr. Hannity's opinions may be consistent with some Republicans in government, but he has no government sanctioned authority to prevent anyone from exercising their Constitutionally protected rights.

What if no one heeds his admonition and similar admonitions from those who would use their own sense of morality, microphones and video feeds to bully people into silence?

I've included the transcript of the entire segment below if you wish to form your own opinion about the exchange.

I will write something about screenwriting soon. I promise.

* * *

Hannity and Colmes: March 31, 2006

Alan Colmes: Welcome back to Hannity and Colmes. A Vermont Democratic State Committee will decide whether to urge Vermont lawmakers to use a little known provision in U.S. House rules to file for the impeachment of President Bush. Democratic committees in at least fourteen of the state's Democratic counties have passed resolutions calling on Vermont lawmakers to use this little known provision from Jefferson's Manual, a book of Parliamentary philosophy and procedural guidelines written by Thomas Jefferson. Joining us now, one of the Vermont Selectmen who voted to impeach President Bush, Dan Dewalt. Dan, welcome to our show.

Dan Dewalt: Thanks.

Colmes: I'm not sure if this is really do-able unless you have a Democratic house. What bothers me, whether or not we agree, should or should not be impeached, that you have been personally attacked simply for offering, going forth with your free speech rights. The Washington Times reported your income as I understand it and mentioned you wear Birkenstocks. Just trying to typify you.

Dewalt: I didn't realize Birkenstocks were an attack. But you're right. You're right.

Colmes: And in an AP story, I think, was posted on the terrorism knowledge base that says it's a comprehensive databank of terrorist incidents and organizations. So they're trying to type you a terrorist simply for offering what is a controversial point of view.

Dewalt: That's true.

Colmes: Why are you doing it?

Dewalt: Why am I doing this? I'm doing this because I'm ashamed of the actions of my President and my country. I feel that I'm a patriotic American. I feel that as a patriotic citizen of this country I need to stand up for what the country stands for. And the country stands for rightness, the country stands for living up to the Constitution and the rule of law. This President, through lies and deceit has broken the law, has led the country into a war, which has led to countless tens of thousands of deaths, and I am not willing to stand by and say, "This represents me, this represents what I believe in.

Colmes: I may not agree with impeachment as being the way to go and we can debate that, what bothers me, though, is those who really, who oppose this will say you hate Bush, you hate America, I'm sure you're called a traitor--

Dewalt: No, this has nothing to do with--

Colmes: And this kind of rhetoric does not really allow us to have the debate that you're really offering to put on the table here, which we should be having as Americans right now.

Dewalt: I agree a hundred percent. It's not about hating George Bush. I haven't-- there's been lots of Presidents I didn't like. Reagan, I didn't like Clinton. I wasn't talking about impeaching any of them. This is talking about the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution. If this country does not adhere to what it was it was built to be based on, then we are not a country where [inaudible]

Colmes: [overlapping] By the way, you're not that fond of Democrats either as I understand it.

Dewalt: No, I'm not a Democrat.

Colmes: Where are you on the spectrum?

Dewalt: The party in Vermont which is closest to what I stand for is the Progressive party. It's, this isn't about politics. This is about citizens of the country standing up for what we believe in and what I have been gratified-- you're right, I have been attacked, but on a very small scale. I've gotten a few pieces of hate mail, poorly written, I might add. But we have been overwhelmed with letters of support from across the entire nation. Not just Vermont, not just New England, but Indiana, Arizona, Minnesota, Chicago, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey--

Sean Hannity: And what did you vote for, for President, sir?

Dewalt: Ralph Nader.

Sean Hannity: Ralph Nader. A lot of good that did. It was a wasted vote.

Dewalt: You know, you know, a wasted vote--

Hannity: It was.

Dewalt: A wasted vote--

Hannity: 'Cause he didn't have a chance to win, but that's fine. Let me ask you. So, so let me ask you a question.

Dewalt: Okay.

Hannity: The argument that the President made that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, did you think it was a purposeful lie? Is that your essence, the essence of your argument?

Dewalt: President Bush presented that argument, knowing, absolutely knowing that the evidence was not really solid. He knew--

Hannity: And John Kerry, and John Kerry made the same argument, did he do the same thing as the President?

Dewalt: I am not the least bit interested in John Kerry. This, this--

Hannity: I didn't ask you that question, if you were interested. I asked you if John Kerry equally lied like the President did, considering he said Saddam's WMDs and nuclear weapons are a grave threat to America.

Dewalt: I'm not privy to exactly who gets what information but I do know that there's nobody that gets more information than the President of the United States. And I also know that the President of the United States can control what information goes out to other people. What John Kerry knew, I don't know. That's not the issue. The issue is who is in control of this country? And who led this country to believe that there was a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda and there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11.

Hannity: [overlapping] Actually there is [inaudible] documents that have come out--

Dewalt: [overlapping] Well it's--

Hannity: [overlapping] There're actually new, If you look at the documents that we have now been, if you read the newspapers, you see that there has been a connection that was there, that Al Qaeda operatives were operating out of Iraq for a period of time leading up to 9/11 and that they were trained there. We have learned from the general that worked under Saddam Hussein that there were weapons of mass destruction his belief--

Dewalt: Wait wait, where were these weapons of mass destructions--

Hannity: Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me. The same weapons that Bill Clinton told us about when he bombed them but you didn't call for the impeachment of him. Here's the bottom line. I don't care what you write, I don't even care about your silly resolutions or your proposals, it's a waste of our time. But I'm going to tell you something you need to think about the next time you want to propose something as idiotic as this. Everything you say as a leader is heard by our enemies, it is heard by our allies and it is heard by the troops. When you call their Commander a liar, you are undermining their war effort, when you do it in such a political fashion and only go after Republicans, you do it to the detriment of them. And if you selfishly want to continue that you go right ahead, but look at who you're hurting.

Dewalt: Let me tell you what undermines the war effort, let me tell you what undermines the troops of this country, is telling them that we're going to war for a reason which is not true.

Hannity: You Liberals are a broken record--

Dewalt: Why don't you--

Colmes: And I thought I was--

Hannity: You're angry that you lost the election. You can't get over it. And the bottom line is that the President, you forgot we were attacked on 9/11, the President was authorized by Congress to defend this country and [inaudible]

Colmes: [overlapping, inaudible] I think it's important that we have this debate, we should be able to debate it on a fair and even playing field.

Dewalt: Why don't you give me a chance to respond?

Hannity: It's an idiotic proposal.

Colmes: You got ten seconds Dan, go ahead. We gotta go.

Dewalt: We have a President that misled these troops--

Hannity: Oh stop it.

Dewalt: He has not supported them, he has not equipped them. You guys are like Mickey Mouse and Tweedle Bird.

Hannity: Oh gee.

Dewalt: Honest to God.

Hannity: And you're a waste of our time.

Colmes: By the way, you got a band I understand. Good luck with the band, good luck with your Birkenstocks. Thanks you very much for being with us. Appreciate it.

Dewalt: You guys are losers.