Monday, March 24, 2014

Movies I Like: Ace in the Hole





I am unsure just how many posts of mine mention legendary writer/director Billy Wilder, but here is another to add to the stack. The man made a ton of good films and there is no reason not to mention each one. Very few filmmakers can touch him when it comes to the number of classics he produced. He crafted stories with the care, precision, and elegant simplicity of a Shaker woodworker. His film Ace in the Hole is a great example of this.

Released in 1951, Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas, is the story of  down-on-his-luck, former New York newspaper reporter, Chuck Tatum, who takes a job on a small paper in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while he waits for that big story that will put him back in the big leagues—back on a big New York paper. And when the right story does come his way, this unscrupulous reporter isn’t above manipulating the situation to make sure it gets lots of attention from the New York papers—even if this means putting a man’s life in jeopardy.


Wilder was a master storyteller and did many things well, but one of the things he did exceptionally well was construct a first act. This is now almost a lost art, but a great first act can make or break a story—it is a story’s foundation. It is the bedrock upon which one builds a solid structure. Ace in the Hole has an amazing first act.

When we meet Chuck Tatum he is reading a newspaper while sitting in the driver’s seat of his car, which is being towed: a very nice opening image that tells us something about the character and his situation. It already doesn’t look like this guy is living the good life.

Tatum has the truck pull over when he notices that they are passing the office of the town newspaper. When Tatum enters the office he addresses a very young man at a typewriter. His very first words to the young man:

TATUM: I’d like to see the boss—what did you say his name is?

YOUNG MAN:  I didn’t say.

TATUM:  Cagey, huh?

[For those of you that don’t know the old slang, cagey means reluctant to give information.]

YOUNG MAN: Mister Boot is the owner and publisher.

TATUM: Okay, tell Mister Boot that Mister Tatum would like to see him. Charles Tatum from New York.

YOUNG MAN:  What about?

[There is a line missing from Tatum here, for the sake of brevity.]

YOUNG MAN: What did you say you were selling? Insurance?

TATUM: I didn’t say.

YOUNG MAN: Cagey, huh?

This exchange matters. Why? Because this young man (Herbie) becomes Tatum’s protégée. During the course of the story, that young man grows to idolize Tatum. And, here, in this very first exchange you can see that dynamic at work—the young man takes on aspects of Tatum’s personality right away. This is a brilliant little exchange that sets up what is to come.

While waiting for Mister Boot, Tatum spies a piece of embroidery framed on the wall. It reads, “Tell the Truth.”


We find out that is something Mister Booth says. He runs an ethical, honest newspaper.

Shortly, in Booth’s office, where Mister Booth also has the framed embroidery saying “Tell the Truth,” Tatum tries to talk himself into a much-needed job on the paper. During his pitch to Booth, Tatum says:

TATUM: I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news—I’ll go out and bite a dog.

This line matters. He is saying that if there is no news he will make the news, which is just what he later does. His character is being established here. None of this clever dialogue was written to be snappy patter without a purpose. It all matters.

Tatum offers to cut his rate in order to work for Booth, and Booth wants to know why.
Tatum decides not to lie because he has noticed what Mister Booth is wearing:

TATUM: I’ve done a lot of lying in my time. I’ve lied to men who wear belts. I’ve lied to men who wear suspenders. But I’d never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders. You strike me as a conscientious man, a man who checks and double-checks.

Tatum then goes on to list all of his drinking and philandering, as well as a libel suit, that got him fired from the big papers.

Tatum lands the job. But Booth tells him there is to be no drinking on the premises.


The film then jumps in time to a year later and when we first see Tatum we see he is wearing both a belt and suspenders. He has conformed, so far, to Booth’s way of doing things. It is clear, however, that Tatum is unhappy here. He paces the floor of the newsroom, ranting about the boredom of this little town. This is not New York. Even the news is boring here. His big story has not come and he is restless.


Then Tatum is sent out on an assailment to cover a rattlesnake hunt in a neighboring county. Herbie is to go with him to take pictures. Tatum is not excited about the assignment.

"Bad news sells best. Because good news is no news." -- Chuck Tatum
On the drive, Tatum fantasizes about what a great story it would be to have fifty snakes loose in Albuquerque, with the whole town in a panic, and how the story could go on day after day as each snake is hunted down until there is only one left…somewhere. He asks:

TATUM: Where’s the last rattler? In a kindergarten? In a church? In a crowded elevator? Where?

HERBIE: I give up, where?

TATUM: In my desk drawer, fan. Stashed away only nobody knows it, see. The story’s good for another three days, and when I’m good and ready we come out with a big extra—Sun-Bulletin snags number fifty.

