It was a great weekend for American filmmaking. Gravity is a solid thriller, made by a great director, Alfonzo Cuaron, a man with a bold cinematic vision, backed by a fearless producer, David Heyman, who ushered Cuaron’s vision to the big screen, produced in collaboration with a huge studio, Warner Bros, who supported Gravity‘s vision and ushered it into theaters with a hugely effective marketing push. Miracle of miracles, the movie made a ton of money and will continue to do so. Because Gravity fulfills one of the essential qualities of commercial filmmaking in 2013: you gotta see it in a movie theater. This is a movie that will not be the same experience when you’re watching it on your phone while waiting in line at the grocery store.
Here’s the thing: in an ideal world, Gravity would be an average American movie. Why isn’t it?
"Do [romantic comedies] usually have a protagonist? what does s/he usually want? "Get back into a family"? "Find happiness"? "Get over my ex"? "Become a better person so i can be a better father/mother"? Then i thought about the best romantic comedy, Annie Hall. i thiiiink you once wrote here that it has brilliant script, but i don’t believe you’ve ever posted an in-depth analysis of it. Does it have a protagonist? Is it Alvy? What does he want? "To get the eggs"? Is he just living out some sort of narcissistic pathology? Are there rules that Annie Hall follows that other successful romantic comedies also follow? If so, do they do away with the idea of a protagonist altogether?
What would you say are the top three pitfalls of pitching? Like, what are some rookie mistakes; what should come out of a successful pitch meeting; what are some things that you should never, never do? –pirateman
So in that situation [where some stranger walks in and ruins your pitch] do you just run with it and incorporate it or argue for your original point? –johnnycrulez
If you’ve been reading this journal for very long, you know that I’m the last guy you should ask for advice about pitching.
I hate pitching with a passionate, burning intensity. Partly because it’s a degrading, humiliating experience antithetical to good writing, and partly because I suck at it.
Can we see a break-down of the concepts behind the Multiple Acts school of writing? I’ve had the idea of three acts only shoved down my throat for years and it feels wrong to try to shoehorn a story into this particular artificial construct. Is there some magic number of acts, or do you just need to make sure your story has a beginning and an ending of some sort and build from there or something else entirely? — quitwriting
Completely agreed. I don’t fully understand what makes one act disparate from the next. — erranthope
I’d be interested to see this as well. — stormwyvern
I currently define an act as when the status quo changes into something else, and those changes are irreversible...How many acts, though? My answer right now is "however many you need to tell the story". — Kent M. Beeson
Let me answer this the best way I know, by telling a story:
I’m hoping you can help me with some basic movie industry knowledge. In discussions of movies, how they’re made, individual roles, etc., I’m constantly asked who really does what. For example, does it really matter that the executive producer of “Big Success” also produced “New Film?” Is it really a stamp of quality? I’ve tried to figure it out, but not being part of the business it’s still a little murky. So here’s my basic understanding:
Executive Producer – Provides the money, has final say on several matters.
Producer – Deals with day to day operational matters.
Screenwriter(s) – Provides the foundational material.
Director of Photography/Cinematographer – Creates the look of the film, including angles of shots, lighting, coloring
Director – Oversees individual takes, tries to get actors to deliver a performance that meets his ‘vision,’ decides when to move on to next scene.
Key Grip – Makes sure nothing moves that isn’t supposed to.
Best Boy Grip – No friggin’ clue.
So, assuming that I’m (mostly) right about the above job roles, what happens when someone like Spielberg or Cameron steps up to the helm? Do they just get more of the credit? Do they take on multiple roles? How accurate is it to say that Spielberg’s success is due in large part to good script selection, like Tom Hanks?
55seddel writes: "Will you speak to why [The Dark Knight] is a melodrama and not a tragedy?"
A melodrama is a drama where "good" and "bad" are easily distinguished (the name comes from how, when the original melodramas were staged, the band played a cue so that the audience would know who was good and who was bad), events are fantastical and emotions are heightened well beyond real life. The Dark Knight fits all those descriptions quite well — the good are good, the bad literally walk around with big distinguishing marks on them, the action is unrealistic (although grounded in a well-realized "reality") and the emotions — both on screen and in the audience — are greatly heightened. One of the acts even climaxes with a damsel tied to a big friggin’ bomb as the hero races to her rescue. In a traditional Victorian melodrama, the damsel is tied to the railroad tracks and the hero is the Mountie who always gets there in time. The Dark Knight plays this scenario out almost to a T — except that its hero races to the wrong address and the damsel gets vaporized.
A tragedy is, simply put, a story where the protagonist, trying to do good, causes his own downfall. Hamlet thinks identifying and killing his father’s murderer will set everything straight in Denmark, and instead he winds up getting everyone killed and losing the kingdom to an invading horde. And The Dark Knight certainly contains elements of tragedy, no doubt about it. One could find parallels to Bruce Wayne in Timon of Athens or Titus Andronicus, great leaders who boldly step forward to improve the life of their city, only to find in the end they’ve made everything much, much worse. And, like Oedipus, Bruce Wayne seeks to discover the source of the plague on his city, only to find that it is himself.
