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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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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What Does 'Pedestrian' Really Mean?

A note that comes up once in a while is your script/character/story is too pedestrian. Pedestrian is one of those terms that means something different to each person who uses it.

I like to think of pedestrian as the opposite of driving. Instead of being in a car speeding down the road, you're standing on the sidewalk watching the cars go by. A recent example I can think of is Eva Longoria's character in The Sentinel.

Jill Marin is a rookie agent on her first day on her new assignment. Unfortunately, she's the exposition character. In a story with a complicated plot, the advice writers are often given is that we need a character who is in the dark and needs events explained.

This character is usually a neophyte in the world we're exploring so we the audience have a way to understand what's going on around them.

Unfortunately, in the case of Jill Marin, that's all she does. David Breckinridge is forever explaining to her what's going on and what the context is of the events happening. She rarely participates. She's along for the ride.

What is her character's problem? Does she have an arc? Does she have any sort of emotional journey? Granted, she is a minor character but if we're ultimately seeing the story through her eyes, then we need to feel what ever she's feeling and neither George Nolfi nor Clark Johnson have layered that into her character.

As a result, she's on the sidewalk observing. She's passive. Her purpose is nothing more than being a cipher for information. Things are explained to her for the benefit of the audience.

Early in the film after agent Pete Garrison has fallen off the grid, David Breckinridge tells his agents that they may have to shoot a friend and to prepare themselves for it. For me, this was the theme of the film. Could you shoot, possibly kill, a friend to protect the President? However, it played itself out around the midpoint when Breckinridge failed to shoot Garrison. Then the film had nowhere to go because we had our answer.

In a film like this, "whodunit" is the device that carries the theme. Whodunit is not nearly as important as what would you do to figure it out? Since we're seeing the film through Jill's eyes, it would have been interesting to put her through that decision process late in the film.

Unfortunately, her character doesn't have any strong emotional attachments that would put her in this dilemma. She never questions Breckinridge nor does President Ballentine inspire this kind of loyalty. It was a missed opportunity. As a result, the last half of The Sentinel was plot driven with no emotional stakes.

By design, an audience watches the film. The real trick is to get us involved where we feel like we're going through everything the characters as going through as if we were them. Pedestrian means that we're still on the sideline, emotionally detached from what's going on. We're rubberneckers passing by an accident with no relationship to the victim.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Rewriting is Hell

For the past several months, I've been living in Rewrite Hell. I decided to revisit the first script I wrote for school and rewrite it with the full knowledge and experience I'd accumulated during my time at UCLA.

My God, it was painful.

Mind you, this is a script I thought was ready. I had sent it out for contests and had pitched it to agents and producers. Having put it to bed for several months, I came back to the project with fresh eyes and I did not like what I saw.

What I thought was a fun romp on a cruise ship now reeked of passive main character. My protagonist took no action for the first 3/4 of the script. Much of her 'action' was instigated by her best friend or the people around her. Until Act 3, all she did was react. She didn't initiate a single thing.

The other hard truth that I had to face was that the only reason I liked this script was because I wrote it. Had someone else handed me the same script with the same logline, I probably would have hated it. In fact, I did. I was appalled that I thought this script was ready for anyone.

I had to go back into my notes, my memories, my emotions to recall why I liked this script in the first place. Why did I choose to devote 10 weeks of my life writing it? Why was it was the first project out of the gate for me at UCLA? What was the "good idea" that everything hinged on?

There it was on a wrinkled, coffee stained index card. "A coming of age story about a women who learns to make decisions for herself while on a cruise." Strange that I thought this was enough to base a script on. It's not. I know that now.

It's Friday night, I'm leafing through the paper, why would I choose this movie? What would make me move my lazy ass off the sofa, away from my Netflix DVDs, fight the crowds of teenagers and spend $10 to watch something on the big screen (more if I was on a date)?

Now I'm sitting in my seat, armed with stale popcorn and a flat soda. What did the advertising promise me that I would see? Literally? What am I expecting to see? What's stopping me from saying, "Fuck this, I want a burger."

These are purely selfish questions, but if the answers are equally selfish (ie, because I wrote it, because that's the way it happened), then I propose that your script is in trouble (as mine was). I don't see everything Jessica Alba is in nor do I see everything Charlie Kaufman wrote merely because their names are on it. They have to earn my attention every time.

I started scribbling notes for what I call "externalities." I'm sure there is a real term for it but it was my own personal shorthand for the fun stuff. Bizarre situations, crazy incidents, sarcastic remarks that could happen on a cruise.

Then I drove my friends crazy.

I pitched them logline after logline asking them, would you see this? Over and over again they'd listen to my pitch and say it didn't intrigue them, at least not enough to get them to see it. I needed a hook and I didn't have one. I fell into the abyss for about six weeks.

Finally, out of sheer chance, I thought about my antagonist. Why is he making her life miserable? Why is she a threat to his way of life? Because he thinks she's a... And then I got it. My new pitch made people chuckle, which was a vast improvement over the old pitch.

So now I had my pitch, my theme, and a whole bunch of scenes. Easy rewrite, right? Nope. Now I had to cure the passive main character syndrome.

One of the popular paradigms for describing screenplay structure goes something like this: Act one, your hero climbs up a tree. Act two, you throw rocks at him. Act three, your hero climbs down. I found this paradigm not only useless, but counter productive. Who is throwing rocks at our hero? The image of a person protecting himself creates the foundation for passivity. Act two should not be happening to our hero but happening because of our hero. He should be breaking branches, grabbing fruit, chasing birds not cowering from thrown rocks.

Now comes the pain. How does my protagonist's overall want/desire/need put her into the scene? How does she put herself there so that the scenes don't merely happen to her? How does she makes the scene happen? Now I can make use of the scene fundamentals: what is her tangible objective? what is her tangible obstacle? what does she do to overcome the obstacle and achieve her objective?

This was painful because in my mind, I had already answered these questions. I had to come up with new solutions to the old problems. Fighting the inertia of "been there, done that" was excruciating but in the end, worth it.

About 5 pages of the original script remained when all was said and done. And now I consider this draft a first draft. The original draft (which I now call the vomit draft) was not completely useless. I had used the vomit draft to discover my characters, create their voice, and get under their skin. I created the world of the story and the rules of the game. The rewrite made it come alive.