Herbie finds this distasteful.

TATUM: Me, I didn’t go to any college, but I know what makes a good story. Because before I ever worked on a paper I sold them on a street corner. You know the first thing I found out? Bad news sells best. Because good news is no news.

Again, nothing is wasted Wilder tells us just who Tatum is. He is a guy who will do whatever it takes to get a good story even if that means not being completely honest.


When Tatum and Herbie pull into a gas station they discover that there is a man trapped in a cave-in. The man was in the cave dwellings looking for old Native American pottery when the cave collapsed, trapping him.

Because of the danger, no one will enter the cave to check on the trapped man. And the Native Americans won’t enter because this is sacred land to them—The Mountain of the Seven Vultures. They believe that the cave-in was caused by their ancestors.


Tatum figures that this could be the break he’s been looking for, and enters the cave with Herbie to check on the man. It is made clear through what Tatum says to Herbie that Tatum does not care about the man at all, this is just a means to an end—this is Tatum’s change to get back on top.

Tatum wishes out loud that it will take a least a week to get the man out of the cave, that way he could milk the story. Herbie, is again taken aback by Tatum’s callous attitude.

TATUM: I’m not wishing for anything. I don’t make things happen, I just write about them.

When Tatum emerges from the cave he knows he’s got his story. And then comes Act Two, when we see how he finds ways to keep the man in the cave longer while appearing to lead a rescue effort.

It is a flawless first act that sets up everything that is to come. Tatum is also able to get others to help with his scheme: the man’s wife, the crooked sheriff, and the drilling engineer. Herbie knows nothing about the manipulation, but does like being part of a major news story. There is also an insurance salesman and his wife, who start off as the spectators in what becomes a media circus.


These people are all getting something from exploiting the fact that a man is trapped in a cave. Tatum, the sheriff, the engineer, the wife, Herbie, and the couple—that’s seven people. Seven vultures. Wilder does everything for a reason. Doing so helped him become one of the most celebrated directors in the history of the movies.

There is a point in the film when Tatum has given over completely to the dark side, so to speak, where he removes his belt and suspenders and starts drinking again. He’s no longer Booth’s kind of reporter.

I won’t tell you what else happens in the film, but if you like to see a master at work you should take a look at Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Why a deus ex machina doesn’t make a satisfying story.


Before I start this post I want to apologize for the long gap between this post and the last.  I was deep in a project that took up a lot of my time and mental energy. That project is more or less done—more or less. So, now I can take the time to write a post. I hope that I can make them more frequent. Thanks for sticking with me. 

Recently, I have found myself in a couple of email exchanges about the idea of deus ex machina (pronounced like “day-us eks mawk-inna”).

For those unfamiliar, translated from Latin, deus ex machina means “god from the machine”, referring to the special effect of a god arriving on stage machinery, and it has come to mean that a storyteller has pulled the solution of the story out of his…out of nowhere.


In ancient Greece some playwrights (I’m looking at you, Euripides) would use this device to get their heroes out of trouble and end their plays. A god, at the climax, would descend from Olympus and solve everything. The hero of the play did not solve the problem himself, and after a while, audiences found this device tiresome. Why?

Aristotle said, “The resolution of a plot must arise internally, following from the previous action of the play.” Again, why?

To answer that question we have to look at why humans tell stories in the first place. As I talk about at length in my book The Golden Theme, I believe stories are told to pass on survival information. This is why stories are about conflict. Often, when I say this, the first thing some people do is go through a list of stories that they think are not about passing on survival information—but there are all kinds of survival. There’s physical survival, social survival, cultural survival, spiritual and emotional survival. All kinds. If you think you have found a story that is not about some kind of survival, chances are you haven’t looked deeply enough.

Stories provide us with a kind of dress rehearsal for conflicts in real life. It doesn’t matter if the story takes place in the “real” world or a fantasy world of some kind, like sci-fi, sword-and-sorcery, or another era in time. And it doesn’t matter if the story uses animals instead of people as characters, it will contain survival information. At the very least the character usually learns something about herself or the world, and learning is a great assistor when it comes to survival.

Slaves in the American South told stories of a trickster named Br'er(brother) Rabbit. The character was used to pass on information about how the seemingly powerless might use their wits to survive.
The more stories we have in our heads, the more prepared we are for different types of conflict, and just what types of options we might have to overcome the conflicts we encounter in life.

Let’s look at the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this story, archeologist Indiana Jones is trying to obtain, and keep out of the hands of the Nazis, the Biblical Ark of the Covenant. The Ark is said to have great power: an army that marches with the ark before it is invincible.


