Friday, January 7, 2011

How Characters are Not Like People

I've been working on a character roughly based on me about 15 years ago. Some of the same struggles and same situations, but amped and reworked a bit. I started work with a default assumption that I was working on a feature but I kept mining more and more, then finding more and more storylines. I'm thinking about it as a TV series now. Probably a hopeless, unproduceable project -- but it's caught my interest, so here we go.

I've written and rewritten numerous synopses and story ideas for about six weeks now. It's starting to move from the conceptualizing stage to the shitty first draft stage. The shitty first draft stage is usually all about finding out about the 42 things you neglected to conceptualize. This time it's about herding cats. My characters are off doing their own things, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they're in a TV series.

The one exception is my main character. As I mentioned, he's based off me in my twenties. And I based his journey on a journey I had at the time: a relationship that was intense, beautiful, and doomed the moment I evolved. I couldn't stay in it and I couldn't leave. Yup, I was in my twenties.

My problem is one a lot of writers encounter during the shitty first draft stage: you know where the character is supposed to end up, so you write to that. Everything feels a a little telescoped. There's no real development because all the development feels planned.

Put another way, I'm breaking the cardinal rule of drama. My character seems to already possess his end goal through much too much of the story. I'm starting him off on the 50-yard line instead of his own end zone. I know better than this, and I planned it all out. So how did I make this basic mistake?

If a character you're close to lacks important knowledge, then they will fail. They'll suffer. They'll suffer tragic defeat and humiliation. You don't want that for a friend. Of course, you do want this for a character.

This is one way in which characters are not like people. But there's another way: I think characters exist in some special dimension of constant flux and change in a way that people do not. Yes, the writer of course can and does experience each moment individually. But we also sense characters as a kind of range of potentialities. I remember a Sunday school teacher telling me once that god sees our whole lives at once. This makes sense to me now. It certainly explains why god would create the world. It's a beautiful way to see things.

Something about this allows me to go into my script with the right perspective. I can give my character all the suffering, humiliation, and defeat he needs to work as a character AND see his potential for growth. I think this is something like compassion or love. I may not shelter my characters from all the awful things of the world (as I shouldn't), but I make sure that those defeats mean something.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

"Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.”

- William Faulkner

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Reason to Write #137

"As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle."

William S. Burroughs, The Adding Machine

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Neurocinema

Everybody in California has been to a test screening once. Very few have been twice.

It's exciting to the unsuspecting: you're invited to a free screening of an unreleased Hollywood movie. Then a plasticized marketing executive gets up in front and asks very sincerely for your opinion. You get a questionnaire and one of those little golf pencil, and you dutifully report if you liked Tobey Maguire, whether the climax was bloody enough, whether the trace remainders of a character's liberal political views were off-putting or enlivening. And so on.

Based on your responses, the studio may well re-edit the ending, add back in the scene where Tobey pets the dog, or lose the fat chick. In short, studios use the marketing data to make the movie as palatable to the broadest audience range possible. Characters become more like characters we've seen before. Plot twists that excite 70% but confuse 20% are cut out. Bad guys explode more frequently. And the movie joins the rest of the pack, bobbing in the murky water around the lowest common denominator.

Like I said, few people make it to a second test screening. Even if you don't know what's going on you leave feeling a little dirty.

You'll be pleased to know that marketing is losing its golf pencils. Instead, it's putting the audience into an MRI! The new thing is neurocinema.

The idea is that you can scan the brain of the audience member and watch what parts light up as the scene progresses. The reactions are most testable in horror. You watch for the amygdala, the "fight or flight" center of the brain, to light up like a Christmas tree.

I imagine watching almost any movie -- say, Air Bud -- while trapped in a giant humming magnetic brain probe might light up my amygdala, but enough about me.

The idea that you can make a movie better by stimulating one area of the brain is disturbing to me. The amygdala isn't the horror-genre center of the brain. Yes, it controls fear. It also controls rage and disgust. Your amygdala lights up when you see a car accident. Your amygdala lights up when a drunk hits on your girlfriend. But the film industry is investing serious money in this technology just so it can tickle this part of the brain.

But what bothers me most about this technology is that it just might work. Maybe movies can boil down to a lower common denominator. I suspect that many moviegoers already equate a good movie with a vigorous amygdala rub. And maybe, like with video games, the effect is addictive.

Check out this interview in Wired for more.

You can see the test clip from the horror movie they tested. And they'll need a little more than an MRI to fix that one. Sorry, couldn't help myself.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

(BEAT)

What does (BEAT) mean?

Some people will tell you it's a way to get an actor to pause for something important. It tells the actor when to take the breath. It's a dramatic equivalent to OMG!!!!;) Or something.

