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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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Location: California, United States

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Power of Film

Howard Suber wrote a book, "The Power of Film." Before you scream, "Not another book about screenwriting!" let me tell you a story.

Upon my acceptance into UCLA's MFA Screenwriting program, I was given this advice: Take Lew Hunter's class and take Howard Suber's class. I had heard of Lew from his screenwriting book "Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434." I didn't know a thing about Howard but once I got to school it was apparent that Howard was "the man."

Because of certain scheduling peculiarities (read: my chaotic life), I wasn't able to take Howard's Structure class the first quarter I was in school. What became obvious to me after that quarter was that my classmates who had taken his class seemed to know something I didn't. It wasn't just facts or theories but they had tangible insight into films that I didn't possess.

During my first few quarters at UCLA, I was struggling to find a new writing process. The process I had developed as a playwright didn't serve me well in screenwriting. I would leisurely write a play over the span of a year using dialogue to explore my characters. Now I had to tell a visual story using succinct scenes with spare dialogue and squeeze 100 or so pages out of my brain every 10 weeks.

At the same time, I was struggling to make sense of the Hero's Journey, the purpose of the act breaks, the importance of conflict, how each conjugation of "narrative" had a different meaning, the difference between making a film and getting a film made, the phenomenology of perception (I dropped that course after one class. I'm still not sure what phenomenology means.), pitching and the art of presentation, the word "diagesis" and how it relates to Star Trek, the corporate conspiracy behind television... well, let's just say my mind was about to explode from information overload.

What I didn't have was a way to organize and contextualize all this information.

My last quarter at UCLA was the first quarter I was able to take Howard's Structure class. In the syllabus he included the OED definition of structure: "The relationship of the parts to the whole and to each other." I hoped his class would help me make sense of everything I learned at UCLA. I wasn't disappointed.

Between his lectures and his handouts I could feel my brain rewiring itself. Neural connections were being made that didn't exist before. All the facts that were floating around in my head now had a place to live. That thump you hear is the sound of me kicking myself while thinking, "Why didn't I see that before?"

"The Power of Film" is a distillation of 42 years of teaching, 8,000 pages of handouts and countless hours of lectures. Free of techno-jargon and movie-speak, Howard's book contains many illuminating insights and how they manifest themselves in popular American films.

While "The Power of Film" is not a book about screenwriting specifically, it is extraordinarly useful to screenwriters.

During my 434 classes I obsessed over my act breaks. I couldn't seem to get them right. Then I read the following paragraph from Howard's chapter on acts:

"Thinking in terms of acts is similar to erecting a scaffold to build a building: it may be a useful tool for the craftsmanship during the construction phase, but it obscures the view of the work itself, and the people who gaze on the finished project will not know or care what kind of scaffold was used."
I had a new perspective on the purpose of an act break and suddenly I felt free of the dogma that dictated, "Your act break must..." blah blah blah. I had felt the need to shine a light on my act breaks in the same way I'd point to a building (using Howard's metaphor) and say, "I used a scaffold here."

My mistake was trying to construct a building so you would know I used a scaffold to build it. No one needs to know I used a scaffold. So now the question becomes, "How do I use an act break to serve my story?" instead of, "How do I get my story to an act break by page 30?"

What is also apparent in reading these pages is Howard's great love for film. There is almost an "I can't wait to share with you..." quality to his prose; the same quality that was present in all his lectures.

When I'm stuck (which is often), I'll leaf through a few chapters of "The Power of Film" and suddenly I'm back in Howard's class and I'll feel the same inspiration I did then and use my renewed confidence to keep pushing forward. For me, it's become an essential book simply because I reach for it over and over again.

The Power of Film, written by Howard Suber, is available on Amazon.com

Monday, September 18, 2006


Logline: A PI investigates the death of a Hollywood icon.

The good idea: A period piece about a murder in old Hollywood.

What didn't work: Louis Simo is not a very good private investigator. The people he's watching know he's watching, he's condescending toward his clients and he has no sense of human behavior. It would have been a brilliant artistic decision to make this guy solve a crime but unfortunately, he is never able to overcome any of his critical flaws to see the bigger picture.

Fortunately for Simo (and unfortunately for the film) there was no bigger picture for him to see.

George Reeves is dead. His suicide is inconceivable to his mother so she hires Simo to find his murderer. In his way is the studio Reeves worked for (personified by Eddie Mannix) who will do anything to quash all hint of scandal that might alienate their audience.

Through flashbacks Simo wanders through events in Reeves' humiliating Hollywood life including casting cattle calls, cheap publicity stunts and lip service to artistic integrity. Reeves' affair with Toni Mannix would be Hollywood's worst kept secret as they attend public events arm in arm.

But despite all this, the audience is never presented with a smoking gun that declares there is something wrong with Reeves' suicide. Simo's motives for continuing his investgation lies more with prolonging his paycheck than finding the truth or healing his relationship with his estranged family. Reeves' own mother eventually abandons the case.

Everyone seems to have a strong motive to keep Reeves' death quiet. However, no one really seems to have a strong enough motive or constitution to kill him. Not his fiancee Leonore Lemmon, a golddigger who could cash in on the notoriety and move on to another sugar daddy; not his sugar mamma Toni Mannix who proves to be too weak and frail to commit murder; and not the cuckold Eddie Mannix who was really under no great threat from Reeves' professionally or romantically to provoke him to murder.

Usually in a conspiracy, the clues are presented and alternate theories are created to explain the clues. However, the film does a poor job presenting its theories in its flashback set pieces. There are two gunshots in the floor that are explained in only one of the flashbacks. Neither of the other theories even addresses them.

Probably the greatest weakness in the film is the character of Louis Simo. When confronted by Mannix's thug Strickland, Simo backs down and gives up leaving us with a mystery that no one wants to solve. Simo hasn't failed because he's exhausted all his options, nor has he ceded his will for a higher purpose (like protecting his family).

Superman is supposed to be invincible just as Louis Simo is supposed to risk everything in pursuit of his goal. Both failed in this film because of their own internal weakness. Maybe that was intended to be the overall unifying theme: that putting faith in heroes leads to disappointment both for the fans of Superman and for the audience of this film.

However, the way this theme manifests itself through Simo's actions isn't compelling. At the first sign of trouble, Simo gives up. I could have done that.