At the story’s climax Indiana Jones and his partner, Marion Ravenwood, are tied up against a pole and the Nazis have the Ark. When the Nazis open the Ark, it is a god from the machine as the power of the Ark is unleashed on the Nazis, killing them all, but leaving Indiana Jones and Marion unharmed. Their ropes have been burnt, setting them free.


Why does this work?  It shouldn’t, but there it is—working. How?

When the story starts Indiana Jones doesn’t not believe in the Ark and its power. Here is an exchange between Indiana Jones and his friend Marcus Brody:

Brody: Well, I mean that for nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost Ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.

Indiana: [laughing] Oh, Marcus. What are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. We’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogieman.

There it is: Indiana Jones doesn’t believe in the supernatural. One way to think about this is that Indiana Jones believes he understands how the world works. But by the story’s end, Jones has changed and does believe in those things he formerly disbelieved. Or maybe he simply realizes he doesn’t know everything. He has grown. He has learned.

The story was not about whether or not Indiana Jones could break free of his ropes. By this point in the story, we have seen him do some amazing things and make incredible escapes. At this point in the story it is about his change, and it is this change that saves him. When the Ark is opened, he believes in its power enough not to gaze on the Ark as its power is unleashed. This is what saves him, not the god from the machine. Being open to changing one’s mind may save your life.


This is not an absolute truth, but it is often true in life that we get stuck in a way of thinking that is detrimental.

It is important in a story that a character can solve her own problems, because the audience is there to learn how to overcome theirs. So, in just about every case if some mysterious force or unlikely coincidence saves the day, the audience feels cheated. And they have been cheated.

You may have a story where a character needs to learn that there is always hope or that miracles can happen. There are people in life who survive car crashes or other accidents that should have killed them. Or maybe they survive an illness that the odds say they should not have.

But in such cases, the story’s lesson had better be proven by a god from the machine event. The lesson ought to be about a character’s state of mind. Maybe a character needs to believe that there is always hope and that helps them to survive.  This is the kind of story that is more about emotional or spiritual survival rather than physical. 

The reason deus ex machina doesn’t work in other instances is because it doesn’t teach us how to solve problems. It doesn’t teach us how to survive. 


P.S. Some things you may have missed:

The Red Badge Project -- Healing Soldiers with Art
http://southsoundmag.com/print-articles/red-badge-project/


WHY YOUR STORY NEEDS A PET-THE-DOG SCENE: 


http://southsoundmag.com/print-articles/red-badge-project/


THE 20/20 AWARDS

Episode 28 :: Screenwriter Brian McDonald's Creative Process :: Pt.1

Episode 30 :: Screenwriter Brian McDonald's Creative Process Pt. 2


The 20/20 Awards 
Episode 32 :: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE :: Great Directing with ...
Filmmaker Brian McDonald shares his thoughts on one of favorite examples of good directing; Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE:



What are you talking about?

The Golden Theme by Brian McDonald is the book for writers (a review):
http://www.examiner.com/review/the-golden-theme-by-brian-mcdonald-is-the-book-for-writers

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Yes, Documentaries Also Use Story Structure


One of the questions I get most is about story structure and is, “Is it different for documentaries?” No. In fact one of the best structuralists working in film of any kind is documentarian Ken Burns. I watch his work in awe. If you want to know how stories work, you should become familiar with what he does.

There is something I often urge people to do, but few ever bother: to understand how stories work you must learn to observe them in their natural habitat. You must pay attention to the way people talk in real life to discover when people tell stories, why people tell stories, how people tell stories, and how often.

As I have written before, story structure is natural; we all use it every day and most of us are relatively good at it. Yes, some people are better and others less so, but for the most part we are pretty good at telling stories. It is when we are consciously constructing them that we get confused.

No matter the genre or medium, story construction is basically the same. When you are able to see this clearly, you will have reached another level of storytelling. So many people become confused by the surface of a story—what I call the clothing that a story wears. 

So, I might be lecturing someplace and someone may say when I am making a particular point, “But what about sci-fi, my story is sci-fi. Does this work for sci-fi?”

You can replace the word sci-fi with comedy, drama, western, dramedy, musical, romance, historical fiction, supernatural romance, historical romance, supernatural comedy, docudrama, horror, fantasy, or countless other combinations. For some reason people think that their particular genre will have special structural concerns. (This may be true of your story, but it will not have anything to do with genre.)