Others will tell you it simply indicates a pause.

Most writers go through a (BEAT) phase. (BEAT) starts littering the script wherever the writer wants to indicate something significant, or worse -- weighty. And the writer convinces himself that he makes his script weigh more by doing so.

Then there's the added benefit of telling the actors how to act. If you put that (BEAT) in there, well, they need to stop and savor your brilliance.

Not surprisingly, actors bristle at scripts full of (BEAT), just as they do at scripts full of "smiles knowingly", "claps his back reassuringly", or (subtly, with rising anger). Actors are not puppets, and you are not a puppeteer.

And actors usually know what a beat is.

A beat is simply a unit of drama. It's a moment that moves the story forward. It's not a moment that represents something, or elaborates, or even 'weighs' anything. It is movement. It is forward motion.

In virtually every drama virtually all of the time, the beat happens through the actor. How?

They change their intention. They react to a new circumstance. They try to effect a change in another character.

These are all things that happen first in a character's. So what does (BEAT) mean to an actor? It tells her she needs to consider how her intention changes. It tells him that a shift has occurred in his character's psychology.

Sometimes this even happens without a pause for emphasis.

(BEAT) used correctly engages the actor's training. They look for interesting possibilities in the character. They uncover connections that need to be brought out. They consider your lines in a different way. You're telling them to make a choice, a gamble, a deeper read.

And when they read more deeply and just come up with (ponderous pause)? You've bored them or worse -- you've lost their faith in the script.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Set Ups

Have you ever watched a movie without audio -- say, in a bar or on an airplane? If you're paying any attention at all, you usually know exactly what's going on. Screenwriting is, after all, visual storytelling. Our job is to pull together combinations of images and characters as expressively as possible. Usually this is a matter of setting two elements against each other, in a power relationship, or to express a contrast, or simply to create dramatic potential. What does this mean?

In Lolita, Humbert Humbert (James Mason) checks into a hotel with the 16-year-old Lolita (Sue Lyon) unaware that it's almost completely booked with a convention of state troopers. Now, the contrasts and power relationships are painfully clear. But the screenwriter, Vladimir Nabokov, doesn't stop there. To preface the set up we see the inimitable Claire Quilty, a dissolute TV writer who apparently made note of the precocious Lolita while bedding her mother in the backstory, wanders in just in time to watch the whole thing.

Note something important here: the entire import of the scene is in the set up. James Mason could discuss fuzzy bunnies with the front desk clerk. It wouldn't matter. We'd know why the scene was there, and the scene need only prolong itself until old Humbert's committed himself to a night in a hotel full of cops with his 16-year-old paramour, daughter of his recently deceased wife. You come up with a set up like that and you're done. You did your job.

All well and good, you say, but I'm not Vladimir Nabokov. How do I come up with a set up like that? They don't just pop into my head.

No, they don't. As a matter of fact, I'm writing in my blog precisely because I'm stuck trying to think up a strong set up for a scene right now.

Actually, everybody encounters the immovable and intractably dull set up issue on a pretty regular basis. Good writers are just better about working through them.

Let me make a hypothetical here in pursuit of a point. How did Nabokov come up with this set up? Out of necessity.

The second act is largely built on the tension of Lolita not knowing that her mother has committed suicide upon realizing that Humbert's after not her but her daughter. At this stage in the movie Humbert has nowhere to go. He has to stop somewhere, and this hotel is the proper place for the urbane literature professor that he is.

How often do you run into that 'necessary' scene that just lays there? It would be easy enough to write through a little booking-the-room scene then off for some sexual tension that evening in the bedroom. It's necessary, but you don't learn much.

That's not how screenwriting works. Each scene has to build the drama and not just move through the have-to-be-there moments. So, you look at the scene and start to add in the elements you need. To wit: fear of law enforcement? Check. Obsessed and unshakable drunk with an infatuation with the young girl and a fishy story? Check. Desk clerk a little to hep to the jive to not pick up on the sexual energy between Lolita and her supposed father? Check.

Then you subtract all the stuff you thought you needed but has nothing to do with the set up. The exposition. The boilerplate dialogue between desk clerk and guest. That weird thematic stuff that never reads anyway. The clever line that will never sound half as good outside your head (and you know it).

You come up with a strong set up and you're done. Stay out of your own way. Don't overcrowd the scene with dialogue. And whatever you do, don't drive the scene with dialogue. How on earth are people in bars and airplanes supposed to watch the movie if you do?

On a separate note...

Go watch Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Right now. I'll come to your house if you don't. It's about as good as a movie can be with Charleton Heston and Marlene Dietrich playing Mexicans. And the set ups ain't too shabby either.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Quote of the Day

"You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club."

– Jack London