But to call The Dark Knight a tragedy is to overlook all the other things it does so well — it’s a great superhero movie (a genre melodramatic by nature), a great thriller, a great crime drama, and a not-bad detective movie. It is all those things on a very sophisticated level, so much so that it doesn’t quite have the time to develop a true air of tragedy. Better to appreciate it for what it is — an exceptionally intelligent, incredibly dense, impeccably crafted action thriller that smartly addresses its audience in a way its genre never has before, and raises the "comic book movie" to an entirely new level of excellence.
(Many thanks to faithful reader The Editor.)
all stills swiped from film_stills .
"I wonder if you’re more interested in the structure than the actual content of the script?"
In a screenplay, there is no difference between structure and content, "actual" or otherwise. A screenplay is a collection of scenes devised in a certain way placed in a certain order to achieve a desired dramatic effect. In the same way that "character" is nothing but habitual action, the "actual content" of a screenplay is nothing but the scenes that fill its pages and the order in which they’re placed. To say "I like the screenplay’s structure but I don’t like its content" is to say "I like that guy but I don’t like the things he does."
David Mamet once said that the only question in an audience’s head during a movie should be "What happens next?" The screenwriter’s job is to keep the audience interested in the story. When the screenwriter does his job well, the audience gets sucked into the story and experiences the thrill of drama. When he does his job very well, the thrill of the experience is so powerful that the audience comes back again and again, even though they know how the story turns out. Spectacle may amaze and movie stars may charm, but if the screenwriter has not done his job well, the movie will still turn out bad and the audience will stay home. The Dark Knight engages the audience on a level unseen in movies lately, and does so while employing a number of bold innovations, which I will discuss as we move forward.
"Do you think the rapid turnaround from theater to dvd is a problem? One of my friends refers to theatrical releases as "trailers for the dvd" and I usually don’t worry about catching a film at the theater unless it’s the sort of thing likely to benefit from a gigantic screen and sound system."
Funny you should ask; I’ve recently reversed myself somewhat on the subject of adaptations. I used to feel that producers were willfully obtuse, that they labor diligently to purchase the rights to popular works and then, for no good reason, fundamentally change the nature of the piece out of sheer ego or sheer perversity. I felt that, if you’re going to go to the trouble of purchasing the rights to a book or play or comic or video game or bumper sticker or whatever you’ve spent your hard-earned money on, you might as well stay as true as possible to the source material — I felt that there had to be a reason why the original is popular, and the movie had to address that or else it would fail.
I was in my local video store the other day. I found a copy of Oliver Stone’s 2004 bio-pic Alexander for $3. My wife is a sucker for ancient Greek history and I’m a sucker for biographical drama and I said “that’s my price!” and snapped it up. I took it home, put it in the machine, and what do you know? It starts with an elaborate prologue! About the history of ancient Greece!
So instead, he goes in the exact opposite direction with equally disastrous results. First, there is an elaborate death scene where we see someone, we’re guessing Alexander (although Stone does not show us his face) dying, having not made an important decision of some sort. Everyone around the bed pleads with the dying man as strong winds blow outside and the dying man stares wildly and flails his hands and then expires. Before we have any idea what the hell that was all about, Stone then jumps forward 40 years, after Alexander’s empire has collapsed, and there’s Anthony Hopkins in a toga on a balcony near the harbor at Alexandria (we can tell it’s Alexandria because we can see the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the background) telling a scribe the story of Alexander, but not about the mysterious death scene we just watched. We’re still waiting to find out what was going on during the death scene and Hopkins is giving us a history lesson.
Now, Stone doesn’t want to give us a history lesson so he renders the dialogue through Hopkins’s character, a guy who apparently worked alongside Alexander, although we don’t know how or in what manner. Hopkins speaks of Alexander with great love, so we get that Alexander was apparently loved, but the rest of it is still just a history lesson about a bunch of people we haven’t met yet. Hopkins wanders around his back porch overlooking the harbor, and the porch is covered with Greek statuary that Hopkins fondles as he walks past. We’re supposed to be taking notes on his history lesson, but instead we’re wondering who Hopkins is and why he’s telling us all this and why he’s got a back porch covered with statuary.
After he’s wandered around his back porch for a while, Hopkins then heads inside, where there is what looks to be an Alexander Museum in his living room. There are more statues, and elaborate displays and maps and mosaics. Hopkins launches into some serious history here gesturing to this statue and that map, telling us all the same things we would have read in the text-on-black version, but instead of understanding the information we’re more lost than ever, because we’re still wondering what the death scene was all about and then we’re wondering who Hopkins is supposed to be (since he’s obviously not the elderly Alexander) and we’re wondering why he’s telling someone the story of Alexander and we’re wondering why he’s walking around his Alexander Museum gesturing to things that the guy he’s talking to already knows about. We’re now about ten minutes into the movie and we’re still waiting for it to start.