I guess that when people ask these questions it means that I have done a poor job of explaining exactly what structure is. Story structure is a way of arranging story events that makes the meaning of those events clear and engaging for one’s audience, to elicit the maximum effect.

In some ways each story has its particular demands, but there are some basic structural forms that work more often than not. Ken Burns uses basic story structure so well that he makes what he does look effortless and his stories could not be more effective. 

At the opening of each series and of each episode of that series he “tells you what he’s gonna tell you.” If the show is about Mark Twain, he lets you know just who Mark Twain was and why he matters—and he does this right up front.

Rather than making you feel like you have already seen the story, it makes you more interested in hearing the story. This is one of the most difficult things to get students to understand, because they often want everything to be a surprise. But what good is a surprise if the audience isn’t interested enough to start listening?

Then Ken Burns will tell you the story in detail, and with emotional truths that give the story resonance. He makes the history relevant by using emotion to connect you to historical events. He makes the story matter because he makes the audience care. 

This is no different than what one would do in a fictional or dramatic narrative piece.  The structure is the same because a story is a story. Period.

Then Ken Burns “tells you what he told you.” He sums up what you have just seen. He tells you again why it matters. And now, because you have an emotional context for the information, it has even more power than it did upon the first hearing.


This is classic structure and Ken Burns, and his team, are masters of it. His latest film THE DUST BOWL does this amazing well. And his film THE WAR, about World War II, moves me in a way that few current filmmakers have.


One of my very favorite films of all time is the landmark documentary by the Maysles brothers, David and Albert, and the brilliant editor Charlotte Zwerin, called SALESMAN. 

This is a film about Bible salesmen in 1969 and their attempt to sell expensive bibles to poor people. There is a humanity to this film that is so powerful that my guess is that David Mamet saw this film before he wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning play GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. There are some pretty striking similarities. (This is nothing against David Mamet, I just mention it to say that this film has a real impact on viewers.)

It was one of the early documentaries not to have a narrator talking over the film, telling the audience what was happening and how to feel about it. This film is all structure. As with most documentaries, the structure was found in the editing.

The film might be seen by some as merely a character study. I often don’t like things called character studies because what it almost always means is that the characters are “interesting,” but that there is no story to speak of. SALESMAN is great because it is a story that looks and feels like a character study, proving that one need not sacrifice character for story or vice versa. When these elements work in concert, as in SALESMAN, the result is engaging and moving.

Paul Brennan with the Maysles
The film starts with a shot of the Bible and a man’s arthritic hands. This is the salesman who becomes the main character of the story. In this opening he is in someone’s home and is trying—and failing—to make a sale. This opening scene is a real “tell them what you are going to tell them” moment. This is the story of a salesman desperate to make sales, who in the end wonders if he’s made the right choice with his life. It is amazing.

The first act introduces the main character Paul “The Badger” Brennan and all of his fellow salesmen. These other salesmen are characters that allow us to, by comparison, measure the success or failure of Paul. This is a basic structural technique and works exactly the same no matter if the story is a piece of narrative fiction or a documentary.

My favorite examples that use to explain this technique are the pigs in the story THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. It’s really the story of one pig—the pig who used bricks to build his house. But it is through the failure of the first two pigs, who build their respective houses from straw and sticks, that we can measure the success of the last pig. This is the very same technique used in SALESMAN.

There is a great scene in the first act where the supervisor of these traveling salesmen states that money is being made in the “Bible business.” And, he says, that anyone who is not making money is to blame. This sets up the attitude of Paul’s boss—that if Paul isn’t making sales, it’s his fault. So we know the stakes—Paul could lose his job.


Again, this is basic story structure used brilliantly. Set up a character’s goal—what does the character want?  It also helps to let people know the stakes—what happens if the character doesn’t get what s/he wants? Then let the audience know about the obstacle to the goal—why can’t the character just go get what s/he wants?

This obstacle can be physical, emotional, or a combination. The combination, if you can do it, can hit an audience deeply. In JAWS, the chief of police must kill the shark that is terrorizing his community. The shark is both a goal and an obstacle, as it wants to avoid being killed. This is a physical obstacle. 

But there is another obstacle and it is emotional—the chief is scared out of his mind of the water. He must overcome both the outer and inner obstacle in order to achieve his goal.

In SALESMAN, Paul faces the physical obstacle that his potential buyers are cash-strapped. But we also see that the number of rejections he gets is taking its toll on him, and he is losing confidence, which, in turn, makes selling even harder.  To make his sales, he must overcome this emotional goal as well.

This film uses the elements of structure to great emotional effect and because of this tells a compelling human drama. This is why it is both a classic and a masterpiece.

