Everyone Has Reversals

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

January 28, 2007

Fairy Tales & Terror

I remember seeing a panel of indie filmmakers talking about how they envision their films. One said, when she was writing the script, she always asked herself: Which fairy tale is this? Is it The Ugly Duckling? Is it Cinderella? Is it Peter Pan? Conceiving a new story on the foundation of an old one that's already deep in our consciousness... not a bad idea, I thought. And wrote it down in my notebook. And promptly did not make use of this idea when conceiving or writing a single script.

But I remembered this thought when I watched V for Vendetta. You know, the adventurous tale of the innocent girl taken in by the "monster" who turns out to be no monster at all? Or, as some like to think of it, Beauty and the Beast?

I'm sure I'm not alone. Lovely girl, horrible "monster", the girl is held captive, the girl becomes a sympathizer (seeing there are worse things than "beasts" in humanity), the girl falls in love with him and helps defend him and his house...

The important lesson for me, here, is that I actually thought of the fairy tale while watching the film, and it didn't weaken Vendetta's story-- it only made it richer. This "what story is it like?" thing isn't a cheat, and it isn't just shorthand... it's a layer. A filter. A lens through which we might see new characters and a new story, so that the new story resonates deeper.

If you as screenwriters do the "What kind of fairy tale is this?" please let me know!

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January 20, 2007

Things That Make You Go "Meh"

Last year, when I saw the killer-on-a-plane movie Red Eye, I sort of enjoyed it. The note I made for myself for future blogging was that it was refreshing. It isn't one of those "there's a killer torturing our hero and we don't understand his plan until the third act" kind of movies. Its plot is simple. We know what creepy-pretty Cillian wants right up front -- he needs Rachel to make a phone call to put a politician in the right room at the hotel where she works, so his team of fellow mercenaries will be better able to assassinate the man. As collateral, Cillian's got a site trained on Rachel's dad. It's clear and the stakes are plenty high. No mystery is required. It doesn't always have to be a mystery!

I thought this was a reasonably blogable point despite the fact that the movie didn't exactly wow me, and I admittedly haven't thought of it much since.

Then this week I saw this post by friend and former student Averyslave at Trekking the Uncanny Valley.

Damn. He's so right. Well done, Grasshopper.

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January 14, 2007

When a Dozen Terrorists Just Isn't Enough

It had been a while since I'd seen Die Hard. I knew it was going to hold up-- I just wasn't sure what new thing I might learn from it. What I discovered was just how many assholes one movie can stand.

Here's what's everyone remembers about the movie: a New York cop (McClane) must outwit, outlast, and outshoot a dozen terrorists in a tower office building to save his wife Holly and the rest of her co-workers. McClane gets a little help from an L.A. cop, Al, on the ground.

So, a hero and a couple of allies vs. a dozen or more villains. Surely that's plenty to deal with.

Except the movie keeps adding to the "bad" side, making things wildly unbalanced. McClane's seriously outnumbered by terrorists. Then the local cops who come to his aid (Al aside) are incompetent. Then the FBI comes on the scene-- ignorant pinheads who do exactly the wrong thing and endanger their own lives, and the lives of the hostages. Then there's the journalists-- particularly the William Atherton character, who visits McClane's family and scares his kids. And who could forget the idiotic coke-snorting hostage Ellis, who manages to reveal to Hans Gruber that one of the hostages is the wife of the "cowboy" who's killing his men?

So, good guys: 3 or 4. Bad guys: maybe 50?

McClane, as good as he is, is a true underdog. And he has lots of moments of frustration, suffering, and failure. But it sure makes those moments of triumph (and Al's, and Holly's) that much sweeter.

You can always stack things a little higher against the hero.

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January 06, 2007

Lessons from the Incredibly Obvious File #4

Or: Don't Draw Attention to the Stupid Stuff

There's a tradition in screenwriting of pointing out the script's own story or logic problems. I've heard this called both "shining a light on" the problem, or "hanging a lantern" on it. Basically, you've got a minor logic hole that isn't worth writing around, so you have a character in the story acknowledge the issue. The idea is, by acknowledging the issue, you defuse the audience's questions about it.

Say, for instance, a character in a horror pic noting that it would have been smarter to run out of the house, than into the basement. We then think-- okay, they know that was stupid. But too late now.

What you don't want to do? Shine a light on something that will actually make us ask more questions.

There's a scene in The Island in which Ewan McGregor has just started to question the rules of his post-plague institution. This particular institution is supposed to keep plague survivors safe... but is in fact a world in which human beings are essentially prisoners, manipulated into hoping they'll win a ticket to a Utopian island. All the prisoners are dressed in crisp sci-fi white.

In conversation with the director of the institute, an increasingly rebellious Ewan says: "And... Let's talk about all the white. Why is everyone wearing white all the time? It's impossible to keep clean." The conversation moves into a new direction from there, with that question never answered.

Well maybe it's just me, but when the character asks that question and is given no answer-- I start to wonder too! Hey, yeah, that must be so much effort in terms of laundry. And wouldn't it be easier to control all these guys if they wore colour-coded uniforms? Based on, say, gender, or age, or dietary needs, or whatever? Surely dressing them all exactly alike is more work than it's worth.

But the movie can't answer the question, because the only possible answer to the question "Why is everyone wearing white all the time?" is "Because we are in a science fiction movie."

If you're following convention for the sake of convention... or you're trying to get away with something... don't frickin' hang a lantern there, okay?

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