Then, just as we’re catching up to whatever the heck Anthony Hopkins is talking about, we jump back in time and now Alexander is alive and well and he’s in a tent somewhere in a desert just before a big battle of some kind against some Persians, and he’s making battle plans with his team of generals. And we think “Finally! The movie’s starting!” But no. Instead of getting some drama, we get yet another history lesson, as Alexander tells his generals all about the upcoming battle and how they’re going to win it. We don’t know where we are, why we’re fighting, who anyone in the tent is or what is at stake, we’re just getting Alexander lecturing his generals on strategy.
yesterday mentioned the “As you know, Bob” problem in narratives, and that’s what this scene is, one big long “As you know, Bob” scene. Except it’s worse, because there’s, like, six of them, and their names aren’t Bob, they’re Ptolemy and Hephaistion and Cassander and Antigonus. So you’ve got Alexander walking around the map room pointing at things and saying things like “As you know, Antigonus, you are my most trusted warrior…” These lines are there so that the Greek scholars in the house can nod in understanding and say “Aha, so that’s Antigonus, got it…” but the rest of us are just burdened with more and more information we have no idea what to do with. The scene is supposed to help us understand the big battle scene we’re about to see, but it does the opposite. Because we’re still wondering about the death scene and who Anthony Hopkins was and why he has an Alexander Museum in his living room and who all these people in the tent are supposed to be and the movie is already 15 or 20 minutes along.
We finally head out into the big battle scene, and it is very big indeed — enormous, sprawling, ridiculously elaborate. It is, in fact, so elaborate that each section of the army gets its own title card so we know where we are in the battle. Unfortunately, we’re still not following any of it because we couldn’t follow the strategy session in the tent earlier. So now there’s a hugely chaotic battle sequence featuring tens of thousands of extras in period battle gear, but we don’t know what the objective is or who they are really or what they’re fighting for or why any of this is important.
Compare this to the opening of Saving Private Ryan.
Saving Private Ryan opens with an old man in a military cemetery in France with his family. One shot of one French flag tells us we’re in France. The old man comes to a field of gravestones and collapses in tears. There is no dialogue, no museum, no scrolling text, no narrator telling us about the history of World War II, no newsreel catchingus up to the story so far, no history lesson, no room of generals discussing strategy and reminding each other of things they already know. There is an old man who is grief-stricken at the sight of a field of gravestones and that’s it.
Then, we cut to the past, where an army captain is on a boat with a bunch of other soldiers and is about to storm a beach. We think the captain is the younger version of the old man at the cemetery (the narrative, it turns out, hinges on this deliberate misdirect). The men on the boat are terrified and nauseous and the captain’s hands are shaking. A title card tells us that it’s June 6. 1944 and that we’re at Omaha Beach. It doesn’t say that it’s D-Day, an important turning point in World War II, nothing tells us who the soldiers are fighting, or why this beach is important — and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the simple physical predicament of the protagonist. The captain in the boat has a bunch of men in his charge and it’s his job to get them up the beach and kill the enemy. And that’s it. He gives no speech about the glories of freedom or the evils of Nazism, the information he gives them is technical and sparse. The tension is palpable, the concerns are immediate and physical, not historical and philosophical. Then, the front of the boat drops down and half the men in the boat are slaughtered by sniper fire, and the ensuing 25 minutes of insane, mind-shattering carnage go on to become the greatest battle sequence ever shot and one of the great opening sequences of all time. We still don’t know who anybody is (except that the captain is Tom Hanks and we like Tom Hanks), there is no dialogue where the captain says to a soldier “As you know, Billy, you are my most accurate sniper…” The captain and his team that we will follow through the rest of the movie are revealed solely by their actions.
Oliver Stone sincerely thought he was doing us a favor by giving us all this complicated information about the history of Alexander before we ever got a look at the guy, and he thought he was demonstrating his generosity and good will toward the audience by dramatising the exposition instead of just putting some text up on the screen. But instead he shot his movie in the foot before it even got started, he drew the exposition out to painful lengths and made us more confused than ever. We don’t learn anything from Stone’s prologue, our minds check out after the first minute and by the tenth minute we’ve forgotten why we came to see the movie. Spielberg knew that none of that matters — cinema is about the here and now, the simple physical predicament of the protagonist.
points out in the comments that Alexander and Saving Private Ryan describe two different historical scenarios, one of which the audience might be expected to be familiar with, the other not so much. I will go further: the two movies belong to two different genres — Alexander is a biographical drama and Saving Private Ryan is a war movie — and so perhaps should not be judged side by side. Fair enough, let’s compare an apple to an apple. Alexander begins with its elaborate history lesson and Schindler’s List begins with its protagonist getting dressed for a night on the town — again, little historical context (we know only that Jews are being concentrated into cities), no scroll of text, no narrator telling us who these people are, just the immediate physical concerns of the protagonist — he’s getting dressed up for a night on the town — we never even see his face! — and his ensemble is complete when he places his Nazi pin on his lapel. The sequence that follows — Schindler impressing the local Nazi officers at the nightclub — lays out the information we need to know about Schindler and nothing else. The result is that for the first 20 minutes of Schindler we lean forward, wanting to know more about the protagonist and what he’s after, whereas the first 20 minutes of Alexander make us lean back, wanting to get out of this classroom.