Remember that a story is a story, and structure works in the telling of any story regardless of form. The films of Ken Burns, and SALESMAN, are stellar examples of this. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Movies I Like: Double Indemnity


 “The two most important words in motion pictures are Billy and Wilder” – Alfred Hitchcock

“It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” – Walter Neff in Double Indemnity


I could have done an entire post by now on how cool Billy Wilder is, instead of just doing one film at a time, but since I have already done posts for The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, and Stalag 17, I’ll just continue to do his films one at a time. That way I will have something to write about for some time to come.

One of Wilder’s greats is his third feature, Double Indemnity. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Best Picture.

People have been trying to recreate the look, witty patter, and insightful narration of this classic film noir since its release in 1944. Just about all film students at some point try their hand at a black-and-white, moody piece with the feel of John Seitz’s brilliant photography. It is almost a rite of passage – even for those who have not seen the original film they are trying to imitate.

A shot from Double Indemnity showing Seitz's lighting
In fact, it’s not just amateurs who try to recreate the feel of Double Indemnity, but seasoned pros. In 1981, Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark remade the film and called it Body Heat.


The original screenplay, co-written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, is based on a book by James M. Cain, about an insurance salesman, Walter Neff. Played by Fred Mac Murray in the movie, Neff plans, along with a woman with whom he is having an affair (played to perfection by Barbara Stanwyck), to kill her husband for the insurance money. It doesn’t go well.


Wilder knows how to start a film. He does what he can to pull the audience in as quickly as possible. In Sunset Boulevard he starts with a dead man in a pool narrating the film, so the audience isn’t watching to see what happens, but just how it happened. How did this guy end up dead in a pool?


 Double Indemnity starts with a car careening, nearly out of control, down the night street, running red lights and narrowly missing accidents. This car is in one big hurry. Already we are asking questions – who’s in that car and why are they in such a hurry?

The car stops at a building, and a man, seen only from the back at first, is let in by someone who works there. The building is closed, it’s after hours. The night worker tries to make small-talk with the man, who he recognizes as Mister Neff, but gets little more than grunts in response.

Sweaty and not feeling well, Walter Neff makes it into his insurance office, sits down, and pops a cigarette into his mouth. We see that he only has the use of one arm, the other is injured, and there is a bullet hole in his suit just above his injured left arm.

Fred MacMurray, as Neff, records his confession
He speaks into his dictaphone (an old-fashioned voice recorder). As he speaks, he addresses someone named Keys. He confesses to Keys that he murdered someone named Dietrichson. It seems Keys suspected murder in this case, but he did not suspect Neff. Shortly it becomes clear that Keys is an investigator for the same insurance company that Neff works for.

So…the film kicks off with a confession of murder. In typical Wilder fashion, he sucks us in quickly and efficiently. Now he has us asking questions, and, as in his later film Sunset Boulevard, we are not watching to see what happens, but how it happens.

Neff’s confession to Keys bleeds into the narration for the rest of the film, as Neff explains what happened. He remembers the first day he went to Phyllis Dietrichson’s door: “It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson
Again, Wilder reminds us that a murder is coming, so we watch with interest. Neff goes on to explain  how he began his affair with Phyllis Dietrichson and how eventually they plotted to kill Mr. Dietrichson in such a way that it would pay off double – thus, Double Indemnity.

Neff and Keys
This brings me to the character of Keys, played by the legendary Edward G. Robinson.  Robinson does an amazing job in this well-written part. Keys is a crack investigator. For Neff, it’s like trying to get away with murder while working in the same office as Sherlock Holmes—if Sherlock Holmes was a bulldog. Keys is scary-smart and is the source of much of the film’s suspense as he threatens Neff’s chances at getting away with his crime.

 

 In fact, one of the amazing things in this film, and all Wilder films, is that no one is stupid. None of the major characters becomes conveniently stupid so that they can get into trouble to make the story happen. Wilder is never lazy that way; he makes everyone smart – as smart or smarter than the audience. It creates great tension when smart people in a story are trying to outsmart one another.


I don’t want to say too much about the film after this because I don’t want to spoil the fun for those of you who haven’t seen it. I will just say that there is a reason that Wilder is considered one of the best storytellers in the history of film. And when you watch, it will be clear to you why Double Indemnity is a classic.

Monday, April 22, 2013

What I Learned From Reading E.T.

 This post was originally written for, and posted at, the Women in Film Seattle site.  Cool organization, check them out. Anyway, in case you missed it at their site, here it is.


