Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

July 30, 2006

The Balancing Act

House of Sand and Fog is a great illustration of the story-as-debate angle. Just as in a debate we might go back and forth on who we think will win, in stories we ping-pong back and forth between believing things are going to end well and believing things are going to end badly.

When a story’s going to end happily, we need lots of moments when it seems like it could all go wrong. This is how the majority of conventional stories work.

But the opposite is also true: when a story’s going to end badly, we need lots of moments when it seems it’s actually possible things might work out okay. Moments of hope.

House of Sand and Fog is full of hopeful moments. Characters connecting, showing compassion for one another, trying to compromise and reach out. But the seeds of tragedy are sown early by how much is at stake for these human beings who fundamentally do not understand one another.

The hope, in this case, makes the story that much more complex, and the tragedy that much more powerful.

Am I becoming obsessed with hope? Next up: my thoughts on Hope Floats, Hope and Glory, and A Bob Hope Christmas Special.

July 22, 2006

A Good Premise Doesn't Replace a Story

It's not tough to imagine how Mr. & Mrs. Smith got the greenlight. The promise of the premise is: two of today's hottest movie stars try to kill each other... sexily.

And you know what? Promise kept. Mr. & Mrs. Smith milks its premise for everything it's worth-- it's fun and it's sexy. But all that sexiness just wasn't enough. We needed more story.

This is a movie that desperately needed an A plot; a story spine, beyond our two characters, from which to hang the best moments of sexual tension. Because between Brad and Angelina botching their shared gig, and then destroying their house together (read: from the end of the first act to the end of the second act) NOTHING HAPPENS. All the weight of the film rested on that fun, sexy premise. But we get tired of the same kind of tension again and again. I should kill my spouse, I can't kill my spouse, repeat.

The sexy cat-and-mouse may have been the thing we wanted to see, but it should've been the B plot. It would have made so much more sense to keep the A plot their mutual target. These two should have been getting in each other's way en route to a distinct goal involving a 3rd party.

Sometimes the best way to get to the fun stuff is to allow it to happen along the way.

Now let's all go back and re-watch Out of Sight.

July 14, 2006

Greenlight Strategy #1: Keep the Premise's Promise

Every premise makes a promise. The premise of Big promises we'll see a grown man doing stuff only little boys do. The Truth About Cats and Dogs promises we're going to see Janeane Garofalo squirm as her Cyrano-inspired love triangle gets harder to maintain. The premise of L.A. Confidential promises we'll delve into the seedy underworld of 1950s Los Angeles. It's crucial to actually include scenes the audience will subconsciously be hoping for based on the story's premise.

Case Study: The Banger Sisters. The premise: after twenty years of estrangement, two former rock groupies reconnect. One's working in a bar, and the other's become a prim and proper mom. What's the promise of this premise?

Two middle-aged women acting like teenagers.

And it's nailed in a number of scenes, but particularly in the "Rock Cock Collection" scene. Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn divide up their old polaroids of various rock stars'... you know... based on their memories of who actually slept with them. Here's part of the exchange:

The names are on the back.

I'm nervous now, Vin.

Guess who the first rock cock is.


(both chuckling)



Jimmy Page.

Give me that. Are you kidding?

And this one is...


Very veiny and...


Arlo Guthrie.

Oh, no. That's yours, babe.

You take that one. Look at this.

Ha ha! - What?

Keith! That's Keith.

And this one is...

I get it 'cause I backlit it.

It's no surprise to me that this one was greenlit. The best actresses of a generation were bound to sign on for this kind of fun.

Always know what scenes are truly delivering the promise of your premise. And protect 'em.

July 04, 2006

Go Gentle Into That Dark Night

What, you forgot my background is in literature?

Dark Water
is the most depressing movie I've seen in a long time. And I saw it the day after Munich. Trust me, Dark Water makes Munich look positively jolly in comparison.

Horrors and thrillers are supposed to be fun. It's fun to be scared for your characters. It's fun to worry what's around the next corner, and then have the catharsis of finding something scary. And it's fun to watch your character rise up and do battle for her life.

But this, this is a no-fun zone.

There's no rising up. There's mild resistance. Then there's barely-above-a-whisper pleading. Then some pill-popping. And then, because it all just keeps getting worse, there's a whole lot of bending over.

The story just feels unfair to the protagonist. Event after event, it feels like she has no possible chance of fixing things and making her life better. This world is stacked against her and she seems semi-defeated by it most of the time.

It's not a good sign when one wonders partway through if death for the hero might actually be the kinder option. At least then her suffering would be over.

Heroes need to suffer. But they also have to have a chance! They've got to have the occasional win so we have some hope for them. When there's no hope, we don't actually care what's around the next corner. So long as our suffering ends soon.

Apologies to the men I lured into watching this with me with the promise that we'd be seeing Jennifer Connolly wet. I didn't know you'd just want to throw a blanket over her.