Everyone Has Reversals

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

December 29, 2006

Job Cliche Police: You're Busted!

Another lesson from You, Me & Dupree.

Kate Hudson's character is an elementary school teacher. Awww. This particular occupation serves two key purposes, as far as I can see: it provides the opportunity for a show-and-tell type scene in which Owen must fill in for Matt as a guest speaker (allowing Owen/Dupree a chance to really expound on his Dupreeness to a rapt, adorable audience). And it also provides Kate Hudson with some instant softness. It's shorthand: yes, this character might be a little mean to Dupree for a while, but don't worry, she's good people.

The problem, of course, is that it's the easy choice -- even a cliche -- to have her teaching elementary school.

We need to think against the grain, people. What if (as one of my O.W. Day cohorts noted), to show that a character was a saint, you made them a high school teacher? The job is unrelated to the story, but it shows the character's in the trenches every day?

Or, what if you make the meanie in the story an elementary school teacher?

I'm sure we all have our job cliches that irritate us in movies. What are the stock job choices that irritate you?

December 17, 2006

The Missing Link

As part of my screenwriting group's annual festive celebration known as Owen Wilson Day (which seemed less sad six years ago when we started...) we watched You, Me & Dupree.

Now, I know this movie isn't trying to be Schindler's List. It's not even trying to be 1941. But as I was watching it, and occasionally laughing, and loving Owen Wilson even in moments when he seems to be dialling it in, and thinking Kate Hudson really is very pretty, and feeling badly for Matt Dillon in those moments when it's clear he thought he was going to be in a better movie...

...I was still distracted by what I think was a story gaffe. An avoidable one.

The story follows the evolving relatinships between:

  • Matt & Kate (newlyweds)
  • Matt & Owen (childhood best buds)
  • Owen & Kate (rivals, then allies)
  • Matt & Michael Douglas (son-in-law working for father-in-law)
As Owen fumbles around in these people's lives, the relationships shift and change and become raw and also more honest.

My problem? There's zero time given to Kate & Michael: the father and daughter.

Not only do these two character not have a credible relationship... the movie seems to go out of its way not to let them have even a single verbal exchange. At one point, they're sitting next to each other on a couch, and they've got nuthin'.

You might say this is a missed opportunity. I'd argue it's even more than that-- it’s integral to the story. Because as Matt is being manipulated by his brand new father-in-law, we NEED to know whether Kate is a) as sweet as she seems, and therefore nothing like her father; or b) a lot more like him than she seems, and would defend him against her husband. Ultimately, is Kate the kind of person to make room in her life for the Duprees of the world, or not?

The lesson: be sure you're exploring all the implied relationships in your script!

December 10, 2006

Frame Me & Hang Me on the Wall

By frame, I mean framing device. And by framing device, I mean the skeleton story that holds the "real" story together. Think When Harry Met Sally's interviews. Citizen Kane's "Rosebud" investigation. War of the Roses's lawyer telling the sordid tale of Oliver and Barbara to a young man considering divorce.

Think: Grandpa reading a book to his grandson in The Princess Bride. We all love it. (Don't EVEN pretend you don't, 'cause the rest of us won't believe you.) So why is this frame so successful?

  • It serves to bring various kinds of viewers together-- if a movie about brides and princesses sounds like it's not your thing, the handy framing device lets you know that there's also going to be pirates, giants, swordplay, torture, and death (sort of).
  • It adds something tonally. There are a few solid laughs in the interaction between the kid hearing the story and the story itself. (I.e. "Hold it, hold it. Are you trying to trick me? Is this a kissing book?")
  • There's an arc in the frame-- the kid's slow commitment to the story, and eventual zeal. This makes it feel integral to the movie as a whole, and it gives us more reason to invest in the frame. But the movie also doesn't milk this arc overmuch. Once we're out of the first act, there are only a few more beats of present-day story.
It's a simple frame, but a great one.

For those who haven't, check out the novel of The Princess Bride-- Goldman uses a completely different kind of framing device for the prose version of this 'story by S. Morgenstern', and it's fairly hilarious in its own right.

December 02, 2006

All It Would Have Taken...

...to give the aforementioned superheroes some kind of transformation was one good scene.

A scene in which our superhero is allowed to be vulnerable (remember this?). Or a scene in which they are allowed to acknowledge they’re not 100% sure they’re doing the right thing, and maybe even feel regret (just don’t pull one of these).

If it had been clear at any point what Superman’s biggest vulnerability was (and please, no K word) it would have greatly informed his choices in the end. For example, if it had been clear that his biggest emotional struggle was not knowing his own father, then maybe, in the end, we’d think “He’s realized that there are sacrifices a father must make—his father sacrified all for his own son, and now Superman must do so, too.”

If G-Girl (the Super Ex-Girlfriend) had to at some point acknowledge her regret for abandoning the young Eddie Izzard, then her choice to be with him in the end (and relax her meany ways) would have made so much more sense. Without that scene, it feels like she's settling for the guy who'll have her.

One scene wouldn’t have made them perfect movies. But these crucial scenes sure would have helped.