A friend of mine recently read a spec script of mine and was very complimentary. Which was, of course, nice. But his compliments are also the specific kinds of comments I like to hear because they tell me that I have hit the target at which I was aiming.

When people like my screenplays, the things they say most often is, “I really feel like I just watched a movie.” Or they say, “I could really picture it!” And one of my very favorites, “I couldn’t put it down”. These kinds of comments have been fairly consistent over the years. Why? How can I get these comments consistently? It’s because I spent many years reading, starting as a teenager, reading scripts and learning from them. I stole the techniques of the writers whose work sucked me into the story and made me see a movie in my head vividly.

It is astonishing to me how many aspiring screenwriters almost never read screenplays. Part of the reason for this is that with the advent of screenwriting software that formats scripts for you, folks no longer feel that they need to look at screenplays to learn that aspect, which was one of the main reasons that people ever looked at screenplays to begin with. Most people I speak to haven’t bothered to read scripts to learn much else, but there is so much to learn.

When E.T.The Extraterrestrial came out I was 17. That movie blew me away and I, already a huge Spielberg fan, became obsessed with the film and screenplay. At this time Spielberg’s most famous films were Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The man was a juggernaut. I even had a picture on my wall of Steven Spielberg with E.T. that I pulled out of an issue of Rolling Stone magazine. I wanted to know what this guy knew, so I tracked down the scripts to his films and studied them.

Movie geek that I was this picture of E.T. and Steven Spielberg was on my wall as a teenager.
I really got into reading screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s script for E.T. I’m not sure how many times I read that screenplay. Multiple times. It was while reading this brilliant script that I learned one of my biggest screenwriting lessons – make every single thing matter. It was a revelation.

It struck me as I was reading a section of the script where the boy, Elliot, is hiding in a closet with his alien buddy E.T. as they eavesdrop on Elliot’s mother reading a bedtime story to his kid sister.  

E.T. heals Elliot's cut finger
 This scene is interrupted when Elliot cuts his finger, “Ouch!”  This is where E.T. learns the meaning of the word ouch and that is associated with pain. E.T.’s finger lights up and he touches it to the boy’s finger and heals the cut, after which the pair goes back to eavesdropping on the bedtime story.

Elliot and E.T. watch as Elliot's sister is read a story.
It is a tender scene of friendship between boy and alien, but it is so much more than that. I learned something reading the script, seeing the words on the page that I had not noticed consciously while watching the film.

The story being read to Gertie, the little girl, as played by Drew Barrymore, is Peter Pan’s. So what? Think about this: writer Melissa Mathison could have chosen any story to be read to the little girl. It could have been about Snow White or the Three Little Pigs or Rumpelstiltskin or Stone Soup, but it was Peter Pan, the part where the fairy Tinkerbelle is dying. And this is what the mother is reading when Elliot and E.T. go back to listening in.

“She thinks she can get well again if children believe in fairies, “ reads the mother. “Do you believe in fairies,” she continues, “Say quick that you believe.” Gertie says emphatically that she does believe. “If you believe,” the mother reads, “clap your hands.” The girl claps earnestly. “And Tink is saved,” says the mother.

Mom reads Peter Pan to Gertie
Here’s what’s amazing: later in the film E.T. dies and is brought back to life.  Mathison works this fairy-tale imagery of miraculous resurrection into our minds; she primes us to believe what’s coming later. She did it seamlessly and skillfully. She did not stop the story to have this tender scene – she continued to tell, and add, to her story by choosing a story for the mother to read that mattered, not an arbitrary or generic one.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that the fairy Tinkerbelle is often depicted as nothing more than a glowing light, with the light dimmed to indicate when she is dying, and made to glow brightly again when she is coming back to life.  E.T’s light, too, goes out when he is dying and comes back up when he comes back to life.

The amazing screenwriter of E.T. Melissa Mathison
I often compliment a film I like by saying that it had no fat. What I mean is that the storytellers used every line, shot, scene, and character to stay on track with the story in some way. Nothing is wasted.

If I ever have to pleasure of meeting Melissa Mathison, I will remove my hat out of sheer respect for the craft of her screenplay.

Today, I use this lesson I learned from reading the screenplay for E.T. in every story I construct. This lesson changed the direction of my writing profoundly. I have no doubt that if you read great scripts, you will learn great lessons. And when you do, steal them and use them liberally. 
  

P.S. And in case you missed this, I was on the 20/20 Awards podcast discussing one of my very favorite films Norma Rae: And also another film I love Groundhog Day:

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Shows I Like: The Mary Tyler Moore Show


Not long ago I read the late legendary comedy writer and teacher  Danny Simon used to show episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in his classes and talk about the writing techniques. I loved hearing this because I, without knowing about Danny Simon doing so, have been known to do this very thing. So I have at least one thing in common with Danny Simon.

The show has been on my mind lately because Mary Tyler Moore co-star Valerie Harper announced that she has terminal cancer and has very little time to live, news that has saddened me deeply. I have been a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Ms. Harper from the beginning of the show and nearly the very beginning of my life. The show first aired on September 19, 1970, when I was five years old. Somehow I knew it was great, even at that tender age. In fact, during its run, the show won a total of 29 Emmy Awards. Over the years my admiration for the show, its cast, and its writers, has only increased. 

A good friend of mine owns this slate from the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He let me hold it and then had to pry it from my hands.
  
It is fair to say that I’m not sure I would know anything about constructing stories if it weren’t for this show. When I was about ten or so I started to audiotape the shows to listen to them over and over again. (This was before people had any way of recording television. Once show had aired that was it. You were at the whim of the network as to when you might ever see that show again.)

After repeated listening, I started to see the patterns to the stories. I had never read a book on story structure or ever heard anyone talk about such a thing; I was happening upon it without knowing. I remember clearly the epiphany when I first discovered the purpose of each act even before I knew the formal concept of an act.

The now classic Mary Tyler Moore show was created by Allen Burns and James L. Brooks. (Brooks went on to produce Rhoda, Lou Grant, Taxi, and The Simpsons, to name a few hits.)



One of my very favorite episodes – one I have used in my classes – aired in Season One of the series, is called Support Your Local Mother. This episode is so well constructed it blows my mind.  


In the episode, Valerie Harper (who plays Rhoda, Mary’s upstairs neighbor and best friend) gets a visit from her mother, but Rhoda refuses to see her, and so Mary, not understanding this, puts up Rhoda’s mother while she is in town. This is how it plays out.

In Act One, Mary’s friend and neighbor Phyllis instructs Mary on how to whack a table with a length of chain to give furniture an antique look. Mary, who is a prim and proper woman and a little uptight, finds it silly to whack her furniture and comes down with a case of the giggles with each whack.

No sooner has Phyllis left Mary alone to do her work when Ida Morgenstern, Rhoda’s mother (played brilliantly by actress Nancy Walker), shows up at Mary’s door. Rhoda lives upstairs, but Ida says that she is not home and Mary lets her wait in her apartment until Rhoda arrives.

Ida and Mary as Ida waits to hear from Rhoda
Mary goes back to her work beating her table and is now embarrassed to have company.  Ida is a no-nonsense New Yorker from the Bronx and finds Mary’s giggling a little odd. This is not a small thing. Mary is very middle-America, very Midwestern. Already it is established that there is a clash of cultures at work – brash New Yorker meets Pollyanna.

Turns out Rhoda has been home all along and is avoiding her mother, so Mary marches upstairs to talk some sense into her friend. Rhoda tells Mary her mother drives her crazy and that it’s better that she not see her at all. This makes no sense to Mary, so Rhoda explains that Bronx love is not like Midwestern love and comes with a healthy dose of guilt. Mary still doesn’t understand, but Rhoda still refuses to see her mother.

As Mary is leaving, Rhoda asks Mary in all earnestness to ask Ida if she’s taking her pills.

Okay, some things to point out here. If the three acts are thought of as proposal, argument, and conclusion, then Rhoda saying that Bronx love is not like Midwestern love in that it comes with guilt is the story’s proposal. The rest of the story will deal with this idea – the story will argue, or prove this proposal.

Nancy Walker as Ida and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards
Also, it is great that the scene with Mary and Rhoda ends with Rhoda showing that she truly cares for her mother and her health. Without this, Rhoda would look just plain mean, but now we know she cares. That is beautiful construction.

We are still in the first act at this point. Mary lets Ida stay with her in hopes that Rhoda will change her mind, but right away Mary starts to get an idea of what Rhoda was talking about: Ida wants to pay Mary for letting her stay there and Mary refuses.  The two go back and forth over this with Mary saying that it would make her feel uncomfortable to take the money, but Ida finds a way of wearing Mary down and guilting her into taking the money.

By the end of the first act, just as the two are about to go to sleep Ida takes one more little stab at making Mary feel guilty and we know that Mary is in for a hard time with Ida. This is a brilliant first act. It sets up everything perfectly.

Ida and Mary settle in just before the end of act one.

The second act is the argument for, or proof of, the proposal that Bronx love comes with guilt. Second acts prove (or sometimes disprove) their proposal through dramatization.  By dramatizing an idea I mean demonstrating through the storyline and actions and reactions of the story’s characters. To dramatize is to demonstrate and this second act demonstrates the proposal by seeing Mary driven to near insanity by Ida just as Rhoda said would happen.

Cloris Leachman, who plays Phyllis, along with co-stars Mary and Ms. Harper
At one point Mary tries to explain to Phyllis how she is being driven crazy by Ida, but Phyllis doesn’t understand. Now Mary is in the same boat Rhoda was in Act One, trying to explain to an outsider how this seemingly sweet woman is making her insane.

By the third act, Mary understands through experience what Rhoda was talking about in the first act. Now Mary can talk to Rhoda from a place of knowledge – and is able to convince her that should see her mother. It is an amazing piece of writing. There is a reason the show won a bunch of awards and has become a classic.

This is me meeting Ms. Valerie Harper in October 2012.  She was very sweet.
 As a side note I want to say that I was lucky enough to meet Valerie Harper not too long ago and I was able to tell her how great she is as an actress and how much the show means to me. It was one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me.

I would very much like to thank Ms. Harper and the cast and writers of this show that has had such an impact on my life from the first day it aired until this very day. This show was one of the very first things that helped me to understand my craft, not to mention how much joy, laughter, and happy memories it’s given me.

For those of you wanting to better understand the craft of storytelling, you have a great teacher in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Lesson from Andy Griffith

“If a jokes makes a liar out of the character then lose the joke.” —Andy Griffith
We lost a great storyteller last year by the name of Andy Griffith. If you don’t know of him he was the star of a television show in the 1960s bearing his name. His show is one of my very favorite shows of all time. I learn something about the craft of storytelling every time I watch it. There is a real reason it is considered a classic.

A friend of mine could not understand why I watched the show so often, until he started watching it himself. He called me one day to tell me he “got it.” Now he is a big fan, too.

Andy Griffith and co-star Ron Howard
Griffith, who was from Mount Airy, North Carolina, first got famous as a young comic specializing in regional humor. In 1953 he recorded and released a record called “What It Was, Was Football,” where he tells the story of backwoods southerner explaining the first time he saw a football game. The record was a hit. It may not seem funny to many of us now, but at the time it made an impact on listeners. Andy knew how to tell stories.



When Griffith got his own television sitcom, every opportunity was taken to showcase his storytelling talents. Andy’s character often told stories on the show. But Andy also worked hard behind the scenes making sure that each script worked as well as possible.

This brings me to a piece of advice he gave to his writers: “If a joke makes a liar out of the character then lose the joke.”

This advice above is a block of solid-gold wisdom. It sounds so simple, yet it is hardly followed anymore. I see this “rule” broken all the time. Storytellers make their characters do whatever that writer wants, with little regard for the character or story.


Griffith said this about his comedy show, but it could apply to any kind of writing, not just comedy. Any line, scene, or event that makes a liar out of the characters should be thrown out. This does not mean that characters can’t lie. It means they must be consistent characters. If the writer forces a character to do something just for a laugh, that laugh will damage the story’s internal logic. The audience will be taken out of the story. The more one does this, the less the audience trusts the writer. They sense the story’s “reality” is not grounded. It is unstable.

As I said in my book Invisible Ink, when we see a film where the young college student hears a noise in the dark basement and goes to investigate on her own we know this is a lie. This is lazy writing and the audience knows it.

But what I see in movies and on television nowadays is that having a character do something unexpected or shocking takes precedence over staying true to that character. Yes, one can surprise an audience this way, but one reason they are surprised is that there is no way they could have seen the action coming. The lie makes the event impossible to predict, but it is a cheat. And the more one cheats like this to make allowances for a line here, a joke there, a scene here, the more tenuous becomes the trust of your audience.

There is a trend to go for the shock reaction that comes from breaking the internal rules of a story rather than playing by the established rules and surprising people anyway. This is the hard work of the craft.

Amazing things can happen when you work within the established rules of your story world. Homer Simpson is never funnier than when he does something that only Homer would do. But if he does something only because the writers thought it was funny, the audience may laugh, but at the same time have a nagging feeling that something is off.



Do yourself a favor and don’t make it easy on yourself by doing whatever comes to mind just because you will get a cheap response like a laugh or a shock or because it is easier than solving the tough story problems. There is no craft in random writing. It is cheating. It is sweeping the pieces off the chessboard because you are losing and declaring yourself the winner.

Work within the parameters of your story-world and its characters. This can sometimes be difficult, but if you do it well, in 50 years’ time some young writer may be quoting your advice.